My Baby's Birth Was A ~Trip~, Thanks to Nitrous Oxide

Before my second baby was born, I never understood how anyone would call the day she gave birth the best of her life. I just couldn't reconcile good times with a day spent in a medical facility with strangers gauging my cervical dilation. I’d rate the birth of Lake, 2, my first baby, as fair-to-good. I didn’t sustain any chronic injuries or grave trauma, but it doesn’t hold a candle to my wedding day, or honeymoon, or 13 consecutive last-days-of-school, or really any sunny day in which I was able to take a walk. I got to meet my sweet girl, but that was the distinct highlight in a day of no rest and a single, very low-quality dining experience.

We expect so little from our births. I wasn’t asking for much approaching my second birth, just for neither of us to be injured, or that the injuries wouldn’t be too bad. The plan was simple: “Whatever! Let us both survive!”

Little did I know that my second delivery would send me on an extraordinary high. Have you heard about nitrous oxide? You need to.

My hopes for a low-intervention water birth for my first child, Lake, were dashed late in that pregnancy, when I risked out of the birthing center with symptoms of preeclampsia. Lake’s induction took 50 hours from start to finish, and although I now consider it a relatively good birth — safe, and with the support of my husband and a skilled and compassionate doula — it still left me feeling ragged and overwhelmed. I began my career in motherhood issuing blanket apologies for things completely outside my control, and fretting over minor missteps made while experiencing red frowny-face level pain.

Although I had plenty of supportive and experienced mothers around me — many of whom had weathered so much worse, by the way — the aching vulnerability kept me from feeling that freewheeling newborn joy for months.

I approached my second daughter’s birth with none of that naive optimism about pulling off a Plan A birth, but with determination to try for better. And I got it.

Courtesy of Lisa Daly Steffey

The pregnancy had been fairly mundane, though with some challenges. The outcome of the election was an enormous dark cloud hanging over my entire pregnancy. We cancelled a vacation to the Caribbean, then suffered a brief Zika scare, thanks to a paperwork error. I almost lost my insurance several times just by virtue of being American in 2017. We had to move unexpectedly, in my third trimester, after viewing 27 apartments, having several slip right through our hands, and losing one through blatant discrimination.

I employed every bit of folk wisdom I encountered in the hope it might help me to get the baby out safely. I ate my six dates and replaced my water with raspberry leaf tea. I did potty squats and spinning babies. I walked excessively, to the point of injury. Finally I gave up and moved onto the couch.

Least distressingly, but still to my detriment, the midwifery practice hired a receptionist who was like a sitcom character come to life. Regina* (not her real name) was sassy and inept to a degree so beyond the point of frustration as to be hilarious. She insisted I attend an orientation on the last day of our move, despite having already attended one. She pressed me to schedule appointments on days the center was closed or booked up. She chastised me for being two minutes late to an appointment she had forgotten to save into the system. Her antics and bungling were so beyond expectation that I started to look forward to our interactions. She was both the irritant and the salve.

As I got closer to my due date, I worried about preeclampsia rearing its head again. I borrowed a blood pressure monitor to use at home, took baby aspirin, and snuck urine analysis test strips out of the birthing center to check my protein on the sly. And I employed every bit of folk wisdom I encountered in the hope it might help me to get the baby out safely. I ate my six dates and replaced my water with raspberry leaf tea. I did potty squats and Spinning Babies. I walked excessively, to the point of injury. Finally I gave up and adopted #couchlife, camping out with Lake to binge on Daniel Tiger episodes and buttered Saltines while we waited for baby.

My due date became a moving target. One midwife told me it had been moved up by a week, so we packed our bags and got serious about scheduling sex. After it passed, I learned it had been moved back again. It was creeping up on my birthday, and I did not want to share. I didn’t want the rest of my birthdays to be spent worrying whether I had adequately some beloved other. Selfishly, I wanted it to myself.

Just after midnight at 41 weeks and 3 days pregnant, I was sitting on my couch, posting to an online pregnancy group about how I could take it or leave it at this point. "I feel like this isn't going to happen. It's terrible to say, but I feel not excited and just over it,” I wrote.

In true past-due form, I wanted to say, “We can just be a family of three,” but censored myself superstitiously.

In the time it took to write and rewrite several times for maximum sympathy/ likes/“you’re-doing-a-good-job”s from internet strangers, I was vaguely aware of a running series of contractions. I'd been having them for weeks, but these were different — they were regular. I started timing. By 1:30 p.m., I suspected I was doing the thing. My husband, Dave, contacted our mothers and the doula to let them know things were going down. I called the birthing center. The contractions were eight minutes apart and mild, so I ate what I could, then I went to bed to rest.

