In brightest day, in blackest night

[A quick note here: The following is a truncated account of our labor and delivery. It’s very much from my point of view. I’m sure Erin will give you her perspective at some point but just know I’m skipping some parts to get at a specific narrative. [UPDATE: Erin’s posted something here.] Also “and then Erin had another contraction” would have gotten old by about the 457th time.]

Nothing about our daughter’s birth went according to plan. The original plan, that is. But plans are about choices made based on available facts. So whatever plans you make for your life ought to have room enough for change should new facts present themselves. Since we started trying to have a kid, new facts presented themselves often:

Fact: We’re having trouble conceiving children
Choice: Go get tested; try harder

Fact: Conception difficulties solved due to trying more frequently
Choice: Start rehabbing the upstairs so we have a nursery

Fact: We prefer a natural childbirth experience through hypnobirthing
Choice: Read, read, read; go to classes; hire a doula

Fact: Erin’s now-former OB-GYN didn’t care much for hypnobirthing
Choice: Find a lovely group of midwives

[By the way, if you need a doula, let me recommend Tricia Fitzgerald, our hypnobirthing doula. She is incredible and as you’ll soon read pretty much saved me from losing my mind during delivery. Hiring a doula – and Tricia in particular – was the smartest thing we did during our pregnancy and as a first time parent it made the whole experience much less stressful. Our midwives group, West Suburban Midwives, also comes recommended by me, especially Cynthia Mason who worked with us. As a former OU student, I chalk up Cynthia’s awesomeness to her Ohio upbringing.]

All of this is just to say our birth plans changed a couple times before our due date arrived. As it is, most due dates are guarantees of a change of plans. Ours was. We were five days “late” though Erin had off and on contractions that whole time. Eventually, we got to active labor around 9pm the night before we were ended up delivering. I figured the five-minute-between mark meant go-time but the midwives and the doula know from what and what involves a dilated cervix of 4 centimeters which our five-minutes-apart contractions are no sign of at all. Instead of spiriting ourselves to the hospital we spent some time birthing at home.

As with the rest of our pregnancy, Erin takes the lion’s share of the efforts: sitting on a large rubber ball to encourage baby movement, soaking in a warm tub to relieve birthing pain, squatting in various ways to let gravity do its thing. Meanwhile, I do many supportive husband things like offer encouraging birth prompts, massage her back and fetch towels. I’m eager to leave for the hospital – we’ve had the car packed for the better part of a month – but our doula counsels us that time spent laboring at home is far better than in the hospital triage unit. I’m quiet through most of this time. I’d been running birth prompts with Erin all weekend so I’m happy to let our doula take that role for a bit. Frankly, I think Erin’s tired of the sound of my voice and could use a break from associating it with abdominal pain. Plus, my usual coping mechanism – cracking jokes – got on Erin’s nerves pretty quick. So I shut up and go for the strong, silent partner routine.

Finally, we’re consistently 2-3 minutes apart. By now it’s 4:30am and we’ve been in active labor since 9pm the night before, nevermind the four days of off and on contractions prior to this and an incident two weeks prior that had us thinking our new plan would involve a medically-necessary inducement. Long story short: We’re finally ready.

Here’s where things started to unravel. Into the car we go with Erin on her hands and knees in the back, leaning over the baby’s car seat for support. With all my thoughts and concerns on Erin, I jump in and start a very cautious 40mph down 95th street with our doula following close behind only to remember through a sleep-deprived, adrenaline-fueled haze that I have not only forgotten to set our burglar alarm but I’ve also forgotten to lock the front door or even bother to close it at all. Yes, we were a quarter of the way to the hospital before I realized someone – anyone – could waltz right into our house.

Thinking about it a few days later, I know this was the moment when I let fear creep into my head. For months prior I’d been training myself mentally for this event, adopting Hal Jordan as the Green Lantern for my “spirit animal.” My life was about to change completely and I knew keeping my wife and unborn child safe would be too much to bear unless I could overcome fear. Jordan was called the greatest Green Lantern because of his ability to do the same. So in addition to reading books on pregnancy and a baby’s first year I’d been ritually reading Green Lantern comics for weeks and even carrying a small plastic Lantern ring as a talisman of sorts. I was up to the challenge. I’d be able to acknowledge the fear to overcome it, just like Hal.

