One week past my due date, I was still pregnant. I had an appointment with the midwife, where we confirmed that I was still pregnant and that the baby was fine, just on its own schedule. She offered to do a membrane sweep, which is where she takes her finger and sweeps it around the cervix to separate the membranes around the baby from the cervix. This releases prostaglandins, which tell your body to get that other little body out. I wanted that little body out. To everything there is a season and all that, but Mama says it's time to be born now.
This is a birth story.
I wanted to induce labor for two reasons. One, if I did not have this baby within the next week, they were going to check me into the hospital to induce me with drugs. All I knew about being induced with drugs was that the contractions came hard and fast, and it would be unlikely that I'd be able to have a med-free birth. I have always known, nay, assumed that I would give birth without chemical pain relief. It was the way my sisters did it, the way my mother did it, the way her mother did it. People respond to this in two ways - by nodding and saying of course, that's the way to go, or by looking at me like I've lost my mind. Finally, someone asked me why. And the answer was pride: ours is a competitive family. Then I looked up some other reasons so I would have something to say (bottom line: use of drugs increases uses of interventions such as forceps or c-section, so you get a snowball effect of increased risk to mother and baby).
I took a childbirth class that spent a lot of time discussing natural pain management - not say pain relief, but management. The midwife teaching the class talked about pain versus suffering. Most of the time, when you go to the hospital in pain, it is because something is wrong. But when you're having a baby, it's supposed to hurt. It is productive pain, as it is your body preparing to do something momentous. Labor requires pain. It does not require suffering. Pain is a physical phenomenon, suffering is mental. I felt prepared to handle pain. Being induced meant letting go of my med-free childbirth plan. While that wouldn't be that terrible, it wasn't what I wanted.
The second reason I wanted to get that baby out was because of my grandmother. Ninety-four years old, her short-term memory was not great. The past couple of visits, she looked at me and apologized for not quite being able to place who I was. But she knew that her granddaughter, Sandra, was going to have a baby soon. She asked my mother every day if I'd had that baby yet. She always forgot that we didn't know the sex, and she had it in her head that it was a girl.
I read somewhere that there are three ways to enjoy something - in anticipation of it, experiencing it, and remembering it. When we are born, everything is anticipation. As we live, things move from anticipation to experience and finally to memory. For my grandmother, most of her enjoyment was in memory, and this was apparent as she fondly told us stories from decades past. But my baby was something she could enjoy in anticipation. I was never hurt when she momentarily forgot my face, but I was deeply moved that she remembered there was a baby coming.
Aside from her memory, my grandmother's esophagus was no longer working. She had been having problems with phlegm for a while, and it finally got to the point where she could no longer swallow any food. Her esophagus finally wore out. Of all the parts in the body that serve us tirelessly, I never thought about the esophagus giving out. The doctor said that they could put in a feeding tube to buy her some more time, or they could make her comfortable. My mom had to make a hard decision. She thought about pain and suffering and made a call to hospice.
This is a death story.
The morning hospice was setting up a bed at my parents' house was the same one where I was having my cervix swept. My siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles were coming from all over the world to my hometown. I was sitting at my house, four hours away, maybe going to have a baby. I knew that I would never see my grandmother again, and she would never get to meet the new baby. But I promised my mom to send a picture of the baby as soon as it arrived so that she could print it out for Grandmother. It was important to me that Grandmother get to experience what she'd been anticipating. I wanted the baby out.
The cervix sweep doesn't automatically start labor. To be honest, I'd had my cervix swept the week before on my due date. I'd felt some cramps for a few hours, but that was the end of it. This time, the cramps came sooner, and they never really went away. They went from a constant dull ache to having peaks and valleys. The midwife had told me to come to the hospital when I was having contractions lasting a minute, five minutes apart. I downloaded a contraction timer app to my phone and lay down on the couch to watch X-Files while Josh showered. I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Josh put on a button-up shirt and a bow tie to look nice for the baby.
We left for the hospital at around 7. According to my timer app, the contractions were five minutes apart and one minute long. I called my mom to let her know it was go time. I texted my brother-in-law to ask him to look in on the dog. I was in pain for one minute out of five. I was not suffering.
Josh dropped me off at the emergency room entrance and parked the car. I went inside, declined the wheelchair, and walked over to admitting. Josh came in while they were asking me questions and checking my insurance. A nurse came down to escort us to the maternity ward. They showed us to Room 2, where I was told to undress and put on a gown to wait for the midwife. When she arrived, she checked my cervix.
I was dilated 3 cm, which was exactly what I had been that morning. They told me I was probably not in labor, that this was just cramping caused by the membrane sweep. I could wait a couple hours and they'd check again, but really, I ought to just go home, take a Tylenol, and go to bed. Dejected and embarrassed, I did. I felt like a moron, and I was still in pain. But I had been told that it was not productive pain, just pain.
Thus began my suffering.
I went home, changed into pajamas. Josh moved the TV from the living room into the bedroom so we could watch March Madness. I lay in bed but did not sleep. I threw up the PBJ and Tylenol. The pain sharpened. I paced, I rocked, I sat, I stood, but nothing helped. As the contractions worsened, I concluded that if this was not labor, then I was not going to be able to stand actual labor.
