Here Nicole shares the story of her firstborn son. Despite the traumatic nature of her experience, Nicole’s storytelling is full of humor and her perspective is inspiring.
In 1991 I was in graduate school in Washington DC, living in a dorm. My boyfriend Ross was still in Washington State, but came out to visit over spring break. Becoming a mother wasn’t part of my plan for the immediate future, but I was more than okay with the idea of having a family, being part of a family. Fortunately, so was Ross. A few weeks after my twenty-fourth birthday, and after Ross had returned home, I walked one night to the closest pharmacy, which was in a sketchy part of town, and bought two pregnancy tests (on sale!) and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream. My room was at the far end of the second floor across the hall from the men’s bathroom. The women’s restroom was about a hundred miles away at the other end of the floor. I remember walking down the hall with the two (two!) positive pregnancy tests tucked into the oversized pocket of my blue bathrobe past the open door of the kitchen. I paused a moment because I heard Darth Vadar’s voice on the television. John Tesh was interviewing James Earl Jones, and a picture of his son was on the screen, just a little guy at the time. Tesh asked him if he wasn’t a little old to be starting a family. I wish I could remember the answer—I only remember that it was gracious and loving. And consoling. I ate the whole pint in a single sitting and then walked back to the store the next night for another.
Those first months of pregnancy I felt a little funny about food, but didn’t have morning sickness at all. I was focused on finishing the semester and returning home, and making a wedding happen, and buying a house. It was a lot of major life change in a short period of time, so I was lucky to have a very easy pregnancy. My only complaints were one migraine, and, after eating too much chocolate chip cookie dough one evening, I vomited. I also had a terrible burning in my tummy one day. I remember calling the nurse in distress, not knowing what was happening to me. “Honey, that’s what we call heartburn.” Oh!
I was set on having a woman doctor, thinking that would be ideal, and I found one. But we just had one miscommunication after another, and I was too young and immature to realize I could fire her. When I called to set up an appointment, I was told that the doctor didn’t typically see the patient until twelve weeks, but they didn’t offer me a time. So at twelve weeks I called, and made an appointment for many weeks out, the first one available. When I went in, I was scolded for not coming in sooner, and the doctor suggested I was in denial about the pregnancy. She was also highly annoyed that I didn’t have even the remotest guess about what my pre-pregnancy weight was. Really, really annoyed. It was unfathomable to her. I didn’t own a scale and didn’t grow up in a house with a scale—my step-mother, bless her, thought that it was unhealthy to fixate on those numbers. On the whole, I felt indignant and shamed with that doctor, but didn’t express my concerns or stand up for myself. I did a much better job advocating for my unborn child; I had a long chat with a pediatrician whom I liked and trusted, and who would not pressure us toward circumcision if I were to have a boy.
We were living on Vashon Island at the time, and it is only accessible by ferryboat. We called the fire department and let them know our name, address, and due date, which was standard operating procedure if you were planning a birth in the city. We dutifully enrolled in a childbirth class, which was unhelpful. (But I enjoyed the Monday night dinner in town at our favorite pub, a refurbished fire station.) I felt the class was geared toward training us to be compliant patients, although we were encouraged to write a birth plan, which felt empowering to me.
The only other concerning moment during my pregnancy was when my doctor sent me in for an ultrasound because “the measurements were wrong.” The ultrasound technician kept bringing in more people, and they all seemed concerned, but no one was talking to me. It turned out the baby was breech, but I didn’t find that out until the next doctor visit. Later, during my second pregnancy, I learned that a midwife would have been able to tell that the baby was breech by looking at and feeling my belly. Except for the tape measure and blood pressure cuff, I don’t think my doctor every touched my body. Fortunately, that baby righted himself before I went into labor.
