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Saturday, January 06, 2007

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The Magus: An Epic Tale for a Winter's Day

Mothers become mothers all at once, at the moment your child is delivered from your body or placed in your arms. Whatever happens from that point forward, you are a mother and nothing will ever change you back. Fathers have to choose. There is a moment where a man must look at his child and decide, this is my child.

That moment usually happens internally and invisibly, in the wings of a drama in which mother and child are in the spotlight. But for the birth of our second child, six years ago last week, paternal instincts took centerstage. Guys, stick around; it's a long story, but it has pistols and a chase scene and a kinky ending.

"I think when the Wise Men come on your birthday, it makes you wise."

—my middle child, the morning of his sixth birthday,
the Feast Day of Epiphany

"All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death."

from The Journey of the Magi, T.S. Eliot

My first child was born at home. My husband, three midwives and their apprentice were in attendance. The baby came four weeks early, in an ice storm. The power was out most of the day, but otherwise the labour went without a hitch. I remember looking at the clock, and thinking, okay, I can do this until about seven. The baby was obligingly born two minutes past, six pounds even. It was an amazing, empowering experience, everything they said it would be. I felt like I had really mastered this birth thing. It went straight to my maternal ego. Whatever lip service I might have given to those who chose differently than I, I secretly thought they were brainwashed by the medical establishment, or maybe just lazy.

Ah, the boneheadedness of youth.

Fortunately, life is a self-corrective process: two years and four days later, I labored to give birth in the very same room, with the same supporting cast, plus my mother. It was the Epiphany. There had been another ice storm, and the power had been out for days, but had come back on in time for my due date. Because I was Master of the Birth.

I labored all day, walking for miles and miles on the hardwood floors of our apartment. After most of the day had passed, I began to notice that things were not going according to precedent. When you are getting close to delivery in a home birth, there is a little hum of activity that starts to happen. The midwives, who have been mostly sitting and rubbing your back all day, start moving and murmuring, digging around for supplies in their tote bags, warming towels and cooking up herbs. I wondered why this wasn't happening. According to the clock, it was time. From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the midwives glance down and, ever so slightly, tilt her wristwatch up.

We began going through all acrobatics known to coax a baby out. The hours came and went. The mood changed from anticipatory, to concerned, to Serious. It became harder for my mother to conceal her anxiety. Whispered conferences began to take place outside the bedroom. I was exhausted and confused: why weren't things going my way?

Did I mention the pain? I can do pain, to a point, with a purpose. The contractions I experienced with my first birth were hard, but bearable. This pain was going nowhere. My body and mind stopped willfully participating in it, and still it went on. I felt disconnected. I wanted to curl up and die. The whispering intensified. My husband, my mother and the midwives came in the bedroom to discuss with me what they had all been discussing in the hallway: hospital transfer. The midwives warned that the doctors would likely do a C-section first, ask questions later. Was I ready?

Was I ready? I had secretly been hoping someone would ask me this question for hours. My pride wouldn't let me be the one to bring it up.

"I just want it to be over," I said miserably. So off we went.

We arrived at the university hospital in the middle of a shift change. No one was happy to see us. We were a couple of renegade homebirthers and three midwives and the nursing staff was not going to miss this opportunity to see that we learned a valuable lesson. They put us in a waiting room for what seemed like an eternity, coming back only to ask if I could please keep the moaning down.

Eventually, we were moved to an examination room. A young female resident came in, asked how long I had been in labor, and said, "C-section". She was brusque with me, and rude to my midwives, who had birthed more healthy babies between them than she would for the remainder of her career. But I was all out of fight. The midwives stepped in and tried to make a case for a pharmeceutical intervention. Perhaps if I could get some pain relief, I could catch a second wind and push the baby out. I was so exhausted, I couldn't understand what they were saying to me. The resident was scowling. And that's when my husband made an executive decision, and asked everyone to please leave the room.

And here the story begins.

Patrick held my hand and told me he thought I had done enough. He felt that extending the labor was just prolonging the inevitable, and that if we were headed into O.R. anyway, it would be best to go now. He said that everyone in the corridor outside had their own bias, and that it was up to us to decide what was right for me and the baby. He agreed that the resident was a bitch and we both loved the midwives, but it wasn't about them.

I made him promise that whatever happened in the operating room, he would stay with the baby.

Oh, did I mention about the pain that had been ratcheting up all this time? I did? Well, that was nothing compared to what was waiting for me at the hands of the young anesthesiologist in training. He was trying to administer a spinal. This required me to lie on my side, motionless, through the magnitude-10 contractions that were coming every two minutes. If you have never had a full force contraction, let me assure you, you neither want to be on your side on a hard table or unable to twitch when it happens. However, the end was in sight, so I managed to endure it, only breaking a few finger bones of the nurse whose hand I held.

"Oops," said the young anesthesiologist, visibly nervous. "I missed."

The nurse gave me her other hand. I knew he was either going to get it right next time, or I would die, and either way, my trials would soon be over.

He got it right. Pain, off. Just like that. Suddenly, the young anesthesiologist was my new best friend. I loved everybody.

