The second time I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a dream; this had happened the previous night, too, at about the same time. My eight-months-pregnant wife called to me from the bathroom in a panicked tone right when my body had just started to really fall asleep. Last night she noticed some bleeding; I had stayed calm and told her to call our midwife to ask for advice. The midwife said that it was nothing to worry about and that she would see us at our already-scheduled appointment the next night. Well, here we were several hours after said appointment and we’re at it again. But why? More bleeding? The midwife was confident that everything was okay, so why am I being woke again?
“I think my water broke.”
The movies do this a lot. A pregnant woman’s water breaks at an inopportune time and then it’s a quick edit to stock footage of an ambulance and then a “new” baby (played by a 4-month old) lying in the hospital nursery being admired by extended family through a window. That was movie fiction. Women’s water actually breaking isn’t actually a thing, is it? At least, not common enough that this could possibly be what happened . . . right? We called the midwife again and this time she told us to go straight to her office so we could check. On the way we rang Abigail, our close friend and doula, who met us there to confirm that, yes, Dona’s water had broke. We also confirmed that since she was 36 weeks along–days short of “full term”–that our plans for the birthing center were out the window. We were off to UW Medical Center.
We called the grandparents, went back to our place to pack while Abigail picked up some provisions, and then very unceremoniously bid farewell to our two-person-plus-cat family.
Dona was checked in and Abigail and I waited with her in a very small room with lots of scary hospital stuff everywhere. She was tended to by a very friendly nurse that couldn’t have been older than 16 who did some initial checks to verify the status of the baby and prepped Dona for a sonogram to “make sure the baby was head-down.”
Well that was easy. Of course Clara was head-down. Every time the midwives checked Dona since the baby was big enough to feel, we were told that she was head-down. Just hours prior our midwife had confirmed it again. But looking at the sonogram, the nurse wasn’t so sure. She went to find a doctor to confirm what she was seeing, and what she was seeing–it turns out–was that Clara was head-up. I believe “breeched” is not the proper term for it, but I say it anyway. The doctor very casually said that we needed to prepare for a c-section as quickly as possible.
My mind was racing a million miles an hour. We had heard all of the horror stories of doctors forcing c-sections on uneducated mothers because it’s easier and quicker for the hospitals; we had also been told that our best defense is knowing our options. I needed to object, and fast, but what could be done? The baby was head-up, and I knew that a breech birth wasn’t going to happen (nor did I want it to). I’d heard about turning the baby in the womb. Yes! That’s it! I’ll tell the doctor that we want to try to turn the baby.
As if she was reading my mind in the 0.4 seconds it took to process all of that, the doctor continued, “Turning the baby is not an option; since her butt is down, her head did not seal the cervix and nearly all of the amniotic fluid has come out; there’s nothing in there now but the baby.”
I was speechless. I didn’t believe that the hospital preferred by our midwife, precisely because they were so good at handling transfer cases from birthing centers, would lie to us. It all certainly sounded logical. So internally I accepted where we were.
The doctor seemed to be better at picking up non-verbal cues from my wife than I was, because she concluded with, “I’ll give you a few minutes,” and left the room. My logic-based evaluation and acceptance of our situation did not take into account the emotional impact this was having on Dona. As the doctor left the room, Abigail went straight to Dona to comfort her; seeing that caused me to snap into action, too. In my quick processing of our situation, I had forgotten about the emotional impact that ending up at the polar opposite of our birth plans would have on my wife; she was about to be cut open, too. That didn’t help. She cried and we prayed and then did our best to accept where we were, and to even focus on getting to meet our daughter earlier than expected.
Actually that part of it was hard to get excited about. You see, we were planning on moving in just under two weeks. We had the apartment packed up (with baby stuff buried, as it was packed first) and plans to spend at least our first week in the new place getting it ready for the baby. Now we had no idea what we were going to do. But there we were regardless. Also, I had been unemployed for the previous four months and had just accepted another temporary contract with Amazon that afternoon. I was relieved to be going into this situation knowing I’d have work when Dona couldn’t, and the miracle-like timing was not lost on me (or Dona), but it was far from ideal and I’d been turned down for some very good permanent jobs that previous summer, and now Dona going into labor was punctuating the frustration and helplessness of my ongoing job situation.
