What I didn’t expect when I was expecting.

This is the story of my firstborn son’s birth that led me searching for a different option when I was pregnant with my second child. One journey led to the other.

I awoke early on Christmas morning in December 2011 with mild contractions and some spotting. Full of anticipation, I wondered would today be the day we’d get to finally meet our baby boy? I was five days overdue and ready to pop. My contractions faded, however, as I went about my preparations for Christmas dinner later that day. We had relatives in town visiting for the holiday, eagerly and somewhat impatiently awaiting our baby boy’s arrival. His nursery was ready, tiny outfits folded in the dresser, diapers ready to go on the changing table. Now we were in waiting mode.

Over a game of Scrabble that afternoon with my mom Marjorie and mother-in-law Molly, my contractions started to kick in again. I was so focused on the game that I didn’t realize they were becoming more regular and getting closer together. I was so distracted — I had this game to finish! And dinner to cook! Finally Molly gently suggested we consider heading to the hospital. Once I realized things were getting real, I grew even more excited and grabbed my bag for the hospital that I’d packed a couple weeks earlier.

It was a crisp, sunny, winter afternoon. My husband Adam and I drove to the hospital in Seattle around 3pm and my contractions were about four or five minutes apart. I remember laughing about how there were hardly any cars on the road and no traffic whatsoever. We had plenty of time to spare. Jittery and happy, I walked laps outside the building and in the corridors with Adam while waiting to be admitted at the point I was 4 centimeters dilated and about 80% effaced. While I didn’t have a printed, written birth plan, I’d given it plenty of thought and had read half a dozen or more books in preparation for the birth of our first child including What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I planned on a vaginal birth, and decided to adopt a wait-and-see approach before getting an epidural, wanting to have that option just in case. I was optimistic!

I had other items on my birth plan too — skin-to-skin cuddling right away after birth, initiating breastfeeding as soon as possible, who I wanted to have in the delivery room with me. In hindsight I probably left out a few things of varying importance. My take then was that music and soft lighting was a little “hippie dippie” and I gave minimal thought to procedures or instruments that might come up or be used during the delivery. I knew I’d prefer not to have a C-section unless it was medically necessary. I had imagined laboring on a birth ball, birthing stool, or perhaps in a tub, but honestly didn’t check to see if those resources would be available in the room I’d be delivering in. I also imagined that as I was laboring, my nurse would probably suggest those things at the right time.

A bit of context… Hospitals and doctors’ offices make me nervous and a little on edge. I feel like I’m about to be hit with a pop quiz or a test I haven’t prepared for. Sometimes my heart rate increases and my palms get a bit sweaty. Fluorescent lights, antiseptic smells, bustling hallways with feet in clogs clacking by, coughs of other patients — all the sounds concatenate. While it is reassuring to know you’re in expert hands, a hospital environment isn’t a calm, relaxing place for me.

After I was admitted, I labored in the delivery room for a few hours. The nurse hooked me up to the machine for monitoring and placed an IV in my arm. This limited my ability to walk around the room or change positions easily. While my nurse was sweet, kind and supportive, she wasn’t able to stay with me the whole time as she was helping other labor & delivery patients on the same floor.

Around 7pm that evening I started to get the shakes. My whole body was trembling. At the same time I was hit with waves of nausea and started throwing up over and over again. This took me completely by surprise. I’d never read of these types of symptoms during labor. My willpower to continue laboring without anesthesia practically disappeared — I was no longer in control of my body. (Looking back, I didn’t realize that I was in the transition phase and likely already 7 to 8 cm dilated at that point!) The nurse asked if I’d like an epidural and I looked up at my husband Adam to confirm he was comfortable with my decision if I said yes. We nodded to each other and she went to call the anesthesiologist. As he placed the needle in my back, I looked down at my trembling legs.

Relief came quickly, and my shakes and nausea went away. Everything seemed to slow way, way down. I looked over at the monitor and watched in amazement as I saw the curve displaying that I was having a contraction. I could no longer feel the waves of contractions at all. It was so surreal.

