I almost titled this, “Benji’s Birth Story,” but that just feels incorrect. Because to me, this story is not about him at all. Benji being born - and the amazing joy he has brought to our lives - has nothing to do with the 16 hours leading up to his birth. I really can’t explain that enough, though I know it sounds a bit weird.
I started writing this about 6 weeks after Benji was born, and even then it was a 2nd or 3rd draft of some original recounting I had done within the first couple of weeks. I wanted to record certain details before things got lost to the haze of retrospect, but I found it too difficult to spend enough time with it, to edit it to a sense of completion. And each time I came back to it, I felt increasingly as though I was whining and complaining and who wants to share that? Not to mention read it.
Finally, today, 4+ months later, I felt the need to re-read it. I didn’t change much - just reworded certain things for clarity and tried to edit out some details that have become less essential with time. Though each time I try to delete a paragraph for the sake of brevity, I end up keeping it, because there are just so many details that stacked up to create this horrific experience. So in the end, it’s a ridiculously long blog that I wouldn’t fault anyone for skimming.
That said, I would hope to offer, at the very least, a sense of solidarity with other friends who have had difficult births or post-natal experiences, or at best, inspiration to future-mom friends to advocate for yourselves if ever you feel things spinning out of control.
Birth stories are always a mixture of pain and joy, and ours is no different in that sense. But our story also has major doses of disappointment and emotional trauma, and even a little bit of regret, and no matter how much time passes, it will always be a bittersweet memory. At the end of it all, yes we have a beautiful, healthy baby boy and we love him so much. But this story isn't about him.
Online forums tell me it's common for women whose birth experiences end in an unexpected c-section to feel cheated of their natural “right" to a vaginal birth - or even to feel like less of a woman. I can definitely attest to those feelings. This can sometimes be soothed if the surgery provided a solution to a life-threatening complication. In that case, sure it's disappointing, but in the end there’s the possibility of finding peace in gratitude.
For us, though, there is no such peace, nor gratitude: we are convinced that none of it was medically necessary. Or, at the very least, we have major doubts, supported by some amateur researching of medical journals, that continue to fuel anger and resentment about how it all went. And that’s really what I mean when I say this was “traumatizing” - because I truly believe that these events served absolutely nothing in the way of saving me or my child.
If only we’d had time to process; if only we had left the hospital before it all went wrong; if only there had been another doctor on duty that day, or if our midwife hadn't been off duty; if only I had drank more water that morning; if only... if only. When you're convinced that any of these possibilities could have saved you from a nightmare... well, you don't stop chewing on it.
We'd been told time and again how common it is for first babies to arrive after the due date, and even two weeks late is still considered “normal”. So, when we woke up on May 21 for the scheduled Week 41 biophysical profile (an ultrasound given when the due date has passed to verify that the baby is still doing well), we were not expecting news that resembled anything but Really Really Super Normal, like the entire pregnancy had been.
I mean, it was almost boring how normal those 41 weeks had been. Everything was fine, at every. single. checkup. I exercised, ate (relatively) well and never missed a vitamin.
We'd chosen a midwife rather than an ob/gyn for a few reasons, some of them, admittedly, a bit political. At first, I was skeptical, coming from the States where midwifery is still a little bit “hippie-dippie” in some circles and less accessible since it's often not covered by insurance. But in Québec, while it's still a little bit “alternative", it is covered by regular healthcare. I didn't know anyone in the US personally who'd delivered with a midwife, and when you're pregnant, first-person anecdotes are essentially The One True Source. (There's just too much WHITE NOISE in books and the internet). So when we talked with some friends locally who'd had great experiences with midwives, we were intrigued. I was drawn to the idea of a birthing center as a more peaceful, personalized place to give birth; big queen-sized beds, soft lighting, a big bathtub in all the rooms... the creature-comforts of home (without having to make a big mess at your actual home) rather than a cold, florescent, institutional-like hospital room. And best of all, it came all wrapped-up in a birthing philosophy that favors the woman’s choice while creating an atmosphere oriented around the couple - with lots of participation from the partner. Sounds pretty ideal, right? I mean, for a stage set up to experience the worst pain in all your womanhood.
