I’ve heard my own birth story so many times I can see it in my head. My mom has a tradition of telling her children their birth stories on their birthdays. So by the time my daughter Katie was born, I’d heard my own birth story at least 35 times.
I was supposedly conceived on Valentine’s Day, which I used to celebrate as my Conception Day. I’ve since calculated and figured out if that were true, I was born 15 days after my official due date. Either my mom is pulling a David Sedaris and adding fictional details to make my life story more interesting (who wouldn’t want to be conceived on the official day of L-O-V-E?) which is very much something my mom would do, or I was really really hesitant to come into this world. Considering my long struggle with depression, perhaps my mom is telling the truth. I knew the world was too cruel for me.
Because I was so overdue, the doctor decided to induce my mom’s labor. The night before the scheduled induction, my mom couldn’t sleep. I have no idea why: she was only two weeks overdue and had four children and a husband at home to also worry about. Back then insurance companies didn’t dictate hospital protocol with specific instructions for how long a patient could stay, so Mom checked herself into the hospital late that night so she could have some time to herself and get some sleep.
Since I’m my mom’s fifth child, you’d think when it was my time to be born she’d know something was going on. Instead, she almost slept through it. She’s a very deep sleeper. And she’s one of those people you could imagine walking on hot coals or swallowing swords.
At 4:30AM, my mom woke up, heaved herself out of the hospital bed, and waddled into the bathroom to pee. A couple of minutes later, as my mom was crawling back into bed, the nurse poked her head inside my mom’s room.
“I saw your light was on Mrs. Burton. Is everything ok?” The nurse asked.
“Oh, yes, everything’s fine. I was just using the bathroom.” My mom responded groggily.
The nurse came into the room “just to check things out” and within seconds, she was out the door again, calling for help. “Call Dr. DuMont! Mrs. Burton is delivering!!!”
At 4:45AM, I was caught by two nurses: Marcia Loft, R.N. and Evelyn Rowland, N.A. It was Ms. Loft’s second delivery, and Ms. Rowland’s first. The doctor, my dad, and my siblings were all at home asleep. My mom claims she felt no labor pains whatsoever. She did, however, require stitches from her vagina to her anus, since I’d come too fast for an episiotomy, or her body’s own natural elasticity to take effect. It was the first of many pains I’ve given my mother, although most of the rest occurred during my teenage years.
Needless to say, my own birth story shaped the way I looked at childbirth. I always thought it was the most wonderful, magical, natural thing, and I never understood why anyone wouldn’t at least try to do it without drugs. My sister Jenny reinforced my feelings about the ease of natural childbirth when, one Christmas evening, around 7 or 8 at night, we were all sitting around our brother Jay’s house after a long day of celebrating. Jenny was nine months pregnant with her fourth kid, but she didn’t seem uncomfortable and sat, talking and laughing, on the couch most of the evening. Then, without warning, she nonchalantly looked at her husband Brian and said, “I think we should maybe head up to the hospital. I think I’m having some contractions.” A couple hours later, Brian called to tell us my nephew was born.
I can’t remember ever not wanting to have babies. Notice the use of the plural. Being from a large family, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that a person could have just one child. When I was a kid, they had these “adopt a kid” PSAs on TV. Some local newscaster would be sitting on a studio couch, made to look like it was in someone’s homey living room, with a sad looking parentless child, usually my age or older, pleading with the audience to support this child. I’d jump up and down on the couch and shout to my mom, “Let’s adopt that kid!” She always broke it to me gently that no, we wouldn’t adopt the kid, but some couple who couldn’t have kids of their own would be very happy to. I always thought to myself, I’m going to adopt a kid when I’m old enough.
