Essay by Jenny Splitter.The views expressed are the opinions of the author.
I was in a drugged out, hazy blur the day my son was born. Two days before, I had been diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, and learned I would need to deliver him eight weeks early, by Caesarean section. During the delivery, the combination of shock, magnesium drip and anesthesia made me feel dazed, disconnected and barely present.
When he came home from the NICU, I decided to make up for that disconnected beginning by embracing natural parenting. We co-slept. I toted him around in an array of colorful fabric baby carriers. I was determined to breast-feed. I even tried a baptismal sort of treatment called rebirthing, to try to recapture some of what I had lost. I was solidly on the natural parenting path, and I was determined that, if I had another child, I would have a vaginal birth after Caesarean (VBAC).
From the way people talk in natural parenting circles, a “good birth” requires not just a healthy baby, but a certain kind of delivery, as natural as possible, to give the baby a better start, encourage successful breast-feeding and ensure that everything goes right from that moment on. But these discussions also take on a competitive quality. It feels like the more grueling the birth, whether it be a long labor, hypnobirthing instead of an epidural, or a home birth, the more impressed people seem to be.
I felt pressure to give birth the right way. A VBAC topped my list of options, because the perception was that I would have overcome so many obstacles, including obstetricians who prefer to err on the side of caution in the form of repeat C-sections, to give birth vaginally. If childbirth were a competitive sport, it stood to reason that a successful VBAC would merit a gold medal.
I held onto that goal of a successful VBAC through a divorce and remarriage. Years later, when my new husband and I got pregnant, I felt like everything was falling into place. My family would soon be complete and I’d finally get to have the birth experience I’d always wanted.
My search for a new health-care provider led me to a midwife dubbed “the VBAC Queen of D.C.” Before she’d take me on as a client, I had to attend one of her monthly informational sessions, packed with couples vying for a spot with her. As she lectured us on the virtues of red raspberry leaf tea and the sins of the hospital-military-industrial complex, I began to suspect this was her way of sussing out the natural birth devotees. It had been more than five years since my son was born and in that time I’d drifted from the purity of natural parenting to a more flexible approach. Yes, I still wanted my VBAC, but I wasn’t going to compete in some kind of natural parenting pageant to get it.
Several weeks later, my new obstetrician called with bad news. Blood tests revealed the baby had an elevated risk for Trisomy 18, a rare chromosomal disorder that doctors say is usually incompatible with life. Our next appointment was awful. We waited for hours because of an insurance problem. When we finally made it back to the exam room, we were there for only 20 minutes before a fire alarm forced an evacuation. Before we were ushered out of the building, we learned the baby did have Trisomy 18. The baby’s heart was located on the wrong side of its body.
We were devastated and felt like we had no choice but to terminate the pregnancy. We both felt so guilty. We did this. It was our fault. Every moment felt heavy with grief.
But then we got pregnant again only a few months later, and our grief was joined by worry and anxiety about whether this baby would be healthy.
A couple months later, we wept with joy when the genetic testing came back normal, but it wasn’t until my 32-week appointment, the same appointment where I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia with my son, that I realized that I really was going to have this baby. If I still wanted that VBAC, now was the time.
At the time I believed a drug-free birth would help my chances of success, so we hired a doula, I practiced hypnobirthing and read famed midwife Ina May Gaskin’s “Guide to Childbirth.” The day my water broke, my husband and I drove to the hospital, brimming with excitement. But I was also nervous. This would be my first time in labor, and I was hoping to avoid the epidural. Could I do it?
Not long after settling into our room, the waves of pain intensified. I felt like I was being ripped apart from the inside out. All of a sudden, my quest for a VBAC seemed pointless. I didn’t need to be a birth warrior, and I didn’t need a VBAC. I just wanted to meet our daughter.
Once I’d made up my mind, I couldn’t get the epidural fast enough. It took the pain away and allowed me to get some much needed rest. When it was time to push, I was still pretty exhausted, but the doctors, nurses and my doula encouraged me (my husband wisely stayed quiet), and I mustered the strength to push. That final part of labor felt like the last mile of a very long race you just want to be done with already.
I was able to push my daughter out. My elated husband and the doula cooed over my her while I contended with the pulsing labor pains from a now worn-off epidural. So this was it, I thought. I’d had my VBAC and, now that it was over, I didn’t really care. My vaginal delivery wasn’t ecstatic or even particularly inspiring. Turns out, it didn’t matter how she got here, just that she did.