- The Facts
- A Reverent Reluctance
- Her Due Date, Give or Take a Month
- Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Birth?
- I Believe In Nesting
- The Coming of Cariysa, or
A Really Strange Case of Diarrhea
- Postpartum Pleasantries
Cariysa Marie, the firstborn of William and Elizabeth Powell, came forth into the sunlight at 5:40 am, June 28th, 2003, into the hands of her father and the arms of her mother. She was 7 pounds, 14 ounces, 20 inches, and lovely beyond song.
She was also a month early. As if that didn’t satisfy her taste for excitement, she decided to slide her way to freedom in about four hours. Thus the scheduled midwife didn’t get here until more than an hour after she was born, and the handy backup midwife only arrived literally two minutes before the baby did.
But everyone’s fine.
There. That’s the short version.
The long version will be told in its entirety at the Last Judgment. Though Cariysa (rhymes with "Teresa", by the way) has only been with us (sans placenta) for four days, even now I frankly refuse to attempt anything like a complete life story. What I’ll write here is just a rough outline.
I wish that my reverent reluctance implied that I’ve been contemplating the miracle of my daughter nonstop for the last 96 hours, but actually I’ve watched two videos (ugh and ugh) and finished off a novel (The Princess Bride). I’ve discovered that my contemplative muscles are weak and need training, like all my other muscles.
Still, I’ve gotten a fair workout. Once, maybe twice, it has really begun to occur to me that the perfect baby that nuzzles against my neck and then throws her head back is my daughter. My daughter. Which makes me a father, and (get this) Beth a mother. It even means that we really did get married, after all (you’d be surprised at how impossible that can seem).
All this is a lot to handle.
Unlike Cariysa, who is comfy and soft and a shade too flexible for her own good. Stuffed animals just won’t ever be the same. They’re not warm, they don’t roll their heads around and smack them against your chest, and they don’t have dark blue eyes that open windows in the sky and let in God.
Anyhow, so about her month-early lightning birth. (Here’s the story part; this gives you an incentive to read this besides being our friend and all.) If Cariysa had given us that month the birth wheel folks promised, I might have stretched my contemplative muscles in time.
Instead, I went to bed on the night of Friday, June 27th amused that Beth was already impatiently folding baby clothes. I awoke to Beth having contractions three or four minutes apart.
In labor talk, contractions like that mean, "Next time, hire a midwife who lives less than two hours away." In first time parent talk, that means, "That’s way too fast for contractions. Maybe it’s just cramps or diarrhea, so why wake the midwife at 3:30 in the morning?"
I’ll leave you with that crisis and do a few (relatively) quick flashbacks to set the scene.
Note that I could have exploited the dramatic tension of Cariysa’s early coming and waited until the end to tell you how healthy our full-term baby is. However, this is my daughter we’re talking about. I wouldn’t stoop to such crass melodrama.
Moreover, I had a duty to present the bare facts of weight and height to the ravenous curiosity of the masses at the very beginning. Otherwise, I’d risk igniting their wrath at having to scroll through all this extraneous bilge to get to the Big Numbers. Since you already know what Cariysa weighed, I’ve already blown any chance of drama, since everyone knows that a 7lb. 14oz. cherub ain’t no preemie. Or at least, they pretend to know that. Either way, you know now what we didn’t know until it was too late to really matter: Cariysa wasn’t early, we’d just messed up her due date.
Why this mistake? I’d like to blame it on the people who make those little birth wheels. They (the wheels) look like decoder rings; with all those numbers, you’d think they could tell the difference between July and June. Beth, however, implicitly trusts the birth wheel folk. She thinks we must have made the merry miscalculation ourselves.
The lesson here, for all you kids out there who dream of having your own kids or advising those who do, is never trust the due date.
Ironically, we thought we knew that. When we first discovered Beth was pregnant, we didn’t even tell anyone the due date. But, as Dr. Brown told Marty McFly, we weren’t thinking fourth-dimensionally. We didn’t think the baby might come early. We only imagined that the baby might be late.
When incisive local mothers tried to spring the due date out of us, we smiled evasively and answered "End of July, beginning of August." Why? Because if they knew the dread deadline of July 31, then at precisely 12:01 AM on the first summer morn of August, the phone would ring. When we didn’t answer it, we would receive a message like: "Hi, Beth, Trudy here. Do you mind if I hop on over and prod your belly and tell you a few horror stories about late deliveries? All mine were late and the smallest was a twelve pound heifer. I’ll be here for about ten minutes and if I don’t hear from you I’ll just come on over. Oh, and would you like to finish up some hot salsa?"
That specter haunted us. But without that crucial date, those ladies were powerless. Beth could waddle around until Christmas and those ladies could only prod and poke and tell her all their horror stories anyway. Oh, we were ready for late.
But early? A month early?
We weren’t ready for early.
[What does that have to do with "thinking fourth dimensionally," you ask? Well, I was hoping I could just slip that in to give all this a little color, but, since you ask, my answer is: you’ll understand when you’re older. Yes, I can say that now. Feel free to < ? bpemail("", "send me") ; ?> any other handy parental phrases you think I’ll need. Also, for the record, most local mothers here are very nice. Where’s the humor in that?]