My wounded pride told me many lies. It told me that I was stupid for thinking I had been in labor before. It told me that I was still not in labor, and I should be able to handle this. It told me that if I went to the hospital now, they'd just give me a Tylenol and send me back here. Labor was causing me pain, and my ego was making me suffer. I cried out, shaking my head, "I can't do this I can't do this."
Finally, five hours after we'd left, I told Josh to take me back to the hospital. If this wasn't labor, well, I still needed medical attention, because something was happening to me.
The second trip to the hospital was remarkably different. Josh had changed out of his bow tie. I only changed out of pajamas into essentially different pajamas because there was vomit on the first set. I didn't call or text anyone on the way, but instead moaned. When he dropped me off at the door, I sat down immediately in a wheelchair that was parked outside and shivered in the cold until he got back. Being admitted was quicker this time because they still had my information, but I was much less helpful. When the nurse came to get us this time, I'm sure she thought, now that lady is about to have a baby.
When the midwife checked me this time, I was at 9 cm. I would have pumped my fist in the air and shouted "TOLD YOU SO" but I was busy shaking and moaning. She told me to moan in a lower register, to direct the sound down. I don't know if that is real science, but it helped. Or maybe finding out that my pain was productive helped. I was no longer suffering. Josh told them that I had said something about an epidural back at the house. The midwife said we could do that, or we could just go ahead and start pushing this baby out. The epidural would make things take longer. I said let's do this.
Somehow, in ten hours of birthing class, I never picked up that pushing a baby out takes hours. Birth videos and sitcoms alike edit that part down. In the movies, it takes three pushes tops. I'm here to tell you that it takes many, many pushes. It took me two hours of pushes. A contraction would come, I would PUUUUUUSH for a count of ten, let out my breath in a scream and then do it again, and again before finally collapsing as the contraction ebbed. In between, I lay there as if dead, out of my head with exhaustion and pain. I was there and yet not.
Two hours of pushing sounds like a lot, and it is, but pushing was a million times better than not. This was something I could do to fight back. In those seconds where I would get my breath back to start a new push, the pain was crushing. So I pushed back.
In the movies, they say, "I can see the head!" and then whoosh! the baby is out. No. That baby's head was just chilling out in my vagina for a half hour, easy. The midwife said I could put my hand down and touch it, which I did, and it was too weird. They wheeled a mirror over so I could see. I thanked them and asked them to take it away again.
Time goes strange in the delivery room. There was a clock on the wall, so I could do the subtraction and tell you how long it had been. But it felt like minutes, and it felt like years. I counted time by the signs that the midwife was preparing for the delivery. The nurse wheeled in a table of instruments. Part of the bed at my feet was removed. A ceiling panel was removed and a giant spotlight pulled down. A group of pediatricians arrived and began setting up in the anteroom in case of emergency. I could tell we were nearly there, but I had no concept of when it would be over.
So when at last, at last, there was a baby, it seemed oddly sudden. There was a little cry, and the pediatricians smiled, packed their things, and left. The midwife handed the tiny, wiggly, goo-covered person to me. The umbilical cord was blocking my view, so Josh had to tell me that I had a daughter. I had a Susanna.
I held my little girl while cleanup and damage control went on below my waist (so. much. blood). Josh took some pictures of the squinting new person, then emailed them to family. When the midwife and the nurses were done, they dimmed the lights and our new little family was left alone. Josh collapsed on the couch in the corner, but Susanna and I were wide awake. I held her to my chest, skin to skin. She made gentle snuffly noises and blinked in the light of her first day. I could've watched the expressions flicker across her tiny face all day. So it was you, I thought. It's been you in there all along.
I can imagine the scene at my parents' house when the email arrived. One of my mom's favorite things to do is tell people good news. I can hear her talking in excited not-really-whispers about her daughter's new daughter while my dad sings "Oh! Susanna." She told Grandmother and showed her the picture. Maybe she got to tell her a few times.
Someone sat with Grandmother all the time. She wasn't allowed to eat because of the danger of her aspirating it into her lungs, which would be traumatic. She couldn't even have water. My mom used q-tips to keep her mouth wet. Grandmother, forgetting, would say she was thirsty, and my mother, her daughter, would have to tell her she couldn't have a glass of water. Grandmother would ask if that was what the doctor had said to do, and then accept it calmly.
She was awake and lucid for a couple of days, as the parade of visitors came through. She'd tell the same stories over and over and then laugh at herself when she realized it. She got weaker. The hospice people gave her some morphine, so there was no pain, no suffering. She died early in the morning, three days after her 78th descendant was born.
I missed the funeral. I heard it was well-attended.
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. For Susanna, a time to be born. For my grandmother, a time to die. For mother and I, a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. It's jarring to process it at once: my grief while I hold my new daughter, my mother's joy as she makes funeral arrangements. Birth and death are not opposites so much as complements; we all have to do both to experience any of the things in between, hopefully with as little suffering as possible.