Woke from a nightmare. Primal, bloody, terrifying. I think I was giving birth.
What I really remember came before that, though. I was riding a bus with Micah. It was the middle of a blizzard, and I felt I was going into labor. For some reason, I felt the need to leave Micah on the bus, I guess so I could labor and deliver in private. So I got off the bus, and was left by myself on a quiet street of houses. It was cold and dark. Snow swirled violently, and I could only make out shadows of large looming trees. The lights in every house were off, curtains drawn. Suddenly I felt terribly lonely and vulnerable. I felt I’d made a mistake in getting off the bus, and desperate to get back to Micah. I began running, terrified of what would happen to him all alone. I was also fearful of the advancing labor. I tried calling David on my cellphone, but he didn’t answer, and I felt abandoned, but somehow not surprised. Mostly I felt painfully alone.
This post has been a long time coming. I need to sort through some of my deepest anxieties about this upcoming birth.
Disclaimer: I hesitate to share this writing. First, it’s deeply personal as are every woman’s birth stories. Second, trauma is relative. I hesitate to use the word “trauma” because Micah’s birth was never catastrophic. Nobody experienced any real threat of death and my pain – while severe at times – was short-lived. I hate to think of women reading this who actually lost an infant or who were so busy facing the new reality of disease or disability that they never even had time to process their childbirths. But, for myself, I need to stop avoiding my feelings and fears surrounding childbirth, because I have no choice about confronting the situation again. I’m sharing it because sharing helps to heal.
My first meeting with Micah wasn’t much like the mother/baby meetings you see in the movies. For one, it happened a good hour or so after he entered the world. By that time, there was a whole cocktail of emotions going on. There was fascination. Of course that’s what you look like, gorgeous! I remember thinking. There was relief, I suppose. But mostly there was weakness, exhaustion, uncontrollable shivering, and uncertainty. And when they took him away (I’m ashamed to say I was grateful for it, because I didn’t feel equipped to love or care for him just then) an unpredictable emotion rose to the surface: mourning.
I wasn’t mourning the “birth experience.” Honestly, I never gave a shit about that, and I used to roll my eyes at women who did. Why are you making this all about you? I’d think. You’re having a baby. Women all over the world do it every day. Focus on the new life, not on your “birth into motherhood” or whatever bullshit. No, I wasn’t mourning the empowering and spiritual experience I’m not sure if I expected to have or not. I was mourning the future children I’d always envisioned we’d have. Because I just knew, in that moment, that I would never be able to go through the terrifying, painful, out-of-control experience of childbirth again. Even for all the joy new life brings.
Following that, there were a couple days spent recovering in a hospital bed. There was supposed to be one more, but I signed myself out early, because I couldn’t stand to be there a moment longer. At our only available local hospital, mothers have to share rooms and fathers can not stay overnight. I shared a room with a woman who’d also just had her first child, a son as well. She’d had him five or six weeks early, an enormous baby delivered via C-section due to gestational diabetes. He was struggling in the NICU, and she was in agony with worry over it, unable to leave her bed to see him. Having her there was a mixed blessing. It killed me to hear her heartache, while I, bedridden as well, helpless, clueless, and in a great deal of physical pain, faced my own tiny, vulnerable son. What the hell do I do now? I’d think every time he cried, unable to admit my desperation in consideration of my neighbor who would’ve traded with me in a heart beat. But I had absolutely no confidence in my mothering, and everything I did seemed to confirm it. As much as he tried, he couldn’t latch to my breast, and nurse after nurse would pinch and pull and force, and eventually leave in frustration. He’d been cut out of me in the morning, and by the middle of the night, unable to get any nourishment from me, they took him away and bottle-fed him formula. I felt a failure, but another part of me was relieved that I didn’t have to be face-to-face with that failure. Meanwhile, my neighbor lamented while I felt like a horrible person. Her doting husband showed up first thing each morning. Mine made it in around 10am. We’ve talked about it since – he didn’t realize it at the time – but I felt utterly abandoned. I suppose I’d have preferred my own room where I could cry freely. When the catheter was out and I was finally able to painfully scuttle into the bathroom, I cried there. But the one thing I appreciated about having that woman there was that in the middle of the night we were each other’s only available kindness.
