I’ve wanted to write about Jacob’s birth this whole year but I’ve never been ready. I did write about it one month after he was born, but it felt all wrong and I wasn’t happy with it, and it was definitely too imperfect and personal to share yet, so it sat in my Drafts folder.
The other day I got to thinking about the phenomenon of a first birthday. Some parents spend monstrous amounts of money on a party to which they invite all their friends. It is certainly not for the kid, that’s for sure. I’ve been contemplating the best form of delivery for Jacob’s few birthday presents next week because I know he can’t even really unwrap them yet. Now, I don’t want to be a total Birthday Scrooge because I was intrigued by an account from a Korean woman I know about the huge ordeal of first birthdays in their culture. Sounds about like a Quince. The reason is that, historically, surviving to your first birthday meant you were out of the woods, or at least more out of the woods than you were. So you celebrate that precious little life as your confidence grows that he is going to be yours for a good long while. Anyway. I was thinking. April 3 is a big day for me and I tend to be sentimental about anniversaries of big things. I realized in all the celebrating we’ll do to focus on our sweet little man, there wouldn’t be time for me to observe the day as what it is for me: the one-year mark of my beginning motherhood and of my undergoing major surgery and the intensely difficult ordeal of labor. Finally, I decided, it is time to write.
That’s why I came here just now to dig up that old draft and see if it had anything good to offer, so I could start crafting my little narrative. I am only wondering, now, why I didn’t like it in the first place. It’s the whole story. So I’m going to leave it as it is: it was a whole lot fresher one month in than it is now.
Written May 2, 2011, Titled “The Curse Reversed”:
Jacob Elliot Powell will be one month old tomorrow. I suppose it’s about time he receives a formal introduction here. He arrived on Sunday, April 3, 2011, at 7:33 p.m. Born by c-section after 26 hours of painful labor, he was 8 lb 12 oz and 21 inches long. His first character trait to appear has been his stubbornness, and anyone who knows his parents won’t be surprised at that. We began to discover it before we ever saw his face.
If you’d asked me a week after he was born to tell my “birth story,” it would have been a glowing report of how the curse has been reversed, and how acutely and personally I’d felt both (the curse and the reversal) in the arrival of my son. One week later and I would have said I wasn’t so sure about the reversal. A month of pondering all these things and dipping my toe into the sleepless ocean of motherhood and a few profound moments of worship and I think I am finally ready to put it all in writing.
I’m not one for gruesome, graphic birth stories, especially not when they’re about me, but the basic narrative is worth recounting so I can make my point.
There were a few things I was adamant about as I did my research along the way. I didn’t want to be positive for Group B Strep because I didn’t want to be tied to an IV. I didn’t want my water to break prior to the start of labor. I didn’t want to be induced. I didn’t want a c-section.
On everything else, I had an opinion held loosely. I had a clear idea of my “ideal,” but included in that ideal was the conviction that it was most important not to stress if my ideal didn’t happen. Stressing is counter-productive to the whole process and I was going to go with the flow.
Go with the flow, I did, and all the non-essentials went exactly the opposite of how I intended. The irony is, so did the essentials: I found out I was GBS positive a few weeks before Jacob was born and I was quite disheartened. My water broke on Saturday afternoon, April 2. Again, I was disheartened. This meant in order to protect the baby from GBS infection I needed to be on IV antibiotics, and he needed to be born imminently. So we went to the hospital and the ball started rolling. Mild contractions with a steady, mounting backache began the day before my water broke, contributing to an overall sense that he was going to be born on Sunday. They say mothers just know.
By the time we got to the hospital it was clear things were progressing, but nothing like “real” organized labor was happening yet so we decided to wait it out through the night and let it organize itself. 12 hours after we checked in nothing had progressed except the pain, and it was so intense I hadn’t slept a wink. We decided it was time for induction to make things progress and narcotics so I could sleep a little and muster some strength. The narcotics were…well…people get addicted to those things for obvious reasons. Mmm… The sleep was good too. I woke to increasing pain and still no progress and by 1:00 p.m. I thought I was going to die. A completely effective, magical, wonderful epidural brought total pain relief by 2:00 and I slept for 3 hours but when I woke I was so exhausted from the pain that I couldn’t stop shaking and could barely lift my head or open my eyes. Still no progress, after almost 8 hours of Pitocin. In fact, I was still not considered in “active labor.” Our son was proving to be stubborn.
The medical details: His head was twisted in such a way that labor was not progressing and every contraction was serving only to jam his skull into the base of my spine. They call this back labor. It is yucky. Actually, it is unimaginable and excruciating and I will never try to endure a day of it again. More often than not, back labor is both excruciating and unproductive, and ends in a c-section unless the baby turns his head. Our baby wasn’t turning. His head was just too big to turn.
