by Jonathan Lyons on February 29, 2012

So we decided to have a child.

Once I’d finally become convinced, it seemed much more important to be making that choice deliberately. What I mean is, I’d known that that decision was important before, but now I was dealing with it. We were dealing with it: the decision to create another human being.

Before that moment, I’d been content to let the human population stumble forward on its tidal wave of unplanned pregnancies. They seem to far, far outnumber intended pregnancies, and as messy as things get for the population, humankind more or less gets by.

So we wanted to be prepared for what lay ahead. We read up. We went through books of names.

We took classes. I was skeptical of these, mostly because I was teaching four writing-intensive courses and couldn’t stand the possibility that I might be wasting time on anything. We attended a class on caring for an infant child (I learned things, which became the yardstick by which I decided whether I was wasting my time).

We took a course on breastfeeding that was led by a specialist who was so scattered and whose delivery was so very stream-of-consciousness that we honestly got nothing out of it (filed under Waste Of Time; I was pissed off to have my time wasted, and we were tempted to leave halfway through, when it became clear that we’d get nothing out of it). We took Lamaze classes which, with weeks of sessions to attend, terrified me. But I wanted to have some idea what I was doing — to educate myself a bit, not just jump into the deep end, not on childbirth or on raising a child. The Lamaze classes were definitely worth it.

Our child was due on Thanksgiving.

And, thus prepared, we watched and waited as the predicted arrival date approached.

Aaaaaannnd passed.

By that point we knew that we were going to have a little boy, and that he was healthy and growing according to expectations.

So we had a quiet Thanksgiving here in our Central PA home, far from our families in Iowa. We usually do, and my mother-in-law usually comes for the holiday, but this year, with the timing of his predicted arrival, she opted to come to visit and to help out beginning a few days after the holiday.

Thanksgiving Thursday came and went uneventfully. Then so did Friday. And so did Saturday. I had a glass of wine and we hit the sack around 10:00.

At 2 am, Karline shook me awake to tell me that she’d never gotten to sleep because she was having contractions.

We started timing them. We’d downloaded a contraction-timing app to my iPod.

She wanted to have as natural a delivery as possible. And she was worried that she might be tempted to request pain medication, or that discussing pain medication might be misconstrued as a request for it. Taking our cues from BDSM, we worked out a safe word; if she said “yellow” to me at any point during discussions about painkillers, she meant business.

We stayed up through the rest of the night, timing contractions and getting in the last food and drink she’d be having until after the delivery. We left for the hospital sometime around 8:30 am, let the mother-in-law know that things were In Progress, and checked in. We’d packed our birthing day bags in advance. They bore changes of clothes, sweats, snacks, and a nine-hour ambient playlist and iPod speakers.

I thought nine hours of music might be overkill — hoped so, in fact. But I wanted to be prepared.

We checked into a cozy room, timing contractions. Both of us were banded with hospital ID bracelets; as I mentioned at the end of the first installment in this series, I looked down at my wrist and noticed the security bracelet they’d attached, allowing me to come and go from the hospital’s Maternity & Delivery Ward. The portion I could read included the tail end of my wife’s hospital ID number for the stay, and the word “FATHER”; the numbering tab covered over the “F,” leaving “2741ATHER.”

We spent the morning in the Maternity & Delivery Ward.

And we spent the afternoon there.

We knew from our visits to our prenatal care physician that our boy was in position, and had been for weeks. But for some reason, Karline was experiencing very strong cramps in her lower back. Massage with serious pressure helped her get through them. It helped a bit, anyway.  And late in the afternoon, as my mother-in-law arrived, I began to wonder:

  • What length of labor, exactly, we were in for? And:
  • Why, if the baby were in the proper position for birth, was Karline having back labor — a sign that the baby is facing the wrong way?

And as the afternoon progressed, the back labor intensified. By 6:00 pm, I’d been up for 16 hours, and I was feeling it, but Karline had not actually slept at all. I felt like a wimp.

The changing of the shifts was upon us, and as the first shift brought the second up-to-speed, it sounded like they were throwing a party down the hall.

As afternoon wore on into evening, and as we timed the contractions, things were progressing. They were getting closer together, and the other signs we were looking for seemed to be coming along, as well. She was hooked up to an IV (for fluids), a blood pressure monitor, an instrument that measured her stress indicators, and a monitor measuring the baby’s stress indicators, heart rate, etc.  Seeing her attached to so many cables, probes, and tech was a bit shocking, but not completely unexpected.

The playlist on my iPod finished a lap and restarted at the beginning.

But as the evening marched on into night, we noticed that when a contraction came, not only did her stress indicators shoot up, but the baby’s did, as well. That wasn’t a surprise, but then his pulse also began to slow during contractions. At first we weren’t very worried about that; his heart rate rebounded quickly. But with each succeeding contraction, the baby’s heart rate fell a little further.