So, here I am, pregnant again, and only two years later. Micah didn’t erase my memory of that experience. But in that moment when I was mourning future children, I had no real idea what a wonderful JOY we were in store for. Our love for him didn’t hit us in a big wave of euphoria, like it seems to in the movies (and like I have no doubt it does for many). But in the days and weeks and months that followed his painful birth, it sprouted and bloomed, and before long we understood the overwhelming love of parent for child. And despite the potential trauma of bringing a child into the world and the vulnerability that comes with raising a child in the world, we wanted a home even more full of that incredible love. I have no doubt that with two our love won’t be divided, but will multiply. In fact, last summer when a friend told us, with a hint of trepidation, that she was expecting her first, it melted my heart to see tears in David’s eyes. He was overjoyed for her, knowing before she could what happiness she was in store for.
So here we are. But the fear remains. In fact, upon learning I was pregnant this time around, the second thought after Awesome, we’re having another one! was Oh fuck. How will I ever get this one out? So, what am I so afraid of? That’s clearly what I need to sort through and make sense of. Maybe come up with a different strategy this time.
The pain of labor completely blindsided me. I’d taken a class, read a couple books. But very soon after real contractions started (water broken, Pitocin-induced), wave upon unrelenting wave of them, I was doubled over and baring down against it. I think that was my first mistake – bracing myself against them, viewing them as the terrifying enemy. I needed to view contractions as they really are – the necessary phenomena that bring babies into the world, each one bringing him closer and closer out. So I was there, huddled over the bed, thinking, Oh holy fuck, THIS is what they’re talking about!! I can hardly bare one of these, much less unknowable HOURS of them. David was the only one at my side, I think every bit as scared as I was. I quickly realized why doulas are hired. He couldn’t tell me with any authority that it was all okay. He couldn’t, calmly and coolly, give me little tips and strategies to get through them. Neither one of us was prepared for the intensity and speed with which those contractions would overtake me. And even the nurses were hard to find.
In 24 hours of labor, I saw the doctor a small handful of times – I think about twice to check my dilation, and about twice during pushing. She was not a calm and constant presence, assuring me everything I was experiencing was normal, guiding me through it, offering instructions. She just seemed to be there to order from a nurse-messenger one move after the next: IV, Pitocin, crank the Pitocin, epidural, oops fetal distress, decrease Pitocin, check, check, and push! It wasn’t even the doctor who told me how to push, but the nurse.
I suppose that was my first real mistake, allowing myself to be pressured into one unnecessary intervention after the next – the IV that hindered my movement, the Pitocin that artificially knocked me on my ass and triggered late decelerations and fetal distress, the epidural that allowed me to endure the pain but incapacitated me from moving into position to successfully push (despite hours of effort), and finally the C-section. I could’ve better advocated, at least in the beginning, before the pain blinded me or the drugs crippled me.
In the end, the pain was intense, but short-lived. The early obstacles were surmountable (including breastfeeding). Our child was healthy. The surgery was sort of shitty to recover from, and I rationed Vicodin like it was water in the desert. But for the most part, the bruising was emotional. Yet, in the days and weeks that followed, when I could feel my uterus contracting back to its former size, that slight hint of labor pain took me back to that experience of feeling completely terrified and out of control. That’s mostly what childbirth was for me – not so much painful, but scary.
So this time I’m hoping for different.
We’ll be leaving home for a month in order to birth at a hospital with a reputation for more woman-centered, holistic care that avoids unnecessary interventions, and allows women to labor at their own pace. In fact, it’s a team of midwives who deliver most babies. At the same time, they are better equipped than our local hospital to handle emergencies requiring surgery, with a trauma center, NICU, and OB/GYNs present at all times as well.
We’ve hired an experienced doula to help me work WITH the contractions and not against them. I now understand that it’s unfair to expect fathers – completely inexperienced in childbirth and way too emotionally attached to their partners – to handle this challenging and important task effectively.
I’ve been reading different, more empowering birth stories and literature than during my last pregnancy, and have been much, much more accepting and understanding of the whole “birth into motherhood” stuff. Last time I thought, How bad can it be? It’s all over in a day or two. Now I realize how much can happen in a day or two, and there’s nothing wrong with some mental preparation. Although every birth is different, and there are certainly plenty of factors outside of my control, I now believe I have a tremendous say in the positivity, negativity, and ultimately SUCCESS of our own childbirth experience. (Much in the same way that sex can vary a great deal on your own attitude surrounding it – both are physical experiences that are tremendously emotionally charged.)
… So okay, that was a lot of the necessary unpacking of baggage. I still have some sorting and formulating to do. But this was a start.