August 1, 2010
That’s a pretty ominous ellipsis, especially given the photo of the lovely lady and her baby bump to the left. No no: this is not one of those essays about a woman who regrets getting married and having a child. Certainly not! The happiest moments in my life have been in marriage and pregnancy. I can’t wait to meet my baby. Today is her estimated due date. She lovingly reassures me that she’s alive and well in my belly with some good, strong kicks. She’s just not quite ready to emerge.
I used to fall in love a lot and get hurt a lot; but not anymore. I wouldn’t do that over because I think I’m better equipped to appreciate the love in my life now having been heartbroken more than once.
But on the eve of welcoming a new baby into the world, I find myself taking stock of the life I’ve led. And while I love where I’ve landed, there are choices I look back and wonder about. For instance, I went to film school and then pursued a master’s degree in English literature. I love writing and making movies, and acting; but they have become hobbies, secondary to the writing that I do here and in my career as a special needs writer. My fantasy is to go back to age 18 and make a different choice in education: to become a nurse and then join the Peace Corps and travel the world helping women in developing nations.
Now, it’s true, that science has never been my strong suit. I would have had to work very hard at nursing to make a success of it. And without the abilities and experiences I’ve accrued to this point in television, journalism and public relations work, I don’t know how good I would have been at marketing myself as a missionary. This work would have required me to swallow much of the pride I have choked on over the past 10 years in learning to get along with others in this world. (Let’s just say that I don’t walk softly.) I have also learned how to work hard at things. When I was 18, I didn’t work hard at anything. I might have given up the Peace Corps when it got too hard. Now I know that it’s the hard that makes something worth doing.
I would have had to become a politician, a grant writer, a beggar rather than a chooser… All of these things, like science, don’t come easily to me.
But there it is: as I travel boldly forth into motherhood, I wish that before I’d done this precious deed, I’d done another. I wish that I’d given something sustaining to women on a larger scale than I do now, making donations to food pantries and spreading information online and buying jewelry from indigent African women’s charities, etc. I wish I’d really been able to help.
This is probably a normal thought process to experience. It doesn’t mean I have any real regrets: as I said, I love where I’ve landed. And it’s good to have a fantasy; I think it makes me more prone to doing all of the little good deeds I can. I should never forget how fortunate I am, and I want to make sure that my daughter too knows how fortunate she will be. She is already loved beyond human comprehension. She is already blessed with much first world privilege.
There is one other thought that creeps into my mind at night between awake and asleep. I wish that before I had deliberately become pregnant – in addition to checking myself thoroughly for and finding the motherhood desire – I had learned what pregnancy and childbirth mean in this modern world of ours. The first course I had taken in pursuit of my master’s degree was about reproductive themes in literature. I read the words of midwife Ina May Gaskin and “Conceiving the New World Order” and “The Continuum Concept” and more. I was given some idea that childbirth had become a pathology and I envisioned going into labor screaming as orderlies wheeled me through the emergency room doors of a sterile hospital on a squeaky gurney. And I knew I didn’t want that experience. I knew that what I wanted to happen between me, my child and my husband would be altogether much more spiritual: a rite of passage.
But as soon as I missed a period, I bought a pregnancy test and jumped for joy when it sprouted a plus sign. And I ran into my OBGYN’s office expecting a feminist greeting. (It is, after all, a practice of three women.) How naive was I? Very. I should have turned around and run away the minute a nurse handed me a document about HIV – my HIV status – and didn’t tell me what it meant. I ran frantically into the hallway trying to find somebody to explain why I had to give an AIDS document to the labor and delivery nurses at the hospital. “And do I have AIDS?” I asked. The woman frustratedly read the paper and told me “no.” As it turns out, by law, I’m required to submit proof of this upon admission to the hospital for childbirth.
How could they have assumed I would know this? How come they looked angry with me when I didn’t? How come what followed was not a patient explanation of things to come, but instead a flood of instructions about cord blood banking and choosing pediatricians their office preferred? Were there kickbacks to be had? Why didn’t they want for me what I wanted?”
