Before we begin: my birth story is a positive one. You might wonder where it’s all going to go at times, as you read, but fear not – the ending is as happy as can be, and the road there a quite incredible roller coaster of a ride I wouldn’t want to be without. That doesn’t mean labor isn’t painful or the biggest challenge most people will ever face, because… well, because of course it is. But I left that labor ward feeling like a freaking superhuman, and that’s the message I’d like to share: that giving birth can be the single most empowering thing you’ll ever do (or witness, if you’re a birth partner). So. Let’s begin.
First: all my life, I’ve been terrified at the thought of giving birth. Totally, utterly, completely terrified. It’s been a strange mix of fear of pain, fear of feeling exposed, fear of something going wrong… as well as an absolute conviction I’d have the worst experience ever – because why wouldn’t I?
All my life, I’ve been terrified at the thought of giving birth. Totally, utterly, completely terrified.
Yes, why wouldn’t I? So much else in life has caused me pain and suffering, giving me little faith things can go my way. That things don’t always end in tears, separation and grief. Now, the sensible side of me knows tons of things in my life have gone splendid. Turned out amazing. Proven I was born with an utmost privilege. Etc. But when fear rolls in, I get blindfolded sometimes. I see all the traumas of my childhood and I think why wouldn’t a pregnancy end badly? It would fit right into the pattern, right?
No, of course it wouldn’t. We all have our respective baggages with plenty of reasons why we fear things won’t go our way. What defines us is – as per usual – how we deal with ourselves and not so much what we’re dealing with. I’ll happily admit I gave in to fear and a touch of bitterness from time to time during my pregnancy. The fear was rooted in that aforementioned conviction that things would go terribly wrong and leave me in grief, and was spurred on by the fact that I sustained a stress fracture in week 8 and was on crutches until week 22. I thought, who the heck breaks her foot when just getting pregnant? It felt like a punishment authorized by the universe and a hint of what was coming. More pain and more sadness.
But then I entered the third trimester, and my best part of pregnancy started! Without a doubt. I finally made friends with my changing body. Started to feel proud. Allowed myself to slow down and have that extra cookie if I wanted. I cut myself some slack… for the first time in 32 years.
When the due date of May 18th arrived, I was 1. totally sure the baby was a girl and 2. totally surprised she wasn’t here yet. I had had this feeling she’d be arriving early from the start, but clearly I’d been wrong – and obviously, not just with regards to the date but the gender too! At this point, both Mike and I felt as prepared as we could’ve been. We’d both been reading a ton of labor prep material (including the books Confident birth/Föda utan rädsla, The Birth Partner and Att föda), had taken an online Lamaze class (online because of Corona) and practiced various things almost daily for weeks. That is how we like to take on new things: by making sure we’re informed and prepared. Another immensely positive tool had been listening to The Positive Birth Story Podcast – I can’t even tell you how much hearing about others’ positive experiences helped me! Because really, don’t we all have the impression it’ll be a torture session like no other? I can’t recommend this podcast enough, in other words, as it provided me with a much necessary fresh perspective.
Anyway, May 18th arrived and we started off the day by going for a long walk. I felt great still, and didn’t really have any pains and aches that I couldn’t wait for to come to an end. That was very nice, of course, and definitely contributed to not feeling stressed about the baby not being here yet. However, we didn’t have to wait for too long – because my water broke that same evening!
When that happened, I had a slight panic attack. To this day, I’m very surprised by my initial reaction and deem it a sign of exactly how much tension I had built up in my body with regards to giving birth. Or, letting go, I should say. Because that’s what it came down to for me. The ability to let go – or the lack thereof. But we’ll get there.
So my water broke and I jumped up from the couch, pointed to the wet stain and said to Mike – who was sitting right there – “I think something just happened”. I half ran into the bathroom with water trickling down my legs, and started shaking from top to bottom. Uncontrollably. I wasn’t actively, consciously scared at all – but 32 years of fear were definitely expressing themselves all of a sudden. Mike helped me calm down, I took a shower and then called the hospital. It was around 10pm that I made the call – about an hour after the water broke – and the midwife on the phone wanted us to come in to check everything was good and confirm that it was indeed the water that had broken. At this point, I had no contractions whatsoever.
So my water broke and I jumped up from the couch, pointed to the wet stain and said to Mike – who was sitting right there – “I think something just happened”.
