Every birth has a story, ripe for the telling, though the tale varies with the perspective of the teller. The closest view belongs to the mother; it is her body, after all, that houses the new life, she who evicts her burgeoning occupant. Spin the lens 180º and it is the father’s story. Once removed from the action, he nonetheless has the most vantage point. Broaden the angle, overlay a generational déjà vu, and it becomes the grandmother’s story. She observes–like the father–from the outside. But she feels–like the mother–from the inside. She is the non-impartial witness.
This birth story, told through the grandmother’s eyes, is mine.
After teaching yoga class in my home of Columbia, Missouri this morning, I notice several voicemails from my son, Jeremy, whose wife is rapidly approaching her due date. I’ve been waiting for his call, prepared to drop everything and head to Oklahoma City for the birth of their first child; my first grandchild.
As I pack with shaking hands, I think how short a time ago it was that I hastily threw clothes in a suitcase in hopes of making it to a hospital in time, then, to say goodbye to my dying mother-in-law. The circle of life, profound in its simplicity, plays out. One life ends and another begins.
It’s 5 p.m. before I get on the road with nearly 500 miles to cover. For at least a few hours, the Bluetooth in my car feeds me the comfort of my mother’s voice from far away as we reminisce about Jeremy’s birth 27 years earlier at which she was present. We share incredulity over our advancing roles: from mother to grandmother, from grandmother to great.
The rest of the night, speeding along the highway, alone in the dark with my thoughts. A grandbaby? Surreal. This grandbaby? Miraculous.
Early in the pregnancy, Jeremy texted me a black and white ultrasound image of a little bean and followed moments later with a phone call.
“Look at that baby!” I squealed upon pickin up.
My exuberance was met with silence on the other end.
When my son found his voice, he choked out the words, “Mom, there might be something wrong with the baby.”
My heart broke from miles away. They were told the pregnancy could terminate at any time. And if it did go to term, there was a high probability of chromosomal abnormalities. Testing would yield more information, but ultimately, there would be no definitive answers until the baby grew. Or didn’t.
We waited. We hoped and waited some more.
Through the second trimester, much to our relief, evidence of the congenital defect diminished. Further testing ruled out Trisomy 13, 18, and 21 and revealed the baby was a boy. They named him Ashton.
As delivery drew closer, it appeared he was in the clear. Except for one small thing: the slight possibility of a heart defect. His parents weren’t worried, but I remained guarded. Perhaps because I knew prenatal tests weren’t always conclusive–my third, “later-in life” child was born with Down syndrome. Or maybe it was my maternal urge to shield them from the shock of an unforeseen diagnosis. Tonight, though, I’m jazzed like a kid on Christmas Eve and all I can think about is getting there before the baby does.
At 12:30 a.m., armed with snacks and an overnight bag, I weave through the deserted teaching hospital to the labor and delivery suite. My son stands by his wife’s bed, though he’s beginning to wear thin after a 12-hour shift as a paramedic. Approaching 36 hours with no sleep, he is not in the best shape for their big event. Carly greets me with a beatific smile. Unfazed, she’s been laboring for nine hours. I wonder if she has a high tolerance for pain or a gift for masking it. Both, I decide.
After unloading, I settle in to watch the monitor as Carly’s contractions, and more concerning, her blood pressure, rise and fall. Jeremy contorts his body onto a small couch. Instantly he’s asleep. Just the two of us now, I sit with my daughter-in-law. We chat and she pauses to breathe through the peaks, closing her eyes and lowering her head, enduring each one with a composure I’m quite sure I never had.
Jeremy wakes and I trade him places. I drift in and out, then wake. Together we wait. We talk, we rest. We wait more. And so it goes through the night until the nurse tells us that after 12 hours dilation has stalled and Pitocin has been prescribed. Carly declines an epidural and my admiration grows as I watch her endure four increasing doses of the drug.
After 15 hours of labor, the last three, unmedicated Pit labor, the pain begins to gnaw at her resolve. I recognize her agitation and resonate with her agony, remembering well the desire to leave my body and escape the pain.
Mothers-in-law walk a tightrope between intrusion and indifference.
As I had a wonderful example, I aim to strike the perfect balance in my new role. Involved, but not over-bearing. Available, but at arms-length. And in childbirth especially, I defer the rightful maternal province at Carly’s side to her own mother.
But now, in the harrowing depths of transition, there is just me. Jeremy, at a loss, looks helplessly on. I move next to Carly’s head and stroke her hair, murmuring softly in her ear. Does she want me here? I don’t know, but in this moment, I will mother her. And in her vulnerability she lets me.
I had no epidural when Jeremy was born and every wrenching seizure ripped through my writhing body. With eyes wild and panicked, I looked not to my husband for help, but to my mother who rubbed my shaking legs and whispered words that lifted me above the pain to another place, allowing my body to do what it was designed for. And each time I slammed back down into the sharpness she eased me up again.
I try to bring the same transcendence to Carly. By her side as she rides each wave, cresting and crashing, I feel her surrender to the suffering. But as her contractions climb, so does her blood pressure. And even still, her cervix remains unchanged. It’s just before dawn and the medication has failed to produce results. As her stamina wanes, discouragement creeps in, and though it isn’t in her birth plan, she agrees to an epidural.
To everyone’s relief, when her pain subsides, she is able to dilate fully. And finally, it’s time to push.
Out in the world, the sun is rising. Inside these walls, the day shift arrives. Medical students ready the room, bringing in equipment and supplies. I tell the kids I’ll wait outside so they can have privacy, but they answer at the same time, “Please stay.”