Courtesy of Lisa Daly Steffey

By 5 a.m. they were still several minutes apart, but too strong to sleep through. I got up and starting cleaning and baking and doing a bunch of other tasks eminently less urgent than childbirth. I was trying to time contractions, but kept missing them. When I finally had a solid idea of their frequency, they were 3 minutes apart — well past the point I was supposed to have checked in with the birthing center — and I was beginning to panic. I woke Dave while leaving a voicemail for the midwife. We started texting our mothers and our doula, Christina. She suggested a bath to slow things down, then jumped in a cab.

The birthing center finally called back. They were changing shifts, and the midwife I had hoped would attend was coming on. My contractions had slowed considerably, and with everyone on their way, I started to feel more secure.

I ate and rested when I felt like it, and had some rather unromantic baby-evicting sex.

Christina arrived and we sat down to go over our loose plan for the birth. Having her there was a great comfort to both of us. At this point I stopped worrying about managing things for the others, and really shifted my focus to laboring and delivering the baby.

Having people in the house slowed my labor more, and the contractions became irregular. I spent the day walking with Christina, trying to nap in an upright position, to keep the pressure of the baby’s head on my cervix, lest my contractions stall. Christina did acupressure, and I bounced on the birth ball. I ate and rested when I felt like it, and had some rather unromantic baby-evicting sex. We walked around and around our neighborhood, stopping every few minutes to sway through a contraction, and circling back to use the bathroom every 15 minutes.

By 3:30 p.m., the contractions were four minutes apart, and strong.

I knew we’d have to leave soon. I held my toddler for the last time before the baby came. I cuddled her tearfully, then handed her off to her daddy to be put down for her nap.

My mother had arrived to take over with Lake, and we made sure they had everything they would need. We said goodbye and headed to the birthing center at 4:45. The drive was short, but uncomfortable.

We arrived, and had the place to ourselves! Lilly, the midwife, checked me, and I was only dilated to 3 centimeters. I had been dreading having my membranes swept, but after considering the time, I agreed. There were only seven hours to get this baby out before my birthday.

Lilly checked the baby's heart rate, and set an alarm to check again in an hour. She left the three of us alone to order dinner and rest until things picked up. I looked over Seamless for a ridiculous length of time, then decided to take a nap while we waited for our food.

Just before 7 p.m., I settled into a nest of pillows on the couch, but immediately got up for the next contraction. Dave jumped up and pressed my hips together, and there was an audible pop — he had broken my water!

Lilly came in to confirm amniotic fluid. I was very emotional, and she talked to me and comforted me. Her voice is naturally sweet and gentle, and I remember thinking she sounded like a preschool teacher, in a good way.

Dave approached to help with a contraction, and I felt wild... this was when I understood the baby was coming soon.

Then she said it might almost be time to push.

That seemed very optimistic. I asked if I could get in the tub. In my mind, I still expected I would be laboring for hours, but everything started to happen at high speed. My contractions were back to back, and strong. I tried to but could not vomit. Dave opened the blinds thinking I would want sunlight (I thought so, too), then Christina closed them and set up flameless candles to make the room cozy.

Dave approached to help with a contraction, and I felt wild. I begged him not to touch me, or maybe I asked him not to look. I saw Christina give him a familiar look, and this was when I understood the baby was coming soon.

Courtesy of Lisa Daly Steffey

I begged to be let into the tub while it filled, but was told that it wasn’t safe. I waited desperately until it was high enough, pleading and checking in like a child. Finally I was in. The water gave me some relief, but I was wondering how much more I could endure when I remembered the birthing center has nitrous oxide available. Lilly started to prepare it.

Dave was asking if I wanted any music, and I answered, “The chanting!” — referring to the music he’d played during Lake's birth. I hyperventilated through three contractions before Lilly came back with the nitrous. She handed me a clipboard apologetically, and told me I needed to sign. I kept insisting I had signed already, as if it would be faster to have her check through my file than to just sign the thing again. I was mildly outraged at the injustice of this clipboard. Not at Lilly, who is above reproach even in active labor, but at The Establishment! The Bureaucracy! The Man! I deliberately signed my name wrong in rebellion. Lilly’s preschool voice was not only appreciated at this stage, but essential.

Finally she reached out in slow motion, handing the nitrous oxide inhaler to me. I lunged and snatched the tube away. I was wild and desperate.

I inhaled deeply, and everything stopped.

The room went silent except for the bubbling sound of the tube. I was in a long amorphous room, and my perspective changed, as if I was looking through a camera that was pulling back very fast. The walls were indistinct and bright, buzzing like television static. I thought, "Oh, thank god—I'm alone."

There was someone like a monk or a shaman seated in front of me with his head bent, meditating.

Time slowed down. As I exhaled, I could hear the chanting again, far away, and the room turned splotchy reddish brown, like an impressionist painting of copper and bronze and gold. There was someone like a monk or a shaman seated in front of me with his head bent, meditating. I inhaled again and it switched back to the static/snow room.