Then I left that door open…how am I supposed to care for my wife and daughter if I can’t even close a fucking door? I can’t do this. I can’t keep my wife and child safe. I can make all the well-laid plans in the world but I can’t keep them safe…I’m going to throw up…

A frantic series of calls to Erin’s sister and mine follows before my sister says she can run over and put the alarm on. And, you know, close the front door. Problem solved inside of half an hour and the house is secure again but the fear keeps tingling in the back of my brain. Knowing how silly it seems even as I’m doing it, I quietly recite the Green Lantern oath over and over, mantra-like, to keep from barfing all over the dashboard as we arrive at the hospital and…I make a wrong turn and miss the entrance. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Get it together, Scott. I turn around and park at the entrance. Our doula – who I’m now more grateful for than ever – escorts Erin into triage while I park and grab our bags. I can’t make jokes. I don’t know how to deal with all of our plans changing…

Triage presents new challenges. We labored at home, according to our plan, but based on Erin’s condition – she’s making clear “I’m about to give birth” noises and is 8-9 centimeters dilated – the nurse and our doula are saying she might not make it into the birth center. We might be giving birth right here in the triage center.

Damnit! This isn’t right, I knew we should have left earlier. We shouldn’t have labored at home for so long. This isn’t the plan. Erin needs to be comfortable, this isn’t right. The baby needs to be safe in the birthing center.

I lose it. I start crying. Not so much because of the fear – but boy is it there! – but because I look at Erin and see how amazing and strong she is. The contrast between the woman in front of me and my inner turmoil is striking.
She’s been in active labor for half a day and having contractions for days before that but she isn’t complaining, she’s focused on the goal and I realize I have married the most amazing woman in the world.

Gathering my mental faculties together for her sake, I learn we have enough time to get into the birth center and we get settled. The way everyone’s been talking about this imminent birth I assume we’re minutes away from seeing my daughter’s face but things seem to be progressing slowly. We get Erin into the bathtub to relieve some of the pressure and the midwife arrives. She checks Erin and says she’s…8-9 centimeters dialated.

And so plans change again…

We spend all of Monday morning in the birthing center trying everything we can to move the birth along. Turns out the baby’s head is pointed down but at an odd angle – there’s a term for it but I forget it now – and can’t get past Erin’s cervix. We try different positions, we try the bath again, we try reducing her cervix, nothing. Erin takes it like a champ and keeps apologizing to everyone for everything because she is from the Midwest and that is what we do. Her physical strength astounds me. I didn’t get to see Erin run the half-marathon last year but here’s the proof in front of me that she was up to the challenge. Meanwhile, the pain on her face is enough to make the fear creep back in my gut. I start crying again which makes Erin feel bad.

“I’m sorry you’re so upset, baby,” she says.

Oh nice, Scott. Give your actively-laboring wife something else to be concerned with. You’re supposed to be the tough one in this relationship. You’re the one who overcame fear, remember?

Then I feel the Lantern ring in the front pocket of my jeans. I put it on my finger. In my head I start thinking “I’m Hal Jordan. I am capable of overcoming great fear…” I know this probably means I’ve gone off the deep end but I don’t care. For my wife and child’s sake, I need to recognize this fear to overcome it. I’m going to shut that fucking door now.

“I’m Hal Jordan. I am capable of overcoming great fear…”

I look at my wife and see a woman who, despite being in the worst pain of her life for the past 12 hours, can take the time to console me. I remember who I am. My eyes dry. My head clears.

Then the plan changes again. Our doula, who prefaces what she is about to say with the words “I’m the last one to suggest this kind of intervention but…” says we’ve done everything we can to labor naturally and it’s time to think about some medical assistance in the form of pitocin to move things along. Erin looks up at me and I know what she’s thinking. This isn’t how we planned for things to go. What’s this going to mean? I take Erin’s hand in mine and tell her she’s done everything she possibly could. “You’ve done everything right. You were perfect.” We remind each other that this birth wasn’t about avoiding medical intervention but was about us making the best possible choices based on the facts at hand. And the facts said it was time for some help.

