This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on Birthing Beautiful Ideas, as part of a series on life after birth.
I was never someone who oohs and ahs over babies or thinks “the miracle of life” is totally fascinating, and when I got pregnant for the first time, I was nervous and uncertain—about pregnancy, about labor, about being a parent. There were a few things I knew I wanted, though. I knew I wanted a home birth. I knew I wanted to wait until birth to find out what sex our baby was. I wanted as intervention-free a pregnancy, labor and delivery, and immediate postpartum time as possible, and I wanted to breast-feed, sleep near my baby, and baby-wear.
My pregnancy was uneventful—until about six weeks from my due date, when the baby’s measurements stopped getting bigger. An ultrasound showed a two-vessel cord, but nothing else abnormal. So when I went into labor, we went ahead with our plan for a home birth. Labor was difficult, but manageable, and our baby was born just after eight o’clock on a Tuesday night—a boy. We named him Elijah, and the midwife put him on my abdomen and I remember being amazed by how tiny he was and how beautiful, and much love I felt toward him right away.
But instead of pinking up, he went from a sort of flesh-and-grey color to blue-purple, and he was very still. The ambulance came and somewhere in there he started breathing. I held him on the way to the hospital and he didn’t want to nurse (but I will forever be grateful to the EMT who suggested that I try) so we just looked into each other’s eyes and I loved him. When we got there they whisked him away and his father went with him and they put me in a room and a sweet nurse brought me the only thing left in the cafeteria at 9:30 at night—lasagna and orange juice. My mother came and waited with me.
The staff tried three times to intubate Elijah and couldn’t, so they transferred him to another hospital by special pediatric ambulance. After arguing and arguing with the doctor on call, I was released and we followed. By the time we got to there, Elijah was intubated and lying still and small right by the nurses station in the neonatal ICU. They gave us a room, even though I wasn’t a patient, and we went to sleep around one in the morning, while the doctor tried to figure out what was wrong with our son.
The next day they loaned me a breast pump and I started pumping every two hours around the clock. Between pumping and being alternately sweating and freezing, I wasn’t sleeping much, and when my milk came in I was swollen and sore, but I was glad to be producing plenty of milk for my baby. My midwife kept telling me to rest, rest. And perched on my stool in the NICU, so that I could see into Elijah’s bed, and walking back and forth to the cafeteria for my meals, I thought, Rest? How am I supposed to do that?
Elijah spent the three-and-a-half months after his birth in the hospital, most of that time in intensive care. We were there as much as we could be—living in a borrowed RV in the hospital parking lot, then with relatives nearby, and finally in his room in the pediatric ICU—but it was a far cry from always being there for him. The baby I hadn’t even wanted eye drops for had three surgeries and spent weeks in a medically induced coma. It wasn’t safe for him to have liquids in his mouth, so breastfeeding was out. We could only hold him once or twice a day during his best periods, and often he was so fragile we couldn’t hold him at all. He developed a severe oral aversion and didn’t want to be snuggled because he didn’t want anything near his face. When he finally came home, he was on a very detailed schedule for feeding and medications. It was all very different from what I had envisioned
By the time Elijah was four, we felt like we had recovered enough that we were ready to try to have another baby. When I got pregnant again, I was scared and excited—scared of this baby having trouble too, and excited because I knew how much I loved and enjoyed Elijah and I was looking forward to getting to know this new little person as well. I decided to see an OB instead of a midwife, and requested my ultrasounds with perinatology. As we entered the second trimester I mentally breathed a sigh of relief.
A week later, I went in for a routine ultrasound, excited to see our baby again. Instead, the perinatologist told me our baby was dead.
I declined a d&c, and spent the next week and a day waiting to miscarry, trying not to hope that the ultrasound was wrong because I knew I was going to be disappointed, feeling like I was losing my mind. The ultrasound indicated our baby had died between 11 and 12 weeks, and I had no idea what to expect from delivering a baby at this gestation. Neither my doctor nor the internet gave me much help. When I went into labor Thursday night, I was surprised by how strong the contractions were. In the wee morning hours on Friday, our tiny baby was born at home. A boy, we think. We held him—he fit in the palm of my hand. We named him John. We took pictures, and buried him in a maple and walnut box made just for him by his father and grandfather. I spent the rest of the day curled up in a recliner at my parents’ house, in shock, and the weeks following trying to preserve normalcy for my almost-five-year-old during the day, and lying on the floor under the empty crib at night to cry.
