I was sitting on the toilet of my hospital room with my nurse holding my hand as I whimpered, trying to pee for the first-time post labor. We were chatting about "natural" labor as I was still in shock that I had survived it. She was telling me that from her experience working in the birth center that a successful unmedicated birth comes down to the mama's reasons for wanting to do it. For me, I was fascinated with the physiology of birth and I was terrified of interventions and not being able to feel my body. What I realized in that moment, and what got me through it, was my desire to fully trust my body and my baby. I wanted my daughter (whom I didn't know was a girl at the time) to come into this world with her mama feeling the true strength of her mind and body and her daddy guiding, supporting, and believing.
I am NOT a laid-back person. My anxiety is debilitating at times. I have taught Pilates for 14 years now and the human body never ceases to amaze me, but I lost faith in it trying to get pregnant, being pregnant and labor. I drove my poor husband crazy trying to conceive our baby with researching too much, timing too much and fretting too much. When we did get pregnant, I constantly thought of every horrible outcome and didn't truly believe my baby was real until I started feeling her move around inside me. I created a new situation daily to discuss with my mom about my fears of labor and newborn life. It all came down to control, and the fact that I really didn't have much. It's funny because I teach a method that was originally called Contrology. I believe in it with every ounce of my being. The Pilates/Contrology method comes down to the belief that we can control, shape and strengthen our bodies with the power of our mind- our mind controls our muscles. I realized in labor that while I did not have any control of the surges going through my body or my baby making her way down, I did have control of my mind. I used all of my mind control to surrender to my body. I think it was the first time in my life that I just let my body do its thing.
I am obviously passionate about Pilates education and I have grown passionate for childbirth education the past few years. I went through doula training and began volunteering at the local military hospital attending births. First, I learned that women are incredibly strong, and that watching babies being born is incredibly beautiful. Then I learned that most women go into their birthing experience without education and empowerment and have a whole lot of fear. I decided I wanted to combine the platform I already had for teaching bodies, my Pilates studio, with my newfound love of birth and I started teaching prenatal classes and workshops. Through this process, I was able to give myself the best physical experience for my own pregnancy.
I am writing this 5 days postpartum, and I honestly feel pretty good and back to what my body felt like pre-pregnancy. I whole heartedly believe that is because of the physical choices I made during pregnancy and oddly because of the global pandemic. I taught a prenatal workshop for instructors on Zoom in April and I talked a lot about how in traditional Pilates. I like to imagine that all of the muscles close to my bones are super active but the exterior layer of my body is more relaxed. In pregnancy, I began to imagine the reverse: that I was creating space in the center of my body for my baby to grow, while I was stabilizing my body with strength and security from the outside layer.
Traditional Pilates exercises did not feel good to me from very early on in my pregnancy. I felt cramping and this inability to connect to my belly due to my growing uterus and muscular structure changing. I stopped prioritizing the perfect c-curl and pushing myself to the limit and starting thinking of what was going to help my laboring process and postpartum life. I knew that I needed to strengthen my upper back and arms for holding my baby and feeding, I needed to squat constantly and build leg strength for labor and I prioritized long walks for getting my baby in the best position in my pelvis. I credit the way I thought about my belly for how well I am doing now. Diastasis Recti is a very common condition from Pregnancy, it’s a gap between your right and left abdominal wall muscles. It can happen just from the rapid growth of the belly and from the pressure of labor and hormonal changes but there are many things you can do to prevent it or lessen the severity of it. I like to think of breath and belly movement in pregnancy very similarly to how I teach it to anyone learning Pilates. Our abdominal muscles need to function just as any other muscle in our bodies. They cannot remain tight and contracted all the time, they also need to lengthen and relax. If you create this ability to stretch and open with breath, and tighten and stabilize with deep muscle contraction, you will have more power and grace during Pilates exercises and you will grow in pregnancy with the ability to let your muscles expand at the rate they need to. I love my studio’s past education director, Lanette Weninger’s imagery for this idea. She describes the inhale and exhale with belly movement like a Murphy Bed. Imagine your spine is the wall and your stomach is the bed. Inhale to let the bed completely open and rest on the floor and exhale to begin closing the bed back in and hugging it tightly against the wall. I used this concept throughout my pregnancy in exercise and in stillness. This is the same concept that keeps our pelvic floors safe in pregnancy, the ability to relax just as much as it tightens. I believe this is why I have no sign of diastasis recti and why my stomach and uterus shrunk down right away to its pre-pregnancy size. I also will say an odd thank you to Covid-19 for the much-needed rest I received in my third trimester. With Studio Flo being shut down and us moving to online classes, I was able to be off my feet, taking plenty of naps and walks and also staying strong with barre and prenatal classes.
