Juniper's Birth Story, Part 2

Posted by jdg | Sunday, January 29, 2006 | ,

[For those just tuning in, today was Juniper's first birthday, and instead of telling you about the bloody mary/mimosa brunch party we threw today (i.e. "drinking in front of children" or "Juniper's birthday bash: from noon till naptime, bitches!") we decided to tell Juniper's birth story. This is the second part.]

Click here for part 1 of the Birth Story

[Part 2]

Wood: Where we last left off, Dutch had just gotten me out of bed and and onto the yoga ball for about twenty minutes before my obstetrician arrived for the first time in person. With the OB in the room, Dutch went off to get something to eat. At that point, the nurses had been telling me that I was hardly dilated at all and our spirits were pretty low.

When my OB next checked the dilation while Dutch was gone, I was suddenly up to 5 cm. This was huge progress---just an hour earlier I'd been lingering around a pathetic 1 cm. And, god bless him, Dutch gets complete credit for that---for getting my ass out of the bed, unplugging me from the monitors, and sitting me on that heavenly yoga ball. Moving around aroused me from a state of semi-consciousness and allowed me to take control of my labor the way that I'd read about all those hippies doing. The pain was intense, but I felt more in control and more aware and more physically and psychologically engaged in what was going on.

Right around this time the doctor started the pitocin drip. By the time it started working I probably didn't need it anymore, and I'm pretty sure it just put the whole thing into highspeed overdrive. Dutch came back into the room and could immediately sense that things were different, set in final motion. The OB measured me again right then. "7 centimeters!" Dutch shouted and massaged my shoulders. "Woo-hoo!" The pain had intensified, but the huge visual jump in the contractions on the seismograph almost made up for it. Finally we were seeing progress on the machine. After so many hours of painful contractions that were just below the threshold of what was needed to make anything happen down in my cervix, the contractions spiked into a new section of the chart. It was such a relief to hear Dutch say, "Wow, that was a big one," and to think, goddamn right it was a big one. It was fucking huge. The pain was so intense and the contractions so close together that Dutch never got to eat his sandwich, which he tossed aside with his unused bag of doula tricks. I sat on the edge of the bed and he stood or kneeled facing me. I needed him within inches for the next hour or so.

Soon the OB measured me again and I was at 8 cm. She seemed astonished and said, "You really are gonna do this without drugs!" 6 months earlier when we'd discussed my birth plan and I'd told her that I wanted to avoid an epidural if possible, she'd responded that nearly all of her patients said that, but over 80% chose epidurals once in labor. And I'd appreciated her frankness because I was aware that it was very likely that I'd do the same. Hearing her tell me that I was going to make it without the drugs was incredibly empowering. Dutch had been telling me all day how tough I was, and it did help, especially the way he put it (Goddamn woman you are so fucking tough; Jesus you are one badass pregnant motherfucker; Christ woman you've got balls of steel you are so fucking tough) but for some reason getting the same kind of encouragement from my obstetrician---a woman who realistically didn't expect me to be as tough as I'd wanted to be--helped me unearth whatever reserve of strength I had left.

Pretty soon I had the unavoidable urge to push. I was under strict orders not to push until given the go ahead, but the urge was so strong that I couldn't help it. I even pushed so hard that I involuntarily peed all over the table, drenching the towels underneath me for the second time that day. Dutch called the nurses to tell them that I was pushing, and after my OB checked my dilation one last time, I was given clearance to go for it.

Dutch: Everything in the room was chaos except for Wood, who somehow in the middle of it all had a steady, calm determination and she alone seemed to know what was right. The OB was barking orders at the nurse to get that vacuum suction thing out of the wall and the nurse was yelling back that she didn't have one of the pieces that was necessary and the OB said, "Well, we're going to have to do it without it then." The OB was scrambling to get her scrubs and her gloves and her mask on, and two other nurses appeared out of nowhere with all kinds of medical gewgaws they were readying after snapping their gloves on. The OB said, "we're not ready but that doesn't mean you shouldn't go ahead. If you're ready we'll just have to be ready."