Back to the story. We weren’t ready for early. Fortunately, our midwife is a bit more seasoned at the sport of birthing. She mentioned the early possibility. She set a date, Thursday, June 26th, as the "safe zone" for the home birth we planned. If the baby came before June 26th, we were to call the midwife but proceed to the hospital, since the baby would be too early to birth safely at home.
The seasoned reader who also dabbles in mathematics will notice that the safe zone date passed only two days before Saturday, June 28th, the day that Cariysa was born. Oh my, the seasoned (but sentimental) reader cries with a faint fanning motion, what a close call! Imagine if Beth had had contractions before that Thursday!
Naturally, she did.
The Tuesday before the safe zone date, Beth had contractions for about a half hour. They were somewhat painful; she decided they must be diarrhea. They passed. When she told me about it later, I didn’t pay much attention. We weren’t even at the safe zone date. I decided she must have tricked herself with a few fake pains because she was nervous she’d give birth too early. Sure. Those make-believe labor pains. Happens all the time.
Later, our midwife guessed those pains were labor, but Beth talked herself out of them to avoid giving birth in the hospital. Bet she’s right.
At this point, the seasoned reader may be getting frustrated that I keep dancing around the slightly glaring issue of just why we were fooling with a "midwife" and a "home birth" and all these other fruity shenanigans instead of getting our solid American butts into a solid American hospital: safe (sort of), sterile (except for all those darn sick people that always loiter around hospitals) and proud (yes).
Well, this isn’t the story of Why Everyone Should Consider a Home Birth, but of one particular home birth. So I’ll keep the length and tone of the following explanation somewhere between "skirting the issue" and "scary, thick newsletter you’d find in a homeschooler basement."
(If the whole idea of a home birth freaks you out, keep reading. But you’re big now; if you want, you can skip to I Believe In Nesting.)Contents
Originally, Beth and I didn’t want a home birth. I was open to going to a hospital. I just didn’t want a bunch of guys, doctors or no, clustered around my wife when she gave birth. I wanted a woman obstetrcian.
I don’t suggest that all male obstetricians or gynecologists have bad intentions, or even that any do. Certainly, most doctors need to get a bit objective with patients of the opposite gender at one time or another. I wouldn’t argue with a male ER doctor doing heart surgery on a female. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that in an age of women flooding the work force, there’d be a slight trickle of females in the direction of the full-time medical jobs that deal with little else (besides babies) than naked women. I’ve pledged my life to protecting my wife. So I question whether all modesty and dignity needs to vanish the instant she enters a building that calls itself a hospital. Again, I don’t mean that doctors are lustful. I presume they aren’t. But perhaps there are other wrong reactions besides lust to a beauty that hasn’t been given to you. Perhaps it isn’t quite right just being there in the first place when your job could (and for thousands of years was) done by a woman.
Anyhow, as I considered our upcoming birth, I couldn’t very well protest abortion and then assume that everything else the exact same medical system did was infallibly wonderful. Hospitals make birth a callous public event, and that angered me. Beth wasn’t thrilled either.
So we read up on our options. I discovered that the current birth system is newer than I’d have guessed. At first glance, midwives and a home birth are scary, but that’s how birth happened for thousands of years all over the world.
Why? So that in one of her most vulnerable and special experiences, a woman had privacy, respect, the familiar, safe environment of her home, and the support of a woman expert whom she knew and trusted. Many countries still follow this custom, even some Western countries like Holland. I’d mention poorer countries too but they wouldn’t seem to count, even though some have lower reported infant mortality rates than we do. For instance, Taiwan. (1) (Yes, that’s an endnote. Don’t scroll down, you can read them all at the end of this section.)
What’s so great about a midwife? First, (and this may surprise you) she’s a woman. Second, she can come to you. Since this is a short tangent, I’m oversimplifying, so I won’t get into situations where midwives give birth in hospitals or in "birthing centers". Generally, midwives come to your home. Instead of you going to a hospital swarming with infections and getting all the privacy of a cow and submitting to all the latest trends in invasive technology (such as a 25% Caesarean rate), (2) you stay in your bedroom. Third, a midwife (usually) will help you have your baby on your own terms, utilizing only techniques to which you consent.
A doctor will tell you that pregnancy "borders on the pathological"—you’re automatically really close to being really sick, and chances are high you will soon be worse. A doctor will say that a home birth is unsafe because you’re not in the hospital.
The implication is that if you are in the hospital, you’re safe. If this were true, it would be tough to argue for a home birth. I still would, because there is more to birth than safety: intimacy, modesty, respect for mother, baby, and father, and a decent chance at immediate joy, gratitude, and bonding. I’m not sure these things are worth trading for safety.
But birth in a hospital simply is not always safe. Birth is birth. Five to ten percent of the time (depending on who you talk to) there are complications. Some the hospital can fix. Others, it can’t. I don’t blame the hospital for failing to make every birth perfect. I blame the hospital for giving everyone the impression that it can make every birth perfect, or that it never makes mistakes that lead to harm. Hospitals are big business, and this is false advertising.
