On Wednesday, June 21, 2017, I awoke at 4:00 a.m. to a feeling familiar from two years past - a crampy contraction in my lower stomach. Having gone through early labor once before with my first son, Zanden, I knew this type of uterine surge was different than the practice “Braxton Hicks” I’d been having since my second trimester. I woke Benny to tell him that I thought I might have just felt my first contraction, so we started timing them. Sure enough, the cramps were coming at regular intervals, about every ten minutes. I was 37 weeks six days pregnant—the exact same gestational age I was when I began labor with Zanden (off by less than an hour)!
With my first pregnancy, I was faced with a planned C-section because Zanden was breech (head-up in the womb). The recovery was terribly long and challenging, and I knew I wanted a different birth and postpartum experience for my second, especially since healing from abdominal surgery with a newborn and a toddler this time would be twice as hard. I decided to see a new OB-GYN, Dr. Capetanakis, who is known in the area for supporting gentle births and VBACs (vaginal birth after caesarian). Benny and I wanted to try everything possible to give us the best chance of having a natural, unmedicated delivery this time. We hired a doula, Ashley Stetson, and I started going to the chiropractor regularly to help get the baby in the optimal position for a head-down, vaginal exit. Throughout my pregnancy, we educated ourselves on the benefits of natural birth and began practicing relaxation techniques for labor from our Hypnobirthing class. I was excited about our plan to do most of the work at home, to go to the hospital when surges came about three minutes apart, and to breathe through every contraction without pressures to advance quickly or unnecessary medical interventions/medications.
A couple hours after the cramps started, I let my mom know that I may be in early labor and asked if she could come to watch Zanden for the day. Since she lives almost two hours away, I wanted to make sure she arrived in time just in case we were faced with a hurry-up-and-get-to-the-hospital situation. I also texted Ashley, and she agreed that I was potentially going to go into active labor that day or night. The cramps were still mild (about seven minutes apart by 8:00 a.m.), so in the meantime I decided to carry on with my plans for the day. Benny went to work, and I took Zanden to a friend’s house to play with their new miniature horse and reveled in the thought that this could be my last one-on-one activity with Zanden before he becomes a big brother.
Once we got home from our play date, my mom arrived soon after, and we put Zanden down for his usual nap at 1:30 p.m. I tried to get some rest but was starting to feel more and more pressure with each surge and asked Benny come home a little early from work to start supporting me through them. They began to range from five to seven minutes apart, and by about 7:00 p.m., Benny texted Ashley that he thought she’d better head over. Contractions became more intense and closer together, and by 8:30 p.m., some of them were coming three minutes apart. Another hour or so went by, and Ashley thought the noises I was making started to sound like I was “pushing” somewhat and that we should get ready to drive to the hospital.
In all of our heads at that point, it was time. Ashley supported me through the next ten minutes while Benny loaded up the car and texted our sweet friend April who was planning to come take photos of the birth. He folded the seats down in our SUV so I could have room to lie down and get on my hands and knees during contractions. The car ride was intense since there was no one in the back seat to help me through the surges, but we made it! We arrived at the hospital around 10:00 p.m., slowly making our way to the labor and delivery check-in desk between me dropping to the floor to breathe through a contraction every three minutes.
Once we were in the triage room, the nurses hooked up my belly to the fetal monitors and insisted on a vaginal exam to check my cervical dilation. I was not a fan of the idea of routine checks since a low number could be discouraging and mess with my head, but they needed to see where I was to relay my dilation to Dr. Cap to see if I could stay and be admitted to a labor room. The results were heartbreaking—I was only one centimeter dilated. We had the charge nurse do an exam as well for a second opinion—same answer. With that number being so low, I was not considered to be in active labor yet and would need either to go home or labor in the triage room for a while and see how things progressed. We decided to drive home because I would have more options for comfortable body positions and wouldn’t have to be hooked up to the monitors on the bed.
When we got home, per Ashley's advice, Benny and I got in bed to try to get some sleep (yes it is possible to sleep during labor!). This is when our Hypnobirthing classes really paid off. Through Benny's light touch massage and our breathing techniques, I was able to fall asleep between each contraction! This actually slowed down the interval between each surge to eight minutes apart for about five hours. Being suddenly woken every few minutes by the peak of each surge (an incredible amount of pressure and pain) wasn't fun at all, but at that point my body really needed the rest to prepare for what ended up being another entire day of active labor.
