Mental Marathon: A Birth Story

Listening to my sisters and other friends talk about their marathons it’s always struck me how much they sounded like birth stories.  Even the pattern of their race sounded like childbirth: excitement when they got started, how the hard work would start somewhere between miles 6-13, transition at mile 20, and pushing around mile 25. They would cope with mantras, visualization, music, companionship and endure some of the worst pain of their lives. Their physical challenges affected their mental game. And in the end it was all worth it.

I labored with my first two sons without an epidural or pain medicine. John was a textbook, challenging labor and James a short, quick labor. My doula with my first birth described her labor with her third child as “unpredictable,” and that was true for me too.

I was past my due date. Day after day I would have mild contracts toward the end of the day, usually when I finally let myself lay down and rest after spending a number of hours in hardcore nesting. They never progressed into anything substantial and at my 40 week appointment my doctor told me she had scheduled an induction for me the following Friday when I would be 41 weeks. The part of me that had taken Bradley classes knew that I was supposed to fight this and ask that we wait until I went into labor spontaneously, but I really thought I would go into labor before then and, if I hadn’t, I just wanted to have my baby.

Day after day of the following week ticked by and true labor never started. Thursday it seemed apparent I was about to be induced for the first time. I had worked it out with my doctor that I would come in, receive the Group B Strep antibiotics, wait three hours, and then she would break my water. Normally, they give Pitocin along with the GBS drip to get labor going, but she knew that I really didn’t want to use Pitocin in labor if I could avoid it and said she didn’t have any problem waiting until after she broke my water to see if labor would establish itself.

Friday morning my sister-in-law Laura dropped Michael and I off at the hospital at 7:30 before taking John and James to school. The first three hours Michael and I walked the halls. We talked. I read a book. He watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I checked Twitter. I was having 4-5 contractions an hour with lots of downward pressure but they didn’t hurt at all.

This was nothing like my other labors.

At 10:30, Dr. E arrived and checked me. I was at 5cm, 80 percent effaced, which was surprising and encouraging. She broke my water painlessly and I waited for the Big Show to begin.

Two hours went by of more of the same nothing.

Around 12:30, Michael called my sister-in-law to check in on how James’ preschool pick-up went and if she was doing ok. Contractions were starting to pick up at this point though they were barely painful at all. Listening to Michael’s conversation, something shifted and labor started to pick up.

I was pretty quiet during hard contractions. I would visualize myself running up a hard hill toward the end of a really long race and whispered to myself “Up the hill up the hill up the hill.” I was coping well though after a particularly hard contraction I said to Michael rather desperately, “I don’t remember a single reason why I’m supposed to think getting an epidural is a bad idea. Why didn’t I take the time to make a list of all the reasons it’s a bad idea because I can’t think of a single one.” And then I’d get it back together and focus again.

This labor was different too because there were things that really comforted me during previous labor that didn’t work at all during this labor. I didn’t want Michael to talk to me at all. I wanted him to barely touch me; the most helpful things were for him to just hold my hands lightly so I would remember to relax my arms and shoulders during contractions.

I leaned over the birthing ball on the floor for a while, then moved to hands and knees on the bed as I felt transition starting. It was around this time they checked me again and I was a stretchy 7-8cm. Michael was so great about having water ready after every couple of contractions; especially as I got sweatier and more heated during labor. I would fold down into a yoga pose between contractions, then push myself onto my hands and knees during contractions.

I was feeling more clear headed and in control than I usually do during transition. I was voluntarily making my own position changes without having to be coaxed. I would work through a couple of contractions at the squatting bar, and then turn around for a few more on my hands and knees all the while thinking “I’M KICKING LABOR’S ASS.” Then I started feeling a little pushy and just let myself push with the contractions, which was great because, when I would push, I barely felt any pain.

My nurse Chris (whose daughter is in the same kindergarten class as John!) noticed this too and quickly called Dr. E thinking that I was moments away from delivering. She knew about James’ birth and I think was expecting Henry to just fly out when I got to that point. Behind me I could hear them rapidly pulling out the delivery tray, bringing in another nurse and Dr. E getting robed up. Then they checked me and I was still at 7-8cm with a swollen cervical lip from pushing too soon.