Yes, nothing is perfect, you may respond, but aren’t hospital births still more safe than home births? Frankly, you have to define "more safe". Many problems can happen in birth, from an episiotomy to the death of mother and child. A quick comparison would be to look at sheer mortality rates, but this won’t work in America for a couple reasons.
In the first place, home births have a better chance at good numbers because many (if not most) American midwives can spot a high-risk pregnancy and make sure it ends in a hospital. Most midwives want you to go to the hospital if you are at significant risk, just as ours advised us to go if Beth went into premature labor. If only doctors reciprocated the favor and wanted normal births in a less invasive environment. Actually, some countries, like Holland, have a system like this, where midwives handle normal births and doctors take the high-risk cases. When The Birth Book was written in 1994, Holland had "the best statistics in the world for safety of mother and baby." (3)
The other reason we can’t easily compare mortality rates is that there isn’t exactly an American Central Home Birth Office that keeps records as hospitals do. Other countries (I assume) keep track of home births, but we’re not so great at this. This is partly because, in many states, midwifery is a criminal offense. You can abort a baby but not choose how to birth her.
So while there are some mortality rate statistics for hospital vs. home birth, they aren’t quite reliable. Some authors disagree, but that’s my opinion. What we can examine and compare are birth practices. How do hospitals differ in practice from midwives?
I’m no expert on this and I’ll tell you right now that when your own kids come, you’ll want to research this and come to your own conclusions. Birth is beautiful, marvelous, and can be fatal. You, the parents, take responsibility for how you respond to this risk.
If you have the baby at home, you do run the risk of a complication that neither you nor the midwife can handle. A decent midwife will spot this soon enough to transport you to the hospital. But even then, there are (I think) certain complications that the best midwife (or doctor, were he there) would not be able to spot in time. For this small percentage of complications, you will suffer consequences at home that could have been avoided in the hospital.
Why take this risk?
Because if you give birth in the hospital, you will certainly suffer from many hospital interventions that are nearly always detrimental and can be fatal. It doesn’t have to be this way, that’s just how doctors these days choose to run their hospitals.
Ironically, these problems happen because they treat birth as riskier than it is. A good midwife assists birth, but a hospital tries to run birth as if success depended on their intervention. In a standard birth for a healthy baby, the hospital may:
Inject drugs to speed up contractions. These contractions are harder and more painful than natural contractions. Often this speed is desired more for the convenience of the doctor than the safety of the baby.
Inject drugs to kill pain. These drugs, such as an epidural, slam right into the baby and make him less active and able to get out on him own. Worse, these powerful drugs haven’t really been around long enough for us to know if they have any long-term effects on the baby.
Cut into the mother’s muscle to make a bigger exit hole. This episiotomy is described by some mothers as more painful than anything else in birth. (4) It can take months to heal, longer than the tears that often happen naturally and are usually less painful and smaller.
Use forceps (massive salad tongs) to grab the baby by the head and drag.
Decide to do a Caesarean section. A surgeon slices open the mother and lifts the baby out. On rare occasions, this is the only way to save the baby’s life. But nowadays, one in four American births ends in a Caesarean section, a percentage that has skyrocketed in recent decades. Yet our infant mortality rates have not plummeted, or even dipped. Clearly the majority of these surgeries are absolutely needless.
Wow. I haven’t listed those for awhile even to myself. That’s just a short sample of current hospital procedures. Fatalities come when needless surgeries get infected, needless drugs are misapplied, and the baby’s brand spanking new immune system is needlessly immersed in the most disease-laden atmosphere you could possibly find short of a brothel. (5)
Don’t misunderstand me. The actual fatalities in a hospital are (I presume) quite low. But fatalities do happen in hospitals that wouldn’t have occured if they hadn’t intervened. So you don’t escape the risk of death by going to hospital. You just don’t.
But you do enter a cloud of sheer hospital annoyances. They pressure the mother to birth on her back (which works against gravity and reduces the flow of blood vessels that are supplying vital oxygen to the baby), strap needless monitors to her stomach, pop in extraneous IV’s "just in case", restrict her to a bed instead of letting her walk (which around often works wonders), and, of course, invite a whole gang of white coated strangers in.
Once the baby is prodded into the loving white flourescent hospital glare, he can look forward to:
Being "permitted" to see his mother and father only briefly and then being whisked off to the joys of being alone in a metal bassinet in a huge room.
Having his nose and throat scraped with a bulb syringe if he doesn’t breathe in less than a couple milliseconds.
Receiving treatments, like silver nitrate eye drops, that are only necessary if his parents have a sexually transmitted disease. The doctor has already asked the mother if she had gonorrhea, but if she said no, he simply wrote "Patient denies" and, now that the baby’s born, he’ll give the eye drops anyhow. This is ludicrous. They’re completely unnecessary if mom didn’t have gonorrhea, and they sometimes harm newborn eyes.
Having his umbilical cord cut while it is still pulsing needed blood to his heart.
