I was a seasoned mama of two rough and tumble little toddlers. I’d been through it all before- the months of roiling nausea and aching joints and swollen wrists and uncontrollable manly belches. We learned halfway through that we were expecting our third boy, so even that felt comfortable, familiar. As I sorted through the tub of newborn clothing, I was tickled to use some of my favorites yet again, marveling at teeny socks that barely fit my thumb. I looked forward to reusing the baby gear, velvety plush baby quilts, endless stacks of onesies. We were blessed with a few handmade treats- crocheted blankets, embroidered diapers, specially made for this new baby. There was one harsh novelty, bittersweet and sad: our pregnancy loss only months before. As a result, fear and dread tainted the first few months, but gave way to gratefulness and appreciation as things seemed to progress normally this time. As I felt the familiar kicks and heartburn, I was reassured by the sameness and relished the discomfort, in my heart at least, if not so much in my demeanor.
Two weeks before my expected due date, I was surprised by something new: my water breaking to start labor. I was caught unaware, unpacked, unready. Disoriented by my water breaking, we headed in to the birth center during early labor rather than laboring at home as planned. Once there however, I settled into my familiar pattern- long, long, long first stage of labor, slow to progress, waiting for baby to turn. Eventually, finally, 30 hours after my water broke, I sank into the embrace of a warm tub and pushed my baby into the world. Like his brother before him, he emerged into water and I sighed, exultant and relieved.
We pulled my son up, out, onto my chest, but the cord was not long enough and he could not reach me. My husband cradled our son in his arms, but the babe did not cry, he did not pink up, and we were startled as our new baby fell limp. Quickly, our midwife sprang into action, rubbing our newborn and trying to cajole him into crying, into taking his first breath, but he did not respond. She clamped and cut his cord and severed him from me for the first time. She filled his lungs with a mask and ventilator, and she continually stimulated his body to breathe on his own. My husband spoke our son’s name aloud to him and continued speaking to him encouragingly while her resuscitation efforts continued. From the tub, I watched this all play out, unable to help, unable to move. My arms and the severed cord floating in the water reflected the surreal detachment and numbness I felt. Stunned, I contemplated losing a child at the very moment of his birth. I shivered and I prayed fervently- trusting and hoping and willing my baby to live.
Years ago, I wasn’t even sure I ever wanted to have kids. We married young, so young. So young that people rudely assumed we were marrying because I was pregnant. But not so. We simply met and were gobsmacked, in love, unable to imagine life without each other. We spent our 20’s playing, and working and going to school and travelling and wasting money and living for ourselves. It was lovely and we grew up so much during those years. We’d comment often on how no child should have to be raised by a couple of goofs like us. Someday, maybe. I did presume there would be a someday. When we were more settled, more ready, less self-centered.
And now, here we are, blessed with four sons. I never imagined myself as a mother of sons, of all sons. In fact as a teen, I would have considered it to be a nightmare, a disaster. I grew up with sisters, four of us, driving my poor outnumbered father to seek refuge in his office to escape the overwhelming femininity and dramatics of a house full of girls. Finally, a baby brother came along. But he was a baby, and sweetly chunky and our precious little pet. He wasn’t a gangly, smelly, annoying teenager boy, at least not while I still lived at home. So boys- the raising of them and the care of them and understanding them as little men; all of that was foreign to me.
I was an awkward, late-blooming little girl. A bit of a tomboy, knobby-kneed, legs covered in scratched up bug bites and clumsy bruises. My clothes were clean and well-fitting, but otherwise unremarkable, certainly not fashionable. I had mousy brown hair that was just wavy enough to look perpetually messy. I read incessantly- under the covers with a nightlight after bedtime, the backs of cereal boxes, at my desk at school after breezing through the busywork. I knew all the answers and offered them up too often, long before Hermione made it cool. I found myself a bit too eager to please- laughing at jokes I didn’t get, miming interest in shows I didn’t watch, waiting to be accepted by peers who were not much like me at all. And so, I have always been accustomed to not quite fitting in, never the mainstream, contenting myself with doing as I determined to be best, and trying not to care what others thought of me.
