Published on June 30th, 2014 | by Jess D. Taylor0
THROUGH THE WINDOW
On our daughter’s second night outside of the womb, I sat crying as I watched my husband squeeze an eyedropper of formula into her pursed, expectant lips. Exhausted from the birth and terrified of her hunger—surely her shrieking indicated starvation—we watched in wonder as her eyelids grew heavy and she fell asleep for the first time since we’d brought her home. Like many “good” parents living in the nine-county democratic stronghold that is the San Francisco Bay Area, we opposed things like disposable diapers, synthetic fibers, gender-typical clothing, and, of course, formula. Our daughter was delivered by a midwife on a birthing stool in the only birth center within a 60-mile radius. So how did it come to this? How did we find ourselves, thirty-six hours after her birth, weepy and desperate, with two teaspoons of Similac in a shot glass in the middle of the night?
My pregnancy, after all, was charmed. At each check-up, the midwives praised my low blood pressure, growing uterus, and baby’s strong heartbeat. I loved feeling my body expand to accommodate my baby, both of us growing bigger together. I did prenatal yoga and aqua aerobics, bobbing to the chatter of giddy, nervous moms-to-be. I even continued my weekly Zumba practice, imagining that my baby would come out of the womb with verve, rhythm, and an abiding passion for Beyonce mash-ups. I ate lots of kale and blueberry smoothies. My husband Michael and I engaged in labor-preparation practices like breathing through the discomfort of ice cubes held in our palms for a minute. We talked about birth, not as an emergency, but as an emergence, see?
Rosanne, the midwife who ran the Birth Center, patiently answered all of my questions about episiotomies (usually not necessary) and perineum massage (can’t hurt). “Most births go so smoothly I don’t remember them,” she said with a wink. “That’s the goal: I don’t want to remember your birth.”
By the time my due date rolled around, I envisioned my labor somewhere between the Orgasmic Birth video (in which women described their contractions as intense, never painful) and Russian water birth, where babies wiggled out of the womb to splash around with dolphins in the Black Sea. But other than leaking urine during the night and waking up to the sound of my own snoring, nothing was different. I felt disappointed and anxious. “This is why I hate due dates!” said Rosanne. “Think of this time as your window of opportunity. Could be tonight, could be in two weeks. Besides,” she grinned, “if you hold out for a while longer, you could be the Birth Center’s 3,000th birth. We’re six away!”
But I was terrified—of growing a giant baby, of scary-sounding hospital interventions like vacuum extractions and forceps and C-sections that threatened the beautiful, natural birth I had planned. And so even though I’d read all about surrendering and letting go, trusting in the wisdom of the body, etc, etc, I did just the opposite. I seized control.
First I tried all the midwife-recommended “gentle nudges for hesitant fetuses”—squatting, sex, nipple stimulation—to no avail. I dropped bitter herbal tinctures on the back of my tongue and hiked a mile straight uphill. I talked aloud to my swollen belly, urging my baby to come out and greet me. Each morning I’d wake and realize, sadly, that I hadn’t gone into labor during the night. Finally, eleven days past my due date, on a Sunday morning, I downed three tablespoons of castor oil mixed with cranberry juice. After doing its duty as a powerful laxative, the thick, foul liquid launched me into gripping contractions that quickly became two minutes apart. So much for beading a birthing necklace and baking a vegan chocolate cake, my planned early labor projects. By the time Michael and I arrived at the Birth Center at 11:30 pm, I’d been laboring intensely for eight hours.
Though I knew labor was going to catapult me into another dimension, I had naively, and a bit smugly, assumed that my healthy lifestyle would pave the way for a smooth delivery. Brutal labors were for women who double-fisted donuts while sitting on the couch watching Lifetime TV. Women like me—physically fit, emotionally centered, well-read —experienced labor as a beautiful, empowering dance with their babies.
Birth for me was not orgasmic. No amount of wall squats or ice cubes in my palms could have prepared me for the fiery grip of a contraction. “Intense” does not come close to describing what was, indeed, the most painful experience of my life. I felt like my ass was going to explode. Fighting my body’s urge to push prematurely, I was reminded of the time I had to hold in my poop while riding a rickety bus through the mountains of eastern Cuba. Only in this case, it was a ten-pound “poop” and a ten-hour “ride.”
