Birth Stories

Published on June 17th, 2022 | by Molly O. Kemper

1

This Was Not The Plan: On Birth, Grief, and a Pandemic Delivery

A little more than a year after my father died, in April 2020, I was 41 weeks pregnant. My due date the previous week had coincided with the first peak of Covid deaths in New York City. My husband, Nicolas, banged pots and pans out the window every evening as part of the citywide show of support for healthcare workers. We lived down the street from the field hospital erected in Central Park, and the moments of quiet were more remarkable between the sound of sirens.

We had spent weeks not knowing whether I would have to labor alone, masked and miserable; my obstetrician, Dr. G., looked drawn and weary as she told me that the pandemic deliveries she was attending were “not good.”

In times of crisis, my stress response is to go into action mode. I like to Have A Plan, Execute Said Plan, and Keep Moving Forward. (My mom and sister call me The General. They assure me they mean it lovingly.) So, once it became clear that having my first baby in these imperfect circumstances was The New Plan, I was able to go into the last few days of pregnancy remarkably calm. I would Go Into Labor. I would Drive To the Hospital. I would Cue Up my Birthing Playlists and then I would Deliver The Baby.

In a blow to The New Plan, though, our daughter was a week late. I was going to have to have an induction. Just days earlier, Governor Cuomo had reversed the ban on partners attending births, so Nicolas came with me, both of us masked and sweating with nerves. From the fourteenth floor of Weill Cornell, we couldn’t hear any of the sirens that had kept us awake in our second-floor apartment.

As we sat on the edges of the neoprene armchairs in the waiting area, I kept thinking of my dad: Martin P. O’Laughlin, M.D. Part of my equanimity when it comes to the medical field is thanks to his work as a pediatric cardiologist. I grew up trusting doctors and nurses, so despite the grim facts of American maternal mortality rates, I was feeling optimistic. We had The New Plan. Everything was Going To Be Fine.

A major part of Everything Being Fine was my planned epidural. As my dad and his friends liked to say, “Better living through pharmacology.” Also, “no pain, no pain.” I was not planning to waste a bunch of time in agony before I even got any vaginal tearing.

Unfortunately, the next unforeseen speedbump in The Plan proved to be the fact that the epidural was not administered until after Dr. G. manually broke my water, an experience accompanied by a searing pain unlike any I had ever felt. I hadn’t realized that was part of The Plan!

After the rupture, nothing much happened for about twelve hours. Everything was moving very slowly—until suddenly everything was moving very fast. The monitors no longer picked up the fetal heartbeat. My nurse called in a code blue—cardiac- or respiratory arrest—and a squad of stern-looking young people in scrubs stormed the room.

One skit my dad and his amateur-actor friends performed in medical school involved a woman who had gone into “humor arrest”—she’d lost her sense of humor in toto. Twenty medical students in clown costumes dashed down the hallway to respond. My dad’s character, Dr. O’Laughin’, was called in to make things right with a rapid-fire series of jokes, a rubber chicken, and a pie to the face.

In real life, no woman in labor wants to see as many nurses as I saw running toward me in that moment. As they swarmed my bed, one of them explained that bradycardia—low or no heartbeat—was very common in fetuses, especially during labor, and that I was not to worry. Just keep breathing.

I nodded, face calm, shoulders tense. These were medical professionals; this was their job.

In another world, my dad could have been among these nurses. He would have kept calm too, explaining what was happening just like the nurse did, saying please and thank you after every directive, and doing everything he could to make sure my daughter’s little heart kept going.

Alone in the middle of the maelstrom of intensive care, I just kept breathing through the code.

An eternity later, the heartbeat returned. I was awash with relief. The team retreated. The room was quiet again. I turned to Nicolas, who had nearly soiled himself when they called the code, and I mused: “I wonder if they call themselves the Brady Bunch.”

He didn’t laugh. At this point, he probably could have used the oxygen cannula taped under my nose more than I did.

My dad, however, lover of puns that he was, might well have whispered the joke into my ear. My perfectly-timed dad-joke about bradycardia would have killed!

After that, hours ticked by interminably. I had a hangnail on my toe; Nicolas trimmed it. My face got puffier and puffier with water retention, but there was still no progress down below.

