It was 1976 and I was 18 years old, married to my high school sweetheart – who turned out to be quite the misogynist, unfortunately. The pregnancy was emotionally pretty stressful. But in my heart, I believed in birth: I believed that my body was made to give birth, and my breasts were made to feed babies. So not only did I sign up for the childbirth classes at the hospital where I planned to give birth, I also bought the original Lamaze book by Elizabeth Bing – and studied it and practiced all the massage and breathing techniques diligently.
I had been told that my “due date” was September 26. Perhaps it was because my glucose tolerance test result came back “mildly diabetic,” it seemed to be very important to my doctor that I NOT give birth early. I began to give close attention to my food choices, and by the time I reached 37 weeks, with “diabetes” controlled by diet alone and no signs of impending labor, he seemed to relax and shift gears into expecting me to be a couple weeks late – “as most healthy, first time moms are.”
September 26 came and went, with not a whisper of labor. The whole week passed. October 3 was an absolutely gorgeous day. I remember thinking, “This would be a great day to have a baby.” Nothing. The next weekend, we were planning to move. For whatever reason, I don’t remember worrying about the alternatives: move when I’m “a hundred months” pregnant, or with a brand newborn. As it turned out, I spent all day October 9, moving – not lifting heavy furniture, but organizing the kitchen, putting things away in bedrooms, setting up baby furniture. At 10:00 that night, I was exhausted – and my back was killing me. I told my husband, I just couldn’t work any more, and went to bed.
For the first time in my short life, I couldn’t get to sleep. The pain in my back was just getting worse. After two hours, I got up and ran a hot bath. After a little while in the tub, I started to feel a rhythmic pattern to the ache – in my back! Was this labor? I wondered. If it was, it definitely wasn’t what I expected!
I woke my husband, and told him what was happening. After another hour or so, we figured this was probably “it.” So I ate a plate of scrambled eggs and toast (as instructed in Elizabeth Bing’s book), and made our way to the hospital.
It was around 3:00a.m. when we arrived. I was admitted, and found to be about 3cm. open – great progress for a first time mom, so I was told. I had told the staff that I wanted to labor without drugs. They seemed fine with that, and left me to labor after hooking me up to an IV (lactated ringers) and the external fetal monitor.
Things started pretty well. Labor was progressing nicely: I was breathing just the way I’d practiced, doing my best to relax through contractions. The nurses would come in every so often to check my cervix, and commented on how fast I was dilating. I was encouraged, thinking, “I know I’m not at a Sunday afternoon picnic, but I can do this!” They even asked me – two or three times – “Are you sure this is your first baby?” I didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted. I just replied, “Yes – I’m sure. I’m 18. This is my first baby.”
Then once I passed about 6 cm., relaxing became a lot more challenging. There had been no suggestion to move around or get onto all fours, as one would expect with a baby in posterior position – which they had properly assessed. The Lamaze breathing was FAILING ME! However, I soldiered on as long as I could. Finally, a nurse pronounced me at 8cm.! “Woohoo!” I thought – I have somewhere between five and twenty minutes, and I’ll be pushing! (At least, that’s what the book said!)
Five minutes passed. Then ten. Then twenty. No change – “Whaaaat?? I should be pushing now!” Then an hour. Still no change. Then the external monitor either stopped picking up the signal from the baby’s heart, or there were concerning decels. Whatever the case, in my misery, they attached an internal monitor to the baby’s head – something I had learned they only would do in higher risk situations. So now, I was really scared – which increased my pain level all that much more. They gave me a few doses of Demerol, which just made me unable to articulate how miserable I was. Then an hour and a half. Then two. Still nothing. I couldn’t believe a human body could contain that much pain and misery and still be alive. Finally, after two and a half hours at 8 cm., the doctor came in and said he was concerned for the baby, and it was time to do a cesarean. And this little granola-crunching hippy-mama responded with, “Fine! Just get it done! Where do I sign?”
It seemed from that point on, things were going in slow-mo. The nurse who was shaving me from the top of my belly all the way down, seemed to be taking her sweet time. “I thought this was an emergency c-section with a baby in distress – can’t you go any faster?” I thought.
Finally, I was being wheeled to the OR, hitting a few expansion joints in the floor on the ride down. Upon entering the OR, I was introduced to the anesthesiologist at the exact moment that the quality of my contractions transformed. I found myself involuntarily pushing. This TERRIFIED me, as I had resigned myself to the idea that I would not be able to give birth. I screamed, “I’m PUUUUUSHING….and I can’t HEEEELLP IT!” The doctor looked over his face mask at me, and said, “Well then, go ahead and push!” The anesthesiologist, holding a mask in his hand, said, “I can give you something to take the edge off the pain…” “Give it to me!!” I shouted. As I took my first inhale, I heard the doctor calling for an incubator.
