When Birth Storms In

Five years ago this past weekend, I went into seventeen agonizing, drug-free hours of labor. I had decided on home delivery, based partly on the fact that an OB/GYN I consulted had precisely the attitude I loathe in some doctors. She didn't want to talk with me, she wanted to talk at me. She used scare tactics. She insisted only hospital deliveries are safe deliveries.

I didn't want a doomsayer hostilely orchestrating my foray into motherhood. I wanted a beautiful, natural, lemme-feel-this-life-affirming-pain experience. I wanted all sorts of homebirth-associated things. Well, not whale music in the background, but you get the picture. So I ditched the doc in favor of a midwife.

Unfortunately, when shove came to push at my end, there were complications. We'd made a wrong choice. Although too many unnecessary C-sections are said to be performed, we discovered that this was one of those occasions when a C-section would have been the best move.

It was too late to transport me to the hospital. I will never forget the midwife saying, "If you don't get him out now, he's going to die." She had to say this--nothing else was getting through to me. I couldn't make my brain connect with the muscles needed to do the job. He was wedged inside, a cork too big for its bottle. All present panicked.

Somehow, we got him out, but he was not breathing. The midwife barked orders at my friend Lisa, medical shorthand that Lisa--a nursing student--understood. I lay there, in shock, not knowing if this child was a boy or a girl, alive or dead.

The midwife thumped his feet, shouted, "Come on, breathe. COME ON, BREATHE." She and Lisa put him on oxygen. Neil called 911. This must've been how it felt on the Titanic.

Near impossible to believe, there came a flash of comic relief. Staff at 911 sent the wrong ambulance crew--not skilled enough. Next came the correct paramedics. Some cops saw the ambulances, so they popped by too. It was just like a party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Only completely different.

Here's what I guess they saw, this gaggle of awestruck civil servants: me, on the bed, blood everywhere, my T-shirt hitched up to my ears, this for all appearances the set of a low-budget horror film, certainly not a planned event. Suddenly I groaned.

"Does the mother need to be transported?" asked a paramedic. The midwife told him no and me, "PUSH."

Push? Again? Twins? GOD NO. No, not twins. The placenta. We forgot the dang placenta. So I pushed, letting first fly the biggest, loudest gas in my life and then here comes this thing I refuse to describe. Suffice it to say I think I never got a traffic ticket after that because those cops truly feared me and what I was capable of--it was pretty obvious they'd never seen an afterbirth.

Things returned to real somber mighty fast. My son (at last, someone told me, "It's a boy") spent several days in intensive care. There were such sick babies there--my near ten-pound child flanked by others, some less than one-third his weight, though months older than he. Some babies who wouldn't make it out. Not one visiting parent wearing the joyous expression one is supposed to sport as a new parent.

I knew the most important thing was that he live and be healthy. Still, I had selfish thoughts--thoughts beyond just wanting him to live--because we all have selfish thoughts, even in situations like this. I worried the doctors would yell at me for choosing homebirth. I wondered if that first OB/GYN had been right after all: that all this was my fault. Then I felt bad for picking on myself, for second-guessing when second-guessing was of no help. I wasn't wrong to choose a homebirth. Things go wrong with hospital deliveries, too. Birth is a very intense and potentially risky proposition wherever it occurs. Back and forth I alternately argued with me, and prayed for my son.

The assigned pediatrician re-emphasized what I dislike in many doctors. He was cold and distant and would only say, "He's not out of the woods yet." I suppose he did not want personal involvement. Certainly, he did not want a lawsuit should the hint of a good prognosis prove incorrect. I will always be grateful he saved my son. But, I'll also never forget he denied me emotional support when I most needed it in my life.

Other things upset me. I had no insurance and no money. Everything I earned working (overtime, on my feet, in a restaurant until just days before labor) went to the midwife. I could not have afforded a hospital birth. I certainly couldn't afford five days of Neonatal ICU at nearly a thousand bucks a day. So I used Medicaid, although I had worked so hard to avoid public assistance. That, combined with my status as single, tossed me into a rather pariah-like demographic: poor, unmarried, sick baby.

As if money and a gold band and a good job would have guaranteed a healthy child. I knew otherwise, but couldn't fully escape self-blame because I was raised on guilt. I let the walls scream at me, "If only you'd done it right." Now I see I did do it right--the right just turned out wrong, the way it sometimes does. But self-consolation does not come readily when you have to scrub down and wear a paper gown to hold your baby, a baby with a catheter in his forehead and a tube down his throat. I was not alone in blaming me, either. There was, from certain camps both medical and not, a discernable if silently implied, "Tsk, tsk, naughty girl."

Fortunately, there also was a nurse who sensed my feelings. She pulled me aside, told me she assisted in homebirths, and--I loved her for this--said, "Don't worry, I won't let anyone give you any bull." She showed up one shift sporting a HOMEBIRTH sweatshirt, and I knew that was no coincidence. She was hopeful, and she pushed to get Henry off a respirator and breastfeeding as soon as possible.

Though she was an angel to me, she was not without her opinions. We both knew that, at least in Missouri, where I gave birth, doctors and midwives hold open disdain for each other. She told me I erred in having only one midwife, rather than two (one for me, one for my son). She told me both sides were wrong in their distrust of the other. That I should never think in solid black or white.

So I thought hard about the schism and why it exists. Midwives have the patience women wish more doctors had. They know that each birth is a gigantic event in the life of each mother, not some medical routine. Midwives also have holistic knowledge many doctors refuse to consider--modern medicine seems to work just fine for them. On the flipside, some midwives--perhaps based on scorn suffered--adopt a sort of outlaw behavior, waiting too long to use medical intervention when medical intervention could be the key to a safer birth.

I still think homebirths are a swell idea, although, as you might imagine, I'm far less averse to the concept of hospital births. I once read an essay that pointed out the method of a child's arrival is less important than a safe arrival. Point well taken. Still, that's not to say the sadistic delivery methods of just twenty years ago were ever okay--women shaved and strapped down and knocked unconscious, given no say in the process. Some doctors still take measures that need not be taken.

If ever I have another child, midwives have suggested I go the hospital route. Based solely on the fallout of having six pre-schoolers for my son's fifth birthday/slumber party the other night, I'm not so sure another kid is in my cards. But if it happens, I will shop and shop until I find a doctor who listens to how I want things to be, who is willing to incorporate holistic techniques, to allow me a midwife birthing partner.

It stinks that, in addition to dealing with swollen abdomens and ankles, morning sickness, and contractions, we have to deal with pregnancy politics. But there is a payoff down the road if you demand what you want from whomever you choose to assist your birth--doctors and midwives are finally listening to each other on a broader scale than before, at least in my town anyway. I'm happy to report one hospital here just hired two midwives. Alright, that's one down. A bazillion to go. Now push.


Spike Gillespie is the single mother of a seven-year-old, Henry. She first wrote this essay two years ago for an online magazine. She and her son live in Austin, Texas, where Gillespie lives the edgy life of a freelance writer. Her work has appeared, among other places, in Elle, Self, GQ, Mademoiselle, Texas Monthly, Sesame Street Parents Magazine, Parenting Magazine, and National Geographic Traveler. In 1999, Simon and Schuster will publish her first book, a memoir titled: One Hundred Wrong Men and One Perfect Little Boy. Her article about the problems with spanking appeared in the June issue of Minnesota Parent.

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