I have just revised the account of my post partum experience in 1971 and reposted the chapters in order. This means that all my recent posts are related to that topic. If you are interested in the subject, I hope that what I have written will be useful. If not, feel free to move to the “uncategorized” track of this blog for poems, memoirs, humor, and opinions.
In January of 1971, I experienced a postpartum episode. While the most common mood change after the birth of a baby is depression, I swung in the opposite direction—up and up into mania and psychosis.
Many things have changed since 1971, including hospital policies, birth preparation classes, the wide array of anti-psychotic drugs, and, to an extent, a better understanding of the effects of childbirth on new mothers and fathers. There is even a more accurate term for the varied responses to childbirth—“peri-partum mood and anxiety disorders.” Yet as I have been reading more contemporary accounts of this experience, I have realized that in the last four decades, we have not come as far as one would hope.
A couple of years after my first son’s birth, I wrote a lightly fictionalized account of the experience. I made a few attempts to publish it and then stuck it in a file folder that eventually came to live in a box in the attic. Recently I have been encouraged to share my story. I edited the manuscript (originally composed on a typewriter) and began posting it in sections on my blog site. (As a result, the chapters were appearing in reverse order). I have now re-posted the chapters in chronological order. I hope my account will be of use to other women and their families. For those who experience mood changes during and after pregnancy, I heartily recommend the help that can be found through Postpartum Support International at http://www.postpartum.net/
I confess that I do not altogether like the twenty-five-year-old woman revealed in this account. She is so self-obsessed, so caught up in resentment and rivalry with her mother. Her feelings toward her baby—sometimes repressed, sometimes not—are terrifying. But I have resisted the urge to make my younger self less offensive. As Joan Didion reminds us in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” “I think we are all well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”
I have changed most of the names of those involved in my story, except for my remarkable psychiatrist Dr. Wilmer Betts, to whom I am forever grateful.
I woke one morning feeling lighthearted. I stopped to consider for a moment. Should I raise the window and throw a pillow out? That would be a message to the outside world: “Cushion the shock.” But the screen was in the way, and I had heard the February wind outside all night. I decided against it.
In the bathroom I thought about flushing a washcloth down the toilet. No.
I decided to use some of my energy to rearrange the things in the dresser and on the desk, to sort them into new stacks. My life would be completely different now, and everything must reflect the change.
I slipped past the baby’s room without a glance and came down the steps. “Mother,” I warbled. (My mother was bustling around in the kitchen.) “Mother, could you help me sort some things out?”
Mother stopped moving. Then her tight face broke into a smile. She had misunderstood my question. “Of course,” she exclaimed too jovially. “Here, let me get the calendar.” She took from a nail by the telephone the UNICEF calendar I used for keeping up with appointments and engagements. Mother clutched it and moved with tight, quick steps across the room to the place where I stood. I stared bewildered at what I recognized as my own hand-writing in the small squares of the calendar.
“See,” Mother prompted. “Here’s the day you went to the hospital. This is the day you came home. I got here the next day. David was two weeks old yesterday.”
I took the calendar and sat down on a kitchen chair. Two whole weeks. Gone. Two weeks of my baby’s life, those important early weeks, which I had wanted to unfold as perfectly as possible, and I had missed them, lost in my private ecstasies and terrors. I stared at the calendar as if it might magically give me back those lost days.
“Has Stewart gone to work?” I asked my mother.
“Yes, he had to get ready for that wedding at the church. But he’ll be back for lunch. He’ll be so glad you’re feeling better.”
“And is David all right?”
“He’s just fine,” said Mother, with a spurt of artificial cheeriness that made me cringe.
“I’m sorry,” I almost sobbed. Sorry for deserting my post. Sorry for leaning on you. Sorry for giving you this pleasure.
“Don’t worry now,” said Mother. “See what you can put together.”
I continued to sit with the calendar. I decided to settle for mental sorting, since that was the task that had been thrust upon me. But where should I start? I would have to go further back than the night of David’s birth. I looked at what was written earlier in January. In the square for Thursday, January 14, were the words “Childbirth Class.” That would be a good place to begin.
Ed and Diane Lawrence were best friends with my husband Stewart and me. The four of us had arrived in Raleigh about six months before—the Lawrences from Korea with the Peace Corps, Stewart and I from Atlanta. Diane and I were both pregnant. The Lamaze classes we attended, along with three other couples, became a social occasion for us.