At this point in the story, the pitocin should have done its job, Erin should have given birth and all should have been well. But it didn’t. The pitocin intensified Erin’s contractions but still didn’t get us any further along than 8-9 centimeters. A couple hours later our midwife suggests Erin’s body is probably too tired to give birth right now and we need to give it a break. And an epidural. Erin and I look at each other again. Not according to the plan…but we make an informed decision and say yes. As the anesthesiologist arrives Erin says to me “You might not want to watch this.”

Me: What? Just because a guy cries all morning that makes him some kind of wuss?
Erin: Well you just seem a little sensitive this morning.
Me: I’m over that now.

The epidural allows Erin to take a nap. She and the baby are still healthy so there’s no reason to rush. The doctor ups the pitocin and we wait. But nothing happens. So finally we talk and decide a C-section is the only possible option. In terms of hours spent, Erin’s labored three times over by now. She and the baby did all they could. All the same, a C-section just wasn’t in the plan. It’s the first time in days I see Erin look scared. But after all she’s been through she knows she’s up for it.

Things move fast after that. Within an hour Erin’s in the delivery room and I’m sitting beside her in an outfit that looks like I’ll be leaving immediately after for the international space station. In fifteen minutes, I see the doctor holding a quiet, purplish body and my mind flashes to the APGAR test. Quiet and purple aren’t the ideals. I wonder if…no…everything’s going to be fine. We’re safe. Seconds later, I hear a baby crying and hear someone say “She’s pinkening up.” I turn to Erin and say “That’s our girl.”

Her name is Abigail Grace. Born February 28th at 523pm. Not according to plan, but right on time.

***

It’s two days later as I’m writing this and Erin’s been asleep with Abigail dozing on her chest. We went through our first night of near-constant feedings and diaper changes. I learned what it feels like to exchange sleeping through the night for a disconnected series of naps. I’ve watched Erin and Abigail breastfeed from their first few minutes together like they’ve been doing it their whole lives. And I was reminded again of all the reasons why I love Erin and am so grateful she’s my wife. I know there will be more challenges and difficulties to come but right now everything’s perfect.

Our daughter is amazing. Watching her figure out her little world is the best. I’m not wild about hospitals and I’ve been sleeping in a chair for two days but this little bunker of ours is full of love and wonderment and it rules.

As for my freakout, I’m almost glad it happened now. We had plenty of support around and it helped me make peace with something on my mind for weeks. I had to experience a taste of the fear, a bit of the poison so as to fashion an effective vaccine. Fear is just part of the plan.

Post-script: Our daughter is now four days old. One of those days involved Erin and I losing any confidence in ourselves due to bad-but-well-meaning advice and the fear of being bad parents, which I’m sure I’ll write about at some point. Luckily, we seem to have moved past that and gotten back to trusting our instincts. Everyone we’ve talked to says that mindset is better than a thousand books or tips from old vets. [UPDATE: Erin’s written about some of the difficulties of the last couple of days here.]

6 comments for “In brightest day, in blackest night

  1. March 5, 2011 at 2:02 am

    You guys are just amazing. Sending you both so much love. What a lucky girl Abigail is.

  2. Andrea Scott
    March 5, 2011 at 2:05 am

    Erin and Scott – am so happy for you.. Scott, what wonderful words and spirit you have. Love to you both!

  3. March 5, 2011 at 2:05 am

    Congrats, Scott. Your birth story is so similar to ours, but at some point you have to give up on the plan and do what works for your family — I've learned that over and over again as a parent.

  4. March 5, 2011 at 4:44 am

    Foodmomiac: What you need to send is yourself over here for that Manhattan-making contest.

    Thanks, Andrea!

    Beth, these last few days have been driving this point home. Throw out the plans and do what works for the family.

  5. March 5, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Wow, a wonderful story written from a husband and daddy point of view of childbirth! Congrats to you and Erin on a beautiful baby girl… enjoy the ride!

  6. Amy
    March 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    As a fairly recent first-time mom, I loved reading about this from a guy's point of view. So awesome. You guys rock. Congratulations!

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