Just Like Hollywood
by Alison Ryder
Ali Ryder is a Canadian advisor on policies and programs that help the homeless. She's lived in Kingston, Ontario for 16 years since attending Queen's University. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, ultimate frisbee, and board games. This is her fifth pregnancy and first birth.
“Remember, babies are born on their birth date, not their due date! And it doesn’t happen like it does in Hollywood!” These were the parting words of wisdom I took home with me as we left our two-day intensive weekend childbirth class.
At that time, I was 34 weeks and 5 days. So when my water broke while making dinner, I recognized the signs – it was just a few hours since the class! – but I was also quite skeptical.
It started as a trickle, and I wasn’t sure if it was just extra vaginal discharge. I went to the bathroom to tidy up, but right after I thought the leaking had stopped, it started again. I decided to make a dash for the bedroom, where I could change my underwear and put on a pad. A big one.
My partner was in the kitchen. “Honey, can you come with me please? Now!” I said as I passed him. I didn’t wait for a reply and don’t even think I looked at him. (He thought he was in trouble for something, and later told me that he immediately went through everything he’d done recently to try to figure out what I was mad about.)
He followed me to the bedroom. “I think my water broke?” I said, still not quite believing what was happening. I hadn’t had any contractions, nor had there been any sign that things weren’t progressing normally. The baby wasn’t due for another five weeks, and I had been sure she would be late. In my family, babies are always late.
“Do you want me to call the midwife?” He asked, concerned.
“No, I think we should— can you get me a towel?” I replied as I felt a fresh gush of fluid between my legs.
He dashed to the bathroom and grabbed one, which I promptly sat on. “Yeah, I think maybe we should call the midwife!”
The midwife said she would meet us at the clinic, not far from our house, to test to see if it was actually amniotic fluid.
It was, as it turned out, actually amniotic fluid.
We drove over to the local hospital, only a few minutes away. On the way there I thought I started to feel what were probably contractions – they felt like mild menstrual cramps at the time. We went into the non-emergency entrance of the hospital and walked into the labour and delivery wing. Because I wasn’t in active labour yet, they had me sit in the triage area where they monitor the women in early stages.
A doctor came to visit and explained that they wanted the baby out within 48 hours because the amniotic sac had ruptured. But they didn’t want the baby out too soon because the baby’s lungs were probably underdeveloped. They hooked me up to an IV and gave me some antibiotics in addition to some steroids that they hoped would give the baby a little boost before she came out.
At this point, the doctor did not actually check my cervix. They wanted the baby to stay in as long as possible so they didn’t want to introduce any potential infections or irritants. Besides, my contractions were still mild.
The doctor and the nurses were not in any kind of hurry. We all expected that I would be there for a day or two, so my midwife went home to try to get some sleep before the next day’s labour.
My partner took this opportunity to check in with some friends. In our haste to leave, we didn’t have everything we needed – nor had we eaten dinner! – and had friends stop by the house and pick a few things up and grab some fast food for us. The nurses said I should probably eat if I felt hungry because I was going to be in for a long night.
Our friends arrived around 8:30 and stuck around for a while (still in the triage area) while we ate. My contractions were starting to ramp up a little, enough for me to be able to identify when they started and when they ended, so I started timing them.
After a while, I started to feel nauseous and vomited everything I just ate. The nurse thought it was a side-effect of some of the drugs they gave me, and gave me some anti-nausea medication in my IV drip. My contractions were also ramping up. My partner asked if I wanted to play cards and I said sure, but by the time he had found them in the bag and started shuffling, I had changed my mind. Cards didn’t sound fun anymore.
By 10:00 p.m., the contractions were quite strong. I was starting to panic a little – how bad were these contractions going to get? I didn’t really want to get an epidural (I’m terrified of needles), but if I was going to be here for a long time and the contractions were just going to keep building and building, I was definitely going to need some pain relief sometime soon.
I had been timing my contractions at 3.5 minutes apart, lasting about 45 seconds. The nurse called the doctor back and checked my cervix for the first time. My partner was expecting the worst, and predicted that I was only 3 cm dilated, while I was more optimistically hoping for 6 cm. We were both shocked – as was the doctor, and the nurse – when he exclaimed, “Wow, you’re fully dilated!”
That’s when everyone sprang into action. I was having a baby right now. The nurses helped me to a wheelchair and told me, in no uncertain terms, not to push yet. They had to get me to a delivery room first!
I was transferred to the delivery bed and the room was already full of medical staff, including a team from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), ready to collect a premature baby. Someone called my midwife but warned me that she might not be back in time for the delivery, so an obstetrician was going to step in and take care of things.
If I’d really thought about it, I might have been upset that my midwife wasn’t there, but to be honest, I hadn’t really been mentally prepared for labour yet. I didn’t really have a plan or expectations of what I wanted my labour to be like, or who I wanted to be there. My partner and I hadn’t practiced what his role was going to be. In the moment though, everything was happening so quickly. My partner was there, my friends were still in the waiting room, and I was surrounded by a team that was going to make sure my baby and I were healthy and safe. That was the most important thing.
Then, I was told I should start pushing, and everyone waited expectantly, sure that the baby was going to pop right out in record time.
Turns out, that was not to be the case.
I started pushing, still completely unmedicated, but quickly asked what was still available for pain management. I didn’t realize that the pain from contractions would feel different from the pain from pushing a baby through the birth canal, though I can’t say I’m a fan of either. I had originally hoped for a tub (our local hospital has delivery rooms for water birthing) but with a premature baby, that option was off the table. An epidural was right out since things were happening way too fast. So I was given nitrous oxide, which was really the only option I had available.
It took me a while to get the hang of pushing. I had trouble with pushing and breathing and counting to the 5 or 10 seconds that the nurses were asking me to push for. (And I’ll be honest, the laughing gas wasn’t helping me focus!)
My partner was right next to me the whole time. One time he made a joke about leaving to go to the bathroom, and I just stared at him, wondering why he would say such a thing at a time like this. Turns out, laughing gas does not make you think everything is funny. Mostly, though, he held my hand while I squeezed it in a death grip – there may have been bruising – and said pleasant things to me. I wasn’t really listening. At one point I told him, “Honey, I have no idea what you’re saying, but I like hearing your voice, so keep talking to me.”
At first, I was making good progress, but then I started to stall. I’d push and the baby would descend down the birth canal, but in between pushes, she would recede back inside. The team was monitoring the baby, of course, and eventually, the obstetrician told me that the baby was now in distress and he wanted to perform an episiotomy.
I have a great fear of surgery and medical procedures in general, so when I had learned about episiotomies in the childbirth class I had immediately turned to my partner and said,
“Let’s try to avoid that, please!”
So when the doctor suggested it, even though I was a little loopy from the drugs, even though I was in pain and tired and wanted the baby out and was not doing a great job at pushing, I said, loudly, “No, I do not want that.”
To the doctor’s credit, he immediately said, “Okay, then.” And just like that, they weren’t going to do an episiotomy, because I didn’t want one. But then he added, “But that means you’re going to have to push harder.”
Apparently, that was all the motivation I needed, and my daughter was born less than ten minutes later. It wasn’t even midnight yet.
So, although she was right about other things, the doula from our childbirth class was wrong on one count. Births can and do happen like in Hollywood – water breaks at home, rush to the hospital, a little bit of pushing while friends anxiously sit around in the waiting room, and then magic, a baby appears!