Thursday, July 2, 2009

June 12, 2002 (Part one if you can believe it...)

[This as written a couple of weeks back for my son's birthday but things have been in disarray technologically at our home, so there are a bunch of hoops to jump through in order to post. I'm writing more to be uploaded whenever possible. Hopefully the computer limbo should be cleared up in mid-July. In the meantime, please accept this humble offering...]

I had an idyllic pregnancy, considering everything that could and often does go wrong. There was no threat of gestational diabetes, no placenta previa, a weight gain within the range of what is considered healthy, and only a quick episode or two of morning sickness. Aside from freakishly swollen ankles my last trimester – I came to learn that I am a water retainer, as my midwives openly admired the oceanic environment of my abdominal region - and some difficulties getting my iron levels up, my pregnancy was blissfully free of health concerns. Everything measured up as it should, heartbeats were easily detected, and, for the first time in my life, I actually looked forward to warming up an examination table.

I found my midwife practice on the recommendation of a friend who is very involved in the Chicago natural birthing community. Once the little plus sign appeared in the window of my pregnancy test, a little like a Magic Eight Ball, I moved toward the birth of my dreams with a gusto fueled by equal parts naivety and revolutionary zeal. My child’s emergence into this world would be natural, calm and gentle, the perfect entry for my little peacemaker, and it would be such a staggering, personal insult to George Bush that it would make him boil with impotent, red-faced rage. Two rules became evident while my future baby was just a shrimp-like mass of cells as if they were chiseled onto a tablet. Rule #1: I would not use painkillers. Rule #2: my baby would only be caressed by those with selected, loving hands. Anyone deemed to have bad personal vibes was forbidden to touch my child’s perfect, satiny skin. Every night, I would stay awake reading passages from Ina Mae Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, that goofy, dated and perfect manual to having the back-to-the-land, patchouli-scented birth of my dreams and I grew even more resolute in my pursuit. It was a given that my child would breastfeed until all his adult teeth came in and that I would shield him with my own body from menacing, zombie-like pediatricians with their vaccination needles: before all that, though, he’d need a birth befitting such a perfect creation. He’d float down from my uterus and land on a cushiony pile of organic rose petals. He’d be a Raphael angel come to life. Thus, he’d need a midwife-assisted birth.

My friend was surprised that I didn’t want to give birth at home.

“Marla, I’m surprised. Home birth is so you,” she said, unable to avoid sounding just a little disappointed.

I asked her if she’d been to my home lately. With the addition of my landlord’s three dogs, there were five unruly ones in our residence, including a senile Yorkshire terrier who would start a session of ear-piercing yipping for unknown reasons and not stop for an hour or two, and a basset hound with the world’s most blood-chilling howl. At any given time in our apartment, there were drawers crammed with batteries that needed recharging, a distinct lack of functional light bulbs and soap dispensers in need of refilling not to mention the dog fur that rolled like tumbleweeds in a 1950s western. Outside our home was a whole different environment to consider: ice cream truck recordings, cars screeching and honking down Humboldt Boulevard, the incessant dinging bell of elote vendors, the occasional gun being discharged, and then, of course, police cars wailing. No, John and I were in agreement. We wanted the baby to be born in a calm, quiet, well-prepared environment. In other words, definitely not at home.

To me, having a midwife offered the ideal middle ground – I wouldn’t be laboring in a field between shifts picking corn, nor would my child’s birth be a hyper-medicalized surgical procedure. Was having chanting friends with bindis on their Third Eyes or sage rubbed on my belly really necessary? I just needed to give birth.

I made an appointment with the midwives my friend recommended early on in my pregnancy. I was probably just eight weeks pregnant at the time. Their office was not much different than a regular medical office, except there were no pharmaceutical salespeople in business suits and there were issues of Mothering magazine with their cover shots of contentedly breastfeeding babies neatly stacked throughout. The pictures on the wall of radiant mothers and their babies made their clients seem healthier and earthier than in any other medical office. Also, the receptionist Yolanda was exuberantly, existentially happy: in fact, everyone who worked there always seemed to be in a good mood.