As an adult, whenever I considered the idea of having children, I pretty well assumed that I would have an epidural and all the other modern amenities, after all- why suffer needlessly? My mom’s stories of giving birth in the pre-epidural era, especially her painful sunny-side-up delivery contrasted with her later, comparatively easy, epidural delivery; well, that told me all I thought I needed to know. This was augmented by the report of my sister’s first labor: she, laughing and joking with family while blissfully contracting in epidural-induced comfort. In fact, the idea of a natural birth was so foreign to me, that having waited almost 10 years of marriage to conceive our first, I often joked that I was waiting until they could “beam the baby out.”
Pregnant for the first time, I made an appointment with my very highly regarded OB. I remember jabbering on to my husband about what a great doctor she was and how I looked forward to visiting the hospital and checking out all their high-tech gadgetry. Somewhere in that conversation, he dropped the bomb: My husband wanted me to consider natural childbirth! He was very humble about it, not demanding at all, but expressed his concern about what all those drugs might do to his child. He asked me to please do some research on the effects of the epidural and any other common medications used in labor and then decide what approach I wanted to take. I was stunned, but told him I was willing to look into it, after all, I valued making educated decisions and wanted to respect his concerns. But privately, I felt like I would be able to easily find evidence to support the safety and efficacy of medically managed, anesthetized birth- after all, millions of women and thousands of doctors couldn’t be wrong. Right?
I started reading and researching and reading some more, obsessively. I checked out books from the library and spent hours online perusing various baby-related websites. And quickly, I found that any and every pregnancy and childbearing issue had passionate supporters on all sides. Before I knew it, I began to question a lot of my preconceived notions about this whole baby growing and delivering business. I had a hard time believing that things could really be as bad as some books portrayed- that birth had become such a business, so far removed from the miracle of life and so focused on the bottom line. I found myself mesmerized by birth stories and wondering how women had managed to bear children for so many millennia without the benefit of all of the current medical technology. Of course, many women and babies died before our current era, so I appreciate the advances made on that level, but still, obviously many others lived, else we their descendants would not be here today. I had to wonder whether, under normal circumstances without any complications or emergencies, all this fuss was necessary? I finally realized that women do this all the time, all over the world! If they could do it, why couldn’t I?
So I made a list of questions to ask, even then naively believing that the doctor I trusted, who had seen me through a pre-cancerous scare and who had coordinated my care in the years to follow, surely would understand and empathize with my concerns. In fact, I thought I’d be congratulated on becoming informed, at finally having something substantial to ask when she wondered if I had any questions. True, I was now leaning against getting the epidural and beginning to question other common practices like routine episiotomies, but I thought my list of questions would be easily answered and that I would come away reassured. Unfortunately, rather than welcoming my questions, my doctor was defensive and patronizing from the start. Her eyes narrowed as I pulled out my list, her demeanor hardened as I asked my first questions. When I mentioned that I was considering the idea of foregoing pain medication, she laughed it off. When I queried the c-section rates for the practice or the hospital, she became offended at the implication that the procedure was done any more than necessary. Although I was surprised by her attitude, I continued on, asking whether she did episiotomies routinely or only occasionally. She crisply responded that almost all her first time moms had episiotomies, after all, how else could I expect a “great big eight pound baby to fit through such a small area?” My brave, bold self asked her, “How in the world did first time moms manage to give birth for the last few thousand years, prior to the invention of episiotomies only 50 years ago?” But instead, my regular, non-confrontational self smiled sweetly, deeply disillusioned, and didn’t even bother with the rest of my questions.