In O.R., I was positively euphoric. There was a screen in front of my face, so I turned my head to the side and smiled at Patrick. I felt something like a ballpoint pen drawing on my stomach. Then I heard a little mew, like there was a kitten in the room. They brought the baby up for me to see. He was nine pounds and four ounces and his head was gigantic. I remember thinking he was beautiful and huge and that his nose was smushed to one side and I hoped it wouldn't stay that way. The doctor explained that because I had gone over some sort of maximum allowable hours in labor, they would have to take him down to the intensive care unit for some routine tests. We were assured that our wish to have him in my arms as soon as possible would be honored. Patrick kissed me on the forehead and followed the baby down the hall, while I was stitched up and wheeled into recovery.

I don't remember much of this time, except sitting up in bed, smiling and thinking, morphine is nice. Meanwhile, Patrick was standing by patiently as our baby was weighed and measured, prodded and poked. Every few minutes he would politely remind the nurse that he was waiting to take our (clearly healthy) infant to his mama. She stuck sensors on the baby's chest and put him on the french fry warmer while she dawdled through her charts. The minutes wore on, and Patrick's patience wore thin. I should tell you that Patrick's first son from a previous marriage nearly died when he was born. Both parents were very young, and it was a case of one medical intervention leading to another. Nearly everything that could go wrong did, and the repercussions have been long-term. My stepson's lung was punctured by a botched intubation procedure, and my young husband-to-be stood outside the O.R. doors helplessly as his newborn son's chest was cut open.

Patrick looked at our baby wriggling on the french fry warmer, now making rooting motions. He looked at nurse, whose back was turned to him, indifferently going through her motions. He made another executive decision. Stepping forward, he grabbed a blanket, peeled the sensors off the baby, and picked him up. All hell broke loose. The nurse switched off autopilot. "What are you doing? You can't do that! I'm going to call the doctor!" Patrick spoke calmly, but firmly. "I am taking the baby to his mother to nurse. I will bring him right back when he is done." Southern men have a wonderful way of conveying "the hell you say" while maintaining a polite exterior.

The nurse, close to hysterical, made a call. As Patrick made his way down the corridor, the resident came running after him, accompanied by two armed security guards, hands on holsters. "Mr. __________," he said, "we take this sort of thing VERY seriously here."

"Yeah, well this is MY baby, and I am taking him to his mother. NOW. If y'all want to come us, that's fine. But we're headed to recovery."

I had no idea, when Patrick entered the recovery room with our baby in his arms, that he was a fugitive kidnapper and that a half a dozen hospital personnel were standing outside the door with their knickers in a twist. "Hi, honey," was all he said as he handed me back my son.


I would not recommend a C-section to anyone who had an alternative. Recovery was long and difficult compared to my first birth, measured in weeks, not days. I don't know why medical personnel are so eager to snatch babies and toss them under a grow-light, but a C-section often gives them a good excuse for it. Having said that, the bottom line is always a healthy baby, healthy mom. Three years later, when I became pregnant again, I decided I was willing to make some compromises to my ideal birth scenario in the interest of avoiding a second surgery if at all possible.

Our third son was born in a planned hospital birth (different hospital), a successful and triumphant VBAC. My wonderful OB was able to finally solve the mystery of what had stalled the second baby's labor. Walking into my room the next morning, he announced, "You have a platypelloid pelvis."

"A what?" I thought he said platypus. I thought for a minute I was like a Bond villianness: Platypussy.

"Your pelvis is elliptical. Your first son was small enough to get through, third son, barely. Nine pounds plus, forget it."

I was relieved. It hadn't been for lack of trying. We had made the right choice. But one thing bothered me.

"Dr. Harrrison?"


"Are you saying I have a sideways vagina?"



Blogger Jonivan said...

that's amazing. Good for Pat. Good for You.

4:56 PM  
Anonymous Nat said...

That is one freaking awesome story! And I'm related to someone who has a sideways vagina! It's like a dream come true.

PS) I wish I could have seen the faces on those nurses when Patrick walked out with the baby!!

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow! great story, great telling! good for you for taking the VBAC path so successfully - I can't believe how closely our stories match LOL
Deb (Australia)

7:20 PM  
Blogger bluebird of paradise said...

what a story! i held my breath. good for you ! good for dad and good for that beautiful 6 year old. may he always feel safe in the arms of his hero!

7:57 PM  
Blogger Kyran said...

not the first, or the last time, Patrick was my hero.

I think the nursing staff developed a special alert code whenever he entered the hospital after that, Nat. :)

and you should have seen the look on the nurses face the next day when i told her she couldn't take the baby down the hall for bloodwork without one of his parents accompanying him. i thought she was going to throttle me. control issues, anyone?

8:00 PM  
Anonymous Kristen said...

I am feeling inspired/empowered. While I ended up having a vaginal birth with my son, the hospital did try to kill him several times before he came out. I'd like to think my husband would have stolen him if the need arose.

I will be sending this story to my printer and sticking it under the rubber sheets for good luck. I do have the bestest, best doula in the whole world so here's to less complications this time around.

12:06 AM  
Blogger patsyrose said...

You proved that we have to stand up to "authority" sometimes. My generation gave birth at a time when fathers weren't allowed past admitting and we never even questioned it. How foolish of us. By the way, Patrick is quite the man, isn't he?

6:48 AM  
Blogger Jule Ann said...

Wow, what a story!
You are a fantastic writer and deserve fantastic things. Good luck with all the PR stuff!

10:00 PM  

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