So this became the practice that measured and touched and listened to the growing belly of mine. Week after week, I’d get weighed and examined, and I’d be given book recommendations (“Get Red Tent,”) and other recommendations (”You’ve got to try Hypnobirthing!”). And I gobbled it all up, scribbling in the little blue notebook I’d dedicated to midwife appointments, having convinced myself that George Bush had an undercover Agency Of Pregnancy and they didn’t like what I was doing one bit. It turned out, though, that not all the lovely squishy things one can embrace on her way to a joyously natural delivery worked for me. There was Hypnobirthing, for example, which was a class was taught by a nurse in my midwive’s office. While it was fascinating to watch the video in which a woman went through all the stages of labor in a seemingly pain-free, trance-like state, that wasn’t me. Taking the class confirmed for me something I had long suspected: I am not someone who is easily hypnotized. I could relax, I could even space out, but truly believe that the hand that touched my belly would instantly numb it of any feeling? Try again. My husband, however, my coach in all this, was eminently suggestible and highly hypnotizable it turns out. So hypnotizable, in fact, that during our practice sessions, he would inevitably put himself in a hypnotic state. He would put the Hypnobirthing cassette in and he would follow the instructions gently prompted by the soothing voice on the tape. Before long, I’d be lying there, staring at the ceiling fan and twiddling my thumbs impatiently, listening to his increasingly trace-like, droning monologue. “Relax…My hand has a soothing blue gel on it…Where I touch you, you will feel a pleasant numbness…” His hand on my belly, I’d roll my eyes and count every last bone. “Now you are numb…You don’t feel a thing but a sense of calm throughout your body…You feel goooo…oood… Soothing blue gel…Now I will go out…On the back porch…And drink some lemonade…”


He’d bolt upright. “Wha – what?!”

“You were doing it again.”

“Doing what? I was totally awake.”

“Whatever you say, lemonade boy.”

Despite the occasional Natural Thing That Didn’t Work, I pretty much loved and embraced it all. I loved the midwife-recommended Bradley Method class, despite the fact that the instructor seemed to be phoning it in at times. I loved the breastfeeding class with the hungry baby dolls to practice feeding. I loved my subscription to Mothering, perhaps most of all. My future baby would be a Mothering magazine pin-up one day, all bright-eyed and vaccine-free and breastfed and swaddled in organic cotton. I also loved the way I felt, wholesome and part of an exclusive club, sitting in the waiting room before my appointment, smiling and sharing little details (“I’m due in six more weeks…” ) with the other pregnant women.

As the week of my due date edged closer, nothing much was happening. I was measured and examined by Gayle, my primary midwife, a toned, cheerful blonde who seemed far more likely to be a soccer mom than a Red Tent-quoting advocate of empowered birthing, and while everything looked good, not much was happening yet. I was one-and-a-half centimeters dilated, though, which thrilled me. I hadn’t even felt that! Only eight-and-a-half more to go. It would be a breeze. This was what my body was designed to do. Ina Mae and Mothering magazine had told me.

The weekend before my baby was due, John and I drove to Madison for the day as I needed more tie-dyed onesies and Chicago has a distinct shortage of groovy headshops. It was time to pack the bag for the hospital and I finally found the perfect dark purple one. The woman with the dilated pupils behind the counter asked when I was due. “Oh, in four days,” I said as she widened her eyes. “Whoa.”

I was five days overdue – which I really didn’t mind, as it gave me more time to get work done, and during that last trimester, I felt like I had the energy of several hundred women inside me – when my midwife suggested moving things along. I was still at one-and-a-half centimeters and no contractions had occurred. I agreed, because while I enjoyed this productive free and unfettered time, it was all about having the baby eventually, right?

Gayle did something called scraping the membranes to gently stimulate labor. It was every bit as delightful as it sounds. Okay, I thought, if birth hurts as much as that, I may actually be in for something. A half-hour later, John and I were eating lunch at the Thai place downstairs from the midwive’s office when I felt that first contraction wave through me between bites of pad sei eiw. Hmmm. It didn’t exactly hurt but it was distinctly different from a cramp, which was the prevailing description I’d heard. On the way home, John was distracted by thoughts of boiling water and last minute phone calls, and I was thinking to myself, “Why the hell didn’t I get more done? I’m not going to have a chance to sweep again until the baby is, like, three.”

Once we got home, we called Gayle and informed her of the news. She seemed a little blasé, honestly, given the momentousness of the situation. My contractions were erratic and at least twenty minutes apart, but still. Gayle told us to get some good rest while we could and to call her when the contractions were consistently closer together and around seven minutes apart. John scribbled furiously in his sketchbook, where he’d already begun recording my progress (“3:17 – strong contraction, lasted twelve seconds; 3:42 – medium contraction…”) and he called my doula, Prem. Prem is a good friend who happened to have some great stats as a doula: she lived on a commune for ten years (where she herself gave birth) as a onetime follower of the Yogi Bhajan, she had been a practicing midwife in the past and she knew Ina Mae Gaskin personally. Prem arrived about an hour later with her overnight bag and a radiant smile.