I wasn’t sure where I was going, or how my precious little baby would make his way into the world, but I knew it wasn’t there. That pivotal day, I lost my faith in the myth of medicine: that doctors are infused with a power beyond the rest of us mere mortals, and that we are but to trust in their superior wisdom. Yes, I lost my faith, but that day I gained something greater. I started to believe in myself, in my own power, in my own body, that God had endowed me with an inner wisdom and not just the ability to conceive a child, but to birth one as well. How little I knew that day how far this journey of transformation would take me. At 32 weeks pregnant, I made the switch from one of the "best" OB groups in town to midwives in a birth center, and I never regretted it.
During this first pregnancy, although I was excited to become a mother, and intellectually aware of the changes it would bring to my life, I found it was impossible to comprehend the depth of emotion I would feel for my own child. At the time, we had very close friends whose little boy was born about nine months before our first. I would often babysit for him and came to love that little guy as if he were my own. Although now I feel ashamed to admit it, I remember as I cuddled my friend’s sweet little baby that I loved him so much, and I honestly wondered whether I could possibly love my own son as much when he was born. Another friend, pregnant at the time with her first, admitted to me that she could not imagine loving her soon-to-be-born baby more than she loved… her dogs! Now, I can hardly imagine someone making such a statement, and I would wager that she would adamantly deny ever saying such a thing. But before you actually have a child of your own, I am convinced, you just don’t, just can’t understand the overwhelming love you’ll feel for the tiny, wrinkly little creature. Later, pregnant with my second son, I found it difficult once again to imagine what adding another child would be like. I remember thinking that there was just no possible way I could love my second son as much as my hilarious and bold little toddler. Of course, once I met my wee little pirate, I learned that the heart really does expand and it is possible to love him just as much, without loving the first any less. It’s not something I could really comprehend until it happened to me.
A few years later, I was eight weeks pregnant for the third time and excited about seeing my baby on ultrasound. We planned to let our three-year-old see and hear the baby’s heartbeat and were anticipating telling our family about the new pregnancy once we saw that everything was fine. While my husband waited outside the door with the boys, I laid there and listened to myself churn while the tech silently did her thing. At first I wasn’t concerned- at each ultrasound it seems the tech wants to take a peek first and make sure all is well before turning the screen to show me my babe. But this time, instead of cheerfully pointing out a little peanut baby, the tech asked me, “How far along are you supposed to be?” Alarm bells clanged in my head. I swallowed. “Eight weeks, but I had only had one cycle, so it could be earlier. In fact, that’s why this ultrasound is scheduled, in order to date the pregnancy.” She continues her poking and prodding and pressing painfully on my sides and finally tells me, “I don’t see anything that looks like an 8-week baby in there.” I felt as if I were riding “It's a Small World” and unexpectedly sped over and into the abyss of a roller coaster, struggling to catch my breath, and feeling nauseated.
Outside the door, I heard my boys giggling and squealing while my husband played with them, patiently waiting to be summoned in to introduce our boys to their new baby sibling. Instead, I dressed and stepped out into the hall. My husband looked at me quizzically, wondering if I forgot to invite him into the room, and I just shook my head and start to cry. The midwife was compassionate, answering all our questions as best she could and suggested that the pregnancy could just be too early to see, but it had been so long since my positive pregnancy test that I knew the dates could not add up. She canceled my glucose blood test ( yes, I drank the orange goop for nothing!), and had my blood drawn for an hCG level instead. Despite my midwife’s assurances of hope, I took the cancellation of the glucose test as confirmation of her true expectation. I felt like it was the end of the world as I knew it, and I felt lousy. I naively expected a positive pregnancy test to guarantee a new baby in nine months time. Considering how many women have walked this path before, I guess this foggy dream world was actually closer to reality than mine.
Not long afterwards, I dropped out of the playgroup for my toddler. After the miscarriage, I simply found it too hard to sit around making nice with all the other pregnant women. Of course, there are other reasons- real and good reasons- I decided to drop out, but in the end, that was the clincher. I felt like a jerk, but there were three other moms in the playgroup who were all due within a month or two of when I was supposed to be due. I just didn’t think I could handle being there each week and seeing them progress and hearing their quirky pregnancy stories and maybe even their complaints and not have it feel like a constant, rude reminder of my own loss. They deserved to be happy in their own pregnancies, not feeling like they had to walk on eggshells around me.
