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Mara’s Prodromal Labor Story
A week before my third baby was born, I learned a new term: prodromal labor.
I started noticing regular if mild contractions around 12 pm that day. Around 3, we started prepping for labor. By 6, contractions had been about 6 minutes apart for hours, but they still weren’t very strong. By 9 pm, they decreased and then stopped altogether. After 9 hours of contractions, the show was over.
Apparently, this is not uncommon for third-time mothers and beyond. But it was certainly new to me.
I felt a mixture of relief and frustration: I was relieved that I would not be laboring on into the night, welcoming our baby already exhausted and sleep-deprived; but I was frustrated that we had just spent all that time timing contractions and setting up the space for our home birth (after having our second baby at home accidentally last time!) and, most importantly, preparing mentally and emotionally for the whirlwind that is childbirth.
All that stress and adrenaline and planning for nothing!
But there was another layer of frustration too. During those nine hours of prodromal labor (real contractions that are regular but that start and then stop, not leading to delivery), we were in a state of constant uncertainty: was this really labor? should we call the midwife? when would things pick up? should I rest or try to stay active to encourage the contractions?
We didn’t want to be too casual about it, because we had learned with the second baby that my labor pattern was not typical: I had moved from having mild contractions for several hours into transition and to baby on the floor of the bathroom in just over an hour. When your baby arrives before the midwife (and you were not planning a home birth in the first place!), you tend to want to take steps to avoid that happening again. This time, with it being my third, we expected labor to be even faster.
So when things weren’t picking up, hour after hour, I began to feel embarrassed, like it was somehow my fault that things weren’t progressing. My husband and doula were sitting around waiting on me, not to mention all the people I had texted to say I was in labor, preparing them to help with our other kids or whatever else would come up. I felt like I was letting them down or had misled them, and there was ABSOLUTELY NOTHING I COULD DO about it.
I couldn’t make the contractions stronger, nor could I made them stop. Nor could I tell with any even remote degree of confidence what was actually going on with my body. I felt a kind of performance anxiety, but I was only a spectator myself, waiting along with everyone else to see what my body and baby would do.
The contractions weren’t particularly painful, so on the surface, there was nothing all that terrible about what was going on. But emotionally, it was miserable. The uncertainty. The lack of control. The excitement and fear and confusion and embarrassment all going round and round in my head and heart.
At some point, when things were still not progressing, a friend texted me some very helpful words: “Don’t try to control or even understand the process. Submit to it. Praying. And knowing that you were made for this.”
As an over-thinker, trying not to understand something is about as foreign as it gets, but that’s what I had to do. I couldn’t make sense of it, and the more I tried, the worse I felt. So I stopped timing, and I stopped thinking about what I should or should not do (or at least I tried to). I tried to humble myself and just let whatever was happening happen.
And an hour later, the contractions stopped.
Reflecting on the experience, it struck me how much this represents our lives all the time, if we would only stop to admit it. Though we like to pretend otherwise, we are not omniscient, and we are not omnipotent. Rather, we see only the narrowest strip of reality—and that dimly—and control only the most elementary aspects of our lives.
Labor—the great mystery and miracle of the female body pushing a new life into the wide world—serves to magnify that reality. It is a profound sense of powerlessness when your body is engaged in an all-consuming, gut wrenching effort to accomplish something you cannot even begin to control. You are helpless, and worse, you often don’t even know what’s happening.
Labor—like life—requires that we accept our fate with calm humility. We are not in control. We cannot see what’s coming. All we can do is make the best decisions we can with the limited information we have and trust the process. Submit. Let go. And wait.
Actual Labor: At Home & Water Positive Birth Story
When real labor started one evening a week later, I was glad that we had gone through that dress rehearsal. The contractions—uncomfortable but not really painful—held steady at four minutes apart. We called our doula and got the tub set up.
When the midwife arrived after about three hours, she looked askance at me as I breathed through a contraction, then told me that these were not what she would consider “real” contractions yet. But I was four centimeters dilated, and they stretched me to five.
And then we waited. Normally, this would have been the time for us all to try to get some rest, but my labors had been so abnormal and progressed so quickly before that we knew not to expect a typical pattern. The last thing we wanted was to have the baby born without the midwife present again. So everyone hung out while I worked through several more contractions.
By 11 pm, I wondered aloud if the baby would be born that day or the next, and the midwife said, “Well, you sure don’t look like a woman who’s going to have a baby in the next hour.” For a moment, I felt like I was right back where I had been a week before: everyone sitting around waiting for me to get my act together, wondering if they should go take a nap or maybe just go home for a while. That small, tight feeling began to squeeze my chest again, but this time, I wasn’t taken off guard.
Looking around at all the expectant yet bored faces, I took a breath and centered myself. I led my husband out on onto our porch, and we stood side by side as I gripped the railing through another contraction, our alone togetherness soothing my soul. The next contraction was stronger. And the next made me feel queasy. This, I knew, was a sign that things were getting serious.
At 12:01, my baby slipped out into the warm water of the birthing tub. The last thirty minutes had been intense, and I was so very glad it was over. I was also glad that, after two unpredictable and very-different-than-planned deliveries, I had finally made it into the tub, that the midwife had been by my side to whisper encouragement and guidance, that this new life had come into the world in a quiet, calm room where we were all ready to welcome her.
I was no more in control of that labor than I had been of either of the others, but this time I had at least expected the feelings of blindness and powerlessness that had threatened to overwhelm me. And instead of fearing them, this time I was able to accept them. I didn’t have to understand what was happening, much less be able to predict it. All I had to do was surrender to the process and take each moment as it came, no more and no less.
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