Life among the pagodas
photo credit: John Shaw
Last August, Jim and I went hiking in eastern Washington, on a route through a stunning area called the Enchantment Lakes. (It is breathtaking—just take a look here.) Due to the popularity of this particular hiking route, you had to either obtain an overnight pass to hike the Enchantments over a three-day period (which means applying for the pass over 12 months in advance), or go for the gusto and hike the entire route in one day. We had no pass, so we opted for the latter, which meant that we were going to hike 18 miles and over 6,500 feet of elevation—all in one day.
The majority of the day was spent catching our breath at the splendor of one beautiful sight after another, encountering mountain goats and marmots and scaling giant chunks of granite. In late afternoon the skies began darkening rapidly as thunderclouds moved in. A lightning storm began as we were making a steep descent over a field of granite boulders, and, despite our rain gear, we were soaked to the skin. We still had six more miles of hiking to go; the sun had set behind the mountains, and the rain was coming down harder than ever, so much so that the trail was flooded and difficult to find in the dark. We could hardly hear each other talk over the pounding of the rain. After realizing that we only had one headlamp, and that Jim’s memory of the trail wasn’t as good as we’d hoped, I started having visions of myself being the next chapter topic in some book about how foolish hikers die in national parks (there was no small degree of shame for me in this possibility, as one of my favorite reads happens to be titled, “Death in Grand Canyon”). I mentally wrung my hands for the last several miles of hiking over trail I couldn’t see, swearing I’d never let Jim take me on a hike again, even succumbing to tears while I sloshed along behind him on the trail.
Needless to say, we made it out of the woods in a literal sense, and I’m here to tell the tale. Within a week of hiking the Enchantments, I was already thinking about doing it again. I have never been in a more Edenic setting—it was beautiful and breathtaking. It was simultaneously the worst and most wonderful hike of my life. The hard parts of that day are now some of my best memories of the whole experience. I would definitely jump at the opportunity to hike it again.
Why start a birth story with a hiking tale? Well, I thought it might help explain some of the madness that is giving birth and the female brain to those of you who haven’t been there.
When I became pregnant, particularly when I was experiencing morning sickness, I asked any woman with kids, “why the heck did you do this more than once?” It wasn’t until going through the experience of labor and delivery last month that it all clicked for me: It was just like hiking the Enchantment Lakes! Stunningly beautiful, terrifying in its natural power, physically surmountable (even though there is plenty of self-doubt), and something that should never be done without good company. In the middle of it all, you may find yourself wishing you’d never gotten yourself into this painful situation, but at the end you want to burst with pride that you finished, and you catch yourself thinking about doing it all over again someday.
The weekend of August 1, I started experiencing the torments of a rapidly growing wisdom tooth. I begged my obstetrician for the green light to have it extracted. She gave her blessing, but warned me that some of the bacteria released by a tooth extraction can prompt labor. I didn’t care—I felt like I was growing a tusk and I desperately wanted it out. I had it pulled on August 5th, and couldn’t have been happier. Did it prompt my labor? We’ll never really know…
The night of August 6th, Jim and I came back to our apartment after an evening with friends. We had laughed so much that night, my belly was almost sore from it; I could feel the baby had dropped much lower during the course of the evening.
I lumbered into bed at about 11 pm, and just as I was starting to drop off, I was awakened by some mysterious muscle twinges. They had a pattern to them, and were coming on rather doggedly, every seven minutes or so, lasting for 30 seconds at a time. I tried to sleep, to no avail. So I went to the kitchen with my watch and started watching TED talks to pass the time. The contractions sped up to every five minutes, and I started wondering if I would be having this baby before lunchtime. I made myself some tea and Skyped a friend in Canada to ask for her opinion on whether or not this was false labor or the real deal. She said she wanted to wait with me through a few contractions and ask how I felt. True to the contentious ways of nature, my contractions suddenly dropped off as soon as I got on the phone with my friend. We chatted for a bit, but after about 20 minutes with no contractions, I resigned myself to this being a false start, and eventually ambled back to bed.
I slept from 4 to 5 am before being awakened by more contractions. I was tired, and a bit jealous of my husband’s full eight hours of rest. My memory of the morning is rather fuzzy, as I had a hard time focusing on anything, and found myself wandering all over our messy apartment, trying to organize things.
Around 1 pm, my friend Janna showed up, armed with a diffuser, some essential oils, and a checklist to see if I was fully packed and ready for the hospital. At this point I had been in labor for 14 hours, and she brought the energetic spirit I needed to stay focused on the task at hand. Having her company that afternoon was definitely the most pleasant part of labor. She massaged my lower back during every contraction, which was incredibly soothing. She encouraged me to walk more in hopes of accelerating my labor. We perambulated up and down the street; I bent against fences and walls during each contraction, Janna massaging my back while traffic zipped past us. By 3:00 pm, it didn’t seem like labor was accelerating, and nearly anytime I stopped to catch my breath, the contractions would slow down to 15-minute intervals. Jim had plans to go rock climbing at 3:00, and I encouraged him to go anyway and have some fun, thinking that the irregularity of my labor was a sign that I had many hours to go.