Receiving potentially harmful "routine" treatments that his parents will not know about until after the fact.
Not all of these things happen every time. But they are all possible, if not likely, and so is a host of other routine hospital interventions I won’t stop here to discuss.
What’s maddening is that some of these technologies are wonderful in the right context. If the mother had gonorrhea, those eye drops really do (if I remember right) prevent blindness. But they also carry a risk; why inflict that on a baby who doesn’t need them?
Again, some babies have trouble breathing. Those babies need help from a syringe, despite the possible punctures, or else their lungs won’t open and they’ll die. But most babies will do fine if you give them time. Why scrape their throats and risk infection?
The list goes on.
If hospitals treated the mother, father, and baby with respect, had a separate disease-free building for their births, and intervened only when really necessary, they might be wonderful places to birth. I still might favor the irreplacable magic of bringing a child into the light on the same bed in which she came into the world. But I would grant that hospitals were also a decent place to birth, and safer.
As it is, parents can’t assume a hospital will do what’s best for mother and baby.
So you have to choose. You may do research, look at what fatality statistics there are, and decide that even with the incompleteness of these statistics, the chance of mother and/or baby dying still seems to be less in the hospital than in a home birth. You may find the opposite.
But when your time comes, at least do the research. You may decide, as we did, that any small added security of the hospital isn’t worth the massive cost.
As a brief parable from one birth book put it:
"You are brave to have a home birth," said a concerned mother. "You are brave to have a hospital birth," replied the other. (6)
Risks either way. You choose.
A last word before we return to Cariysa. Early on in Beth’s pregnancy, a friend lent us the book Unassisted Homebirth: An Act of Love by Lynn M. Griesemer. That’s right, unassisted homebirth, as in, not even a midwife. Just mom, dad, and baby.
Why would anyone do such a thing? At the time I read it, I was only just beginning to consider leaving the safe white hospital arms that had grasped me all my life. A midwife was risky enough. To refuse even a midwife seemed downright cooky.
Well, as you know, we didn’t have an unassisted homebirth. Why, we had a midwife there for two whole minutes. Of course, if she’d hit a traffic light or two, we would have had an unassisted homebirth (which would have been fine). But even though we decided on a midwife, I’m glad I read the book.
Because for the first time in my life, someone called birth beautiful.
That’s a little dramatic; I suppose people have called birth beautiful before. But all we usually talk about is fear. What if everything goes wrong? "I’m pregnant." "Who’s your doctor?" That’s all we can think about. We endure birth, rather than experience it. The notion of birth as a potentially beautiful experience is simply nonexistent.
I wish you could read a bit from this book. Parents who study up on the birth process, learn complications to watch for, and then give birth alone may shock us, but their motivation is sound. They see birth as an intimate, spousal experience.
"You conceived your child out of love, why not bear your child the same way?" the author asks. "Birth is much more than a medical procedure. It is an act of love." (7)
What if God designed the birth of the child to be, in most cases, similar to the marital act: private, intimate, marvelous? What if birth is meant to be the full flowering of what the parents began?
Beth and I simply can’t know what we lost by having friendly midwives around while we met our daughter. It’s as if you’d only kissed your wife at Christmas parties. You couldn’t really understand a private kiss until you’d discovered it yourself.
Not that we regret our midwives. For our first birth, we decided to trade in some intimacy for the safety of a midwife. It seems to have been a wise choice. But we would regret it very much if no one had gotten us thinking about birth as beautiful until it was too late. Even with its risks, birth is mainly wondrous.
So it’s about time we got back to talking about it.
You can skip the nifty endnotes and sources if you like, but there’s some great quotes in there I couldn’t fit above. It’s like the extra stuff on a DVD. Anyhow, moving on…Contents
It’s taken me a bit longer to write this lore than I intended, so though an early paragraph mentioned Cariysa being with us only "four days", it’s now been over a week. So certain details are getting fuzzy. What isn’t fuzzy is The Great Nesting.
More than one birth book mentioned that as the birth approached, the mother would recieve a mysterious, mystical burst of energy coupled with an irrational need to prepare the "nest" for the coming baby. These books weren’t New Agey or anything, either. They seemed fairly rational.
Also, they affirmed that there is no known medical way of accurately forecasting a birthday. (Doctors have all sorts of delightfully unreliable "indicators" that, naturally, aren’t worth checking but can pretend to justify interventions like Cesarean sections.) But just as they let you know that you had no way of knowing when the birth would be, they turned clean round and said the mother would have this irrational nesting surge just in time. In other words, no one would know except the mother, who wouldn’t even know that she knew. She would just really really want to get everything ready, and when she was done, she’d have the baby.
To me, this seemed optimistic at best. I classed "nesting" with other helpful fables such as Groundhog Day, federal scholarships, and the growing legend that there is a live human being somewhere behind automated phone menus.
My cynicism was only confirmed when, more than a month before the baby was even due, Beth got ancy. "We need to order the birth kit. We need to arrange the nifty birth kit in our bedroom. We need to wash the baby clothes. We need to lovingly fold the baby clothes and place each in a Special Place in the Special Dresser Drawer for The Baby."
