Labor of Love

I think every first-time mother always has some sort of idea in her mind of how she anticipates her labor and delivery experience will go, depending perhaps on her family background, her pregnancy, and her own personal preferences for labor and delivery. My mother delivered me and my sister with no pain medication and said it was “no big deal.” My pregnancy was relatively easy, complication-free, very textbook. And so I pictured myself going into labor at some random time at home, timing contractions, getting our things together, and then heading to the hospital where I would eventually decide whether or not I’d need the epidural… and then after X minutes/hours of pushing, I’d have that amazing moment when the baby would come out, I’d see the doctor lift her up, everyone would celebrate, we’d all cry tears of joy, and then I’d snuggle her skin-to-skin in awe of it all.

I’d asked some L&D nurse friends what they saw to be the most important factor for a smooth delivery, and they all said the key was flexibility. To be open to whatever happened and whatever the medical staff might advise that you need for a safe delivery. I took that to heart but really didn’t expect that many wrenches to be thrown into the mix.

At 39 weeks and 5 days of pregnancy, I went in for a routine checkup with my OB-GYN. I was not dilated at all so I expected to be sent home to keep waiting, but after checking the ultrasound, we were surprised to hear after no issues or concerns to that point, that my amniotic fluid was low. The doctor sent me over to L&D to be admitted right away, and to be induced. And that was it. It was time.

We went over to L&D and I was nervous. They confirmed that my amniotic fluid level was indeed borderline low, so they explained that they’d give Cervidil that evening to help soften my cervix, and then we’d start Pitocin the next morning. Cervidil induced some contractions – nothing strong enough to dilate me, yet – but they were coming every 1-4 minutes which meant I was constantly cramping and aching throughout the night.

I was trying to hold off on asking for pain medication, but when it hit about 1:30am and their interventions (fluid boluses) to space out the contractions weren’t working, I finally gave in and asked for Stadol because I knew that I’d be exhausted for pushing the next day if I didn’t get some rest. I ended up having some really intensely funny hallucinogenic dreams, one of which was a cartoon in which I was a cartoon character, though I was very aware in my dream that I was just experiencing a side effect from the drug. It was kind of hilarious if not for the fact that I was still in the middle of labor. I wondered if my baby was having hallucinations in my womb as well, and what a baby could hallucinate about.

I got through the night, and then Aster, my angel of a day nurse showed up to help us through the biggest day of our lives. She let me wash up and then started the Pitocin. From there, the contractions gradually increased to the point where I finally asked for the epidural in the early afternoon. It was complication-free and amazing for pain relief, and for that, I was incredibly glad. However, when it finally came time for me to push, I started to deeply regret and question my decision to get the epidural because I could not feel anything. It was extremely hard to know how to direct my pushing efforts and to tell how effective they were. Even though we could see the baby’s head almost as soon as I started pushing, I just could not get her out. I started to feel tired and increasingly frustrated. I had to keep a lot of negative thoughts from building, especially feelings of guilt. I started pushing around 3:20, and by about 4:00, we thought that I might be close to getting her out, so my nurse called the midwife over to prepare the sterile field. I pushed a few more times, but still couldn’t get her out. Up until this point, the baby tolerated it all, but suddenly she started to drop her heart rate to the 60s, and suddenly the room began to fill with people who had that quiet but very urgent and very concerned look on their faces, and I knew we were starting to get into trouble. As a nurse myself, it was a look that I knew all too well and it is just not something you want to see in your caregivers.

From there, things started to move really fast as they wanted to get me over to the OR as soon as possible.  I could hear her decreased HR on the monitor, and I could hear them talking with each other in that urgent tone, and it started to really dawn on me that we could be losing her, right then and there. She might not make it. We could have gone through all of this just to lose her right here. It was the most terrifying and helpless feeling. And then I started to think, another possibility was that she could suffer permanent hypoxia-related brain damage. I was desperate for them to get me to the OR and do whatever they needed to do to make sure she was ok. I asked what was going to happen and a nurse said we might have to do an emergency C-section, but they were calling for the vacuum as well and told me to keep pushing if I felt contractions coming. When they reconnected her to the monitor, I heard and saw that her heart rate was good, above 100, and a decent amount of hope and relief came over me. I tried pushing through a couple more contractions to no avail. Then the doctor was there with the vacuum, and she told me to go ahead and start pushing, and finally, FINALLY… we got her out. I saw them lift her, and then a few moments later I heard her cry – the sound I was so desperate for – and then I just started to cry uncontrollably. All of the fear and guilt and relief and sadness and joy just spilled out and I could not stop crying. I could hear her crying, I could hear Stephen crying, and finally I settled down with exhaustion and overwhelmedness as they examined her and sutured me up. Apparently her umbilical cord had gotten balled up at her abdomen, which eventually led to the decreased heart rate with my pushing because it was getting compressed. The relief that she was ok was indescribable. I profusely thanked the nurse who had come over to whisper encouragement in my ear in those last desperate moments of pushing. There were so many amazing people who had shown up and helped us through it all.

