It was such an honor to be doula to Matt, Megan, and Baby Atticus. It was humbling to see a husband and wife so dedicated to one another and to their baby. The endurance and struggle Megan went thru, to try and provide her baby the birth she felt was best, was immense. It was inspiring to be witness to her coping - to see her roaring her way thru labor humming and moaning, rocking and swaying side-to-side, back-n-forth on the bed, in the tub, in the shower- allowing herself to surrender to the power of birth. I will never forget the heartbreaking look on Megan's face when she was told she will need to have surgery. I know the end result is a million miles away from where they thought and hoped it would be, but personally I will never forget being amongst a circle of women in the presence of an incredibly powerful lioness who thundered her way thru every surge, and her devoted husband who provided incredible support, focus, assuring words, gentle touches, and constant devotion and attention. Megan, thank you for sharing your experience of challenge, healing, and love.
"Whatever birth you end up with or choose, becoming a mother is a strong and brave act – it’s the beginning of the selfless gift of unconditional love you give to your baby. " - Megan
By Megan Stark
I’ve been a doula since 2012, trained in both birth and postpartum support and I am obsessed with birth.
But let me start at the very beginning.
When I was born, I was diagnosed with pulmonic stenosis, which for me was a condition that required immediate emergency surgery. I was whisked away to NYC to have open chest surgery, which as a new mom, I can’t even wrap my head around how incredibly terrifying this must have been for my parents. I healed well, and became an avid rock climber in my teens. After college I completed an internship in Boston, and while there I suffered from a TIA (stroke). This alerted my cardiologist that perhaps something else was going on with my heart. She discovered a hole in my heart – which is a far more common condition than my pulmonic stenosis. After my internship I moved to the New River Gorge in WV with my future husband. I wanted to learn more about the hole in my heart and how it might affect future pregnancies, but the health insurance laws prevented me from obtaining health insurance for some time (pre-existing condition clause). Once I did obtain insurance, I had to wait a whole year to be seen by a specialist for my heart (again the pre-existing condition clause which has now been ruled illegal by the new health insurance laws). Finally – in 2010, I was able to learn more details about the hole in my heart and what it might mean to pregnancy and birth. I was told that the hole was of such a size that pregnancy would be dangerous – and so began my journey toward providing a provider that could close the hole without another open chest surgery.
My husband and I moved back to my home state of NJ, and in 2011 I had the ¾ in. hole in my heart closed via a cardiac catheter procedure. The most amazing thing happened after my procedure – I no longer felt like I was suffocating when I exercised! I had never quite realized I felt his way, since I never knew any differently.
In the summer of 2012 I finally got pregnant, we were excited and elated, and shared our news with my family in one of those adorable Pinterest worthy ways. At seven weeks we lost that pregnancy, and I was devastated. Miscarriage is a cruel and sad event, and one so many people experience but it is so commonly written off, ignored and covered up. If you have experienced a miscarriage (nearly 30% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage), please know that you are not alone, and if you are struggling with this loss seek support from your friends, family or a professional. It is a true and profound loss, and you are absolutely allowed to mourn that loss.
As I said, I was devastated. So I decided to re-focus my attention, and began my doula training in 2013. Training to become a doula was this incredibly intense and powerful experience – just like birth! I loved attending births, and was feeling positive and excited about becoming pregnant again. In the summer of 2013 I achieved that goal, and gun shy this time, told our family in the quietest way possible. This time, I was sick – soooo sick. I was bloated and hormonal, and miserable and scared. I was terrified we would lose this pregnancy, and wanted to keep it as quiet as possible. At 12 weeks we went for our ultrasound.
There was no baby.
Our pregnancy was a “complete molar pregnancy” and my sickness was related to my out of control pregnancy hormones. I lost my mind. As a doula, I knew about these types of pregnancies, but they are rare, and having made it to 12 weeks, I was so hopeful that this pregnancy would stick. A molar pregnancy is dangerous, so a D&C is necessary and follow up blood tests are required. Women who have suffered from a molar pregnancy must also hold off on trying to get pregnant again for some time. This is to be sure that if the pregnancy hormones go up again, that Doctors can be sure it is not from pregnancy and instead from the molar pregnancy. (While rare, molar pregnancies can turn into a form of cancer, so the blood tests monitor that the hormones are going down and not up.) Here's the link for support group I found: FB.com/groups/mymolarpregnancy/
Another year passed and we finally decided to try again, one last time.
