At around 1 a.m., I woke up with stomach pain. We had just gotten back from celebrating Christmas Eve with the family a few hours earlier, but this was more than post-turkey indigestion. I nudged Matt and said, “I think I’m having contractions.”
He turned over and spooned me for a bit, and then said I should try to sleep—we knew that if I was really in labor, I would need the extra energy later on. But I was too anxious and uncomfortable. So I laid there and waited.
In the morning, I called my doula, Giuditta, and described to her what I was feeling: sporadic, cramp-like contractions that would come on strong and then slowly subside.
“It sounds like you’re in early labor,” she said cheerily. Knowing that this phase could last for many hours, she encouraged me to relax throughout the day. “Don’t read Google,” she advised, remembering my tendency to look up and freak myself out over every pregnancy complication imaginable. “Look at funny autocorrects. I’ll check in with you later. It’s a great day to have a baby!”
We cancelled our Christmas lunch plans and tried to distract ourselves to pass time. I bounced on a yoga ball in our bedroom while watching episode after episode of Friends. We took a walk around the block. My sister brought over some Chinese takeout (Chinese restaurants were pretty much the only thing open that day). We video chatted with my brother- and sister-in-law who live up north. It was all pretty calm and mundane.
Then, with the Clipper’s game on TV in the background, things started getting real. My contractions were getting stronger and happening more frequently. Matt opened an app on his phone and started timing them. Five minutes apart. Sometimes less. It was time to call Giuditta.
She drove on over to our house, and when she arrived, we chatted a bit about the holidays. She said that the fact that I could still carry a conversation meant that we still had some time before the baby would be here.
She had me sit on the yoga ball, then walk up and down the stairs (ugh) and then take a warm bath. It got to be about 10 p.m. and things didn’t seem to be progressing very quickly so she said we should all just try to sleep and then go to my scheduled doctor’s appointment the next morning.
Then, minutes after I crawled into bed, massive pain overtook my body. I started moaning. Matt hovered over me in the darkness as I clenched my body pillow in agony. “Do you want me to get Giuditta?” he asked. I nodded yes.
Giuditta came to my room, and I told her I wanted to go to the hospital now. She told me to get back into the tub. I looked at her like she was nuts, even though I knew the goal was for me to labor at home for as long as possible. I somehow made my way to the bathroom and shivered as the water splashed on my bare belly.
“Owwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!” I moaned.
“This is what labor is,” Giuditta said. “You’re doing great. But instead of saying ‘ow,’ say, ‘WOW!’”
I really did want to follow her guidance, but when the next contraction came on shortly after, I thought, “THIS IS NOT ‘WOW.’ THIS IS OWWWWWW!’”
“OWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!” I screamed.
I think we were all surprised by my sudden change of state and decided it was time to go to the hospital. The dreaded 20-minute car ride unfolded exactly like in the movies—I screamed, gripped my seatbelt and cursed at red lights. I’m sure Matt was in complete terror, wondering if he would have to pull over and deliver the baby right then and there. When we finally rolled up to Labor & Delivery, I thought I would collapse in the front lobby. (I wonder how many scenes like this the security guard sees each day.)
They put me in a little office and sat me next to a woman at a computer, who asked me all sorts of questions that I could barely respond to because a human was about to come out of a human. I was assigned to a room, where a nurse checked the dilation of my cervix. “Seven,” she said.
Seven. Seven was good. (When you’re at 10, a baby shoots out of your vagina—or something like that.)
“Seven! That’s great!” Giuditta said with a sense of excitement that I myself just couldn’t muster. Several months before, we had talked about whether I wanted an epidural. Despite being a person who curls into fetal position when I stub my toe, I had watched the documentary The Business of Being Born and feared being pressured into having an induction and c-section, so I told her then that I would like to try to go without the epidural and “see how it goes.” Giuditta explained to me that being at seven meant I was close to delivering and that getting an epidural could slow the process by several hours. With a burst of motivation and a deep sigh, I declined the shot.
The contractions quickly escalated to a whole new level of intensity and I soon started to doubt my decision to channel my village ancestors and do this whohle thing drug-free. For months, I had listened to Giuditta’s hypnobirthing mp3s every night before going to sleep. During labor, I had planned to visualize my lady parts opening like a flower as I exhaled away my anxieties. But all that practice seemed to get lost. I knew in my mind that I was doing everything I wasn’t supposed to do—tightening my muscles during contractions instead of going “limp and loose,” and feeling like a victim to the pain rather than being in control of it. I couldn’t help it.
But apparently, things were progressing pretty well. I was at an eight, and then a nine. This would be over soon. I would meet my baby.
Finally, it was time to push. With my feet propped in the air, I pushed when the nurse-midwife told me to. “AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” I yelled, waiting for someone to say, “I see the head!” But nothing happened. Another contraction jolted through my body and I tried again. And then again.
We tried different positions—I pushed while squatting, I pushed while pulling some type of band, I pushed while standing in the shower.
I pushed for five hours.
Matt was beside me the entire time, holding my hand and telling me I was doing so well, but I know he was thinking “What the fuck?” just like I was. We had both been awake for more than 30 hours and this was insane.
Night turned to morning and I was falling asleep between my contractions. Giuditta would wake me up by having me sniff essential oils or brush my teeth and then I would push again. The baby would not come out. They rolled out a full-length mirror to show me what was going on down there, hoping that would somehow motivate me. I told them to get that mirror out of here.
My body had become a rag doll. I had zero energy, nothing left. “Can’t you just pull her out?!” I asked the midwife. She couldn’t. I wondered what else they could do—use a vacuum, cut me open. I didn’t care at this point. But the baby’s heart rate was strong and she wasn’t in any distress so I had to keep pushing. (Yes, I am grateful for this.)
“THIS IS CRAZY!” I said.
“I know it’s crazy,” Giuditta said.
She had me get into the shower one last time, despite my protesting. There in the tiny bathroom, she said she wanted to ask me a question.
“Are you afraid of becoming a mother?”
I stopped for a moment and thought about it. I guess I was. I hadn’t planned on getting pregnant while on our vacation to Japan and even as my belly grew, Matt and I both said it often didn’t feel real. Becoming parents was more like an idea, a nice idea. For nine months, I read the baby books and tried desperately to protect my unborn child (see: Googling everything), but I had no idea how I would respond to meeting her in person. I was scared I wouldn’t know how to be a mom.
Soon, another contraction came on and I wrapped my arms around Giuditta and moaned.
I wish I could say that something inside me snapped, that I had a Rocky moment and said with fierceness, “Let’s do this,” but the rest is kind of a blur. I got back onto the bed and pushed some more. Finally, they saw the head. I pushed again. It burned like hell.
At last, at 11:59 a.m. on December 26, 2012, Maggie Sky Pih came wailing into this world with one of the loudest baby-cries I’d ever heard. She was placed tummy-down on my chest, and she looked like a baby bird with her eyes wide open and her head bobbing up and down searching for food. She was so alert and so beautiful.
“Hi,” I said nervously, trying to study her little face. Then I sobbed. I loved her, my Maggie, my daughter.
I had a lot of mixed feelings about my birth experience—after it was all over, Matt and I joked that we should sit out in front of the hospital and shout “GET THE EPIDURAL!” at every woman who walks by as a public service. But I don’t regret anything now. (Some say it’s amnesia—could be.) This was how Maggie was born. This is her story. I think she got off to a pretty good start.
P.S. I must say that my birth team (Matt of course, Giuditta, the midwife and all the nurses) were beyond amazing. They took so many great measures to try to make me more comfortable. I was so lucky to have them there.