Ten years ago today, I went into labor for the very first time. I was 24 years old, living in a big city with no family and no friends -- just me and my husband. At this time of night (about 10:15 PM), I'd been in labor for about 6 hours and it had become apparent that when the nurse said, "They're going to be doing some work on the building tonight," what she meant was, "They're going to shut off all the water to our wing tonight, and you won't be able to flush the toilet, and we'll run out of water for ice chips, and, oh, by the way, did the Orioles win?" The doctor on the first shift made fun of me for trying different labor positions. The doctor on the second shift had been on for about five minutes when, in the midst of debating whether or not to prep me for an emergency C-section, Gareth's heart rate plunged. Then there was no time for a C-section; they pulled him out with vacuum suction when I was still only 8 cm dilated. Immediately the room filled up with nurses, residents, other doctors, prepared to rush a fragile, blue baby to the NICU.
His first newborn wails were the sweetest sounds I had ever heard. He wasn't blue at all. He was a healthy wriggling little pink baby boy, and when they put him into my arms for the first time, and I looked down into his wide gray eyes -- gazing up at the ceiling tiles and the bright lights in wonder -- I promised him, I will never take you for granted.
Giving birth has always been a frightening experience for me, and not just because it involves pain. My mother -- my biological mother -- died giving birth to me. I have heard that she was conscious for about twenty minutes after I was born. I have often wondered, was she even able to hold me? Was she able to count my fingers and toes, and look down into my gray newborn eyes looking up at her? Did I ever see her face?
My mother died of an amniotic embollism. A bubble of amniotic fluid somehow entered her blood stream. It entered her lungs and killed her. The odds of amniotic embollism in childbirth are extremely low. No hereditary conditions cause amniotic embollism. It is a freak accident.
When I was pregnant with Gareth, I looked up all this information in a medical textbook. The book I read listed the odds of dying in childbirth in 1972, the year I was born. Was it 1 in 13 million, or 13 in 1 million? I'm not sure now. I remember reading the numbers and closing the book. I remember folding my arms over the book and resting my forehead on them, and looking down into the small dark place I had created, and breathing in the musty scent of the book's cover and the university library, all the other books with meaningless numbers in them. I remember the hum of the air conditioner.
The first three months of my pregnancy with Gareth were a lot like that small dark place. I don't remember much about them, except that the smell of bread made me sick, and that I took a walk one cold, wet May day to think about things, and I spent many hours on the couch reading fantasy novels. I wondered if I would die, too, but I didn't want to think about it, so I didn't think about anything.
Not thinking about anything was actually an improvement in my life at the time. The month before I discovered I was pregnant with Gareth I had almost lost a years-long struggle with depression. When I say "almost lost" I mean I was thinking about suicide. And I thought about it a lot. I didn't know why my mother should have been the one to die, and I should have been the one to live, when I was obviously (so I thought) unsuited to life in this world. I hated my job as a technical writer. I had dropped out of my graduate program in anthropology among a kerfluffle of disapproval. My parents (my father remarried when I was 4) had always urged me to be practical, but I wasn't. I wasn't practical in any way, shape, or form. Seventeen years of institutional schooling had convinced me that I was weird and wrong and bored me to tears. I'd been labeled "gifted", but what did that really mean? Not much. Anything I was good at or wanted to learn seemed to be the wrong thing. By the time I was 24 I felt like a polar bear at the zoo --pacing back and forth, back and forth neurotically, unadapted to the climate, frustrated at the boundaries it was forced to live in, but unable to get out. I wanted to write stories. And I wanted to have babies. I didn't want to wait. I didn't want to "just accept that you will live with guilt", the way one therapist told me. Or "that you might have to keep that job for five years or so," as another said, instead of something that might really have helped me, such as:
It's good that you want to have a family, because that's what marriage is for. Quit your job, have babies, stay home with them, and enjoy them. Eat ramen noodles. Make due with one car. Babies are so much more important. You can write your stories while they nap.
Nobody told me this, but it's what I did anyway. At the time, my husband and I knew nothing about Catholic teachings regarding children and marriage. We decided, one cold January, that we were ready to have children. Then we decided that we were not. But it didn't matter at that point. Because God knew what we needed, and he sent him to us in a little gray-eyed bundle.
As I lay in bed in the delivery room and watched the clock hands tick away the minutes after Gareth was born -- five, ten, fifteen, twenty -- I finally began to relax a little. I finally began to think that I was not going to die, that I was going to have all the chances that my mother never had: the chance for chubby baby fingers to close around my own, the chance to inhale that newborn baby scent when I pressed him up close to my face -- the chance to watch as he crawled and walked and ran and read and turned ten years old, and his feet bigger than mine already.
A nurse once marveled that I would even consider having children "with my history". But what kind of life do you lead if you let fear control it?
Some day, when he's older, maybe I'll tell Gareth the whole story. For now I try hard to live that promise I made to him when he was only minutes old:
I will never take you for granted.
Happy Birthday, Buddy.