And this time it worked. We were due in April 2015, and I had one of the most amazing pregnancies. I wasn’t sick, I felt great and I was so hopeful! I also began working from my doula trainer, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, and was greatly immersed in all things birth and babies. It was such an amazing time! I was one of the most over prepared mamas-to-be you could imagine. I hired my doula co-worker and friend Rachel Connolly-Kwock as my doula, prepped my husband with too much information, took Debra’s new childbirth class, “Pain to Power”, and found an awesome midwifery group “The Midwives of New Jersey” which have an incredible water birth record. I wanted providers that I knew I could trust. As a birth doula, I had heard and saw so many women who felt coerced or disrespected in their births, and I wanted to avoid questioning my providers motivations, after everything I’d been through, I needed to know that they too wanted to avoid a cesarean as much as possible.
I planned a natural, intervention free water birth and wanted to labor as home as long as possible with my doula and husband. When I went into labor early Saturday morning, I was sleeping on the couch (at 41 weeks, while still quite comfortable, I was having some trouble sleeping). I worked through the surges on my own for a couple of hours, but was suffering from (what I later realized was) really intense back labor, decided to wake my husband for more support. At 9am things were progressing so quickly, we decided to call our doula. Let me say, that when your doula shows up, there is an incredible feeling of relief knowing you now have the professional, knowledgeable, kind and understanding support of a trained doula by your side to support you and your birth partner. We labored at home until after noon that day, and then made a plan to meet up with my lovely midwife Chrisy at their office. The office was closed that day, so it was particularly peaceful to labor with my support team. I was encouraged by my midwife to hydrate, take some honey, and eat as we knew labor could still be quite a while. We decided to check my dilation and I was just about 6cm. After a couple of hours we decided to move to the hospital, as I was desperate to get into the tub!
I labored in the shower and the tub for hours, but I was not progressing. My contractions were not coming at a steady clip, my back was killing me, and I was becoming discouraged. My doula, husband, 2 midwives and midwife assistant were incredibly encouraging and supportive. We agreed that breaking my waters might help my contractions to become steadier, assisting me in progressing. At this point I was still only 6cm, nothing had changed.
Hours later, I was done. I mean done. I asked for an epidural, something I swore I would never do. My lovely midwives distracted me, suggesting we instead try a very tiny amount of Pitocin, to see if we could get things going. I did not want this, but was feeling exhausted beyond anything I had ever felt before. I knew if my midwives were suggesting it, they felt it was likely needed. The goal was a vaginal birth above all else, and I knew that I would not be able to go on like this forever. Along with the Pitocin, I agreed to another drug that would allow me to rest between contractions. A couple of hours later, I roared awake during an intense surge. I was DONE- and this time I meant it! We decided to check my dilation again, and I was fully dilated. After some time, the midwife asked if I wanted to push. I had absolutely no urge to do so, which I thought was odd. But, ready for baby to arrive, I got to it! I pushed in every position you could think of. On my bed legs up, legs down, on all fours, standing, squatting, up, down and practically inside out! I was falling asleep between surges, completely worn out – my strong and amazing husband was literally holding my sleeping body up. Two hours later there was no progress, the baby’s heart rate was decelerating, there was meconium present and I was making no progress. The backup OBGYN was called in, and I was told that a cesarean was now on the table. My wonderful midwives knew how much I did not want this. They gave me the time and space to consider my options. I knew when my midwife Cindy told me that it would be safe to try a little longer, but that she really felt that nothing was going to change, that she meant it from her heart.