Eventually, a nurse told me I would have to dial back on the epidural to speed things up. I was faced with the Scylla of less pain but more time, or the Charybdis of more pain over less time. Except as it turned out, it wasn’t actually up to me. The Plan was Out the Window. The General had been Stripped of her Command.

It got to the point where I both wanted Dr. G. with me all the time and dreaded seeing her at all. It’s disheartening to hear someone sigh so morosely every time she looks up your vagina.

The contractions grew stronger; I tried doing the breathing exercises I’d been practicing for months, but by the end, the pain was too constant. Around five in the morning on Easter Monday, Dr. G. called it. My water had been broken for too long; my cervix wasn’t budging past eight centimeters; the baby wasn’t making any progress. It was time for a cesarean.

That was the moment The General finally Lost It. This was Not The Plan. I shook uncontrollably from the moment Dr. G. said it was time to rush me to the operating room. I had barely skimmed the chapters about c-sections in the baby books, only enough to retain that they were to be avoided at all costs. For all that I’d told myself, Dad’s voice echoing through my head, “the important thing is for the baby to come out safely,” I couldn’t help being terrified as the nurses wheeled me down the hall.

When Sylvie finally entered the world, squelching through the incision Dr. G. made above my pubis and making her way through the gauntlet of nurses that dutifully wiped, swaddled, and anointed her with vitamin K before handing her to Nicolas, she looked exactly—EXACTLY—like my dad. Male pattern baldness is an unexpected look on a newborn, but on her, it worked.

And Sylvie wasn’t the only newborn in the room. It is a truth universally ignored by pregnant ladies that, after birth, the family gains more than just the baby from the womb. Because a pregnant lady’s partner, in becoming a father, also turns into a baby. Nicolas, weeping, had just been reborn over there in the hard plastic chair.

And although Dad never got to meet Sylvie, sometimes I think maybe he kind of did? Like ships passing in the night, just two babies hanging out in the ether, watching Nicolas turn into one of them.

As I’m writing this now, it’s Sylvie’s birthday. She has just turned two, and even though she has no concept of birthdays or age or the passage of time at all, really, it’s clear that she’s picked on something in the air, and she knows she’s hot stuff today. I agree with her, of course; but for me, her birthday is more than just her birthday. It’s a milestone, something that makes me celebrate, yes, but also reflect—and frankly, mourn.

Over the past two years, nothing has gone according to plan. I still make Plans (old habits die hard), but between first-time parenting and once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, I have had to dial back my control-freak tendencies. It helps to hear stories from my mom about how my dad handled unwelcome surprises when I was a baby myself. For instance, when I decided to excavate my poopy diaper and smear its contents around my crib, my mother was horrorstruck; but Dad just laughed it off. He always knew what Nicolas and I have been slowly learning since Sylvie was born: babies gonna baby.

When I imagine my father and my daughter together, most often I picture Dad as a healthy adult, pre-Parkinson’s, holding Sylvie as a sleeping newborn. Dad was the Baby Whisperer. Whenever he held babies on his Santa-style belly, they inevitably, immediately, passed out. Hearing his heartbeat, cradled on his “magic tummy,” it’s like they knew they were safe and loved. In my mind’s eye, I see Sylvie’s mouth open in a tiny snore; I see Dad, verklempt to be holding his first grandchild, holding her safe. In his blue eyes, the eyes Sylvie and I both share, I see the love.

When, on the other hand, I picture Dad with Sylvie as she is now, an imperious toddler, she controls the scene. I see her thrusting a baby doll into his hands and commanding him to diaper it, as she does with everyone she loves. “Baby poop. Diaper. Change it. Yes. Wipes. Yes.” As soon as the imaginary diaper change is complete, she wants it all over again: “More. More more.” In my mind, Dad patiently humors her, the quirk in his serious expression betraying his joy at her total confidence. For the love of his granddaughter, my father diapers the baby again and again, forever. The pandemic may still be on, plans may still be subject to change, but one thing is for sure: Sylvie’s the General now.

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About the Author

Molly O. Kemper (she/her) is a writer, reader, editor, and translator living in New York City. She is also the host of the Dead Ladies Show NYC, returning live and in person this summer. Photo credit: Sophie Mathewson.



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