Well. It wasn’t a “take the edge off” kind of gas. It was a “lights out” gas. My last thought before losing consciousness was, “Oh my God – something’s wrong – why an incubator?” Then, nothing.
The next time I opened my eyes, I was in recovery with two nurses. My baby wasn’t with me. I didn’t know if surgery had been done or not. They saw me wake up, and said “hello.” I expected that they would be congratulating me on my new baby, telling me its sex (I didn’t know) and weight, and whatever else would make a new mom without her baby feel a little better. But they were pretty quiet.
So I asked, “Is it over?”
“Yes,” came the one-word answer.
“Did they operate or not?” “No, they didn’t operate. You did it yourself.”
“I did it myself?” I thought. “That’s funny – I don’t feel like I did it myself.” Since they didn’t just jump in and tell me the things I presumed they knew I’d want to know, I asked, “Well…did I have a boy or a girl?”
“You had a boy,” came the minimal answer. No congrats, no report on his state of health, nothing. I felt the fear starting back up where it left off in the operating room.
“Well…how much does he weigh?” I asked, timidly.
“Nine pounds, five and a half ounces,” came the reply, again, just the bare facts. Mustering up all my courage, I then asked, “Is he OK?”
“Oh yes – he’s fine,” they said. Whew! All that worrying for nothing! I was told he was born at 1:30pm.
I should interject here, that there was tension between my parents and my husband at this time, because we didn’t stop to call them before going to the hospital. Remember, this was before cell phones, and we didn’t yet have phone service to our new place. They were rather upset when the call they got was to say I had already been admitted to the hospital in labor. Petty, I know – but my parents’ resentment over feeling unimportant was stressful to me at the time.
After clearing recovery, I was wheeled to the postpartum ward, where I shared a big room with five other new moms. None of us had our babies. It was around 6:00pm, and I had still not seen my baby. My parents came to see me, of course, and the tension in the room was palpable. My mom really wanted to be happy, so she looked at me and said, “Oh, Anita, he looks JUST LIKE YOU when you were first born! He’s so beautiful – his head is so perfectly round…” My husband began describing his “big shoulders” and “skinny little legs.” I felt like I had been dropped into The Twilight Zone: These people, who were all mad at each other, were DESCRIBING to me the baby I’d had – I thought…
After they all left, a nurse finally pulled the curtain aside, and held up my baby – all neatly wrapped in a swaddle. Wow! He WAS so much cuter than I expected! His features were simply adorable. And yes, his head was perfectly round. “I paid for that round head,” I thought, only partly joking.
For the next three days, I tried putting him to breast every time I had him. Those were the days babies were kept in the nursery, behind glass. I could walk over and look at him whenever I wanted to, but only got to hold him every 3-4 hours or so. I’m so glad those days are over!
Anyway, every time he went to breast, he would gag. I was sure it was the Demerol, because I was quite nauseous, myself. They gave him formula and sugar water in the nursery, because that’s what they did back then.
When it came time for me to be discharged, he had never latched. My breasts were feeling the weight and density of voluminous milk – but he wouldn’t take it. We were a breastfeeding trainwreck, waiting to happen.
We drove home, new baby in arms – this was also before car seats were law. I walked into the house to find my mother-in-law there waiting. I went to the rocking chair, hoping to breastfeed. My mother-in-law watched as I awkwardly attempted various ways to latch him. After seeing that it wasn’t working, she said, “You know, sometimes it helps just to lie down to nurse, and let the baby do it himself.” I had never seen anyone breastfeed lying down, so thought it sounded kind of weird. But, SHE had breastfed four babies, and what I was doing wasn’t working. So what the heck? I was ready to try anything.
She took him, and walked me to the bed. She waited for me to get comfortable on my side, then placed the baby right at my breast. And whadya know! He latched right on, and started making up for lost time.
What a relief to know he could breastfeed – and what a relief to deflate my over-inflated breasts! I often wonder what would have happened (or not) had my mother-in-law not been there at that critical moment.
Really, I don’t have to wonder. After being a lactation consultant since 2006, I’ve seen what happens: Sadly, breastfeeding fails, just because the right help wasn’t there in time. That is part of what fuels my passion for this work.
There’s more to the story, but this chapter is already long. So I’ll stop here, with the promise to share some of the struggles in the early part of my motherhood journey, as difficult – and as unnecessary – as they were.
Love – Anita