So we got ourselves ready and took the 11pm ferry, arriving at the hospital around 12.30am. Due to COVID-19, Mike wasn’t allowed to accompany me to the maternity clinic (not the labor ward – symptom free partners were allowed there) so he covered himself in blankets (it was cold outside) and was going to try sleeping in the car for a bit. I rang the doorbell, was let in and then greeted by a lovely midwife at the clinic. She confirmed my water had broken, told me I was about 1 cm dilated and then she put on the CTG equipment, to monitor potential contractions and the baby’s heartbeats. I had it on for about 20 min, and started feeling subtle contraction-like sensations every so often but didn’t think too much of them. When we had been observed for long enough and all was deemed good, I was told it could still be a while before it got going for real and that we should go home to get some sleep and wait for it the contractions to intensify.
So we got into the car and drove back home. Only, we just missed the last ferry – the 2am ferry – so we ended up sitting in the car waiting for the first one in the morning – at 4.30am – for over 2 hours. And as we had pulled out of the hospital parking lot, around 1am, my contractions had started to get going in a way that couldn’t exactly be ignored anymore, meaning it was impossible to get any sleep in the car whatsoever.
Now, I had thought contractions would start to come on in a mild fashion and very spread apart. Sure, the first ones were mild compared to what came later, but they were coming about 5 minutes apart from the start and they were definitely too painful to sleep or even talk through. In other words, it was a fairly uncomfortable few hours we spent in that car, waiting to get home – or would we just be turning around? Solely judging by the intensity of the contractions, I thought I was making huge progress already. It sure hadn’t been on my wishlist to sit in a cold car and suffer through the first stages of labor, but heck – what was there to do about it? I didn’t think too much of it, actually, but just wanted time to go by.
We were back home at 4:45am, and the thought of trying to get some sleep was indeed long gone. Instead we started setting up the bedroom for the baby by moving the crib downstairs (we had stored everything upstairs) and getting stuff in place, pausing every time a contraction came on. We started timing them somewhere around then too, and realized they were coming at about 3-4 minutes apart and they were painful. Very painful. Needless to say, we were both convinced we’d have a May 19th baby and that we’d be returning to the hospital shortly.
Needless to say, we were both convinced we’d have a May 19th baby and that we’d be returning to the hospital shortly.
After redecorating our bedroom, we went outside to get fresh air. I was waddling back and forth in the garden every time a contraction came, trying to stay calm but somewhere deep inside knowing I wasn’t letting go. I was still kind of panicking, unable to surrender the way I’d been hoping I would. The way I’d been practicing and preparing for. And a thought I’d revisit many times to come entered my mind: this is much worse than I had anticipated.
Around 9am, I made a second phone call to the labor ward, telling them my contractions were 3 minutes apart and lasting for 45-70 seconds. They told me to come in, and so 12 hours after we took the ferry the first time, we were on it again. In other words, we’re now at 11am. I had to go to the clinic for an examination again, but this time Mike was welcome to come with me. As soon as we entered the examination room and I was hooked up to the CTG machine again, my contractions slowed down. All of a sudden, they were 5-6 minutes apart, and I was also told I was still just 1 cm dilated. That was a massive disappointment for me, and one hard to recover from. At this point, I’d been in a good amount of pain for nearly 12 hours and to realize it had gotten me nowhere… that was difficult. To also realize I was still in the latent phase, where you’re “supposed” to be able to distract yourself through the contractions to some extent, was also hard. If it was this intense now, what was awaiting me?
Instead of going back home this time and do all that driving/uncomfortable sitting in the car again though, we got to go to my mom’s and stepdad’s apartment in Kungsholmen (Stockholm city), a 12 min car ride away from the hospital. Mom and Lars evacuated the apartment and left for Yxlan (where they, too, live – but part time), which was so nice of them. We ended up spending the hours from about 2pm to 9pm there, and the contractions got increasingly worse as time went on – as should be expected – but I wasn’t getting the breaks from them that I had anticipated. My contractions went on for as long as 3 minutes sometimes, only to start over 20-30 seconds later. Mentally (and physically), this was very draining and I was just getting more and more scared. I learned later on that those extra intense contractions are called double-peaking contractions or contraction coupling (värkstorm på svenska) and all I can say is that I started struggling big time after a few hours in their company. Mike tried to help me but I couldn’t really accept any help – simply because it was too much to handle and I needed to just focus inwards and try to endure. Around 8:30pm, we called again and said we no longer felt comfortable being on our own. At this point, I had started thinking about the possibility of getting medical help. I had had my mind set on a non-medicated birth and really, really wanted to be able to go through with it, but the duration of the whole thing and the complete lack of rest for the past 24 hours were definitely getting to me.
