It was 4 p.m. and my contractions were intensifying. I still felt on top of them and naively considered that maybe I had grown more pain-tolerant since my previous labor. This time around I wouldn’t want/need an epidural.
The nurse examined me and grimly shook her head, saying, “You are only 3 centimeters dilated.” She informed me that they had a strict policy not to admit women until they were at least 4 centimeters dilated.
I said, “But I’m 42 years old.”
The nurse looked at me sadly and said she’d check with her boss before sending me home. She returned looking positively cheery. She exclaimed, “Good news! We can give you a ‘pity admit.’”
Yes, it’s a thing: “pity admit,” for those women who are managing labor so pathetically that the staff relents and lets them take a bed. Luckily, in the midst of excruciating pain, my pride takes a backseat.
I was instructed to walk around for an hour to speed up the labor, which I did with my husband, Randy, on my right. The contractions intensified more. I remembered my previous two unmedicated labors and insisted that we return to my bed so I could get the epidural NOW, with which they complied. The epidural nurse was magazine-beautiful with long blond hair. She announced, “I love my job,” as she stuck the needle in my back.
Then we chilled for four hours.
Finally the nurse said that I was at 10 centimeters. The doctor arrived in 20 minutes. She was a slim, dark-haired, no-nonsense, energetic woman in her 50s named Dr. M.
Dr. M told me to push, and I did as instructed. Except Sam didn’t come. He didn’t move an inch. He appeared to be stuck. Not only was he stuck, but his heart rate decelerated with every contraction, which was a red flag for the doctor.
I tried harder to push. Nothing. Sam didn’t move and his heart rate kept dropping. Then during one contraction, it dropped down so far that the nurse and the doctor grabbed me and pushed my knees to my chest while pushing me over onto my left side. I was exhausted and in a dreamy altered state, so their intervention felt intrusive and strange.
“What are you doing?” I demanded.
They pointed to the monitor and said that his heart rate had dropped too much. I knew they were worried.
This was my third child, third pregnancy, third labor, and so I knew something that first-time moms can’t possibly fully understand. Being a mother is a profoundly vulnerable experience, because you realize that your child could die right before you, and that even if they survive, there is only so much you can do to protect them from pain. The realization is searing. Every single parent bumps into a horrifying reality: Ultimately, I am powerless. We do what we can to protect our little ones from danger and heal their hurts, but there is always that edge of powerlessness we must learn to endure. There is no way around it, and I hate it.
This was the first time I felt that fear with Sam. I squeezed Randy’s hand and he squeezed back.
The doctor instructed that I stop pushing. It was decision-making time.
Dr. M said that there were three choices:
- Stay the course
The third option was the most risky.
The doctor replied, “Me, too.”
When I tell people this part of the story, they always gasp and express righteous indignation: “You should have told her to go get someone who knew what they were doing!!!” I don’t share the outrage. I loved the doctor for this honesty. I loved that she gave me a choice and didn’t have an answer, because that’s life, and I imagine (if “Grey’s Anatomy” has taught me anything) that this is never truer than on the operating table. The crossroads don’t have definitive signs, and cost-benefit analysis must be done in a split second. Sometimes intuition is our only guide. So when Dr. M told me she was scared, she let me know two things:
- She cared.
- She owned her vulnerability. She wasn’t omnipotent. She was like me, but with a medical degree.
The next contraction came, and I threw up. Baby Sam skootched over to the middle of my uterus, which seemed to make all the difference. I decided to stay the course, for now. I pushed again. Dr. M looked at me. Her face was 3 inches from my vagina, her hands ready to catch the baby, and then she winked.
When I think of my labor, this is the second indelible imprint of the whole experience. There was Sam getting stuck, and then next was The Wink. My tiny OB perched between my legs with a smile and a big wink cannot be erased. It’s funny that we cannot escape ourselves. Even though this was a real-life, cliff-hanger moment, my brain had the stamina and the gall to have an awkward social moment. “Should I wink back?” I wondered. I decided against it.
It was 1 a.m., November 1, 2014. I pushed with everything I had left and he became unstuck. With a mighty UMMPH, he slipped out and everyone cheered. He cuddled onto my chest and I held him close. Big love. One minute into a relationship with this baby, and I already knew that I was sunk. I was totally and completely crazy in love with my sweet blue-eyed baby boy, Samuel Miles Olden.
Jennifer Olden, LMFT