[Continued from Part I]
Our midwife came to the hospital with us (she and I carrying about a thousand useless tote bags of utter crap), and advised us to let her do the talking about how Gail’s labor was progressing. We got the most amazing labor and delivery nurse ever in the whole wide world, a woman whose name I swore I would never forget, but now find I can’t remember
After an endless wait the anesthesiologist came. He wanted to talk to us about being mathematicians because he fancied himself a bit of a mathematician. I wanted him to put a sock in it. I stood in front of Gail to hold her for the epidural, but I was shaking and there was no way I could hold her steady. I asked the nurse if she could do it. She was solid as a rock. Mostly I was grateful the nurse was there, with her well-rested energy and strong presence, forcing Gail to look into her eyes and hold still. But part of me felt like now I had failed Gail. Here we were, in the hospital, a place she didn’t want to be. She was terrified of needles. But I couldn’t hold her steady. I wasn’t doing my job.
The epidural started working immediately. Gail relaxed. She said this was the most amazing thing ever. She smiled, laughed, and started to crack jokes. The nurse started pitocin.
I needed to make calls: Gail’s mom. My parents. Everyone needed to know what was happening after a day and a half of silence from us. Suddenly I had their worries on top of my own. The hospital midwife chastised me for talking too loudly, saying that Gail needed to rest — another thing I was doing wrong.
Gail tried to sleep. She did in fits and starts. Later that morning, the baby’s heart rate grew concerning. They placed an internal monitor.
First the hospital. Then the epidural. Now the internal monitor. We were started down the cascade of interventions. Even though the internal monitor was providing reassuring information, at that point in time, it looked to me like there was no way we were getting this baby out without surgery.
I completely lost it. I don’t mean I was yelling or screaming, but I couldn’t stop crying.
The hospital midwife pulled me out of the room. She told me in no uncertain terms I needed to get my shit together. That Gail needed me to be strong.
I still don’t know whether to be grateful or pissed at her for doing that. I did calm down. Our own midwife suggested I call a friend. I went down to the hospital pay phones and called my close friend from grad school. She had a five month old. She had given birth at home. She told me it would be fine, that it was OK to be terrified, and of course I was a mess. It was a relief to talk to someone who was there just for me, someone who wasn’t telling me I needed to be strong, someone who let me be weak.
Our own midwife and the nurse encouraged me to go home and rest. It was just a few blocks away and they would call me to come back if anything happened. But what if something went wrong and I wasn’t there? What if Gail needed me? In retrospect, I know they saw how exhausted I was and knew it would still be a while, that nothing was dire, but at the time it seemed ridiculous, like they were telling me to abandon my wife and child. What planet were they on? I might be fucking up, but one thing I could do right was stay. And I was damn well going to.
We waited. Our midwife went back to our house to bring back food from our overstocked freezer (I had been cooking and freezing food for weeks). She brought back lasagna. I tried to eat it but it was absolutely disgusting. I forced my way through several bites. I ate some cereal and crackers from the hospital stash. A jar of applesauce was one of the only useful things I’d thrown in our hospital bags. I ate all of it and wished we had more.
Gail was progressing slowly, but it was progress, and no one mentioned surgery. There was a while that afternoon when I felt peaceful. I felt a quiet hope as I held Gail’s hand while she slept. I felt proud of her.
Sometime later in the afternoon on Sunday, maybe 3:00 or 4:00, a check revealed that Gail was fully dilated. The hospital midwife said it was time to get this baby out. It was time to push.
I could tell by the look in our own midwife’s eyes that she disagreed, and I suddenly remembered the one and only useful thing from our birth class: that with an epidural, it was often wise to let a woman “labor down,” to give time for the body to get the baby much lower on its own before starting to push in earnest. When the hospital midwife left, I looked at our midwife and said something like “we should wait longer right?” She nodded, and at that moment it was like the three of us, Gail, our midwife, and me, were in on a little conspiracy.
Our midwife suggested “Let’s ask for the anesthesiologist to come turn down the epidural. That will take forever and is a good idea anyway.” We asked the nurse for the anesthesiologist, and at least in my memory, she gave some signal that she caught onto the stalling plan. Now she was in on it, too.
It did indeed take forever for the anesthesiologist to come. And when he did, we decided that now it was a good time to talk math. We talked about our research, his various mathematical interests, both Gail and I milking the conversation for all it was worth, and then, eventually, we got around to turning down that epidural. Some time later, as the epidural wore down a bit, Gail started to feel an urge to push, the baby was indeed much lower due to our stalling, and it was time.
Our nurse stood on Gail’s left holding a leg. I stood on the right holding the other leg. Everyone was directing Gail this way or that way for how to push. Everyone was encouraging her and cheering, admiring what great progress she was making. After so long in labor, after things seemed so out of control, Gail completely took charge. She could feel the contractions coming on, and would round everyone up to pay attention at each one. She was doing this. I loved that.
Because the baby had passed some meconium, the pediatric team was brought into the room. Our nurse mentioned to the pediatrician that it would be nice to keep the baby on Gail’s chest provided s/he made a good cry. Since the meconium had been light, that should have been OK. The pediatrician said sternly “Absolutely not. Not after everything this baby has been through.”
He was the only hospital employee who made any insinuation we had taken undue risks with our baby’s health (We had not, the baby was well monitored for the entire course of the birth and we had a solid plan for back-up care). I was so excited for our baby to arrive that I managed to pay him no mind, and didn’t realize until later that he was a jerk.