The next day was one of the most physically and mentally exhausting of my life. Contractions picked up again in the morning and were becoming almost unbearable. Serious thoughts of going to the hospital to see if I could get an epidural began to run through my mind during every brutal surge, and I began to express that to Ashley and Benny. But being the incredible partner he is, Benny was firm on reminding me of my desire for an unmedicated birth and tried to shut down those conversations quickly. The whole day consisted of walking around the house and seeing what contractions felt like in different locations and positions: in the bath, in bed, hands and knees on the floor, standing up, squatting beneath the counter, straddling the toilet, and bouncing on the birth ball. The pressure and tightening in my abdomen and back were most manageable in the bathtub, but the problem with staying in there was that the relative relaxation between surges kept slowing my time intervals down, and we needed to be moving things along to get this baby out! It became a grueling, emotional mind game of wanting the comfort of the warm bath water and dreading the thought of purposefully setting my body up to endure longer, more frequent, more intense contractions.
By that afternoon, I was serious about needing some relief and was becoming more and more unstable emotionally. The thought of having to go through this level of pain for who knows how much longer was becoming debilitating. I finally told my coaching team that I needed to get to the hospital to re-check my dilation and to at least start the process for getting some pain relief. It took time for Benny to allow me to let go of my plan for an all-natural birth, but I knew in my heart that because of the abnormal length and intensity of my labor so far, my body and mind were no longer capable of enduring increasing amounts of pain without any form of rest. In theory, if I was progressed/dilated enough by the time we got to the hospital, I would be able to order the epidural and potentially get the break I knew my body needed to prepare for pushing the baby out. So, we packed up once again and got in the car.
We arrived at the hospital for the second time at 7:50 p.m., and for the first time all day, I felt some peace and hope that my labor may have an end in sight. The check-in desk was crazy busy, and every four minutes I was dropping to the floor, loudly moaning through each contraction in the middle of the lobby. All the labor rooms were filled up that night, and the nurses had to order a bed from another wing of the hospital to triage me in the operating room, where they do the emergency C-sections. The operating room—the last place I wanted to end up—the room where my womb was cut apart two years ago, where I could see my tiny Zanden being taken away from me the moment I first saw him while the surgeons and nurses gossiped over my open body. As I began to yell through the excruciating pain with an eye mask on to hide from the surgery flashbacks, I prayed that my labor this time would not end in that room again.
We had the sweetest nurses caring for me that night, but the report they brought after checking my cervix was not good: I had only dilated from one to two centimeters the last 24 hours. This was not enough to prove that my body would progress on its own if I were to get an epidural, since often pain medications can slow labor down, causing a “failure to progress.” Dr. Cap was concerned that an epidural this “early” in terms of dilation would likely end in more risky interventions that we didn’t want: induction methods and/or another C-section. He needed to see a three or four centimeter dilation to feel comfortable admitting me and ordering an epidural, so he suggested I walk around the lobby for two hours and then have the nurse examine my cervix again. We complied and did everything possible in those two hours to get my body to progress. I did not sit or lie down—I walked around, stood up for my contractions, did squats, and basically tried to make myself as uncomfortable as possible. It worked, and my contractions started coming three minutes apart and at a 9/10 pain level. The nurse let us know it was time to check my cervix again. We went back to the operating room and received the worst news of my life: no progression—still only two centimeters.
At 11:00 p.m., Benny got on the phone with Dr. Cap again and explained that we felt that without an epidural to rest my body from the overwhelming tension and pressure, I was not going to relax enough to dilate. This theory wasn't scientific, but after two days of labor, I really felt that my body was too exhausted to progress without help at that point. I started throwing up, and Benny let the doctor listen to me screaming through a surge over the phone, and that's when everyone agreed that I was in active labor and could go ahead and stay to order that epidural!
