Saturday, April 17, 2010

Millie Writes:


I'd wanted to be a Mama since I was a baby myself. I was a teenager in the 1970s, when you just didn't say that when you grew up you wanted to be a housewife and a mother – those were the Women's Lib Years, when even consensual sex between a married couple was considered rape by some extremists and if a woman wasn't the Chairperson of the Board she'd BETTER be working with lepers in deepest Africa, because anything less was a disgrace to her gender. That wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to be a mother like my own mother was, a cookie-baking, story-telling, doll-clothes-sewing Mary Poppins. 

I was 24 when I had Joy, living with my husband on an Air Force base in Japan. We'd been married almost 3 years when she was born, he had a good, steady job and I was READY. I knew the minute I got pregnant – I just knew. It took the base hospital almost a month to figure it out, though. I started going in for pregnancy tests on Thursdays (the only day they did them) as soon as I missed my period, but week after week they would come back negative. I'm sure the orderlies began to dread Thursdays as much as I looked forward to them. I'd carefully collect that First Morning Pee (every drop more precious than gold!) and schlep it on the bus to the hospital, only to be told, “nope, you're not pregnant.” “Yes I am,” I'd insist, and stomp off in a huff. 

By the time we got a positive result there was no doubt in anybody's mind. I had morning sickness that lasted all day, every day (and it didn't go away until almost the 5th month). My boobs were swollen and sore, and my nipples felt like neon made of pain. I couldn't bear the taste or smell of onions, and the weird dreams I was having would have made Kafka run screaming to the nearest psychoanalyst. I lived on soda crackers and flat ginger ale, and any trip in the car was made remarkable by my poor husband having to pull over every two blocks so I could lean out and puke into the gutter. Oh, I was a radiant pregnant woman, all right. 

Perversely, I welcomed every one of these symptoms because they meant that I really WAS pregnant. Back then home pregnancy tests hadn't hit the market, and in between your diagnosis by a doctor and that first kick, there was a long dry period of wondering, “Well, if I'm really carrying a baby, how come nothing is any different?” Spending my waking hours crawling weakly between the bed and the toilet bowl, I'd smile to myself. Something was different, all right. 

Nowadays some military hospitals give some of the best care available anywhere, and even in those days most of them were pretty darn good. However, our base revolved around F16 fighters, and anything to do with ANYTHING else was pretty much an afterthought. When you couple this with the military attitude about spouses (“if we'd wanted you to have a family, we'd have issued you one”), the prenatal care was spotty at best. At worst, it was something of which the Marquis de Sade would have been proud. Obstetrics was handled by a revolving roster of MDs (I think they were chosen by the “short straw” method) and for my “internal” prenatal exam I drew a horrid, leathery battleaxe of a female doctor. It was impossible to determine her age with any accuracy; she could have been 55 or 85. Her hair was white and the skin around her mouth and eyes was deeply etched with wrinkles. At first I was a bit relieved – she was a woman, after all, with all the nurturing I hoped that implied – but that feeling changed as soon as she opened her mouth. 

“Look at you,” she sneered. “I see people like you all the time. You get yourselves pregnant and then expect US to deliver healthy babies. Well, it doesn't work like that. You made the choices that made you end up like . . . that -” and she gestured at my monstrous body, huddled and vulnerable under the paper dress - “and you're going to have to live with what it does to your baby. Now hold still and keep quiet. I'm going to take your blood pressure.” 

At the time I weighed 185 pounds; not slim by any means, but hardly circus-lady proportions, either. 

After that, the pregnancy was different. Where at first I had been delighted and floated through the days in a happy pink cloud (vomit-scented, yes, but pink), now I was terrified. Even though I took my prenatal vitamins religiously, ate exactly what I was supposed to eat, exercised and slept religiously, I was convinced that the damage was done. I had doomed this baby (whom I already adored with an unreasoning passion) to a life of deformity and idiocy through my own disgusting laziness and lack of willpower. The baby would pay for my grossness with a lifetime of suffering.

Early on in the pregnancy my blood pressure (which had always been on the low side of normal) went up about five points. The OB of the Day (not the Battleaxe, thank goodness) decided that I was at risk for toxemia and other complications so I should spend at least 3 hours every day lying on my left side (to keep the growing uterus off a major vein near the spine). Oh, and I was a fat cow whose baby would probably look like Sloth from “The Goonies” (this last was more of an implication). 

