Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Confessions of a Mom who Birthed with a Harmful Midwife

© Amber Therrien 2011. Amber provides perspective on how assistants can be unsupportive and abusive, even when birthing outside the hospital. She gives insight on back labor and prolonged labor. This account may be triggering. In two parts due to length. Part one:

“My beautiful daughter is 17 months old today and I am finally ready to sit down and write a more honest story of her birth.  My labor began in true-to-Hollywood form with my water breaking at 3 am. It wasn’t a gush, just a small trickle that continued when I got up to go to the bathroom. I check the leaking fluid with the strips my midwife had given me and watched it turn the long awaited blue. 

I went into the bedroom to nuzzle my husband. “Sweetheart, you need to call work.  You’re not going in today.” “Why not?” I giggled, kissed his neck and sent my midwife a text. I tried to get some rest, but was far too excited. I went to the computer to play some games, hoping to tire myself out looking at the screen. To say the cramps were mild would be an understatement, but there was a little something going on, too.

I know it’s hard to believe, especially in a culture that teaches women to be terrified of birth, but I had no fear going into my labor. I read books by Carol Leonard and Ina May Gaskin like they were my bible, watched countless births online and followed the natural birthing blogs. I trusted the process, trusted my body, and trusted my support team. I was genuinely excited for the chance to labor and bring my baby into the world naturally.  And besides I was a doula attending births until my 8th month of pregnancy. I would know what to do…right?

I was able to get a few hours of sleep and cuddling with the hubby in, then ate a healthy breakfast and drank some tea.  Still some mild cramping, but nothing I would even pay attention to had I not known what it portended. I enjoyed looking through the nursery, made sure everything was in place, and then grew bored.

It was a beautiful day out, so we decided to go for a walk by the river.  I had a few good contractions while we were out, but I was concerned that they seemed to only hurt in my back. It was at this point that I got a taste of what to expect from my midwife. She called to see how I was doing and I told her things weren’t strong yet and I was still having a very easy time so not to worry. 

Her response was, “well don’t get too excited, this is going to get a lot harder.“  I found this lack of confidence slightly irritating but quickly forgot it.  After our walk we stopped by my in laws’ house because I had to pee “Like now!”  My father in law was home and noticed something was up, so we told him that we thought labor would be starting soon. 

Then, logically, we went to get fried clams. I had been craving seafood my entire pregnancy and wanted to enjoy it the way only a pregnant woman could one more time before having the baby. We went home to get some more rest and things finally began picking up. Contractions were every 5 minutes or so, but still very manageable and my doula was on her way. 

When she arrived around 5 o’clock things were clearly starting to happen, but I was still comfortable. She gave me a Luna bar to eat and we went for a quick walk around the block because I was feeling restless. While we were out I got another call from the midwife. I told her I was feeling restless and went for a walk, and then I would go home to relax. She asked how strong my contractions were and I told her they were still very easy to handle. She then warned me again not to be too confident because my work hadn’t begun yet. 

I was annoyed and decided I wasn’t going to talk to her again until I knew things were really going.  I didn’t need someone telling me how weak I was going to be in birth. Her seeming lack of faith in me and my ability to birth was disheartening since she had never said anything like that through my entire pregnancy. It wasn’t that I thought this was going to be easy. I knew birthing was a lot of work, but I was looking forward to it and felt as if she was trying to take that from me.

When we got back I decided I wanted to laugh and open myself that way, so we put in a Kat Williams DVD.  Near the end, things got much more intense. I was on hands and knees now through most rushes and my doula was putting pressure on my back. At some point we switched over to Dennis Leary, but I was unable to pay any attention to it. I stood up after a very strong rush and began pacing, telling my doula I have no idea what to do. I had expected from my training and trust in my body that I would just know what to do with myself to make the contractions hurt less, but my body was not telling me anything I could understand. 

We called the midwife to let her know that things were getting intense and I was having a good, strong, minute-long rush every 3 minutes. She said she had just gotten home from another birth and was very tired, so I should try to get some rest and to call her when things picked up more. I began feeling more panicked. These contractions were HARD and close and she had said when I got to the magic 3-1-1 (3 minutes apart, lasting a minute, for an hour) she would come. This sudden deviation from the plan sent me whirling.

My husband suggested we go into the bedroom to relax and listen to our hypnobaby CD since the midwife had said to relax and rest. I tried, I did, but it was no use. Every time I would start to relax with the CD a wave would rush over me and nothing I was doing would relax it away. He rubbed my back. I relaxed my muscles and did my breathing exercises, and I listened to the CD.

I don’t know how long I lay there struggling to hypnotize myself but eventually I bolted upright when another strong one hit and yelled, “This is bullshit! This isn’t doing anything. I don’t feel like I’m on a fucking cloud…it HURTS!”  I yelled for Cari, my doula and told her “I don’t know what to do. It hurts, bad and I thought I would know what to do but I don’t. What do I do?”  She said something comforting enough to calm me down, and I began kissing my husband through each rush. It was a wonderful distraction, and it worked for a while. 
We called the midwife and were again told to wait.  This is where the beautiful oxytocin must have really started kicking in, because things get a little fuzzy from here, but I’ll do my best to tell you what I remember. Eventually she said she was on her way, but she sounded very hesitant and annoyed. She said I only had an hour or two until she would be with us. There is a blurry period of a few hours where I was in and out of sleep and pain, waiting for the midwife to come. I remember lying in bed, seeing my doula’s face, and feeling my husband next to me, but the details are lost. 