I felt such relief and security. I breathed in and out a few times, switching between the two visions, and then I could see both, like two frames of video side by side, still alternating between silence and chanting. I could faintly hear Dave and Christina and Lilly under the chanting. Dave was exclaiming, "This is incredible!” and “This is amazing!” and variations on that theme. He sounded far away, but I could see him when I tried. It was like I was looking from under the water, although I wasn’t.

I thought I heard Christina say that I was doing great, and Lilly was telling me when to push. I heard someone say that the baby's head was out, and Lilly said the next push would be her body.

The chanting/silence continued, and I could feel her arms and legs twisting out of me. It honestly felt like a jumbled mess of hard angles, and it wasn’t comfortable, but I was undisturbed. Lilly lifted the baby out of the water and onto my stomach, Dave got in to help hold her, and the room went back to normal. Christina said that the time of her birth was 7:14 p.m.

I felt overwhelmed by the intensity and pace of what had happened, and could barely hold the baby. I watched myself dip her face below the surface, and made a mental note of how very chill she was about it.

Dave helped steady me and hold the baby’s head above water on my stomach. Lilly and Christina pulled me up to standing, and helped me to the bed, where I sat propped up. I don't remember everything, but there was a lot of activity while Dave and I held each other and the baby, and fawned her. She was exceptional.

Courtesy of Lisa Daly Steffey

An alarm went off, and it was the one Lilly had set an hour before to check the baby's heart rate. We laughed that she was already born! The doorbell rang, and our takeout was there, and the birth assistant arrived soon after. Dave cut the cord. It looked so different from Lake’s.

Lilly said it was time to birth the placenta. I was shaky and spent, and wanted to be finished with birthing things, but she talked me through it. It was really easy, and when it was out, I could see that the placenta was shaped like a heart. Lilly showed it to me and explained how it had been attached and had functioned. I really appreciated her sharing this knowledge of how my body had made this glorious baby, since I likely would not have another opportunity like that.

Lilly and the birth assistant checked me and the baby, while we ate. Our time had been well spent on the dinner order — it was one of the best meals of my life!

Eventually I nursed the baby, then ate more. Dave left to pick up my mom and Lake to come meet the baby. When they arrived, we asked Christina to hold the baby in another room for my mother to meet, while we reunited with our toddler. We had intended to cuddle, but she was not in a sentimental mood, so we chatted about her day, and watched as she tested out all of the various seating options (our toddler is a chair aficionado). Finally we gave up on having our tender moment and presented her with a gift “from baby sister” — a stuffed Elmo toy and a toy baby carrier. Thrilled, she finally agreed to meet the baby. She checked her out and asked questions and mostly just shared her thoughts about her new Elmo toy, then went home again with Grandma.

We filled out the birth certificate—finally committing to her name, Wolf—and Lilly went over newborn care and safety. Then we ate and rested and gushed about the baby some more, and were discharged a little after midnight on my birthday, in high spirits. It was so fast, but such a primal and divine experience.

I went home feeling empowered and brave and WELL. Healed, even.

Courtesy of Lisa Daly Steffey

I’m grateful and incredibly fortunate for the confluence of good health, petite babies, and compassionate, affordable care that made this experience possible. I’ve been hesitant to share this story, knowing that it may be difficult to hear for anyone who is struggling to overcome birth trauma. I wish the reality of a good birth wasn’t so uncommon. While I know the specifics of my experience aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, we all want and deserve and even need to feel supported and empowered no matter how we bring our babies into the world, but these seem like luxuries not afforded so many mothers.

I wish we all could have such empowering births. I want every mother to have more choice and optimal support.

Now, I want to be clear that I don’t take credit for very much of what went right. I can’t attribute my good fortune to raspberry tea or Spinning Babies. I do think I made the best choice for myself in who provided my care. My doula helped me understand my hopes and goals for my pregnancy and the birth, and to find a practice that was most likely to allow me to achieve that.

We found one of the few facilities in NYC that allow water births. Importantly, I was allowed to deliver spontaneously up until 42 weeks, barring complications. And it was one of very few providers offering nitrous oxide. After intense pain with my first delivery, it was great to know I had some option for pain relief, and while I hadn’t intended on using it, I’m grateful it was there. I certainly wasn’t expecting a trip from it — nitrous oxide is not classified as a hallucinogen — but in the throes of an otherwise unmedicated transition, it provided immense comfort.

Courtesy of Lisa Daly Steffey

Most importantly, my midwife Lilly and doula Christina, as well my wonderful partner, Dave, were instrumental in supporting Wolf and I through this birth with great compassion and respect.

I wish we all could have such empowering births. I want every mother to have more choice and optimal support. I’m grateful I was able to be induced with Lake, as it may have saved her life or mine, but given an opportunity to have this other experience, I am so glad I took it.

I can’t say whether that day is the best of my life, but it is in the running.

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