Childbirth in the Time of Coronavirus

In Features, Magazineby RI Magazine

Our doula wasn’t allowed in the hospital for childbirth, so my wife and I were limited to “virtual” support. It turned into one of the greatest experiences of our lives.

BY MATT TUTHILL

A little more than two weeks before our second child’s due date, my wife Jill and I got the news that, in response to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital where she was set to give birth—Stony Brook University Hospital on Long Island—would be limiting its maternity ward to one non-rotating support person per mother.

This came as a tough blow for a few reasons, chief amongst them being that Jill gave birth naturally—meaning no induction or pain meds—to our first child, a son, Quinn, who is now four years old. It was her goal to go naturally again with our second. Not out of some strange sense of personal challenge, and with no knocks to anyone who gets an epidural; she simply has a deeply-held belief about being fully present throughout labor.

During Quinn’s birth, we leaned heavily on the doula for support. She turned out to be especially helpful to me, explaining what my wife was feeling at various stages and directing me on what to do—and what not to do—to make her more comfortable. Labor, after all, is a strange thing for a husband who can’t shoulder any of the pain, but is nevertheless desperate to be helpful in the process.

For folks who have never experienced childbirth before—either themselves or as a support person—it’s helpful to know that it’s wildly misrepresented on television and in movies on a number of levels. Without getting into all of them, just know that the doctor doesn’t guide the mother through labor. That job falls to the support people—a husband and/or doula—and the nurses. The doctor checks in from time-to-time, but their job doesn’t really begin until the “end”—late-stage labor, or when it’s time to push.

Suffice it to say we were upset to lose in-person support, but understood. Our doulas—a group of three doulas who rotate on-call responsibilities and operate under the company banner TRUE BIRTH—offered to support us virtually, via phone calls, video conference, and/or text. I immediately balked at that, telling Jill that I’d be of no use to her if I was monkeying around with the camera angle on my phone or texting updates to people outside the hospital.

But after my wife spoke to the doulas to tell them where our heads were, she changed her mind. Her reasoning: the doulas put her at ease, and if all we could do is relay information to them during labor and have them help us understand the process, then it was worth it. Again: the doctor isn’t there to answer every little question you have.

Besides, we were going this alone at an unprecedented point in history. Might as well have some type of security blanket. Of course, I agreed. It falls under best practices for any man to agree with his very pregnant wife. With about two weeks to go until the due date, this becomes even more true.

Little did I know then how instrumental the doulas would be.

At about 1:00 am on March 19, a full 11 days before Jill’s due date of March 30, she woke me up in a panic.

“My water broke,” she said.

I shot up out of bed, my body alert before my brain.

What do we do? Do we go to the hospital? But wait, you’re not having contractions yet? And isn’t the hospital swamped with COVID patients? We shouldn’t go until we absolutely have to, right?

Jill had the wherewithal to call the doulas. Susanna Gatz (who has her own business, HEARTSHINE DOULA) was on call that night, and she told us to let the doctor know and get everything ready to go to the hospital. However, she said that absent any contractions, we should actually go back to bed and get some rest if we could. We’d need it for the day ahead.

We tried. I slept for an hour or so. Jill not at all. At around 4 am, contractions started, but they were minor, and by 7 am they had stopped altogether.

During this entire time, Susanna was texting us with signs to look for, calling us when it was easier than explaining over text, and letting us know that we were taking the right course of action. Already, her impact had been immediate. We might not have been relaxed enough to sleep, but we didn’t have any of the fear that we absolutely would have felt had we simply tried to judge for ourselves.

By 10 am, contractions still had not yet re-started, and our doctor told us in no uncertain terms that she wanted us at the hospital; with Jill’s water broken, she needed to mitigate the risk of infection.

An hour later, we were at the hospital, through the COVID-screening checkpoint, and Jill was hooked up to a monitor. The baby’s heartrate was perfect. But Jill was barely dilated—only 2 cm—and contractions were still a distant memory. Labor had stalled.

And that’s where things got tricky.

The doctor wanted to give Jill a low dose of Pitocin. A synthetic form of oxytocin, it would induce contractions and hopefully get Jill into active labor. What ensued wasn’t a heated discussion, but it wasn’t entirely comfortable. The doctor said she wanted to respect Jill’s wishes, but it was also clear that she didn’t want to waste time, and sitting around waiting for labor to magically begin on its own seemed, in her mind, to be a waste of time. In the end, she said she’d give us an hour to think it over and try to naturally help labor begin. Then she’d back and check on us.

In the meantime, here are some “birthing” balls. Good luck!

