July 11, 2014, 10:38 PM: This time last year I was in Room 5 at the Alta Bates Birthing Center with an IV in my arm, an epidural in my spine, two disk-shaped monitors strapped around my bulging convulsing belly, and a catheter and a more sensitive contraction monitor shoved up my lady bits. My blood pressure had been, for hours, dangerously high and my temperature was starting to creep up. My cervix held strong at five centimeters despite a full working day’s hours on Pitocin that induced beautiful peaking contractions every two to three minutes, and despite my leaking sac being tugged open with a large crochet hook. This time last year I was rounding out my fifth day of labor.
You read that right: my fifth day of labor. Right about this hour last year, the epidural was wearing off. I would throw up right after the anesthesiologist re-upped my dose. My doctor, soft with sleep, would come in and “suggest” I “consider” a Cesarean section. Within minutes of our decision, I would throw up the drink they gave me to prepare my stomach for surgery and I would be splayed out in the meat locker of an operating room, my sister-in-law, a neonatal resuscitation nurse, appearing like an angel to stroke my clammy forehead, returning to the hospital just four hours after her 12-hour shift had ended. The spinal block used for the surgery would give me the shakes so violent and constant that my chattering teeth would carve deep gashes on the insides of my cheeks. My husband would see my uterus outside my body, perched on my abdomen, as he held my shaking hand. And we would both burst out crying the moment we heard our son make his first protest known. In just a few short hours, I would be a mom to a beautiful, healthy, funny, clever baby boy. I know that’s what counts. The means don’t matter. My son is my glorious joy-filled end. People tend to encourage me to forget the messy part when I mention it. And man, were my parts messy. But how can I? How can I gloss over or shrug off my crappy birth experience?
Those of us with crappy birth experiences are haunted by them. We don’t talk about them, not to each other, or to our girlfriends, our sisters, or our mothers (who, I find, are the most dismissive) and never– not ever–to expectant mamas. Our partners listen–they were there after all–but their empathy is limited by the mere fact that they were not in our taut skin. I know at least 20 women who gave birth last year, and of those 20, I know of three who confessed their bad birth experiences: one told me about hers over a Facebook private message, one commiserated with me when she met my son, and the other told me in passing that her crappy birth experience is the reason she is looking to adopt. A bad birth experience is like this dirty secret, this trauma that we tuck away inside our bodies. It is an albatross of which we try, futilely, to let go. Every time I look at my scar, I remember. It often itches, the sensation fiery and hot, and no amount of scratching satiates it. “You can’t hide,” it declares. I will feel its ropey texture and remember that I have two scars, the internal one thicker and fatter. And then I will remember the tugging sensations from the other side of that blue curtain in the operating room, the rough yanking as my doctor put back and sewed up my insides. And I will remember the sharp pulling pain on one side of my belly that followed me as my uterus shrank back down to normal size, and how my doctor explained that the pain was probably from how tightly they had to pull the corners of the incision. And then I will remember the numbness: the dead spot in my abdomen that lasted for months. And then the high blood pressure, a condition known as postpartum preeclampsia, that threatened to pull me down that first month of recovery. And the depression, and so on. These bodily memories spiral. They sting. They touch a deep vulnerability in me. My body can’t forget my bad birth experience. Not yet. And especially not as my husband and I contemplate baby number two.
First birthdays are a joyful celebration of milestones and accomplishments, of the rapid growth that transforms infants into little people. They are a celebration of this miraculous life you created that you have the privilege of sharing every day. First birthdays are about the baby, about your peanut enjoying cake for the first time. They are about elaborate, themed parties that your monkey will only remember in photographs. I am so excited to celebrate my son’s first birthday: his “mustache bash” is this Saturday. We made it a year! And what an amazing and exhausting year it has been! My life and body have been turned inside out by this human being I grew with my cells and blood and oxygen and food. He stretched my skin, moved my ribs and shook my organs. And now he gives me zerberts on my soft mommy belly. He sits with his ankles crossed, gnaws at my collar-bone, sings and dances with me. When he’s intrigued he cocks one eyebrow. He flips his light switch on and off to signal he is done sleeping, his own kind of Morse code. He hides around corners, plays peek-a-boo like a Whac-A-Mole, walks like a drunken sailor with a goofy grin, climbs drawers and step ladders and up our torsos, and oh, does he laugh! Our beautiful miracle, born from within me. Happy happy birthday, my little man!
First birthdays are also, for mothers, whose bodies bear the scars and labor of pregnancy and birth, a reminder of a painful, and sometimes, ugly journey. Me? I am spooked by my birth experience. Spooked. I love my son so much more than I ever thought possible. But I cannot begin to imagine going through another birth, even though I know intellectually that a scheduled C-section has an entirely different element of control than an emergency one. I wish I had years for the pain and fear and sickness and the hard recovery to fade so that I could get on board with another baby. At 38, biology does not afford me that luxury. Birthing was hard, and for me, getting pregnant was harder, an experience filled with self-administered hormone injections in the belly, vaginal ultrasounds and blood tests every three to four days, and migraine upon migraine upon migraine. I know every pregnancy and birth is different, but my body is still too rattled to shoulder the gamble.
For me, one of the hardest adaptations to mommyhood has been the realization that I now have to take exceptional care of myself so that I can take care of my child. I’ve lost my biological father and my stepdad so I know the impact this kind of loss has on a child. I now need to take care of myself for the short-term and long-term–not for me, not just for my husband, but also for our boy. Because I am a mom, by default, I am afforded very little “me-time”, my needs come dead last, and I am on year two of chronic sleep deprivation. Despite these factors, or maybe because of them, it is absolutely necessary for me to protect my body from injury and illness, and to maintain the mental fortitude to keep my son safe from harm. My brain’s version of this pep talk: Stay strong, keep your shit together, and always, always keep your eye on the prize. This is a real challenge in the blur of parenthood.
My son’s first birthday marks moments of expressionless joy and deep pain for me. It makes me understand how awe-inspiring and fathomless my love is for my child. It also makes me realize just how much another crappy getting pregnant and birth experience jeopardizes my paper-thin resilience and my worn-down stamina. My inclination, in a fight-or-flight knee-jerk reaction way, is to protect myself from another baby. That just seems like the antithesis to what first birthdays are all about. It hurts me to feel that way. But the reality is that it hurt me to have our son–our beautiful, amazing, gifted son. I am so truly blessed by him, and cursed by my crappy birth experience.
My son’s first birthday, like many of milestones we will celebrate with him, presses together beginnings and endings, bleeding one into the other, and wrapping the moments and memories in both joy and sorrow. If my feelings around my crappy birth experience are life’s version of “because I said so” at least let me talk about it. Let me talk about it without solutions or resolutions or neat and tidy bow-tied ends. Sometimes our ends need to be outside our bodies. Loose. Slippery. Messy.
Parenthood, I have come to understand over the past year, is a lesson in humility. It is also a lesson in living with contradictions, learning to be comfortable with discomfort. Some of those contradictions rub at each other a little harder, the friction catching roughly, and sometimes it just so happens that your heart gets caught uncomfortably in the middle.
originally published 6/12/14, copyright 2014