Sweet 16 – part one
I always saw myself having a daughter. When I was in high school, I could see her in my imagination standing on a hill. Her back was turned to me and I could see her long dark hair. When the time finally came in my life that I was ready to be a mom, it wasn’t as easy as it was for so many others. There was a lot of testing and a lot of procedures, but nothing magically allowed an answer as to why conception was so difficult.
I would cry when I saw other women with their little girls and my husband would tell me, “You’ll have your little girl someday.” Eventually, we decided to try a round of Clomid, a medication that tells your body to ovulate. In today’s medical world, there are oral prescriptions. For me, it was shots into my belly. We only did the one month. It felt too artificial for me, forced and scheduled. Something about the process allowed me to take a step back, to be okay with the fact that this little girl was not ready to come into our lives.
That month after Clomid (which wasn’t successful), I was acting in a children’s theater production near Sacramento. I’m sure you can imagine the type; get dressed in a very silly animal costume, meet waves of buses as they drop off hundreds of children who fill the auditorium.
Ironically, I played the mama bird, sitting on my giant egg, singing to her, waiting for my baby to hatch. There were cages and kidnappings and silly dance numbers. I’m not sure I even saw the connection between the role I was playing and my own life. If I did, I wasn’t affected by it. The play had become a distraction.
On our final day of acting during the first week of February, the woman playing my baby bird brought in a chicken salad. The smell of it was offensive, the look of it made me want to gag, everything about the chicken had my system on high alert.
My cycle wasn’t late, and I didn’t see it as some sort of clue that our lives were about to change. On my birthday, February 10th, my husband took me for a motorcycle ride. I felt myself cramping, different cramping than I was used to, and that was my first thought that maybe, possibly, could it be? The repulsion of chicken hadn’t gone away, was it a possible sign? I didn’t want to get my hopes up and guessed it might only be my cycle which was due right around that time. So I waited a few more days.
Finally, on the morning of Valentine’s Day, I decided to take the test. For the first time ever, it was positive. I gave my husband a Valentine’s Day Card which announced the news that I was finally, after so many tears, pregnant.
Anyone wanting a pregnancy knows the anxiety and fear that accompany the process. Do you tell people when the risk of miscarriage is so high? Do you choose to keep it a secret, knowing you’ll be alone through the process if something goes wrong? I chose to tell. I knew that if something happened to this pregnancy, I would need the support of my family and friends to help me move through the grief.
Nothing bad happened. I told everyone she would be a she. I had seen her standing on that hill for so long, I just couldn’t imagine a boy. My husband liked to tease me though, telling me he was pretty certain we were having a boy. Even after the 22-week ultrasound, in which they said “Most likely a girl, but not a perfect view”, he continued to sew doubt. (He said after she was born that he knew she was going to be a girl, he thought I knew he was joking. I didn’t.)
Before I met my husband, I had an amazing 140 lb Rottweiler. That dog was my everything. Sweet and loving, basically my big baby. People would cross the street away from us when they saw me walking him. I had photo-processing people ask if he was a bear because he looked so massive in pictures of him at a distance.
He was just so much love, even if he came in a scary-looking package. But I worried about a newborn baby and a 140 lb dog. How would his life change and would we need to worry about our baby’s safety? Would there need to be gates and separation?
At about 4 months into my pregnancy, we noticed his right knee was swollen. It was a rapidly growing cancer; osteosarcoma. He needed his leg amputated along with chemotherapy. His left leg and hip, however, were arthritic and he often struggled to move from sitting to standing with both legs.
We knew that amputation wasn’t the right choice for him, given his size and arthritis. We chose to give him as much love as was possible in his time left. We promised to give him a humane death when the pain became too much. But what is too much in a dog? They hide their pain so well. He walked me through much of my pregnancy, quite literally along the Sacramento River, past Old Town, and under the I Street bridge.
I know now how painful this diagnosis is for the animal living with it, and wish I had known at the time. But I didn’t, and so we did the best we could with the information given.
About 6 weeks before I was due, he woke us at 2 a.m. in terrible pain. For the first time in his life, he snapped at my husband. He bit him. Not hard enough to break the skin, but hard enough to understand how horrible this was for him. We loaded him into our car for his last ride. Even now, the grief of that night weighs on me.
I felt like we waited too long despite the fact that we were watching closely for any and every sign. We think the tumor finally grew to the point that it ruptured his knee while he slept. I sat on the floor of the emergency vet, crying hysterically, 34 weeks pregnant at 3 a.m. We said our goodbyes. I loved him so much and I’m so very grateful for the time I had with him.
While his death came far too soon, and despite the fact of waiting one day too long, his death allowed me time to grieve. Had our baby already been born, would I have been able to be as present with him in his final days? Would I have been able to fully grieve, knowing I would need to be present for her? Had he died earlier, would I have had the anticipation of our child coming to allow me some sense of peace in his passing? He chose a time that allowed space in grief while allowing time to recover and prepare.
The weeks passed. I grieved. My excitement and joy returned. But, in all honesty, I knew nothing about birth. My husband was military and so we did the one required military birthing class. They made us hold a bag of ice to practice breathing through the discomfort. My husband lasted far longer than I did. I have struggled with pain my whole life and even the ice was unbearable. I had wanted to give birth at a birth center in Davis, CA, but our insurance didn’t cover it and it was more than we felt we could afford at the time. So we planned for the Air Force Base.
My mom had been a La Leche League advisor growing up and I would go with her when she would help other women. I went to the meetings. I remember trips to other women’s houses to help them latch while she was nursing my sister. I remember bits of a gathering at the State Capital. She believed in extended nursing and I planned to do the same. I read books, and learned about the proper latch. When it came to breastfeeding, I was prepared.
But birth, birth itself? Nothing other than holding a bag of ice. This was still 3 years before “The Business of Being Born” came out. How I wish that movie had been available to pregnant me. I knew nothing about home births, did people actually still do those? What I knew of a birth center was that it was basically out of our price range.
I had had many spinal taps a few years earlier, so I knew I could handle an epidural if I needed it. I visited labor and delivery and their anesthesiologist to be sure that my spine was safe for an epidural. (I even discovered that my spine has a slight twist, which explained why my earlier taps were so complicated and so excruciating.).
And we waited. I was due around October 21st but during the first week of October (around 38 weeks), I began to vomit. I couldn’t stop, it just kept coming. We drove the hour to the military hospital and they said I was in labor. They checked my cervix and it was just barely open. (By the way, I don’t know how many people experience pain when their cervix is checked, but for me, it was terrible. It felt like my cervix was being ripped out each and every time.)
With every contraction, I threw up. With every contraction, my intestines spasmed. They started me on anti-nausea meds and as my vomiting stopped, so did my contractions.
They sent me home, telling me it would be soon. My husband’s job told him not to come in until this baby was born.
Again, we waited.
I have a passion for birth stories. I love hearing about the experiences that other women have gone through. I think it’s important that we support each other through this process, whether it is natural birth, C-section, home birth, hospital birth, birth centers, the grief of miscarriages, the experience of abortion, menopause, hysterectomies, first periods, and every other aspect of our reproductive rights and experiences. I would love to add the stories of other women to honor the collective experience and help us to learn from and honor each other.
Are you interested in telling your birth story? Are you interested in sharing the experiences you have around reproduction, from your first period to menopause and everything in between? Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and title “Birth Stories” in the subject line.