The doctor didn’t leave a shot clock hanging over the bed, but she might as well have. The message was clear.

So was Susanna’s. She sent me a PDF of various exercises for Jill to do and pressure points for me to hit. She then called me to talk me through it as I reviewed.

I looked at the diagrams. I had no doubt that some expert somewhere in the world could induce labor after dedicating a lifetime of study to this information, but me? The least handy guy you know? I couldn’t follow the directions to build a crib by myself. And now I’m going to hit the right pressure points to induce labor?

I didn’t express any of these doubts to Jill. I didn’t let her see the tears in my eyes, either. I just excused myself to the bathroom for a minute and resolved to follow Susanna’s instructions as best I could. I had to give it an honest effort until time ran out. I owed Jill at least that much.

I started above the ankle, applying increasing pressure with my thumbs and holding it for about 20 seconds. Then migrated to the next pressure point in the middle of the calf. Then between the shoulder blades. Then rotating through.

Ten minutes went by.

Then 15. Then 20.

Still nothing.

And then…

Ooooh! … Oooooooo!

Honey, was that–?

Yeah… Oooooo! … Keep going.

I kept going.

Then I let Susanna know. She was thrilled, but wanted to know what happened if I stopped.

So I stopped. Minutes went by. No contractions.

OK, then keep going. Eventually, her body will take over. You’ve got this! I’m so proud of you both!

Hey, I was too. With newfound confidence, I cracked my knuckles, took hold of her ankles, and got back to work. The contractions started right back up. I cycled through everything a few more times. By my reckoning, we probably had 10 minutes left until the shot clock expired. I needed to know, so after inducing one last contraction, I stopped squeezing, then looked at my watch. Exactly five minutes later…

Oooooooh!

Then five minutes after that…

Oooooooh!

Success! Jill’s body had taken over, just as Susanna had predicted.

Five minutes after that, the nurses came back in.

Oooooooh!

They were shocked, but supportive, and from there we were off to the races. Active labor. No Pitocin. No pain meds.

Through it all, Susanna’s calls and texts sustained me. Not only did I get everything I wanted and needed out of doula support—where to stand, what to look for, when to go get help from the nurses—there was that critical information, the PDF from some holistic medical textbook. The detailed explanation on how to pull it off like a pro.

At one point, Susanna told me that my wife needed to rotate her hips to help the baby into the birth canal.

“You could slow dance with Jill,” she said. “Maybe to your wedding song.”

A few hours prior, I would have scoffed. But she was right about the pressure points, so what the hell.

We danced. My wife wept. Pain and joy. I wept too. Elvis never sounded so beautiful.

We both said how much we loved the other. We’ve never renewed our wedding vows, but I’m certain this counted.
When it was time to push, the doctor came in. “Wow. You really are ready,” she said.

“Those pressure points are no joke!” I blurted out.

I was legitimately thrilled. The comment certainly wasn’t meant to be in-your-face. The doctor’s face says she might have taken it that way. Oh well. Her bedside manor notwithstanding, everything from that point on was smooth sailing.

After less than 15 minutes of pushing, at 7:33 pm, Axel Shawn Tuthill arrived perfectly healthy.

Mom stuck to her guns and had the birth experience she wanted. Dad didn’t just bear witness to the mythical feminine energy of childbirth, but became part of it.

Axel Shawn at five days old.

During labor with Quinn and Axel, at a point somewhere after active labor but before pushing, there was a long stretch of eerie quiet. After Quinn’s birth, I first described this as a “lull” which made Jill laugh pretty hard. No, she explained. That’s a point in labor where the pain is so intense that she can’t speak or open her eyes.

I couldn’t feel that pain or take any of it away. But this time around, while Jill lay face down on the bed with her head in her hands, I instinctively collapsed just beside her. When her consciousness ascended to some other place to allow her body to deal with the pain… well, I know what I felt, and mine went with hers. Our minds took a walk while we waited for our baby to arrive. Where they went, I’ll never be able to say. But I can say I’ve never felt more connected to her, or more aware of the incredible strength and courage she possesses.

For many of us, the silver lining of this pandemic is that it has been an opportunity to recognize what is truly vital in our lives. While the cost of COVID-19 is catastrophic and its disruption to every other facet of our lives is immeasurable, every challenge, no matter how unprecedented, frightening, or unfair, offers us a chance to rise up. To not let what we can’t do take the focus away from what we can do. To be grateful for what we have right in front of us.

For my part, I’ve never been so grateful for my family. Or for a doula I’ve never met, yet was there every step of the way.

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