Given my experience when Lila was born, you can see why I would be nervous about this birth. That first time, I did everything “right”: took a childbirth class, worked with a doula, practiced relaxation techniques and did prenatal yoga every day. My diet was perfect, my kegel exercises constant, my iPod cued up to music designed to inspire serenity. And when the time came, all of that careful preparation amounted to exactly bupkis. For all the good it did me, I might as well have been throwing salt over my shoulder and burning sage.
For anyone who hasn’t heard the story, here’s a recap:
I labored at home for 12 hours with Wendy, my doula, because I didn’t want to be one of those trigger-happy first timers who get turned away from the hospital for going too early. When I finally got there, I figured we’d just roll in, I’d be fully dilated, and I’d have the baby. But when the nurse looked, I was still only two centimeters dilated, not even the minimum of three centimeters required to check in. I was stunned. The nurse gave me three choices:
#1: Go home.
#2: Take a shot of morphine and go home.
#3: Waddle around the hospital for an hour and hope to dilate enough to earn myself a bed.
Option #1 was out of the question; no way could I imagine going home with the kind of pain I was in. Even though I wasn’t dilated much, I was having contractions every two minutes, and they were serious ones. Option #2 set off alarm bells ¬in my head – morphine did not sound like a good drug for a newborn, and I had a head full of books on natural childbirth to back me up on that. Which left Option #3. But since I was in too much pain to lumber around the hospital, I ended up lying on the hard floor in an empty conference room in the lobby, where Boyd and Wendy rubbed my back for an hour while I moaned like the undead. After that, I went back to the nurse, who made me lie on my back for half an hour, the most painful position possible for me since I had back labor. By the time I was finally checked in and brought up to my room, I was crazy with pain, trusted nobody, and had all the serenity of a rabid hyena.
Hours 14 – 32
Berkeley’s Alta Bates Hospital is known for its great labor and delivery department, with progressive birthing practices and fantastic nurses. Unfortunately for me, none of those nurses were there that day. I was there for four shifts of nurses before Lila was born, and the first three were like a Monty Python movie. Here was the lineup:
1. Hours 14-20 – The Newbie: Apparently straight out of school and at a loss as to how to deal with someone in pain, the newbie’s Big Move was to offer me a shower. I did not want a shower. Once that had been established, her role became that of messenger girl between us and the person in charge of drugs. Yes, by now I was all about the drugs.
2. Hours 20-26 – Nurse Ratched: Even though the lights were all off and the room was silent, this nurse came in every 15 minutes cackling at the top of her lungs. She seemed determined to ensure that I did not sleep, and did an excellent job of it. This same winning candidate pronounced me eight centimeters dilated and told me to get ready to push. Two hours later, she checked me again and said, “Oops, I made a mistake. You’re still three centimeters.” I wish her ill.
3. Hours 26-32 – Cowface: Okay, the name is really unfair, but by the time we’d reached round three of nurses, I was not at my most emotionally mature. I was exhausted, in pain despite the epidural, starving, thirsty, and mean as a snake. Every book I had read stressed the importance of eating and drinking every hour during labor, but I had just discovered that the hospital had a zero-food, ice-chip-only policy. Our childbirth teacher had warned us that food was not technically allowed in the delivery room, but she had winked a lot when she’d said that. However, all of my nurses strictly enforced this policy. When, in despair, I finally croaked out my doubt that I could possibly deliver a baby successfully without any food or water, Cowface trilled in a singsong voice, “Nature has a way!” Yeah, in “nature,” you eat something. Or, your body totally shuts down and you get a c-section in whatever part of the forest you happen to be in.
You’ll notice that my doctor has not yet featured in this story. That’s because up until this point, he wasn’t there. Apparently, in the same way that you need three centimeters to earn a hospital bed, you need nine centimeters, or 35 hours, to earn a doctor.
My obstetrician was the handsome, charming Dr. F. In the office visits leading up to the birth, we’d noticed only one downside to having him as a doctor: Ask a question, get a chortle. No matter what I’d say, (“Why does my back hurt?” or “What if I go into labor and you’re on vacation?”) he was amused. He was always glad to provide a detailed answer, but he also let us know that we were very, very silly for asking. After our third visit, Boyd had starting calling him Giggles McSpeculum.
In the final weeks before Lila was due, I had started having doubts about having Dr. F. as my doctor. At one of my last exams, he was poking around to see if my cervix was dilated yet, and I said, “Ow, that hurts.” He then guffawed and said something like, “Get used to that, because labor hurts a lot more.” I thought of reminding him that no matter how many babies he’d “delivered,” he had never actually delivered a baby and might want to consider shutting the hell up. Instead, I waited until we were outside his office before bursting into tears and telling Boyd that we were doomed, doomed, doomed.