When we got in, it was yet again time to go the clinic for an examination. And yet again, I was severely disappointed upon learning what they’d found down there – a mere 3 cm dilation. I wanted to shoot myself at this point, to be honest. I started to panic, slightly, and wanted to throw in the towel for real. But – we were admitted this time, and given our own private (gigantic) room. It was bigger than our whole apartment back in New York and just wonderful. We were immediately greeted by “our” team of a midwife and a nurse, and I got into the white gown. They examined me, hooked me up to the CTG (which in my case was left on until Theo was out – protocol when the water has broken a long time ago) and read my birth plan. They were… the most wonderful people ever. We both felt so incredibly well taken care of no words could do it justice. I whispered between contractions that I didn’t know how much longer I could stick it out for, and they nodded understandingly. It seemed they could tell things were quite dire with me, and they proposed giving the laughing gas a go. Beforehand I had been quite anti that, as I had read somewhere it feels like you’re drunk and if you’re not fond of that feeling, it might not be a good fit for you. As the non-drinker as I am, I sort of knew already I wouldn’t like it. I gave it a go, however, and got the hang of it quite quickly – only, I really had to make noise (ie scream) to make it through the contractions and that became tricky with the mask over my face (it didn’t feel good screaming into the mask). Those double-peaking contractions just continued and continued and my legs were shaking so badly the nurse had to lie down on top of them, so as midnight approached, I said I think I need the heavy artillery. They said they thought that was the right call, and everything post that went so quickly and smoothly I could barely believe it. By 12:25am, an epidural was in place and I could finally relax. I was afraid I’d feel so disappointed with myself, but I think I knew my body was so wiped out I needed help. I never could have imagined the level of pain I was in, and felt that I really had done my best and tried my very hardest.
About 20 minutes after the anesthesiologist left the room, total bliss had arrived and settled. Gone was the pain but I could still feel all my body parts and go to the bathroom. I could observe the contractions come and go on the CTG screen but felt no more than a mild tightening sensation. The room was barely lit up at all, Mike was equipped with a blanket and pillows and lied down on the couch to sleep, and I was encouraged to try and get as much rest as I possibly could. Mike dozed off for a few hours but I couldn’t quite let go enough. The nurse came in to sit with me and chat for a bit. We talked about COVID-19 and families and life changes and living in the archipelago. We talked quietly to not disturb Mike and the hours slipped by, one by one. At 4am, the midwife examined me. I was 8 cm dilated and everyone felt like we should pop the champagne open. The best part is that Mike woke up from the midwife saying “8 cm” and said with a drowsy voice “what? 8? No? It can’t be true”. And two hours later, I was open 10 cm. I couldn’t believe how quickly things got going once… well, once they did. It took me roughly 24 hours to get to 3 cm, but “only” about 8 hours to go from 3 cm to 10 cm.
It took me roughly 24 hours to get to 3 cm, but “only” about 8 hours to go from 3 cm to 10 cm.
Now it turned into a waiting game. When would the pushing contractions start? Our team would end their shift at 7am and make way for another one, and I was nervous about that. What if they wouldn’t provide me with the same sense of calm, competence and care as the first? It seemed no baby would make it out before 7am though, so the new midwife would most likely be the one to deliver our child.
Turned out there was no need to worry. The new team was just as wonderful as the first, and helped us through what would be the birth of our son. The pushing contractions were nowhere to be seen for hours, so at about 9:00am, I got an oxytocin IV to stimulate them. It took another while before I started sensing the urge to go the bathroom – the sign it’s about to happen – and around 9:45-10am, I did my first pushing attempts. I was encouraged to stop with the epidural “refills” prior to the pushing phase getting started, so that I would be able to better follow the ebbs and flows of the pushing contractions. However, that basically meant that I went from a blissful state of no pain to being thrown into full force pushing contractions in a matter of minutes, and that was quite the experience. And not just any contractions, but those godforsaken double-peaking ones continued where they’d left off.
The pushing phase went on for a good while too – about 1 hour 20 min – and had me scream I think I’m going to die because that’s what I felt like, me yelling at the midwife to tell me how many more pushes I’d need to do (poor thing – I apologized afterwards) and also me turning down the offer of feeling the head by downright roaring that I had “better things to focus on”. We were moving from position to position, and I couldn’t think. I was completely absorbed by the pain. Mike has described the pushing phase as “birthing gymnastics” with only seconds between contractions to move from the floor, to the chair, to the bed and back to the floor, all the while being guided by a team of at the moment three midwives. I apparently squeezed his hands so hard they went numb and did permanent damage to the shirt he was wearing by twisting and pulling it so aggressively.
But then, at 11:13am on May 20th, he came out. The boy I was convinced was a girl and was supposed to be called Ellie. The boy that would heal all my inner wounds as if he held a wand in his hand and knew all the wonderful spells in the universe. Theo came, and he’s made me and us happier than we knew was possible. He was a perfect little boy of 3260 grams and 51 cm, with golden hair and the most beautiful blue eyes we’d ever seen.
