Several times over the last five months I’ve been composing a blog post or two in my mind, but it’s taken me this long to actually sit down and write something. It seemed like there was always something more important to do – you know, eat, sleep, clean, shower, pump, wash bottles – stuff like that. But now I realize that writing this post is important, too. J and I recently decided to go ahead with a FET and try for a sibling to Faustin, probably sometime later this year. I’ve been aware for awhile that I have a lot of unresolved feelings about how Faustin’s birth and breastfeeding went. My confidence that my body will do what it’s supposed to do – already shaken by infertility – is pretty precarious now. Though I’m certain I want to give our frosty a chance, I feel really ambivalent about getting pregnant and trying to give birth again.
I know that I – and I think many women – have certain ideas of motherhood instilled in our imaginations. We take for granted that we’re going to live out these vaseline lens tableaux we have in our minds – surprising our husbands in some clever way with the joyful news that we’re pregnant, having our brand-new baby put in our arms after we’ve done that so exhausting but rewarding feat of pushing them out, cradling the tiny, cozy body to our breast to feed it. None of those things happened for me.
I’m still very aware of how lucky I am and that I’m not nearly alone in mourning these relatively small losses. Most importantly – and I’m very grateful for this – I never had to worry about Faustin’s well-being. He was always sturdy and happy in the womb and during delivery. The notes at his birth describe him as “vigorous,” so I was blessed with the most precious thing – a robust baby. I always hold very present in my mind friends who were robbed of that basic security or who lost their babies. I was also lucky to have healed from my c-section well. The birth may not have proceeded the way I had hoped, but there were no complications. I feel a little embarrassed to feel any emotion BUT gratitude knowing as I do some seriously courageous women who have gone through SO much more to bring their babies into the world.
The truth is that my birth experience is kind of a blur; I can’t quite remember what happened when. I asked labor and delivery to send me my records, so I can try to put it all together. This is how it all went down.
Little “Faustin” wasn’t so little near the end of my pregnancy. Even though I had passed the Gestational Diabetes tests (just), they were treating me as if I had GD – I guess “glucose intolerance” – because my numbers were high, my fundal height was measuring 2cm ahead of what it was supposed to at every check-up, and the fluid was a little elevated (I guess also a marker of GD). The growth scan confirmed that Faustin wasn’t a tiny baby. I’m a pretty petite woman – 5’1″ on a good day – so in the final months I was literally reluctant to go out in public, because I was getting sick of the comments I was getting from strangers. “Wow! How many you got in there?!” “Gee, were you due like yesterday?!”. I’m still not convinced his size had anything to do with GD. He has never been a chubby baby, but is a tall, long-limbed little dude. No wonder I looked so huge; the guy had nowhere to go but OUTWARD on my short torso. After Faustin’s birth, I looked back at my donor’s profile (I thought size wasn’t going to be an issue, since she’s only 5’5″), and she had quite a few very tall relatives. Oh well, who knows…
I remember talking with my doula about the growth scan and the midwives’ concerns that Faustin was a big baby. She told me that my body was designed to birth the baby it grew. I wanted to believe her, but I had some serious doubts. First, there was a lot my body was supposedly “designed” for that it didn’t seem to do too well, like I dunno, ovulate and menstruate…or produce eggs worth a dime. Plus, was my body designed to birth a baby made from someone else’s genetic material? Can anyone even know that?
I was dedicated to giving natural childbirth a shot, and I didn’t want to rush this baby out, regardless of how uncomfortable I was. I tried to console myself during those last, uncomfortable, sleepless nights by thinking he was getting more time for his brain to develop and for me to feed him fish oil. Whatever mind tricks work, right? I figured he’d come when he was ready, and if he needed more time to cook then who was I to say otherwise? And the weeks crept on and on…and on. Finally, at 42 weeks minus one day – Monday, October 22 – I reached my midwife practice’s final deadline. I had to go in to be induced.
I had my bag packed full of the well-thought-out supplies recommended by my childbirth class teacher – snacks to keep my energy up, a light robe, scented oil to mask the antiseptic smell of the hospital, my favorite ultrasound photo of Faustin to focus on during contractions, audio meditations loaded onto my phone. Little did I know that going into childbirth armed with these props was kinda like battling a dragon with a Twizzler. The teacher told us that by this point in our adult lives we knew how to comfort ourselves and to relax, so we already had all the tools we needed for labor. That’s bullshit. Scented oil, my ass. Thank god we hired a doula, because I and J were completely unprepared to get me through the really painful parts.
