Thursday, November 25, 2021

On The Night You Were Born


Saturday night, just as I was drifting off to sleep, my water broke. I stumbled to the bathroom and more fluid released. When I looked into the toilet, it was confirmed: the water was clear but speckled with tissue-like matter in it. Labor was underway.

I went down to the basement, where my teens were hanging out. I told them the news and both were insanely excited. We had already decided that if my older teen was home at the time I went into labor, she would accompany me to the hospital. (COVID restrictions meant only adults 18 years old and older would be allowed as support people on the labor and delivery floor.)

I dialed the OB clinic’s after-hours paging service, and within minutes a calm, soft-spoken, female doctor called me back. I told her my water had broken but that I wasn’t having any contractions yet. She said she would let the hospital know I was in labor.

“So…do I go in now? Or wait?” I asked. Even though this was my fourth birth, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. The doctor seemed surprised.

“You can take a quick shower if you want, but, yes, you need to get to the hospital now,” she said. “Things can progress quickly, especially given that this is your fourth baby.”

And so, we were off. Because my teen isn’t covered on the household car insurance, I drove. (Reckless, perhaps, but luckily, there was no one on the roads.) On the way, I dictated a text for my teen to send to the pregnancy counselor, alerting her to the news and asking her to check in with me in the morning. At this point, I felt confident that I would be placing the baby for adoption. It was just a matter of what time the adoptive parents would come get her at the hospital.

We checked in at the maternal assessment unit, where I changed into a gown and got hooked up to a fetal monitor. Contractions had begun, though they were far apart – 6 to 7 minutes. A nurse checked my cervix and said I was still only 1.5 centimeters dilated. Things were off to a slow start.

“I just want you to know that we read your doctor’s notes,” the nurse said during a lull in the action. “We’re aware of your…situation…and we want you to know that you are in control of what happens next.”

Ha! In control? I wish. I felt anything but.

A hard contraction kicked in and I asked how soon I could get an epidural. I wasn’t even going to pretend that I wanted to labor naturally for a while. I wanted all the drugs, as soon as possible.

“You’re not dilated enough yet,” the nurse said. “We like to wait until at least 3, preferably 4 centimeters before we do the epidural.”

There was no telling how long that would take. In the meantime, I was transferred to a labor and delivery suite, where I was given the option of either trying the birthing tub or getting an IV with Fentanyl to “take the edge off.”

“I can’t do both?” I asked.

“Fentanyl can make you disoriented,” the nurse informed me. “We don’t want you in the bathtub in that state.”

I doubted the drug would be that powerful, but I opted for it over warm water. I was not fucking around with pain this time.

“This can hit pretty fast,” the nurse said as she administered the medication. “You’re going to feel like you’ve had a few glasses of wine.”

Because I don’t drink (and never have), I had no idea what she was talking about. 

“I don’t feel anything,” I told her.

Then it hit me. And the room started bouncing. Up and down. Up and down. It was so disorienting, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. As promised, it did take the edge off the contractions…for a while. But sometime around midnight, it wore off. And when the contractions hit, and my body began to shake violently, my only recourse was to grip the bedrails and hold on for dear life. It felt like I was being crucified. 

My teen had since fallen asleep on the fold-out sofa; somehow even my primal moans didn’t wake her up.

The nurse came in to check my cervix again. Thank God, I was in between 3 and 4 centimeters dilated. She put a call in to the anesthesiologist, and it felt like forever until a stick-thin, bug-eyed man appeared at my bedside. The nurse woke my teen up and had her sit at the edge of the bed. I placed my trembling feet on her thighs for support and curled my body over a pillow.

The process of actually administering the epidural was painfully slow. The anesthesiologist was meticulous in his work, giving me instructions on how to position my body and what sensations I would experience at each step, but fuck, he really wasn’t moving fast enough. It didn’t help, of course, that every time I had a contraction (now every 2 minutes or so), I had to alert him so he could stop what he was doing.

“I’m contracting!” I’d wail.

“Thank you for that information,” he would say. Then, when the contraction ebbed, he’d give me another instruction, and when I obliged, he’d say, “Thank you for being the perfect patient.”

(“He has autism,” the nurse later told me. “In case you were wondering why he speaks that way.”)

