Buckle up. This is a long one. This is the post I’ve been thinking about writing, and then changing my mind about for the last nine months. Now, as my little man (born nearly nine pounds, on the ninth day of the ninth month, nine months ago to the minute) begins life longer “on the outside” than he was on the inside, it seems like the right moment. Still, I vacillated even while writing between feeling like I was sharing too much and not enough. As a doula, birth is a subject close to my heart. This was never meant to be a complete documenting of our birth (I won’t get into the many walks we took, the cake I baked, or the point at which I tried to prune our hydrangeas), but my hope is that in sharing this glimpse into our story, I might help other women in some small way. Perhaps to heal. Perhaps to not feel alone.
Birth stories. Lord knows there are enough of them out there. Books are filled by them. Whole websites are devoted to them. Believe me, I know. I spent a good chunk of my pregnancy reading them. I was all about the empowering, beautiful stories, naturally. The stories that read like a schedule of progressive contractions, followed by bit of moaning and bouncing on a birth ball, and then Fire! Thunder! Whale Song!…Hey Presto! ecstatic, powerful mom pushes out beautiful baby into lovely water and dancing candlelight. This is not one of those stories. Mine was not such a birth. Oh there was water (Jacob estimates we spent, all told, about 16 hours in the birth tub), and there was candlelight. For about 50 odd hours. Then there was another 18 hours with florescent lights, and hard plastic bed rails, and strangers, and finally there were needles and cold steal. And then 3 more days spent between the maternal recovery ward and the NICU when Q spiked a high fever in his second day of life. If you ever want to see what hell looks like, look into the eyes of a parent whose child is in that, the most desperate of places. I thank all the angels of the universe that our stay was a brief and relatively minor one. I send all the love of the universe to those parents battling for their children, wherever they may be.
As the great and redoubtable doula (and my teacher!) Penny Simkin likes to say: birth matters. So many people will tell you what matters is a healthy baby and (a mostly alive) mom. Yes. And. Birth matters. Penny would also tell you that in her research as a birth anthropologist, she has found that women remember the story of their children’s births long after they’ve forgotten most everything else. Often, even Alzheimer’s cannot erase that memory. Women will tell the story of their birth(s), often in precisely the same way, year after year. The crucible shapes and changes each of us mothers, no matter what the process or outcome. And it’s meant to, no? It is our first great lesson of motherhood, and if we pay close attention, it will tell us so much about ourselves and our child.
We didn’t even pack a hospital bag. Q was last spotted in the highly desirable LOA position. I am a tough and educated birth worker. I am a highly seasoned yoga practitioner. I’ve survived my share of hardship. I’ve miscarried, I’ve loved and lost, laughed and danced, and run long distances. I’ve gone with the flow, and breathed. Everything I am resonates with home birth. In my mind, there was no way we were going to the hospital unless there was some kind of emergency. You guys. Pack a hospital bag. The last thing you want to worry about when you’ve been laboring for three nights without sleep, and with real deal contractions coming every 2 minutes, is whether your husband remembered to grab clean underwear and your hairbrush. (He had.) Our little man, our champion rib kicker, who was so mobile in utero that ultrasound techs had to chase him around my womb, had flipped to the OP or sunny-side up position and was staying there, head tilted (or asynclitic). No help from our incredible midwife, no change in position on my part, no movement or non-movement had made any difference during those exhausting three days and nights. In the last few hours, after coping with fair success through wave after wave, I was instructed to fight my body’s urge to push with each contraction (which as any mother can tell you is about the most urgent, instinctive, biological imperative out there) in an attempt to alleviate swelling. My dears. This was the hardest physical thing I have ever done, or expect to ever have to do. It took every shred I had, ever molecule of strength, every drop of water sipped, ever calorie not coming back up into helpfully placed bowls. But even after all that it just…Still. Wasn’t. Happening.
What do we do when something goes totally south? When there comes a time that all your best intentions and best laid plans run headlong into a cold, hard reality that unmercifully leaves you beached and gasping?