If we hadn’t all been so earnest, we surely could have seen how ridiculous we looked. Each of the five women, exceedingly pregnant, arrived at the teacher’s home carrying a pillow for use in doing the exercises. We all looked as if we were wearing pillows, too. We lay on the rug in her unfinished basement room and practiced tensing and relaxing on command.
“Why is it that after one of these meetings I always feel like I’ve been to a coven?” Ed asked one night.
Diane giggled, a little embarrassed.
“A coven?” I asked. “You mean like witches?”
“Yeah. You know, the enthusiasm, knowing the secrets everyone else in society has missed, the fanatic battle with doctors over drugs and delivery rooms closed to fathers.”
“I see what you mean,” I responded, although I hadn’t thought of it that way before. But in 1971, Lamaze classes were relatively new in the US and brand new in North Carolina, the whole notion of trying to minimize the use of drugs during delivery was a novelty, and the only hospital in Raleigh where babies were delivered had an iron-clad rule banning fathers from the delivery room. That would all change within a few years, but at this particular point in time, we felt as if we were on the front lines of a cultural battle, almost the way we had been when we had marched for Civil Rights and against the war in Vietnam a few years earlier.
My husband Stewart, a Presbyterian minister, did not agree. “You’re exaggerating,” he said. “The Lamaze teachers are just excited about something they’ve experienced and really believe in. They’re frustrated with the conservative medical establishment here.”
Our Lamaze instructor, Sis Mizell, was a nurse and a psychiatrist’s wife. She had two young children. I couldn’t see calling Sis a witch, but she was something of a fanatic about prepared childbirth. Sis showed us charts and diagrams and taught us how to breathe during the various phases of labor.
“Let’s review now,” Sis had said earlier in the evening. “The first stage of delivery has three phases. During the first phase the cervix effaces, or flattens out, and dilates to three centimeters. Husbands, here you begin to time the contract.” She drew a diagram of the rising and falling breaths during a contraction. Her blue eyes sparkled. Her tone was very definite. This was exactly the way it would be: one, two, three.
“During the second stage,” she added, “you may experience some discomfort—notice I didn’t say ‘pain,’ just discomfort. Don’t listen to other women talk about the ‘pain’ of childbirth. With proper training, thirty per cent of all women have no pain at all; the rest, only some discomfort. Above all, don’t go to see movies like that horrible one with Katherine Hepburn screaming all the way through it. What was the name of that picture?”
“A Farewell to Arms?” I asked. (I had read the book but not seen the movie.) I had never felt real physical pain, having made it through childhood without a toothache or a broken bone or surgery. So I didn’t really know what they were talking about.
“Yes,” said Sis. “Horrible movie. Anyway, in this second phase you may accelerate to panting as the contraction builds, then decelerate. Like this.” Here the up-and-down curves in the diagram developed jagged little teeth.
Sis went on. “The third phase, you recall, is the hardest. During transition use your fast shallow breaths, and blow out if you feel the urge to push. Husbands, remember that your wife may feel persecuted and tired. Wives, you may feel as if you just can’t make it. You may call for drugs or just want to go to sleep. But remember, this only lasts a short time, and then the baby’s almost here.” She clapped her hands like an excited child, and we took it all in.
In her lecture on drugs, Sis pointed out the disadvantages of each method. Of the caudal, the local anesthesia most widely used in area hospitals, she could only say that sometimes bladder function was slow in returning and you might have to be catheterized. (She made that sound horrible.) It was clear to us all that to be really successful you had to make it all the way through the delivery without anesthetics.
The babies of various members of the class were delivered, and the husbands came back to the group to report. Ed and Diane’s baby arrived before Christmas, and Ed came to tell the class about the experience. “If this was just discomfort, it was pretty severe,” he insisted, “like the intestinal cramps of cholera we had in Korea.” But along with the others in the class, I was already too de-conditioned to heed the warning.
Why had Stewart and I decided to approach the birth of our first child with the new-fangled methods of the “coven”? I was abysmally ignorant of anatomy and physiology, and I wanted to understand as much as possible about what was going to happen. And having always excelled as a student, I believed that the best preparation for anything involved getting the most up-to-date information.