That’s a bit condensed, but you get the idea. Meanwhile, I shook my head and sadly reminded her that, since the baby was probably going to be late, she was just torturing herself. If so, it was a torture she seemed to relish. What was the worst that could happen? She’d have to rearrange everything, touch the soft onesies and diapers and bulb syringes all over again. So I didn’t make a big deal about it, and kept promising myself I would get around to rereading those birth books before the baby actually came.
Then, a few days before that fateful Saturday, our co-workers threw Beth a surprise baby shower. All these nice ladies brought a cake or two and a bushel of baby clothes (mostly green) and other helpful baby things, too, like a huge smiley face you can put on your car window. Not, as the advertisers claim, to block the sun, but so your fellow drivers know that you have a baby. Apparently you need superglue to get it to work, so I might just get a bumper sticker instead, something like, "Proud Parent of the Kid Who Got Beat Up By Your Honor Student." Those tend to be on sale.
Call me crazy, but I’d always thought a baby shower was restricted to women (and one boy, if the baby was male). Like the Bona Dea festival or a slumber party or a cafeteria conversation admiring boy bands, it was strictly off-limits to all Y chromosomes. Well, that tradition, like the Bona Dea festival and, let us pray, conversations admiring boy bands, is no more. At least it’s disappeared from the thriving metropolis of Front Royal.
So I had some cake and made a few dumb jokes about the giant smiley face. That thing is much too much like the infernal Yellow Sneer of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart, as you know, is a huge retail monster trying to invade our town of Front Royal and apparently buying off our public officials to do so. But that’s a whole other story.
I mention the shower because it was just in time and because it meant more baby clothes to wash, fold, and finger. It also may have triggered the faint traces of "nesting" that, alas, I now discern in myself over those last few days. Blame it on my wife, the shower, the weather; whatever the cause, I, even I, fell prey to some nefarious influence and began unconsciously preparing for the coming of our child.
So I took some pictures of My Pregnant Wife. I’d taken some earlier, but this was before she was really big. In those early pictures, she wasn’t even qualified to hunt through bins of loathsome "maternity clothing". (The "maternity" here implies the great truth that these are clothes only a mother could love.) Now that Beth was Big Beth (though not yet what we Front Royalists affectionately term "humongous"), and since she’d managed to locate and purchase the three decent maternity shirts on the continent of North America, it was high time to get some pictures "just in case." That was Thursday night.
Friday night, I knuckled down and read that darn birth book. I read all about Cesarean sections. I’m still looking for practical applications of this knowledge. Hey, now that watermelons are in season, I can carve with a flourish. I’ll be the hit of the picnics. "How would you all like to see what your friendly obstetrician would call a ‘transverse cut’?"
Meanwhile, Beth kept saying, "Honey, read about natural home birth," but I stubbornly reminded her how much time I had to read the whole book. I was right. I now have plenty of time. Finally, though, I came across a bit of prudent advice. Birth (said the book) becomes more difficult as the mother gets exhausted. Therefore, it’s of extreme importance that the mother be well-rested before the birth begins.
So for the first time in her entire pregnancy, I reminded my wife that she needed her sleep. She was stunned. So was her sister Marie, who left promptly within three hours. And Beth finished folding and fingering the unisex green baby shower clothes (all sized for babies aged 3-6 months), rearranged the Baby Drawer, and went to bed.
Beth keeps looking over my shoulder as I type and saying, "I don’t think I—is that—hey, Marie left pretty fast," and other obnoxiously factual interludes. So I just want to record that dissenting opinion. Remember, writing can be accurate or entertaining, but it is rarely either.
Back to the story. It was Friday night. We went to bed.
Throughout history, women have tried to find ways to convey the birth process to those who’ve not yet given birth, such as their husbands. I was going to list some of their metaphors here, but I suddenly can’t remember any.
Beth thought she had diarrhea.
She didn’t. Let’s clear that up right now. But while you know that now from the comfort of your desk chair, neither Beth nor I knew that in the wee hours of Saturday, June 28th. All I knew, when I woke up around 3:30 AM, was that Beth was breathing hard.
She’d been up for about an hour, she told me, with severe pains that felt like the cramps that accompany diarrhea. I gave her my sympathy. Then I intimated, however unconsciously, that since I could be of no further use, perhaps I’d be getting back to sleep. No good having an exhausted labor "coach".
Then Beth used the "c" word.
Contractions? Ha! A month early? Unthinkable. You just have diarrhea, dear. Sad but true. Don’t compound your discomfort with the futile hope of this ending in something pleasant. Ha! Honey, please, just roll over and go back to intense, rhythmic, periodic pain. What? Should we call the midwife? At 3:30 in the morning?
Beth didn’t ask me to call. She just said, "Should we call the midwife?" I like our midwife and all, but I didn’t think it necessary to keep her posted on our gastrointestinal adventures.
We didn’t call. But Beth convinced me to time her rhythmic diarrhea cramps. I got my handy dandy wristwatch and did so. The numbers were confusing. "I think you’re fine," I said. "Even if this was labor, which it isn’t, you have plenty of time between contractions."