A couple hours later, my nurse introduced us to the doctor on call that evening. Because it was Christmas Day, the OB-GYN I’d been working with throughout my entire pregnancy unfortunately wasn’t available to come to the hospital. I was disappointed but realized it was out of my control. I started pushing around 9:30pm minutes after the doctor arrived. I recall thinking how odd it was to be introduced to a stranger while in a compromised, half-naked position.

Lying on my back, I couldn’t feel anything below my waist and my knees were raised above my hips. I remember Adam supporting the weight of one of my legs while the nurse held on to the other. The nurse was encouraging and told me she could tell I was clearly pushing hard (even though I couldn’t feel much of anything). The doctor and nurse looked at the clock and said they thought I’d probably have a Christmas baby. Things seemed to be progressing quickly!

I pushed and pushed and pushed. It seemed my son’s head was stuck. Hours went by. Just before 3am, the doctor told me they were going to use the vacuum extractor to help get my baby out, and they had three tries to do it. I then learned that I was up against a timeline too, since I’d been pushing for 5 or 6 hours by that point. If I didn’t deliver in the next few minutes, they were going to transfer me to an operating room for a C-section. (I think hearing that news simultaneously scared and motivated me!)

The first suction pull didn’t work. On the second attempt, I pushed with everything I had, and my son was born. His head was a bit misshapen from the vacuum, but otherwise he was healthy and doing fine. They laid him on my chest and I fell instantaneously in love. He looked like an adorable wrinkly tiny old man, fists balled, squalling loudly. I held his tiny body close to my chest, tears of joy streaming down my face.

“He looks like a Finn,” I said in wonder and smiled up at Adam through blurry, tired eyes. His name would be Finn Samuel Thornber. He was so beautiful. Adam took a photo of him swaddled and cozy, both eyes open, a hint of a smile on his tiny face. It’s one of my favorite photos of Finn to this day.

Our son Finn on the morning he was born. (Image credit: Adam Thornber)

I was donating cord blood, so the nurses and doctor wanted to clamp it right away. I didn’t realize this would need to happen so quickly and get in the way of our uninterrupted skin to skin bonding time. They clamped the cord and offered to let my husband cut it. As he did, blood squirted from the cord and accidentally covered me and the baby in droplets of blood, like something out of a Halloween movie. We giggled at the gory scene.

The next hours were a whirlwind — the nurses were weighing and measuring Finn, doing his Apgar test, bathing him, swaddling him, giving him eye drops and a newborn vaccine for Hep B. He was a good-sized baby, weighing 9 pounds 3 ounces. His head circumference was unusually large, which somewhat explains how he got stuck behind my pelvic bone in the birth canal. Meanwhile I was delivering my placenta and the nurse was pushing and massaging my belly. (That hurt way more than I expected!). After that the doctor was sewing up my vagina where I had torn. When all this was over, I fell asleep, exhausted.

Around 5:30 or 6am I woke up as they were doing a blood sugar test on my newborn son. We hadn’t had the opportunity to nurse yet. I hadn’t taken the initiative to try latching him onto my breast for the first time in the hectic moments immediately after birth. I had a different nurse now and my other nurse’s shift had ended. To my dismay, the new nurse told me his blood sugar was low and he would need to be given formula and his blood sugar checked every hour throughout the day with a needle poke in his heel until the level returned to normal. I asked if I could try to nurse him instead and was told no, because they needed to be sure of the exact amount he was ingesting. Tears sprung to my eyes. I was extremely frustrated, disappointed, and upset. This was not the smooth beginning to our nursing relationship that I had hoped for. Why was I allowed to fall asleep? Why didn’t someone remind me to try breastfeeding earlier? I was also ravenous myself since I’d only sipped ice water since we arrived.

The good news is that eventually we were able to finally nurse much later that day, late into the night, and he latched on for the first time. They transferred me from the delivery room to a recovery room and we stayed the night in the hospital. It had been a busy day, with family and friends visiting to meet the baby. I hadn’t slept at all, other than those two short hours early in the morning. Now I nursed my baby through the night. I was a total zombie. By the time morning arrived I was so eager to get home so we could both get some rest and be in our own comfortable space. We were discharged from the hospital around noon.