I had a regular appointment on December 17, the day after my due date. I was in pre-labor, evidently, although I don’t recall anything about it, or why the doctor sent me over to the hospital from the appointment. The hospital sent us home. Well, they urged us to stay in town in a hotel, not to take the ferry home, but after a cozy meal at Knapp’s Diner, I wanted to sleep in my own bed. The next morning we got ready to go to the hospital. I had a bag already packed. But again, I don’t recall one single thing about being in labor. I believe my water broke, but, oddly, I can’t actually say for sure. I don’t remember pain, but of course I must have been having contractions. We took the nine o’clock ferry in, and were checked into the hospital by ten. It was a week before Christmas, and the staff was having a noisy party outside my door, lots of laughter, and that irked me no end.
I brought along my birth plan, but the first nurse on duty snorted in its general direction. At some point during the day, Darla, the only kind nurse I encountered, started her shift, and checked to see how I was progressing. She was Canadian, and pronounced “centimeter” with an “ah” sound in the first syllable, sahnt-imeter. She said it gently, but I was discouraged: “I don’t know who told you that you were at three centimeters, but you’re not.” I was offered “something” to help with the pain. “Something” was Stadol, which was supposed to “take the edge off,” but it completely knocked me out. I slept a long time, aware of labor, but not caring. When I woke I was put in the bathtub, but was so dopey, I couldn’t cope with the noise of the Jacuzzi jets. Somehow they sounded like a train, and I was convinced there was a real train nearby, close, coming toward the hospital, coming to run down me and my baby. I was also very concerned about being sucked down the drain of the tub. On the whole, a very bad trip.
When the drug started to wear off, I was in a great deal of pain, but was too zonked to be able to cope. I was still sleepy from the drug, and each contraction would wake me with searing pain. At one point, a nurse came in and held up a bundled Asian baby with a shock of black hair. “Tomorrow,” she said, “you’ll have one of these.” I’m having an Asian baby? How is that possible? And not until tomorrow? What the hell? I was completely confused and distressed.
By this time it was dark, so perhaps about 4 or 5 in the afternoon. A nurse came in and called for an epidural. I heard her on the phone: “We need it now. She’s losing it.” Even in my drugged state, I knew I was not losing it. I had not cried or made a single peep. I felt insulted, and, worse, like I had somehow failed. I only realized much later that maybe this was the only way to get the anesthesiologist moving on over. Maybe. My friend Hollie had arrived, and a friend of Ross’s, Nancy, and after the epidural, they were excused to go get some dinner. Fortunately, Hollie stayed behind. No one had checked to see whether I was dilating.
I fell asleep again, and then woke myself with the hiccups. Suddenly I was on high alert—I remembered that hiccups were sometimes associated with transition. I called the nurse, and she grudgingly checked me, and then snapped to: “The baby is crowning.” So my husband and our people were called back from dinner, and the nurse called the doctor. There was some confusion then, because the doctor lived across the Narrow’s Bridge in Gig Harbor, and she said she needed to “cross the bridge” to get to the hospital. She meant the sky bridge between the hospital and the medical center, but the staff thought she was driving in from home. It took a while, but they cleared that misunderstanding up and kept me busy with “practice pushing” while we waited.
Everyone seemed amazed that I was ready to have this baby after such a short labor, eight hours. I was confused. Afterwards I wondered why I was roped into getting an epidural, one I only got to enjoy for maybe half an hour. I wondered if I would have been able to cope after all, if someone had just checked me and explained we were almost there. But with that talk about “tomorrow” I’d felt doomed.
After the doctor arrived, and my dead legs were hoisted up and held by various spectators, I gave about three almighty pushes, and with the help of a massive episiotomy, out he came. There he was, with his dear little face. Not a generic baby, but this particular little person. I reached down to touch him, and his body was hot, and he grabbed my finger. Reflex or no, it is astonishing and miraculous to feel that pressure, those tiny fingers holding on, tight-tight.
They whisked him away for a tidy, and I delivered the placenta. The doctor was surprisingly heave-ho about it, which surprised me. I asked to see it, and a nurse held it up for me, but the expressions on everyone’s faces were so very disgusted, I felt, again, like I’d done something wrong, and I was ashamed of my curiosity.
He was “just a little guy,” six pounds, twelve ounces, born on the 18th at 1818. The nurses thought that was a terrific little coincidence, “and six plus twelve is eighteen.” I didn’t care about the numbers, just his beautiful perfect self.