I didn’t want to pretend to be happy for them; I wanted to really be happy for them. But at the time, I just needed to be happy from afar, where my grimaces and petty selfishness wouldn’t intrude on their happiness and prove me to be the party-pooper instead of a supportive and excited friend. Plus, only one of the moms even knew I was pregnant and that I had the miscarriage. And honestly, when you are pregnant and especially in the first few months, the last thing you want to hear about are other people’s miscarriages. It’s hard enough when one is pregnant, trying not to stress out about the risks, without having it all in your face like that. So, I would feel bad telling them of my loss, but would feel bad sitting there without them knowing too. It’s a little awkward to bring up the subject, “Well, I had a miscarriage a few weeks ago.” Talk about a conversation killer. I did bring it up with a few different friends, but it felt like fishing for sympathy. So, I dropped out and hoped that in a few months, I’d be ready to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and not just weep alone.
Shortly after losing the baby, we travelled to Florida to meet up with all my family. The trip was bittersweet, because we were converging for a joyous occasion: the wedding of my baby brother. (note: “baby” brother getting married = oldest sister getting old). Plus, we were meeting my new little niece for the very first time! I was determined not to be a sourpuss or to ruin the happy occasion for anyone else. I mean, who wants to think about miscarriages and other sad sack stories while celebrating new partnerships and new life? Not even me, so I put on a happy face and had a great time.
My brother’s wedding was simple and lovely and one of the most beautiful ceremonies I have ever attended. His bride is sweet, and pretty, and kind and exactly the kind of girl I would have hoped for my beloved brother to marry. They made a really striking couple. My new little niece was a vision of loveliness. She had porcelain skin and gorgeous red hair like her mother. She was petite and sweet and a joy to cuddle. She and I took a nap on the couch one day and it was a real treat to enjoy a nuzzling infant again and to breathe her fresh new-baby scent. My sister is a patient mama with a great attitude. When someone questioned how she coped with a colicky infant, especially all on her own with her husband serving in Iraq, she responded, “What else would I do? I wanted to have a baby and she is mine to care for her. I’ll hold her all day if I have to.” My sister is a strong woman and a good mother, and I am proud of her. We prayed everyday that her husband would return home, safely and soon, and finally get to meet his new daughter. It made my petty problems pale in comparison.
Finally we conceived again. And then the worry began anew. I wished there were a point where I could say, “Ok. We’ve made it this far. Now I can relax.” To be fair, I really do think it was easier once we heard a heartbeat and I made it out of the first trimester. Even so, the possibility of trouble remained and I wondered if I could possibly be fortunate enough to dodge those bullets yet again. Of course, the great cosmic joke is that the even the end of the pregnancy does not end the worries. If anything, the horrors that can be imagined and the dangers that loom become even more terrifying once I have a real life little person depending upon me for their every need. But fortunately, the joys of parenthood and the great, expanding love I feel for this new little person, manage to overwhelm most of those fears. I expected my husband to be a lot more reserved about the pregnancy this time, but he told me that he wanted to be happy about this pregnancy and this baby, right from the start, and not let the last experience taint it. I really needed to hear that, and in my mind, it gave me permission to be hopeful as well.
