On the evening of January 19th, 1971, my mom and dad were in a grocery store in suburban Boston. It was a frigidly cold night, and Mom remembers walking through the aisles when suddenly, a rush of liquid spilled between her legs. She says that as she searched for my dad, her shoes squeaked with water. (This part of the story always reminds me of a camping trip in fourth grade when we hiked up a river in our sneakers. I liked the way the moisture squished out of my shoes each time I put a foot down and the sound my foot made when I pulled it up again to take another step.) Mom and Dad hurried home and began counting contractions.
When it was time to go to the hospital, Dad went outside to start the car, an MG, a gift to my mother from her father — a car that was entirely impractical in the middle of a New England winter. By the time Dad brought Mom outside, the car was dead. It was the middle of the night and they had to call a friend who drove recklessly along the icy streets to the Newton-Wellesley Hospital. Safe inside, Mom practiced her Lamaze breathing. My parents were young hippies. Dad was the first husband allowed in the delivery room of the hospital. Mom refused any pain medication and I was born, five hours later, a perfect 10 on the APGAR scale.
My mother has told me the story of my birth ever since I was a young girl. Even though I am nearing forty, I look forward every year to hearing my birth story. The details of that cold night, the dead car, my mother’s refusal of pain medication, my father’s inclusion in the birth, are dramatic and romantic. Each year, I am surprised to discover something that I didn’t know before.
My children’s birth stories are different. I did not experience the surprise of my water breaking naturally, or the surge of nervous excitement that follows. I did not count contractions. With our first son, my water was broken in the hospital and my labor was induced with pitocin. After hours of pushing and vacuuming and forceps, I was rushed into surgery and our baby was finally cut from me.
I want to continue the birth story tradition that my mother began, but as I cuddle with Will or Miles on the eve of their birthdays, I find myself at a loss for words. Lying next to them in bed I see myself in the passenger seat of our car as Dale and I drive to the hospital. I see us checking into labor and delivery and my arm getting poked with IV’s. I see myself being numbed with a spinal. I see a curtain being drawn over my face so I don’t have to watch the insides of my own body, and I can’t tell this story to my children. I don’t like the words available to me like cesarean and high risk, and I struggle with “you were born” or “you were delivered” or “you were cut from my body.” I find myself hurrying through the memories and wondering if my sons are bored by their cold and clinical-sounding birth stories.
It’s been several weeks since our youngest son was born, and in my head I am already editing Reid’s story. I’m already thinking about how to make it sound better because on the third day in the hospital, a young nurse took my newborn son away from me. She said, “You shouldn’t be holding the baby when your blood sugar is so low.”
Reid and I were alone in the room when the nurse came. I’d pressed the call button because my blood sugar was dropping and I didn’t have any juice. Dale was at home with the boys, they were not coming to visit for another hour, and I could feel myself going down. When I tested my blood sugar, the meter read 37. Normal is 80-120. My hands were shaking and it felt like I was slipping. I needed help and was irritated because if I’d been at home I could have gone to the fridge for juice. But I wasn’t home; I was alone with my newborn son in the hospital. My blood sugar was precariously low and I was being asked to let go of my baby, to hand him over to someone else who could keep him safe. Because he wasn’t safe with me.
I felt small and helpless. I felt guilty, too, guilty for getting low, guilty for having this high risk body, guilty for handing over my son to someone more capable.
Home alone with “Baby Reid,” as his brothers call him, I’ve been working on his photo album. Will and Miles have their own albums, and while they’ve always enjoyed flipping through the pages to see what they looked like when they were brand new, they especially like to do so now. The photographs trace our long journey together and as I slide each one into the plastic casing, I think about my own birth story again. My mother has just given me a small faded green “Grandma’s Brag Book” that she recently discovered cleaning out her closet. In it are black and white photos of my birth. There is one of Mom and Dad holding me and their faces are young and filled with happiness and it hits me: my birth story isn’t perfect because my birth was perfect; it is perfect because it’s mine.
Becoming a mother again is reminding me how to use my own voice. So I will continue the family tradition of telling birth stories to my sons because I love hearing my own. I will tell them the truth about the hard work and the risks and the mistakes that are a part of being a woman with a chronic illness; I am the mother now, and these are our stories.