When the epidural finally took hold, it felt like mercury sliding into my veins – cool, refreshing, tingly. By around 1 a.m., I was completely comfortable. The nurse positioned me on my left side, turned off the lights, and told me to get some rest. I wanted to sleep – I was so desperately tired – but I couldn’t. I was too wired. The nurse came back to flip me to my other side 45 minutes later. Once again, I failed to sleep when she left the room.

Around 3 a.m., I started to feel pressure in my pelvis. To be blunt, it felt like I needed to take the biggest shit of my life. When I paged the nurse to tell her so, she checked my cervix again – and confirmed I was fully dilated and ready to push. There was just one problem: the doctor wasn’t there yet, and wouldn’t be for at least 30 minutes.

“Don’t start pushing until she gets here,” the nurse instructed.

I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to abstain from what felt so necessary an action. I wondered if waiting was bad for the baby. But wait I did, and when the doctor arrived, I was oh-so-ready to give birth to this baby.

The doctor was not Dr. Baby-Maker, but one of her colleagues. Though she didn’t have the Suzy Sunshine aura of Dr. Baby-Maker, she was a comforting, compassionate, and unflappable presence. I couldn’t have asked for a better team – once again, all female, and so empowering – around me.

“Normally we put the baby on mom’s belly after birth,” the doctor said as she positioned me to push. “Do you want us to do that?”

“Yes,” I said. “And I want to hold her.” I wanted as much time as I could have with her, even as I was equally aware that the more time I spent with her, the more I would attach.

My teen stood over my right shoulder and encouraged me as I pushed – three rounds of three pushes each. I couldn’t tell if I was making progress or not, but my teen peeked a couple of times to watch the baby descend. Everyone laughed, and the doctor reported that the baby was shaking her head from side to side as she crowned. And then, faster than I expected, she was out, in one glorious rush of blood and fluid and hormones. 

The doctor placed the naked baby on my belly and my teen cut the umbilical chord. The nurse moved the baby up to my bare chest and she fit on me so perfectly. All I could think was, “Mine. Mine. Mine.”

My teen and I both started bawling. It was a beautiful birth, and the most powerful experience we’ve ever shared together.

The placenta emerged, and the doctor stitched up a second-degree tear. I had some excess bleeding, so the nurse administered Pitocin and massaged my uterus.

Meanwhile, I took in the baby. Her hair was the same strawberry-blonde hue as mine and she had blue eyes, like me. There was a heart-shaped stork bite between her eyebrows and a concerned expression on her face. She was wide awake, yet quiet and serious. Definitely an introvert.

But even as I contemplated her face and basked in the way it felt so natural to hold her, I was preparing myself to give her away.

When the doctor finished sewing me up, she tapped me on the knee and said, “I’ll be praying for you.” It made my tears start flowing all over again.

The nurse weighed the baby (8 pounds, 5 ounces), measured her (21 inches), and did the Apgar tests (if she told me her scores, I don’t remember them). The baby began rooting for a nipple, and my teen offered to feed her. The nurse handled the tightly swaddled bundle to my teen with a bottle of formula. I snapped a few pictures of my oldest and youngest daughters together. They looked so sweet.

When the baby finished her bottle, my teen handed her back to me and offered to take some photos of me with the baby. “Only on your phone, though,” I said, already preparing for potential future triggers. She snapped a few pics with her phone and showed me. I looked drained, pufffy-eyed, and shrouded in sadness. At least the baby was photogenic.

The nurses, while incredibly kind, seemed uncomfortable with the ambiguity of the situation. They kept asking if I wanted to send the baby to the nursery, or if they should call someone. No and no. It was still too early to call my husband, much less have him arrange childcare so he could come see the baby (and, presumably, say goodbye to her).

I waited until 6:30 a.m. and dialed his cell. I was surprised to hear his scratchy morning voice. Since I hadn't heard from him overnight, I assumed all was well on the home front and that they had slept fine. Well, I was wrong.

“She kept asking for you,” he said. “But I didn’t want to bother you.”

They had been up all night and eventually crashed in the recliner in the wee hours of the morning. My call woke them both up. He said he would get himself and our toddler ready for the day, call my mom to babysit, then make his way to the hospital.

My teen and I ordered breakfast. As I devoured an omelet with breakfast potatoes and fresh fruit, I drafted a text to the pregnancy counselor announcing the birth and giving her permission to alert the adoptive parents that they could come pick up the baby...but I couldn't send it. I had bonded to the adorable little snoozer in my arms. I half-hoped that when my husband arrived, he would see her and hold her and fall in love with her, too, and we wouldn’t have to go through with the adoption proceedings.

