Prodromal labor is the pits. Having never heard of it before, I was overjoyed when I started feeling regular cramping sensations in my lower abdomen the Sunday before my son’s Tuesday due date. They actually started Saturday night, after a spicy Indian dinner at Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley (maybe it’s worth giving a try all you ladies ready to induce), but were so mild and a couple hours apart, I didn’t think much of them, even though they woke me up throughout the night. I carried on as usual that Sunday, and even tried out a new church, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. I mention this only because I wonder if the highly unusual experience also contributed to the process. There was incense and singing and dancing in circles around the beautiful sanctuary painted with a mural of saint icons that included the likes of John Coltrane and Sojourner Truth right alongside Mother Teresa and Frances of Assisi. During the dancing, the cramping became more intense, but I was so distracted by my husband holding hands with other parishioners and concentrating hard on his grapevine step, that I was busy just trying not to laugh.
Mutually deciding that was not the church for us, we went home to walk the dog, and that’s when these sensations that had felt like my usual period cramps started to intensify and come more frequently, about every half hour. My aunt called (sensing something from afar?) and I told her what it felt like and said, “But it can’t be contractions because I can talk through them, right?” I had the movie version of labor in my mind where women are always sweaty and cursing, but she assured me that “This is how it starts. You’re in labor!” Sure enough, when I got home from our walk and went to the bathroom, there was my mucous plug (I told you this would be nasty), a brownish gelatinous blob in my underwear. With equal parts revulsion and elation, I thought “Here we go!” I packed up any last items in our hospital-bound suitcase and my husband installed the car seat. I read over my affirmations and relaxation techniques one more time, preparing myself for this beautiful, natural, miraculous process to begin. I texted some friends and family the exciting news.
This turned out to be a bad idea. I was suddenly inundated with texts and calls checking in every few minutes to see how things were progressing. Which would have been great if there was progress to report. But for the next grueling twenty-four hours until Monday afternoon, these “cramps” became full-on contractions around ten minutes apart, but never closer than six minutes. The natural childbirth books suggest changing the language of labor to decrease the fear around it. Instead of contractions, they call them “surges” or “waves”, and encourage embracing each one as bringing your baby closer to arrival. But “contraction” was definitely more appropriate verbage. For about 30 seconds to a minute my body would tense up with enormous mind-numbing pressure. I tried to breathe into it. I tried getting in various positions – on all fours, draped over a birthing ball, my husband applying pressure into my hips or back, even taking hot showers – but nothing eased the feeling of a boa constrictor squeezing my mid-section tighter and tighter until the contraction passed and the serpent released me to recover for the next six minutes. My instinct when the constriction began again was not to breathe and relax, it was to tighten up and fight the pain.
Needless to say, I was not sleeping through this. So with the third evening approaching, and the contractions not getting any closer to the magic 5-1-1 we learned was the ticket to hospital admission (contractions 5 minutes apart, each lasting 1 minute, over at least a period of 1 hour), I called the labor and delivery midwife on duty exhausted and desperate for a solution.
“Sounds like prodromal labor,” she said. “Real labor always progresses. Contractions consistently increase in frequency and length. Yours have bounced back and forth between six and ten minutes. We can’t admit you until it turns into active labor.”
“You mean this is not real labor?” my voice cracked and tears started pouring down my weary face. If this pain wasn’t the real deal, how the hell could I handle active labor when it came? “This is all for nothing?”
“Prodromal labor is often called false labor, but it’s not nothing. Your body is preparing for birth. Your uterus, baby and cervix are getting ready, but prodromal labor can last for days, even weeks. Have a glass of wine, relax, and since you live close, don’t come in until your contractions are consistently three minutes apart. The best thing you can do now is get some rest.”
“REST?! How can I possibly rest?! I can’t take this anymore. Isn’t there anything you can do?” As another contraction came on, panic set in. This was not at all what I had imagined. Screw natural childbirth, I was ready for them to cut the kid out of me if that’s what it took to stop this pain.
“We can’t admit you, but what we can do is give you a morphine shot to help you sleep, which often is what your body needs to kick it into active labor.”
I hung up completely discouraged. This could last for days?! They had told me before they wouldn’t induce until 41 weeks. I might have to endure another week of this? Still, morphine seemed like a strange option. I immediately hopped online to see if anyone had anything to say about the matter. Turns out prodromal labor is not uncommon and I found several threads about women getting morphine to successfully rest up for active labor. As the hours pressed on and I found myself screaming into pillows in the living room at 4 a.m., I thought there’s no way I can carry on like this. I roused my snoring husband and said, “It’s time,” not in the sweet, exciting way I’d envisioned, but in an urgent, despairing tone. “Take me in, please. I need that morphine.”