Much later I found out that this BP “spike” was due to how early my pregnancy was diagnosed – pregnant women have more blood so their blood pressure always goes up a little, but they usually don't start to receive prenatal care until it has already happened. Did they know this in 1986? Sure. However, my medical team thought it was more important to rule pregnant women with an iron fist and keep them in line than to waste time explaining things to them or answering their questions. (At one point I admitted to the Battleaxe that I had been having migraines. She pursed her lips and wrote me a prescription. I didn't recognize the name of the medication and timidly asked her how it worked. She snapped, “It cures headaches.” Needless to say that was the end of that conversation, though I didn't have the prescription filled, either – my sole act of medical rebellion.) 

What saved my sanity was the baby. We didn't know whether it was a boy or a girl, so we called it “Bean.” Once it grew big enough for me to feel the kicks, I was a total goner. It was as though I had a built-in friend. I believe this baby had a personality from conception – it would play games with us (Kick the Chime-Ball Off the Belly was a favorite), would wiggle when it heard either my voice or Daddy's (but no others), and loved it when I bathed. I'd sit in the water until I turned pruney and my husband would perch on the toilet, watching Bean roll and cavort in its own bath just a skin's-width away from us. Once Bean kicked Daddy out of the bed; and if there's anything more entertaining than a fetus with the hiccups, I don't know what it would be. The odd pregnancy dreams continued, and early in my 7th month I had an especially vivid one. I dreamed of a beautiful little girl with big brown eyes and shiny chestnut hair. She smiled at me with her pink rosebud lips and chirped, “Don't worry, Mama. I'm all right!” I was not a bit surprised to remember this dream three years later, looking at my pretty little brown-eyed, brown-haired girl. 

So we went along, excited and fearful, and we bought a crib and a bassinet, a car seat and lots of teeny clothing that seemed impossibly small. Since the Airman's (non-issued) dependents were multiplying the Air Force moved us from our off-base one-bedroom apartment into 3-bedroom military family housing. Oh, what loving care went into that nursery – from the ducky wallpaper border to the hand-made gingham curtains to the small fish tank sitting on the well-stocked bookshelf, every thing in that room was fussed over until it was Just Exactly Right. All that was left was to wait for the baby. 

But the baby wouldn't come! 

-Labor and Delivery- 

We had opted for a non-medicated delivery, since the only way the hospital would let the father into the delivery room was if the couple had their taken Lamaze classes. We had our doubts on the very first night, when we found the classes were taught by a childless male orderly who had never “technically” witnessed an actual birth. He was very enthusiastic about how what he called the “discomfort” of labor and birth could be totally erased by the proper breathing methods. We attended every class and practiced so diligently that I suspect my husband could have given birth himself. 

There's a milestone moment when you reach 8 ½ months of pregnancy, because the books tell you that your baby will be born full-term two weeks either side of that magic “nine month” mark. I took this to heart and at 8 ½ months I had my bags packed, my coat on, and was waiting by the door. A week passed and my husband's friends threw a surprise baby shower for us; nothing. Two weeks passed – it was my DUE DATE! - and my mom (who had sold her clothes, jewelry and Heaven only knows what else to finance the trip) arrived from the States; nothing. THREE weeks passed, and I knew I was destined to be the first woman in history to give birth to a fourth-grader. We watched a lot of videos while I lay on my left side. We saw every sight that area of Northern Japan had to offer, as my mom seemed determined to WALK that baby out of me. Finally one night after pizza and yet another movie marathon, I went to bed early with a backache (hardly a rare occurrence by this time; spines were really designed for one person's use only). 

I've heard a lot of pregnant women ask how they will know they're in labor. The usual answer, given with a knowing smile, is, “you'll know.” Well, I'm here to tell you that that is B.S. I've been in full-term labor three times, and the only similarity between them was that at the end a baby came out of me somehow. I sure didn't know it that first time; I woke up to pee several times during the night (also a usual thing when you have an eight-pound human using your bladder as a trampoline) and noticed the backache hadn't gone away, but didn't think much of it. The next morning I couldn't get comfortable, the backache would come and go and I began to feel nauseous whenever it came. Pretty soon the back pain was so bad I'd thrown up several times over the course of an hour. Finally (more for something to do than any other reason) I thought to time how long it was between pukes – and sure enough, it was about five minutes, regular as clockwork. 