But that’s not what happened. When my husband finally arrived, he did indeed hold her and sweet-talk her. He helped me change her first poopy diaper (it was a two-person job). He stood by while a tech gave her an EKG because a nurse thought her heart was skipping beats (it turned out to be nothing).

But when my husband and I were finally alone, we started talking about adoption…and he broke down. Not because he was sad about giving the baby up, but because he felt there was no other option.

I won’t share what he disclosed, but suffice to say he had been struggling with depression to a degree I never fathomed. While he had seemed to me over the past several months to have his head in the sand in stubborn avoidance of our domestic difficulties, he had been just trying to survive. Now, a torrent of confessions came forth, and the depth of the darkness he had been living in terrified me. He was not only suffering; he was unsafe. I couldn’t imagine him helping me care for a newborn. He didn’t have anything left to give.

I wasn’t sure how much I had to give, either. I had conveniently forgotten how brutal the collateral damage from birth is. It took two nurses to get me to the bathroom, one of whom had to assemble and help me step into my postpartum undergarment – mesh underwear topped with a massive maternity pad, an ice pack, and Tucks pads slapped like pepperoni on a perineal pizza. I dripped blood behind me as I penguin-walked to the sink to wash my hands. I was ravaged. How could I care for a newborn in this state? I couldn't even go to the bathroom alone!

Morning turned into afternoon. Nurse after nurse came in and out of the room. Because of my "situation," they let me stay in the labor and delivery suite instead of transferring me to the bleak postpartum floor. They also said that I could leave the hospital as soon as 3 p.m. if the baby's placement was arranged.

"I don't have to stay 24 hours?" I asked. "I thought that was mandatory."

"The baby has to stay at least 24 hours," a nurse said. "You can go home as soon as you're stable."

I’m ashamed to write this, but I was so desperate to get out of there, it seemed like a fair trade to give the baby up right away if I could just go home. I sent the text to the pregnancy counselor. She said she would alert the adoptive parents and that she would come over to the hospital right away to walk through things with us. When she arrived, both my husband and I were bleary-eyed with tears. We talked in the same circles we’ve been talking around for months – the battle between the head and the heart, in which the head was increasingly winning out.

“Would it be OK if we filled out the placement paperwork?” she finally asked. “You can always tear it up when we’re done if it doesn’t feel right.”

We started to fill the paperwork out, but I couldn’t finish it. My heart hurt too much.

“I just want to go home,” I sobbed. “With my baby.”

But, as has been the norm throughout this ordeal, I couldn’t have it all. And every one of my options sucked. I could place the baby for adoption and go home to my family. Or I could stay another night with the baby in the hospital and decide about adoption the next day.

Reports from home were that my toddler was deeply confused, first about where Mommy went, and now about where Daddy went. Being away from her another night would be traumatic for both of us. But placing the baby with the adoptive couple didn’t sit right with me, either.

“Why does this feel like Sophie’s Choice?” I asked aloud.

The pregnancy counselor had another idea: maybe I could go home and the baby could stay in the nursery overnight? She went to float the idea by the hospital staff and returned with a nurse from the postpartum floor who would watch over the baby until the following morning. I could come back any time the next day to either take the baby home or sign the placement papers. It sounded like the best of the bad options.

The nurse prepared to take the baby upstairs. I leaned over the bassinet to kiss her goodbye. She was such a good baby, so calm amidst all the adult tumult.

“Do people do this often?” I asked the nurse, feeling afraid that I would come back the next morning and the baby would be gone, the victim of some paperwork snafu or staff miscommunication.

“Um…no. Never,” the nurse said. “We’re making an exception for you.”

“Oh.” 

Now I really felt like the Worst Mother in the World. I also felt guilty because the adoptive parents, who had planned to come spend the night with the baby in the hospital and take her home in the morning, were being told to back off because I was still undecided. I couldn’t even imagine how upset they were. So many people were hurting, and it was all my fault.

The baby was whisked away. I packed my things and a nurse pushed me in a wheelchair down to the patient pick-up area, where my husband came to fetch me. I was bone-tired, sore, and depleted. I needed a hug from my teens and my toddler. I felt bereft without the baby in my arms. All I had to remember her by were the teddy bear ID bands on my wrist. 

I had no idea what I was going to do, but I hoped that with a good night’s sleep – and some kind of miracle – I would know what was right in the morning

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