Actress and former talk show host Ricki Lake shares her birth experiences in the new book, "Your Best Birth." Written along with Abby Epstein, the book is a guide packed with advice from medical professionals about the different options expecting mothers have. An excerpt.
My pregnancies were miraculous times in my life. I felt special and very beautiful. I was also completely open to other people’s suggestions. There isn’t any other way to explain how a pharmacist’s daughter was attracted to natural childbirth. Honestly, I’m a wimp. I like pain medication. I like my Tylenol with codeine for a headache. I like a sleeping pill once in a while too.
Yet when I was pregnant with my first child, I talked to a friend of mine, a woman who never had so much as an aspirin during labor, and what she said sounded good to me. Being pregnant isn’t being sick. So it made sense that, as a healthy twenty-seven-year old woman, I wouldn’t need to be medicated to bring my baby into the world. The point was, as she described it, to feel everything. Feel everything? Most of us expend a lot of energy trying not to feel. No, she said, in this the goal was complete surrender. I’m a Virgo, and we grip on to things pretty tight. In labor, supposedly, the best part comes when you give yourself over completely to these uncontrollable sensations. My friend Ana Paula Markel, who is a doula (personal labor assistant), describes labor as a struggle to find a balance between control and surrender. That’s not just labor, that’s most women’s lives. Surrendering to this with my child would bond us forever, no matter what troubles we faced up the road.
My friend referred me to a midwifery practice that worked in partnership with a hospital birth center. I loved all the attention they lavished on me. When I went for my prenatal visits, we talked about everything: nutrition, fears, exercise, my feelings about my body, my relationships with my mom and with my husband. Part prenatal care, part therapy. Midwives say that with an obstetrician you spend an hour in the waiting room and five minutes with the doctor. With a midwife you spend five minutes waiting and an hour with her. After nine months of this, I really trusted my midwife. The birth center took up part of a floor of St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. When Abby saw it later, she thought the big birthing tub and the blocky, impersonal furniture made it feel like a cheesy hot tub suite in a slightly run-down Las Vegas hotel. The sheets on my bed at home had a much higher thread count.
At the time, I thought it was beautiful. Right then, though, I thought everything was beautiful. Even my 210-pound ass was beautiful to me. Besides, it didn’t appear that having the baby there would in any way be a gamble. The labor and delivery department was on the next floor if anything went wrong. Since this was my first baby, I wasn’t sure how much pain this wimp could handle. They assured my husband and me that at the birth center all the choices would be ours. As my due date approached, I was probably the happiest and most serene I’d ever been, joyful about welcoming our little boy into the world, confident that my husband and I had made all the right choices. He also wanted this baby when I wanted it. I had three weeks off from work and I anticipated his arrival that first weekend. Fortunately he agreed. My water broke early on the morning of my due date. My contractions were far apart, not very powerful, and not escalating. I thought the baby was just taking his time, coming when he needed to come.
When we got to twenty-four hours without much happening, Sandy, my midwife, said it was time for us to come to the birth center. When we got there, Sandy told us we had only four hours to get my labor going or they would have to start me on drugs. Twenty-four hours after a woman’s membranes rupture, the hospital requires the staff to speed up labor because they fear she will get an infection. The hospital has a timetable (called protocols) that the doctors and midwives follow strictly. If they don’t, there may be legal consequences. My husband, Rob, and I walked the halls, but not much changed. After a few hours of that, we decided we needed to take more drastic action. He held my hand as we climbed up and down the stairs, feeling the pressure of time mounting as the minutes ticked by. I was getting more and more upset. I could see a C-section looming on the horizon. That was the last thing I wanted.
By the twenty-eight-hour mark my midwife said that we needed to get this labor going. I wanted to resist, but I didn’t want to be selfish. The most important thing was to have a healthy baby. The rules had to be written with that in mind. Still I was sobbing as Rob held my hand and we took the stairs from the birth center to the labor and delivery floor. They started me on Pitocin, a drug that stimulates contractions. Once the Pitocin was in, I couldn’t move about as freely because I was dragging the IV pole. They also put an internal fetal monitor in my baby’s scalp so they could see how he reacted to the contractions. Powered by Pitocin, the contractions were really slamming me. They call these contractions “camelback” because they are two-humped, one right after the other. They gave me Stadol, a drug that was supposed to take the edge off my feelings of despair, but it affected me horribly.
I panicked. I kept saying to Rob, “Is something wrong? I feel like something is going wrong.” The pain was unbearable. I needed an epidural, a steady drip of painkillers that block the transmission of pain up the spine, so I could get some rest between contractions. The pharmacist’s daughter welcomed that. The anesthesiologist got the dosage just right, thank God. He blocked the pain, but I could still feel my feet, which allowed me to squat when I pushed. Still I couldn’t escape my panic no matter how much reassurance I got. I didn’t want anyone from the hospital staff to touch me then. I didn’t trust anyone but Rob. Every decision made to get me on the hospital’s schedule took away a bit of what we wanted for this birth. In the end, though, I pushed for two and a half hours and out came Milo, beautiful and healthy.