One of my favorite activities when I was a kid was drawing my future family. I’d draw myself, my husband (who always looked suspiciously like whatever boy at school was my latest crush, the one I never talked to but secretly plotted in my head my future marriage with…the details of how we’d get married without ever speaking never seemed to matter much), and our brood. Our very extensive brood. When I was ages 8-12, at the height of my fantasy family artistic career, I evidently thought that families like the Duggars or the Gosselins were the norm. I had to use legal sized paper, turned horizontally, to fit all the kids on the page. Sometimes I had to draw on the back too. I’d draw them all in a line, holding hands with one another, and I’d write their names above their heads. “Becky Kneller, Jason Kneller, Noah Kneller, Libby Kneller, Elijah Kneller, Annalise Kneller, Jake Kneller, Daisy Kneller…” and so on. Then, the next week when I decided another boy in class was who I really was going to marry, I’d erase the surname and write in the new one. I never had to erase my husband’s first name, because every boy in my class was named Jason.
By the time I was in my twenties, the age when people who are going to procreate usually decide to start, I wasn’t ready. Something changed in me when I hit puberty. The hormones that allowed me to become pregnant seemingly ignited a deep and profound depression that caused me to sometimes not want to be a resident of this planet let alone bring another human into it. That, and I still had trouble speaking to people I had crushes on.
After much psychoanalysis, anti-depressant medication, introspection, alcohol, excruciatingly bad poetry writing, serial-monogamous bad relationships and some casual sex here and there, I met someone who I could be around without hating myself or hating him. Being with Will caused me to feel at ease with myself and the world. Everything wasn’t right in my head or with the world, but I found myself dwelling much less on the negative and actually enjoying myself around him. I didn’t know it was possible.
So, it was finally my time to get married and start having babies. I married later than most, one month before my 34th birthday, but we’d been living together for about a year. I went off the pill a few months before we got married, to get a jump start on things, because my mom had taken DES when she was pregnant with me, which can cause fertility problems in the daughters of the women who take it, and also because I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a hormone imbalance which also can cause infertility.
After my Aunt Flo kept showing up and ruining our plans, I went to a Reproductive Endocrinologist who prescribed Clomid and Estrace. Three months later, thirteen months after I’d first gone off the pill, on November 4, 2005, the pregnancy test stick I had peed on that morning showed not just one line, but another, very faint line next to it. I’m kind of blind, so I brought it into the bedroom where Will was still asleep next to our two big dogs.
“Do you see two lines? I think I see two lines!” I tried not to sound too excited for fear that I would jinx the results, causing the faint line to disappear, but I’m not very good at hiding my emotions, so the words came out of my mouth like muffled little shrieks.
Will looked at the pee stick and smiled. We were pregnant.
I won’t be pulling a David Sedaris when I tell Katie, when she’s old enough to hear it and not be scarred for life, that she was conceived during a nooner. On October 19 I had an appointment with the Reproductive Endocrinology Assistant for a cycle-day-12 sonogram to see if the Clomid/Estrace combo had done their job and created mature follicles sizable enough to produce an egg, allowing us to time what their office staff jokingly referred to as “dinner and a movie.” She looked at the monitor, pulled out the wand, and said, “Go call your husband and tell him to meet you at home.”
I had already ovulated. We had to have sex right then or wait for another cycle. I was on my lunch hour from work, so I first had to call my boss and tell her I’d be a little late back from my doctor’s appointment. Not wanting to break multiple HR harassment rules regarding offending fellow colleagues with too much sexually descriptive talk, all I had to say was, “It’s time to make a baby” and that was as much info as she needed. After hanging up with my boss, I called Will and explained to him what I needed from him. Will’s not very fussy with office political correctness, so he hung up the phone, went into the back room to clock out, and upon seeing his boss said, “My wife called. I need to run home and impregnate her.”
I would make an awful porn star. It’s weird to have sex when you know other people know what you’re doing. But we did something right, and on cycle-day-28, November 4, 2005, we found out that although we’d never be the next Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy, we were going to finally be a mommy and a daddy.
