Empowered Birth: Kristina May (Valjas) Shares Her Story

It was such an honor to support Kristina and her husband John during the birth of their son Max. Kristina is a Team Canada Beach Volleyball Olympian, and one super strong mama! Her birth experience was such an inspiration, and she has generously offered to share her story. You can read her interview below:

As a doula, it’s important to provide non-judgmental support of someone’s birth choices, especially their decisions about having or not having pain medication. You chose to not have an epidural. What were some of the reasons you wanted try for an unmedicated birth?

Kristina: I had never done this before, so I didn’t know what to expect…other than I was in for a lot of pain! I didn’t know how intense it would be and how I might react to it. I started thinking about my birth preferences after talking to many women about their birth experiences (good and bad), reading Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, and learning about the epidural procedure (and risks) at our birth class. The thought of having an epidural seemed to take some of the control of the situation out of my hands and that actually scared me almost as much as the delivery itself. I learned that our bodies are amazing and powerful and can handle almost anything when it comes to giving birth. I also hoped that the recovery from an unmedicated birth would be relatively smooth and quick. I am grateful that my birth experience was uncomplicated and I did in fact have a good recovery. It was such an empowering experience.

What were some of the things that helped you to cope with the intensity of your labour?

Kristina: I mentally prepared myself for what I expected would be the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I basically expected at some point I might feel like I was going to die. Setting my expectation to an extreme helped me realize that what I was experiencing wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. In reality, it never got to the point where I thought I was going to die. Also, taking each contraction ‘one minute at a time’ (something I repeated over and over to myself) helped keep it small and manageable. If I had let myself think about how much more work had to be done, it would have been so discouraging. I remember in early labour when my contractions were getting stronger and I was told I was still only at 1cm of dilation. That was tough!

Also, being in sync with my husband John and you (as my doula) meant we could work together as a team to get through each contraction. We made an agreement beforehand that I would be as direct as I needed to be to express what labour coping methods were helpful and what definitely wasn’t working.

For example, I batted John away a few times because a new position suddenly felt better than the one I was in during the previous contraction. No matter what I did or said, you both knew it wasn’t personal! You stayed with me and kept trying things to help, with lots of love and supportive words along the way.

What was helpful for you when you felt fearful or afraid?

Kristina: A few times I felt afraid when I didn’t prepare for my contraction mentally and physically. If I didn’t get totally focused and start breathing in deep rhythm before the start, I felt like it (the contraction) overcame me and I was just helplessly in pain. With preparation, I had a different reaction to the pain. I also remember at a tough moment asking you to confirm that you had done this (had a baby) before, and it turned out fine, and you were doing great now, which really helped me feel like everything I was feeling was normal.

I remember that we were all in awe because you were smiling at 8 cm of dilation (during transition), the most intense part of your labour. You told me afterwards it was because you realized in that moment you had a choice. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Kristina: At that time, things were getting very intense. If I thought the contractions were painful early on, I had no idea what was coming! But in the break between contractions during transition, I literally thought to myself: this can go one of two ways. I can deal with a contraction and then spend my down time panicking about the next one, letting my mind think of the worst and spending what little energy I had on being a afraid, or I could relax in that brief moment and keep my thoughts positive. I remember rocking back and forth and smiling, partly because the contraction was over and it felt nice to not be in pain (and simply appreciate that feeling), and partly because I felt a smile was a physical demonstration of my effort to have a positive mindset. I think it definitely helped.

Are there any memorable or even funny moments you or John would like to share?

Kristina: Yeah, there were actually a few funny moments during my labour. One was about 5 hours into labour, I was in the tub and I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink yet. John offered me an arrowroot cookie I had packed in my hospital bag. In between contractions he fed one to me. As I was chewing it, it felt really dry in my mouth and I felt another contraction coming along, so I turned my head to look at John and literally spit the cookie out all over him just as I was entering another contraction. It was so surprising that it was funny, we still laugh about that now.

I remember we laughed about it at the time too. John had to go and change his pants!

Kristina: Another moment I remember is when the doctor was in the room because I had started pushing. In the downtime between contractions, he started to engage in small talk with a nurse, this convoluted story about a surgery he had on his hip or something. I suddenly felt a contraction coming on and I yelled “SAVE IT!”at him and started pushing. He finished his story after the contraction was over.

You were so powerful in that moment, and you rightfully redirected the focus back to where it needed to be! How did you feel when you met your baby for the first time?

Kristina: I think the best word to describe how I felt was…shock! I had imagined how I might react when I was pregnant, I pictured myself smiling with tears of joy. But when I did my last push and heard “It’s a boy!” and had this slimy little human that was just INSIDE me put ON TOP of my chest, I was in complete shock. Partly because the pregnancy and labour were finally over, and partly because I was meeting my little son for the first time and it was so surreal!


Adjusting to life with a newborn baby is such a huge transition. What did you struggle with postpartum?

Kristina: I found that at the end of my pregnancy I had so much free time, I was bored! I would nap every day, sometimes twice a day. All that changed drastically as soon as I went into labour, and I haven’t looked back since! Having a newborn felt like I had no free time in the early weeks. I went from boredom to having so much to think about and organize and clean etc. I was tired, in a new and different way. I didn’t know what tired felt like until we brought Max home! I struggled with making sure I got enough sleep to be able to stay on top of things. It’s a tough balance. The first few days I had so much adrenaline I didn’t sleep at all. But then it caught up with me and I felt overwhelmed because I was so tired I couldn’t think straight. I appreciate having John to help, and my mom would come over so I could nap for an hour or two to catch up on my sleep. Another challenge I faced was breastfeeding. I couldn’t get a latch for the first couple of weeks, so I would pump every 2-3 hours and John or I would feed Max with a bottle. Then I tried using a nipple shield for about 3 weeks to help transition to breastfeeding. Finally now we have got the hang of it and I actually find it enjoyable.

What was helpful for you postpartum?

Kristina: We loved showing off our new baby to family and friends, but in the first two weeks I found that keeping the visits to 30min was ideal. It was exhausting for me to have people over and chat and get excited about everything all over again. But the best thing was if people brought food over. I had so much to think about, cooking was hardly on my radar, so to have that and the cleaning covered was SO appreciated.

How do you think your experience of birth and motherhood might influence being an athlete?

Well first of all, I thought I knew what tired felt like. During training I would work hard and be exhausted afterwards, but labour was like that x10! I will appreciate that when I get back to training, knowing that my body is capable of handling so much stress, and that I really can push myself. Labour also confirmed to me the power of your mentality. In keeping a positive mindset and staying totally focused on the task, you are truly capable of accomplishing amazing things.


Looking back, what do you and John feel were the main benefits of having doula support?

We are so glad we decided to have a doula with this birth experience. It was nice having you as a resource to talk to about my birth preferences. You gave me questions to think about ahead of time so I could be a little more prepared for the big day, and in doing so, you knew exactly what my wishes were for my labour, and helped me stay strong when things got tough. John and I both appreciated you being there during the entire labour to help figure out ways to cope, and to be a calm and steady voice to reassure both of us that everything was going well, even when sometimes I had moments of doubt. The constant support and affirmations that I was strong and capable helped keep me going.



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