There’s a Yiddish saying that when man plans, God laughs. Apparently, when I plan, the laughter comes from my infant daughter Amalía, who was due to arrive in this world on August 19th, if not before, my doctors said, judging from her size. When I heard that, I began making plans. And it wasn’t just me; three grandmothers converged on Miami Beach to await her arrival. My sister, Amalía’s Tía Marina, took a week off from work and flew from San Francisco for the birth. In the meantime, Amalía just stayed put. “Floating” to be exact, as my doctors noted that even though her head was pointed down as it needed to be for delivery–a fact they had seen on ultrasounds weeks ahead of her due date–late-stage physical exams showed it was not “engaged” in my pelvis; her head popped up above the pelvic bone when touched. In the meantime, hurricane Irene threatened, and an earthquake shook the East Coast. As warnings of each natural disaster loomed, we wondered if Amalía was waiting to make a dramatic entrance during one of them.
I was the grown-up on the outside, and Amalía was the little fetus within; surely I could make her show up on my schedule, even if Mercury was retrograde, slowing travel and communication. There were medical reasons to hurry her arrival: my blood pressure, normally always low, was getting higher each day, and the amount of amniotic fluid she was luxuriating in was decreasing. So I asked around for advice on how to inspire Amalía to come on out. People said I should walk; I not only walked, I spent my due date playing paddle ball on the beach with my husband and sister. People said I should eat spicy food; I found a recipe online for eggplant parmesan that an Atlanta restaurant, Scalini’s, claims has made over 300 women go into labor within 48 hours of eating it. I did squats everywhere, including at a family barbecue. Still, no word from Amalía.
Finally, my doctor insisted that we induce labor at 41 weeks. I tried to bargain for a few more days, but he said that now that my blood pressure was hovering around 140 over 80something, it wouldn’t be a wise move for the baby. So on Thursday the 25th, Emilio and I checked in to the hospital. We had a fabulous nurse named Paula and a lovely labor, delivery, and recovery room. We listened to Amalía’s birth mix, “lit” battery operated candles, and reviewed our hypnobirthing affirmations. The next morning, as Mercury went direct, my sister arrived; she had spent nine days here awaiting Amalía’s arrival, gone back to San Francisco to work for a week, then used frequent flyer miles to return for the labor. At around 2 pm the next day my water broke. But when the doctor examined me, Amalía’s head was still not engaged.
One of the hypnobirthing affirmations we listened to Marie Mongan, the founder of the hypnobirthing movement, intoning each night vows, “I will calmly accept whatever turns my birthing takes.” I’ve heard the affirmation countless times, but I have to admit that I did not calmly accept whatever turning my birth took. When my doctor said he was 99% sure that the head would not engage, no matter how long I labored, and that this baby seemed to want to come out by Caesarian section, I cried. From the beginning I had said that I didn’t care how the baby got here, as long as we had a healthy baby and a healthy mother in the end. But the more I learned about natural childbirth, the more I wanted to have that experience myself.
Still, when the doctor said that the longer we waited, the worse things got for the baby, I agreed to a C-section. And in the end, it turned out to be truly amazing. ABBA was playing as I chatted with the anesthesiologist, who took my name so she could have me come speak to her book club when Other Waters is published, prior to the surgery. Then Emilio came in and held my hand and we were talking about meeting our baby girl when suddenly we heard a baby squawking. The doctor lifted Amalía, still bloody, over the sterile sheet so I could kiss her (a nurse said “I hate it when he does that!”) and invited Emilio behind the sheet to take pictures.
The minute I saw Amalía, now “floating” in the doctor’s hands above the sterile sheet, I recognized her, as if I had known her before. And once I held her, I no longer cared how she got here.
My C-section was unexpectedly moving, but if I had been able to choose how to give birth, I would have opted for natural childbirth. There were moments before and after the surgery when I wondered if there was something I could have done differently–hired a doula, tried a home birth, done a different kind of yoga–that would have made my baby’s head engage and ended up in the kind of birth I had planned. But it turns out it C-section might have been for the best. During the surgery, I heard the doctor say my placenta was “very attached”, and when his colleague checked on me during rounds the next day, he explained that I had placenta accreta, a condition that affects 1 in 2500 pregnancies, in which the placenta grows into the uterus, making it very difficult for it to be expelled after birth. In many cases, it has to be removed surgically after a natural birth; in the most extreme cases, the uterus has to be removed along with it. So the C-section may have saved me from an emergency surgery following a natural childbirth; we’ll never know for sure. In any case, I’m relieved the doctor was able to remove my placenta manually during the surgery.
Perhaps most important of all, my birthing experience taught me the first lesson of parenthood…things aren’t always going to go as I have planned them. If Amalía’s birth is any indication, that doesn’t mean that these unexpected surprises will be anything but wonderful.
It may have been the morphine, but when I held Amalía in our hospital bed as three grandmothers, her father, and her aunt acted like a scrum of paparazzi photographing her, all I could think of was one of the quotes I used in my high school yearbook, which is attributed to Famous Amos, the cookie mogul, who said: Life is never what it seems; it’s always so much more.