by Elissa Cirignotta
Photo credits: Evelyn Cirignotta Photography
Elissa Cirignotta’s Birth Story
“That’s when some of the anger started to make an appearance. I was angry my body wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do, angry at my birth affirmations, angry at our hypnobirthing classes, angry at Ina May Gaskin, and angry that the contractions that were surging through my body every minute were not, in fact, getting me closer to meeting my baby.”
I’m fairly certain that I considered childbirth to be a rite of passage. Something that would transform me to my very core. I had no idea just how transformative the entire experience would be until I was in the heat of it. I’ve also learned that trauma after delivering a healthy baby is a bittersweet experience. I’ve been both ecstatic and grateful to have my baby boy earthside, yet for weeks after the delivery, I was left feeling an invisible heaviness of failure.
This is a story of both celebration and mourning.
It took me a while to get to the point where I was ready to consider having a baby. And then once my ovaries told me it was time it took another 16 months to get pregnant.
In preparation for this pregnancy I did ALL the things. I read the books, took the vitamins, wrote out affirmations, and set intentions. Then once we got that positive pregnancy test I did ALL the things x10. I upped my supplements, quit coffee, enrolled in multiple birthing classes, watched countless videos, listened to stories, and completely immersed myself in the process.
I had a clear vision of what I wanted with a birth plan completed 4 months into the pregnancy. I was trusting that my body would do what it was designed to do: reproduce, child bear, and birth this human, right? I knew that I wanted a natural, medication-free, sacred, gentle, vaginal birth. I also assumed I would have a quiet homebirth, ideally unassisted with myself, my husband, my cat, and sister. I was healthy and the strongest I’ve ever been. There was no reason this vision couldn’t be manifested.
After consideration and discussion, my husband and I concluded it would be wisest to have our first child with the support of a homebirth midwife, especially given the birthing history of some of the women in my family. We had just made a move from Portland, Oregon to Des Moines, Iowa and I was expecting to have similar homebirth options here in the Midwest. To our surprise there were 4 overpriced homebirth midwives to choose from, only one of which seemed like a good fit, and she was fully booked for our birth month. After resolving that we’d have to do things differently we finally found our perfect midwife in a small local hospital.
There were absolutely no complications during my pregnancy. I gained a perfect amount of weight, baby’s heart rate was excellent, my blood pressure just where it should be, my diet healthy and full of nutrients, and I continued to exercise and practice yoga regularly. Everything was just as it should be.
I listened to the hypnobirthing affirmations daily, meditated multiple times a week, stretched my hamstrings and opened my hips, and often practiced visualizing the birth I wanted. In my vision there were dim lights, soft voices, and gentle music in our birthing room. I was calm, collected, and connected to my baby as I had a quick 12 hour labor that ended in a vaginal birth with my husband receiving our first born.
We’d spend as little time in the hospital as possible and then transition home as a family of three. I was ready to connect with my inner birth warrior! Little did I know at the time, but my inner birth warrior had a whole different lesson to teach me… one that I’ll likely be sludging through for years to come.
Truth be told I was connected to that inner warrior for the first 70 hours of labor. Beyond that, I was a bonafide HOT MESS. That’s when some of the anger started to make an appearance. I was angry my body wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do, angry at my birth affirmations, angry at our hypnobirthing classes, angry at Ina May Gaskin, and angry that the contractions that were surging through my body every minute were not, in fact, getting me closer to meeting my baby.
My body was NOT doing what it was designed to do and 3 days into labor I was losing stamina fast and stalling in my birth progression.
I went into labor on a Thursday afternoon. I wasn’t immediately sure if it was the real deal or Braxton hicks so I tried to stay calm and move through my day as I normally would. A few hours in, with steady contractions, I was still in a state of denial but started my birth playlist to help get my head in the game.
By the time my husband got home from work I was four hours in and accepting that I might actually be in labor. He started his timer and we prepped dinner. For distraction’s sake we took an evening walk, during which I remember thinking that I would probably have this baby by morning.
I called my sister, who planned to be present with us for the birth, and she started her preparations to fly to Iowa in the morning. I was certain she would miss all the action but I still wanted her with me postpartum. After our dinner and walk we rented a movie while my husband Greg massaged my aching body. I don’t remember much about the movie except that I was certain I was going to have the baby before it was over.
Contractions were still 8-10 minutes apart so we went to bed. As soon we went to bed everything intensified. Contractions were moving through every 4-6 minutes and I was most certainly not sleeping. Our goal was to wait until we hit the 3-1-1 mark, contractions every 3 minutes that lasted one minute during a one hour time period, before we transitioned to the hospital setting.
I continued to labor at home for the first 24 hours with the precious support of my husband, sister, and sister-in-law. I was certain that our baby would be arriving shortly after we got to the hospital on Friday late afternoon, because how could things possibly get more intense from this point on?