Most women don’t really want to dwell on their birth experiences. You get this amazing gift of the baby. You’re on a high and whatever happened in the hospital just seems to fade away. Even if it didn’t go as planned, it was a pretty amazing experience. I feel blessed that, considering it all, I had a vaginal birth for my first child. And although Rob and I are now divorced, the memory of how he was on that day is one of the things I can draw on when I need a little encouragement to get over one of our postmarital spats. When the mommy- bonding hormones stopped coursing through my veins, I started to think about the birth, not just the baby. How quickly everything had changed direction. At the hospital, I felt like a problem. I wasn’t progressing fast enough, they said, even though my baby was never in distress. I remembered how when my mom came to see us at the hospital, I introduced her to my midwife saying, “Mom, here’s the woman who delivered my baby!” Sandy corrected me, “Ricki, you’re the one who delivered that baby.” Why couldn’t I shake this feeling that my body had betrayed me? Hadn’t this crazy system betrayed me? Keeping my prenatal appointments, eating my green, leafy vegetables, the vitamins, the yoga, the visualizations — all of it built a sense that this would be a birth of my own creation.
After so many months of preparation, in the end I never had a chance to surrender except to the hospital’s schedule. I was never in control. I had wanted to feel everything, but all I remembered of labor was fear and panic. I had blocked out the glory of pushing my baby into the world so much that I gave Sandy credit for delivering Milo. Why the big disconnect?
Suddenly I was very interested in birth. I became a birth junkie. Two months after Milo was born, I started going to birth conferences. I wasn’t planning to have another child right away, but I wanted to educate myself. I read everything. I never studied like this in school. Back then I never cared enough about what I was learning. For a little while I got it in my head that I wanted to be a midwife. It’s my calling, you know? When I told my family and friends, they thought I was insane. They pointed out this wasn’t realistic for a talk show host who hadn’t managed to get an undergraduate degree. Nutty, I know, but it shows how much birthing Milo opened up my world. This country makes mothers feel so bad, so inadequate, even at the moment of the births of their babies. Yet everybody at the birth conferences was so pro-mother and pro-baby, and the conferences were so much about honoring them and fighting this uphill battle against what has been happening in for-profit childbirth. I began to believe (and I’ve had a lot of arguments with people about this) that how they are born affects who babies are. I realized the process was so important to me. If I were to have another child, I wanted to do it my way. I wanted to have the people around me that I felt comfortable with. I wanted to be in an environment where I felt completely safe and at home. And I didn’t want my baby taken away from me. I didn’t want any intervention that wasn’t necessary. I felt that I could only have it my way by doing it at home.
Five years later, when I was pregnant again, I met Miriam Schwartzchild, a midwife with a really great reputation in the home birth world. We connected. I was comfortable with her protocols. I told her my goal was to have a positive experience and to remember everything — every contraction, every position, every feeling. Miriam completely understood my desire to have a water birth at home. She was so relaxed, as if this was not a big deal. I loved that she came to my home for my prenatal care. We’d drink tea and talk while Milo came in and out and asked his own questions. A friendship grew. By the time I went into labor, I was so comfortable with her. There was no question that this was what I should be doing. I was eight days from my due date when my water broke early in the morning as I sat on the toilet. It happened to be the first day of Milo’s very first summer day camp. It was so amazing to think that he was going off to camp and chances were pretty good that he would be coming back to meet his new brother. My doulas came to our apartment first and Miriam came around eleven o’clock. In the early stages of labor we played Scrabble. We sat on the floor and I would take breaks between contractions.
We were about to choose letters to begin another round when I had to stop because my labor started to move pretty quickly. Just at the moment when I had picked a blank, the ultimate letter, I had to quit! I got to know every corner of my apartment that day. I positioned myself in every room of my house: on the floor, in the bathroom, throughout the hallway. There were moments, many moments toward the end, when I thought I couldn’t do it. The phase they call “transition,” when I was going from seven to ten centimeters, was the most challenging time. That’s when you’re not f------ around anymore. You’re dead serious and you’re in pain. I remember specifically being at the sink in my kitchen, my chin resting on the waterspout, and thinking, “I cannot do this anymore.” I heard an ambulance go by and I said, “There’s my ride. Get me out of here.”
Miriam looked me in the eye and reminded me of the reasons I chose to be at home in the first place. I needed someone to tell me I was right and this was right and exactly what Rob and I wanted. After that, I surrendered to it. When I did that 100 percent, things moved very quickly. Shortly after that, the head started coming out. Miriam said if I wanted to have my baby in the water like we had discussed, I had to get in the tub right away. In the tub, I pushed for thirteen minutes, three contractions. Then Miriam told me to reach down and touch my baby. I placed him on my chest and he stared right at me with his eyes wide open. We got out of the tub and into the bed. They talk about the high you have with a natural childbirth. It’s so true. I had all this energy. I mean, I was flying. I was so psyched. I wasn’t tired at all.
My whole labor was nine hours start to finish. Right after, I was on the phone calling everyone and having food delivered, having friends over. I did all of this as Owen nestled in my arms nursing. After nine months of sharing my smell, voice, and heartbeat with him, I didn’t want him even two inches away from me. Only after two hours did Miriam ask if she could check him over and weigh him. It was so huge. I still can’t believe I did it. And it’s not just what my body did in giving birth; it’s that I went against so many people around me. I chose to go against much of the advice given to me, went the opposite way and did what I wanted, and it turned out even better than I expected. No one can take that away from me. I also think I gave Owen a gift. I did something for him that will affect him no matter who he is. I’m grateful and hope he’ll grow up to be grateful for that too. I admit that so far neither one of my boys has taken me aside to thank me for his birth. At least neither of them has ever said that he is sorry he was born. Not yet anyway. I love both of my boys so powerfully that the words I can summon up to describe that love sound puny by comparison. How Owen was born is part of the many things I love about him, but I don’t love Milo any less. I love them and their births that brought them to me, but I also love how giving birth to them allowed me to grow as a woman.