Today, I write: This morning I talked about birth stories with a couple other mothers. We grimaced and waved our hands. One cried. I cried. Another mother, far older and wiser, as her children are all grown, described her first child's birth story. It began with, "It was my fault. I went to the hospital too soon." Her story ended with a Caesarean section... as though the end of the story was "her fault."
This is my story:
Beren was "sunny side up", one of the few wrong or less optimal positions a baby can be in at the time of birth. A baby should face the mother's spine, but my child faced the opposite way.
He was already ten days "late", and up until that point I had heard the phrase, "First baby, two weeks, early, two weeks late, right on time." When we passed one week late, my midwives were "on" me. "They'll be on you," my regular doctor had warned me.
As my due date came and went, extra tests were called. My face flushed and my heart raced at each appointment. I cancelled appointments during which test were scheduled. I called after hours, so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone at the office. I called my regular doctor, and burst into tears. "It's Rachel," I said. My doctor said, "They're on you, aren't they?"Yes, they were. "Right on time" became withering placentas, reduced amniotic fluid, deccelerations of the baby's heart, and so on.
Jared and I received so many calls and voicemails, "Has the baby been born yet?", that we turned off our phones.
I ate spicy foods. I went on long rambles in the forest. As grey clouds loomed, I pushed further into the woods thinking I could dare the baby out. My labor finally did start one night. I was fitful and painful. I sat in a "tub" I shoved into our shower stall. It was the largest storage bin I could find at Lowe's. I tossed red rose petals in, and tried to breathe regularly. I found the pains to be irregular and untime-able.
Late in the evening, we drove to the hospital. We were sent home from the hospital as I was not too far along. The rhythms of labor were not rhythmic at all.
I hadn't wanted to go to the hospital early, knowing I would receive an intravenous drip for Strep B, a common bacteria that many women carry in their vaginal canal. Hospital protocol stated that laboring mothers with Strep would receive IV doses of antibiotics throughout labor. If they were to refuse and if their newborn showed any signs of distress - irregular heartbeat or breathing - the infant would be taken from the parents, isolated and given IV antibiotic while tests results were pending. Newborns often have irregularities, I had read, so chances were high that our baby might be whisked into a sterile room, away from us. While I didn't want mega doses of antibiotics or to further medicalize our birth experience by drifting through the halls with a IV drip in tow, Jared and I decided we would rather not take chances.
We went back and were admitted though I was still not far along. We handed copies of our birth plan that outlined the birth we hoped to have. I was mostly phrased in the negative: No interventions unless medically necessary. No offer of pain medication. No episiotomy unless medically necessary. Discuss all interventions with Father first. Father announces baby's sex. Wait to clamp the cord. No formula. No Hepatitis B shots.
In triage, the midwife murmured something about the baby's position. I'd later come to understand Beren was "sunny side up", which meant a long, tiring, and painful labor.
When midwives changed shifts, the second midwife declared me less dilated than the first. And thus began my slide. Jared and I walked the halls. I sat in the tub with the lavender diffuser on. I tried nipple stimulation. Jared became concerned about a significant health problem I had had - an aneurysm that had clotted itself fifteen years prior. He discussed it with the midwife. There was a terrible confrontation with the midwife and me during which my labor creaked and stumbled.
Jared dozed beside me and tired to keep quiet so he could sleep. In the darkened room, the hours passed. I was alone. I writhed and gasped. It was difficult to urinate. I had no food or water.
In the morning, two midwives- the one who had been on duty and the one just coming on- entered my room and demanded that I call my former neurosurgeon and be cleared for a vaginal birth. "You are lucky that your labor progressed so slowly or you would have had a Caesarean already," one said.
They left the room. Jared and I were stunned. I had not seen my neurosurgeon in at least seven years. We begged the labor nurse to help us find his number. My labor stopped as I focused on this crisis.
Jared called his office, leaving an urgent message with the receptionist. My neurosurgeon, a very kind and elderly man, had not retired. He was not involved in a ten hour surgery. He was not on vacation. He told the obstetrician, "I don't see why not," when ask if I could continue laboring. I wept and blubbered in front of the midwives, "Thank you. I am so embarrassed." I hated myself for showing weakness. Hated.
The third midwife advised that I use Pitocin to stimulate my labor which had not resumed. I was thankful that the pain stopped. I considered leaving the hospital.
Instead, I got into the shower and let how water run over my breast. I rubbed my nipples. I took a few dropperfuls of black cohosh tincture. I felt hopeful after my neurosurgeon's return call, but my labor did not begin anew. The midwife returned to our room.