During my doula training, I learned a tremendous amount about the benefits of unmedicated birth and also the positive outcomes of not being induced. I am aware that these things are sometimes out of our control but when I found out I was pregnant, I wanted to set myself and my baby up for the best chance for success in pregnancy, labor and beyond. I was motivated not to have any interventions or unnecessary procedures so that when my baby decided to come, she would be in the best place in my pelvis for an easier labor. I also wanted try not to have an epidural so that I could feel my muscles in full force working to push her out and have the best chance not to tear during that stage. I never feel good on any pain medication so I also wanted to give myself the best chance to feel better post-delivery. I knew that our bodies were meant to handle this process and I hoped that I would be capable of giving into the experience. I ended up having a very successful unmedicated birth, with a perfectly healthy baby. Yes, it was extremely intense, and I wanted to give up many times, but I am so thankful to my body, my mental strength and my baby for the experience I had. Here is our story:
My due date was July 4th, yet I know from all evidence-based research that due dates are just “guess” dates and that most first-time moms deliver in the 41st week of pregnancy. My husband and I loved the idea of a July 4th baby though, we joked of lying to them for as long as they believed us that all the fireworks and parades were just for their birthday! As that date approached, I felt myself getting more and more frustrated, anxious, and emotional. I did everything I could to prepare my body for labor: eating dates, long walks, sex, naps, and perineal massage. July 4th came and went and on July 5th, Scott and I took an extra-long walk in the morning. I knew that the full moon was that night and I hoped it would do its magic. Around 4pm, we got in the car to drive to my parent’s house for dinner and I wanted to stop at the store to get a pool floatie to lay on that afternoon. When we were walking through the store, I started feeling very regular contractions. They were different than all the Braxton hicks I had for weeks. These rose and fell, I felt them in my low belly and in my hips and they came every five minutes or so. Once we got to my parents I went in the pool and they did not stop. That is when I knew it was real. I began feeling more uncomfortable and I got out of the pool and went onto the floor of the living room and started stretching on all fours to cope. I told Scott to eat his food fast so we could head home. In the car, I stopped being able to talk through the contractions, my breath got deeper. When we got home, I got into the bath and Scott called our amazing acupuncturist Rebecca and our friend Jenn to come over to be with me. I felt instant relief when they arrived and I was still able to talk and laugh between contractions with them. They put Scott to bed around 9pm and we moved out into the living room.
We put my favorite show on and I used the birth ball to stretch and cope. I quickly wanted the show turned off because the sound was making me nauseous and my legs started shaking uncontrollably. I remember laying on my side on the couch with my friends rubbing my back and I started involuntarily moaning through the contractions as they intensified. Jenn was secretly timing the contractions and for the next hour, I had reached the “go to the hospital ratio” of contractions every 2-3 minutes, lasting at least 1 minute, for a full hour. It was 11pm at this point. When they told me they wanted to get me in car, I protested, I was so afraid of going to the hospital too early and being turned away. Jenn called the midwives and they agreed that it was time for me to come in. Rebecca woke Scott up and I remember grabbing Jenn and begging her to come in the car with us, I did not want to cope alone while we drove. I remember her trying to sit on our car seat base so she could be next to me, she was a life saver, thank you Jenn! She also snapped a photo of us as we headed into the hospital- masked up- marking this time in history, giving birth during a pandemic.
