Monday, November 15, 2010

"Going Natural"

Marie and I had a beautiful baby boy born on September 24th. As a departure from our previous births, we "went natural" with this one, and it was quite the experience. So, for any of you who might be thinking about going natural, wonder why anyone would want to go natural, or who just want to know how things unfolded, here are my reflections on how my baby son came into the world:

When our first son was born, Marie and I felt pushed around and undervalued through the process. This delivery ultimately ended in an emergency c-section, and it left us wondering whether there might be better options for our next go-round.

So with this pregnancy, Marie began researching. She talked with women who had "gone natural," and we started reading up on the subject. Now, we're aware that there's a certain label of "weird" affixed to people who do things this way. There's a certain stereotype. But, hey, in my experience, stereotypes (ironically) usually describe people at the extremes while ignoring the bulk of people who don't fit them. We got past the stereotypes, and once we did, it took us about a day to decide that this was exactly what we wanted.

Did you know that, done right, childbirth doesn't have to be all that painful? Don't get me wrong - it's no walk in the park. But it's really more like the pain of running a marathon than the pain of, say, pushing out a kidney stone. It's really more athletic in nature than medical. I'd never considered that. Something else I hadn't thought much about is the fact that while the body has a whole set of chemical responses to help mother and baby through the stages of labor, intervention with pitocin, epidural, and c-section generally disregards those responses and robs the mommy-baby team of their effects, making the birth and recovery more difficult. But here's the proof-in-the-pudding realization that is as obvious as can be, although I never took the time to notice: When women get together and swap horror stories about giving birth, how often are those stories coming from prepared women who went natural? Have you ever heard a natural-childbirth mother say "Never again will I do it that way"? Neither have I.

We read parts of three books on the subject, and a particular one that strongly emphasized the role of the husband as a partner in the birth and a primary support through the process. We took the information and kind of plotted our own course. I have to say, it really felt empowering. We put together a detailed birth plan. Marie did exercises every day to "train" and prepare her muscles. We really looked forward to this birth in a way completely different from our previous ones.

Grant was due September 24th, the day after Marie's birthday. So when Marie woke me up around 3:30 on the morning of the 23rd with contractions that were consistent at every 5 minutes, we were excited for the prospect of a shared birthday. We timed the contractions for a little while and practiced our techniques. Then we got out of bed to see if they'd keep on, and unfortunately they stopped being regular. We went back to bed to get what rest we could from the last hour and a half of the night.

In the morning, we took a long walk after I took Evelyn to school. Things didn't regulate, so I went to work. That night, we went out to eat for Marie's birthday. For fun, we had eggplant parmesan, which is supposed to be good for inducing labor. We had it at Macaroni Grill, which uses white kraft paper for tablecloths and stocks the tables with Crayons. All through dinner, Marie kept a running tally of her contractions right there on the table. They were pretty regular, so we took a walk afterward, timing contractions all the time. Back at home, we hunkered down for a long night of laboring. Although the contractions were staying close to a discouraging ten minutes apart, they were definitely getting harder.

We kept using our techniques. With every contraction, we focused on relaxing the other muscles. I applied pressure to Marie's lower back with a rice pack she had sewn. She did fine, although she was breathing pretty hard through some of the contractions. At times, she experimented with various positions, from a sleep imitation position that wasn't working well, to a hands-and-knees position that was. For my part, I maintained a running line of verbal support, affection, and encouragement. When things hadn't regulated properly by 4am, we gave up and tried to sleep, but quickly found that contractions didn't really make that possible for more than 15 minutes at a time. At 5am, we took a walk, and decided to head out to the hospital before the kids woke up and made things more difficult (my parents had agreed to taking care of the kids if we left).

At that point, we didn't know if we would be admitted or not. They took us to a shared observation room that was freezing cold, and put Marie in a thin hospital gown. It wasn't a fun hour-and-a-half. At one point, we asked if a nurse could warm up our rice pack in the microwave the way we had been doing it at home. I still don't know how it happened, but shortly after she left, I caught a whiff in the air of something burning, and was told a few minutes later that our rice pack had exploded in the microwave. I suspect she may have put it in for too long.

The nurse checked Marie and called our Midwife, Aliza. Although the progress was only a half-centimeter, Marie was far enough along in other ways that they went ahead and admitted us. They took us into a labor and delivery room that was much more comfortable, and we immediately wrapped Marie in blankets to warm her up. Without the rice pack, I started applying pressure with my fist in her lower back during contractions. While she was sitting up in the hospital bed, I would put my fist with my knuckles to her back, wedged between her and the bed, and she would lean back to increase the pressure. In this situation, her contractions immediately became more regular, although with nurses all around and a precautionary IV stint in her arm, we didn't have quite the level of comfort and "seclusion" that is supposed to be the ideal for having babies.

After a few minutes, the nurse noticed that Grant's heartbeat had dropped during one particularly hard contraction and didn't come back up to the same level, which worried her. It also worried us since that was what they saw with Edison right before doing a C-section. She put Marie on some oxygen and started running fluids into her arm, and the heartbeat came back up to normal. Aliza got there and said it was probably an issue with the cord, but wasn't worried that we'd have to get the baby out.