Within a few minutes of waking around 5:00 p.m. I knew either I was going to have a c-section or my baby and I were going to die. I was getting ready to beg the doctor not to ask me to try to deliver him. I knew I didn’t have the strength. All I could think about was that I desperately had to contact our church family and tell them to pray. I felt like my life depended on it, and my sweet husband humored me and finally we got through to our pastor just a moment before he left his office to begin the evening service. It took a bit of the weight off my heart, knowing they were all praying.
The doctor said by 8:00 if I wasn’t ready to deliver we’d do a c-section and so I spent the next hour panicking silently that they were still hopeful he’d be born naturally. Fortunately, at 6:30 when there was still no progress they made the call to do a c-section. I don’t know what made them speed up their plans, but it happened so suddenly that I wonder if they were starting to see that Jacob was in distress. At any rate, my worst nightmare became a reality and there they were, wheeling me out of the delivery room into the operating room leaving Mike behind. I think those few minutes while they prepped for the surgery were the longest of Mike’s life. He came in wearing gown and mask just before they were ready to cut me open. They were surreal moments for me. I had never been admitted to a hospital before, never had stitches, never broken a bone. And now here I was suddenly facing major surgery. My son’s arrival had turned into a huge medical event – exactly what I hadn’t wanted.
Then the story gets almost funny. It took an age for the anesthesiologist to get me properly sedated. He kept asking if I could feel this or that, clearly expecting me to say “No,” and the answer was always “Yes.” Finally he succeeded, they gave me anti-nausea medicine, invited Mike in, and got to work. Apparently once they were ready to deliver the baby they couldn’t get him out. His head was too big and lodged too tightly. Nurses were shoving on my abdomen, even standing by my head outside the curtain pushing down on my chest as a last result. They used a vacuum extractor not once but five times. Finally the stubborn little man was born. C-section babies get 60 seconds to take their first cry before intervention. Jacob took his after the longest 59.5 seconds of my life. Stubborn child.
His cry was the single most profound moment of my entire life. I’ve always been skeptical of the attitude that it’s just so profound and magical but there I was, strapped to an operating table, hidden from all that was happening by a curtain. The only thing I had was my ears and I lay there with tears of joy gushing down my face. 5 or 10 minutes later I finally saw him, all cleaned up and wrapped up and in his daddy’s arms. I couldn’t hold him until they were ready to wheel me into recovery half an hour later.
I sat rocking him at home three days later, singing Keith Getty’s hymn “In Christ Alone.”
As he stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me.
It was true, I realized. As those first days unfolded I began to see many ways in which the reality of redemption had triumphed over the effects of the curse. Mike and I call it “finding beauty in negative spaces,” a line shamefully stolen from an album by Seether. The curse in Genesis is that “in pain you will bring forth children.” The process of birth is fraught with difficulty.
The heavy narcotics I was…enjoying…in the hours following Jacob’s birth were the first “curse reversal” I noticed. The curse: I was simply too sedated to be emotionally engaged and it took me hours–perhaps even a day or so–to feel any emotional bond with my baby. Not only that, but the abdominal surgery meant I was physically uninvolved as well. The reversal: To my delight, as I lay in bed I watched Mike fall deeply in love with his son and spend time and attention on him that were all the more sweet since I wasn’t sharing him. I expect fathers are often eclipsed by the mother-and-baby relationship that unfolds. But that first night Mike did the holding, the changing, the rocking, the staring in awe. A month later and my favorite thing about “our story” is how fiercely and jealously Mike loves that boy.
The “curse” again: All that intervention, all that medication, the absence of normal delivery, the delay while they stitched me up… According to the statistics it was all setting us up to fail in the breast feeding department. That was actually the dominant, if not the only, factor in the details I had settled on as my ideal. From all the reading I’d done there was nothing I considered more important and now certainly it was all going to be a struggle. But at our first opportunity to nurse, everything went according to textbook and there were no problems.
Of course, a few days went by and that seemed to be changing. C-section means an even longer delay in the milk supply. By Tuesday night Jacob was screaming and dry-mouthed and there was nothing we could do. The nurses had been given strict instructions that he was not to be given supplements. But Tuesday night a few minutes after we’d taken him to the nursery because we just didn’t know what to do with him anymore one nurse – a lady I very much didn’t like, though all the others were wonderful – came to inform me that they were going to give him formula because he was jaundiced. As if the decision was hers!!!?!??! ALL babies get jaundice and this was exactly what I didn’t want. I was furious at being bossed around like this, but managed to hide it. We listened respectfully and meekly and wound up going with her advice, though to call it advice is generous.
