Everything went so fast. Everything. From the beginning, my pregnancy ran ahead without waiting for me to catch up. I was surprised to be pregnant, and at my first ultrasound was even more surprised to find out I was so far along. First trimester, complete. Did I even have symptoms? Are we ready for this?
I was afraid. We had such a good thing going now that our kids were old enough to give us some air. They’d play alone for twenty minutes or so randomly throughout the day, and I’d recharge my batteries on double brewed coffee. I was getting the hang of being a mother, and a good one. But Charlie had been toddling around and spitting out words just long enough that several of our friends and a handful of nosy grocery store strangers began to ask, “so are you going to have another one?”
Well. It just so happens.
I took that pregnancy test as an afterthought. An afterthought whose purpose was to prove I was not pregnant. I hadn’t even planned on taking it, but Patton and I were in the bathroom, and everyone else was asleep. I was still nursing Charlie, so my periods were wonky, and as I was helping Patton brush his teeth, I wondered how long my cycle would be that month. A week prior, Tim and I had decided we would have another baby, probably in the winter of 2018. But that night, I was annoyed with waiting for my period to come, so I sat down to pee and grabbed a stick, and there they were. Two rude interrupting lines. Where the fuck are the directions to this thing? I forgot how to read these. Patton stood next to me at the sink, growing more and more uncomfortable with the length of time I was asking him to be quiet. It was midnight, and the moon beams from the sky light cast a spotlight on us together as I stared down at the boy who made me a mother, who was waiting for me to say something. “We’re going to pretend this didn’t happen, okay? We’re going to come back to this in a couple of weeks. Let’s go to bed.”
And we would have. But in my haste to Act Normal, I left the evidence on the counter and Tim figured it out on his own before I woke up. The first offense of my pregnant brain.
I was afraid I couldn’t be a good mother to three children. As a vocation, mothering is one of the most forgiving jobs there is as long as you’re the kid. When you’re the kid, it’s okay if Mom loses her shit three times before breakfast, as long as breakfast is blueberry pancakes. They always wake up in the morning excited to breathe the same air I breathe. They think I know everything, and I know this because if I ever use the words “I don’t know” in response to a question, Patton literally screams, “NO! You. Know. EVERYTHING!”
But if you’re the mom in the relationship? Shit. Moms spend their nights lying in bed counting backwards to the first memory they ever had. We try and remember, how old was I in that memory? Three? Four? He’s four now. Will he remember that I yelled at him today? Is that going to be what he carries with him from today? Will that be how he remembers his entire childhood? Me, with tears and mascara and blueberry pancake mix dripping down my face? We spend Mondays trudging through our guilt because we squandered the weekend on laundry and dirty dishes. We should have crafted Montessori style kitchen utensils and worked on fall leaf rubbings. We should have been better. The knife skills window is closing, you idiot.
Of course, I wanted it. I was in love already; I knew this baby was quiet and unassuming. I knew he was easy going. I knew he was shy, the way mothers know. But I lost all my symptoms one morning, and they didn’t return.
“How far along are you?”
“About 6 weeks. But listen, I don’t feel pregnant anymore, and I’m pretty sure there’s no baby in there, so if you don’t see anything, let’s not play that bullshit game where you stay quiet and then you leave the room to get the doctor because I’m not stupid and I can see what’s on the ultrasound anyway, and there’s just not really a need for you to draw out the process, okay? So just tell me, okay?”
She turned the screen in front of me off, and inserted the vaginal wand they use for early pregnancy dating.
“Oh,” she said. “I could have scanned this one from the outside. You’re about 12 weeks pregnant. But don’t get excited because nothing can be that simple, and your baby could die, so there’s that.”
Okay, so she didn’t actually say it just like that. She called in the doctor to tell me that one of the measurements taken indicated a high risk for chromosomal defects. Blood work and more scans booked. Very Serious Conversations. It turned out the measurement was exactly 3 hundredths of a percentage point above average, but they didn’t tell me that. This visit and this stupid measurement was just the impetus for all of what followed, and what followed was wholly unnecessary. I’ll start by telling you the ending which is that my baby is totally healthy, but over the course of the next 5 months, I was given no fewer than 3 different reasons that my baby might die. The doctor used the words “dead baby.” He used those words.
There are two things in this world to which I am allergic: drama and bullshit. On most days I’ll agree that they’re the same thing, but I would submit further that the former is derived from the latter. For a person who hates drama, scheduling a monthly meeting with a man who uses the words “dead baby” is an almighty piss-off. Worse still is scheduling that meeting when you’re pretty sure every word coming out of his mouth is bullshit anyway. Every visit seemed like a dress rehearsal for a Spanish soap opera with him grimly muttering things like “well the cord looks thin”, as if thin were some legitimate unit of measurement and a diagnosis hinged solely on it looking so. His recommendations were so…contingent. “The cord is probably too thin, so it’s possible that a trial of labor could result in compression of the cord which might cause oxygen deprivation, which is more likely to necessitate an emergent delivery, because we don’t want a Dead Baby.” Unfortunately, being “pretty sure” someone is full of it isn’t sure enough when you’re trying to make life or death decisions. Fear is a powerful motivator. It’s also a liar. I wish I had walked out of the office and never looked back after the first appointment. But, Dead Baby. So I kept going back.