For the next twenty-four hours, my contractions gradually nudged a little closer together. As I predicted, this was not going to be a quick birth, where one goes from that first contraction to a speeding car on its way to the hospital in the blink of an eye. My mother had had two c-sections so I wasn’t able to establish any hereditary predispositions. We ate take-out from the local Thai place (Thai food was a big player during this time in my life, so much so that I still associate wide rice noodles with being pregnant) on the balcony, we walked around the neighborhood, me shuffling and gripping onto cast iron fences when the contractions rolled through (they had become less mild), I tried to relax as John followed me around, jotting down my progress into his sketchbook. At one point, we took another stab at Hypnobirthing and he fell into a trance again at record speed (“You look really pretty…”) and I thought to myself, Well, I’ve always got Prem. We updated Gayle every couple of hours, who still seemed remarkably unmoved by my headway, suggesting glasses of wine and hot giant pregnant lady sex as labor facilitators. Between contractions, I briefly entertained the image in my mind of being a sloppy drunk woman in labor, slurring her words (“I’m not drunk!”) and behaving inappropriately flirty in my hospital gown, but I decided to call my mother instead of following Gayle’s suggestions. My mother’s unintentionally hilarious commentary brought my contractions a little closer together(“Shouldn’t you be in the hospital yet? What are you and John trying to prove? This is irresponsible. Your contractions have to be seven minutes apart? Put John on the phone. This is ridiculous. Why didn’t you see a regular doctor? I don’t understand why you insisted on seeing this mid – what’s it called? Midwife person. Is that even legal? Why wouldn’t you listen to me? Back when I was pregnant, we were already in our hospital beds before labor even started.”) and a day-and-a-half after my contractions began, we were ready to turn off the lights and head for the hospital. Prem followed in her car.

John drove to the emergency room entrance, which was what we were advised to do, and a valet took our car to the lot. The perks were rolling in already! That night, though, there had been a shooting so the hospital staff was a little less than impressed by my laboring self. We were led to the examination room, a tiny, Spartan room we’d seen during our tour of the hospital maternity ward weeks earlier, when one of the more spacey fathers said, incredulously, “This is the Alternative Birthing Suite?” after the whole thing had been described in great detail. The Alternative Birthing Suite, or ABS, was the crown jewel of the maternity ward. It was a huge room with wood floors, a patchwork quilted four-poster bed and a deep tub, more befitting a Vermont bed and breakfast than a hospital room, and it was run by the midwives. To get to the Promised Land, though, first one had to be admitted, and a visit to the examination room was a prerequisite. As the nurse examined me, I thought to myself that I would be disappointed after laboring for more than a day if my dilation was less than, say, six centimeters. The nurse dully informed me that I was dilated at one-and-a-half, the same as I’d been a week earlier in the midwive’s office. The three of us were crestfallen. How could that possibly be? How? My contractions were seven minutes apart, long in duration and intense. A day-and-a-half later and I still had eight-and-a-half more centimeters to go? I had barely taken two steps on the marathon of my labor. Okay. It was over. This whole giving birth thing was a ridiculously ambitious pipedream. My body was clearly not designed for this. I’d have to cancel my subscription to Mothering and George Bush, that asshole, was somewhere smirking at me.

I couldn’t be admitted into the ABS until I had progressed more, so John, Prem and I commenced with more of that infernal shuffling, this time down the hospital halls. Thankfully there were rails throughout for me to cling to like I was on a ship being tossed between violent waves. Prem gave me some noxious oil to drink to bring on labor, which came erupting right back out of my mouth, causing John to say “Ew!” as he jumped away and prompting me to want to kill him for the first time. Finally, my water started to trickle out just a tiny bit and we could be admitted to the ABS. We informed the nurse eagerly and she granted us entry. I swear, I heard harps playing as we walked in the room and I felt like I had just reached our world-class hotel after a white-knuckled journey. I settled onto the bed and John called Gayle. Again, wine was suggested (wasn’t that contraband in a hospital and what was her obsession with wine about, anyway?) and she also suggested that I take a shower to help with the discomfort. John relayed this back to me and I wanted to shout, “It is not discomfort: it is pain!” but I couldn’t speak. My contractions were coming on fast and furious at this point. I must be progressing, I thought between teeth-gritting, patchwork quilt-clutching waves of pain so fierce that sometimes the only reaction was to meekly laugh afterward. I hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours in the past two days. John and Prem weren’t so well-rested, either. Of course, the Jew in me managed to squeeze in a little time to feel guilty about this fact, too.

