by Christine Folan
Christine Folan is a married mother of two living in Southwestern Ontario. She is a high school English and Drama teacher for the French Catholic School board in her region. An avid reader, she is trying to instill a love of fantasy, adventure and mystery into her children by making them lovers of books and stories.
Although I did not use a midwife or doula for the birth of my children, I feel that I have a story that can resonate with mothers who have been judged or discriminated against since their children were born via cesarean section. I also feel as though young or inexperienced mothers may be able to relate to my story since my first childbirth was somewhat traumatic, caused in part by my own lack of knowledge and affirmation.
I had never questioned or truly reflected upon the Hollywood representation of labour and childbirth until my own son was born. Why would I ever have reason to doubt that the breaking of a woman’s water would signal immediate and powerful contractions? Why would I have reason to wonder whether it was realistic for women to push for five minutes, only to successfully deliver a clean(ish), plump, and gurgling baby?
When I finally delivered my son, he was skinny. He was blue. He was quiet.
My story is one of the happy ones, the lucky ones. Doctors and nurses quickly worked to revive my baby while my husband looked on, feigning an easy and casual expression even when I managed to get myself together long enough to ask him why the baby wasn’t crying. I had been huffing gas like it was oxygen and had been in active labour for almost twelve hours. I was strapped to a surgical table, hands out to my sides and my insides out to the world. My husband told me they hadn’t yet removed my baby. I believed him and allowed myself to fall back into the cloud of medicinal haze and unconsciousness.
I am not a petite woman. I have no ass to speak of, a trait that both of my children seem to have inherited, but one would never suspect that labour and childbirth would not be possible for my body. I had hips. I had large breasts. I looked like a baby maker.
And then my body refused to cooperate and my child almost died inside of me. While my husband struggled at my side to keep his composure and to keep me calm, I couldn’t help but picture those women I had seen on television and in films. They would stop suddenly, mid-sentence, and then look down comically. The camera would follow their gaze to a tiny, neat puddle on the floor between immaculate, white sneakers. The mother would then be held under her arms while she waddled to a wheelchair or to the backseat of a car, only to be delivered of her baby moments later. My contractions began 72 hours before my baby was delivered. No cute puddle for me. It would come hours later while I struggled on a hospital bed, arms straining and pulling against the metal bed rails as I pushed.
My husband and I were sent home from the hospital twice before we were finally admitted. I should have fought. I should have advocated for myself. Instead, I thought of those ridiculous and screaming women from television and thought to myself, “It’s fine. I can do this. I’m strong.”
Twenty-four hours after my contractions began and after being sent home twice, I vomited in my bathtub from the pain. My mother helped to clean me up and washed my hair like she did when I was a child. My husband drove me to my OBGYN, who gave me a shot of morphine and then sent me home to get some sleep. I hadn’t even begun to dilate. Finally, roughly forty-eight hours after contractions had begun, I was finally admitted to the hospital, where I traded my sweat-soaked maternity clothes for the rough blue cloth of a hospital gown.
After four hours of pushing, I repeated “I can do this. I’m strong,” when the doctor who assisted my delivery had me sign a waiver that would allow him to use forceps and protect him should anything go wrong. My signature contained mostly legible letters.
After more unsuccessful pushing, another waiver. An emergency caesarean section.
My signature consisted of an upper case letter followed by a wave. My hand was shaking so badly I could barely hold the pen.
The anaesthesiologist on call was away and had to be summoned. More waiting. My doctor leaned in and told me to stop pushing while we waited. My body, no longer my own, kept up its frantic rhythm of contract and push without my allocation or provocation. I’d been sucking down a gas that would, according to my nurse, help to alleviate the discomfort. I couldn’t tell you its name to save my life. I was exhausted. I was just as much in the audience as I had been at home on my couch, watching thin women with beautifully curled hair bring forth their babies on TV. My hair was stringy. I didn’t wash it for another three days.
I made small talk with a nurse who sat at my side during the procedure. I knew her mother. My mind rejoiced at the change of subject.