They took her to the NICU to watch her for her breathing and to check for any signs of infection, but we finally got to bring her home after she stayed for four days in the NICU. Yes, the sleepless nights have been challenging, and it has not helped that I developed an unexpected abscess on my arm requiring additional medical care in addition to my standard postpartum healing process. But after having experienced the potential of losing her or having her run into more serious complications, I treasure her now all the more. All that matters is that she is here with us, 3AM diaper changes, breastfeeding challenges, mommy’s arm infection issues and all. She is worth it. She is a gift of grace from the hand of a merciful God.

There is not enough time nor space here to write more reflections on the experience. But for now, I wanted to at least share the story of the day my precious daughter entered the world. I could not be more grateful for her presence in our lives.

My Anticipated Undoing

As expected, the main question I get these days in one form or another is, “How are you feeling?” It’s always a hard question to answer because it’s huge, and I’m not completely sure what the person is actually asking. How do I feel, physically, at almost-36-weeks of pregnancy? How do I feel about what’s up ahead, and do you mean labor, parenthood, both or neither? The easy answers can include one or more of the following short responses: I feel big, tired, excited, grateful, uncomfortable but still functional, nervous, surreal, or the best all-encompassing answer, “I’m doing ok”.

I suppose a lot of the answers are generic and obvious for my textbook pregnancy. At 36 weeks of pregnancy, I am physically tired, awkward, and more uncomfortable (putting on socks has never been such WORK!). I am amazed at the continued growth and ever stronger movements of this baby girl inside of me. I am looking forward to the rest and transition that maternity leave will grant before she comes. I am both always wanting to talk about this pregnancy thing and simultaneously a little tired of the talk and attention surrounding it. I suppose these are all the things that most people would expect me to feel and say about how I am doing now.

Labor. Some days, I think, “It’ll be fine. It’ll be hard and painful and all of that but you just keep your eye on the prize, and do what you have to do.” Other days, I imagine all the worst case scenarios coming together. Water breaking in some ridiculously public place, awful drawn-out contractions, difficulty getting the epidural in, pushing until I can push no more, pooping in front of an audience, awful tearing and then both mom and baby in distress. And I think, “OH MY GOD. THIS IS GOING TO BE MY STORY.” The planner in me does not love anticipation of so many unknown factors.

Parenthood. I fully believe people when they say, “You will never experience love like the love you will have for your child.” “It is the best and hardest experience, but worth it all.” “Get ready to be really tired, all the time.” I will only know what they mean when we start to actually walk through it.

Some of the deeper thoughts that I am processing are about what I call my anticipated undoing.

I love having a plan for the day and efficiently checking off the things on my daily to-do list.

I love a neat and orderly home.

I love my own personal quiet time.

I love sleep.

I like…  ok fine, I love having a sense of control.

I love feeling prepared for things that are unfamiliar to me. I like instruction manuals, clear how-to’s, basically ways to help me not feel like I’m failing with something new.

I have ordered my life and habits around these loves for 30+ years. Oh I am about to be undone. I cannot run from it, and my soul knows I need it. But who honestly looks forward to the biggest anticipated undoing of their lives?  It’s coming. Baby Girl, I hope for your sake that I can give you the best of myself when I have been undone. I do believe them when they tell me it is worth it, for you, because of you, and also for my own growth and sanctification in the Lord.

Undo me.

Miracles of Spring

I seem to be in the business of heavy topics. Between my work as a nurse in a pediatric ICU and my marriage to a pastor, I get what can feel at times like too much of the inside scoop on the lesser known sufferings of many people, much of the time. This week in particular seemed to be the week of choice for a disproportionate amount of unpleasant news. A friend’s suicide. A bad code at work. Extra drama all around.