At some point after nightfall, I began to feel desperately tired. There was no way I was going to complain, of course; I could leave the room. I could go for a walk around the ward or the hospital. I could eat.

But Karline was not so lucky. She wasn’t going much of anywhere.

Our midwife decided to add pitocin, a drug that would increase the strength of the contractions, to the IV. We had decided that Karline would try to deliver without pain medication. The midwife offered; we declined.

I noticed a dramatic increase in the noise level in the ward around 10:30 or 11:00 pm. Shift change.

More than 24 hours had passed since her labor began. Sometime around 11:30, even as I sat in denial, hoping that the baby would drop out at any moment, our nurse examined Karline and told us that the one certain thing in this delivery was that this baby would be arriving on Monday.

I cringed. That was half an hour — and then some— away!

But what can you do? I was weary, and my mother-in-law and I were taking turns applying pressure and massage to Karline’s back to ward off the pain. With her water long since broken, the Maternity & Delivery doctors decided that they needed to hydrate her. They hung another bag of saline from her IV pole.

A human being hits a point where memory ceases to be reliable. Tainted by exhaustion and disbelief, I recall the next few hours as not a blur, but a smear — a mess of anticipation, the worrisome drop in the fetal heart rate coinciding with the contractions, and the realization, more than once, that without at least a few minutes of rest, I would fall off my chair and crack my head on the floor (smooth, cool floor, so, so inviting). That was a moment of realization for me: I’d passed my limits. I felt weak; unforgiveable. My wife was suffering through a second night of excruciating back labor, sans pain medication; she was hooked and wired and intravenously attached to the gods knew how many machines and monitors, and not she, but I was the one giving in. Wuss.

“Nancy,” I said to my mother-in-law, “I can’t keep this up. I need 10 or 15 minutes on the couch. Just a cat-nap.” She was glad to help, and Karline, who hadn’t slept since Friday, also understood. I collapsed on the couch, under a blanket, and woke half an hour later to the terrifying sight of my wife, now wearing an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose, and suddenly and inexplicably larger. Which was, my sleep-deprived brain assured me, the opposite of how all this was supposed to go.

“What the fuck’s going on?” I asked, incredulous. “How long have I been out?!”

My wife and my mother-in-law worked to calm me back down.

The mask, they told me, was to deliver oxygen to ensure that the baby was getting enough oxygen as the process wore on, but Karline was fine. In serious and lengthy and torturous labor, sure, but otherwise A-OK. The saline they’d given her was bloating her with fluid. So that explained the larger part.

I was angry: angry about all the pain she was going through, angry that this process that was hurting her was taking so long, and finding the entire proceeding beyond any excusing. This delivery — not just natural childbirth, but any childbirth — was an experience that I would not wish on anyone, anywhere, and which I would outlaw, I knew, if it were at all a reasonable or feasible thing to do. Who the hell finds this degree and length of suffering reasonable?!

Whoever that might be, if he were to suddenly appear and make the argument, things would not go well for him. Karline was in excruciating pain and I was advising her, as we’d agreed, not to accept pain medication. They offered nubane; we talked; and when I didn’t hear the word yellow from her, I knew it was pep-talk time.

They took her off the pitocin. The drop in the baby’s heart rate had been joined by his other stress indicators on the monitor surging, as well, with each contraction.

By 6 am, more than 30 hours into the labor trudge, I’d had a few of what felt like weak, cowardly cat-naps and was thanking the gods and stars for Nancy’s presence and help. And around 6:00 am, as the volume level of the conversation rose with another change of the shifts, Monday morning had arrived.

But now we were in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy. Gone was our midwife; a new, rested physician stepped in to take over. He began by offering to restart the pitocin but, worried about the baby’s heart rate, we were ready to consider our options. The doctor gladly and immediately scheduled her a cesarean section.

We never got around to using the safe word, but we’d considered it. Karline had asked me more than once to remind her why she didn’t want the nubane (we wanted to avoid drugs passing into the baby); she’d asked about the painkillers, but as god-awful as it was to have to ask someone you love to endure more pain that she has already suffered, when she didn’t say yellow, I knew that she was after not the nubane but a reminder. A pep-talk. Some convincing.

It really would have helped us all to have known from the beginning that the whole, torturous undertaking would end in a C-section anyway.

Curran was born via c-section at 9 am, after nearly 36 hours of labor. Apparently a future performance artist, he arrived with his umbilical wrapped around his neck and right arm. And that was what had been happening: When contractions had pushed him toward birth, the cord had been tightening.

But he had arrived. And he and she were both healthy and alive.



{ 1 comment }

Christina Continelli February 29, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Amazing writing!

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