the story that I most need to tell: tiger stripes (revised)
I woke in the middle of the night to revise this piece. Obviously, it resonated powerfully in me...
Thank you for the chance to share it...twice.
After living as a human woman for 35 years, I became a tiger.
Despite all my intentions, self-education, and conscious choices to give birth in the least medicalized way possible, I ended up in “the system” anyway. My son – a feisty little child born under the sign of Leo – was born early. In spite of his “prematurity,” he was thriving and healthy and absolutely nothing was wrong with him. But what started out as a brief “checkup” after he was born, ended up as a week-long imprisonment in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit under the care of a chauvinistic male doctor who liked to play god.
When my water broke abruptly one Friday evening in August, I found myself abandoned to “the system” – I arrived at the witching hour of nursing shifts, had a midwife rather than a doctor as my advocate in the hospital (a woman I had only just met, mind you, as my midwife was not on call that weekend), had no previous records on file (since I had chosen to get prenatal care with a private midwife), and had originally intended to deliver at the Birthing Center but due to the “emergency” circumstances of my son’s early arrival, was disqualified from that divine space and instead shuttled to the regular maternity ward. I was not allowed to eat during labor. I was strapped to a fetal heart monitor which, during the intensifying contractions and precipitous 2 ½ hour labor, kept telling me I was not in labor. I was left in recovery with a cloying heart monitor keeping me from sleeping and nurses who did not know how to fix the obvious pinging error in the machine. They took my newborn son from me for “routine observation” and I did not get to see him for seven hours, despite my incessant requests and pleas.
It was only went I resorted to the most girlish crying tantrums that anyone took me seriously. No one listened to the PhD-educated, intelligent, informed, consciously choosing woman. They only heard a hysterical mother. My uterus was raw and bleeding, and my stomach marked by deep, red stretch lines. I cried raw, angry, loud tears. My voice sounded alien to me, because I realized, I was learning how to roar.
Then, when I was supposed to be bonding with my son and learning to breastfeed, the NICU’s “systems” kept thwarting us. Instead of allowing my milk to come in naturally, I had to pump to artificially stimulate it. Instead of allowing my son to take what he wanted from my breasts in his own time, bottles of iron-fortified formula where forced down his throat in order to boost his weight. Instead of being able to hold and cuddle my child at will, he was kept in an isolette under phototherapy lamps, naked and alone with a blindfold to protect his eyes from the UV light, frightened, screaming. I was not supposed to watch them cut his tiny little foot every morning with a lancet to draw blood to monitor his bilirubin levels in case I did something “weak” and “feminine” like faint or swoon – but I demanded to, and did, anyway.
No one saw the human mother who wanted to make choices for her infant son. The system tried to silence me, to stifle my questions, to take care of business without interference from a meddling mother. My midwife was ignored when she tried to advocate on my behalf because midwives, you know, are ciphers within the medical regime, allowed to be there but only under the supervision of the attending medical gods. I felt hopeless and angry. My body was sore and recovering and my mind was racing, trying to find a way to release my son from interventions I knew to be unnecessary and undesired.
Then, to make matters worse, I had to go head-to-head with the NICU’s attending physician, who either ignored me altogether or when he graced me with a reply, dismissed my queries about my son’s progress, patronizingly telling me things like, “You wanted to give birth in the Birthing Center, right?” and “You know your son is premature.” In his view, I was one of those “alternative mothers” who thought she knew better how to care for her own child than he did. He knew better for me and my son -- even though he quoted me test results from the wrong baby’s chart, referred to my son by number rather than by name, scoffed at our choice not to circumcise our baby, and generally refused to make eye contact with me.
But the man who made so many assumptions about this hysterical “first-time mom” had no idea who – or what – he was messing with! For a week, I barely slept, dragging my exhausted body almost automatically to and from a nearby hotel to the NICU to nurse my boy around the clock. Every morning I patiently waited for a minute of the doctor’s time to discuss our son’s progress and release. After the sixth day of his imprisonment, and yet another cursory dismissal without any rationale to back it, “Your baby will probably be here for another week or so,” something in me snapped – grrr-krrr-twak! – and my tiger-mama reared her fierce head.
All the rules of patience and protocol that we humans abide by, especially when confronted by authority figures, dissolved at that moment and were replaced something else; something deep, powerful, and protective.
My raspy tongue lacerated the doctor-god with my intelligent, medically-savvy questions and I revealed the flaws in his apparent expertise with my long, sharp claws.
I stood before him in my huge striped body, the stretchy tiger marks still fresh and red on my belly, and demanded that he let my son go.
With my whiplash tail, I cut through his god-posturing and called him on his human mistakes.
I scent-marked the entire NICU so that everyone within ear- or eyeshot – nurses, doctors, other parents, his superiors and colleagues, and the superintendent of the unit – heard what I was saying to him, LOUD AND CLEAR.
And after I finally sprung my beautiful, healthy boychild from his clutches, I sent a seething, guttural roar in the form of a complaint letter to his superiors, all his colleagues, all his nurses, my midwives, and anyone I could find in the hospital directory, to publicly make his behavior known.
I carried my son out of the hospital in my arms, but it could have been in my teeth. The tiger marks on my belly flushed red and from the back of my throat, as a warning, came a low, deep growl.
My beautiful lion-boy and I are now safely far away from that man, that hospital, and the system that tried to interfere with our amazing bond. The little lion who came to surprise me that August night continues to amaze and astound me.
My body is still pale and pink like that of a human woman, the stretch marks no longer red but faded and silvery. But if you look real closely, you can see… lurking beneath the surface…are my tiger stripes.