And so we gave him formula, fed by a tiny little dropper. All that night we kept it up and the joy just from seeing our little baby nourished was immense. I was upset that I wasn’t providing him the nourishment he needed and of course I felt defeated and defective. A bad mother. But two things rose out of that experience: First, once again Mike was involved. He so enjoyed getting to feed his little boy and it was beautiful to watch. Second, I began learning an important lesson in mothering: there is more to well-being than physical. What an obvious thing to say! And yet we forget that as we obsess over what is “best” for our babies’ health while in the end they will still thrive even if they’re given a few ounces of formula in their first week of life, or even if they’re picked up and held though they “should” be learning to sleep unaided. Emotional well-being, both the baby’s and the mother’s, is a real factor and it helped us make that decision to give him formula. Ironically, the jaundice numbers came back completely moderate, proving the nurse wrong. But calming the incessant storm that night was important to us. Mike looked me in the eye after we’d fed him the first time, seeing I was disappointed. “You’re a good mother,” he told me. I dissented. He pointed out that I had just exercised wisdom to make the best decision for our family. Wisdom, I learned that night, is much more nuanced than implementing the best strategies. Sometimes wisdom chooses the second-best. Whatever it does, it weighs the options. I might not have had milk to give my son, but I had wisdom. Slowly I came to realize I did have what my son needed. That night remains one of the most poignant, important moments in all of this journey thusfar.
Other little things came to mind in those first few days… Another profound one was the memory I had of the pain I’d gone through in labor. To say it was beyond my wildest imaginations is an understatement. I’ve experienced chronic pain for years and I had absolutely no capacity for this. As Jacob adjusted to this cruel world I saw looks in his eyes and heard pain in his cries that resonated with me. It was like God had given me the experience of all that pain so that I would be compassionate towards my son. Not only that, but being completely incapacitated in those first 24 hours made me sympathetic to him, too, like in some small way I could know what it felt like for him.
Rocking Jacob that Wednesday night as he nursed, it dawned on me how much redemption had triumphed over the curse in our lives that week. Sure, it had all gone exactly as it shouldn’t have, but here we were, a healthy mother and baby, and he was nursing like a champ. I was on top of the world, lost in worship and joy and confidence that week.
The second week was a little different. Jacob contracted thrush, a yeast infection that causes the inside of a baby’s mouth to turn white. It can also be transmitted to the mother, and that’s exactly what happened. Nursing – that important goal I’d had – suddenly became a nightmare. I dreaded every time I’d have to feed him and was in pain all the time, pain that dialed to “excruciating” when I fed him or even held him close. Thrush can happen to any baby, but a surefire way of being at risk is to have 24 hours of IV antibiotics pouring into your body during and after labor.
My happy, triumphant perspective changed and I wasn’t so sure this curse reversal thing worked. Maybe redemption wasn’t going to have the final say.
Medication for Jacob, three medications for me, and eight days of agony later we were out of the woods. (Actually, we weren’t. About the middle of May it all came back again for another horrid week. Wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. The pain made me dread feeding or holding my baby, which made me feel incredibly guilty for “not loving” him. What a mess it was.) Meanwhile, I had the chance to do a bit more reflecting.
Our pastor said it best; said it on Easter Sunday in his sermon after Jacob’s baptism. Preaching on 1 Co 15:58, he told us that Christ’s resurrection had implications for every single thing in our lives. Christ’s resurrection has triumphed, reversing the curse. Unfortunately, he said, we can’t always see it. We have to put our imaginations to work; our memories; our convictions. We believe in the resurrection? Well then, of course the curse is reversed. Everywhere. In everything. Only it doesn’t look like that and so we are compelled to live not by sight but by faith. For now.
This living by faith that he speaks of…. This mother knows what that is about. It means STILL believing – but let me say “still holding the conviction,” because “believing” is too tame – it means still holding the conviction that “sin’s curse has lost its grip on me” even when I am gripped by pain every single time I feed my son.
I was surprised in reading this account that I left out the moment from the whole affair that has risen to the surface of my collection of memories. It is one of my most vivid memories in the midst of all those drugs, and it is the main thing I wanted to communicate in writing this story. When Mike brought Jacob to me just moments after he was born I lay there, immobilized, staring at the face of my son, a genuine volcano of human emotion. I still remember what it felt like to laugh with joy as tears of leftover distress streamed down the sides of my face, all the while trying to ignore the growing pain in my shoulders, which I learned quickly was the weirdest common side-effect of a c-section. (Who knew…) I looked at my son, blinking with his tiny-baby doubts that this world was really a good place to be, and the first words I spoke to him were a direct quote from a John Mayer song: “Life is good,” I said. I thought of the absurdity of it all, me lying there on that table, and I added, “At least, that’s what John Mayer wants us to believe.” I distinctly remember a nurse by my side laughing at what she heard. Day after day as Jacob and I got to know each other I thought of that moment and that song and it just cracked me up. I wasn’t sure whether it was addressed to me or to Jacob and I sang those first words to him with a grin often in those early weeks.