But that day at the hospital, when Dr. F. finally showed up with his crisp white shirt and pressed khakis and clean soap scent, any misgivings that I’d had were forgotten. In my eyes, he was bathed in light like the angel Gabriel. My hand locked around his wrist like a vise, refusing to let go for fear that he would disappear. He said, “Samantha, your labor is not progressing. What do you want to do?” That was an easy one. I could not continue to starve, be in pain, not sleep and deal with the crazy nurses for an open-ended amount of time. Even our doula was gone by then, having left an hour earlier to go home and feed her kids. Three minutes after Dr. F. arrived, I was being prepared for a c-section.
The c-section was where things really went south. A moment after I was given the anesthesia, my eyelids felt like they weighed 50 pounds each. I struggled to stay awake and asked the anesthesiologist if it was normal to be sleepy, but he said that nothing he had given me should make me tired. To keep from passing out, I focused on trying to keep my arms from rolling off the sides of the table, with limited success. Soon my arms were placed on skinny little platforms that jutted out to the sides of the gurney, and I could no longer move.
The surgery itself was lightning quick. I couldn’t see anything, mercifully, thanks to the drape hung just below my chest, presumably to make sure I didn’t get up in the doctor’s business while he was working on me. I felt a fairly hard tug, heard “Here’s the head,” and then there was a baby being held up in the air to show me. My eyes were so heavy that I was wishing for toothpicks to keep them open, but I managed to whisper a sincere, “Oh, she’s so pretty,” before she was shuttled away to be APGAR-ed and washed and hatted and all the rest.
Then things started to go kerflooey. Dr. F. said something about a lot of bleeding, and it soon became clear that I was hemorrhaging. The next three hours are a blur of shocked faces and panicked voices, blood transfusions, having nurses pressing all their weight on my uterus to make it contract (ow), begging for water and still not being given any, and wondering – in a sort of sleepy, matter-of-fact way – if I was dying. I should mention that at this point, the nurses taking care of me were awesome. Cowface had long since clocked out and been replaced by Christine, whose bedside manner was comforting, firm and reassuring. When all efforts to stop the bleeding had failed and Dr. F. seemed beside himself with panic, I asked Christine if I was going to die and she said, “We’re going to take very, very good care of you.” It might not sound like much now, but I totally believed her, and it was the best news I’d had all day.
That day I learned this about my doctor: Have a nice, normal labor and delivery, and you definitely want Dr. F. in the room. The same goes for a party; you definitely want him on the guest list if you’re planning a brunch. However, have a 35-hour labor that culminates in a c-section, and then proceed to hemorrhage uncontrollably despite large doses of pitocin and a team of nurses jumping up and down on your uterus, and Dr. F. is so not your guy. Suddenly Giggles was not laughing; in fact, he seemed at a loss as to what to do. During those nightmarish hours after the surgery, Dr. F. paced around the room with his hand on his chin and said almost nothing to me. When he did speak, it was to bark at the nurses or to mention – within earshot of my panicked father – that I might need a hysterectomy, but that he hadn’t done one in a while, and that he might need to call in another doctor to do it instead.
When finally the bleeding had stopped and I was pronounced reliably alive, I was finally allowed to hold Lila. It had been three hours since she was born, and she had been washed, swaddled, diapered and given formula. I had imagined this moment countless times in the previous months, but now that it was here, I looked at her and felt only exhaustion. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to take care of this little person.
It was several weeks before I felt like Lila was my actual daughter and not someone else’s cute-yet-alien baby. She took to breast feeding quickly, which helped me feel closer to her, but it still took me several months to feel what it seemed that other mothers felt right away. I didn’t have post-partum depression, but I was definitely shell-shocked and spaced out a lot of the time. I cried buckets of tears about the birth, about having so little control over my body and so little trust in the people taking care of me, and especially about having missed those first few moments with Lila. I’ll never know how much of a difference it made – maybe none, maybe a lot.
Neither Dr. F. nor our new obstetrician, Dr. A., has ever been able to tell us exactly what happened and why I hemorrhaged that first time. Apparently, however, there are precautions to take this second time around, like having a range of medications and units of my blood type ready. This way if the same problem occurs again, they can take care of it more efficiently. Given what happened the first time, plus the fact that this baby is apparently even bigger than Lila was, Dr. A. has advised us that a c-section is the way to go. I am certainly not arguing. I am reassured at the thought of going into the hospital rested and fed, of skipping the terrible hours of uncertainty and getting right down to business. (If the authors of my books on natural childbirth could read that last sentence, they would choke on their vegan barley cakes.)
I am, however, still nervous. We now have five weeks left before our scheduled c-section, and when I wake up during the night from the baby kicking or the need to pee or whatever, I often lie awake worrying about what will happen. Not dying is a definite priority, as is remaining untraumatized enough to be present for Boyd, Lila and the new baby afterward. I am hopeful that I can hold the baby much sooner, and that he and I can connect in some way without the distractions that Lila and I faced. But this time I am under no illusions about my own power to control the situation. Beyond finding a good doctor (done) and setting up the co-sleeper (Boyd’s job), all I can really do this time is say a prayer – and try not to step on any cracks in the sidewalk on the way to the hospital.