I hobbled to the bathroom and I thought about all the other women who d stood exactly in this spot in the shower, laboring, waiting, worrying. They were silly to worry, though. I was the one who had to worry. After forty-something hours, my bag of waters had not fully ruptured yet. For all I knew, I was still at one-and-a-half centimeters, I was certain that I would end up in the news for carrying a three-year-old child in my womb. “He just doesn’t want to come out,” I’d say, shrugging, and the natural segue would be to blame it on George Bush. I’d be an old lady with grey hair and an adult-sized form would be sticking straight out of my feeble body. Well, that way I could always keep close tabs on my child.

By the time I was out of the shower, I could hear other voices in the room, a conversation. Gayle was there. John and Prem, bleary-eyed and a little wobbly from sleep deprivation, were doubtlessly relieved to have someone else to bring into the marathon of my birth. John relayed the details again of my contractions. Prem offered her observations. Gayle took it all in in her friendly but nonchalant manner. She examined me again, observing aloud, “Marla is not someone who really enjoys examinations,” causing me to briefly wonder about those who really do enjoy them, and finally, the rest of my water broke, a great gushing, Biblical flood. Unfortunately, in the amniotic fluid, Gayle found something that caused her fine little eyebrows to knit together. There was meconium in the water, which is a tarry substance and is otherwise known as baby’s first poop. It can appear when pregnancies are carried past forty weeks (as was in my case) or there has been some distress in the uterus. Meconium is fairly common but it’s not something one wants. In my particular case, this meant that I was now risked-out of the glorious birthing suite personally crafted with Gaia’s loving hands herself; I now had to shuffle down the hall to the regular old maternity room, with its starched, white sheets and medical-looking hospital bed, to labor like a commoner who had her baby’s room already filled with plastic crap. But I wasn’t her! I belonged in that other room, with Pachelbel's Canon quietly playing on the stereo and the way better vibes. This wasn’t just about me: how was my future child going to recover from this staggering, self-esteem crushing blow? I saw his future stretched out in front of him like a carpet of disappointment and mediocrity and my stupid, dysfunctional uterus was to blame. This is where the mind goes after so long without sleep. At the very least, I thought, I could still have a natural birth and usher us out of there as soon as possible. The scars to my baby’s psyche would be minimal. Maybe this would help my labor to progress; in the ABS, I was already a little paranoid that someone with a more showoff-y uterus would materialize and I’d be kicked out as there was only that one suite. In a regular plebian maternity room, there was no concern about this. Maybe the pressure of the Alternative Birthing Suite and all it seemed to represent to me was what was keeping me from dilating.

It turned out that that downscaling my hospital arrangements was not the magic bullet I’d been hoping to find. According to Gayle, checking in on me a couple of hours later, I was still barely dilated, this despite the intense contractions, confirmed by the monitor. My brief moment of levity occurred when, while squeezing his hand during a particularly intense contraction, John reflexively said, “Ow!” I thought to myself that I could break his goddamned impregnating wrist right there and then, and he’d just have to go down to the emergency room, get a cast, fill his prescription for painkillers, and get his ass back up to the room, and I’d probably still be struggling to get to two centimeters. I laughed at this thought then told him with dead seriousness to never say “ow” in my presence again. Ever, I emphasized, gripping his sore wrist.

At some point during this time, a different midwife, Hillary, was on call. Hillary was pretty much Gayle’s opposite, the yin to her yang: she was very maternal, kind of hippie-ish, definitely earthy. She looked at my chart then turned to me and smiled. “Wow, you’ve been in labor since Monday. [It was Wednesday afternoon at the point.] You must be tired, huh?” I nodded feebly, tears brimming my eyes. She studied my monitor, and, with a now-familiar knitting of her eyebrows, said, “This doesn’t look so good. Look at this,” she pointed to a faint line that was going way up and then plummeting. “That’s the baby’s heartbeat. It’s unstable, going way up and way down with the contractions.”

She shook her head, squinting again at the monitor. “Not good.”

I started to cry, drained from it all and feeling genuinely scared for the first time.

She patted my hand empathetically, sitting down on the bed at my side. “Oh, I didn’t mean to scare you. We just need to try a different tact.”

I sniffled. John put his arm around me. Prem stood nearby.

“You know that we try to avoid this, but I really think that you should do an Epidural and Petocin at this point. We need to move things along and your little guy is getting stressed. You need to progress. You have been giving it a valiant effort but…” her voice trailed off and she tsked, watching the monitor through yet another horrendous contraction.

“Okay,” I whispered.

She squeezed my hand. “Again, I really think it’s for the best at this point.”