When Rosanne finally gave the green light, I pushed until my face was swollen and my eyes were bloodshot. With every contraction, Rosanne would say brightly, “Okay, let’s have us a baby!” and I would bear down with a primal ferocity that I never knew I possessed. Buoyed by the cheers of Michael and my doula, I pushed five times per contraction, sweat pooling on my upper lip and dripping from my earlobes, my naked body raw and exposed and writhing with force, my sweaty mass of hair turning more and more Medusa-like. But each time, baby was still in the same stuck place.
Four hours later, I was still pushing, still feeling the sweet wet fuzz of my baby’s almost-crowning head. The heartbeat remained strong. But no matter the position—on my back, on my side, in a freestanding squat, sitting on the toilet—our little being would not budge. I could sense Michael’s desperation. Rosanne, who hours ago had declared confidently that I would have my baby there, at the Birth Center she’d been running for nineteen years, murmured to the nurse to prepare for a hospital transfer. It felt like the ultimate failure. Of all the complications and hardships I’d feared—preeclampsia, nausea, placenta previa, fetal distress—this one, the baby simply not moving, hadn’t occurred to me.
“I can give you an episiotomy,” Rosanne finally offered. I cringed, remembering how she’d told me, months ago, that it had been well over a year since she’d needed to perform one.
“Think about it for a few minutes,” she said gently as the next contraction wave broke over me. I bore down, yet again, with my aching abs, channeling every last drop of energy southward, and felt the heft of my baby’s unmoving head. I watched Michael’s expectant face rise and then fall again as another contraction left me nowhere closer to the crown, and I relented.
The cut—quick, hot, excruciating—opened me up in a way that nature, I understood later, could not. A half hour more of fierce animal pushing, and our baby splooshed out in a pool of meconium, the cord wrapped tightly around her neck. We were so desperately relieved that a full ten minutes went by before Michael investigated the sex and cried, “It’s Mallory Mae!”
Labor was over, but the demand on my body was just beginning.I wouldn’t learn until later that hard labors can delay a mother’s milk coming in. Mine took five days, my colostrum a scant meal for our daughter, who was an astonishing 9 pounds, 10 ounces (“So that’s why she wasn’t budging,” Rosanne remarked when she weighed her). I’m tempted to blame the formula fiasco on questionable advice from another midwife, who, unlike Rosanne, was not a lactation consultant. But that’s only partly true. That second night home we were exhausted and scared, distressed over Mallory’s alternate shrieking and nursing. No matter how much she drank from me, she remained restless and alert. But after each dropper of formula, her eyes began to close and her limbs went slack, a wondrous sight for our weary eyes.
The next morning, after we had slept for a delicious three-hour stretch, Rosanne called to check in. The formula would interfere with my body’s milk production, she told us. Stop immediately. Guilt seized me. My daughter was only two days old and I had already fucked up. “Breastfeeding is going to be just like your birth,” Rosanne told me. “Just when it starts to feel really desperate and impossible, your milk will come in. Your body will prevail.”
Of course, she was right. When it came to my birth, almost nothing went as I’d envisioned. Instead of wearing the silky nightie I’d brought along to make me feel confident and sexy, I labored stark naked. Instead of snacking on nuts and fruit to remain strong, I could barely sip the honey water my doula offered me. As we poured the bottle of Similac down the drain, I realized that this was just the beginning of a long line of mishaps and misjudgments, the first of many times that parenthood would signal a departure from my expectations. Like my labor, raising a child would be messy and unpredictable, an affront to my illusions of control. If ever there was a time to surrender, it was now.
Mallory was, indeed, the Birth Center’s celebrated Baby 3,000. I lay back on the bed, gazing into my daughter’s eyes that looked, strikingly, just like mine, as Rosanne delicately wiped the blood from my legs with a warm washcloth. She leaned in close and whispered, “I will definitely remember your birth.”