Stewart and I had talked to friends who were ecstatic about their experiences with this form of childbirth. “It was the most incredible, wonderful, terrifically joyful, sexual, sensual, loving times of our lives,” according to one Christmas letter we had received. A little offbeat and very satisfying, something to talk about (maybe brag about)—this method seemed to offer me a way to make childbirth an achievement. And I had been trained from childhood to collect achievement medals any way I could.
Also, Stewart very much wanted to be a part of the birth experience. He had felt rather left out of the pregnancy. This life he had engendered was growing quite separately from him, in my body. Through the classes and by coaching me during delivery, he would be included this life-changing event.
Sis was working toward full accreditation as a Lamaze instructor. Because she was required to observe several births, she had asked all the members of our class to call her as soon as we left for the hospital. She would just watch silently, she explained. Since no one was paying a fee, Stewart felt that we should invite her to come with us. I was hesitant, although I could never quite say why. This was supposed to be a shared experience for my husband and me. The doctor would be there, of course, but I didn’t think I wanted Sis there, too. Besides, Sis had such a strong personality and so much authority that I was afraid of getting railroaded by her. I was pretty sure I couldn’t yell or scream of ask for pain medication with Sis in the room. But I swallowed my feelings of foreboding and agreed.
All the Fridays on the calendar said “Dr. Eagle.”
Unlike Ed and Diane, who had chosen to have their baby in Raleigh, where no fathers were allowed in the delivery room, Stewart and I were determined to find a way that he could be part of the experience. Through Sis we located a doctor in Chapel Hill, an hour away, who encouraged the presence of fathers during labor and delivered babies in a hospital in the nearby city of Durham.
Dr. Eagle was handsome and did not appear to be much older than I was at age twenty-four. I heard that he had been a teacher in the university medical school before starting his private practice in 1970, so I thought he must know what he was doing.
Everything about his approach was up to date. Even the routine forms he asked me to fill out at my first appointment seemed geared to the Woodstock generation. Along with the normal questions about medical history, his patients were asked about previous abortions and about recreational drugs—marijuana, LSD, etc. “No,” I checked. “No.”
There was also a family history section, which included a question about birth defects. I could only think of one. My mother’s brother Lawrence had been born with a cleft palate. Mother had told me that her parents simply could not make up their minds to risk an operation early in his childhood. Finally as an adult, he had undergone surgery—a procedure that was very painful and less successful than it would have been when Lawrence was younger. I entered the words “one uncle—cleft palate.”
The words “infant mortality” appeared next to another blank space in the family history. I knew that my father’s mother had borne a healthy son who died suddenly when he was a week old. He stopped breathing in the middle of the night. My father had not yet been born, but he remembered the stories his mother told him when he was old enough to understand them. “Your grandmother heard the night nurse saying, ‘The baby, the baby.’ She thought at first that the nurse was talking about her two-year-old daughter, your aunt Elizabeth. For a moment, she had forgotten all about her new baby boy. He was dead. He would have been named for your grandfather. That’s why we gave his name to your brother James. In the space I wrote “one uncle—Sudden Infant Death Syndrome” (a term that probably did not exist when that baby died nearly sixty years before).
The family history section did not ask about more distant generations, but I remembered my grandfather’s book of family history. Many of the men had two or three wives, the earlier ones having died in child birth. The family cemetery was littered with tiny markers: “Infant daughter of Legaré and Ellen Walker, 1877” and larger ones: “Ellen, beloved wife of Legaré Walker, 1852-1877.”
Dr. Eagle treated me differently from other OB-GYNs I had dealt with or heard about. In the 1970s, these doctors were usually very paternal in their relationships to their patients. They gave lots of orders. They scolded women about gaining extra weight during pregnancy. (A few years later, they would switch to urging women to gain more weight, but either way, the doctors lectured us.) Perhaps since their role was to assist at a function that only women could perform, they tried to take charge of as much of it as possible.
The doctor I had seen in Atlanta, before moving to Raleigh, was a good example. He thought nothing whatsoever of this business of letting fathers in on the childbirth experience. They might faint or otherwise distract the doctor and clutter up the delivery room. But he grew rhapsodic in describing motherhood. “It is one of life’s great mysteries,” he had exclaimed, “the way a new mother tenderly cares for her helpless baby and loves him before he can love her.”