Jared and I, first time parents to be, were left alone. I called my regular doctor and wept. She gave me some guidance and explained my options. We talked herbs and homeopathy. "Sometimes people get tired. It's ok to be tired," she said gently.
"I think I'll use the Pitocin," I told him. "I just want to have this baby." Jared left the room to find the midwife. Wordlessly, the labor nurse prepped my arm and the midwife administered Pitocin. "How long from now do most women have their babies?" I asked. "Usually a couple hours or so," she replied. "OK, I can do that," I said and laughed. She did not reply.
By now I had in labor for about 40 hours. I would have another six to go.
The nurse and midwife left us alone again. I felt as though they were punishing us for wanting a different birth, for fighting for our child and ourselves, for asking questions, and going slowly. What followed were the most agonizing, gripping pains I have ever felt. I felt like someone was grinding a knife on my pelvis. When I watched the heart monitor, Jared gently coaxed my eyes away. The monitor's lines were jagged and uneven, the irregular rhythm of a sunny side up baby labor. I sat on a birthing ball, but felt like the ball prevented the baby from coming out.
With my increasingly intense contractions, our baby's heart deccelerated. I laid on my back, the worst position for labor, but still without food, water, or sleep for days I energy for nothing else, nor did anyone suggest anything else. Jared stood beside the bed. He held my hand and calmly talked to me. He appeared to be miles away. When I stared at the monitor, I saw the jagged, irregular lines of contractions and our baby's heartbeat. "Don't look at that," Jared said quietly.
His mother waited in the lounge, and he occasionally left me alone to confer with her and seek her wisdom. I then felt terribly alone, but I understand with her support she was able to make him strong and courageous enough to play his role. He answered all the midwife's questions, giving me the space to labor.
The nurse and midwife who had been watching my labor via the heart monitors. They increased the dosage of Pitocin, unsatisfied by my progress and left again. They would soon emerge from behind the nurses' station, as my labor intensified.
"You've been in one position too long," the midwife said. "You really should move even twenty minutes."I had long stopped watching the clock. They rolled me to my side, and I felt a POP. Baby's head had turned the correct direction, though baby's body did not. "You thought that was difficult. Now you will push with all your might," the midwife said.
I roared like a lioness for a few hours. I was surprised to hear my deep, guttural utterances. I briefly imagined laboring mothers passing by my door becoming afraid of what they heard. Jared continued to be a rock. No doubt his armor had been pierced by our experience.
"Would you like to feel the top of the baby's head?" the midwife asked. I did and was disappointed to feel just a small portion of skull. I declined to look with a mirror, fearing further disappointment. The midwife soon asked Jared if she could perform an episiotomy. He agreed. The nurse and midwife murmured about heart rates.
The monitor showed mother and child in distress. An oxygen mask was put on my face. A monitor was put on top of the baby's skull. It broke. Another one went on. The room began to pulse with the energy of its inhabitants. I roared into the plastic mask, watching it fill with the meager mist produced by my parched throat.
I felt my baby's head emerge. I few more pushes and then my baby's shoulder. The other and then my entire child screamed into this world. It felt like someone tumbled down the stairs between my legs. "A couple more pushes for the placenta," I heard the midwife say. I could not believe it. I weakly pushed as nurses rubbed my baby with paper towels. I wished and I had asked that baby would be given right to me.
"Dad! Is it a boy or a girl?" a nurse shouted. The midwife sewed my episiotomy closed. I watched her intent gaze on my vagina. Someone took my placenta away in a bucket. I wanted to see it, but was too tired to talk. Everything felt absurd. "A boy!" Jared said.
They rubbed my fluid into this baby's skin, weighed him, and put a "Baby Low Jack" device on his ankle, so that alarms would ring and doors would lock should he be taken from the ward. "Would you like him to have a vitamin K injection?" someone asked. "I don't know. Should we?" I could hardly talk. "Your labor was long. I recommend it," replied the midwife. I nodded, and this little baby received a painful jab to his heel to stop any bleeding.
Finally, a nurse put a little red creature with bluish feet and hands to my breast. His head bounced back and forth. "It's like he was born to nurse!" she exclaimed. I held my little baby close. I could not see what color his eyes were. They look large and black. He nursed and then slept. Day had become night.
Jared held our baby close. He looked radiant. I felt quiet, flabby, and hollow like my belly. When Beren awoke we watched him, held him. We changed his diaper in the darkness. We called the nurses asking about his fingernails, which he scraped his tender cheeks with.
