I had been living in the Alaskan interior since May 1977, my husband stationed at Fort Greeley. Our location was so remote, we got overseas pay. The climate was significantly colder than Fairbanks, which was in what they called “the banana belt.” “The banana belt” went around us. We were in “the cold pocket,” where the military did its northern warfare training and cold regions testing. What an adventure, huh?
Some time in 1978, the military lost its obstetricians in the area, so all pregnant personnel and dependents were referred out to local civilian providers for care. I was happy to get a doctor in Fairbanks (about 100 miles away) who was well loved and respected by several of my civilian friends. We dutifully made our monthly, then bi-weekly trips to “the city” (such as it was) for prenatal appointments. Shopping at JC Penney was an added bonus;-).
At a prenatal appointment around 34-36 weeks, as I reclined to allow the doctor to listen to fetal heart tones, his eyes grew visibly bigger as he looked at my huge belly. “How big was your first?” he asked. “9lb., 5 oz.” I answered. He took a moment to palpate my swollen belly, and said, “Well, this one’s going to be bigger. I would say it’s at least 10 lbs now.” After a little pause, I said, “I have at least another month to go. Do you think I’ll be able to do it?”
Now, understand: I was 21 years old at the time. I believed in birth, but I also had way more trust in doctors than I do now. If he had said, “No, I don’t think it will be possible. Schedule your cesarean at the desk on your way out,” I would have done it. But he didn’t say that. He said, “Well…we’ll see.” And that’s all I needed. If my doctor was willing to wait and see, so was I.
Fortunately, my estimated due date was June 9. The weather would be good, we could be pretty sure. And for the last month, I could go for weekly checks at the little clinic in Delta Junction.
At church on Sunday evening, June 10, I went to the bathroom, and found that my mucous plug had dislodged. My husband was on duty until morning, so I told a friend of mine who was an EMT (emergency medical technician) what had happened. Thinking labor could start momentarily, she went home, cut her nails, and then came over to my place to “babysit” me until either labor started or until my husband could come home. While we were hanging out, my parents drove up in their camper. They had driven all the way up from Sacramento to the middle of Alaska to be there for the arrival of their second grandchild. (I knew they were coming, just didn’t know exactly when – remember, this is all waaay before cell phones.)
After introducing my parents to my friend, she went home, letting me know that if I needed her to make the trip up to Fairbanks, to just call. I thanked her, and she went home. No labor.
June 11, no labor. June 12, I took my mom to a women’s club on post. No labor. June 13, a few contractions, but faded out. Same on the 14th. On the 15th, we did some shopping, and I had to pause from time to time, as I felt my belly tighten and the pressure on what felt like the top of my femurs. This baby was so big and heavy, I wondered if I would literally explode before going into labor!
Around dinner time, I noticed that I’d had about six noticeable contractions in an hour – more than ever for that amount of time during the whole week. And they seemed to be getting longer, stronger and closer together. I figured I should go to the clinic and be checked.
Results: 3 cm dilated. “Yup, I think you’re doing it,” said my doctor, who was on clinic duty for the weekend. “Go ahead and make your way to Fairbanks.”
So we went home, packed our bags and made the 100 mile drive over permafrost-highway, checking into Fairbanks Memorial at about 8:30pm. My parents also drove up in their camper, and took care of my son, then about two and a half.
I was hoping I’d be at least up to six cm dilated after a 100 mile drive, but alas, the verdict came in: 4cm. I was issued to a room, and pretty much left alone, other than occasional blood pressure checks and the like.
Now a quick note about my frame of mind during the pregnancy: It was generally much more positive than during the first pregnancy. However, there were no childbirth classes available. So, I would spend a lot of time reflecting on my first experience, and contemplating the fact that as long as I wasn’t scared, labor wasn’t really that bad. When I got scared, it became unbearable. Since I still believed in birth, and still believed that what happened the first time was…unnecessary and unfortunate, I would tell myself, “The harder it gets, the more I’ll relax…the harder it gets, the more I’ll relax…” over and over. It became my mantra. I would practice tightening one arm and relaxing the other, then tightening my whole body, then relaxing it deeply.