Dr. Eagle was different. He seemed to respect women. He thought I could be in charge of my own diet and weight. He wore ordinary clothes instead of a white coat, and once when I told him that I liked the striped shirt he was wearing, he blushed and muttered, “My wife gave it to me.” Dr. Eagle did not present himself as an authority with answers to every question.
And I did not have to ask for much information. It was a calm, uneventful pregnancy. I had no morning sickness, no backaches. I loved wearing maternity clothes. (In that era, we wore loose-fitting garments. They were comfortable, but if they were meant to disguise our condition, they did not succeed.) I liked having the hollow spaces of my body filled with growing life. And the baby’s kicks and movements were a secret pleasure.
The only complication at all was a recurrence of the asthma that had afflicted me since childhood. During an appointment one rainy day, Dr. Eagle was alarmed. “That breathing sounds terrible,” he said. “We don’t want you to get emphysema.” He sent me across the street to a lung specialist who prescribed Tedral—at the time a common treatment for asthma. (I did not investigate the side effects, which are now known to include dizziness, drowsiness, and depression but also overexcitement, anxiety, insomnia, anger and annoyance, as well as hallucinations). The drug made breathing easier, but it also made me tense, and I had a hard time sleeping. I used it as little as possible. Sis suggested that I might take some when I went into labor, to make all those breathing changes easier.
In the last month before my due date, I made the hour-long trip to Chapel Hill each week with Polly Potts, another woman from the Laze class. For our convenience, Dr. Eagle scheduled back-to-back appointments for us. Polly had worked for years as a secretary, but since the birth of her first child two years previously, she seemed to have no other interests besides her children and elementary biology. “My little Susie can say anything now,” she told me. “The other day we were out in the car and she said ‘Airplane.’
‘There’s no airplane, Susie,’ I said, but she just kept saying, ‘Airplane, airplane.’ Finally I noticed that on the side of the truck in the lane next to us was a picture of an airplane. My Susie doesn’t make a mistake.”
I heard such stories every week, all the way to Chapel Hill and back. Included were detailed accounts of little Susie’s potty training and of Polly’s bladder and bowel functions as modified by pregnancy. Polly Potts never talked about a book or even a television program. She never asked a question. Whatever changes motherhood makes in me, I thought, I will not let it take over my whole mind. I will not turn into someone like Polly. I made myself a solemn promise.
Dr. Eagle was painfully shy and could never be matter-of-fact about doing internal examinations. He put them off as long as possible. Then, even with the nurse present for propriety, he blushed as he probed gently. He apologized if it hurt at all. He was sorry, but he had to see if I had begun to dilate.
On Friday, January 22, he checked again. “It could be any time,” he said. “Are you ready?” It seemed as if even in these circumstances I was being allowed to make my own decision.
I hesitated. The pictures were not yet hung in the room we had set aside for a nursery. I still needed to write scores of thank you notes for shower gifts. “I suppose,” I muttered.
On the way home from our appointments, Polly Potts was furious. “Do you know he wouldn’t even check me today?” she fumed. “Said I’d be a couple of weeks more at least.” Polly Potts was ready. She had all the diapers folded and waiting for the new arrival. She resented the delay.
That day when I began to “sort things out,” I scanned the calendar for other clues.
Thursday, January 21 said “Read thesis. Interlibrary Loan.” I was amazed to recall what I had been capable of before my traumatic introduction to motherhood. I had taught high school English for two years after my marriage—one in New Jersey and one in Georgia. Then I had finished the course work for my master’s degree. Since moving to Raleigh, my main agenda, besides getting curtains made and hung and otherwise creating a home in our new house, had been to finish my thesis on the novelist Harold Frederic. The hand-written manuscript was now complete, lying in a box on the sun porch, waiting to be typed. I had spent that Thursday in January, which would turn out to be the day before my son’s birth, reading microfilm of an unpublished thesis on Frederic that was widely quoted by the authorities I had consulted. I had found little additional information, but I had corrected my footnotes to quote this thesis directly, rather than citing someone else’s quotations.
I really had no right to use the Interlibrary Loan Service at North Carolina State University. I wasn’t a student there. But the librarian had gone out of her way to help me. With the baby already dropped into launching position, I’d had to lean back in my seat as I turned the knobs on the microfilm machine and read and read, racing against time.