The thing you can’t believe before labor but totally get afterwards is that the pain literally disappears right after the baby is out. At least that’s what it was like for me. Beforehand, I’d heard women describe the phase where the head is coming through the vaginal opening (referred to as the ring of fire) as the single most painful part of labor. I’m not sure if they had unusual labor experiences or if I did (my guess is, obviously, the latter), but my ring of fire was a warm hug in comparison to everything else I went through.
After Theo was out, he spent a few hours skin to skin on my chest. It was the most unbelievable experience, lying there with him on top of me and having Mike right next to me. We did it. We did it, and I didn’t die. While Theo was taking in the world and we were taking in him, I was stitched up (I had a second degree tear, which is the most common one for first time mothers) following the placenta coming out. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, being stitched up, but I had more wonderful things to think about. Plus, after giving birth and having a bunch of strangers (although lovely) halfway up my private area for hours on end, I had sort of let go a bit in that regard. Previously it would have made me uncomfortable to be so exposed, but at that point, I was just like… whatever. And I had my son to focus on. What else could possibly matter?
In hindsight, it’s dawned upon me that I had a very difficult labor. Reading my chart, hearing my mom’s reaction (my mom is an RN – sjuksköterska – with a past of working in a labor ward back in the day) and overall just pondering those two days of trying to get Theo out have all made me realize boy, that was definitely towards the more intense end of the spectrum. Yet, the thought of doing it again some day doesn’t scare me one bit. I look back at a very positive experience, as strange as it may sound.
“How?”, my best friend asked as I had told her everything I’ve just shared here. “How was it positive?” And I can see why that’s hard to understand, but I’ll try to explain. First and foremost: it brought me Theo and I didn’t die. Those two things alone would be enough to call it positive in my world. But of course there are other aspects as well. The staff was unbelievably wonderful. A sliver of my heart will forever be dedicated to them. I never could have imagined feeling so safe and so cared for by people I’d never met before. They were the ultimate mix of professional and personal, efficient and calm, experienced and present minded. Mike and I felt as if we were at a hotel, with all our needs being tended to around the clock (in other words, massive shoutout to BB Stockholm at Danderyd’s hospital in Stockholm – and for clarity… no affiliation ;)). But there’s more to it than that. It brought Mike and I even closer, which I didn’t think was possible. It made me feel invincible. Like a superhuman, for real. And… it peeled off a bunch of layers of self-consciousness, of insecurity and of caring about stupid things and replaced those with respect and gratitude for my body, a more relaxed approach to life and looks, and a belief I can do anything. It filled me with a sense of power I think back of every single day. I rated my experience 10/10 the day after – right before we went home – and I stick to that today as well (in other words, it wasn’t just all those happiness hormones speaking).
It made me feel invincible. Like a superhuman, for real.
I could go on forever here, sharing my thoughts on early motherhood and tell you exactly how in love I’ve been with our son since the first second I laid eyes on him (I obviously loved him when he was in utero too, but you know what I mean), but it’s turning into a novel soon and I better stop. All I’ll say is this: I never in a million years could have imagined the unconditional, otherworldly love I feel for Theo. That he’d be my everything and in more ways than one feel like an extension of both my body and soul. But he does. And that’s magical.
Before I let you go – a note on pain. I believe I’m fairly pain tolerant and have decent stamina, and was therefore shocked by the intensity of my contractions and my inability to endure them until the end. I felt like I had massively underestimated them, and that was hard in itself to handle. I was boosting my self-confidence prior to labor by reminding myself of my athletic achievements and my strong body, and felt convinced I’d be able to handle whatever would come my way. Now that I’ve come to understand my labor shouldn’t be viewed as “normal”, I’d like to tell those of you perhaps thinking the same positive things about your fitness and ability to handle pain to please, please not freak out – what I went through is highly unlikely to happen to you. My desire to share my own experience stems from two things: first, I read many birth stories as part of my preparations and appreciated other women’s openness and willingness to share, which makes me feel that I want to give back. Second, I want to show that you can have a tough labor and still walk away with a positive experience. A positive experience can come in many different shapes and sizes, and this is mine.
Giving birth was in many ways similar to racing. It’s one hell of a long journey that’s uncomfortable and painful at times, but the feeling at the finish line is so unbelievably awesome you just can’t help but to love it. And you also forget all the pains immediately, and find yourself ready to sign up for another one in no time.
Thank you so much for reading, you all. If you have any thoughts or questions you’d like to vent on any and all topics related to pregnancy, labor, post labor etc., feel free to reach out. It would just make me happy. Lots of love from the three of us.
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