I hate to see you cry
Lying there in that position
There’s things you need to hear
So turn off your tears and listen
Pain throws your heart to the ground
Love turns the whole thing around
No, it won’t all go the way it should
But I know the heart of life is good
The lesson I took from that moment is probably the biggest life lesson I have been blessed with through becoming Jacob’s mother: It won’t all go the way it should but I know the heart of life is good. The details don’t matter. The control doesn’t matter. The enjoying it does. Love makes it too good to miss. And there’s that curse reversal thing right there in John Mayer: Love turns the whole thing around. Nothing about Jacob’s labor and birth went the way it was supposed to. And then there were the two bouts of thrush. But as I look back a year later and as I expect to do it all over again in five months, one sense pervades everything: It’s good. It’s so, so, SO good. It would be too easy to miss that in a flood of tears. Tears over things not just being just right. Worries. The people who’ve gotten closest to me as a parent describe me in one way: laid-back. This is not my personality, this is my conscious choice. If I’m all worried all the time I’ll miss the good – the so, so, SO good. Nothing is worthy of such a fuss that you can’t hear those words coming back again: “I know it’s good.”
So that is what mothering Jacob has been to me and it has profoundly re-made me.
I thought about that yesterday as I pondered the irony of our happy ultrasound results. Yesterday we found out we will be welcoming a girl in August. All of our talk, our imaginings, have been Boy, Boy, Boy. We had it figured out, that’s why. They’d be 16 months apart. What a life-gift, to have a brother that close. They could be lifelong guy-friends, something rare and valuable. And if it were a girl, well, they would probably be neck-and-neck developmentally and that would present its own set of challenges and competition. Besides, we already have a full wardrobe of boy clothes, so obviously it should be a boy. Much more practical.
I think I’m seeing the beginning of this daughter’s story. If Jacob’s was “The heart of life is good,” maybe hers is “I know it won’t all go the way it should.”
Every reason I had why we needed a second boy dissolved instantaneously yesterday when we got the verdict. We walked to enjoy some celebratory ice cream a couple hours later and I told Mike it was like God saying “You do not have this figured out. Just remember that. I know what you need. You don’t.” Actually, it was the second time He’s said that to me through this new baby.
I picked my doctor carefully for this pregnancy. I wasn’t tremendously happy with the doctor I had for Jacob and I wanted someone I could be on the same page with this time. I needed someone who was known for sympathy with and successful execution of VBACs. I was not supposed to have a c-section once. I was not about to have one twice. I asked my like-minded girlfriends in town for recommendations and they all pointed me to the same guy. So there I sat at 8:30 a.m., 10 weeks pregnant, in his exam room. He was bleary-eyed from delivering 4 babies in one night. With his back to me he mumbled over his chart. Then over his shoulder, casually: “You’re not hoping to have a VBAC are you?” I was startled. “Yes, actually, that’s why I came to you.” “Well, you can’t.” He was surprised to discover that my first doctor had never bothered to mention that it’s all-but-universal practice that VBACs are not done if there is less than a 12-month period between first surgery and the beginning of the second pregnancy. So I was simply not a candidate. Yeah, I could probably find someone in the world willing and able to see me through one. But not in this town.
And we live in this town.
It was only God giving me grace that I adjusted mentally as quickly as I did. I told that doctor how important it was to me. I told him why I’d come to him in the first place. And then I told him what I’d learned with Jacob: It won’t all go the way it should. I wasn’t about to forget that lesson just because it was Round Two. I spoke of my confidence that God is in control of these tiny circumstances in our lives, and he was quick to jump right in and identify himself as a devout Christian as well. And so there I was, and my obstetrician was counseling me in spiritual things, reminding me that God is intimately acquainted with our unique circumstances and knows exactly what we need.
Turns out, I need a second c-section.
Turns out, I need a girl.
I remember the thirty seconds driving home down 2nd Street that morning, as I allowed myself to try on anger for size: “The NERVE of my first doctor not telling me I would only be a candidate for VBAC if we waited a long while to get pregnant again. The NERVE! If I’d known I would not be pregnant right now.” But it didn’t fit. God was in that, too. If he’d wanted me to know, she would’ve told me. He wanted me to have kids 16 months apart, and He’d wanted me to have a second c-section. So that was the end of that.
I am amazed every single day at motherhood. I have never known pleasure like the pleasure of that boy. I am not far short of giddy with anticipation of getting to do all those bleary-eyed first days and weeks and months over again this fall. It is going to be so, so, so good.
That is where I am choosing to live. To live there I have to stay humble before God and believe the resurrection. Believe that he makes all things good and knows all things best. I am so thankful that I have these children to teach me all this.