My pregnancy was pretty easy. I never threw up until I was in labor. I got to eat lots of Sheridan’s Frozen Custard without guilt. I actually lost weight at first, and gained very little until my third trimester. Then my blood pressure started elevating and I started swelling up like Violet, the blueberry girl in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” I was on the verge of developing preeclampsia, which is a common condition for women of “advanced maternal age,” especially if it’s their first pregnancy and especially if they’re obese. Ok, so maybe I should have felt a little guilty eating all that frozen custard. I was put on a month’s bed rest, which was annoying less for the boredom than for the fact that it was eating up all my paid time off at work, and I would therefore have less time with the baby after she was born before I had to go back to work.
Her official due date was July 15, 2006. That day came and went, and I was still lying on my left side in bed, reading, watching TV, mentally rearranging the furniture in the nursery. I went for my 40 week checkup and my OB-GYN suggested we induce labor on the 19th if she hadn’t arrived yet. I wanted to ask if we could wait until the 22nd, because Will and I both were born on the 22nd, but I was always shy with doctors and thought they knew something I didn’t. As it turns out, the 19th was probably just an arbitrary date, or more likely, a day when he didn’t have a golf game scheduled or a lot of other pre-arranged births lines up.
My doctor. We must talk about him. At first I blamed him for all the problems I faced giving birth to Katie because he was a bad communicator. He loved to talk, don’t get me wrong. He liked to ask me what new books he should read (when he found out I work at a library.) He liked to talk about how he was taking guitar lessons (when my husband, a guitar player, accompanied me on appointments.) He liked to talk about the weather. All that chit chat bullshit I can’t stand. But he showed no interest in talking about my pregnancy, or my birthing plan, or the fact that he most likely wouldn’t even be there during the delivery. I honestly had no idea that doctors who share an office also share the “on call” duties and therefore any one of the doctors in your office, including the ones you’ve never met before, could be the ones sticking their hands inside your vagina to pull out your stuck child, or worse yet, cutting you open when all else fails. I should have asked questions. I should have spoken up when something seemed not right. But I didn’t trust myself enough to make a fuss.
My doctor didn’t tell me anything to expect, so I was left with my own easy birth story. Will and I went to birthing classes, but at the time I thought we were going for him, so he’d know what to expect. I thought I already knew: You go to the hospital, you get to walk around the hallways, you get to relax in the giant Jacuzzi tub, you get to roll around on a giant ball, you get your husband to hold your hand and stare deeply into your eyes and support you through the pain and experience all the joy and the miracle of the birth of your child, the product of your deep and abiding love for each other. And you actually get assistance from nurses and doctors in the room.
Now I realize my expectations of an easy, natural birth, the acquiescence of my body to a medical establishment despite my instincts telling me something wasn’t right, and my plain old first time mother’s ignorance had just as much to do with, shall we say, my less than ideal birthing experience, than my doctor's absent-mindedness.
First of all, I woke up at 7:30 in the morning on Wednesday, July 19 to pee. (Warning, TMI coming…) I passed what they called in our birthing class a bloody show. And I felt kind of nauseous and crampy. This is it! I’d never felt so excited to feel like crap.
I woke up Will and told him I think I was starting labor. I had an appointment scheduled that evening at the hospital to induce labor, and I thought it was kind of cool that I went into labor on my own, just before they were going to induce me,just like when my mom had me. Unfortunately that’s where the similarities end.
The contractions started, sporadically at first, but I was excited, so they didn’t bother me. We waited around until they were coming five minutes apart, like they told us in birthing class, and then we called the doctor's office. The nurse told us to go ahead and head to the hospital to get checked out. Hooray! This is going to be a breeze, I thought.
On the drive there, the contractions started to get stronger. I remember gripping the arm rest on the car, and thinking, gosh, this kinda hurts. I even said something to Will like, “Huh, this hurts more than I thought it would at this point. I must be far along!” But I was still so thrilled the moment we’d finally meet our child was so near, that I didn’t dwell on the pain.
