Sunday, May 15, 2011

Birth scars

Birth is a funny thing. It can be a rite of passage, but it's also the source of a lot of horror stories. Women LOVE to get together and compare how awful their births were. I personally don't think it's just a spirit of competition. It's the desire to work through the emotional scars their births have left them with.

I don't think birth has to be traumatic, in most cases. But it so often is. Last century, women gave birth in "twilight sleep," strapped down, or unconscious for just the moment of birth. Now things are better, as hospitals discover methods of pain relief that allow the mother to stay aware, and women discover natural birth methods.

My mother's birth stories were always so inspiring, and she enjoyed telling them. She used to tell me about this or that child's birth, how she thought she couldn't do it and did it anyway. She seemed so empowered ... except for my own birth. My birth sounds pretty awful. It was quick and not too terrible physically, but I was separated from my mom as soon as I was born. Though she liked to tell me about the things she did while she was in labor with me, the songs she sang, and all that, she just never could forget how she felt when I was whisked away before she got a good look at me. She tells me she could hear a baby crying far away and wondered if it was me. And that once she got me, she was afraid to really look at me, to count my fingers and toes as she did with the others.

I never really understood that until I had my own. See, birth is an awfully emotional experience. It's supposed to be. The hormone that produces labor contractions, oxytocin, has an odd side effect of enhancing memory. That's for bonding -- so that you will remember that baby is yours and never forget your first meeting. But for so many women, the memories imprinted on their minds at their babies' births is quite different. They remember in detail who was there, what they were thinking, what the doctor said. More than anything, they remember how they felt, and they won't ever forget. That's why it's so ridiculous when the Bible says, "though a mother forget her child." No mother would forget her child. Ever. It simply does not happen.

What I remember best from Marko's birth is this.

I remember seeing, for an instant, a wiggling, crying mass of gray quickly turning to pink before the doctor wrapped a blanket around him and handed him to someone else. She told me, "He's okay, but we will suction his lungs anyway, just in case." I wanted very badly to tell her, "No, if he is fine, just give him to me," but I couldn't seem to speak.

I remember hearing him cry on the warming table across the room and wanting to send John over to be with him, but I was beginning to fall apart and couldn't make myself let go of his hand.

I remember the doctor leaning hard on my belly in what is understatedly called "uterine massage" as she yanked the placenta out and said, "Come on, this isn't so bad, you just went through labor."

I remember a hand appearing with a needle that jabbed into my leg, and asking what it was. "Pitocin," said the nurse. I was angry that they hadn't asked me first. I wondered if they gave it to me because it was procedure, or was I actually hemorrhaging. I wondered if they would tell me if I was. And I was angry that no one was telling me anything, especially as I began to grasp that there was nothing the matter, everyone was calm but they just didn't think it was important to tell me what was going on.

I remember asking over and over again, "Where's my baby? Aren't you done yet? Can't you give him to me?" I watched the clock and thought, "How long does it take to suction a baby's lungs? I can hear that he is fine, why don't they give him to me?" It took them around 45 minutes, every minute of which I was in great distress. I had had my baby for nine months and now he was gone.

After that, the hormones let up and I don't remember so much. When they gave me my baby, he was just a little face up above a burrito of swaddling and didn't look like much. I was happy to have him, or rather relieved, but I still felt a little wrong. Like I shouldn't actually have a baby. It was the middle of the night and I felt really out of it. I tried to nurse him but I didn't know what to do, and eventually I handed him back and was allowed at last to have something to eat.

And, despite my resolve to count those fingers and toes right away, I didn't. I didn't want to take off the swaddle because I didn't think I could rewrap it. I figured the nurses knew better than I what to do with this confusing bundle. I got other people to change his diaper for me; it was John who discovered the birthmark on his tiny leg. I liked him a lot, didn't want to let him out of my sight, but I felt unsure of what to do, so I left him in his plastic bassinet most of the time. Besides, I was too sore to get out of bed and pick him up. No one would either let me sleep or let me hold him ... it was just an endless procession of people coming in to say things to me or take my blood pressure.

Of course I did eventually get past this. My second night in the hospital, I was up with the baby most of the night (I was so tired I was dreaming with my eyes open) and I actually got to take care of him myself. I studied his Yoda eyes in the darkness and called him, "little stranger." Having him rely on me like that made me feel much more like his mother. And after a week, when John left for work and his family went home, I had him all to myself and began to really bond with him. I ditched all the swaddling blankets and took him into the tub with me, where I finally got a good long look at those toes and those skinny newborn arms and legs. I fell in love with the fuzz on the top of his head and the funny faces he made. I began to feel competent, first to the point that I was willing to do everything myself, and later to the point that I refused to let anyone else do anything. My baby didn't care who held him, but I was so attached that it had to be me.

It's been over a year, and I don't feel so broken up about it the way I used to. But still, I do regret it. It was a silly hospital policy of playing it safe, even though they knew my baby was all right, and they took away our first moment together. And I'll always remember that, even if I don't let it upset me (much) anymore.

The next time you hear a woman complain about her labors, don't tell her to get over herself, to be thankful she had a healthy baby (if she did), or to stop talking about it. The trauma of unwanted events at the time of birth is real, and she could probably use a listening ear. Even if you're not a mother, your mother went through it for you.


Sarah Faith said...

Wow, that's awful. I so much preferred my home births to my hospital ones. It's really so different and I felt in charge of my own experience - I'm sure you can imagine how much better that is.

JenniC10 said...

It's really a shame the way the medical community has hijacked the birthing "industry" like this. So many women have no idea what they're missing. It sounds like you knew at the time that the way they were treating you was not right, but when you're in such a vulnerable position, it's so hard to make your demands known. This is really the biggest reason that I have chosen to birth at home. While it's certainly possible to have the birth that you want in a hospital, you face so much opposition. It's just easier to be in an environment where you KNOW that your desires will be accomodated, as opposed to the hospital where they feel that they know better than their patients. I recently read an article on birth shock (I'll try to find it) that explained a lot about why, even when things are fine, the mother who has just given birth feels out of control. You've just gotten off of this incredible roller coaster of labor and have all these hormones surging like crazy, and everyone else in the room is acting all calm, and for the woman, things don't add up, and it feels quite traumatic. The important thing to remember is that the baby has the same hormone surge and needs to be with his mommy immediately, so that they can begin to finish this experience together. I'm glad you've been able to make peace after time. You're right--the most important thing is that you have your little guy now. That's a lot to be thankful for. But it really is possible to have a beautiful birthing experience with no regrets!

Sheila said...

Yes, the hospital is not really a good place for birth. I want to write a post soon about why I am NEVER going that route again if I can avoid it. It's not really their fault; the very nature of what they do involves bringing a woman out of her comfort zone and into theirs. Next time, if I don't want everything medicalized, I won't go to a place where the medical people are!

I know it doesn't have to be that way. My mom has had some beautiful homebirths, as well as two much nicer hospital births, and she's definitely given me a lot of encouragement that I can have that too someday.

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