In the Seattle area, we are lucky enough to have one of the most vibrant birth communities, an environment in which women are (for the most part) able to be advocate for their individual needs, and have plenty of support in following the natural birth process to the extent they want and are able. Unfortunately, this is a double edged sword – the natural birth community (of which I count myself a part, mind you) is constantly railing against the use of interventions, and pointing to the unnecessary use of Cesarean birth. Did you notice that? Cesarean BIRTH? Allow me to briefly dive further down this rabbit hole if I could… In my doula studies, I read the (highly recommended) book, Birthing From Within by Pam England and was struck by the emphasis on this semantic choice. When you consider the difference of verbiage between Cesarean birth and Cesarean section, or the even more alienating term “had a C-section,” does the first not strike you as dramatically more empowering to the mother? And is it not equally an act of labor and love? Actually, let me answer that for you. Yes. Yes, it is more empowering and yes it most emphatically is. The majority of Cesarean births are not elective procedures. This means women are being forced by circumstance or otherwise (we won’t get into the fraught territory of “reasons” for Cesareans today) to undergo major surgery in order to delivery their baby. Clearly this is a traumatic experience! For me, this was compounded by a level of judgement around Cesarean birth versus “natural” birth. Don’t misunderstand me, I was on the judging side, glibly listing out the WHO recommended percentage of Cesarians (10%-15%) versus our national percentage (hovering around 33%). Those poor helpless women making up the delta, I thought, simply need to be educated on the natural birth process, encouraged to advocate for themselves, and have access to solid support. Isn’t it incredible how the world has a way of teaching us the truth? Even when it is painful. [I’d also like to add here: if you are a mother who is struggling after a Cesarean birth, please seek out support anywhere you can find it. There is a wonderful organization called ICAN as well, which has local chapter meet-ups.]
For me, yes, it was incredibly traumatic. It was everything I didn’t want for myself or my child. We fought the medicalized birth tooth and nail all the way to the end, searching out alternative paths as each door slammed closed. At 68 hours, with my temperature rising, and Quentin’s heart rate dipping with each contraction, I yielded (sobbing) to the knowledge that there were no more paths to take.
I hadn’t slept in days. After Q was born, I tried to catch a few hours here and there between medical staff shift changes. But each time I’d start to drift off my poor traumatized body would convulse violently in on itself, trying to protect against unseen hurt. My face was so puffy from crying and fluids that even when I tried to smile it looked like a frown. I’d lost my voice from vocalizing with the contractions. The things that were once my feet were now a pair of wallowing hippopotamuses. I turned out to be allergic to the truly horrendous mesh underwear they give you in the hospital (don’t ask) and developed a fiercely itching rash all over my battered stomach and aching back. I grieved for what I had lost. I mourned for the dashed dream of my peaceful home birth, the imagined gentle welcome for my sweet baby, the once wholeness of my body.
And yet. Throughout those harrowing 68 hours and after, I had the love and support of the strongest, most compassionate and selfless husband. I had the love and support of the fiercest, ceaselessly believing mother. I had the love and support of the most tireless, gentlest, truest friend. We came together in that special way people do when facing a trying, powerful situation shoulder to shoulder. Then, in the aftermath once we were home and everything was “normal” enough for the full extent of what had transpired to come crashing down on me, my sister flew across the country to keep dinner on the table and put me back together when I broke. Which I did. Repeatedly. There was memories of the angel-like, serendipitously timed train of nurses. There were other friends bringing food and solace. It was truly beautiful to be bathed in their nurturing energy and I will be forever grateful. And I learned about my child and myself. Ultimately, I learned that I am strong. Stronger than I would have known, and stronger now than I would have been if I’d had that fairytale birth. I learned the first and most important lesson of motherhood with every fiber of my being. And that lesson is: it’s not about me. Each child has their own path, right from the start. This sweet and precious life has been entrusted to my care, and I have become wider, broader, hallowed, spacious for it. This child brings joy without measure, love without end, and laughter to my life every day. He is truly a singular being. No matter the circumstances of our birth, I am blessed beyond my ability to express just to be his mother.
It may be cheesy, but for me, in the end, what best describes our birth is the immortal genius of Leonard Cohen: “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
I love you, Quentin. Happy nine months my sweet child.