It was Thursday, October 20th 2011, when I got a call from Maureen, my ever vigilant midwife: “Go to the hospital, and bring your bags in case we have to induce you.” Turns out I had preeclampsia, as well as a more severe variant called HELLP syndrome, which occurs in 0.2 to 0.6 percent of pregnancies and is a life threatening disease for both mother and baby. However, I didn’t have the usual symptoms, which is why the hospital sent me home the previous day when I went for tests. Maureen caught what the hospital had missed: that my liver enzymes were elevating, which could have led to a ruptured liver.
And so, my husband David and I spent Thursday night in a labor and delivery room overlooking New YorkHarbor, thankfully somewhat ignorant of the situation. We also knew that our friends and families were praying. My phone buzzed incessantly with text messages of encouragement.
The next morning I was given pitocin to start the contractions. We dimmed the lights and turned on the flameless vanilla scented candles that I had bought from Walgreen’s the day before. Classical music played on the iPod we had borrowed from a friend, and David rested on the pullout chair beside me. We felt like we were in a sanctuary, a temple, a very holy place.
However, despite our peace, the labor was not moving fast enough. My liver enzyme levels were rising, so to speed things up, they broke my water, inserted an internal monitor attached to Daniel’s scalp, and gave me an epidural so that my blood pressure wouldn’t spike. At 11:00 PM, I was still only seven centimeters dilated. The doctor—tall and thin and looking like he was straight out of Grey’s Anatomy—pursed his lips and nodded his head, “We might have to section you. But…I’ll give you another hour.”
That next hour was, as David put it, my “heroic moment.” David says that it was then that I transformed from woman to mother. I felt a burst of energy and resolve unlike anything I’ve ever felt. I spoke and sang to my baby, Daniel: “It’s all right, Daniel. You can come out now. You don’t need to be afraid.” Daniel started kicking. I felt an intense pressure and stretching. “He’s coming down!” I said. “Where is the doctor?” When the doctor checked me fifteen minutes later, he was surprised. I had made three centimeters progress in an hour, when it had taken me all day to dilate seven centimeters.
Two hours of pushing later, Daniel’s head emerged. But something was not right. His shoulders were stuck; he had shoulder dystocia, an obstetrical emergency in which doctors sometimes have to break the collar bone, or push the baby back in and do a c-section. But my midwife yelled, “I’ve got this!” and reached inside, repositioned Daniel, and pulled him out safely. Daniel’s body was covered in white, waxy vernix. As they plopped him on my stomach he felt like a fish flopping after being pulled from its placid pond.
And then, there was another medical emergency. “Call the doctors back in,” Maureen barked. I was hemorrhaging blood. In a frenzied flurry, I was given more pitocin; two people pushed on my stomach like they were kneading dough vigorously; and all I could do was stare at the baby in the warmer. “My baby! My baby! We have a baby!” I cried, and then laughed, and then did some combination of the two as David kissed me and joined in my laughter. Neither of us noticed the hemorrhaging because we had such joy.
After that, we had a precious minute of bonding before they whisked Daniel off to the nursery, since I was under orders to rest. It was a sleepless night for me. I kept reliving the birth, cherishing certain images as they flashed through my mind, especially the one when I first met my baby Daniel James—his head resting on my breast, rising and falling with my breath, blue eyes wide and alert and fixated on mine, soft coos and a crescent moon smile. At that moment I told my husband David that I felt like I was falling in love all over again.
A friend of mine told me that in India they say that a woman who experiences childbirth gains more insight than is possible in seven years of spiritual discipline. Indeed, childbirth is transformative. While the word on the street is to “find yourself” in the untethered freedom of young adulthood before entering the fuss-filled, sleep-deprived, diaper-scented world of parenthood, motherhood has given me a deeper understanding of myself—and particularly of the paradoxical nature of my humanity. The philosopher Pascal wrote that, “Man is both wretched and great”—and through my experience of motherhood I’ve seen in myself both the tug of selfishness (Does Daniel really need to nurse at 3 AM? I want to sleep!), and the great capacity to love someone other than myself with the ferocity of a mother’s love.
But Daniel’s birth has not only taught me about myself. It has made life seem more real, more precious, weightier. It has given me a sensitivity to the vulnerable: the poor, the weak, the childlike. Despite the labor and delivery complications, or perhaps because of them, my son Daniel is a constant reminder to me of the beauty and fragility and giftedness of life.
What has parenthood taught you?