My biggest reservation was the absence of the epidural option. Not that I had my heart set on having an epidural, but the idea of not having at least the option worried me a little bit. Though after several conversations with friends, I warmed to the idea of a 100 percent natural birth, and its benefits outweighed the lack of pain meds.
The real kicker for me came after Mat and I watched a (admittedly very biased) documentary called The Business of Being Born, and I was totally won over by its politics. I became convinced that normal, complication-free pregnancies do not need to take place in hospitals, and in fact, medical intervention is often unnecessary and sometimes dangerous.
It's known as the "Cascade of Intervention": when one intervention, such as drug-induced labor, can lead to another intervention, and then another. The controversy is in the implication that doctors may not always be medically justified in prescribing an intervention - perhaps it's a busy day at the hospital and they want to move things along, or it's Friday and they want to begin their weekend. And whether or not this is true, there is medical evidence to support that interventions are not always necessary, making their justifications in certain low-risk cases subjective at best.
I don’t mean to get too conspiracy-theorist; medical intervention can be necessary and life-saving and we are lucky to be able to overcome many complications related to pregnancy and birth that we couldn't only decades ago. But I'm pretty sold on the idea that in general, hospitals are for sick people (ob/gyn's ARE surgeons, after all!) and a woman with a normal pregnancy is not a sick person. Enter, the Midwife: successfully delivering healthy babies for centuries, and with lower mother and infant mortality rates.
So, I felt the bases were covered and was confident that my Super Normal Pregnancy was in good hands with the midwives.
Little did we know that I would fall victim to the exact pitfall of modern medicine we were trying to avoid.
So, what happened?
Well, midwives do have their limitations; blood work and ultrasounds are still done at the hospital. So that's where we went on May 21 at 7:30 a.m., for the ultrasound to check up on the little guy, who was one week and three days overdue.
After waiting 2 hours for the doctor to see us, things spun out of control within a matter of minutes.
When she began scanning my belly, things started out fine enough: Baby in good position, good heartbeat, good movement...
But then, all of the sudden: Amniotic fluid too low... je vous recommande…induce labor this morning, have baby today.
EFFFFFFFFF / ARE YOU KIDDING / HAVE BABY TODAY / HOW COME / WHAT DOES THAT MEAN / EVERYTHING HAS BEEN NORMAL FOR FORTY-ONE WEEKS / WHAT CHANGED / WHO ARE YOU CRAZY WOMAN / GIVE ME A MINUTE TO THINK
(My internal monologue).
If I hadn't been so convinced about doctors being notorious for unnecessary intervention, it probably wouldn't have crossed my mind to doubt this woman who obviously has knowledge and education that I do not. But I had been inspired and encouraged by the idea that it was my pregnancy, my body, my choice, and that doctors aren't always right. And I just felt in my bones that this couldn't possibly be true according to my BORING NORMAL PREGNANCY.
And then, in our hour of need, the midwife kind of failed us.
When we were instructed to contact the midwife to explain the circumstances, we were hoping for some comfort and reassurance - if not an alternative - to this jarring news... but that didn't happen. That particular day, our primary midwife - who we really loved and were looking forward to having present at the birth - wasn't on call; instead, it was our secondary, with whom we hadn't spent as much time and who didn't know us or our pregnancy as well. (There was always a good possibility that our primary midwife wouldn't be on duty when I went into labor, 50/50 chance, in fact, as they work in teams of two to cover the 24/7 schedule.) And while this secondary midwife might have been sympathetic to our dilemma, the birth center was short-staffed at the moment and she told us she didn't have time that morning to attempt alternative labor induction methods. Nor did she even have time to come be with us at the hospital, which is a service typically offered in the event of hospital transfers, to provide support and advocacy from someone familiar who knows the case more than the doctor would. And she definitely didn't remind us that anything was “our choice" - she simply expressed that her hands were tied and recommended that we follow the doctor's advice.
Honestly, a gentle, "Why don't you go for a coffee and reflect a bit on how none of this makes sense?" was all we really needed to hear to nudge us into standing up for ourselves against the Big Medical Machine, but we weren't getting that from anywhere.
We felt thrown to the wolves; totally abandoned by the support system we'd strategically put in place to AVOID THIS VERY THING FROM HAPPENING.