I flipped back to the December page of the calendar. “Lawrences here” was an entry in early December. That would be when Ed and Diane came over to help with the pictures for the baby’s room. Stewart and I had found some wonderful fabric at an outlet store—bright primary colors and pictures of zebras, lions, tigers, elephants, lambs, hippos, and rhinos in bold geometric designs. Ed carried in the cumbersome overhead projector from his school, and we traced the projections of the rhino, hippo, and elephant onto canvas and colored them with crayons to make bright wall decorations for the room that would be the nursery. Ed helped us make the wooden frames to which we would staple the canvas. The project took a whole afternoon and evening—fun for us all, but were we taking advantage of our friends? The Lawrences always seemed to end up doing more for us than we did for them, I thought.
It was easier for me to get the nursery ready than to imagine a baby living in it. I could think forward to the moment of birth, but I had a hard time concentrating on what would happen afterwards. To prepare myself a little, I had gone to some child care classes sponsored by the Red Cross—every Wednesday evening, according to the calendar. Stewart had begged off. “I can’t give up another night of the week,” he protested. “You know I need my evenings for church meetings and visiting prospective members.” So I went alone. All the other members of the class came as couples.
We practiced bathing and diapering with rubber dolls and learned to do the “kite fold” for the cloth diapers we would be using. (Pampers were only for times when we would be away from home with our babies.) We were also given instruction in two methods of sterilizing bottles, but I paid little attention. I was planning to breast feed my baby, which would mean I didn’t have to worry about bottles.
It had made me a little uneasy to know that meanwhile, in Kentucky, my mother was taking baby care classes, too. “I just told them that I’m a perspective grandmother, brushing up on my skills,” Mother had written in a letter to me. Sis and others advised me, “If your mother comes to help, let her do the household chores. You take care of the baby.” Weighing this advice, I’d been able to see a struggle in the making. I had no idea that I would ever be in such a state that both the baby and I would be utterly dependent on my mother.
On January 13 the calendar said “Nursing Mothers Meeting.” I’d gone to a meeting of the Nursing Mothers of Raleigh with Polly Potts (the woman who rode with me to doctor appointments). These women were as intrigued by elementary biology as Polly was, but they seemed only to be interested in breasts and nursing. There was some of the same “coven” atmosphere in this affiliate of the La Leche League, as there was in the Prepared Childbirth/Lamaze group and there tended to be overlaps in leadership of the two organizations. One woman proudly demonstrated how to sew invisible zippers in dress darts to make nursing easier. Of course, the little metal tabs hung down like tassels, but what did that matter? Several women brought their young babies and hauled them up to their breasts during the meeting. The general message seemed to be that nothing—inverted nipples, painful infections, a doctor’s suggestion to start solid foods, teething—nothing should stop the devoted mother from nursing her child. I took notes on the advice and brought home a book to consult. I wanted to try breast feeding, but in a more discreet, matter-of-fact way. I didn’t want to join a crusade for nursing. I had secret doubts that my tiny breasts would function adequately. It would be a delightful validation if they did.
January 11, “2:00 PM, Dr. Betts.” Throughout the three and a half years of our marriage, Stewart and I had visited various marriage groups and counselors. Stewart thought that most people needed help to make their marriages work, and he wanted ours to work. I did, too, but this seemed like yet another instance of turning to experts for help with something that should come naturally. But, Stewart argued, in addition to any help we would get with our relationship, in his first job as an associate minister, it would be useful for him to consult another professional on problems he was encountering with church members. So we had kept our first appointment with a psychiatrist who had been recommended to us, Dr. Wilmer Betts.
Although he planned to see us as a couple, for the initial interview he spoke with us separately. Dr. Betts was bald and plump, and his eyes, which could twinkle, were mostly kept hidden as he took careful notes. I ran over a list of goals for myself as Dr. Betts occasionally looked up and nodded. “I want to be more in touch with my body,” I said. “I’d like to be warmer, more affectionate. I need to know how to be more on the giving end of things, not always taking like a selfish child. I’d like to be more comfortable just being myself, not having to prove myself all the time with my accomplishments.” At the very end, glancing at my enormous stomach and laughing nervously, I added, “Oh yes, I need to learn about being a mother, too.”