However, I wasn’t sure. Though I could now carve a watermelon handsomely, I couldn’t remember what pattern contractions follow. So I got a labor chart Beth had drawn. (Incidentally, this chart is an excellent idea; you don’t have to flip through two or three books when it’s 3:30 in the morning and your wife has diarrhea.)
"See honey, I bet you’re just fine," I said, showing her the page. "Let’s see. In the beginning of labor, contractions last 30 to 45 seconds and are five to thirty minutes apart."
"What are mine?"
"Lasting a minute and a half and only four minutes apart."
"See, and that doesn’t happen until the second stage of labor, the ‘active’ stage. So this must not be labor, but a rather virulent parody in the form of some other weird cramps."
"Should we call the midwife?"
The cramps got harder. If these were the "early" contractions, how would the "hard" ones be? Beth had never felt a real contraction before (it makes sense, if you think about it), so as far as she knew, she was at the bottom of a very rocky and steep mountain. Later, we learned that in a short labor, the hardest contractions can come right at the start. Consider yourself warned.
Every so often, Beth would groan, "Should we call the midwife?" I finally grasped that this was not what we guys call a question. This was more like "The garbage needs to be taken out," or "Do you want to talk about our relationship?" I called the midwife.
Our midwife, as I implied awhile back, lives over two hours away. I’m not sure what I expected her to say, really, since there is only so much hands-on stuff you can do over the phone. She said to wait a half hour, then call her back and give her an update. She didn’t seem to think it was diarrhea.
Humph, I thought. Well, midwives are paid to be cautious. Always the possibility this is a real labor.
Meanwhile, I wanted to make Beth more comfortable.
"Can I read you a story?"
"The Purple Crayon."
I brought a pile of kids’ books into the bedroom. Beth closed her eyes. Then she got up, went to the bathroom, and started talking about throwing up.
I’ll draw a veil over most of what followed. Here’s the highlights:
- People do throw up sometimes during labor. Enough said.
- Apparently, when you throw up you don’t notice the contractions. This opens exciting vistas in birthing techniques. I’m considering a book proposal: My Ipecac Birth. We’ll give Lamaze and Bradley™ a run for their money!
- During birth, outside advisers love to load you with helpful, useless tasks to distract you from consoling your wife. During three hours of Beth’s labor, I gathered a pile of unread children’s books (my fault), started washing a pitcher so I could make orange juice so I could make energizing orange juice cubes, started washing the (unopened) ice cube tray, started filling a pot with water to boil, and tried to get Beth to drink some (not boiling) water.
The only task I accomplished was to remake our bed with a fresh sheet over a sheet of plastic. I did this only to humor Beth, since even if this was labor, it would be hours and hours and hours until the baby actually came.
The other tasks never happened, at least not before the baby came. And they weren’t what Beth needed. I’d scurry around to find a pitcher, then, when a contraction came, rush back to Beth. I’m very glad I did rush back; next time I’ll stay there.
- Not every woman remembers that massages are supposed to relax her. Understand, people wanted us to waste entire evenings of our lives practicing relaxation techniques and massages. We hadn’t. This made it a shade easier for me to accept neither massages nor anything else seemed to soothe my wife. She bore it well, but I couldn’t help. Still, I was with her, and that seemed to make a difference. At least, it did to me.
- Don’t make too many grandiose plans about how you’ll manage your birth. Beth and I envisioned Bible verses festooning the birth room, soothing music, candles instead of harsh overhead light, and a large version of the birth chart so we could follow her labor as it progressed. Guess how many of those things happened. And yet our baby is here.
I called our midwife every half hour or so. Every time I did we were moving faster than she’d guessed in the last call. Of course she was on the road now, on her way, but on my third or fourth call she said, "Just get Beth in bed. I’ll send the backup who lives near you. If the baby comes before the backup arrives, just place the baby on Beth and wait."
If the baby comes before the backup arrives? The backup lived, like, in our town, as far as I knew. How could the baby get there first?
Meanwhile, Beth was talking about pushing.
My head full of long labors, I got Beth on the bed. This couldn’t be happening so fast. Soon all would slow, and we’d settle into the comfortable, familiar agony of all those fabled hours of contractions. I’d read The Purple Crayon and finish making those ice cubes and they’d freeze and Beth would still be in labor and then, eventually, in the distant future, The Baby Would Come.
Then her water broke and my heart sank like a stone.
The water was green. The one thing I remember from birth books is that if the water is "green, like pea soup," it’s sign of meconium (newborn poop) and the baby is in trouble. Like, you might have to go to the hospital kind of trouble. My stomach went dead.
Then at last I knew that this baby was coming now, and there was no guarantee that everything would be all right. My thoughts went to God, and I flung up a prayer. Let it all be all right. Let them both come through.
The baby started to come.
Even then, even then I kept thinking, "Well, okay, we’re at this stage now, it’ll be another good hour." The original midwife probably hadn’t yet crossed the Virginia State Line, and the backup was nowhere in sight. It was just Beth, The Baby, and I.
