Birth Stories

Published on January 22nd, 2020 | by Rachel Berger


Soon You Will Be A Mother, But First You Will Be Sick

You are 28 weeks pregnant and you are admitted to hospital with suspected pre-eclampsia and suspected gestational diabetes. You’ve already had a diabetes test in your pregnancy, much earlier than typically expected, that’s what they do with fat girls, but your sugars were fine. And at 28 weeks, the elevator is broken and you lug yourself and the twins in your belly up three flights and when you sit down to have your blood pressure taken, it’s off the charts. Your heart is pounding. It turns out the urine sample you’ve handed the nurse is glinting with proteins and full of spilled sugar. “Call your partner and get to the hospital as fast as you can,” she implores, and so you do.

You hop a cab and rush yourself there, only to encounter a staff member at intake so disinterested in your emergency that though she is not snapping gum, she might as well be. She hands you forms that will identify your children as subjects of the state when they are born. You have to fill out their name and their date of birth. You ask why you need to fill this out before the birth, and she says it’ll just be easier, you don’t know what state of mind you’ll be in when—when, not if—things go downhill. With pre-eclampsia, it might be today, she tells you. You take the forms, but leave them untouched in your bedside table drawer, where they will sit for the 8 weeks you will spend living in this hospital room, gestating your babies. It is minute 10 of the first of day of these 8 weeks, and it is dawning on you that you are losing it all in this hospital room, second by second—that soon you will be a mother, but before that you will be a sick person.

Your sickness is tied to your fatness, and so you will also be to blame. You will be a moral failure in the eyes of the many residents and fellows and nurses and orderlies and hospital volunteers who visit you almost hourly. Some will look at you kindly and some with disdain and you will spend the next 8 weeks trying to figure out how to make them see you as anything but a sick fat pregnant person. You will want them to see you as sick sometimes, so they can address your illness. Being seen as pregnant is best of all, because everyone loves babies and they posit a redemptive possibility for you if you can just give birth to them in good time. But it’s the combo—the sick and fat, coupled with the pregnant. They look at you, thinking how you brought on this predicament yourself, that you are saddling the babies inside you with the threat of illness. There is no escaping this, and you spend some time every day wondering if you were truly that selfish or just really stupid enough to think you could get away with a healthy pregnancy.

But before the bed rest, there is an ultrasound commissioned to check up on the babies in light of your progressing illness. Your blood pressure and heart rate have normalized, but your sugars are raging. You take vast quantities of insulin, enduring minute-long shots that leave your arm frozen and sore for hours. Your partner rolls you down to the tech lab to get the scan done. She has to take off for a work thing—it’s clear the babies aren’t coming today, she wants to put things in order in case they come tomorrow. She’s not there when the tech comes out, finds you, sighs heavily. The tech makes a big deal of assessing the tables available for the scan, fussing over adjustments and changing out wands. “I wonder if this will work for you,” she keeps saying. She begins. “I can’t see anything,” she complains. She starts to prod harder. You wince, she tells you to be quiet. She hooks the wand into your belly fat, and pushes and pushes, sighing and muttering about the poor reading she’s getting. This lasts an hour. She takes a break, but tells you not to move. You are in so much pain that you are sobbing silently on the table, vulnerable and afraid, naked but for a hospital gown, your legs in stirrups on the table. She returns, assistant in tow. This woman is somewhat sympathetic, she apologizes before pushing her body weight into the wand to measure your babies’ hearts and femurs and brains and kidneys. At the 2 hour mark, the OB GYN on-call walks in. She sees you sobbing and gripping the table. She orders the tech to stop, chides them for letting you lie in such a dangerous position for your babies for so long. She takes over the scan and works quickly, roughly, with some consternation and complaint, but punctuated with critiques of the other staff. It turns out your babies are fine, they are growing normally, they are as healthy as can be expected. They stay that way until you birth them 8 weeks later.

Your hospital stay is filled with moments of poignant care, so sweet it moves you years later to think about, coupled with moments of acute dehumanization. There was the way that they simply wrote “challenge: habitus” atop all of your ultrasound reports, or the words “pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, obesity” at the top of the chart, which evolved into a thick binder. Sometimes the nurse left it behind on your bed and you’d steal glances at the shift notes they were forced to keep; often, they mentioned you were in good form and compliant. That felt like a victory: you tried your hardest to be calm and pleasant, to make the jobs of those around you as easy as possible. You worked so hard at this that you were exhausted by it. The moments that were more difficult—yet another lecture delivered off the cuff about making good food choices, a complaint about the impediment of your body to the completion of the task at hand, being prodded and manhandled by a practitioner who wouldn’t look you in the eye or speak to you, ruminations about your sickness and its causes and your choices delivered in front of you but not to you—are what you’d always expected. In sum total, there are more moments of sweetness than trauma: more hours logged talking to the nurses and students and residents about their lives; more small kindnesses shown in respectful gestures and thoughtfully meted-out care; a nurse who stayed past her shift to escort you to recovery post-c-section; the whole team coming over to post-natal care to cuddle your beautiful babies when they’d finally arrived. These are the things you’ll try to hold on to later, in the years to follow.

But that first tech doesn’t disappear. You need to be scanned twice a week, and she’s always the one on call. You are thrilled when she takes her Christmas holiday. You are thrilled when your babies grow bigger and easier to assess. You are relieved when, in the week your babies are born, your charming partner finally charms her in to talking to you, the woman whose belly she has been scanning for 7 weeks, whom she has not addressed. The tech has a friend from her childhood in Peru who is on your ward, also pregnant with twins and sick, and she wants to bring her some take-out from the central American restaurant nearby but hasn’t had time yet. Your partner offers to do this favor for her, and follows through.

Nine months later you are nursing your babies in the lactation room at a mall in the suburbs, and you meet a mother of twins 2 months younger than yours. You get to talking, as twin moms do, and she mentions that she is from Peru, and that she was also hospitalized during her pregnancy. You realize that this is her, the friend of the tech who didn’t see you as a person, only as a fat moral failure.  But now you are simply mothers, focusing on breastfeeding one baby while also tending to the other. You share wipes, hold one of her twins for her as she gets the other out of the stroller. You look down at the 4 babies around you: two of them yours, who that tech prodded with no grace; two of them belong to her friend, babies she worried over and no doubt loves. And you think nothing is uncomplicated.

Feature photo (heart) by Alexandru Acea on Unsplash

All other photos courtesy of the author

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About the Author

Rachel Berger is a queer fat femme, a parent of twins, a historian of the body, and a lover of walks living and teaching in Montreal, Canada. She is Associate Professor of History and fellow of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University, where her academic work takes up the history of indigenous medicine in modern South Asia, the history of reproductive rights and technologies in Empire, and is most recently focused on the history of nutrition and the origins processed foods in twentieth century India, as well as a geo-mapping of South Asian foodscapes in Montreal. The rest of her academic work focuses on the changing scope of queer kinship in the time of Assisted Reproductive Technologies, which includes the collection of oral histories of queer family-making across Canada. She writes about these topics, intergenerational trauma and holocaust memories, critical Jewish parenthood and queer life in academic and non-academic venues. Come find her on twitter @slantgirl or on instagram @rachel_of_montreal.

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