The most awful part of seeing this doctor was that each visit drove a nail into the coffin of my home birth. I planned a home birth from the beginning. It’s just how I prefer to have my babies. There is no one telling me what to wear or what to eat. No one asking if they can put their hand in my vagina every two hours. There are not four strangers rushing into my room as the baby comes down to Get Things Ready. At home, my baby is literally born into my arms, and he never has to leave them. It is one of the more important decisions I’ve ever made, to birth at home. Even if it didn’t happen this time.
So I spent the next six months amidst drama and bullshit, my anaphylaxis taking the shape of manic denial that anything at all was the matter. I spent a little over four thousand dollars in preparation for the home birth that I knew wouldn’t happen. I arranged contingent birth locations. All the while still seeing Dr. Wright, arbiter of my sanity. At every visit, there was something new to be afraid of. Chromosomal defects. Trisomies. Congenital heart problems. Oxygen deprivation. More eye rolling.
My umbilical cord was missing a vessel. Then it was inserted the wrong way at the placenta. And then a slowing growth pattern. The issue for me in all this was the method of evaluation. We were basing all these recommendations on tests that have margins of error much wider than the margins for diagnosis. It was all a very big, very serious guessing game. For a while, I was on bed rest, ordered to increase my protein intake and burn fewer calories. This resulted in little more than my feeling quite like a fat Viking chewing on turkey legs, trapped under blankets and gluttony and fear. For months, I did not attend one appointment where there was not Another Thing to worry about, a more urgent problem. I clung to my home birth the entire time, as if all this weren’t happening. As if I were still running a marathon hours past time had been called and the other runners had gone home, but I was demanding to cross the finish line anyway.
I thought I would write a story about March’s birth, but it turned out to be a lot more about doubt. The funny part of this is that March commandeered his entry into the world in a take-no-prisoners, freight train of a labor. When the doctor recommended an immediate induction at 39 weeks pregnant, I had no fight left in me. It lasted a mere 6 hours after I’d allowed my water to be broken, and by the time the finish line was a few steps away, I refused to cross. Even now, just as in my pregnancy, I was the passenger. I had not chosen to be pregnant. I had not chosen to birth in this sterile hospital. I had not chosen the litany of possible complications which followed me for months. But now, I stood up and made this decision that belonged to me, and that decision was to give up. Maybe it was the fear of what kind of mother I would become adding this third needy baby into my life. Maybe I was stalling, afraid of killing him by compressing the delicate cord that bound us together. Maybe I was just pissed off that I wasn’t in my own bed. But after about 5 hours of active labor, I gave up, dug my heels in, and demanded to be drugged. It wasn’t about the pain. I delivered Charlie in my dining room; pain is nothing. I just didn’t want to do it. I was exhausted. I had been exhausted for months. Did you know that exhaustion is the most common reason home births transfer to the hospital? It’s a funny world.
So I demanded an epidural. I was not interested in the other options offered to me. I did not want to try alternative positions. I did not want to wait fifteen minutes and re-evaluate. I wanted to give up, and I wanted to give up right now. So that’s what happened. They called anesthesiology and some man who I’ve never seen before walked into my room and stuck a needle into my spine. This, my white flag after months of lost battles.
Remember when I said March came like a freight train? The thing I’ve learned about trains from my five year old is that they are unstoppable. Even after crashing into the mud, into the train station, into barrels, into each other, they go on. Some other train comes along and pulls his friend out of the wreckage, and they go forward, full steam ahead. Even if one of them is beaten and broken and feels like a total failure, the other one just comes along and scoops him up, and together they go.
I had been contracting hard and fast for hours, one on top of the other. I asked the anesthesiologist, “how quickly can you get this done?” I was not looking forward to sitting on the hard bed, leaning over a pillow while having contractions.
“I can go pretty quick,” he replied.
“Well good, make it faster than that. Another one is coming.”
I felt a needle pierce the skin in my lower back. My body seized and I felt a tightening wrap around my hips, a torch blaze through my thighs and something was immediately different.
“He’s coming. He’s coming right now.”
If I was a cynic, I would say that this was the final middle finger this pregnancy would flip, a thievery of the small bit of control I had attempted to take for myself. But I’m not a cynic, not most days anyway. Because even as much as I wanted to numb what I thought would be the final few hours of this delivery, it wasn’t what I wanted at all. I am a woman at odds with my humanness; I do not understand ‘can’t’. And yet here I was, not only admitting defeat, but asking it to stab me in the back with a hollow needle. This wasn’t me, and March knew it.
March was born no more than five minutes after the anesthesiologist entered my room. There was no time for an epidural. He came out in two gentle pushes, and brought with him an enormous wave of relief, and love, and peace. I had spent so much time afraid of everything that might happen or resentful of the things that wouldn’t, that I’d almost forgotten this moment, this brilliant transition from woman to mother would happen to me all over again, and that I’d be staring into the eyes of a man who would carry my heart for the rest of his life.
For a birth junkie like me, writing a birth story is almost a part of the birth itself. There’s no closure until it’s all down on paper. Normally, those stories read like a nighttime epic poem filled with imagery of waves and wrought with canned metaphors of power and strength. I should know, I’ve written a couple. This story needed to be different because the birth, the labor, wasn’t the point. The point was, my third baby wasted no time in teaching me something about myself that night, as our children always do if we pay enough attention. I had been hostage to fear and uncertainty for so many weeks, I needed someone to remind me just how capable I really was. And it turns out, he was right. I’m still a really good mom to all three kids.