We made it upstairs to the birth center, Scott held me up and helped me through the elevator contractions. A wonderfully kind midwife met us at the door and guided us to a birth center room. They were very respectful and patient as they performed all of the vital tests between my contractions, I also had to have the Covid test on both sides, it really does feel like the swab touches your brain! The midwife measured my cervix and I was very relieved that I was 5 centimeters dilated, the amount you need to be in order to be admitted into the birth center. They began teaching Scott ways to push on my back and hips to help me through the contractions. It was around midnight and I remember Scott and the midwife talking about my progress and her being confident that I would deliver before the end of her shift at 7am. The contractions were so intense at this point that I felt like I could not move my body on my own, I needed Scott to actually push my hips back and forth. Every time I felt the contraction starting to build I remember thinking in my head “no no no no no” and “I can’t do this anymore.” Yet, as it slowed back down and I was able to catch my breath, I somehow carried on. Scott was my constant rock, making me drink water every few minutes and putting cold wash cloths over my neck.
The big bathtub in the birth center was a lifesaver, I was in and out of it at least 4 times. I remember sitting in the tub, resting my head on a pillow, dozing off between contractions knowing that things were slowing down. The sun was starting to rise at this point and I wanted my water to be broken by the midwife. I was terrified of how much more intense it was going to be but I had stalled at 6 centimeters and knew that my stamina was going to run out. The midwife broke my water at around 6:30am, right before her shift was ending, and I remember feeling a bit of relief with the very warm gush of water on my bottom. I felt even more relief when the next midwife walked in, the same midwife who had seen us at our first appointment, when we heard our baby’s heartbeat and whom I saw at my last appointment before birth. I felt connected to her and I trusted her to guide me through.
Everything did get more intense and I felt that I was involuntarily moving more in my contractions and I was unable to communicate at all. I remember being back in the bath and during contractions I would get into a half squat (one foot down and one knee up). The Pilates nerd in me thought how amazing it was that my body knew what to do, I instinctually was getting into a position that my baby needed to get further down into my pelvis. At around 9:30am, the midwife checked my dilation while I was in the tub and told me that I was 9.5 centimeters dilated with just a small lip of my cervix left. She did a maneuver with her hand to get it more out of the way and said I could start the pushing process if I felt the urge. At the hospital, you can stay in the birthing tub up until crowning. I loved being in the water but could not imagine having to move into a different position while crowning so I chose to move back to the bed to try pushing. I had heard from many friends and clients that pushing can feel like relief, yet as I tried pushing for the first time I felt like my body was breaking in half and I started to melt down at the pain I was feeling. I could tell that I was doing it wrong and fighting it as hard as I could. They moved me to the toilet so I could feel the bearing down feeling better and it worked right away. I was then able to feel that I was making progress with every contraction and every push. We moved back to the bed and everyone kept telling me how close I was to meeting my baby. I told the midwife I didn’t believe her because I could not feel my baby’s head yet. They had me reach down and feel her head starting to come out. They told me that she had dark hair, which ended up being false, she is very blonde like her daddy. I only believed that I was making progress when the midwife and nurses began to gown up.
Scott had expressed his desire to catch our baby and also tell me their gender. Since everything was going well, our midwife positioned Scott right next to her and helped him grab her once her head was out. I know many talk about the “ring of fire,” I do not remember that feeling but I remember feeling relieved when I felt the stretching of her head coming out. Our baby started crying as soon as her head was out, Scott caught her, and told me that she was a girl! He put her on me and laid down next to us. I was feeling so much, I couldn’t stop shaking. I focused on Scott, with tears streaming down his face, looking at the two of us. As my placenta came out, the tree of life, I started shaking more and was feeling the pain of my stomach being pressed on to make sure my uterus was contracting. Our daughter came out with a compound presentation, meaning that her right fist was next to her face when I pushed her out. I needed a few stiches for this reason. I told Scott to take his shirt off at that point and have skin to skin with her so I could breath and rest while they sewed me up. I joke now that he hogged the baby the rest of her first day, he did not want to let her go. I was thankful to be medication free because very shortly after delivering I felt pretty good, I was able to take a shower, and enjoy a delicious meal. More than anything, I was happy that our baby girl was healthy and ready to breastfeed right away.
Our daughter, Poppy Lilo Rathke, is most definitely a Pilates baby. She held her head up on day 1, has very strong legs and loves to move and stretch. We are loving being a family of three and cannot wait to introduce you all once it is safe!