The one thing I wanted most was a natural birth. Simple, right? I’m not naïve. I knew it wouldn’t be easy or painless, but I’m tough. I’m strong. What’s more, I’m empowered by the fact that women have been doing it as long as there have been women. If they could do it for literally thousands of years without drugs and doctors, surely I could, too.
I got the apps. I read a stack of books: Ina May’s, What to Expect, Bradley, all the crunchy mom standards – not that I’m all that crunchy. I eat meat. I shop at Walmart. My car requires old fashioned internal combustion. For me, a natural birth wasn’t deeply rooted in any kind of serious organic environmentalist homeopathic ideology. It was simply because it was better for me and my son. Better for all the things that come after birth – milk production, bonding, all that.
You already know these things. You didn’t come here for a lecture on the merits of homebirth. Yes, I said “homebirth,” which I imagine conjures 19th century images of bare wooden kitchen floors and ruined quilts.
Really, it’s not like that. The midwife brings everything needed for a safe, natural birth. I know “midwife” sounds vaguely medieval and spooky, but to me what’s spooky is hospitals with inviolable protocols, scalpels, liability algorithms and a paralyzing fear of malpractice suits. A midwife is just a woman who specializes in prenatal care and birth – not surgery like an OB/GYN. And my midwife, Elizabeth, did our regular checkups at my house. She wasn’t afraid to kneel in dog hair to measure my tummy or listen to my son’s heartbeat. Find me an OB/GYN who will do that.
Being pregnant filled me with a wholly unfamiliar form of strength and independence. Of course, it isn’t as idealistic and glowy and flawlessly beautiful as #Instamamas would have you think, but I was so inextricably, deeply connected to this new life inside me. I would spend entire evenings just relaxing in my favorite chair, running my fingers around my round tummy, laughing out loud when the baby kicked. No TV. No phone. Just me, my growing boy and my body that somehow – almost magically – made it all possible.
Soon enough my due date was approaching. My husband and I had done all the requisite nesting: the cute nursery, the ultra-safe new car, multiple baby showers with multiple families. We were in the homestretch (no pun intended). We had even put the special plastic sheets on the bed.
My sister was in town to coach me through the birth, and Elizabeth had come over after the latest, somewhat disconcerting ultrasound. My placenta was more calcified than it should’ve been, and the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck, something that sounds terrifying but is actually pretty common and manageable. As I lay on the bed, Elizabeth listened for the heartbeat with her doppler.
Elizabeth is like human lavender. She has a soothing, easy presence. So her flushed face and furrowed brow were immediate signs something was up. My heart flopped up into my throat and raced with an intensity I’d never felt before. Was my baby okay? What was going on?
She moved the doppler’s little microphone all around, searching for a heartbeat. Finally, she looked up and sensed my panic.
“So, I’m having a little trouble finding a strong heartbeat,” she said.
“What does that mean?” my sister asked.
“It’s okay, it’s not unusual. The heartbeat is there, but I’m just a little concerned with how quiet it is.”
“Is that bad?” I asked, my heart still feeling like it was looking for an escape route out the side of my neck.
“It isn’t great.”
I’d like to point out here how phrases like “not great” in these situations are intensely irritating and vague. They don’t put the problem at a specific point on the continuum between “perfect” and “total shit,” so you have to guess.
“I want you guys to head to the Women and Children’s Hospital tonight. I’ll call ahead, so they’ll be expecting you. I just want you to get a quick ultrasound to make sure everything’s okay.”
Aaaaaaaand that’s how we ended up at the hospital. The baby was okay, but not okay enough for a safe homebirth. From there, most of my worst fears were realized, one by one, in excruciating chronological order. Over and over, I had to accept one type of defeat while holding on to a measure of hope, only for that to be crushed, too.
I’m at the hospital, but I can still do this without intervention.
18 hours pass. No progress.
They broke my water, but I can still do this without drugs.
12 hours pass. No progress.
They induced me with Pitocin, but I can deliver without painkillers.
8 hours pass. No progress.
(in tears) Please ... bring the epidural. Now.
On the morning of our third day in the hospital (Friday the 13th, swear to god), a nurse came in to check my dilation. While she was doing her very intrusive thing, a small alarm went off and suddenly half the floor’s medical staff rushed into my room. The attending OB kneeled next to me. I’m sure she saw the fear, exhaustion and desperation in my eyes. I was about 40 hours in with no real sleep, no real progress, no milestones passed. She spoke with a loving authority and urgency that made me feel cared for but also utterly helpless.
“Honey, your baby’s in trouble. Your water has been broken longer than we like it to be. You’ve been on Pitocin for a day and you’ve barely dilated four centimeters. It’s time to get him out.”
I’d say my heart sank, but I was too tired to feel much of anything. It felt more like the last of the fight in me just quietly evaporating. I knew what she meant, but I wouldn’t let the last bit of hope die just yet.
“What does that mean?”
“It means an emergency C-section. We’ll take you to the OR right now, and you’ll be holding your baby in less than an hour.” She tried to smile.
They wheeled me to the operating room while my eyes turned to tired, pitiful little puddles and my body shook violently and involuntarily from the anesthetics.
As I lay there on the cold steel table, with a team of surgeons operating on me while dated soft rock played on a crappy old boombox, there wasn’t anything to do but feel.
Anesthesia can dull pain, but it doesn’t destroy feelings.
I felt a strange sucking emptiness as the surgeons pulled out my organs and rested them on my belly. But what hit me more than the emptiness was a deep, unmistakable shame. I had failed. What did I do wrong? All I wanted was a natural birth. Now a bunch of strangers were literally pulling my insides out. I swear I did every single thing I knew to do, but my body betrayed me.
I was filled with a mix of failure and profound self-doubt, compounded with anger at my body, multiplied by severe exhaustion, blood loss and a twist of anesthesia and epidural. That’s when my husband put my baby boy on my chest. And he was beautiful. And perfect. And so incredibly tiny. He looked even more weak and vulnerable than I felt.
In that moment I knew everything would be okay, because this is when the tsunami of love crashes over you, eases weariness and erases bad memories. Right?
Except that’s a happy fiction, too.
In those first few weeks, I would find myself looking at my cute little new baby and sometimes feel weirdly disconnected from him. If I’m honest, in some ways he was almost a reminder of my failure, of the injury to my body and pride. Obviously, I didn’t want to feel that way. I wanted the world-upending atomic bomb of love. I wanted it desperately. As a mother, it’s my job, my obligation, my single core responsibility to love the living daylights out of that helpless, fragile little soul. And I did get glimpses of it here and there in his tiny smiles and involuntary embraces. But most of the time in the first weeks, I didn’t feel it. And I can’t tell you how awful I felt for not feeling it.
Apps don’t schedule that for you. Books don’t say much about it. And I understand why. It doesn’t sell apps or books to be that honest. But it makes living with that feeling – or lack of it – so much lonelier than it needs to be.
But you do get through it. I did get through it. The feelings did come gradually. But like my healing surgical incision or the challenges of breastfeeding or getting the baby to sleep, it took longer than anyone wanted to admit. Just like every other part of being a parent, it didn’t happen on my schedule.
Now when I look at my son, who is brimming with wild ideas on how to celebrate his fifth birthday, I am overwhelmed with love and pride. And being a mom is the single best decision I’ve ever made. There is nothing I’ve ever experienced that comes close. I don’t think about the pregnancy or birth much. Until one of those nosy relatives says, “So when ya gonna make another one?”
I bat away all the snarky responses flying around in my head and say with a wry smile, “I think one is enough.”