I moved from Texas to Colorado in August, seven months pregnant. My husband’s health had declined to the point that there were days when he could not walk from the bedroom to the living room—he couldn’t breathe well enough for that much exertion.
Finally, a week and a half overdue, I gave birth to my fifth baby, 9lb 14oz, 23 inches long, no drugs. The hardest part? He was my first hospital birth. I’m unreasonably averse to needles, doctors, hospitals, and “procedures,” but a hospital birth was the only thing covered by our Colorado insurance.
I went in armed with a birth plan but scared to use it—afraid that having one would offend someone. Tension between myself and a medical professional is worse than a needle. So I brought the plan, but I hid it.
Then I encountered Nurse Bulldog. She was stern and abrupt. She demanded information rather than asking questions. And then she asked if I had a birth plan. I stuttered. I stammered. I reasoned with myself that if I didn’t want to give it to her, I didn’t have to. If I didn’t want to use it, I didn’t have one. Technically. But I can’t lie. I finally told her that I’d brought a birth plan, and I’d hidden it.
She stopped typing and looked at me to see if I was serious. Perhaps my husband cracking up in the corner was what gave me away. She wanted to see this birth plan, to see what was so awful about it. She was amused, intrigued, human.
I gave it to her, still withholding the fact that I’d brought three copies, just in case. She read it and agreed to it, insisting that none of it was too demanding, insisting that they were there to help me.
From there, things got stranger. I’d written that I didn’t want continuous fetal monitoring so that I’d be free to walk around, get labor going, all the things I was taught in my natural childbirth classes. I’d only ever given birth in a standing position, after all.
But the monitor at the hospital was a lot of fun. It was a great game to have a visual representation of my contractions. It was empowering and affirming. I didn’t want to take it off. And while it did somewhat limit my ability to walk around, walking around got pretty boring anyway. My labors have always been short, so when this one dragged on…I was happy to just sit in the bed and chat with my husband and the nurse.
She’d been skeptical about the likelihood I’d make it through the whole thing without an epidural, but she would come to check on me, and find me walking around listening to my husband read or arguing with him about literature. She’d stay to talk, and as labor progressed, she commented, “You’re coping well.”
I liked that comment—a lot. I was coping well. I repeated it to myself with delight, thinking about cleaning the garage and packing by myself at 3AM two months ago because the temps didn’t get below 100 until after midnight and because my husband was too sick to help. Thinking about the drive, also by myself with four kids and a turtle because my husband was driving the moving truck. Thinking about all we had left behind, and that I really had coped pretty well through all of it. Thinking how nice it was to have someone notice. Thinking that this birth, by comparison, was really not so bad. And thinking that I really, really loved this nurse.
Then the room got hot and crowded and I couldn’t breathe and the continuous fetal monitor that I’d liked so much said there was a problem. The baby was in distress and had to get out NOW. There was a giant knot in the cord, but Levi was fine.
The next twenty-four hours were newborn hours—nothing unusual. He had some trouble eating, but I’ve dealt with that before. He spit up a little more than I’d prefer, but I’ve dealt with that, too. They demanded that he get his heel pricked to have his blood sugar tested an unreasonable number of times because he was a big baby, despite the fact that it was fine when he was born and the men in my husband’s family are all built to play football. He was my biggest baby, but not by much.
But he hadn’t had a wet diaper. The lactation nurse kept asking me when he’d eaten, but he was sleepy that first day. That’s normal. Someone decided that he needed to have his belly suctioned out—that he’d gulped down too much fluid on his way out.
But once the sleepiness started to be superseded by hunger, I had a fussy baby. And he still wouldn’t eat. I let her show me different nursing positions. I was a little grumpy about it, but I was also grateful not to be dealing with nursing problems alone—they’d driven me to tears with two of my previous four.
He still wouldn’t eat. She noticed green spit-up on his burp cloth, and he was off to have his belly suctioned again. They didn’t bring him back.
After about an hour, my husband went to check on him, and an hour later, neither of them had come back. Three hours after that, I was checked out of the hospital, and Levi was in an ambulance being transferred to a children’s hospital downtown. His intestines weren’t working. He was dehydrated and had lost nearly a pound. They needed to do further testing and possibly surgery.
I had to walk away from my 48-hour-old baby while he was carted in a warmer into the back of the ambulance, into NICU. I had to run down the hallways of the new hospital to keep up with the nurses who were taking him to be tested. I watched as they sent dye through his intestines and looked for malformations.
I sat on the fold-out sofa the hospital had for parents of NICU babies that night and cried. My husband had had to go home at last to take care of our other kids, and once again, I was alone. I was afraid. I was exhausted. But I heard my labor nurse in my head—“You’re coping well.”
The next day, the report said Levi was fine. He had meconium plugs, and the dye test had cleared those out. He was kept for observation for one more night, but next to the other babies in NICU, my 10lb baby looked very out of place. I began to breathe again.
My NICU babe is three months old now, 20lb last time I checked, 27 inches long, healthy as can be. Now I have laundry to worry about, a three-year-old who cries every time he has to go to bed, a four-year-old who thinks she should be the boss of us all, an eight-year-old who’s probably giving herself an ulcer trying to keep up with her big brother, and an eleven-year-old who is discovering his sense of humor in ways that are sometimes so painful.
The baby’s diaper explodes, and he won’t sleep. The three-year-old cries in that sharp, ear-splitting, piercing way that means they’re dying when actually they’re just not ready to get out of the bath. The four-year-old won’t do anything I ask without ten thousand objections and explanations. Everybody needs a haircut; nobody has clean socks.
And then I have to breathe into a bag because I realize that high school starts in three years for my oldest, and I can’t figure out science for next year. My little ones are starting to read, and if I don’t work on reading with them, they bring me a pile of magnetic letters and ask me how to spell ‘supersede.’ (And now spellcheck tells me I told them wrong!)
But every once in a while, in the midst of the paper airplanes that are part of this year’s physics project and the crying and arguing that are part of this year’s emotional development and the snow-shoveling and unpacking that are part of last year’s move and this year’s weather, I remember my labor nurse, who told me I was coping well, and I breathe deeply, throw back my shoulders, and tackle today.