Until that day my only experience with labor was what I had seen on television, mostly sit-coms. Sure I'd heard the woman scream in pain while her husband, doctor, or Ross yelled at her to push, but as a day of real labor---my wife's labor---stretched on what shocked me most was how much stamina and endurance it demands. On television the pain seemed acute, the laboring mother rolling in her hospital bed with something like indigestion waiting until the time comes to push, and on television that's where it looks like the real pain starts sharp and violent. I had read enough to know that the pain is chronic, and that it is strong through the entire labor. But I didn't realize how strong until I saw my wife's face in every contraction, even at the very beginning, or when the psychological toll was even worse: when she was told after her intake that despite nine hours of pain no actual progress had been made. I knew this woman; in nine years I had seen her in every type of pain. And I had never seen her like this.

I suppose that chronic, stretched-out pain would make abysmal television. So it's probably better that I didn't tape every contraction or stick the camera in Wood's face while she vomited. I would have liked a photo, though, for posterity, a photo of those hours that preceded the pushing. From far away maybe, a little blurry, my face up against hers and my arms holding her how she asked me to. See, I don't know how it looked, I just remember how it felt, imbued with this awesome responsibility, alone in that room with her, so in love with her, swearing and cursing because it was just the two of us and it didn't matter what anybody heard. The pushing, though, I understand why that makes good television, although even that is sanitized behind virgin-white sheets held aloft to hide the genitals of actresses wearing two-hours' worth of professional makeup and hair. When it came time to push, Wood laid back on the bed and gripped the rails and she was lost to me. You could tell she was in some other place, somewhere distant and dark and we were just disembodied voices hovering around her body. She just waited for us to tell her to push, and she did, she pushed with everything she had and she looked almost ecstatic with the pushing. She could not get enough of it. My wife is not one to take things passively if she can help it. This was finally doing something. This was getting something done.

She pushed through one contraction, which receded, and the doctor asked me if I wanted to look: the head was partly out. Ribbons of blood had jettisoned from my wife's vagina. Streaks of it stained the OB's arms and the sheets and beads of blood sat quivering on the chrome of the stirrups. My baby's head was halfway out of the bulging inner labia and my baby's hair was matted and black and there was so much of it.

"She's got black hair!" I shouted excitedly up at Wood, who grunted with exhaustion. "I can see her hair," I repeated. "She has so much, and it's black!"

"Do you want to touch the head?" the OB asked me, and with that permission I reached out for it, running my fingers along the pulsating piece of foreign flesh stuck inside my wife.

It felt like a rotted apple, the soft pulpy kind you come across in the moist earth of an orchard in September, under trees pregnant with fruit in those days before the cold air will turn them naked and frightened. I was concerned that my fingers would leave their mark in the bloody scalp and that unhinged pangeic skull, and I drew them back, and shortly after that the next contraction started. Everyone shouted for Wood to push, and she did, her body stiffening and the latex gloves were cupped right there under her cascading gore, ready to catch the upset little creature trapped between two worlds, shoved out by fate from everything it had known till then, that amphibian world inside Wood. Her face, my first glimpse of her, twisted around by the latex hands to fit the shoulders through, and then the whole body came, as if freed from its ballasts it slid out spotted with meconium and blood, followed by the blue tether of her umbilical cord. And then she was held in the two upraised palms of the doctor's hands.

They took her to the side to make her breathe. I stood there and I didn't know what to do. In front of me lay my bloodied wife, wounded and exhilarated, abandoned by the OB who clamped and cut Juniper's cord at midway and then turned to Wood to work on passing the placenta. They hustled Juniper away to suck the meconium from her lungs. The blood on my own hands was already drying. And then the nurses were calling me to cut the cord closer to the belly. I looked at Wood after all those hours at her side and asked her permission to leave her, to go to where our child lay naked and screaming.

"Can I go to her?" I asked. "Of course," she said. "Go."

Wood: I don't remember much of that. I remember pushing. I remember the thrill of finally being able to do something productive. I remember Dutch touching our baby's head and looking excited and scared. I remember that my OB asked me if I wanted to touch her, and I remember refusing, not wanting to delay her birth a second longer and not really wanting to stop and think about how she was half in and half out, not really in either place.

And then I remember feeling very, very relieved once she was born. She was okay, and even though she wasn't placed immediately on my stomach the way I'd wanted because they had to make sure she didn't have any meconium in her lungs, I could tell by the way the room felt and the way that people were talking that she was okay, and I was relieved. A few moments later they brought her to me and I could finally see and touch the little creature who'd been inside of me for so long. And of course -- the pain was over immediately. And that was a huge relief.