The hospital I chose is known for being extremely supportive of natural childbirth. Even with my induction, they began with the gentlest method first – inserting Cytotec – and then slowly ramped up from there. I was given the first dose of Cytotec late that morning and then again two more times at 4 hour intervals, so I think this lasted from late Monday morning until that night. J and I watched shows he had downloaded onto his computer. Occasionally I napped. Nothing happened. The next step was a Foley balloon catheter (something I REALLY hoped not to have to do when I had read about it, because I experienced serious pain during invasive exams like HSGs. Apparently my cervix often did NOT like things shoved up the wrong way). It turned out not to be that bad, though, not nearly what I had feared. And really, there wasn’t any option, so up it went.
As various catheters were being inserted and removed from my body, I remember thinking that J unfortunately had plenty of experience being discreet and giving someone privacy while something like that was happening, since his mother was confined to a hospital bed for the last years of her life due to Multiple Sclerosis. I remember wondering at the time if seeing me like that brought back memories of his mother and made the birth experience more painful for him.
The Foley balloon went in sometime late that night, I believe, and was removed late the next morning (the midwives don’t all have great handwriting, so it’s hard to decipher some of the notes). After all that – a day of waiting and two methods of induction/dilation, I was still only dilated 2-3 inches. Bummer. So, onto Pitocin. I think at this point I was having occasional, mild contractions I had to breathe through, but nothing major. They were careful to introduce the Pitocin very gradually, so I don’t think I had the awful hit-by-a-truck Pitocin contractions, but I really don’t have anything to compare it to. After several hours of manageable contractions my water broke, and that’s when the real pain began. We called in the big guns – my doula – to give support.
I had debated whether or not to have a doula since I was already at a facility that supported natural childbirth. I didn’t need someone to advocate for me and to make sure I wasn’t bullied into procedures I didn’t want. I’m extremely glad I had Maria there, though. There’s no way my husband (who I love dearly and who was a great, supportive partner the entire time) would have known how to go about coaching me through that pain. It also helped hugely to have someone who’d been through it before and who knew what to expect. I spent a lot of the worst time in the bathtub, lying on my side with my head barely out of the water. Maria told me to breathe out a long “Hah” sound in a low register with every contraction. I would take a deep breath and make that sound until I ran out of breath, then repeat. Inside, I’d be counting. I knew that after I made that sound for 23 counts (I remember that number better than many other aspects of the birth) the contraction would be over. I remember banging hard on the side of the tub when it hurt really badly. Now that I think of it, that must have been a pretty disturbing sound for my poor laboring neighbors.
It’s funny, because before this all happened, I was concerned about things like: What on earth will I wear during labor? Will I – not the most immodest person – feel uncomfortable being naked – or partially naked – around my husband plus one or more people we don’t know well? In the end I retreated so deep inside to deal with the contractions that I don’t know if I would have noticed a whole gaggle of residents tromping in and out of my room. Most of the time my eyes were shut.
After about 7 hours of contractions, I began to have an overwhelming urge to push. My doula said it was a good sign – that often that urge comes hand-in-hand with the necessary dilation. So, we hauled me out of the tub and did a cervical check. Nothing. No further dilation. I was still only at 2-3 inches. I don’t think I dilated more than 4 inches the entire time.
I kept trying to weather the contractions and to breathe through – and resist – the urge to push. Not an easy thing. I did that for several hours, and finally begged for an epidural. I have to give J, my doula, and the midwives credit. They did a great job of trying to keep me strong and support my desire to attempt labor without meds. I finally had to beg over and over, “Please, I want the epidural, I want the epidural, I want the epidural.” My morale had taken a big hit with that last cervical check. I may have been able to keep on longer if I had seen some progress, but I couldn’t keep on with no signs of improvement at all. I’m no masochist and had no interest in winning a natural childbirth badge of honor. If labor wasn’t progressing, I wanted help with the pain.
What I didn’t know before was that after you ASK for the epidural, you still have to WAIT for the epidural. They finally brought the anesthesiologist in, I think I signed some forms, and I breathed through contraction after contraction as he attempted to stick me in the spine. He had a tough time getting the spot right, I think partly because my huge belly made it difficult for me to curve my spine out enough for him.
It looks like I had hard labor for about 8 hours without the epidural and then for 3 hours with it (not nearly the marathon many women go through). Because we were there for one whole day of induction before labor began, we’d now gone through several shifts of midwives and nurses. The midwife who was on at the end of my labor was, as far as I can remember, an ex-hippy lesbian, veteran midwife who was as dedicated as anybody to natural childbirth. She was also extremely kind, personable, and funny. She told me that she was in for the long-haul if that’s what I wanted, but that it didn’t look promising. It was starting to seem really unlikely that I’d have this baby vaginally. Instead of dilating, my cervix was just swelling as Faustin’s big noggin was banging down on it. I guess all that fluid had kept him buoyant. Once my water broke, he just came crashing down on a tiny window too small for his prodigious head.