 I went into the shower to try to find relief and my wonderful doula got soaked while putting pressure on my lower back. I remember staring at the horrible pink tiles and thinking the lines in them looked like elephants. I may have shared this observation with Cari, I can’t recall. I moaned through some, hit the wall through some, and wiggled, stood, or laid down through others. I remember thinking before I went into labor that if I got into water I would try to keep my hair dry so I wouldn’t look awful in any pictures, but as I watched the drops run down my bangs I honestly could not have cared less.   

When the midwife arrived 4 or 5 hours later I was still in the shower with poor sopping Cari by my side. Cari told her I was active and vocalizing well, so she asked me to get out so she could check me.  Part of me thrilled at the idea and part of me cowered, but I went. It was painful, and I remember moaning loudly, staring into my husband’s face.  The Earth shattering news that I was only two to three centimeters dilated quickly replaced the pain. It hit me like a blow to the gut. 

My doula had to tell me later that what she said was two to three centimeters, because my memory was only that she had said two.  That was the number I was clinging to desperately. She did this Klingon-like motion with her fingers to show me how big that was and my stomach nearly turned over at the sight.  I was crushed and her seeming annoyance at being right did nothing to make me feel better. 

I couldn’t understand how I could have been in so much pain for so long, with contractions so close together and only have reached 2cm.  I had been sure I would be at least at a 5 and the news knocked the wind out of me.  At this point, I cried. I wasn’t bawling, but I felt a few tears stream down my face as I tried to focus on the midwife’s assistant’s face.  All I could think was that it had taken me at hours of intense pain to get those 2 centimeters and I still had 8 more to go before finishing. 

I couldn’t fathom how I would go on for that long.  All of my knowledge about how the first 4 cm’s are the hardest and longest was gone from me.  To me each centimeter was going to take just as long, and be just as awful as the 2 I already had, or worse. I heard my voice repeating, “I don’t know if I can do this.  I don’t know if I can do this.“ I searched the faces in the room for understanding, but I saw only annoyance in my midwife and her assistant. I was told once again I needed to rest and was left alone in the bedroom with my husband. 

I shut up, feeling now like a weakling and a failure.  How could all of these other women do this and describe it so beautifully and never loose hope?  What was wrong with me?  I tried to rest, I even succeeded a few times, glimpsing sleep for a minute or two before waking up at the peak of a rush with no way out.  I tried to remain calm and listen to my body. I focused on each limb and asked it how it wanted to be moved, not daring to take on my whole body at once. I made the in and out movement of my breath my whole world, each rush a wave to be ridden, and I still felt everything.

I heard voices from the other room and began straining to hear. Even in labor, I was being nosey. I heard Cari ask if she should (or could) come in to see me, but it’s what I heard next that shattered any confidence I may have had. My midwife who had only been with me through a handful of contractions, most of which were with her hand inside me causing me more extreme pain, angrily retaliated, “This is just ridiculous, I’m not going to coddle her through every contraction!” 

John started talking to me, pulling me back to lie down and I wanted to hit him. I wanted to hear what else was being said, but he had heard it, too, and was trying to distract me. I angrily pulled away, but by the time I got him to shut up they were quiet. So that was it, I was failing. I was weak and I was a bad birther. I was suddenly flooded with memories of my midwife and her assistant telling me about other women whose births they had just attended. Some they would describe as beautiful, but others they would roll their eyes at and even laugh while telling me about the noises they made, or the way they acted. 

I hadn’t liked it at the time, but it was near the end of my pregnancy and I still really liked my midwife, and I had always assumed she was telling me these stories as a peer, being a doula.  Now I wondered what mean things they would say about me and what a bad birther I was, too. Would they call me a crybaby? Complainer? Drama queen? And of course the two words that would now haunt the rest of my labor: Weak and Failure.

I was mad now, but not at the right people. I was mad at myself. I had tried so, so hard not to be a complainer. I didn’t want to speak negatively about my birth because I wanted to remember it in a positive way.  I thought I had been controlling myself well. I thought I was coping the way I had seen other women cope, but now I felt less-than, and I was mad at myself for it. 

I got back into the shower, not knowing what else I could possibly do in my situation. I decided to try a visualization we were taught in Hypnobabies to help us work with the pain to open for the baby, but when I tried to focus on my uterus or where the pain was coming from during a contraction I would get lost. The pain didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere near my belly, it was everywhere. The only way I can describe it is like trying to focus on the part of your body that has water on it while getting thrown around under a wave searching for the surface; it was everywhere and it was all encompassing.  Pain became the force singing through every cell of my body.  The pinnacle, if anywhere, was not my uterus; it was radiating from my back.

