Finally – our son Sejun Oliver was born on November 24th, 2019! He is 6 weeks old now and I am still adjusting to being a mom. I had a really positive birth experience, but it was intense.
I decided to try for an unmedicated, natural delivery with midwives and an OB, and my hospital is one of the few places that offered that. They require anyone wanting a “natural” birth to take four classes over four weeks on topics like birth and baby positioning (Spinning Babies), the typical signs of labor, and birth partners and what they should do to help.
A lot of my Korean friends who gave birth within the past year or so had C-sections and I’ve heard that the C-section rate in Korea is something like 38%. Some women are offered C-sections if their baby is suspected to be big or during labor if things are “taking too long” and I knew from reading a lot of natural birth stories that I wanted to avoid too much medical intervention and just see how it was going to go. I didn’t want to be induced, either. One of my friends even asked me, “Are you going to get a C-section?” and I was confused and asked, “Why?” and she shrugged and said, “If your baby is too big.”
During my last few weeks of pregnancy, we moved into a new apartment and things were hectic. I was worried I wouldn’t get everything done on time. I didn’t have my hospital bag packed, I still had to apply for my new visa and let the government know our address changed, and I was starting to get nervous about labor and delivery. I also tested positive for Group B strep and had to get a shot of penicillin (which was SO painful) and knew I had to get another dose during labor. I also lost my birth plan the midwives had us fill out, and it made me panic.
Thankfully, we got our house organized, I applied for my new visa, I got a new birth plan checklist from the midwives, and packed my hospital bag. My doctor wanted to see me the day before my due date for a final check-up. He said the baby was getting pretty big and suggested I walk a lot to induce labor and to get exercise.
At my check-up, he asked if I’d felt any contractions and I told him I had some minor Braxton Hicks that weren’t painful. He seemed concerned and told me to come in on Saturday (this was Wednesday) if I still hadn’t had any painful contractions. I hoped this didn’t mean he was going to induce me, but I got the feeling that’s where his mind was at.
I took the bus back to my neighborhood and decided to walk around. I went to a bakery and sat down with a snack and of course I had to use the bathroom (because I had to go every 10 minutes it seemed). I discovered there that I had lost part of my mucus plug, which is a sign that labor could start soon. I was excited and went back home and soon the next evening, on my due date, I started to feel contractions. These were mild – like period cramps – and I was able to smile through them as I watched TV and got excited that I probably didn’t need to be induced.
The contractions continued and got progressively more intense but were about 8-10 minutes apart and irregular. By 2am on Friday, my contractions were pretty painful, so we decided to go to the hospital.
The staff there were not the midwives I was used to, and they seemed unconcerned as they led me into a room to get examined. They hooked me up to the monitor to check my contraction intensity and the baby’s heart rate. They said my contractions weren’t that regular or intense yet, but that the baby’s heart rate was good. They checked me and said I was 1.5cm dilated and 80% effaced. I was pretty disappointed – I thought I’d be further along. We decided to just go back home.
I wasn’t able to sleep much but Junkyu did get some rest. He thankfully didn’t have too much to do at work, so he took Friday off to stay home with me, since we thought my labor was ramping up. It continued to get more intense. Around 7am on Saturday morning, we went back to the hospital but they said I wasn’t any further along. We went back home and left my hospital bag there.
I was pretty disappointed and my contractions got worse and closer together – about 6 minutes apart but sometimes still irregular. However, around 1pm, I threw up. I knew that could be a sign of transition (from early to active labor) so I made Junkyu take us back to the hospital. By then, I had a really sharp pain in my left side. I was in tears as we waited to see my doctor.
My doctor told me the pain was probably the baby pushing on an organ because of the movement from the contractions. He let us know that there was a form of pain relief that wasn’t an epidural that I could get as a shot if I needed it. He checked me and I was finally 4cm dilated so he told us, “You can be admitted now!” and he told us we’d have the baby that day. I wasn’t so sure.
We were admitted into my birthing room, which I’d seen a few times on tours of the natural birthing floor of the hospital. The room was spacious and calming – nothing like the room where I was checked the first two times, which would have been where I’d have to stay had I gotten an epidural or induction. The thought of that cold, cramped room and being strapped to a bed made me balk, so I stuck with my plan to have an unmedicated delivery.
My husband and I spent a lot of time in that room distracting ourselves and trying to rest. I’d sometimes lay down on the bed, but my contractions would come and make me need to walk around. Eventually I asked the midwife to fill up the bathtub. It was so nice when I first got into the warm water and the pain in my side finally let up. Eventually, though, the pain came back and the water wasn’t helping my contraction pain anymore.
I got out of the tub, walked around, tried to find a comfortable position, and all the while my husband tried distracting me. We watched Avengers: Endgame (we’d started with Iron Man and watched all the Marvel movies over again and were almost done) and then I requested more comforting videos like cute animals because that was getting too stressful. Every time I had a contraction, I’d need to turn it off and walk around. I sometimes ate snacks, but eventually I stopped wanting to eat. My midwives encouraged me to eat and drink, though, which I know is off limits in some hospitals even though it isn’t evidence based.