Instead I was greeted with a cervical exam indicating that was only 1 cm dilated. SHOCK flooded my body. They sent us home with instructions to rest, and to come back when the surges became unmanageable. I fought back tears, connected to the inner warrior, and kept laboring for another 10 hours. My contractions were showing up 2-3 minutes apart and I was reaching what I thought was the end of my rope. I hadn’t slept for close to 40 hours and was in more pain than I thought physically possible.
We went back to the hospital for a second time, in the early hours of Saturday morning, to be told that I had still only dilated 1 centimeter. I broke into tears and my midwife manipulated me to 4 cm. Everyone including myself thought for sure this baby would be making his appearance at some point during the day.
As it became clearer that this little guy was not going anywhere and was likely stuck on my pelvic bone I was given a list of exercises to try over the next 5 hours. We were diligent and dedicated. I did every single exercise times 5 trying each for about 15-20 minutes before transitioning on to the next. This sequence was on repeat for hours.
By the time I was checked again later in the early evening, I had only progressed to 6 cms and was starting to run on fumes. The entire team including myself determined it was time for an intervention if I wanted a shot at a vaginal birth, so we started the lowest dose of Pitocin. I honestly didn’t think things could get harder, but as soon as the Pitocin entered my bloodstream, things got real… hard.
I was still in it! I felt strong, super tired, and ready to birth this baby. We pumped up the jams, I took off all my clothes, and I danced. Boy did I dance. I danced for hours! I danced for so many hours that I made someone take the clock off the wall because I was afraid the presence of time would discourage me from continuing on. We were going to get this baby out tonight!
After 8 hours of dancing through the most intense sensations of my whole existence we discovered that I hadn’t dilated any further. I had no dance left in me at that point. We were 70 hours in and I was losing steam. Still with the goal in mind of having a vaginal birth we determined further interventions were necessary.
We decided it was time for an epidural. Despite this being way off course from my original birth plan I felt an intense love for our anesthesiologist. I was asleep almost immediately. I woke up after two short hours of blissful rest to a gushing of water and a deep inner knowing that something was wrong. I started to breathe slow and steady breaths willing us closer to delivery. I asked my baby if he was ready and I felt a very clear, “Yes Mom”, in response.
I didn’t feel any difference in my body and I knew we would have to welcome him through an incision on my lower belly. Soon after this deep sense of knowing a nurse came in and discovered that I spiked a fever. I was beginning to feel delirious and out of touch. Several hours later my midwife came in and told us it was time for us to meet our baby and that we’d have to begin preparing for surgery. I already knew this was the way it had to happen and felt a peace about it.
The incredible team of nurses lovingly supported me through the preparation and allowed my sister to join us in the operating room. My midwife assisted with the procedure, Greg held my hand, while I hummed “Baby Mine” and cried gentle tears of anticipation.
Our little one was lifted out of my body and into this crazy world at exactly 11:11 a.m. on a Sunday morning. He roared until he was brought to my chest. In that moment it didn’t matter. I didn’t care how it happened. He was healthy, perfect, and here. We were finally together.
The waves of emotions would come later, I soon discovered. In the darkest and quietest hours of the day. I’d sit silently sobbing and mourn the birth I didn’t have.
I experienced feelings of jealousy of all the vaginal births the women around me were having. I felt like a failure, as though my body was somehow not capable of doing its most important job. I didn’t get the “first-place trophy” with an unmedicated vaginal birth. I let myself feel, deeply. The people around me gave me the space to process, mourn, and heal. It wasn’t just my body that needed to heal, it was my soul.
Almost five months out I have a slightly different perspective. I see myself as brave and strong. I did everything I could and was equipped with tools to help me cope with 83 hours of intense labor. I WAS a warrior, both physically and emotionally and my scar is a powerful reminder of my unique journey into motherhood.
My advice to new mamas:
- You can listen to what others have to say, but then throw it out the window and do what feels most intuitive.
- Let people help you. Tell them what you need.
- Rest as much as possible whenever possible.
- Cry as much as you need whenever you need.
- Move your body in whatever way feels nourishing to you. Don’t try to push yourself to your threshold. Heal and rest and be still instead.
- If things don’t go your way, it’s okay to feel disappointed. The emotions will come in waves.
- It gets easier and better every day.
Elissa Cirignotta is a writer, teacher, world traveler, and change maker. When she’s not teaching or practicing yoga in Des Moines, Portland Oregon or Sicily, you can find her growing plants, planning trips and writing stories. She founded Happy Mindful People to provide kids, teens, educators, and parents with the tools and support they need to inspire healthy personal changes and find more joy in the day to day. For more info visit www.happymindfulpeople.com.