I knew enough from reading all the natural pregnancy materials I had that the Epidural and Petocin were evil twin temptations created by Big Pharma and pushed by misogynistic OB-GYNs at vulnerable women in labor. I read Mothering Magazine plus a good deal of the back issues: I was no fool. These drugs were an almost guaranteed fast-track to a Caesarian section. Still, so many of fantasies of a natural delivery had already been shattered by that point that I consented without much regret. It was now approximately forty-eight hours after I’d begun getting contractions. In short order, a friendly man with thick black hair and a Middle Eastern accent came in and gave me a shot on the base of my spine, if I recall correctly. He talked admiringly about how I had not gained too much weight (“It makes pregnancy so much harder”) and within minutes, I had a pleasantly melting feeling throughout my body. I slept for the first time for more than an hour in more than two days. John sacked out in one chair, Prem in the other. When I woke again, two or three hours later, another examination was underway.

Hillary was there again with a nurse. After giving this labor the best everyone had, I was at a measly four-and-a-half centimeters and the heartbeat in my womb was still erratic. Hillary left to consult with Gayle and a hospital OB-GYN; the nurse stayed behind and adjusted things around my bed. I was numb in every way possible. The nurse looked like she wanted to say something, then stopped herself. Finally said to me, in the most compassionate way possible, “You know, you’ve done everything possible. You don’t have to prove that you can do this. You’ve already proven you can. It doesn’t work for some people. It’s not your fault. Sometimes that’s just the way it is.”

For me, this was the first real moment of relief I’d had since labor started. Somebody was finally giving me permission to raise the white flag, to say uncle. Instead of my labor being a beautiful extension of my healthy, blessed pregnancy, it had jumped my poor starry-eyed, delusional self in an alley and worked me the hell over. I had started, oh, at about hour forty-three, to see labor as something that was both outside and inside of me, like a demonic possession. Labor reveals astonishing facets of our character: strength we didn’t know we had, courage, incredible resilience, a guttural intensity. With me, my labor revealed that I really don’t like to be a quitter. With the nurse’s acknowledgment of my effort, I felt that it was now outside of my hands. I could get off the natural birth platform I’d placed myself on and finally accept the actual cards I’d been dealt. Maybe if I’d been in Tennessee at Ina Mae Gaskin’s farm, she could’ve coaxed this baby out of me, luring him by humming Appalachian birthing songs and rubbing poultices of local herbs and moss over my uncooperative belly, but I wasn’t in Tennessee: I was in an urban hospital, and we all gave it our best shot.

About an hour later, I was wheeled into the operating room with John at my side. Hillary was there, as was the kindly nurse and very, very nice man who administered and managed my drug levels, who I’d come to know as The Magic Man. From that vantage point, looking up at them from the gurney, I felt a little like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. After what felt like a short time of tugging behind a curtain separating us, the surgeon said, “Ah. I see why this baby couldn’t be born. You have a very short umbilical cord. I’ve seen short ones before, but this is like six-inches long. The shortest I've ever seen. Wow.” And then, moments later, she held up my baby, a red-faced, wet little sea creature. “It’s a boy,” she announced, and the group smiled, John and I gasping. He was immediately whisked away before I could say anything so the nurse could suction the meconium away from his mouth – I came to learn in a very personal way that meconium can be dangerous to aspirate into the lungs - and The Magic Man said for the first time something I would come to hear many times down the road. “He looks just like you!” It was all very surreal.

We could hear my baby – my baby!? - screaming from somewhere nearby, perhaps the next room, demanding to be heard in no uncertain terms. Moments after birth, he was kicking ass and taking down names.

We obviously shared more than just a physical likeness. This was my child of temperament, too.

End of Part One. Yeah, you read that right: Part One. To be continued…


  1. Great story. I planned a homebirth with my first, but he was malpositioned so I ended up transporting to the hospital after 59 hours of labor. The ride to the hospital was enough to move him around and put me into transition so he was born pretty quickly after we got there; I figured I'd have a cesarean or at least drugs, but there wasn't time for either. The birth was still so traumatic. The hospital staff treated me like a piece of meat and I left the hospital feeling abused. You're very lucky to have had a good experience. I had my second child at home and that was a healing experience that I really needed. I was really effed up after my son's birth. I look forward to reading pt. 2. :)

  2. Oh Marla, I had a similar experience without the midwife. I even had the Monday-Wednesday thing. My son had been breach, and although he turned he turned the wrong way. It should have been a caesarean birth but it progressed too far. In the end I was given an epidural and he was a forceps birth. There was the meconium issue also. Then came all of the breast feeding nightmares-bleeding nipples!


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