I will always regret that we didn't JUST WALK OUT, at least to have a moment to consider everything. We don't always realize - especially in the face of what we are to believe is expert opinion - that we have rights as patients, and one of those rights is to leave (“against medical advice") at least for a reflective coffee, or at best, a second opinion.
I was actually on the way out the door with Mat to go home and get our bags (we only live 5-minutes away) and maybe steal a few hours to process it all, but the doctor essentially instructed me to take my jacket off and stay put while Mat went home to retrieve our bags. Sure, she used words like “I recommend" and “This is what usually happens," but her delivery said: “This is what you will do." Feeling stuck and obviously worried for our baby - I mean, what did we know? We had nothing to support our doubts other than instinct and a stupid documentary we'd watched 9 months earlier - so we did as we were told. It takes guts (and something more concrete than 5 minutes and a sinking feeling) to tell a doctor, “Ok, thanks, we'll take that into consideration and check back with you later." So, balling my eyes out, I was led to a room and told to change into a hospital gown - feeling as though I was being taken prisoner - while Mat left to get our stuff. It was all so surreal - I couldn't stop thinking, how did I get here?
The half hour that Mat was gone was all they needed to get things rolling: needle-to-vein, pitocin drip started, catheter inserted into cervix and inflated to force dilation. (Imagine a balloon being blown up inside the most sensitive part of your body...) Boom, boom, BOOM. Within the next few hours, my water would be broken while I laid on back, legs in the air, completely out of control.
And there it was: the dreaded cascade.
I'll always wonder what labor would have felt like if my body was allowed to have done it on its own. I've read that induced labor is stronger and more painful. I also wonder how much the mental factor played a role: I felt that everything happening was 100 percent against my will, so perhaps I wasn't allowing myself to open up.
Around 9 p.m., after laboring for nearly 12 hours, I wasn't dilating enough and the baby wasn't descending. The doctor said that if there wasn't significant change within the next 2 hours, cesarian was the only option.
All the expletives in the world couldn't begin to express how far from belief I was to hear those words....that my Super Boring Normal Pregnancy had somehow turned into a nightmare ending with my baby being surgically cut out of me. I even asked why she wouldn't offer me an epidural and let me tough it out a bit longer before invoking such an extreme option. After all, the baby was doing fine. But it wasn't an option, for a reason that I can't even remember. (The nasty part of me wonders if it was because her shift was nearly over and she wanted to wrap my case up.)
By that point, I was totally dead from pain and fatigue, and at the idea of enduring even more torture (there was no break between contractions at that point) for an outcome that seemed inevitable, I gave up and submitted to the surgery an hour before the limit she had set.
And that’s when the real blur began. (Quite literally - I had to take my glasses off for surgery prep, adding to the already very disorienting atmosphere.)
Even after the drug was stopped for surgery preparation, the contractions continued on as I was wheeled to the operating theater, where masked strangers gave tone-deaf congratulations and cheerfully asked me about baby names. I hated them. There I was, feeling cheated but also feeling like a failure, and their words were just a slap in the face. I was terrified - about to have serious surgery - and I couldn't even see any of these people's faces who were about to cut out my baby. To say it was a nightmare is just not enough.
I was really nervous about being able to stay still through the lingering contractions while being administered the anesthesia to my spine - which was even stronger than an epidural. I honestly don't know how I did it, but soon enough I found myself lying on the table, numb from the chest down, arms splayed out to my sides with other medications being poked into me, while a curtain was put up in front of my face to hide my eyes from the surgery. (Of course, I don’t know if that makes it better, really - you still know what’s happening and you can’t help but imagine it even if you can’t feel it.) After the prep was finished, Mat was allowed to come in and sit next to my head and hold my hand.
I haven't talked much about Mat during all this, but I can't say enough about how amazing he was through it all. When he came back from grabbing our bags that morning, he was sweating - he had literally run around the house gathering stuff. (Since we hadn't expected any of this when we left the house that morning, we still had a few loose ends to pack, which we figured we'd do when I started having contractions. It still hurts to think about “what-was-supposed-to-be,” even now.) Throughout labor, he made sure I stayed hydrated and that I ate when I could and held my hands through the worst of the pain. In the days afterward, while we were stuck in the hospital, he would go out and get real food for us to eat instead of the questionable Beef Surprise the cafeteria brought up. He boosted me when I felt the most hopeless, and still don't know how to express how lucky and thankful I was - and am - for everything he did and has continued to do for our little family.