Dr. Betts stapled his pages of notes. “All right,” he said. His voice tipped up after each phrase as if it were a question. “Very well? We’ll start our appointments later? After the baby comes?”
I knew nothing about how to buy clothes and other equipment for a new baby. Fortunately, my friends had helped me out. On Friday, January 8, according to the calendar, I’d attended “Shower—Mrs. Johnson.” The senior minister’s wife had invited various women who were active in the church to attend a baby shower. This was probably a tedious obligation for many of them, I realized. “Haven’t you bought any clothes for the baby yet?” asked one woman in amazement. “Are you planning to send Stewart out to buy diapers after you get home?”
We played silly games like “Baby Bingo” and “Fill the Carriage.” But the gifts were pretty and practical. Someone gave me a crockpot, so that I could prepare dinner before the late afternoon hours when a baby was likely to be fussy. Anne Dickens, a lovely woman I had only met once before, gave me a cart for sorting laundry. Amid the silly surface chatter, Anne told me, “I have eleven children, so I’ve learned a lot. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we’ve planned. If you run into any problems, call me.” I could tell that her offer was serious.
Mrs. Johnson, in her hostess role, asked each woman to sign a book of advice before leaving. Most wrote little suggestions like “Rock your baby as often as you wish.” Stewart’s secretary, trying to disassociate herself from the trivial aspects of the evening, refused. “I don’t need to write anything down,” she said. “I know everything. And pretty soon you will, too.”
The other baby shower wasn’t on the calendar, because it had been a secret. Ed and Diane, too, had been worried that the baby would arrive to find no clothes or infant seats or other amenities. Although by now they had a tiny baby boy of their own, they told Stewart they would host a surprise shower for us. It wouldn’t be a “hen party” like Mrs. Johnson’s. The men would be invited, too. Stewart gave them such a big list of potential guests that the party would never fit in the Lawrences’ small house. “Do you want us to rent the Dorton Arena?” asked Diane. Luckily, another couple on the guest list volunteered to host the party at their large home.
Not knowing where Stewart wanted to take me that evening, I had insisted on cleaning up our kitchen before we left, so we were late. When we arrived, we found the church musician playing special entrance music as each couple arrived and was playfully announced. When we came in, everyone shouted “Surprise!”
I opened the mountain of presents, more than any three babies could ever need. I was overwhelmed. I was also depressed by the thought of the task of writing fifty of the kind of personal, chatty thank you notes my mother had taught me were required.
After a while, the older couples left. The rest of us stayed and danced. I even managed to dance to a few slow numbers, although I couldn’t stand very close to anyone. “Come on, show us some of those childbirth exercises,” someone teased. When I refused, another woman acted out the sudden at-home birth of her second child by pulling a doll out from under her dress.
I couldn’t know at the time how each birth is, in its own way, a surprise.
Labor did not proceed according to the information we’d studied in the Lamaze class. (Neither did anything else that happened that night.) The contractions started two minutes apart. Stewart and I managed the long distance calls to Dr. Eagle’s home and office, and we finally located him at the hospital. “Come on,” he said.
Then Stewart called Sis, our Lamaze instructor, who had asked if our class if she could come observe our deliveries as part of her certification. Sis was overjoyed that she could get a babysitter for her two children and join us at the hospital in Durham. I flew around the house doing silly last-minute things—looking for the belt to the dress I wanted to wear home, arranging things for Stewart’s meals while I would be gone. I took a tedral for asthma as Stewart pushed me out the door.
When we checked in at the hospital, the admitting nurse could not locate Dr. Eagle. Stewart explained that the doctor had been at the hospital earlier when we called. “That young man has a thing or two to learn,” fumed the nurse. I was furious. Who was this nurse to refer to my doctor as if he were an unprepared student? But the nurse’s remark had created a crack in my confidence in my young OB doctor.
The hospital found Dr. Eagle and Sis arrived—all at the same time. And the pace of my contractions slowed down.
Dr. Eagle didn’t exactly seem to be in a hurry, but he didn’t seem to feel like waiting around all night either. After an interval with little progress, he said, “Let’s break your bag.” He reached inside, and I suddenly felt an unbearably large quantity of very warm liquid rush out. Someone came in and changed the bed linen. I felt embarrassed about the mess, as if I had had a childhood accident in the night. And wasn’t this supposed to be a natural delivery with minimum interference? Still, I could hardly object to speeding things up.