The hospital midwife pulled me around the end of the bed. As our baby was born, we did a four-handed catch. The baby was a little blue, scrunched up, and amazing. I was surprised that at the end, the birth was so fast, that on one push we didn’t have a baby, and on the next one we did. Our baby was here. In my hands. Right now. It was 7pm on the dot, Sunday night.
The baby was placed briefly on Gail’s belly while the cord was quickly cut, and everyone asked me if we had a boy or a girl. I made a quick look and said “A girl! She’s here!…Wait! I’m not sure! I didn’t get a good look!” but she was, indeed, a girl. Our daughter.
She was whisked over to the pediatric team, who suctioned and checked her. Our midwife gently pushed me over to the table and said “It’s OK. Talk to her. Hold her hand. Touch her.” She was perfectly fine, whimpering and wiggling. I think it was the nurse who arranged things so I would carry her back over to Gail. I couldn’t have been more than 6 feet from the bed but it felt like 10 miles.
The path was glowing before me, but was riddled with treacherous obstacles that magically moved, as everyone warned me to be careful and pulled random IV poles, equipment and cords out of my path.
I placed Leigh on Gail’s chest. We stared at her together, amazed that she was finally here. We sang her a song, huddled together under what felt like our own gently glowing dome of light. Everyone else in the room disappeared. It was just the three of us. Together. Our family. Finally.
Thanks largely to our nurse, we got to skip eye antibiotic and shots, and Leigh never left our side. Our nurse brought the scale, and even the hearing test machine, to our room. As some of the chaos subsided, Gail asked did I want to hold her? I took off my shirt, reached for my daughter, who screamed bloody murder when she was moved, but, bless her, immediately settled as I held her naked on my chest, singing and talking to her.
Our nurse gently helped Gail get out of bed to the bathroom, and helped her shower. She had stayed late just for us. She lobbied for us to be able to leave as soon as possible (which was what we wanted). She helped us order food. After a while, both the nurse and our midwife left for the night.
As we lay down late that night in our dark room, Leigh snuggled in with Gail on the bed, nursing incessantly (already), me on a hideous and uncomfortable hospital cot, I sobbed.
Our baby was here. She was beautiful and healthy. Gail was healthy. I felt overwhelmingly relieved and grateful. I felt the beginnings of new kind of love, a deep connection to my child, to my wife. We were becoming something new. Together. I was absolutely exhausted and raw, still starving, and unable to choke down food without feeling sick. I felt both hollow and full.
The next day’s hospital midwife (a new one) came into do our discharge paperwork. “You had such a long haul,” she said. Gail nodded. “Just know it’s not always like that. Things will go more smoothly the next time.” After she left, both Gail and I were sad. We knew that if our family plans played out, there was not going to be a next time. This was likely Gail’s one shot at birth. This is what she got. I was angry at that midwife for what I’m sure she thought was a supportive comment. For our family, it wasn’t.
My grad school friend and her husband came to bring us home. We tucked Leigh into her carseat (we weren’t allowed to leave without one). We all walked outside, and our friends helped Gail into a cab. Our house was only a few blocks away, and we didn’t trust ourselves to install the carseat in the cab, so I gently lifted Leigh out of the carseat and held her in my arms, as my friend walked us home. It was so bright outside. I noticed every bump in the sidewalk. Leigh was so calm. That first walk felt both terrifying and empowering.
Once we were home, Gail started to feel stronger, but I crashed hard. She had just labored for two days, not slept in three nights, and yet somehow she was calm and full of energy. I, on the other hand, had been up the same amount of time, eaten roughly the same (piddling) amount, slept about the same (tiny) amount, but had not birthed an entire baby. Yet I was an utter wreck. Those birth hormones were something else.
There is more to the story: settling in as a family of three, nursing, parenting a newborn together, how cared for we felt by our community and our families. But this is most of it. This is what Leigh’s birth was, for me, as the mom who did not birth her.
It was exciting, excruciating, amazing, terrifying. I felt powerless, lonely, inept, awestruck and powerful.
Gail came to a place of peace with Leigh’s birth much sooner than I did. She was proud of herself for going to the hospital, for asking for the help she needed (something that is not easy for her to do), for growing and birthing a seriously amazing baby.
For a long time, I carried a lingering sense of failure: for not thinking of the right way to help Gail find a way through at home, for doing too much, for doing too little, for falling apart, for encouraging Gail to labor longer at home, for caving and going to the hospital too soon, and mostly, for being weak (what kind of person comes out of a birth in worse shape than the woman doing the extremely arduous birthing?).
That sense of failure was complicated by the implication that if I thought I had failed, then by extension, did I think Gail had failed? Of course I couldn’t possibly think that! She was tremendously strong and perseverant. I mean seriously, who sings their way through most of active labor? A rare and beautiful person, who has deep reserves of grace and goodness. But maybe part of me did think she had failed, because I couldn’t kick the feeling that maybe I had. It was hard to figure out. I’m not sure I ever really did, but the feeling faded with time, as the work and love of parenting took up more space, and the experience of birth receded.
Three years later, the tables were turned. For entirely different reasons we were again in the hospital instead of at home, and late in a long, arduous and now stalled labor with Ira, we found out he was also asynclitic, positioned in exactly the same problematic way his sister had been. But instead of feeling hopeless or afraid I knew immediately that everything would be fine, that if Gail could do it, then I could do it. So it was that three years later, I felt a profound connection to Gail’s experience of labor, I felt in my own body how strong she had been, and those few last regrets fell away.