Psychologically this was pretty devastating for me and I went from KICKING LABOR’S ASS to it kicking MY ass as I had to breathe through the massive transitional contractions. I went from my whole “Up the hill” visualization and feeling in control, to screaming “WHY??? WHY??? WHY??? WHY???” and between contractions feeling completely lost and saying “I just don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do. How do I make this lip go away????

Labor nurse Chris really stepped up at this point and helped me change positions after each contraction. Finally, she told me she was going to push my cervix back manually during my next contraction with a warning, “You’re probably not going to like this very much.” It was pretty awful but not nearly as bad as feeling like I was going to be stuck in a huge cycle of pain forever.

The delivery group came in a second time and I turned over on my back. This position felt completely wrong. I felt like I should be sitting up more, but couldn’t seem to communicate this in a way that actually resulted in anyone raising the bed. Pushing felt completely unproductive at first. I was glad everyone was mostly quiet while I was pushing except for Dr. E who would tell me when pushing was especially effective.

Pushing was massively painful. For a labor that had largely been relatively manageable, I wasn’t prepared for how painful pushing was. Pushing is usually my favorite part of labor because it’s both something I can actively do while being mostly just about feeling a massive amount of pressure but not burning pain. I had trouble holding my legs back because they instinctually wanted to straighten out to avoid the pain. I was averaging about three pushes per contraction. I was pushing with all of my might, but I felt like I was stuck. They put an oxygen mask on me at one point. Mostly I just felt like I was suffocating. I thought about Into Thin Air when Jon Krakauer talks about using an oxygen mask when making the summit push to the top of Everest and feeling like you were suffocating until you took the mask off, when you really felt like you couldn’t catch your breath.

I found out later Henry’s 14-centimeter head was coming in sideways rather than straight on, and that was probably why it didn’t feel like I was doing anything. The other L&D nurse who was there to assist told me later that night that it’s actually a worse position than the baby being posterior (face up rather than face down). I could hear Dr. E and Chris say something about the head rotating and noticing something when they had checked me earlier. But the take away I got from it was that everything was normal, and labor was back to kicking my ass rather than the other way around.

After one series of pushes, I heard Dr. E say something about the head rotating and then my next series of pushes were more productive. I reached down to see if I could feel Henry’s head crowning because I could feel something like a ring of fire, except this time it felt more like my whole pelvis was a ring of fire. At the end of the next series of pushing, I screamed “IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS” and then in the middle of the next one screamed “I JUST CAN’T DO THIS” out of complete pain and frustration. I heard Chris, Michael and maybe another person start to say, “You can do it” but the voice I heard most clearly was Dr. E not unkindly say matter-of-factly “You don’t have a choice.”

I resigned myself to my pelvis cracking in two and pushed again.

Shortly after this Henry’s head and body were delivered. I looked at his huge body and wondering how he ever managed to squeeze through that end of me. He started crying shrilly and they laid him on my chest. I laid my head back and let the relief of it all wash over me, which is when Michael took this picture.

From October 2011

But the one take two seconds later pretty much sums up the majority of post-birth.

From October 2011

I’m grimacing and you can see my neck straining against the pain of delivering the placenta and having my second degree tear stitched up. I was also shaking uncontrollably. I kept asking for more warmed blankets and the nurses kept piling more and more on top of me. They were doing Henry’s vitals on my chest, but I asked Michael to take him since I was shaking so badly. Henry’s APGARS were 7 and 9, and he seemed much happier once he got into the warmer. I finally stopped shaking after getting a new, warmed hospital gown and my sixth or seventh blanket.


We live only four minutes from our community hospital so Laura brought the John and James to the delivery room shortly after they finished Henry’s newborn procedures and my postpartum ones. Somehow it was like life never really skipped a beat except now there was one more little person in our new family picture.

From October 2011


Filed under beer please, family matters, Minnesota Nice, run white girl run

2 responses to “Mental Marathon: A Birth Story

  1. Rachel

    If it weren’t for my knee being injured, the marathon wouldn’t have hurt at all. It was fun. I could run one every weekend. (If my knee wasn’t broken now…) I’d say giving birth is much much harder! and WAY more painful!

  2. Pingback: 10 Years: Fragments of a Tribute | Marshins

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