Quite a bit of the next few hours is a blur. I know that at some point, Dona was put on a bed and wheeled off somewhere, and Abigail and I got some mad scrubs. Lots of different doctors came to visit Dona and go over various aspects of the surgery. A pediatrician came to talk to us for a few minutes–a young guy, probably about our age–and at the end of his speech he asked if we had any questions. Abigail said, “Yeah, I do–are you from St. Louis?” It turns out they were in plays together back in the day and he had been good friends with one of her brothers. That was a fun moment to relieve some of the mile-high stress we’d been under. Eventually they wheeled Dona away to the operating room and Abigail and I soon followed.
The room looked much like I expected it to. Cold, technical, full of strange smart people with face masks on. Dona was lying on a table with her arms stretched straight out and everything from her chest down behind a curtain. I sat next to her and kept my face next to hers as the surgery seemed to start almost immediately. She was working overtime to keep herself from having a panic attack, and I tried my best to keep her focused on getting to meet Clara early. At her request I told a silly little story I’d made up the night before (and told to Clara in utero) about the hedgehog-holding-a-strawberry toy we’d bought at IKEA months prior, to keep her distracted.
My memory tells me now that the surgery went very quickly, but I also remember at the time it seemed to take hours. Finally, the surgeons told Abigail and I that we could stand up and look over the curtain–I wasn’t aware that we weren’t allowed to beforehand. It was hard to decipher what was what, with all the blood and iodine and surgical cloths, but for a moment I was sure that Dona’s intestines were hanging out and put to the side. I’m certain now it was the umbilical cord.
They started to pull Clara out of her mother, feet first, and somehow managed to get her head stuck. Every possible bad outcome flashed through my mind during that struggle; I wanted to run around and do it for them because it seemed like they were seriously over complicating it. But they did get her all the way out and I quickly glanced at the clock, and it said 5:11 a.m. All of her documentation says 5:10 a.m., but darnit I know better.
I caught glimpse of her face as they carried her to the warming table. Dona and I had many discussions about what she would look like. Dona was afraid she’d be ugly; I assured her that no matter what, she’d be beautiful to her mother. That never seemed to comfort her too much. My first thought when I saw her face was that she looked like Dona’s family far more than she did mine.
The night we found out Dona was pregnant, we called all the grandparents-to-be to tell them the exciting news, and my mother-in-law said, paraphrased, “I knew you were pregnant; I had a vision of a little girl with a full head of dark hair.” Well, it was a few months before this surgery that we’d learned that she was right about it being a girl; as they carried her to the warming table I saw that she was also right about the hair.
“Oh no, Dona. She has a full head of dark hair.”
Dona knew immediately what I was talking about, “Oh great.”
Another good moment to relieve some tension.
I remember silence from the baby while she was on the warming table and what seemed like 30 doctors surrounding her. I felt each millisecond that went by that she didn’t cry, but no doctors or assistants seemed to be anything but calm. Finally, she started crying and the look that crossed Dona’s face was one I wasn’t prepared for. All of the stress and panic was gone in an instant. “Oh my gosh,” I think she said in a tone full of wonder. I don’t know why that reaction from her surprised me so much–maybe because I was so caught up in how I was reacting to it that it was shocking to be reminded that Dona and I often do things very differently. Or maybe it was because I was seeing her as a mother for the first time.
I was invited over to the warming table to cut the umbilical cord. Clara was still crying; I approached her and let her hold my finger and started talking to her the same way I’d been talking to her nearly every night for weeks as Dona and I would go to bed. She calmed down instantly. They had the cord crimped and handed me the scissors and I started to cut it, and she started crying again. They’re not supposed to be able to feel that! Great, first thing I do to my daughter is calm her down right before hurting her.
They weighed her and swaddled her and I carried her to Dona. Again, I’m not sure why Dona’s reaction surprised me so much, but it did. We only got a few short moments to take some photos, and then Clara had to be wheeled off to the NICU. Thankfully I got to go with her.
I have video of this journey. I won’t be sharing it here, though, as it’s mostly my feet on screen and the dialogue is me rambling on in post-panic fashion to the nurses about how my foot had to be put in a cast when I was born.