When we checked into my room at the hospital, the nurse examined me and found that I was only like 1cm dilated, which is what I had been at my 40 week checkup when I wasn’t even in labor yet. That’s weird, I thought. I still had no idea what I was up against.
Now, I should tell you something else before I go on. It was either a Friends or a Seinfeld episode—I can’t remember which—where one of the male characters is talking to a female character about women being high maintenance. The female character asks, “Am I high maintenance?” And he responds, “Oh, you’re the worst kind. You’re high maintenance, but you think you’re low maintenance.” Or maybe it was in “When Harry Met Sally.” Anyway, I’m that way with pain. I think I’m such a tough cookie, when really I’m the one who cries when I find out that’s how the cookie crumbles. I think I can handle all kinds of obstacles and pain with stoic bravery, when really, I’m searching the medicine cabinets for any kind of pain reliever I can find if I get a paper cut.
Plus, I have this little thing called Posttraumatic Stress Disorder that makes my body shut down when I feel like I don't have control over it. I might have forgotten to mention that to my doctor. I wish he had bothered to ask me if I had a history of any mental illness. Might have come in handy to know this about me at this moment when I'm about to freak out from this uncontrollable pain!
If I had trusted my instincts or at least bothered to know myself a little better, to admit I’m an epidural kind of person without shame or judgment and laugh away the ridiculous notion that I could possibly bear a child with no drugs, I think the whole thing would have gone much more smoothly. Instead, I went in thinking, “Oh, I’ll relax away the pain with a nice little bath and a few massages from my doting husband." I soon found out it wouldn’t go as I planned.
For one thing, my doctor never showed up. I had no idea he wouldn’t be there. So I was introduced to another doctor who shook my hand coldly and I swear never once looked me in the eye. I met her at I’m guessing around 2:30PM. I was told she was the doctor on call and would be delivering my baby, and then I was told to spread my legs as she stuck what looked like a huge knitting needle inside me to break my water. She then left the room and didn’t come back until around 1AM the next morning to tell me I wasn’t progressing fast enough and it was time to have a C-section. But wait, there’s a lot of other fun stuff that happened in between this doctor's two visits to my room.
They were severely short staffed at the hospital that day. As far as I could tell there was one nurse, and as luck would have it, she was a chit chatter who popped in my room every 20 to 30 minutes or so to see how I was progressing and to complain to me that her co-workers sucked and she hadn’t had a day off in three weeks.
During one of her visits, after seeing me start sobbing uncontrollably after simply throwing up, (I really do hate to throw up, even when I’m not passing an 8 pound mass through my vagina) she said, “The patient down the hall is getting an epidural right now. I could have the anesthesiologist come by here and do you while he’s on the floor.” I felt like she was trying to kill two patients with one spine-stabbing doctor. It was late-afternoon by then. I was starting to realize the fifteen minute labor my mother experienced wasn’t going to be quite the same for me. Suddenly the voices of all the women, mostly strangers and casual acquaintances, who said throughout my pregnancy, “Oh, honey, just get the epidural” came to me and I said what the heck. When the anesthesiologist arrived, I started to have second thoughts. I felt like I was in the voting booth and everyone around me was trying to get me to cast my ballot for the Republican. But the anesthesiologist was already in the room, with needles out and he was talking to me and oh should I be listening to what he’s saying and oh God this hurts I think I’m going to throw up again where’s the little plastic vomit bucket and I don’t want to seem impolite by telling him I changed my mind and want to try it naturally, because then I’d be offending his whole occupation, wouldn’t I?
So I let him stick me.
Twice. I guess the first time he didn’t hit the right area, so it only lessened the pain on one side of my body but not the other. He performed all sorts of tests on me, raising my legs and pushing on them. Asking if I felt this, and if I felt that. After a while, he came back and said he had to do it again. He was a really nice old man, and I didn’t want to offend him by seeming to question his judgment.