So as my labor intensified, I would focus on relaxing my arm. I was watching the clock until about 10:00pm. Then about an hour and a half later, my nurse suggested a shot of Demerol, “because you’re tensing up a little at the apex of your contractions.” I didn’t feel like I needed anything, but I was focusing so much on my labor, that I didn’t want to argue with her. I was really grateful that she was staying with me, when she was supposed to be off work at 11:00. I’m pretty sure she wanted to see how big this baby was!
So at about 11:35, I got a shot of Demerol, which made me fuzzy-headed. About 10-15 minutes later, I was taken to the delivery room (in those days, different than the labor room), and at 12:09a.m., it felt like my femurs were literally “unhooking” from my hip sockets as I pushed out my baby. When she saw my belly basically collapse, the nurse who stayed past her shift to be with me exclaimed, “Look how small you are!” I thought that was kind of funny, because all that jiggling belly-skin didn’t look very small to me! But I definitely FELT lighter.
Anyway, they took her immediately to an examination table. Within seconds, I heard “It’s a girl!” I was absolutely overjoyed! After a few seconds, a nurse said, “She’s not crying, but she’s fine. She just came out and started breathing!” And after another minute, I heard someone say, “Eleven pounds eight ounces!” Whaaaat? Did I hear that right?? Then in a few minutes, they brought her to me, all swaddled (something I would change if I could do it all over again). I was shocked at how big she really was: Her complexion was very dark red, she had lots of black hair, and her cheeks were so chubby that she couldn’t open her eyes – so she actually looked a lot like a Sumo wrestler! Oh, but I was instantly in love! I could feel her sweet, quiet spirit.
Those were the days when babies stayed in the nursery and were brought to mothers on a schedule. The first night, they brought her in for her 1:00am feeding, and she just couldn’t wake up. They were trying to wake her, but she wasn’t having it! I asked, “Why don’t you just let her sleep?” The answer was that babies need to eat frequently (which is true, but I think they just weren’t taking into consideration that this baby was the size of the average two-to-three month old).
After a couple of days, I realized that I had never heard my baby cry! I asked the nurse, “Does she ever cry in the nursery?” “Oh, yes,” came the reply. So I did something revolutionary for the time: I asked them to bring her bassinet into my room so she could stay with me. For one thing, I kind of knew in my heart that if she was crying, it was because she wanted to be with me. And, I really wanted to know what it sounded like when she cried. Since there was no reason NOT to let her stay with me, they did. The child never cried – nothing was wrong, she was just always content.
On days 2-3, her bilirubin went up a bit, which is normal, but can bear watching. Because I lived so far away, I wasn’t discharged until the fourth day. The day after getting home, while she was asleep, I decided to take a hot bath. A few minutes after sinking down into the tub, I heard her start to cry. My immediate impulse was to jump up out of the tub and go get her. But then it dawned on me: she’s actually crying! I’ll just listen for a minute or two, and then go get her. She whimpered a little, for just a few minutes, and then…stopped. On her own! I couldn’t believe it! Her brother would have ramped it up and up and up until he was in a delirious sweat, or until someone came to get him, whichever came first. And this girl just whimpers for a few minutes, then goes back to sleep?! I just hit the baby-lotto!
Some say that newborns are a “blank slate.” Clearly, they’ve never had one of their own. They are born with very distinct personalities that begin their formation at conception. Current research bears this out: A baby’s developing brain and nervous system are profoundly influenced by the mother’s physical health AND emotional state during the pregnancy. I can’t prove it, but my experience lines up with this. I was much calmer and more content and at peace during my second pregnancy than the first. And I was completely blown away at how little she cried, and when she did, how easy it was to comfort her.
She stayed that way until she hit puberty. But that’s a whole different post!