In the NICU they checked her vitals and noted that her body temperature was low. Since she was a preemie she didn’t have enough fat stored up to insulate her properly. They were getting ready to put her under a heating lamp, but all of the time we’d spent preparing for NOT having a birth in a hospital paid off here. I asked if I could instead do skin-to-skin time with her. The nurses looked at each other in surprise that a new dad would think to ask that, but they were enthusiastic about it. So that’s what we did. I held Clara to my chest for at least a half hour, called my dad, tried to return some texts with one hand, and talked with the nursing staff. This time much calmer. The skin-to-skin time worked and Clara’s temperature was raised to an acceptable level. She was swaddled again and we took her to the recovery room to Dona to try to nurse for the first time.
I know that Dona was completely exhausted, feeling a lot of worry over her recovery from the surgery, and keeping herself from getting to upset over how things turned out with the birthing process. But the memory I have of her when I walked into the room with Clara was none of that–instead it was of a strong, beautiful woman far more ready to begin motherhood than I was to begin fatherhood. She’d probably have disagreed.
We were eventually checked into our room, which became our home for the next few days. They took Clara back to the NICU to allow us time to sleep. It was probably around 9 a.m. at this point. After some rest we finally updated Facebook, made a couple more phone calls, and I got my start date for the job moved back a week. At this point my mother-in-law was already on her way to Seattle from Illinois and we had all the arrangements made to get her to us. I felt guilty at the time, but I was relieved to have the nursing staff watching Clara for so much of the time those first couple days. I didn’t have any idea what to do and having some professionals pace me into parenthood was a blessing. Also the room service was nice. What wasn’t nice was our second evening there, I was holding Clara and my back decided to go out on me. Bad. I’d been sleeping on a hard bench for two nights and walking around on hard tiled floors with no shoes for nearly 48 hours at that point, so my back was done celebrating, I guess.
Dona had checked into the hospital in the early morning of October 16. We checked out and went home in the evening of October 19. It wasn’t very long before I missed the nursing staff at UW Med.
Clara was on a strict 2-hour feeding cycle since she was premature, and apparently premature babies (far more than full term babies) are capable of sleeping through being hungry. Which is bad for babies. It would be a good thing for a bachelor, as this former long-time bachelor could tell you. But babies? You want to avoid that. Let me assure any and all child-free advocates out there who have the audacity to compare their all-nighters to the sleepless nights of parenting–you’ve never experienced tired like caring for a preemie on a two-hour feeding schedule. Especially a preemie that’s just not that interested in eating and would rather sleep. You know what, little girl? I’d rather sleep, too. But more than that I’d rather you not die. Thankfully despite being a month early, Clara was very good at gaining weight and was on to on-demand feeding within the week.
Looking back I’m not entirely sure how we made it through that, our move a week later, or the three months I spent working 50-60 hour weeks while Dona cared for an infant almost entirely on her own. That’s a pretty cliche refrain, too. “I don’t know how we did it, but we did.” But we have so far. To me, and to friends and extended family, this last year has flown by. The first five months or so dragged like the first five months of third grade, but then things started to speed up. I feel like I barely was able to blink. Dona, on the other hand, has said that this year has NOT flown by for her; she’s felt every second of it. Between the first two-and-a-half months of having to supplement nursing with formula, to the unpredictable sleep patterns Clara has gone in and out of, to needing to come off of her maternity leave a few weeks early to start working from home part time, I can’t say that I’m surprised it hasn’t flown by for her.
So what lessons have been learned? Well, I’ve learned that you should be ready for the baby by at least week 35. I’ve learned that you should hold your birthing plans loosely. I’ve learned that to a modern parent, Google is the best companion ever. I’ve learned that hospitals are stupidly expensive and they’ll throw bills at you even nearly a year later. I’ve learned that compliments on your baby’s best features can get pretty tiring coming from every stranger in the grocery store. I’ve learned that having a kid gets more and more fun the older they get. I’ve learned that while wanting to have “life in order” before having a kid is not necessarily a bad idea, taking a leap and just going for it works just fine.
So a big Happy Birthday to my little Clara Marie. Despite me being unemployed yet again, I’m more confident about our next year than I was about our first and just as excited.