- Sarah Landry
There are NO UNICORNS in my birth story.
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
“Why did you become a childbirth educator?” I get asked this question often enough, and I’ve answered it to varying degrees and depths depending on the situation. But I want to get into it a bit deeper here, where I have the space and time, because it was a process. In 2014 I had a lovely, uneventful pregnancy. You know, the kind you feel guilty talking about with other mothers because there’s nothing horrible to commiserate and bond over. Unicorn pregnancy. Don’t hate me. But that’s got nothing to do with why I started shifting careers 7 years into being a teacher. The reason, in all honesty, was my first birth experience. It was not a unicorn birth. Nor was it awful or “textbook traumatic” (more on that later), but it was severely uninformed, every. step. of the way. To set the stage, during this magical pregnancy, there was no thorough childbirth education course for me to take locally. I looked. I did the basic hospital tour and breastfeeding workshop, and a free 4-week Powerpoint-centred group run by a non-practicing doctor. I learned just enough to discover how very little I knew. When I’m in those situations, I shut down. I’m either all in or checked out. When I felt the overwhelm of only getting snippets of greater information from those sessions, when I knew I couldn’t possibly learn it all—I threw in the towel and decided to go into my birth “with an open mind.” No birth plan, no expectations, and… no solid information. I wasn’t even really nervous—a forced passivity—which I suppose was for the best? I knew that once I’d let my mind go to that place of “what will be will be,” there I would stay. Safe. Cocooned. Unaware of anything negative outside my bubble. But let me share a little secret: Birth is not the place to take quotes and mantras for their inaugural spin. First, you need a foundation. A GOOD foundation with evidence-based information, and a knowledgeable guide. Maybe I’m biased, but I also have first-hand experience on what can happen when you don’t have that important baseline. Once you’re educated, then you can go in with an open mind and your affirmations (if that’s your jam), because you actually understand what may/may not happen. You’ve mentally prepared for various possible detours and contingencies. You accept that you cannot control birth fully, but you have coping tools. My laissez-faire mentality coupled with my lack of knowledge made me spin out of control once my birth started taking a bumpier path. I had no idea what I was in for, and I had no idea how to advocate for myself or ask questions. I didn’t even know I had a say—I thought the doctors were always in the driver’s seat. Why on EARTH would I question their judgement and expertise? So what went wrong? Honestly, I’ve numbed some of the memories purposely. The timeline of my labour is very hazy. There’s residual trauma, though everything turned out “all right” in the end, by medical standards. Here it goes. I was due on December 20th, and once I didn’t go into labour “early” or even “on time,” I wanted to be overdue to avoid spending Christmas giving birth or recovering in a hospital. I ended up needing an induction on December 29th. I didn’t push for a later date or question it. I could have, but how could I have known to? I was induced with the gel at 9:30am, and after the mandated waiting period was told to walk around the hospital. No problem. I don’t remember the clock, but I remember the feelings. Twinges. Cramps. More cramps. More walking. More stopping. Some cervical checks. It was all going well, I think? Then my doctor came in at some point and said I was 3cm dilated. Then she said, “I’m going to break your water.” It was not a question. I didn’t know it should be. Again, I didn’t question it, so I lay no blame. That’s when it all went south, though. That’s when I wish I’d known about informed decision-making. Informed-consent. Informed-choices. Up until then I had been coping fine, with my limited knowledge. The contractions following the amniotomy were shockingly painful, and I was NOT prepared—physically, emotionally, or intellectually. The doctor came back, seemed satisfied with my “progress,” but obviously saw my distress and said, “If you want the epidural, it has to be ordered now. The anesthesiologist will be gone home in 45 minutes.” Well when you phrase it like that—an ultimatum—what choice do you really have? I said yes. Without hesitation. Without being asked or educated. I knew nothing about the risks of an epidural. NOTHING. That's the problem. I was never told about the other options, or about comfort measures and coping strategies to try first while I waited, or instead. But I never asked, either. Waiting for that needle was excruciating. Holding still during a contraction while a needle is being injected