Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Perfect Birth

We've seen it a million times, played out in movies and on sitcoms until it seems perfectly normal. A pregnant woman (slim and lovely everywhere but her tummy) awakens in the night to labor pains. She shakes awake her spouse, who fumbles around in a panic, putting his pants on backwards, losing his car keys and finding them again, before they get into the car and speed to the hospital or birthing center. They are met at the entrance by a kindly, efficient nurse who ushers the laboring mother into a wheelchair and whisks her into a delivery room. There she writhes around in the bed, screams at her husband, and, when her wisecracking obstetrician arrives, is told to push. After a few intense minutes, the baby emerges, wet and screaming, and is placed on the mother's chest. She is enraptured, transformed, a member of the eternal Sisterhood, connected to all women throughout all time. Proud papa cuts the cord, the goo is swabbed off, and baby is brought to the breast for the first time. Mommy looks into baby's eyes, the angels sing, and they are instantly and profoundly bonded. Variations of this scenario have become engraved in our consciousness and we've come to expect, even demand, that this is how our own births should go.

For the vast majority of women in the world, this simply doesn't happen. For most, birth is a drawn-out, arduous, dangerous process. Things can and do go wrong, and the outcome of a birth can not be predicted in advance. Complications, both maternal and fetal, arise frequently. Breech presentation. Preeclampsia. Gestational diabetes. For some women, myself included, the baby just won't fit through the pelvis. Luckily for me, I live in a wealthy and prosperous nation. My pregnancy was carefully monitored and, when the disparity in size between his head and my pelvis became apparent, a C-section was scheduled. Many women in the world are not so lucky; they labor for days until the baby dies, at which point it is removed, piece by piece. These women are often left with fistulas, causing them to be incontinent, and shunned by their families and villages. They lose everything, their babies, their husbands, their societal status, due to nothing more than being unlucky enough to be born into a third-world society, devoid of modern obstetrics.

Devastating loss is not confined to the third world. Even with our amazing technological advances, women in more advanced countries still lose babies. I used to attend a support group for pregnancy and infant loss, and I've seen firsthand the sorrow and guilt a mother faces when she loses a child. I've seen pictures of a stillborn baby, so beautiful and perfectly formed, so tragically still and lifeless. I remember, and will never forget, the names of the dead. Brisa, Meredith, Bridget Bell. These are all children that never were. Their parents hold onto those names, as they hold onto anything that connected them to their lost children. In their short time on earth, these babies were beloved.

In light of these tragedies, questions of pain management, birth plans, laboring positions, and the birth "experience" seem trivial. To a woman who has experienced loss, any birth that ends in a live baby is a success. If that baby is healthy and the delivery is not nightmarish, well, that's icing on the cake. And to any idealist who insists that there's only one right way to give birth and that mothers are entitled to have it that way, I have only two words: fuck you.

In my case, the knowledge of this suffering stripped away not only my delusions, but my very ability to delude myself. I could no longer kid myself that certain things were "meant to be" or to believe that old cliche that states "everything happens for a reason". It was a rough road to skepticism and, while I'm not happy to have gone through such heartache, I am glad to have my blinders stripped off and the world laid bare. Because, although nature can be cruel, it can also be full of majesty and wonder, and when you open yourself up to sad truths, you also open yourself up to profound joy and awe.

When I heard my baby cry for the first time, as he was yanked through an incision in my abdomen, I felt that sense of awe, along with a wash of relief. After nine months of constant worry, he was finally out, and he was wonderfully, gloriously, alive. I didn't mind that he was promptly whisked away to be poked, prodded, tested and weighed. I knew he was in competent, professional hands, watched over by his proud father. The nurse put a cool hand on my brow and told me I could take a nap if I wanted, while they stitched me up. I closed my eyes and reveled in the knowledge that we had both made it, that my beautiful son and I had the rest of my lifetime to get to know each other.

Birth is only the beginning of motherhood, as a wedding is only the beginning of the marriage. The rite of passage isn't nearly as important as what follows. Thanks to the incredible stroke of luck that had me born in America, I am now a mother. And no woman on this planet, living or dead, has ever loved her child more than I love mine, regardless of how that child was born.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cohabitation is Eeeevilll

We took our boy to the pediatrician last week for his six month checkup. As usual, we waited way too long (over an hour) to actually see the doctor. And, as usual, we soothed our impatience by reminding ourselves that we love our son's doctor, and so does our son. Dr. H is affable, friendly, a little goofy-looking. He reminds me of a Muppet with his big smile and googly eyes behind his thick glasses. When he bustles into the exam room, full of good cheer, we always feel better about the excessive wait in the claustrophobia-inducing well-baby waiting room, the incompetence of the front desk staff, and the rudeness of his young nurses.

This visit was no different, at first. After Harrison's weigh-in and measurements, we were presented with a packet of photocopied pages outlining milestones, vaccine schedules, feeding requirements, etc. etc. My husband (who is kind enough to accompany us when he can) flipped through the packet while we waited for the nurse to come in with the array of required shots. He was stunned to come across a sheet of paper titled: COHABITATION. According to this document, "research" shows that cohabitation (living together without being married) causes many "problems for the couple, children of the union, and society." It goes on to claim that cohabitating couples are  more likely to engage in domestic violence, more likely to cheat and bring home STD's, and more likely to get a divorce if they do eventually get married. Men, according to this same elusive "research" see cohabitation as a convenience that allows them to be violent towards their partners and (are you ready for this?) to be accepting of date rape.

Holy fucking shit. Who does our doctor think his patients are?

My first problem (and there are many) is with the supposed research these claims are drawn from. There is not a single citation for any of these sources. Obviously it is assumed that we the patients are not smart enough to question extraordinary claims such as these, or to evaluate the sources who make the claims. We are expected to take it as gospel simply because our doctors have proclaimed it to be so. I rather suspect that the source of this information is a religious-based organization, which brings me to my second problem: proselytizing. I wholeheartedly resent anyone trying to influence me to join, support, or conform to their religious beliefs. The doctor's office is no place to push a religious agenda. It is none of our pediatrician's business whether his patients are married or merely shacking up. I shudder to think how a couple of gay parents would be viewed by this same "research".

Bill and I lived together for a long time before we got married. We were as close as any married couple and, while we were not without our disputes, our home was free from STD's, violence, and rape. Since we got married, a few things have changed. I took his last name, we started filing taxes together, and people have finally gotten off our backs about living "in sin". We don't love each other more than we used to, we still fight with about the same frequency and intensity, and we still have consensual, monogamous sex.

This misguided judgment of my family's history is the last straw. We're good parents who love each other and our baby wholeheartedly. It's time to find a pediatrician for whom only our medical history is relevant. God has no place in my marriage and, ideally, will have no place in my son's doctor's office.