Well THAT sure wasn't the beautiful picture I'd painted to myself, but we got bundled into the car and got to the hospital (me with a bucket clutched to my chest). It was a beautiful early-summer day, with little daisies peeking up through the grass and a few little powder-puff clouds in the sky. There were also an unusual number of fighter-jets in the sky, because (as we found out when we got into the hospital) the entire base was involved in an extremely realistic exercise to simulate what would happen if we were under attack. This meant that all military personnel were wearing full battle gear, including gas masks (which could only be removed in patients' rooms or the delivery room). 

I was admitted, shaved, and given an enema even though I tried weakly to protest that I'd been running from both ends for hours and there wasn't anything left up there. They put me in a hospital bed and measured me during contractions to see how far I was dilating. They insisted upon attaching a monitor to the baby's scalp, and when the electrodes kept detaching and sliding back out I was strapped on my back on the bed and ordered not to move. I was still not experiencing contractions in the normal sense (and never did, this time), but as paroxysms of excruciating pain in the small of my back. I know now that lying flat on your back is the very worst position for back labor, but at the time I had never heard of back labor. I did keep instinctively trying to turn on my side to alleviate the pain, until they strapped me down. 

Since we hadn't gone over any scenarios during the Lamaze classes but Classic Normal, I had no idea how to try and get a handle on the pain. Since we'd signed up for Natural Childbirth the orderlies wouldn't consent to me getting any kind of pain relief. My poor husband was frantic – his wife was obviously in agony, but everyone else in the room outranked him. Finally a sympathetic nurse noticed that I was becoming dehydrated from the constant vomiting and gave me a shot of something to counteract the nausea. It worked, all right, which was a blessing – but it worked by putting me to sleep between backaches, so I'd wake up at the peak of a contraction when it was much too late to do anything about it, scream until it was over, and then fall back to sleep. My poor mother – she sat through hours of listening to this from the waiting room, with no idea of what was going on. 

Well, things progressed, as these things are wont to do. Eventually the Doctor On Duty decided I was ready to push. This did not entail me being raised to a sitting position, or being encouraged to relax between contractions. Dear me, no. My hands were strapped to the bed frame (“So you can't touch the baby and ruin the sterile area”) and a “labor coach” came into the room. This labor coach was a pimply, gawky 18 year old Southern boy, whose sole contribution to the effort was to wait until the doctor gave him the nod before each contraction and then drawl, “C'mon, push! PUSH thay-at baby out!” 

I was a world-class pusher, I really was. Bean's head came into view on the first push. So did the umbilical cord, wrapped around the baby's neck. The doctor grabbed for the forceps, did a quick (non-medicated) episiotomy, and yanked Bean into the world. I can still hear the tenderness in her father's voice as he whispered wonderingly, “It's a little girl . . . ” 

There was just one problem. 

She was dead. 

I opened my eyes when she was out, just in time to catch a glimpse of something purple being raced away from the bed. I was completely forgotten as everyone in the room was galvanized into action. There was no little cry, no congratulations, nothing but the bark of orders being given. The OB was working furiously at something just out of my sight. I went cold, every emotion draining but sorrow and guilt draining away. 

Finally, after what felt like thirty years but was probably more like thirty seconds, the doctor glanced over and saw our faces. “Oh, she's okay,” he said – the most beautiful words in the English Language. “She just didn't want to breathe.” Then came the magical cry, and seconds later a flannel-wrapped bundle was laid in my arms. She stopped crying and looked at me with astonished eyes. Pink. Beautiful. All that dark hair. I kissed her and said, “Hi, Joy! I'm so glad to see you!” 

Totally worth it. 


  1. Wow! I laughed, cried, and think I peed a little reading this. Can't wait to read more! ~ Merri

  2. My dear, I about died when you said "There was just one problem. She was dead." Ugh! Don't DO that to me!

  3. Sorry, Honey. It turned out she wasn't, really - it was her wedding we went to almost a year ago!


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