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Listening to Your Body & Learning from Childbirth

A month ago I put my body through the most physical pain it’s ever been in. Yes, even worse than participating in the Spartan Beast in Killington, VT last summer that took me 8 1/2 hours to complete.

Thirty-one days ago I gave birth to a healthy, baby girl. I’d like to say I’m no hero but after experiencing childbirth I think I’ve earned the right. My pregnancy was free of major complications or complaints (other than the severe heartburn- do you see that head of hair?!) I can credit this to my genetics, a little bit of luck and the fact that my fitness was a priority before getting pregnant. Little did I know that everything I read and all the planning for the arrival of our baby was nothing compared to the reality of “the big day.”

My contractions started on a Tuesday morning at 3am. Every 30 minutes I’d feel pain that lasted about 40 seconds to 1 minute long. By Tuesday evening the pain had escalated to sharp stabbing waves in my lower back every 5 minutes. My husband and I got to the hospital thinking, “this is it,” but it wasn’t. I was only dilated one centimeter and needed to get up to ten! So, after enduring a night of contractions with no relief in sight, my doctor informed me I would be going home to rest, shower and eat. Rest? There was no way I could possibly rest in between those contractions.

When we got home it was like someone flipped a switch in my body. My contractions had gone from every 2-3 minutes at the hospital back up to every 30 minutes! What a cruel joke! If that was false labor I feared what the real thing would feel like.

Wednesday, was spent mostly rotating between a hot bath, hot shower and attempting to sleep in between the awful back spasms that came like clockwork. I begged my husband to dig his fists in my lower back as hard as he could while I would be doubled over sobbing from the awful feeling. That night my contractions got back down to every 8 minutes.  I had already been through so much and was exhausted. My body couldn't take much more but my mind knew I had no choice. I decided I would try to take control of what was happening to me. I would distract myself from the pain by running through the hallways of my home every time a contraction hit. I would stop in the kitchen and do deep squats while holding onto the stove. This had to help, I kept telling myself. I continued in this fashion until Thursday morning when I was scheduled for a visit at the doctors office. My due date was Friday.

At the office I was hooked up to a non-stress test to assess the babies heart rate and movements. The staff and nurses looked at me in horror every time I’d keel over screaming, “enough, I get it, now come out already!” Thankfully, the doctor confirmed what I hoped- all of my physical activity during the night and morning hours helped get me dilated to eight centimeters! We were off to the hospital and fast.

I have a deep respect for any woman who chooses to have a natural childbirth without any pain medication. But, I knew all along I’d want an epidural.  Now, it the midst of so much, I needed that epidural. BAD. There was a brief moment when it seemed as though my blood work wouldn’t be processed quickly enough for me to receive it. Fortunately, my relief arrived just in time. For the first time in three days, I smiled when I saw the doctor come in with the “goods.” My joy doubled when I realized I knew the doctor. My husband and I used to work out at a gym together with her. She was heaven sent. I never felt the needle go in and I didn’t feel a single contraction for the almost six hours after it was administered. Until, of course, the pushing began.

All the months of heartburn and discomfort boiled down to these final two hours and eighteen minutes. What an incredible experience. No one tells you how much down time there is in childbirth. In between contractions, which is the only time you’re pushing, you’re just laying there catching your breath and praying that the next push will be the one to end it all. I’ll never forget what one nurse kept telling me every time I breathlessly said, “I can’t.” She would repeat back, “I can’t lives on I won’t street, you CAN!” I promise to remember that phrase and repeat it to myself during my next triathlon.

The true test, naturally, isn’t in the time leading up to having a baby or the delivery itself. I understand, now, that my stamina and patience would be tested once our beautiful daughter entered the world and depended on us for survival.

The first week home was absolute hell. You hear this from people but until you live it, you don't realize how much they cry. They cry when they're hungry, they cry when they're wet and they cry when they're sleepy. They cry all the time, around the clock! I found myself reacting in the same way far too often. I would cry because of the pain in between my legs, cry because she wouldn't latch properly to breastfeed, then I'd cry some more because pumping wasn't producing a drop and finally I sobbed for two days straight when the engorgement took place. I had finally reached my limit and didn't want to suffer any longer. Furthermore, my baby lost weight and was starving. Looking back, the decision to switch to formula was the right one, but in the moment I felt so defeated and awful for giving up and not trying harder to make my body work for my baby.

Exactly one week after I got home from the hospital I decided I was healed enough to go for a run. Not only was I eager to get my body back quickly, but I craved the feeling of sunshine on my face, the wind in my hair and all that good stuff, so my husband and I went out for a light jog. Two miles later and the pain came rushing back worse than before. It was the stupidest decision I made during my entire pregnancy. I ignored all the signs that I wasn't ready and let my stubborn ambition get the best of me.

Now, thirty-one days later, our baby is sleeping 6-7 hours through the night. She cries a lot less because we've learned a lot more about what to do to make her comfortable. My body has even healed itself in ways I never thought imaginable. 

So what did I learn from childbirth? Well, for one thing you have to remember and keep repeating to yourself that, pain is only temporary. This is true for training, competing and yes, even pregnancy and childbirth. I know now, there are times when my mental strength will need to take a backseat. I realize there will be extreme cases when I have to tune out my brain and really listen and trust my body. I understand, on a deeper level, that our bodies are capable of enduring so much.  

The entire experience has made me a more loving wife, a more patient mother and overall a stronger more resilient, woman. I am grateful for all of it and can't wait for the next time I get to kick "pain" in the ass again. 

- Karen Gazzale