The doctor went to work and very quickly I felt the change in pressure, the sudden and visceral empty that overcame me when my son was lifted from my body. But the silence was wrong. Babies always cried immediately after delivery. They were brought, fat and suckling, to their mothers. My baby, the weight that had been living beneath my ribs for the past nine months, was suddenly gone. Only he didn’t appear at my breast like some cherubic apparition. He was taken away somewhere. My husband mentioned that he was curious and would follow the baby. It wasn’t until a few days had passed that he admitted that he had seen our son’s blue and limp body but hadn’t wanted to alarm me.
I continued chatting with my nurse about her mother while he was resuscitated.
When I think back on the birth of my son, the word that comes to mind is lucky. I was lucky. My husband was lucky. My son was lucky.
The forceps had left a mark barely an inch from his left eye.
His skull was bruised from the incessant pressure and beating it received from my pelvic bone.
He was quickly revived thanks to the hard work and determination of an amazing team of healthcare professionals. Not all babies are so lucky.
When they finally brought my boy to me, wrapped in a blue hospital blanket, my first thoughts were that he looked like a potato. The next thoughts were that I now had no idea what to do with this tiny human they had handed me. I didn’t know him.
My faithful television and movie mothers had led me to believe that these first moments, the first time that I held my child, I would be overcome with love for him. I would cry. I would kiss his tiny face and feel my heart swell. All I felt was tired, empty, and thanks to the aforementioned gas, dazed.
The most powerful feelings I felt those first few days were fear and anxiety. Everything and anything could harm or kill my baby. Worse, I still didn’t feel as though I loved him. I wanted him safe and secure, but I didn’t know if I felt bonded to him. I wasn’t overcome with a blinding joy; nor did I hear a crescendo of angels when I looked at his sleeping form.
What they don’t tell you in television and films is that childbirth is not practical, or neat, or conducive to a well-structured plot line. It is unpredictable, it is messy, and it can be very difficult to advocate for yourself since it can be so difficult to truly work out what you are feeling and experiencing. My doctor was young and new to the game and so was I. We waded through our inexperience together and came out the other side as victors. When I was pregnant with my second child, I went back to him.
We planned my second section during one of my first prenatal visits. My husband was completely supportive of my decision since he carried his own scars and trauma from my son’s birth, painful and frightening scenes that have etched themselves into a place in his mind I cannot conceive of or even really understand. I watched myself going through the steps of labour and delivery as if I were an outside observer. So did my husband, although his experience wasn’t clouded by a foreign numbness as mine is whenever I try to think back on it.
While pregnant for my daughter, I allowed myself to make decisions that I had never entertained during my first pregnancy, and I refused to read or to listen to mothers (and fathers) who argued that a caesarean birth wasn’t the real deal. That it didn’t count.
It’s the coward’s way out.
It’s not a “natural” birth.
My son is alive today because he was lucky. The only thing unnatural about his birth is that his mother was such a passive participant. I hadn’t really known what to expect because even though my husband and I had done the birthing class, even though our mothers had shared their own stories, even though friends had warned us as to what to expect, I had been inundated with the falsified and pretty images that flashed from my screen. These unnatural expectations had seeped themselves in so deep that they lived undetected until the moment I began my own birth story, and they swarmed to the surface. I do not regret my epidural, and I am not ashamed that I needed help managing my pain. As far as I know, my hospital does not hand out medals to women who complete their labours and deliveries without the help of drugs.
What I do regret is my passivity, that I allowed myself to become a bystander to what was happening. I do not pretend to know better than the medical professionals who helped me, but I do know my body. I knew that something was wrong with it, that it had been somehow defeated. I should have thrown the forceps waiver back into my doctor’s face and screamed that he cut me open and take out my baby. But who wants to be the hysterical and screaming mother?
When my daughter was born via a planned section, I was alert. I was aware. I was prepared.
She came out screaming for the both of us.
She made sure she was heard.