into your spine is excruciating. That epidural melted away the pain, and with it dissolved any shred of autonomy I had left. It also kept me in bed not moving and meant I was constantly monitored. Things progressed as usual, I suppose. I’d really love to go back and watch a replay of it all with my new perspective. To be a fly on the wall. As I was nearing time to push—transition (though it all felt the same to me)—the kind OB who did the induction came to say goodbye and good luck. He came in and had a glance at the fetal monitor. Then he took off his coat and sat down. He didn’t worry me right away, but he was done his shift and evidently didn’t like what he saw enough to stay. My doctor came in as I was ready to push, and during the next [insert unknown period of time], they watched the monitor, discussed progress and the quickly-dropping heart rate, going to the OR (I forget who made that suggestion, but the other said to wait a bit longer), swiftly did an episiotomy and got out the vacuum, then my daughter entered the world. My husband and mother were there to soak it all in as well. I had a beautiful, healthy daughter about 10 hours after the induction. That was all that mattered. That’s what I was told, anyway. It didn’t sit well with me even then, but I felt guilty for feeling anything other than pure elation, I know that much. It took me a long time to look back on that experience as a subtle form of trauma—long after BOTH my very different birth experiences. Yes, there are far more “traumatic” births by physical or textbook description, but a birth is traumatic only as defined by the birther. Let that sink in. I had to, and still struggle with it. You cannot rate trauma on a scale, because it’s deeply personal. If ALL of those same events had happened during my second birth, but I’d been informed and had choices, it likely would not have been “traumatic” to me. But I don’t want to dwell on that part, because this has a happy ending—and an answer to the original question. I took my trauma and I turned it into empowerment. I can’t regret my birth experience because it set me on this altered path. A year after my daughter’s birth, in early 2016, I saw that an old friend was training to be a birth doula. I messaged her about it on a bit of a whim because I was curious. I didn’t know much about doulas or how to become one, or if I even wanted to become one, but it sparked something in me. I started to process my own birth and wondered what my experience would have been like with a doula by my side? What if I’d been properly educated and informed before my baby arrived (and during)? I 100% believe it would have made a difference. Maybe not in the physical outcome since no one can say for sure, but certainly in how I felt about my birth experience. Without a hint of doubt. It could have been empowering—epidural, episiotomy and all. So, I looked into what it took to become a birth doula, found a full training program in Halifax in just a few months through DONA (Doulas of North America), and said, "Why the heck not?" It was a first step into a new world. After my 3-day training, my trainer-mentor told me her first childbirth education training series through Lamaze was coming up the next month. That was a thing? It felt like fate. I’d been a teacher since 2009, was not happy in that profession in the traditional sense (I loved teaching—just not the school system). I’d been dragging my feet about going back to subbing now that mat leave was over. This felt like a crack in the window of a smoky room, and I jumped out without considering the height. It felt like the way forward to not just my own healing journey, but to turning what I’d experienced into something positive—something that could impact the community. I knew my story couldn’t be solitary or unique. I had looked for education, craved information, and it was not there for me in the way I needed. It was not packaged for people like me. Others must have felt the same, I just knew. I had to become what I’d needed and fill an obvious gap in the system. While there is still a long way to go in filling that hole, every stone counts. Your birth experience counts. Your foundation counts. It ALL adds up. There are so many I have yet to reach, but the small few I have make me feel that this work matters, at the grassroots level, every day. I still believe I was born to teach, and my degrees were not wasted. I’d just always assumed it would be in a classroom teaching French to teenagers, as I’d planned to do since I was a teenager myself. But life, like birth, is predictably unpredictable. Life had bigger plans for me than I ever did. Let's rewind: “Why did you become a childbirth educator?” To heal a wound I didn’t know I had, and a hope that it could make a difference. [I will share what my second birth experience (AFTER I was certified) was like next time, here in Part II.]