Their young, amiable doctor strolls in. “Let’s try to have a baby,” he says.
‘Try?’ I think, warily.
He tells us a neonatology team will be on hand when Ashton is born. Another red flag. The baby’s heart?
The room is crowded and I pull back, keeping an eye on the monitors. Contractions are close, and with each one mom’s blood pressure goes up and baby’s heart rate goes down. The easy-going doctor informs them that meconium is present which means the baby could be a little stressed. Casually stationing himself between Carly’s legs he tells her to go ahead and push.
Jeremy doesn’t pick up on the vibe and says excitedly, “Mom, get the camera!” But I hesitate. None of the students are moving. The doc hasn’t fully gowned. There aren’t any lights or sterile drapes on Carly. Something’s not right. Time takes on a rubbery quality yet everything happens very fast.
I’m aware of the descending red numbers of the baby’s heart rate, of Carly, determined, with unwavering trust in her doctor. And of my son, steady, but for just a second, frozen. I step up and urge him to support Carly’s back. Straining with all her strength, she pushes until long after her breath is gone. She pushes so hard her face turns dark purple and my concern skyrockets. Collapsing back onto the pillow, she gathers herself and surges forward again, exerting her whole body to expel the life within. Heroically, she fights to birth her baby.
Watching, I fight tears as my love for her grows exponentially in moments; I have never seen anyone so brave. I fight tears as I’m overcome with pride for my son; he’s become a man before my very eyes.
I fight tears because I know this is not going well.
I watch the doctor watch the monitors. Scanning his face and body language, I observe calmness in his demeanor, but sense the undercurrent of his apprehension. After several pushes, he stops Carly and tells her, with no urgency in his voice, the baby isn’t descending. He’s sunny side up and not tolerating the compression of labor. His heart rate is dropping below 100 with every push, which may be an indication of a heart issue. And Carly’s BP is continuing to spike. For these reasons he’s recommending a C-section, just to be safe.
Carly serenely accepts yet again what she did not plan. More disappointed than frightened, she agrees, though her consent is a formality; to his credit, this young surgeon has kept the critical nature of the situation from alarming Mom and Dad.
Abruptly, med students scatter and nurses converge. Phone calls are made, oxygen is placed over Carly’s nose and mouth, the brakes on her bed are kicked up and the whole apparatus, IVs and all, are wheeled away to surgery, leaving Jeremy and I in the empty room looking after them.
He retreats to the bathroom and I reel, thinking not only of the baby, but of Carly and the stories I’ve heard of hemorrhaging, strokes, and mothers dying in childbirth. I shake my head to ward off these images. I need to be strong for my son.
He moves from the doorway, my 6’0″, 200 lb. boy, and gathers me in his big arms, burying his head. “I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here, Mom. I’m so scared.”
He sobs into my neck like he did when he was 5 years old.
“But I’ve got to be strong for Carly,” he says, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. When he gives voice to my own thoughts it releases my tears and we weep together.
We’re interrupted by a nurse who has come to take him to the OR. He shakily dons paper scrubs, and in his rush, shoves his leg inside the pants with his shoe still on. His foot is stuck and he loses his balance. I reach to steady him and, bending down awkwardly, I attempt to dislodge his man-sized shoe. It’s a little ridiculous. And very tender.
He still needs me, even as life demands that he stand on his own.
Now it’s just me. The room seems very big. Time bends again as I wait. An hour? 15 minutes? I can’t tell. But then, my son is here, reassuring me quickly that everything went well. Baby boy is here and mommy is doing fine. Relief washes over me and suddenly, I am bone-tired.
Jeremy tells me he got there just in time to witness his son emerge and take his first breath. Carly, drugged and woozy, saw her newborn briefly as he held Ashton next to her face, but the family bonding was cut short when the nurses whisked the baby to the NICU and the awaiting neonatology team. Yet again, my daughter-in-law had to let go of what she dreamed: no laying her newborn on her chest, no skin-to-skin contact, no examining him from tiny toes to downy head, no photos of her husband holding their son in his first minutes of life.
After surgery, she returns to the room without her infant and is told she needs magnesium for preeclampsia; her blood pressure isn’t coming down. She’ll be bed-ridden and it will be 24 hours before she can see her son.
“Nothing is going the way we planned,” she says wearily, and my heart squeezes for her. I want to tell her I’ve learned that little in life ever does.
But I’ve also learned it’s what we don’t plan that bring us the greatest joy.
On the second day of life, after his mama holds him, I meet my grandson. The NICU nurse lifts the myriad IV lines and wires as Jeremy gently lays the little bundle in my arms. He’ll be here for some time and I couldn’t be more grateful for the excellent reputation of the Oklahoma Children’s Hospital. After a diagnosis of aortic coarctation, Ashton will undergo surgery on his newborn heart, the size of a walnut. While we wait, his very life will be held in the skilled hands of the pediatric cardiac surgeon.
Now, I gaze lovingly at the child of my child. I kiss his feather-soft head and inhale the scent of his skin. He curls his whole hand around my pinky finger, squeezing until his knuckles whiten.
‘I’ve got you, sweetie,’ I whisper, though truthfully, he’s got me. Already wrapped around his little finger. A quiet, yet momentous change is occurring, like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world. Life is no longer the same; I can feel it. For me, for my son. For all of us.
Every birth has many stories, diverging in places depending on the perspective of the teller. But they all return to the moment when a new life enters the world and nothing is ever the same again.