I forgot my fears, I think, and for once in my life was present in the moment. Several moments, actually. Marvelous indeed.
Yet (and I still can’t believe I did this) I actually left to go to the kitchen and fill up that damn pot. I turned the water on and came back to Beth.
The backup arrived. I showed her a stain from the green water, and she shrugged. It was normal. My heart unclenched. Whatever "green pea-soup" looks like, that wasn’t it. Which shows you the limit of what you can learn from books.
The water was still filling the pot. I went to turn it off, but the midwife ordered, "You’re not going anywhere." It’s amazing what tiny cranny your mind will find to hide itself in while gargantuan miracles are blazing all around you. In those less than two minutes before my baby was born, I sent several nagging thoughts in the direction of the soon-to-be-flooded kitchen. At some point, the midwife turned the water off, but I don’t remember now whether it was before or after the Big Moment.
Then the Big Moment came.
You know, yesterday (July 7th) I went to the library and picked up, along with a bunch of books on farming, an old copy of Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up by (yes) Dave Barry. One of the sterling essays was titled "Father Faces Life: A Long-Overdue Attack on Natural Childbirth". This essay, along with Beth’s loving persistence, may be the catalyst which impels me to finish this darn tome before Cariysa goes to college.
Now, you may be saying, "Bill, while we appreciate you sprucing this up with a little fine literature, is this really the right time to bring up Dave Barry? Aren’t we finally about to birth your baby and get on with our merry lives? Can’t you put this in an endnote?"
Well, I bring this essay up now for two reasons. One, if birth is really as private and intimate and wondrous as I keep saying it is, it makes little sense to write about the actual birth, even to one’s friends. So I won’t. It’s something of the same spirit in which the actual Incarnation was left out of the Gospels.
Two, I find it hilarious that I happened to stumble across Dave Barry’s thoughts on birth barely a week after my firstborn arrived, and I find it pathetic that when it comes to birth, he’s a big whiner.
He writes: "The males, their brains badly corroded by drugs and organic food, wrote smarmy articles about what a Meaningful Experience it is to see a New Life Come Into the World. None of these articles mentioned the various other fluids and solids that come into the world with the New Life … "
This article did plan to mention those fluids and solids. They’re a perfect example of the kind of beauty that’s in the eye of the beholder.
I know Barry’s joking (and I needed to get some decent humor writing in here somewhere), but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s more than half serious (grossed out). Perhaps people dislike and fear birth nowadays simply because it’s one of the few things left we haven’t managed to sterilize into sterility. Birth is messy. Period. Our sheet was drenched in blood. (Though the midwives later got it all out.) And yes, there were other fluids and (dark, smelly) solids, too.
But do you know how they came out? It’s not like this for every baby, but I think it’s rather frequent. Cariysa came head first, and so her body plugged up all this blood and meconium and amniotic fluid and who knows what else. It was all behind her.
So at the moment my daughter burst into the sunlight, all these fluids leapt out behind her in a cymbal crash and a splash of liquid fireworks. As I caught my child and held her, my whirling mind wondered at the divine dramatic flair.
Barry and others might have been grossed out. But it was awesome. Here and in every other moment, I say that my daughter’s birth wasn’t "meaningful". It was a miracle.
And she was perfect.
It’s impossible to express the surprise of discovering that the mysterious being who’s lurked in your wife’s stomach for months and kicked and hiccuped and caused strange bumpy protrusions turns out to be a fully-formed human baby. One moment she’s a formless, jostling creature, the next moment you’re holding a baby.
The moment after that, you’re looking for a bulb syringe the midwife asks for, even though you should have remembered that babies don’t usually need this kind of thing. And the moment after that, you’re saying, "Honey, it’s a girl," and handing the new love of your life to the old (and forever) love of your life. Then you’re squelching your way across the slimy, bloody, fertile, sacred bed so you can hold your wife and daughter.
That’s how birth was for me.Contents
When you’re older, I’ll tell you all the stuff the midwife showed me about delivering the placenta and checking to make sure the mother isn’t hemorraging.
Unless you can’t take it. "I thought I had held up well," Barry says in that essay, "when the doctor, who up to then had behaved like a perfectly rational person, said, ‘Would you like to see the placenta?’ Now let’s face it: That is like asking, ‘Would you like me to pour hot tar into your nostrils?’ Nobody would like to see a placenta. If anything, it would be a form of punishment".
I begin to get the impression that either he’s not really that squeamish or else he’s reached the stage of wealth where he can hire someone to do things like go to the bathroom for him.
(For the record, that Barry essay also has a joke about wealthy couples getting servants to have contractions for them. I was skirting plagiarism there, just thought I’d let you know.)
I did want to see the placenta. The afterbirth (another name for placenta) was one reason I wanted a midwife; if pieces of it are missing, they’re still in the mother and she can get infected (and die). The books helpfully explain to check for this, but a placenta doesn’t lend itself well to diagrams. It’s like raw meat, only purple. And slippery. Eating it would be tough. But (mostly) anyone can handle seeing it.