When I could breathe again, I started thinking about something an ultrasonographer said early in my second pregnancy: “Has anyone ever told you you’ve got a heart-shaped uterus?” I started digging around online, and found studies connecting uterine anomalies to pregnancy loss and birth defects. I saw my OB, who kept telling me that it was just a fluke and I’d have better luck next time, but talked her into referring me to a specialist. I saw the perinatologist again, then a couple of different reproductive endocrinologists. I got a tiny taste of what the world of infertility treatment is like.
Finally I saw Dr. L, who said that I had all of the indicators of a uterine anomaly, and that my chances of carrying a healthy pregnancy to term would go from around twenty percent to around seventy percent if I had it surgically corrected. So I gathered my courage in both hands, and scheduled the surgery. The results were encouraging, but the only way to know if we could have a living, healthy baby was to try.
When I got pregnant again, I was terrified. I knew now, in a visceral way, that things go wrong—unexpectedly, worst-case scenario wrong—and there are no guarantees. The whole pregnancy was an exercise in refusing to give in entirely to fear, an irrational-sounding mixture of ignoring the fact that I was pregnant and celebrating it. I asked my mom to throw me a big baby shower, even though I was still putting off major decisions like where to have the baby and important chores like making a place for the baby to sleep, because they were just too hard to think about. I planned to wait until birth to find out the sex again, then decided while we were in the middle of our twenty-week ultrasound that I needed to know, in case now was all the time we had.
Ultimately we decided (about three weeks before I went into labor, and with about a million contingency plans) to have a home birth. The farther I got past 35 weeks, the more impatient I got for her to be born. What if something goes wrong at the end? I could finally see the attraction in a scheduled c-section. Two days after her “due date,” Narah was born, crying and strong. She latched on and nursed well right away. I was happy and relieved.
Twenty-four hours later, I started to fall apart. Nursing, which I had been looking forward to and wanting for so long, hurt. And it kept getting worse and worse. Labor had been much more difficult than I expected and I was much sorer than I had been after Elijah was born. The midwives said I needed to rest, but my husband was in the middle of finals week and I couldn’t figure out how to rest and take care of my newborn and feed myself, let alone take care of my five-year-old. I felt completely overwhelmed. Elijah ended up staying with my parents-in-law for a week, and ten days post-partum, my mother gently talked me into going to see about some help. I saw a naturopath who was very caring and compassionate, helped me with my latch, and gave me a tincture and a homeopathic to help balance out my emotions. From that point on I started gradually feeling better, although I didn’t really start to feel normal again until nursing improved, about two months postpartum.
Narah is 7 months old now, and I’m still processing and reprocessing my thoughts and feelings about her birth—and John’s birth, and my surgery, and Elijah’s birth. They’re all part of each other. The difficult time after Elijah’s birth, after John’s, reached forward and affected my experience of Narah’s birth and post-partum time, and her birth and life and my feelings about it reach back and shape my perception of theirs. I don’t have a neat, tidy “moral to the story” to wrap up with. This is my life, and it’s still in progress.
There are a few things I’ve learned, though. Life can’t be scripted or controlled. Flexibility is essential. Education and self-advocacy are life-savers. People who love you and will advocate for you (and fold your laundry and cook your dinner) when you can’t do it for yourself are priceless. Sometimes natural and low-intervention just doesn’t cut it; in those situations, Western medicine is an amazing gift. Breastfeeding can be really hard, but it’s still five-hundred-thousand times better than exclusive pumping*. And parenting isn’t so much about whether you’re into “attachment parenting” or not, but about a relationship with this amazing person you’re getting to know. Each of these children have changed me in ways I didn’t even know I needed to change.
In the days and weeks (and years) postpartum, I never got some things I wanted badly. I lost some things I wanted very badly. But I’ve gained more than I could ever have imagined. Children are a gift.
*in my experience