Around 4:30 pm, Jim returned, and Janna had to get back to her kids. It had now been 17 hours since my labor started, and I was feeling incredibly fatigued. One of the most tiring parts of the whole process was questioning, “when should we get the car and go to the hospital?” and because my contractions were still somewhat difficult to track, it seemed likely that I had some hours to go. I didn’t want to head to the hospital too soon, only to have to labor for another 8-10 hours in a more confined space. “You have a ways to go,” Janna told me. “You’re making too many jokes to be very close to delivering. And you’re not swearing yet.” She left and promised to be back around 8 pm or so.
Jim and I walked around the neighborhood for the next hour, debating when to go to the hospital. During contractions, he’d try to distract me with things to think about; “remember your parents’ dog when he runs through the woods?” and “what is your favorite spot in Berthusen Park?” Obviously, I didn’t answer, but the mental images evoked by the questions were a merciful distraction from each contraction. At this point, contractions were coming almost every three minutes; they varied in length from 20 seconds to 90 seconds, and they would slow down to five minute intervals as soon as I stopped moving. At one point during our walk, I remember feeling a bit panicky, as if I was too far from the security of our apartment, and from transportation. Now that I look back, I know that I was nearly at transition (the stage of labor that is immediately prior to pushing and the delivery of the baby), and this was another indication. I voted for going to the hospital by 8, Jim wanted to do 6, so we met in the middle and decided on 7 pm, and hoped that Chiang Mai rush hour traffic would be favorable to us.
Jessica, a friend from our birth class, called to see how I was doing. I had invited her to the birth, and she was planning to meet us at the hospital. She urged us to leave soon, saying that my labor sounded really similar to hers, and the end might be close. I decided to take a shower while Jim went to get the car. While I was showering, I experienced an overpowering contraction, such that I was climbing the shower walls in discomfort. “I really can’t do this anymore; I am so incredibly tired,” I thought. I felt overwhelmed with discouragement that I was having such thoughts, because everyone who has taken a birth class knows that the “I can’t do this” sentiment is a hallmark of transition, and I was certain that I was still hours from delivering this baby. Jim showed up with the car; I was dreading the 15 minute ride to the hospital, as I found sitting through contractions to be incredibly uncomfortable. Thankfully, the car we were driving was diesel and had a really bad idle, such that the whole vehicle vibrated. This was incredibly soothing! (Perhaps birth centers need some sort of vibrating device for laboring mothers…)
I brought food with me in the car and was force feeding myself, certain I needed the strength for several more hours of labor. I was pacifying myself by gnawing on a piece of guava during contractions—I was hoping I could make the guava last until the car ride ended. The only parking for Sripat Hospital is located a 10 minute walk from the hospital doors. I had originally thought I could walk from the parking lot to the hospital with Jim, but as we drew near to Sripat, I started feeling like I needed to be in the delivery room soon and shouldn’t try walking. Jim dropped me off at the lobby, and as I got out of the car, people were exclaiming “water!” in Thai. I couldn’t feel any wetness and assumed they were seeing an old stain on my dress and that everyone was jumping to conclusions.
I climbed into a wheelchair, my medical ID card in one hand, and the remainder of my guava in the other, and was whisked to the labor and delivery floor. I was told that I was 9 centimeters dilated, and could push soon. I objected, even though I knew they were right and I was starting to feel my body making strides to expel this baby. “But—my husband isn’t here—he is parking the car!” I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sad possibility that I might deliver my baby and only the Thai medical staff would be there for the event. This prospect was more frightening than any other discomfort I experienced during labor.
I was ushered into the delivery room, and someone broke my water and told me to push. “No, not yet—my husband isn’t here!” I said, and instead of pushing, I fought the urge and panted through the next contraction. My memory of those moments isn’t all that sharp, but I’m pretty sure the medical staff thought I was a little nuts in my attempt to postpone the inevitable. The next contraction started and I couldn’t resist anymore. Thankfully, Jim and Jessica showed up in the middle of that contraction, and I have never been more relieved in my life. The nursing staff was wonderful and communicated well, but it was really great that Jessica was there, and she was very encouraging. I needed another woman around to coach me and let me know that things were okay—obviously Jim didn’t fit the bill. Pushing was probably one of my favorite parts of labor: it was the most all-consuming experience of my life, as if a raw, animal-like force had overtaken my body. I felt so powerful—yet I was overwhelmed by the sense that my body was really doing all the work, with so little help on my part.
Magdalena Lily Randall was born at 7:28 pm on Friday, August 7th, after 20 hours of labor. She was born in just seven pushes, 30 minutes after I reached the hospital, and roughly 15 minutes after Jim arrived in the delivery room. The umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck, and by the fifth push, the medical staff told me she needed to come out quickly, as her heart rate was dropping. She came out looking slightly eggplant-colored. I heard Jim say, “Breanna, it’s a girl!” and my first response was, “well, is she okay?” She gave a few gentle wails, and pinked up rapidly after the medical staff cleared her mouth and nose.
I’ve never been prouder, or more in awe of any experience in my life. I spent the remainder of that weekend in a sort of euphoria, amazed at her life and her perfect tiny body, and marveling at the wondrous things my body can do, promising myself I would never speak ill of my postpartum body after it had performed such an incredible feat.
It was hard to fall asleep after such a powerful physical and emotional experience, but eventually I did. When I next woke, I found the remainder of my guava pacifier lying beside me on the pillow, perhaps a little drier than it had been a few hours earlier. I did what any reasonable postpartum woman would: I ate it.
photo credit: John Shaw