The nurses wheeled me from the operating/triage room into a labor room to start the process of admission and anesthesia. Praise God! I was in agonizing pain but knew that within a couple hours there would be some relief. After two excruciatingly long hours and two attempts to get the epidural to work properly, I could no longer feel my contractions and was almost totally numb from waist to feet. The nurses lay me on my side, put a big inflatable pillow between my thighs to keep my pelvis open, and hooked me up to everything possible—fetal monitors on my belly, an oxygen mask on my face, an oxygen monitor on my finger, a blood pressure cuff on my arm, an IV in my hand, and a catheter. Now it was time to rest, wait and see if my cervix would open despite the anesthesia. Benny and Ashley caught some good sleep, while I dozed on and off between nurses checking my vitals. After about two hours, it was time for a vaginal exam. I had opened to four centimeters and lost my mucus plug! Two more hours went by...six centimeters and my water released. It was like magic. Another couple of restful hours passed, and voila! I was fully dilated and began to feel the urge to push. This was it!
Dr. Cap arrived and sat down below me, with our nurse and Ashley at my sides holding my legs and Benny by my right shoulder. I lay on my back, holding my knees up and began to bear down at the peak of each surge. We were told that the baby's heart rate was dropping, so I really needed to drive him down with all my might to get him out quickly. Within 45 minutes, I pushed for the last time and was holding my baby in my arms! He came out grunting, and after a few minutes of hugs on my chest, he had to be taken to the other side of the room for a little while to be put on a CPAP respiratory machine to assist his breathing. Meanwhile, I delivered the placenta, had an inner tear stitched up, and tried to recuperate from total fatigue and nausea.
The baby began to breathe properly after about 15 minutes and was placed back on my chest with a blanket. There is no way to express how happy I was that my baby was finally here and that I had achieved my VBAC!
Wyler Doren Petersen was born at 8:02 a.m. on June 23, 2017, seven pounds six ounces and 20 inches long. His middle name was inherited from his 101-year-old Great-Great Grandma Van Doren and means gift in Hebrew. He is exactly two years, two months and two days younger than his big brother Zanden. I can’t wait to watch them grow up together and am so thankful to be a mom of two healthy boys!
I had such strong hopes of making it to the end unmedicated, but looking back, there is nothing in me that regrets the epidural. Maybe if my labor had lasted only 12, 24, even 36 hours (instead of 52), I could have dilated and pushed through, but with such a long span of time enduring surges with very little rest, my body had done all it could do alone and needed help. I believe the epidural relaxed my cervix so it could open; without it, my body was too tense and tight from the two days of contractions to progress. I didn't achieve the all-natural birth of my dreams, but I think I actually got something better—the assurance that I tried everything in my toolbox, listened to my body, voiced what it needed, and moved on instead of hanging on to desires rooted partially in pride. I see now that through my struggle the Lord was showing me that in order for my deepest longing of a life dependent on Him to be fulfilled, I needed to be deeply humbled, broken down, and ready to give up my plans to wholly surrender to His will and way. And through letting go and trusting that He is a good Father who looks down on me in love, I got to push out and receive a beautiful, healthy baby boy without needing surgery again. That is a gift worth celebrating.
Now that we are home and past the first week postpartum, my eyes are opening even more to the ways we have been divinely covered through every moment. Throughout labor and delivery I was blessed with the best husband, doula, nurses and doctor, who all listened to me and trusted my instincts. Our amazing community of friends has been so generous in signing up to bring dinners to ease the burden of meal prep. A different grandparent or auntie has come to help watch Zanden every day since Wyler's birth, allowing Benny and me the flexibility to go to breastfeeding-related consultations and to catch up on sleep when needed. The grief and guilt I've been feeling from missing quality time with my firstborn has given me such thankfulness for the two years I got to spend every day with him alone. Even with the sleep deprivation, the stress of an extremely challenging nursing experience so far, and a needy toddler at home, my and Benny's marriage has never been more loving and secure. I have fallen so fully in love with my husband again, and our commitment to each other has reached a new level of strength, emotional intimacy and resolve. And through some deep heart-unraveling, I am being freed of the structure and control that had been giving my flesh a superficial sense of comfort, and I'm learning again to lean on the only One who can bring lasting peace to my soul.
*All images in hospital of labor, baby on mom's chest, and baby on CPAP machine by April Ciervo.