The midwives all said that Faustin looked great on the monitor. Through it all he was just hanging out, happy and mellow. Because he wasn’t in distress, I could have tried to labor longer had I wanted to. I decided to go ahead with a c-section, though, because I figured I’d rather have a calm procedure early on rather than risk waiting until Faustin was in distress and I was forced to have a panicked, frightened one. I knew I was blessed not to have to worry about him, and I wanted to keep it that way. Neither the midwife or the doula thought it was likely to end differently if I labored longer, so I saw no reason to push my luck.
The OB on-call was a really nice man with a great bedside manner. He made sure I didn’t have any other questions or doubts before proceeding. We all – the midwife, my doula, J, and I hung out and waited. I remember feeling badly that the doula had to be at the hospital for so long, but I guess that’s her job, right? I also remember making sure that J handed out brownies to the midwife and our doula. We talked about the presidential election. It was pretty leisurely. I was numb, after all. Finally, they had prepared the OR.
They rolled me into the operating room, and I guess the epidural made me sick, because I promptly threw up. I hate throwing up. It’s just a few places down from cervical catheters on my “Things I hate and Try to Avoid at All Costs” list, actually. But worse than the puking was the fact that the drugs were making me shake uncontrollably. My teeth were chattering so hard the entire span of the procedure that my jaw seized shut. I didn’t feel a thing when they pulled Faustin out (I know some people feel a tugging). I do remember that moment of relief all mothers probably feel when I heard his cry. They made an attempt at skin-to-skin, but I was out of it, shaking uncontrollably, and there was a big curtain up to keep my incision sterile. It wasn’t exactly a bonding moment.
Faustin was born at 1:15am on Wednesday, October 24th. He was 9 pounds, 4 ounces. There are photos of that time in the operating room – J clamping the umbilical cord or holding a red and angry baby, Faustin getting his first bath. Apparently, Faustin’s big “hello” to the world consisted of his peeing all over everyone. What’s weird to me is that so much went on that I wasn’t a part of. I had to hear about so many of Faustin’s first moments from J. You can see a little bit of my forehead in the photo of J proudly holding our little baby boy. I’m lying there, probably being sewn up, a pale, inert, beached whale.
I know my experience is far from unique, and far, FAR from the traumatic experiences that many women have in childbirth. But I guess, even given that, I still have to mourn that things didn’t go the way I had hoped. Maybe it meant more to me to have that imagined birth because so much before that had been difficult and compromised. I had finally come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to have my own genetic child. But to also not be able to give birth in the “normal way,” to miss the first moments of bonding I was taught to want and expect, and then on top of THAT to not be able to breastfeed (that’s it’s own blog post). I guess it’s hard not to feel like my ideas of motherhood were slowly being chipped away, one by one. It was also hard not to be angry, “You mean, I don’t get to experience THAT, either?!” I was left with little to stand on. There were times when I wasn’t sure Faustin would know I was his mother. With most of my mind and heart I’m certain he knows I’m his Mama, but sometimes doubt creeps in.
So, I hold onto the moments when I’ve felt most like a mother to him – his smile as he greets me in the morning and his clinging to me when I lift him out of his crib, his looking into my eyes for reassurance as I lowered him into one of his early baths, his eyes following me around the room when other people are holding him, him smiling and reaching up to touch my face as I’m feeding him. But there are still moments when I’m particularly exhausted or down and a nagging little part of my mind wonders if he’d be just as happy with anyone who can hold a bottle. Does he know I’m his mama as fully as he would if everything – his conception, birth, and feeding – such important and essential steps – had gone differently? And though I love my little boy so much it hurts, I still sometimes mourn (though I feel incredibly disloyal for doing so) seeing a tiny copy of my own features – a little piece of me – looking up at me.
You know, this post originally ended with the paragraph above, but it was haunting me. It felt like a crime to end Faustin’s birth story with ANY sense of loss when he gives me so much joy every day. I didn’t like to think about it floating around in the universe that way. This felt wrong not only because I remember so palpably a time when I would have gladly birthed a baby out of my EAR in order to have one of my own, but also because I so dearly love the specific person he is – his dogged determination, the goofy noises he makes, the serious scowl on his face as he inspects something new. I’m incredibly grateful – not just to finally have my baby – but to be mother to this unique, strong willed, curious, smiley guy.