Stewart was now wearing a hospital gown and mask. They weren’t the antiseptic white of the doctor shows on TV, but more of a slime green in color. I thought he looked comical. He seemed a bit helpless when I began to hurt, especially in my back. “Back labor,” said Sis, quickly abandoning her role as silent observer and pushing my back with her fists. I could hardly resent the intrusion because Sis’s sharp fists were so good at pummeling the pain.
With Sis working so hard behind and Stewart sponging my forehead and timing my breathing, I could be pretty passive. It was as if I were hiding in some dark corner of my body, while other people kneaded me and brightly gave encouragement. I thought of riding waves at the beach, lying very still and letting the ocean carry me in.
Then Dr. Eagle came in and checked me and said, “You’re almost fully dilated. You can start to push now.” And he left.
“It feels so good when you can begin to push,” Sis had told us in the Lamaze class. “They put you on the table, you have your feet in stirrups to push against, and it’s great finally to be able to do something to help the baby be born.”
It wasn’t like that at all. I wasn’t on the table, I had no urge to push down with my body, and when I did push, the pain was unbelievable. Sis and Stewart and the nurse kept encouraging me: “Oh,that was a good one.” “Just a little more now.”
Stewart was feeling the need to record the experience. In those pre-cellphone days, he was snapping pictures with his camera, and he had turned on the tape recorder. “No more pictures of the pushing part,” I said. Sis thought this was hysterically funny, but for heaven’s sake, this was not some media event. Here I was, hurting in a way I’d never even known was possible, and Stewart was taking photos for the family album. He was physically here in the delivery room, but he was certainly not sharing the experience at all.
Dr. Eagle came in again and said, “You’ll be ready to move to the table in ten more pushes.” Then he disappeared.
At that point, I wanted to call the whole thing off, but of course I couldn’t. What I really wanted to do was scream, but I was too embarrassed to do that with my Lamaze instructor standing there. Sis thought it was odd that I was having these “transition” reactions at this later stage. Perhaps my body wasn’t quite ready for the pushing. Or perhaps I had held the baby all these months and was not ready to let go and empty myself.
I still had faith in Sis’s earlier assertions about the delivery process. Maybe when I got on the table everything would be all right. I summoned all the energy I had left. (In spite of Stewart and Sis’s exclamations of encouragement, I hadn’t been pushing very hard.) I bore down, this time as hard as I could. Then I thought I felt the baby’s head popping out.
“The baby’s head is out,” I shrieked.
“Now, now,” soothed the nurse. She took one look and rushed out to find the doctor. After a few minutes, Sis rushed out to find her. Now, when Stewart and I needed it least of all, we were on our own.
Stewart stood helpless and silent. Where was the doctor? I was sure that the baby must be dead. I lifted my head and shoulders just enough to peer down, and I saw a tiny finger move. I began to whimper as the nurse returned. When the bed rolled at top speed down the hall, it felt like flying.
Dr. Eagle came in, looking a little sheepish, and eased the baby’s feet out. That part of the delivery felt only slippery to me. “You have a fine boy,” he said.
It had all happened too fast. The unexpected pain of pushing, the horrible fear that the baby was dead, guilt about pushing too lightly and then too hard, anger that everyone deserted me when I needed them most, and now joy for a healthy first-born son—all these emotions hit at once, unsorted. My bond to my baby was lost in the crush.
Finally, they lifted me from the bed to the table. I glanced weakly at the mess of blood and liquid on the sheets. What time was it? Just about midnight. How would they even know which date to put on the birth certificate?
“I didn’t have an episiotomy,” I said. (In our childbirth classes, we had been taught to avoid this procedure if possible. Maybe I had done one thing right.) “No,” said Dr. Eagle, “you tore. But we can stitch that up.”
Stewart and I had decided on the name David if the baby turned out to be a boy. While I was being stitched up, the nurse had done what she needed to do, and Stewart was now holding David, tightly wrapped in a blanket. Now Stewart held David to my breast to nurse—the way it happens in the childbirth movies and magazine articles. David was not interested.