Emotional Labor Pains: The Evolution of My Birth Story
Seven months after a traumatic experience in the hospital’s emergency room, due to complications that would eventually be diagnosed as hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe medical condition that can lead to fatal complications for the pregnant person and baby, I unexpectedly returned to deliver my baby. The same baby I was told I was miscarrying by the emergency room and L&D staff seven months earlier. The same baby I’d planned to deliver at home, in my bedroom, in the tub blown up and filled by my husband, friend Devon, and doula. “It’s probably just another false alarm,” I repeated for hours while timing my increasingly painful contractions. “I don’t think this is really it,” I stuttered through winces and sporadic moans of pain.
Io (like the moon of Jupiter) Daenerys was born in the early evening of October 27 while I lie on the hospital bed in a daze, fading in and out of some sort of pseudo-consciousness with my doula nowhere in sight and the epidural working its anesthetic charm. My carefully-crafted birth plan was thrown out of the proverbial window after 24 hours of labor at home, slowly switching between my bed and the inflatable tub after giving up on the birthing ball. My home birth felt over before it really began, despite the fact that the majority of my labor was spent there. Let’s take a step back, though, and start from the first contraction.
It was October 26 at 11:57am. I timed my first contraction. It was tolerable as were the several contractions that followed. It wasn’t until 9:34pm that the pain increased just enough for me to admit to myself that things were starting. This was it. Devon and my husband blew up the tub. They could see in my eyes and hear in my voice that something was happening. I texted my doula and another friend, Kara to make their way to my apartment. The former replied from Harlem that they were going to shower and Uber over; the latter replied that she would hop on the train in Pennsylvania and join us soon if I was sure it was time. I live in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. There was no turning back now, Io was on their way earthside and it was as if everyone, in my close circle that is, could feel it in the air.
By the time Kara and my doula arrived, Devon had left and my husband was helping me breathe through contractions. Shortly after their arrival, around 3am, I was in the tub. My husband and my doula were taking turns emptying cold water and refilling warm water into the tub. They took shifts napping. I was focused on remaining calm, focusing my breathing, and making soft humming sounds. At this point, I was still accepting the fact that I was actually in labor.
My estimated due date was November 8, and while I knew that Io would make their entrance in their right time, and I’d known for over a week that Io would arrive sooner than the doctors suggested due to the way my body felt, part of me still felt it was early. We’d planned to set up the tub, amongst other preparations, a week and a half later. We still had so much to organize, clean, and unpack, not to mention the fact that we hadn’t finalized a few other paperwork-related concerns. We swore we had more time. I swore I had more time. Even one more day.
I felt prepared. I spent months researching everything there is to know about home births and then some, due to personal health issues that led my OB-GYN to classify me as “high-risk.” The several weeks leading up to my delivery, though, I’d never felt better or more healthy. I felt ready, strong, full of energy. It took time but I overcame all of my fears regarding the home birth. I surrendered. For some reason, though, while trying to manage the pain of my labor and the suddenness of it all, I was losing my sense of self, my feelings of preparedness, my courage.
More than anything I felt at peace. My birth plan was working out exactly as I’d hoped. Home, in the tub, dim lights, chosen loved ones present, no epidural, no fluorescent lights, no cervical cheeks, no forcibly broken waters, free range of motion, no coached pushing, no one touching me unless I’d explicitly asked.
An Unexpected Change of Plans
Before and during my pregnancy I worked as an research intern for a nonprofit organization focused on legal advocacy for pregnant women and before that I obtained an honors degree in the Philosophy of Structural Violence with a focus on Black maternal health and the abuse of pregnant incarcerated women. In addition, I was a doula in training and vocal advocate for reproductive justice. Years worth of learning went into my birth plan and when it was finally more than just an abstract idea in the heads of my doula, my husband, and I, I felt blissful and empowered. Eventually I drifted into a deep sleep.
Then I woke up around 6am and everything changed. This was transition, I knew it. It felt like the end. It felt like I could no longer handle the pain. In fact, my memory of what happened-aside from sporadic screams and my body flailing about the bed while I tightly squeezed different hands-between 6am and the Uber ride to the hospital emergency room is mostly a blur. A painful blur. Eventually I was in a wheelchair, squirming and crying out in pain, answering an anesthesiologist’s questions in a brightly lit hospital room.
Seven months earlier I was in that emergency room, malnourished, uncontrollably vomiting, unable even to keep down sips of water. “Prepare for a miscarriage,” the lab tech warned me, just moments after he gave me an uncomfortable and demonstrative cervical exam in front of multiple students. This was after I’d requested that a woman perform my exam due to past sexual trauma and anxiety and was assured they’d honor my request. Part of my birth plan was a direct order not to transfer me to this specific hospital in case of emergency. It was the closest hospital to my apartment, though, and when the pain left me unable to speak, breathe normally, or keep myself from screaming, I insisted we go there.
The Hospital Experience
My past experience in the hospital replayed in my mind as I was wheeled into my delivery room. At some point my water was forcibly broken. At some point I had a cervical exam. At some point I heard a shocked doctor exclaim that I was 8cm dilated. At some point I had another cervical exam. At some point I received an epidural but I know it was after I was 6cm. Kara and my husband were in the room with me and at some point my mother-in-law joined us.
My doula was never allowed in the room. I’d find out later that they advocated for me outside of the room every step of the way while trying their hardest to explain to the staff what a doula was and why they needed to be in the room with me. As a fellow doula and birth justice advocate, the fact that my doula had so much trouble with the hospital staff has deeply impacted my advocacy work and future political and legal goals. Even more so because the main reason they faced so much pushback was because they are not a cis-man. But that’s a conversation for a different day. Bottom line, another part of my birth plan was drastically changed. As a Black birthing person, having a doula present at my birth was incredibly important to me for countless reasons. Especially in New York. Especially given the growing body of research about racial disparities with respect to birthing, Blackness, and survival.
At some point though, I started pushing and around a half hour later, Io was in my arms. I’d spend the next two days receiving blood transfusions due to the amount of blood I lost and my dangerously low hemoglobin levels. At some point I was informed that my levels and amount of blood loss could have been fatal.
I realized that despite the countless changes to my birth plan, I’d made the right decision to transfer to the hospital.
Seven months after being discharged from that hospital, confused and uncomfortable, unable to accept the fact that I was facing pregnancy loss, I was discharged yet again. With my healthy baby and a thankful husband.
At some point I let go of the anger I felt toward myself for not being able to birth my baby at home.
My husband, Io, and I were finally home. That was what mattered in the end and that is what matters most now.
Featured image by Leighann ReneeA Monthly Experience Unlike Any Other. Shop Cora.
Author Bio Jesi Taylor is an NYC-based writer, doula, student herbalist, and reproductive justice legal scholar. They have publications with AfroPunk, the American Philosophical Association, and the Academy of American Poets. Their academic areas of interest lie at the intersection between political philosophy, feminist legal theory, and cultural anthropology.