Sometimes births take a turn from what we anticipated. When a woman has a cesarean, she often feels she has failed herself and her support team. This is so sad but the reality is that we end up needing to ask for self-forgiveness. For a mother, who dreams of natural birth, to be told that your dreams have been dashed is heartbreaking on so many levels... You wanted the experience for you and your baby, you wanted to know that experience other women speak of- of birthing your baby and holding them skin-to-skin, a moment when all time stands still. You are scared and don't want surgery. You are aware of the benefits of natural birth from reading studies that show the hormones released during the birthing phase may be critical to emotional development, the shaping and molding of the cranium can ignite cranial-sacral balance, the baby being exposed to microbiomes can provide a lifetime of strong gut health and improved immune system. It is not to say some of the health benefits of natural birth can not be nurtured over time in a surgically born baby, but when you are told you are going to have a cesarean these are just some of the thoughts that flood your mind.... and it is devastating. Most prominent and most upsetting is the sudden lack of control - you were in control of your body (sort of, right - as much as we can be birthing a baby) and you were looking forward to responding to your body and baby's needs as the birth process progressed, but then all of a sudden your body, your baby, your birth, became my body, my baby, their birth.
Defeated and exhausted, I apologized to my husband for not being able to do it, and agreed to the cesarean section. My husband of course thought that was silly, he was so proud of me for what I had accomplished - but at the time I felt like a lemon. My dream of my intervention free water birth had been lost earlier that evening, and now my vaginal birth was gone too. As I was rolled into the OR, I was mentally numb. The surgery is quick, bright, intense and bizarre. All around you are strangers, your partner isn’t allowed in the room for the prep, your doula isn’t allowed in at all, and after all those hours of intensity, your body is numb. I feel so lucky that my midwife Chrisy was in the room during the prep, which for me was the scariest part. She held my hand, talked to me, and kept me company as I prepared for the birth of my baby. Finally, my husband was ushered in, and what felt like seconds later, my baby was born. A quick flash of the baby over the curtain, screaming and purple and my husband was rushed over to the baby. He was able to bring the baby to me for a quick kiss before the two of them were taken to the nursery. Another dream, of immediate skin to skin time and delayed cord clamping was taken away.
Birth via cesarean in an amazingly quick process, but the closing up is tedious and lengthy. Without my baby or husband there, it was sad and lonely. Again my midwife’s presence was so comforting. She continued to hold my hand, chat when I needed to, and let me know what was happening when I asked. Everyone in the OR is concerned about your body, but my midwife was there for my emotional support, and I am so grateful for that, in a way I will never be able to express fully with words.
Finally, finally, I was rolled to recovery, and sometime thereafter reunited with my husband. This time when I saw my baby I was able to hold him and kiss him. He nursed immediately, was so tiny, beautiful and perfectly healthy. So much love was in the room as I was surrounded by my doula Rachel, midwives Cindy and Chrisy, and midwife assistant, Ashley. Everyone was exhausted, and the outcome was not what anyone had wanted or predicted. The OBGYN confirmed that the baby was OP, which confirmed what all had suspected and explained my back labor, lack of progress, and the fact that I never felt an urge to push. OP babies can be born vaginally, but Gail Tully of Spinning Babies explains that OP babies are unpredictable – some can be born vaginally “sunny side up”, some turn during labor and some get stuck and need to be born by cesarean.
So now, I heal. I forgive myself for not having a vaginal birth. I come to terms with my cesarean scar. I trust that my providers did all they could for my “dream birth.” I learn to not obsess about the health implications for a cesarean baby. I talk about my birth and my disappointment. And I nurse, like crazy, because I need a victory, I need to know that my body isn’t lemon, because it isn’t. Birth is unpredictable, cesareans can be necessary, and moms are strong. Whatever birth you end up with or choose, becoming a mother is a strong and brave act – it’s the beginning of the selfless gift of unconditional love you give to your baby.
I want to thank my midwives:
Cindy – for her wisdom and experience and because I knew I could trust that she had the same goals for my birth as me.
Chrisy – for her kindness, warmth, and comfort when I needed it most.
Ashley – the midwife assistant, for her beautiful photography and the way she told me I was strong when I needed to hear it most.
Rachel – my doula, for always knowing what I needed when I needed it, for supporting my birth wishes, my husband, and for taking care of me, even now as I heal.
To Matt – my rock, my strength. For literally and figuratively holding me up when I needed it most.
Photo Credits: Midwives of NJ & Matt & Megan Stark