It's still horrifying to remember lying there, “delivering" my baby on an operating table, shivering uncontrollably (a common side effect of the anesthesia). It was such a far cry from what I had dreamed: welcoming our baby in our favorite room at the birth center (we had picked it out ahead of time… ahhh it makes me tear-up to think about it!), just us three along with our midwife, who'd been with us from the beginning and knew us well. We couldn't wait for those first moments of “skin-to-skin" and watching the baby do the “crawl" from my belly to the breast - a fascinating feat of human instinct. Of course we never expected it to be a zen-like experience, but we meant to have as much in place as possible for the relaxing elements to be as effective as the pain was strong. After the long hours of labor, we could look forward to the little “gift" of one of life's sweetest, most intimate moments; there was to be a prize for all the work.
Instead, I wasn't even able to hold him - being drugged up and splayed out on an operating table. Mat was able to go over to the station where they were cleaning and weighing him, as long as he promised the doctors not to look at my open body as he passed. They tried, awkwardly, to lay the baby across my chest, but I could barely register what was going on. In the post-op room, they plopped him face down onto my breast to nurse for the first time, while at the same time there were nurses somewhat violently kneading my stomach to push out blood clots. What a beautiful first baby-mother bonding experience, huh?
I feel totally cheated of my prize. And no, I don't mean our baby, which really has nothing to do with this at all - and why it kind of makes me squirm when people want to tell me “all's well that ends well” and that we should just be thankful we have a beautiful baby.
You have to be able to see the intense frustration and anger that comes with having made a whole-hearted decision to specifically avoid something that not only happened against your will, but probably could have been prevented.
In the end, I had all the interventions the cascade had to offer. And I'm still in disbelief.
Needless to say, I was so unprepared for a c-section that I had no idea what to expect from the procedure nor the recovery time. I was so completely blind-sided that, in the hours after the surgery when I started to feel the lower part of my body again, I had to Google what the tube running down my leg was - I didn't even know a catheter had been inserted into my bladder and that I was not peeing on my own. Not to mention that I had no idea we'd have to stay in the hospital for at least 3 days or that it would hurt to cough, sneeze or laugh for several weeks.
Right after the surgery ended, the doctor poked her head around the curtain to say a few words. In my semi-conscious state I don't remember exactly what she said and wasn't cognizant enough to ask follow up questions. She said something about it still not being clear why the baby hadn't descended into the birth canal enough - could have been something, could have been something else. Essentially, “we'll never know." And that was the last time I ever saw her.
We spent 9 months developing a relationship with our midwife in expectation of actually knowing the caregiver present at the birth; and then a woman we knew for less than 24 hours - and spent less than an hour with in total - literally cut our baby out of my stomach. That's crazy, right?
A few days after we got settled in at home, I did a Google search for the diagnosis I'd been given that started this whole mess: “oligohydramnios". And what I found was pretty alarming; my gut felt justified, but I felt even more regret at not having had the courage to ask for some time before submitting to the labor induction. According to some medical journal articles, “isolated oligohydramnios," or low amniotic fluid in an otherwise healthy pregnancy, is both common and controversial as a reason for labor induction. More disturbingly, it has a higher rate of ending in c-section than it does of being proven to prevent poor outcomes. That is, the jury of medical professionals is out on whether it is a necessary intervention for the diagnosis I was given.
But the really crazy info I found was that amniotic fluid levels in at-term pregnancies (like mine was) is significantly affected by punctual hydration before an ultrasound. Meaning, if I had DRUNK MORE WATER that morning, I could have prevented this WHOLE THING?!? It's absurd to think it's possible that a few glasses of water could have been the difference between a normal birth and major abdominal surgery with lasting effects.
But there it is.
It's true, we'll never know what would have happened if I'd performed that Google search on the spot, or if another doctor had been on duty that day, or if I'd had a glass of water instead of coffee that morning.
But even now, 4+ months later, when I catch a glimpse of the scar across my lower abdomen, it gives me chills and a lump in my throat to think how emphatically I feel that it shouldn’t be there - and yet, it will always be there. Forever.
I guess you could say I’m still chewing on it.