Around 2am, I threw up again and started getting in and out of the shower. The hot shower really helped, and I continued to use it up until time to push. By this time, I was in a lot of pain and kept asking my husband to get the midwife to check me. I’d get really angry if they didn’t come right away or if he tried to ask me a question I couldn’t concentrate on. My mom and his mom also kept texting and calling to ask for updates. I tried to ignore them, but it was really frustrating being in labor for so long with other people constantly asking when the baby was coming. Clearly, I was the one who wanted him to come more than anyone!
I remember being really tired, scared, and nervous. Sometimes when a contraction came, I’d think, “Nooo! I can’t do this!” and ask my husband about the pain relief shot. At one point, I asked for it and my husband called the midwife to ask for pain relief and she thought I meant an epidural so she came with a wheelchair to take me to the “normal” maternity ward with those rooms I hated. As much as I wanted to just give in and get the epidural, I knew my reasons for not getting one and stuck to my guns and refused. She told us that the pain relief shot wouldn’t be that helpful and to get it right before pushing when contractions were pretty bad.
Around 12pm on Sunday, I started having the urge to push and my midwifes changed shifts. The new midwife was confident that the baby was coming that day and said I was 8cm dilated. She and my husband would make conversation like, “You’ll have to sing happy birthday to him!” and my husband would excitedly say, “The baby’s coming today!” but this also made me really angry because I didn’t believe them that the baby was coming. I had a fear that he’d never be born or that something would go wrong and I was in disbelief that I was actually having a baby.
My urge to push went on for a long time and for a few hours, I had contractions where I couldn’t help but push, but it was still a while before the actual pushing phase. I knew I needed to rest, so I put the TENS unit I’d brought in my hospital bag on my lower back and that really helped. The massaging feeling helped distract me from the contractions long enough to lay down in the bed. I listened to the playlist I’d made when I was pregnant and it was nice to relax a little.
My OB came and checked on me a few times and then around 3pm he and two other midwives came in and assisted. The midwife who’d been there since the shift change had me try different positions and my water finally broke during a contraction. I’d thought it had broken earlier in the bathroom, but this was unmistakable and kind of jolting.
Pushing lasted a few hours, but they said the baby’s heart rate was good and that I just needed to push for a whole 10 seconds. I was usually pushing for a few seconds, stopping, and pushing again because that’s how my contractions made me feel, but the doctor told me the baby was almost out and if I just pushed for 10 seconds straight it would help him come right out. Sometimes they would all say, “The baby is coming out! He’s coming out!” but I’d get scared and think this couldn’t really be happening and it was overwhelming. They started telling my husband what to do once the baby was out.
Eventually, I was able to push for longer. I felt a burning sensation and it almost felt like one of the midwives was scratching me but it was because I was getting a slight tear. Finally, his head emerged and they told me to stop pushing, but a few seconds later I had the urge to push again and this time it felt really good to push and he was born at 4:55pm!
They put the baby on my chest and it was surreal. He smelled really good and the vernix (white coating babies are born with) felt like lotion and wasn’t as slippery as I’d imagined. One of the midwives waited for me to have another urge to push so the placenta would be delivered, and it took a while for me to feel like I needed to push again but eventually it came out and they waited for the umbilical cord to stop pulsing. My midwife also massaged my stomach to help my uterus go back down (which hurt a lot!).
My husband cut the cord and then we both took turns with the baby. My OB tried stitching me up (after numbing me of course) but it was dark in the room so he decided to take me to an operating room. They gave the baby to my husband and wheeled me there and back. He also did an ultrasound to make sure my uterus was clean and didn’t have scar tissue or anything left over.
Apart from being numb, I felt really good afterwards. I was hungry and tired and they took the baby to the nursery so I could move into the room I’d stay in for the next two nights. My mother-in-law stayed with me and my husband went home to sleep because he had to work the next day. That night, though, he ordered me some food and got me snacks and stuff from home I needed.
The nursery would call me down every few hours to breastfeed, and every time I’d go back to my room I knew I needed to sleep but I was kind of wired and spent a lot of time sending pictures to my family and friends.
Sejun was 3.9kg (8lbs 9oz) and 22 inches long. He was three days past his due date, born on November 24th, 2019. The staff in the hospital were all amazing and kind and my birth went pretty much according to plan (no induction, no episiotomy, no epidural, skin-to-skin immediately after birth, and the midwives helped me start breastfeeding him in that first “golden hour”) and I did get the pain relief shot towards the end, but I don’t think it helped much and what really helped was keeping hydrated, walking around, taking hot showers, and using the TENS unit.
I’d done a lot of research in planning what kind of birth experience I wanted to have, and I’m really glad I came away with a positive story. My midwives and the educational classes we took at the hospital helped us prepare, and books I read like Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and websites like Evidence Based Birth really gave me the tools I needed to have a natural birth. However, there were times when I really wanted to just have it over with and just get an epidural, so I definitely applaud anyone who’s given birth, no matter the circumstances. Labor and delivery is intense, and I was lucky to have a good support system.
I think I’ll write about my stay in the hospital in more detail later. Korean postpartum hospital stays are probably a lot different than other places. The day I was discharged was also really eventful, so I’ll talk about that next time, as well.
Having a baby is such a crazy experience! I was in labor for four days and it felt like forever but now I have my son and we are learning more about parenthood every day.