I shook my husband awake; we headed to the hospital. Expecting to be sent home with the suggestion that I stop being so hysterical, I tossed a granola bar into my purse. This was my only luggage: With six weeks still to go, I didn’t have a hospital bag packed.
I did, however, have a birth plan.
I’d done my reading, taken my classes, knew about the cascade of interventions. I wanted none of it. I was reticent, even, about monitors used to track the baby’s heart rate: They’re known to generate false alarms, and those wires would render me unable to walk or shift positions to ease labor.
“It might not go the way you want,” other moms said to me. “I know,” I’d say, while thinking: No way, not me; it’s a simple matter of knowing what you want and refusing to back down.
As a person who is suspicious of the status quo, who meets any challenge with obsessive research, who seeks out kale that’s organic, moisturizer that’s cruelty-free, I approached the question of how the birth of my baby would go as I might a puzzle. Complicated, but solvable.
More to the point, the type of birth I planned felt like a definitive statement about the kind of person I am. An exercise of ego.
I considered a home birth, but my local hospital’s birth center — birthing tubs, wireless monitors and an emphasis on skin-to-skin contact — was convincing. I found the only midwife allowed privileges there, and enlisted her as my primary pregnancy physician.
Finding her allowed me to exhale a breath I didn’t realize I was holding, one informed by the notion that a doctor is always biased toward speed, convenience, not getting sued; that a woman is therefore unlikely to be allowed the time and support generally required to realize an unmedicated birth. The relationship necessarily antagonistic.
OBs, anesthesiologists, and labor and delivery nurses can react to birth plans with hackles raised, position being: Childbirth is unpredictable, and modern medicine saves lives. But to mothers-to-be like I was, a birth plan is a way to wrest some control back, to claim our feminine birthright. And many women do view giving birth as an existential wonder, a most rare experience of carnality and creativity, not to mention a feat of physical, psychological and emotional endurance.
I did: I daydreamed about my baby’s introduction to the world, which I’d curate to be gentle and comforting. I visualized myself a warrior, my body undoing itself to offer a renewal to the world, as women had forever done. Plus, as an athlete and a yogi, I figured I could muscle or breathe my way through anything that proved too gnarly for that transcendent feminine soul of mine.
But because I believed empowerment was a matter of will, when I smacked up against my ultimate lack of control, the sensation registered not only as powerlessness but as personal failure. Devastating. Shameful.
When I was whisked into a triage room and wired, I felt the reins I believed I held slipping through my fingers. By the time they’d found my baby’s heart rate, lost it, slapped me with an oxygen mask, installed me with an IV, shot me with amphetamine, relocated the baby’s heart rate, watched it slip away again and informed me that my baby was “coming out,” I wondered if those reins ever existed at all.
I panicked. I was terrified for my baby. What I said was: “I don’t even want any drugs!”
“Healthy mama, healthy baby,” they repeated in soulless monotone, ignoring my tremors, my questions.
These words infuriated me, despite the fact that no one could argue with the suggestion that a healthy mom and healthy baby is the goal. (Of course, this is exactly why they infuriated me: They silenced me.)
I was transferred to an operating table and met two doctors I’d never seen before. I was catheterized and held upright so the anesthesiologist could administer a narcotic cocktail directly into my spine, my legs shaking so badly they ricocheted off the metal table. I was strapped to that table. I could not find my breath, yet was aware of the smell of burning flesh as the skin of my belly was cauterized. My body rocked back and forth as the doctors on the other side of the curtain sawed, tugged and maneuvered to remove the organs which sat between the cold air of the vast world and the warm, tightly held, and only home my baby boy had yet known.
And then, a scant two hours after I’d arrived at the hospital, a masked doctor held the four pounds and four ounces of my son into the air.
“Is that him?” I asked, so dizzied by the whirlwind that, I suppose, it seemed possible some other baby was hanging out in there. “Is he okay?” As if in response, he kicked his legs forward and screamed, the sweetest sound I’d ever heard.
He was okay. We were okay.
Healthy mama, healthy baby, the nurses said as they ferreted him to the NICU, where he’d remain for a month. I yelled for them to stop; they placed him on my shoulder. I couldn’t hold him, as I was tied down. And I couldn’t see him for several hours, until I could move my legs again.
Healthy mama, healthy baby, the surgeons said, as they put my intestines back into my body, held the skin of my emptied belly together and stapled the two sides into the shape of a demented smile sporting a mouthful of braces.
Healthy mama, healthy baby, I thought, willing the drugs to wear off so I could hold him.
In the immediate aftermath, the loss of the birth I’d imagined felt as acute and traumatic as the one that actually occurred. I’d looked forward to the experience from the same place that sagged with awe at pregnancy — a mind-blowing miracle that, somehow, I’d gotten lucky enough to taste. Yet I’d experienced no labor at all. Plus, now that I’d had one C-section, I’d have to fight and bear additional risk were I to attempt a vaginal birth in the future. And there are my concerns for my son’s health: Some research has found that babies born via cesarean are at greater risk for conditions including asthma and diabetes.
The failures blanketed me: that my body had failed my son and because of that inadequacy his introduction to the world had been harsh and dramatic and scary; that I was not strong enough, not “good” enough to achieve the “good birth” that I truly believed was a matter of will. I was a lesser woman, a lesser mother. I might as well fill my baby’s bottle with Mountain Dew.
As we recovered, separately, in the hospital, nurses regularly checked my incision. “Oh,” they’d gush, “beautiful work; your scar won’t be bad.”
They meant it as kind reassurance, but the words made me cry. I wanted that scar out in the open, visible and shocking, a proxy for what my son and I went through. At one point, I said, “I wish it was on my face.”
Today, my 9-month-old baby is thriving. Still, sometimes, words fall out of a well-meaning woman’s mouth that land like a punch in the gut. The mom sharing her birth story, saying, “All I cared about was that I didn’t have a C-section,” the woman who refers to a cesarean as “easy.” The mother who had the beautiful birth experience I only imagined. More often, though, the requirements of motherhood allow the details of the birth to recede: Who has time to ponder such things with a baby in the house?
Early on, the question of what I’d tell my son about how he was born worried me; I felt desperate to craft a story that isn’t scary. But frightening bits notwithstanding, he comes out a hero, clever enough to let me know something was wrong by easing up on the incessant judo he’d performed upon my insides for months. And I loved him enough to listen — and to do the thing of which I was most terrified, agreeing to the interventions, the modern medicine, that, it turns out, saved his life.
And if words won’t suffice, I’ll show him my scar. It’s a little scary, a little ugly as well. That feels right. But it’s held the shape of a smile. And that feels right, too.
Shannon Kelley writes, lives and moms in Santa Barbara, Calif. Follow her on Twitter at @Shannon_BKelley.
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