Our little lost baby’s due date came and no one remembered or said anything, but I didn’t really expect it. I’m certain I’ve never considered things like remembering the due date for the women I’ve known who suffered a miscarriage, although I feel that I’ll be more likely to in the future. I grieved for what could have been- that I should have been holding and cuddling a newborn. But for the most part, I wanted to be grateful and enthusiastic about the new baby I was carrying. I wanted to be optimistic and buy little baby outfits if I saw one that took my fancy, and not be overly worried about the what- ifs. I wanted to honor the baby we lost, by appreciating that the baby we looked forward to now could not have been conceived otherwise. I wanted to enjoy my pregnancy and look forward to the baby moving and growing and doing it’s best to try to make me feel miserable. I wanted to focus on exercise and eating well and preparing for childbirth, rather than dwelling on pain and sorrow. I even wanted to be happy about being due in May instead of October, because it meant I wouldn’t have to go through the heat of the summer pregnant, and I didn’t want to feel guilty about that. I chose to be happy instead.
And so, after an otherwise uneventful pregnancy, here I was, having just peacefully birthed my baby into water… and my baby is not breathing. Incredibly, I felt calm, even peaceful. I was unable to believe that my precious little newborn would not be okay in the end. That I could have come to this point only to lose another baby, in the flesh, in front of my very eyes. I remember these minutes in snapshots, in snippets: my midwife pleading, “Breathe baby, breathe.” Our dear friend wide eyed and tremulous, videotaping the entire thing. My abdomen cramping and aching, preparing for the afterbirth, oblivious to anything amiss. Praying, praying. The soft click of the pump pushing air into our baby’s lungs. My racing heart, but outward serenity. My husband speaking our baby’s name aloud, over and over, soothingly, also repeating “Hey there sweet boy, it’s Papa. Papa’s here,” just as he had spoken to my belly countless times in months past. I later tell our midwife that her calm and professional presence was the only thing that kept me from breaking down, from shattering into panic and grief. And then, a cry! Weak at first, and then quickly lusty and loud. Pink-skinned and eyes open and breathing, breathing! Amazingly, after five full minutes, our little baby begins to breathe on his own. And then we weep, we weep from relief and joy. We are blessed and grateful and our little son nurses and cuddles against me and peers at his brothers, blissfully unaware of the scare he put into us.
And now, here I am at two in the morning; everyone is sleeping and I feel the stillness of the midnight and all is quiet. Well, except for you, my fourth wee babe. Your sharp little cry roused me instantly from deepest sleep and now you are snuffling and grunting impatiently against my breast as I pop open my laptop and prop up the pillow on my lap. Finally I am settled and I raise my shirt and you thrust your face forward eagerly, quickly, like the jabs of a mini prize fighter- once, twice, and swiftly connected. You draw deeply and urgently, and then relax into my arms and I can feel rather than hear your sigh of contentment.
I yawn and stretch a bit, and your eyes pop open and search out my face in the dim light. I see the tiniest of smiles at the edge of your lips and then you turn slightly back toward my chest and dream as you feed. I gaze at the curve of your cheek and the familiar pulsing of your jaw and play with the wisps of hair that curl around your ear. I am tired, achingly tired, but I cannot resent your intense need for me. I know now that this time is shockingly fleeting and that in a flash you’ll be tumbling with your brothers and scraping your elbows and sleeping soundly through the night. You’ll still need me, but not so urgently, so tenderly, so intimately.
You shift and doze and a thin line of milk drools from your mouth onto my pillow. I lift you to my chest and rub your back and feel your body melt heavily into mine. I graze my lips across the top of your downy head and breathe in the smell of you- a hint of lavender and sweet milk. I settle you onto my other breast and your mouth is open and searching, but less urgently this time. You drink with purpose and a little greedily, but yet perfectly at leisure. I smile at your contentment and a wave of exhaustion washes over me, but I revel in it, feeling the spray upon my face and inhaling the salty air, ignoring my sand in my eyes.
I type a quick hello to a fellow sister-at-babe-in-arms, members both of us of the same secret society, the same quiet house and precious nursling and heavy eyelids. Suddenly you pop off, satiated, and sleeping soundly, nestled against my arm. I bid my friend a quick goodbye and shut the screen. I gently lie you down and you snuffle a bit and snore softly. I tuck your blanket around your toes, and then I tumble into bed and resume my former slumber, content.
~crunchy mama of four boys~