I think the Stadol must have given me the munchies, because I was positively starving. I’d missed lunch and dinner. Finally a nurse brought me something, at about 9pm. I will never forget what was on that plate: grey “meat” with gravy, canned green beans, and fake mashed potatoes. I’d just brought a human being into the world, and this? This is what I get?
We were woken at midnight to change the sheets and the mattress on the birthing bed. We were woken at 3am so I could be escorted to the bathroom. We were woken at 6am to have my blood drawn. I couldn’t fall back to sleep, so I got up to find some ibuprofen, and was chided for getting up and was sent back to my room. During one of those nighttime operations, I looked over to see Ross asleep on the roll-away cot, with holding that tiny bundle on his chest. In the dim light from the bathroom, I could see Ross’s dark hair and beard, and the pale tiny face of that impossible, beautiful baby.
Much later I heard Sheila Kitzinger interviewed on an NPR call-in show. Someone phoned in to say that a hospital birth was “better” than a homebirth because you “get more rest,” which is something I heard often, and still hear. Ha! Rest! After all that activity in the night, for the remainder of the day we were ignored, except when the pediatrician came to check the baby, and when a nurse brought me a slip of paper where I could “order” my breakfast. She laughed and said, “Go ahead and check off anything you want. They’re just gonna give you whatever they want.” At one point Ross went out to find food, but there wasn’t much available around the hospital. I remember he brought various things, including an apple, which looked delicious, but was mealy. Maybe I was still freaked out by the drug, but my disappointment was profound.
I really wanted to leave as soon as possible. I was hungry and felt out of place, like I was a burden on the staff. We were told that we had to name the baby or we would not be allowed to leave. “It’s illegal.” (It actually is not.) I remember as we walked out past the nursery feeling so sad, thinking, “Oh, those poor mommies and daddies who have to take home those ugly, ugly babies!” (For diplomacy’s sake, we say that was the drugs talking.) We decided on a name, caught an evening ferry, and were home by dinnertime.
Our birthing class instructor had said once that it “didn’t matter how they got here” because you’re getting a baby at the end. A baby! “Healthy baby, healthy mom. That’s all that matters.” I think we say this to reassure women who have c-sections that they have not “failed.” But I felt at the time that was wrong and inane, and still do. Being treated with dignity and respect matters. Being in a safe environment matters. On paper, I had a textbook birth, but it was not a positive, empowering experience. And I know women who have had emergency c-sections who did not come out of their experience feeling as scathed and damaged as I did. In my family narrative, hospitals are not a safe place, and I brought that baggage with me, which meant I didn’t really have the tools to deal well with the jerks—but really! Should we have to work so hard to advocate for ourselves, for simple civility? Later, after I transferred to Seattle University to finish up my graduate work, I was very fortunate to find an excellent therapist who helped me to unpack the whole humiliating mess. And while a less-than-ideal birth experience probably didn’t help to create a positive, healthy bond between my child and me, I don’t feel that ultimately our relationship was damaged or hindered.
He was a sleepy babe—probably the drugs—but after he woke up, was a champ with the nursing. He doubled his birth weight by twelve weeks. And although she said it with a smile, I did not appreciate it when at my six-week appointment my doctor called my baby “a little piggy.” At my very first post-partum appointment, and I don’t know when that was, at one point she told me she’d done a fun run three days after her daughter was born. And when I asked when I’d stop bleeding, she said, “Well, I bled for three months.” I later wondered whether there might not have been some connection. She also prescribed birth control pills (“they’re perfectly safe when you’re nursing”), which I decided not to take. I distinctly remember that she had her hand on the doorknob as we were talking. (“Is that something they teach you in medical school,” I jokingly asked a doctor friend of mine once.) I never went back.
I did learn how to advocate for myself, found an excellent caregiver, and when I was ready for another baby, planned a home birth. I am not “against” hospitals, and I no longer feel resentful or hurt or bitter about my experience, but I do feel strongly that, for myself, a hospital is low on the list of places I would choose to enter or exit this beautiful world.