Subsequently, I should have left this practice when they told me that the only way they deliver babies is with the mother on her back and her feet in stirrups. Stirrups make me uncomfortable and I don’t think lying on my back works with gravity, I told them. But they didn’t care.
At this time, I had already begun to work with a doula: a person who assists women before, during and after labor. Her primary function: pain management. But she has also been a wonderful resource for reassuring words and information. She told me, for instance, that the closer I get to my daughter’s delivery, the softer my stool would get. And it has. So, following a threat from my OB several weeks ago that I would have to be induced before the due date because it was estimated that my daughter was a “big baby,” I made a point of explaining that I had been experiencing diarrhea. Well, it turns out that real “diarrhea” has to happen four to five times a day to count as…diarrhea. I received a lecture. What I had was “soft stool,” and I should never confuse the two again. I had only mentioned it hoping that she would make the connection that my baby was well on her way. No need to induce. No need to pump me full of chemicals before my cervix is ready to dilate so that I end up in a C-section giving birth to the behemoth waiting a full hour or more before I could bring her to my bosom. Needless to say, the doctor did not get it.
Then she abruptly performed a pelvic exam, which was surprisingly painful. I groaned and she whipped her hand out of my vagina. “Good!” What? What was good about what I had just experienced? “You’re dilated,” she told me. How much? One to 2 centimeters. So I really was moving right along.
The induction discussion continued: “We only induce mothers on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you don’t want to be induced on the 26th (of July) then you’ll have to be induced on the 2nd or 3rd of August. We’re not doing any inductions on the 9th or 10th and you can’t wait until the 16th.”
She left me alone with my husband to decide. Meanwhile a mousy nurse came in to answer any questions we might have. She explained that they do the inductions on Mondays or Tuesdays so that the babies are born on Wednesdays. Then she caught herself and smiled awkwardly: “Of course, they will deliver your baby any day of the week if you come naturally,” she said shyly.
I was in a machine. I was a cog, a moving part. I wasn’t a mother-to-be. I wasn’t a human being. I felt like a child, or something less independent than a child: a pet. Nowhere in any of the literature I’d read, nor anything that my doula had told me, did “big baby” signal a medical need to be induced. My blood pressure was a constant 110 over 70. Good. My baby’s heart rate was brilliant and strong. Good. I had gained a mere 30 lbs. or so, right in the middle of what was considered “normal.” Good. But the more I pushed natural childbirth on these doctors, the more they resisted. They wanted to plug me into a formula for their success in private medical practice, not encourage me to experience the one and only time that this baby will ever be born with joy and awareness and peace of mind.
Later that day, I bled and was crampy. The OB hadn’t told me that was a possible side effect of the painful pelvic exam. Thank goodness for my doula.
A week and a half ago, I found myself in the office of three merry midwives. Approximately 12% of women in America use midwives for labor and delivery, as well as other gynecological health care. And now, I am one of them. Gone was the briskness of nurses and doctors who didn’t care to know my name. Gone were the threats that failing to induce my delivery would result in a stuck shoulder, a ruptured placenta or a dead baby. Gone were the callous efforts to pound me into a schedule for convenience’s sake. All of this was replaced with what feels like love and happiness. If there is a problem, there is a doctor to care for me. But if all goes well, as it has for the past 40 weeks, a midwife will deliver Ellie from whatever position feels good to me; as my doula smiles and cheers me on; as my husband lovingly strokes my hair and perhaps sheds a tear as we see our beautiful baby, however big, for the first time.
So, “if I had it to do over…” I would have realized a long time ago that the fear-mongering and the routine, indifferent treatment of a pathological birth experience were not for me and I would have visited the merry midwives and shared my smiles and tears with them throughout this precious time. I was ignorant. But I know so much more now; so much that I can be a cultural resource for my friends and family members who approach the prospect of motherhood the same way I did: believing I have no rights and fearing that my body is not capable of doing the things that billions of women have done naturally before me. Movies and television teach us that childbirth is painful. They don’t teach us that women are strong enough to endure that pain.
As I’ve said twice before, I love where I’ve landed.
We have a secret in our culture…and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong. -Laura Stavoe Harm