Two weeks before I gave birth to my second son, I was wrapped up under a blanket on my couch – eyelids heavy and a beleaguered throw pillow between my knees – listening to a guided meditation track specifically designed for those of us terrified by surgery. I took slow breaths. I did not think about needles or internal organs. My heart beat at a steady rhythm. Everything was going to be great.
For my entire pregnancy, I’d had a low-lying placenta stubbornly situated 1.4 centimeters from my cervix. According to my doctor/midwife practice, and approximately one million Internet message boards (yes, I read them all), such a placenta would make a vaginal birth too risky to attempt. After several weeks – er, months – of denial and terror, I’d made a kind of peace with the situation, downloaded Peggy Huddleston’s surgery prep MP3s, ordered those really soft C-section recovery underwear, pored over an Instagram account featuring harrowing yet beautiful pictures of gentle cesareans, and decided I wanted Johnny Cash playing in the operating room when the surgeons got down to business.
A week later, an ultrasound technician took one last measurement of my jerk of a placenta. I dubiously watched the TV screen in the cramped exam room, scraping ultrasound jelly off the edge of my t-shirt. Then, I noticed a number. Two. Then another. 2.14. 2.05. Things, I realized, had shifted. My placenta had somehow moved the requisite two centimeters away (though the tech betrayed not an ounce of surprise or hopefulness, well-trained tech that she was). Four days later, my OB popped breezily into another exam room, where I braced myself for the news that I had grossly misread the ultrasound or that two centimeters was still too close for comfort or that now there was some other good reason for me to not give birth the way I had the first time. “So I saw the scans,” the doctor said, waving a folder at me excitedly. “They looked great. Looks like you’re good to go for a vaginal birth!”
“Okay!” I said to my grinning doctor. Okay. Okay. That was when I yanked those invisible strings you yank when you know you’re supposed to be smiling but it just isn’t happening naturally. “Great! What a relief!”
It was then that I realized how I’d not only accepted what had originally been a bewildering twist in my birth plan, I’d gotten profoundly attached to the idea.
Okay, I’ll just say it: I wanted a C-section. I wanted a medicated surgical birth. I was told I had to have it and so I had subconsciously figured out a way to want it with every fiber of my being. I couldn’t say this out loud though, not yet, I couldn’t even acknowledge it to my self. So instead, when the “good news” about my placenta came up with friends and family, I’d quickly add in, “You never know, I might need an emergency C-section! So, we’ll see, right?”
A week later, I was at last able to articulate the truth, to put into words what I really wanted this birth to be. Of course I happened to be lying sideways on a hospital bed, having rapidly dilated to 9.5 centimeters and also having halfheartedly turned down the epidural just a few hours earlier. But I said it. I finally said it.
“I WANT THE C-SECTION! I CAN’T DO THIS! GIVE ME THE C-SECTION!”
My first birth, three and a half years earlier, involved 24 hours of labor and concluded with some dramatic fanfare: the vacuum extraction of my baby after three hours of pushing. I’d opted not to have an epidural, as my overwhelming fear of needles beat out my fear of pain. And yeah, it hurt, but the whole thing moved like a car in midtown Manhattan around 5 p.m. (nice and slow), so I never felt out of my depth, never cursed out the universe, never imagined being anywhere but exactly where I was. At the end, even before my placenta had cleared the decks, I was making jokes. I felt a thousand pounds lighter, figuratively and literally. I couldn’t stop grinning. And it turns out that the elation I felt seeing my swollen son on the examining table across from me was a birth high that for me wouldn’t be replicated.
My second birth was, on paper, exactly what I wanted – before my low-lying placenta scrambled my brain. Again, I perhaps foolishly turned down the drugs. I went from four centimeters cm to 10 centimeters in less than four hours. I pushed for just 20 minutes. I left my apartment at 7:30 a.m. with manageable cramps and had a slippery baby on my chest by noon.
It was fast and straightforward and nearly without injury, but ultimately the whole thing felt to me like a rickety rollercoaster I had not wanted to get on and could not get off of. Turns out that what looks good on paper is not necessarily relevant when you’re on hands and knees on the floor of the triage room, barking at the nurse "No, there is simply no way I will be able to stand up and be wheeled to the delivery room. SORRY."
I wanted to believe – don’t we all – that there was a perfect birth for me and, if I played my cards right, such an experience was mine for the taking. But even if that’s true, which I doubt, what does a perfect birth ultimately mean? Does it ensure a perfect baby, a perfect toddler, a perfect mother child relationship, a perfect life? Seems unlikely!
As I write this, I wait for my nearly four-week-old to wake up at any moment, obliterating this perfect chunk of writing time I’d so carved out so carefully for myself. I wait, too, for him to start sleeping more than two hours at a time. I wait for my breasts to stop leaking milk at inopportune moments (like every time I leave the house without those bra pads in). I wait for the shape of my new life with two children to emerge in front of me so that I may know what to call it, as though by saying its a square or a triangle, it will suddenly make sense and be manageable.
It is my most recent birth that reminds me that while I wait for things to sort themselves out into what I want them to be, my older son is telling me a weird and incredible story about how to hide graham crackers in pieces of chocolate and my younger son is not screaming and my husband has procured dinner and we are all okay and together and that is in fact exactly and all I want.
It takes a village!
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