The midwife said she was going to set the tub up in my living room, so I had to get out of the shower.  At this point modesty was not a concern of mine, so I stood, leaning my head against the towel rod while Cari sat on the toilet and put pressure on my lower back.  Something about the angle was pure perfection.  I could still feel the rushes, and they were still intense, but they were manageable. This I could do. When I told Cari how much better things were this way she told me she thought I was having back labor. My thinking brain turned on again momentarily and everything made sense. I wasn’t as weak as I thought, I was having back labor! These contractions, these manageable, not-so-bad ones were what most women felt and what I had been feeling before was what women described as hell. This made me feel strong again and it restored some of my faith in my body. I was even able to joke with Cari and promised not to leak anything on her while she rubbed by back. 

I continued vocalizing on a lower scale until the midwife came in to say the tub was done. I mustered a smile and told her I would go in the tub when I needed it, but I was very happy leaning against the wall. She looked irritated again and my smile faltered.  “What do you mean they feel better?”  I told her it was back labor and Cari was making it bearable for me. Something in her face made me think this was the wrong answer.  “If you were really in that much pain in the first place then nothing would be helping you.” I spent my next contraction visualizing bouncing her face off the door jam and momentarily wondered if labor counted for a temporary insanity plea. I then relinquished myself to try out the living room. 

The birth ball helped for a few contractions, but there were knives in my back and my nerves were pulled taut so it wasn’t enough. At some point I was checked again and found to be at 4 or 5 cm.  I have no memory of this check, but it convinced her I was really in labor so I was allowed to go into the tub. John came in and sat behind me. He rubbed my back for a while and the water helped.

It wasn’t the ‘natural epidural’ so many women had praised it as being, but it was help. I tried to get up to go to the bathroom and was told I didn’t really have to go and that it was just the baby’s head.  I remember saying, “I don’t care, I don’t want to poop in my tub.”  I remember being in the bathroom briefly but am told I was actually in there for a very long time. Every few minutes I would come to the door, open it, shut it, and disappear again. 

I remember doing this twice because I would think I was ready to go back to the tub, but as soon as a new rush would come I would sit back down. Eventually I called out that I felt sick and someone brought a bag for me to puke. I didn‘t need it right away, but took it with me back to the living room. I tried leaning on hands and knees over the birth ball again. The rushes seemed to be coming so quickly they were colliding into each other. 

Cari had been rubbing my shoulders and encouraging me when I looked up at her with tears in my eyes and said, “I don’t know if I can do this. This is so awful I don’t know if I can take transition.” There was a faint smile when she told me, “I think you are.”  The thought was amazing to me. I got back into the tub and was finally able to rest between rushes while leaning against John. 

Every once in a while a rush would be so intense that it would make me call out for my puke bag and every time the midwife would ask me if I had ever been abused. All my knowledge of birth was gone at this point, so I couldn’t understand why she was asking and I was annoyed at her for it.  She also kept asking if I was sure my water had broke earlier, even though I had told her what color the strip had been.

There was a blessed relief as things began to slow down slightly and my contractions spaced out a bit. This seemed to just annoy my midwife further and she began making me panic that I was somehow failing again. I was again asked to leave my comfort zone and go get checked. This check brought the very unexpected and welcome news that I was dilated fully to 10 centimeters. I found a sudden rush of energy with this news and dared to smile again. I was told there was a slight cervical lip, but it was okay to push. I didn’t have the urge at the time, and not pushing before my body told me to had been something we discussed at my prenatal appointments, but I had been awake for 24 hours now, my thinking brain was MIA, and I wanted this to be over, so I began to push.  This is when things began to go wrong.

Story will continue in a second post due to length.
At the point of not wanting to push


  1. Oh how dreadful. I'm not looking forward to reading the rest of the story because I know I will become even more angry! Amber, I'm so sorry you went through this!

  2. I'm so sorry for you. I also had a homebirth midwife who was impatient and coached me to push when I wasn't feeling the urge to bear down. She was even telling me to push in between contractions- she couldn't tell when I was having one or not! Eagerly awaiting follow up post to hear the rest of the story! It's difficult but even not so great home birth stories need to be shared. Thank you!

  3. Oh man. I am so sorry this happened to you. Let me grab my Kleenex for part 2.

  4. Andrea von SchoeningMay 10, 2011 at 6:39 PM

    Amber, I am so sad that you had such an unsupportive midwife! I am shocked at how she undermined you - unbelievable! I'm not sure why someone with those attitudes would be a midwife in the first place. I am dreading the second installment of your birth story ... about what goes downhill from here. You are clearly a strong and wise woman - you were not well-supported by your midwife, though. Thank goodness you had your doula and your partner. Hugs!

  5. The blessed relief....contractions slow down=baby is about to start really rotating. Longer contractions spaced farther apart is the norm when that happend and the lip won't clear until that part is done. Vaginal exams really mess with mommas minds. Sleep deprivation really messes with midwives minds. So sorry things went awry and you didn't get all you had expectd from this experience, though I suspect that you had the rough one to bring out the advocate in you so you can help better birth for others. Had two rough ones myself, but your dream birth will come, momma. Keeping you in my prayers.

  6. chills all over. i also had a shitty experience with a cold, bitchy midwife at my homebirth turned c section. ugh... sorry...