[I feel it's necessary to put a disclaimer on this post: there is no one right way to birth. In fact, I can't think of a more subjective and deeply personal decision. Home, hospital, epidural or medication-free, I applaud it all. Every single person walking the planet has a mother and never did a mother err in her birthing choices.]
When that tiny plus sign first appeared on the test early one dark Autumn morning, I knew two things for certain: I was having a baby girl, and, yes, I would take the epidural thanks.
After all, there's no time for fooling around. If I had a headache, I'd take an Advil. Feel a cold coming on? Pop some vitamin C. Scrape your knee? Grab a bandaid! Get it? There are obvious and simple solutions to what physically ails us all around in this modern day.
I was so sure of this that I matter-of-factly informed my Doula (and childhood friend) Allison Farrance of Ridge Meadows Doula Services that this is how I would be getting it done. Great, one more item off the to-do list.
But there was a program I had always been interested in knowing more about: birth hypnosis. I knew a couple people who used the program and had heard positive things, but the problem was that it was quite different from the birth I thought I would have. But I thought that hypnosis tools were to prepare for and undergo a natural labour, and I needed an epidural.
Still, I asked Allison's opinion on the program. As my Doula, she was a constant touchstone for parsing through information and discerning fact from internet opinion (another post another day on why a Doula is a great birthing resource), and she thought the program was useful.
Then, without ever putting even an ounce of judgement on me, she asked why I was so sure I wanted an epidural. I explained all my clever ideas about the modern day and Advil and Bandaids and we left it there. Then I actually thought about her question.
The truth was, I was scared. Scared of the pain and scared that I could not endure it. But I had to face a very real possibility: what if I couldn't get an epidural? I remember my Mom going into labour with my brother (I was ten), being sent home only to return when it was too late to get the epidural. Heck! My Mother-in-law was only anesthetized from the middle of her thighs and down with my husband. Crazy things happen, but in my heart I knew I just needed to be more prepared to face my fear.
And that is exactly what the preparation for a hypnotic birth does. It helps women address the lifetime of fear programming we receive around birth. You know, the woman screaming "I hate you" at her husband as she comically flails around? My god, there is even a movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger is in labour and can't handle the pain (Yes, that movie is Junior. And yes, I recently watched it. And yes, it is sexist, but in a delightful 1990's way so I still laughed).
The classes I took were three hours long, once a week for six weeks. But the commitment was much larger: everyday there were hours (yes, hours) of affirmation and hypnosis tracks, and hypnosis skill-building exercises. A typical day would involve getting up 40 minutes early to do a hypnosis track, then I'd waddle the dog around the block while listening to the positive affirmations track. In the evening I would do about 15 minutes of hypnosis exercises, and then we would fall asleep listening to another hypnosis track.
In addition, in the program I selected, one's partner plays a critical role, so Liam also spent a lot of time engaging with the tracks and participating in weekly check-in exercises. By the end of the program "contractions" had become "birthing waves", the misnomer "false labour" was replaced by "early labour" and Liam and I actually felt ready.
This is when Allison made another interesting suggestion.
"Since you are doing a hypnotic birth, would you consider birthing at home?"
Hmm, well. Hadn't thought of that. But I certainly didn't want to do the run around of heading to hospital, being sent home, etc. I decided to create a home environment where I would be prepared to stay home, but continue to plan for hospital.
I attended a home birth information night through my midwives at Strathcona Midwifery Collective, where they provided information, answered questions and distributed primary studies on the safety of home birth in British Columbia.
Then it was time to conduct my own research. For months I reviewed those studies, and asked my midwives and Allison questions. I learned that by a negligible but still very comforting margin, outcomes for healthy pregnancies fare best in planned home births with a midwife (followed by in hospital with a midwife, then in hospital with a doctor)**; that there is a dedicated ambulance waiting to pick up any home birth that requires transfer and that, at any time for any reason, you can transfer; the reasons why transfer may occur and what my options are; that midwives come to your home prepared with all the equipment required to resuscitate baby and mother if necessary; and, much, much more.
By the time I was nine months pregnant, a decision was made: I was going to practice the hypnosis techniques at home with a birthing pool until it was time to head to the hospital if that is what I wanted. I no longer wanted an epidural, truly believing I could birth without one, but was also open to whatever outcome occurred. In the first week of August I packed a hospital bag, wrote up my preferences and quietly went crazy as I waited for the baby to come.
I first knew I was in early labour Wednesday evening as Liam and I drove home from a movie - something I really wanted to do once more before baby came. Despite seeing a late night movie, the sun was still floating in the sky as we rounded the corner past the stacked car statue on Quebec Street.
At this point I felt what was honestly a gentle throbbing in my lower back, so I did what any sensible person would do. I said nothing, and stuffed that knowledge down so deep that I spent the next two days visiting with friends, walking and eventually choking down a meal at Chickpea between contractions that were 5-7 minutes apart (fun fact: chickpea fritters taste like absolutely nothing when you are pretending you're not in labour!).
On Friday afternoon when Liam suggested he come home early, I told him as nicely as possible that he was an idiot and to stop trying to find reasons to leave work. When he got home around 5:00pm I knew very clearly that I was going to need some pho and that was all I was concerned about, thank you very much.
Liam returned with two bowls and just as I was snapping open my chopsticks, I realized I wouldn't be eating again until we were a family of three. I ran a bath, we called Allison, and at around 9:00pm she arrived.
We filled the pool with water and turned on the hypnosis tracks. The next couple hours were surprisingly peaceful. Yes, there was pain. But in between contractions I felt like I was asleep, and I wasn't experiencing time normally - an hour felt like five minutes.
I don't quite remember it this way, but apparently I was mostly silent through the whole of active labour. Admittedly, I did stop a couple times. I remember at one point feeling the distinct need to suggest to my midwife that perhaps this whole thing was fucked up and maybe we should stop?
But other than a couple breaking moments, looking back it's incredible to think of how well the program worked. While I did have faith that this could work for me, I of course had doubts. Did I put enough work in? Maybe this works for other women but wouldn't for me. But when the time came, everything was so deeply engrained that it was like second nature.
Many people use the term "ring of fire" to describe this experience, but when it finally came time to push, I felt nothing but pressure. Twenty minutes later, at 3:38am, that baby girl arrived. With no hesitation on her part, she made her worldly debut screaming as she broke through the water.
Everything about the postpartum care for me and baby was taken care of at home. The last thing I remember - that isn't holding my brand new daughter in the very same room she was born - was Allison asking what the baby's name was.
Finally, with everyone gone, we moved to the couch in the living room. Together, with the entire house back to normal as if nothing had happened, we watched Rowan's first sunrise.
**This is not to say that unmedicated childbirth or birth at home is for everyone. I certainly don't believe that my choice is objectively the best option. But I'm not sure I would have even considered it if the numbers weren't reflective of an extremely safe practice, so this was very valuable to me in my analysis.