After two epidurals, I could still feel the contractions, but I could no longer feel my legs. See, the deal is, you want to alleviate some of the pain, but you want to be able to push. The problem is, with numb legs how do you push when you can’t feel what you’re pushing up against? I didn’t tell anyone for fear they’d try to give me another epidural, so I just… dissociated myself from the situation. It’s a common trick among people with a posttraumatic stress disorder. Anxiety strikes and
The problem is, when you’re body wants to push an 8 pound mass out of your vagina, it’s best if you’re all there, mind and body, each doing their fair share of the work. My psyche and my body just completely broke apart. I lost control, which caused more anxiety, which caused more dissociation…and on and on and on.
I have to say, though, if I’d had some help – a doula, maybe, or just some regular damn nurses there to help me push, it would have been much better. I’m not exaggerating when I say my husband did 90% of the work trying to deliver Katie. Because there was only one nurse on the floor, and every other room was full of other women in labor, it was Will down between my legs, holding them so I could try to bear down, saying, “Ok, on the count of three, push! Good…good. Now one more time!” It was crazy. We were paying all this money to have our baby in a place with the most advanced scientific technology, and we might was well have been at home in our own bed. At least then I could have felt my legs and been able to push against something.
Finally, around 1AM, this stranger doctor came into my room, told me my baby was stuck, I hadn’t progressed enough, and I needed to have a C-section. I sobbed from the moment she told me, throughout the entire delivery, and I’m ashamed to say, even after Will brought our sweet little baby up to me when it was all over, just after 2AM, so I could see her for the first time. I cried, “Take her away.” Those were the first words my child heard me say. I regret it so much, and I hope she can forgive me. I hope she knows it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see her, it was that I didn’t want her to see me, such a horrible horrible mother who can’t even push her own child out into the world.
I was so disappointed—with myself for not being able to deliver vaginally let alone “naturally”, with the medical establishment for forgetting about me and leaving my husband to do the work of the nurses instead of what he should have been there for, to encourage and support me.
I had never felt worse about myself than I did during my baby’s birth. Never during the awkwardness of my depressing teen years, never during the horrible mean nasty fights I had with ill-suited lovers, never in my whole entire fucked up life. Why the fuck did I ever think I should be someone’s mom?
But then, through the tears, blurry across the room, swaddled in my husband’s arms, I saw my little girl, so pink and fat and perfect. And I realized it was no longer about me, that all this self-indulgent angsty crap was a ridiculous distraction from the real meaning of everthing: this…little…girl.
An hour later, back in my room which had suddenly taken on an earthy, homey quality (when did they have time to redecorate while I was in surgery?), I sat up in bed, waiting for them to bring me my baby so I could hold her in my arms. The nurse, Miss Chit Chat Complainer, sat with me, perhaps on psychiatric watch, although she never said so, and I was too delirious to even think it at the time. She was filling out paperwork, piles and piles of it, and talking to me about her own daughter, who was grown and in college from what I recall. I remember thinking, I must cherish every moment of my own daughter’s life before it is I telling some stranger my daughter has her own life now and never calls. But I stopped myself before I started making too many plans, as plans come with expectations, and expectations are what got me into this trouble in the first place. So I just sat there and waited for another chance with my little girl.
Someone brought Katie into the room from the nursery and handed her to the nurse. She told me I’d have bad gas after the surgery, but these flutters in my belly were simply excitement and longing. Give me my baby!
The nurse walked over to my bed and placed Katie into my arms. We sunk into each other. At that moment, everything was right in the world. Her daddy had shown me how to enjoy life despite all its problems. Katie showed me a glimpse into the other side, like she wasn’t quite of this world yet, and so without regret, with nothing to forgive for she had done nothing wrong, she could trust to let herself just be. The nurse turned Katie for me to hold like a football so she could breastfeed without laying on my sore belly, but I felt no pain. Just pure, complete, and unconditional love. And as my baby lay there, attached to me, suckling nourishment from my body, she helped me understand our relationship is beyond forgiveness.