Oh, how I was blindsided by postpartum recovery that week. I hobbled around my house with an ice pack between my legs, wearing the largest maxi-pads I had ever seen. It hurt to stand upright for more than a few minutes. It hurt to sit in the nursing rocking chair. All I wanted to do was crawl in my bed and go to sleep, but I had a hungry, fussy infant that wanted to nurse around the clock.

Breastfeeding was so hard! It hurt so much. My nipples cracked and bled and I cried every time my baby latched on. Infants want to nurse all the time, not just every two or three hours, and the constant pain was toe-curling. On the fourth day, my milk came in like a firehose and my breasts were engorged, sore, and rock hard to the touch. I started pumping a little to relieve them in between nursing sessions, as well as collect some milk so that Adam could offer Finn a bottle once a day while I got a little sleep.

Those early weeks dragged by slowly and painfully. I was barely surviving on two or three hours of sleep at a time. I cried every day. Yet slowly my body was recovering. Around the three week mark I was able to walk around the house without pain. Breastfeeding was a little less painful, too, but still wasn’t smooth sailing. I had started pumping more bottles instead of nursing because it hurt less and, at the time, seemed more convenient. When I was nursing Finn, he would often scream and gag and get so upset. I didn’t realize I likely was dealing with an oversupply situation. It was like I was trying to get him to drink from a firehose.

Fast forward to four months later when my maternity leave was over. We made the decision as a family that Adam would stay home full-time with our son and I would return to work. By that point I was exclusively pumping (out of practicality and convenience) and only nursing in the middle of the night when my son would wake to feed. I continued to pump for the remainder of that first year. There were many times I wished I had worked harder to solve our breastfeeding challenges earlier, because it would have been easier to nurse than it was to deal with all the extras that exclusive pumping entails — preparation, setup, sanitation, cleaning, etc. Looking back, I should have hired a lactation consultant that first week postpartum to help me learn the correct positioning and latch techniques. Pumping was joyless for me. I spent many sessions pumping at work with tears running down my face as I looked sadly at photos of my baby on my phone to try to encourage a letdown. I truly developed a hatred for pumping. It was so uncomfortable and mechanical. Also, I had to travel quite a bit for work, and needed to pump extra in order to build up a large enough milk supply to keep my baby fed while I was gone. One trip was a nineteen day stretch. Nineteen days!!! I remember calling Adam on the phone to Facetime with him and Finn and crying because I missed them both so much and I was so exhausted from working and having to pump every three hours. I was diagnosed with mild postpartum depression and really struggled through that first year.

It’s hard to write this and not feel guilty for complaining. I realize that I was very fortunate. My baby boy was born healthy and normal. I had 16 weeks of paid maternity leave — practically unheard of in the United States. Not only that, I had a willing, helpful partner at home to help with caring for our infant. We had good health insurance. Etc. So many other women have to deal with harder circumstances. I’m extremely grateful and thankful.

Yet the process of becoming a new mother and a parent is so challenging. From my perspective as an expecting mother, so much emphasis was placed on prenatal care, and practically nothing on the postpartum experience. If anything, I hope sharing this story can help another first time mom. I’ve always appreciated and benefitted from hearing the truth in all its naked beauty, however raw it may be.

I learned so much from Finn’s delivery and throughout that first year. It’s true what they say — you remember the good parts the most. I remember my intense joy in meeting Finn for the first time, the pride on my husband’s face, the congratulatory kiss from my father-in-law, my baby boy’s sideways grin in the morning light, and the tenderness and love I felt for him as he nursed that first time. Those are just a few of the positives. Yet for me, the hospital delivery experience left a lot to be desired, and looking back now, I wished I would have approached it differently. Lucky for me (spoiler alert) nature would grant me a second chance!

Regardless of the challenges, the experience of becoming a mother has permanently changed me as an individual and as a human for the better. There is absolutely nothing harder and nothing more rewarding.

Sharing life experiences with empathy and humor.

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