Later, he began to cry and neither of us could comfort him. "Why won't he stop crying?" I called the nurse. "Has your milk come in?" she asked. "How should I know?" I thought. I felt stupid. "I don't know," I said, and she offered no clues. "I can give him an ounce of formula," she said. I glanced at the length of masking tape on the handle to his bassinet. It read, "NO FORMULA. NO PACIFIER."
"No, I will wait," I said. She would ask again an hour later when our baby continued to cry. I'd again refuse.
We asked the nurse to take the baby to the nursery. I had not slept in days. Jared had slept but a few. Our room became silent. I changed the bloody pad in my underwear and repacked it with ice. I hobbled down the hall to the kitchenette. On the way, I looked directly at one baby. His face was red and his mouth open in a scream. I knew this was my baby. Emptiness loomed. I turned away, and continued my shuffle down the hall. I fixed myself a cup of tea with extra honey to soothe my raw throat. On the way back to my room, I lingered at the nursery window, watching my little boy scream. Back in the room, Jared turned my heart monitor to face the wall and covered it with a sheet. He and I slept, except for the endless interruptions to check my vital signs.
Around 4 a.m., the nurse brought our baby to us. We held him. I nursed him. He had no name. In the early afternoon, we wrote several names on the dry erase board, below the nurse's name and phone extension number. We erased one and then another. We erased one letter from the remaining name. We then had chosen our son's name, "Beren."
A series of people - nurses, a baby photographer, a hospital administrators with birth certificate paperwork, and a clergyman - knocked and entered our room. I was exhausted and rattled. Jared asked the photographer and clergyman to not return. One nurse asked me to fill in a postpartum depression survey. As I checked boxes, I thought that I could not truly answer these questions. I had hardly any feelings at all. The nurse checked my stitches. "Looks good. No hemorrhoids, either," she said.
Later, the midwife who I had had a confrontation with came into my room. She wore jeans and a t-shirt. She was not on duty, but I suspected she had come back to the hospital just to see me. She leaned up against the sink, arms folded, legs crossed as she had in our prenatal appointments. I can hardly recall what she said, but something threatening like, "You would have had a C-section." And something grudging like, "Most women would not have done what you did. You did not use medication." I felt as though she hated me.
My parents came to pick us up and bring us home. When my father used the hospital bathroom, I imagined him looking at the wastebasket full of my bloody sanitary napkins. Jared wheeled me out of the hospital into the parking lot. We had entered the building at it had still been autumn. During our stay winter had come.
At home, my parents brought us two dinners from Boston Chicken. We gratefully ate them. I wept at the table. My father would later ask my mother, "Why does Rachel cry so much lately?" She'd answer, "Try having a baby."
I would cry and weep for weeks, months, years. I was in shock. When I was no longer in shock, I fell into a dark rabbit hole. Dark thoughts, sad thoughts, knifes danced around me and my baby. I'd watch these scenes form the hospital in my mind. I'd be buffeted by waves of sadness, guilt and anger. Jared and I held each other as we wept, night after night.
My doctor, who had been our voice of wisdom, told us at Beren's first appointment when he was just 24 hours old, "Look at your baby. He is calm. It is because of you two that he is calm. He is healthy. You had a natural birth. Don't let anyone say otherwise. Now, go home, and don't do anything else for the rest of the day."
I would call up our doctor's words, "He is a calm baby." And then, I'd beat myself up terribly for leaving him for a couple hours to cry in the nursery. I'd blame his wakefulness at night on myself. I would try to tell myself, "Other babies, babies that were born 'easily' at home, are also wakeful. Babies with great parents, awful parents, and no parents are wakeful." It was difficult to believe.
The early days and weeks with our newborn were difficult and long. I hardly left the house but to fill the birdfeeder. It was difficult to recover from giving the physical and emotional labors of birth while caring for a newborn.
When I heard from those I told parts of the story to, "You are lucky to have a healthy baby. That's all that matters," I thought I would scream in rage. No, no, no. Birth is the beginning, a beginning. Shouldn't beginnings be lovely, or at least without terror? They made you afraid, and then they left you alone with the fear, our doctor would also say. It will take you a long time to heal because you are actually thinking about it, because you know that it should not have been this way.
Just over two and a half years later, my wounds have shifted. I can't say they've healed. They are different, less potent. I look at my family and we are no longer shaped only by our birth experience. We are we.