Shortly after, Aliza checked Marie and found that she had quickly jumped from a three to an eight, which was a big surprise to us. She went ahead and broke Marie's water, and estimated it would be about five more contractions, and the baby would be out. What a shock that was! We had been expecting things to go most of the day.

The contractions got harder, although not as hard as we were bracing for. Then we hit a plateau where the contractions calmed down, and we sat and waited. After contractions straight for so long, it felt strange to experience a lull. Before long, though, Marie started getting the urge to push, and the lull was over. Marie pushed hard and steadily over several contractions, but without success. Grant's heartbeat started doing funny things again, and the worry grew. Aliza said the cord was likely wrapped around his neck. Marie kept pushing, getting more and more spent, and each round of pushing became more difficult. Aliza worked to guide our baby along past trouble spots. She had Marie turn and move into different positions to help things along and although we were slowly making progress, both Marie and the baby were having trouble. Marie was getting scared, and I honestly was too. We prayed together between contractions. Marie continued to push but felt like her strength would only go so far, and was worried about Grant. At one of the most difficult moments, she took strength from my suggestion that we focus together on keeping her pushing, and trust Aliza to handle what our son was doing. She kept pushing. Ultimately, we both took assurance from knowing that when we had given our all, we could have faith that the Lord was in control, and it would be enough.

With those events, suggestions, and assurances playing out over the course of an hour's pushing, Marie labored on until finally, at a difficult diagonal-angle, our son's head emerged from out of the birth canal. In a moment, Aliza had pulled the cord from around his neck, and Grant's body slid easily into this world. At that point our emotions were an indescribable mixture of things. We felt relief that it was over. We felt overwhelmed by the trauma we had passed through. We felt joy at Grant's presence and accomplishment at having completed what we set out to do. We felt gratitude for Aliza for her help at such an important time. And we felt an indescribable love for each other and a great bond for having made it through such a difficult task together. The fear we had lasted through and the relief of labor's end completely overcame us and for a tiny moment, even the baby was forgotten as we wept convulsively and held each other.

After that, it was funny how quickly things returned to normal. The nurses did their job of checking vitals and getting weights and measurements. I took a couple of pictures and uploaded them on the computer to share with the family and announce the birth. Marie helped Grant latch on and get his first feeding. Through it all, we continued to express love and marvel at what had just taken place. Within a few hours, Marie was up and walking around, eating big hospital meals, and dressed comfortably in her own clothes. It was surreal by midafternoon that we were only a few hours removed from such a dramatic scene.

The rest of the hospital stay was like a vacation. If not for Grant's circumcision, we would hardly have felt like we needed to be there. As it was, we went home after lunch the next day.

So the million-dollar question: are we glad we did it this way? Well, if we hadn't had the complication with the cord, there would be no doubt about it. The majority of the labor was wonderful. It was hard work, but it was also rewarding, leaving us feeling stronger and more capable. At the hospital, we were athletes performing what we had trained for, not patients undergoing medical procedures beyond our understanding. That was a wonderful feeling. The other part is that I, as Marie's husband, felt like an integral part of the process. Marie relied on my help through every contraction, and it felt right that this was something we did together.

But the fact is, it did get complicated. The difficulty of the last hour was beyond anything we had prepared for. If we had it to do over, would we want to do that again? The answer is somewhat complicated, and gets to the heart of why we did it this way in the first place. The answer is that while I never in a million years would wish that level of struggle and strain on my dear wife, I can look at Marie now and say without hesitation, "That was your finest hour." No one wishes for the kind of overwhelming struggle that produces fear and requires courage and leaves you afterward feeling meek at having somehow made it through to the other side. But my wife and I will never be the same for having done it. We gained confidence in ourselves, and a really noteworthy piece of our marital history, a history that increasingly gives us pride in who we are and stories that will help shape the character of our children. Ultimately, we felt that life was asking us to step up to one of our defining moments of truth. And I'm very glad that we did.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Strange Ideas

My whole life, I've had a strange passion for bucking convention in favor of my own thoughts about how life should be lived. I think way too much, and the result is a lot of strange ideas.

These ideas are tempered by two considerations. First, I understand that the conventions produced by generations of collective wisdom probably deserve more respect than to be cast off after ten minutes of my own limited thought. And second, after a mere 28 years at moderate temperatures, I'm painfully aware that my own breadbasket of wisdom is really only half-baked.

But blogging about these ideas manages at least a couple of happy advantages. First, it forces me to think through and articulate my thoughts more clearly, and second, it puts them out there on the off-chance that they might prove useful and/or entertaining to the people I care about.

So if your unique idiosyncrasies don't lead you to ponder such things as the origins of words and phrases we use, the societal dynamics that influence so much of our behavior, or the way character development is handled in the latest good movie, then don't worry - I've got you covered. Just don't put too much stock in it.