Our planned midwife eventually arrived, and she talked shop with the other midwife and made breakfast for us. We started the long round of obligatory phone calls. I can’t believe anyone ever calls people while they’re still in labor. "Hi! Worried yet? Well, start worrying! Call us back when we’re really busy! Yeah, this is a team effort!"
Dumb. And next time we might not call anyone until a day or two after the baby’s born. I’m serious. It took us way too long to just shut up and look at each other and our daughter.
Eventually, we did.
But before we close on that thought, there’s one more cute little anecdote.
We’d planned that Saturday morning to go with some friends on a hike. Not a real hike; an "eight-months-pregnant" hike over very flat shady land.
What with the baby and all, we grudgingly changed our plans. But my brother Mike and Beth’s sister Marie expected to meet us at the nine o’clock Mass. I called Mike and told him the Big News. Then I called Marie, but she wasn’t home. So I called Mike again and told him not to tell Marie the Big News, since she would come to our place after Mass and we could tell her ourselves.
As it happened, Marie saw Mike at Mass and asked him if he was going on the hike. He responded, "Do you know when they’re going?" This is called Catholic Lying, or, mental reservation. It’s fun.
So Marie danced merrily to our house, thinking we’d overslept (impossible!) and not dragged our lazy keisters to Mass. Not that she would have put it like that. She calls it "sleeping late".
You remember that several pages back, Marie’d been here the previous night, Friday, back when Beth was just seven or eight months pregnant. Keep that it mind. She leaves for the night, morning comes, we’re not at Mass, she arrives at the house.
Both midwives had left by then, the second one leaving only minutes before Marie’s arrival. As far as Marie could tell, it was just the two sleepyheads.
When she knocked, I used my magnificent acting abilities to give the impression I was exhausted. "Sorry we weren’t at Mass. Beth’s not feeling well."
(This was not lying or even Mental Reservation. Most mothers get at least a small tear. If not, the birth doesn’t count and you have to do it again.)
I led Marie back to the bedroom. She walked in and said something like, "Hi Beth. So you aren’t feeling…what…what…you guys…you…you guys…oh my gosh…oh my gosh…is that your…did you…oh my gosh…you guys…"
Ah, it was nice.
Blood surged into her face, tears bloomed, and she literally clasped her hands to her heart. It was several minutes before she was breathing normally again.
For there on the bed (now with new sheets) lay her sister and a perfect little baby. There was not the faintest sign of a struggle. For all she could tell, the baby had come by stork.
Marie was very happy.Contents
It could only have happened with a home birth. And Marie’s shock and amazement lifted Beth and I a bit from the rut of details in which we’d been lost. For there was no gimmick in our surprise. We really had had a baby overnight in our own apartment bedroom. The midwives were wonderful, but, basically, Beth had contractions and our baby came out. The checkups and cleanups were superficial. God blessed us; there were only minor complications. This kind of birth can happen easily in your own bedroom.
When I look at my baby I think of one of the guys in The Matrix that Neo (Keanu Reeves) meets aboard the human resistance ship. The guy was born in the secret city of Zion, so he escaped the feeding tubes that the enemy machines implant in newborns. He smiles and says something like, "No tubes. I’m one hundred percent natural human."
Yet even that blessing is a side issue. If we’d had to go to a hospital, we would have, and she would be just as lovely. What’s crazy is that we’ve finally met the little stranger who will spend the next 18 years or so in our house and all of her life as our daughter.
I can’t wait until her eye contact feels like real contact, until I can make her laugh and play and talk with her. Even now she shares her personality bit by bit. I can’t say anything specific about her yet, but I do know her better now than when she was born.
I don’t know what she knows, but it’s likely she doesn’t know she’s my daughter or even know me. Yet I am her father. "Father" and "daughter" are words that will have their deepest meanings for her in how I treat her. Later she’ll use these meanings as her first step to God. That’s scary, but not really; He is already with her.
She is utterly new. Everything is new for her. All I take for granted she has yet to discover. I look around this apartment. All is familiar: its function, its material, how it interacts with me. I know not to bite the computer, that I won’t sink into the carpet, that a highlighter will not clean the dishes. But for her there may not even be forms, just a constant wash of colors. And yet so soon she will make sense of the colors, playing with things, experiment, try to knock over the Tiffany lamp. (Hey, it was a gift.) This may be the most intellectually stimulating time of her entire life.
Anyhow, until she talks or laughs or something, I’m on the outside waiting to come in.
Meanwhile, I can hold her, burp her (I’ve quite a knack), and walk with her when she cries at night until I give up and turn on the vacuum cleaner. (Yes, when colic strikes, the roar of the vacuum cleaner does the trick. I’m so glad we live above a cell phone store and not elderly neighbors.) There’s all kinds of fun things for a father to do.
Like shut up so my wife and I can look at each other and our daughter.
God bless, my friend.
From an ancient prayer to St. Joseph:
O St. Joseph, we never weary contemplating you, and Jesus asleep in your arms. We dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. [We promise not to wake Him up.] Press Him in our name, and kiss His fine head for us, and ask Him to return that kiss when we draw our dying breath.
St. Joseph, patron of departing souls, pray for us.