I won't dare to put into words how that moment felt. Anyone who has held their child for the first time knows how it feels, and no amount of imagination can quite capture the gravity of the moment.

With all of the books I'd read about childbirth, there was nothing I was unprepared for, yet still, the labor and birth was nothing like I'd expected. I think of all the ways it can happen: in elevators, in taxi-cabs, at home, on hippie farms. I think of women who have caesareans that didn't want them, of other women whose babies are rushed off to the NICU, and others still whose babies come to them from other wombs, other countries. Like any experience in parenthood, it is different for everyone, and yet there are things that bind us together. That feeling of first holding your child is one of them.

Dutch: I think of my father at my birth, I think of his father at his birth, and the generations of men for whom all of this was forbidden or for whom it would have been out of custom to particpate in this way. This all happened somewhere else. Like a TV show or a movie, they got to pass out cigars, pace in the waiting room. They got to see their baby through the glass in a nursery. All silent climax and a denouement of pointing and handshakes.

Wood: My grandmother gave birth to eight children under general anesthesia, waking up to find her children already taken from her body, cleaned, and wrapped in blankets. I think of my mother who labored for 2 days without my father, eventually giving birth to me and spending several nights in the hospital alone.

I know there are people out there who believe births shouldn't happen in hospitals, who scorn "unnecessary" use of expensive interventions. When I was pregnant, I was one of those people. I was terrified to give birth in a hospital, and I didn't trust the medical profession or my doctors. I wanted a doula because I felt I needed another woman in the room to help me counteract the toxic hospital culture.

Hospital culture today, though, is at least nothing like what our parents and grandparents experienced. My grandmother and mother were denied support from their partners during labor. Their only company and support came from hovering nurses and overworked doctors. Dutch's grandmother, before she died last fall, told us how her sister, a nurse, managed to be in the room with her during Dutch's mother's birth in 1950. Even 86-years old and weakened by a heart attack, you could tell from her story how much that meant to her, having someone there she loved to help her through. That is how it should be. Hospitals are no place to face your fate alone.

When Juniper was born, I was never without Dutch. The pain was mine, but we went through the experience together, and it made facing the pain without intervention possible for me. Every experience is different, but one thing we have to be thankful about even in today's hospital culture is that if we are lucky enough to have someone as a birth partner, that person can be there for us for as long as they want to be. Most hospitals today even put cots in the rooms so that fathers can stay over night, as Dutch did, though he preferred to snuggle up in the tiny bed with newborn Juniper and I for most of the night.

Biology dictates that labor is a woman's burden. No man will ever know it. But society only needs to follow biology so far, and even though for thousands of years childbirthing---and childrearing---have been the province of women, that no longer has to be the case. Dutch was my partner in the room because he is my partner in life, and he has been my partner in raising this little baby to the beautiful little one year old girl who can walk and say words and look at us with understanding in her eyes.

Dutch: You can't really write about this without sounding trite or precious. But it is true that there is nothing that any man can do to match the beauty of what he sees the day his baby is born. No artist has ever bested it, as far as I can tell. The feeling you have at the end of that long process goes well beyond pride. Yes, I was proud of Wood: more proud than I have ever been of anything, I was proud to know that woman was my wife. But beyond pride I was in awe of her, so beautiful and vulnerable and Jesus, what a tough motherfucking chick too.

All of that stuff Wood wrote above, about me being in there; It's not about me. It should never be. But I am just so glad I was in there, to see it. This story belongs to her, but by virtue of being there I get to do some of the telling. Of course, there's nothing unique or special about any of this. As Wood suggests, this is how things are done now. Men are allowed to witness it; they are allowed to support and participate. Anyone who's gone through it knows, knows how you thought you loved your wife as much as you possibly could, that is until you see her go through all this (however it is she goes through it) and you realize that well of love is deeper than you thought, bottomless even. And in the end you get a little creature that you're responsible for, and all that love you're feeling for your wife, suddenly you realize you've got even more of it inside you, enough to fill the whole room.

And even from there, it grows so fast you can hardly believe it.