I also attended the annual Ethics of Caring Conference this week, geared primarily towards nurses, and while I deeply appreciate the courage that this group of people has to tackle the hard issues and reflect on them for a prolonged period of time, my internal response was conflicted. I needed to go there in a lot of ways, to remember that the ethical core of nursing has to do with caring deeply and persistently about situations and issues and people that many choose not to care about. It can be exhausting, but choosing the road of a hardened heart is certainly no better solution, at least not the one that I ultimately want for my life. Many speakers at the conference mentioned how the general public still doesn’t truly, fully grasp what a nurse does in the year 2013. We don’t just hold the patient’s hand, throw on an occasional blood pressure cuff, and deliver a small paper cup of pills, though that is part of our job description. We manage critical situations, enter into complicated conversations, and we clean up secretions, blood and sloughing bowels to try to preserve the dignity our patients. Maybe that’s why the public doesn’t really know what we do. Maybe they don’t always want to. Sometimes, we ourselves need to forget a little of it too.

I’m in the business of heavy topics, and quite honestly I seem to have a strange and morbid draw to them at times. But in weeks like this when I recognize the signs that a healthier sense of balance has been lost, I take a walk outside and remember that even still, this is the first lovely week of Spring, and the celebration of Easter, the resurrected Christ, is just around the corner. I went to water my somewhat neglected herbs only to see that my mint and lavender plants have grown and flourished despite me, and their resilience brings a comforting reassurance. My baby kicks me in my womb, and I marvel at the growth of this peanut who at nine weeks had only limb buds, but now has arms and legs and fingers with which she can jab and kick and punch. I feel the dryness of my soul, but then she kicks me again and I remember that where there once was no life in me, new life has begun and it grows over time, strong and sure. She reminds me that miracles still happen, and my mourning is turned into dancing again.

The Number of our Days

Baby Girl, we are in the middle of week 21 of your life in my womb, and already it seems you are growing way too fast. I’m not sure how we already passed the halfway point of this pregnancy, but it appears you will be here before we know it, while I’m still scratching my head wondering where Christmas went. I saw my favorite yogurt on sale at the market, with the sale’s end date marked as March 12. “Wow,” I thought, “I have a good month to come back to the market to get more of this before the sale ends!” On my way to my car, I realized it was March 12 already. How is it that the passage of time can deceive us so?

I’d like to think that I have a decently realistic perspective on how our lives will be upheaved when you arrive. These days, when I choose to sleep in, I am well aware that this is a limited luxury. When I sit down with a good book on my days off, I tell myself I better read fast because I won’t have much quiet reading time for years to come, unless you count the bedtime stories that will be on repeat as I (attempt to) lull you to sleep. When your daddy and I flew home from one final vacation, I foresaw myself in the shoes of the mom behind me as she tried oh so apologetically to keep her kid from kicking my seat on the plane, again. I did not take it for granted that for now, I still have full containment of all your extremities there in my womb.

This experience makes me realize anew how we make so many of our decisions depending on the assumptions in our minds of how much time or how many other options we have. All that home reorganization that I was procrastinating is now put on the fast track. I’m determined to get most of the nesting done while I have a decent amount of energy and can still actually bend over without a large watermelon in my way. I’m savoring all my quality time with friends before my conversations are interrupted with “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!!” I’m so aware now of moments that feel like wasted time, lost time.

Working as a pediatric ICU nurse also puts a unique perspective on this pregnancy. For better or for worse, my experiences with my patients have forced me to walk this uncomfortable line between what is simply reality, and what is flat out morbid. I know the odds are in my favor, but I do not assume that I will absolutely, necessarily have a healthy child. If she is born healthy, I do not assume that she will live a healthy 85+ years and simply die peacefully in her sleep at some ripe old age. In some ways, this makes me overly paranoid, and of this I am very well aware. In other ways, this perspective makes me thankful for every healthy kick I feel, and every normal ultrasound picture that I see thus far. But I don’t presume upon anything. I appreciate the fragility of it all. I want so much to guard her with my life.

And so, in this season, I echo the prayer of the Psalmist:

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12

I am not my pregnancy

I confess, I am 100% guilty of doing it myself. When I see other pregnant friends, my mouth says hi, but my eyes automatically drop to their belly. The first, and at times only, thing I usually ask about is related in some way to their pregnancy. Being now on the receiving end of this, I want to say sometimes, “I am really excited about this and think about this a whole lot. But I am not my pregnancy. There are other things going on in my life, heart and mind that I’d love to talk about too.” When I see moms with their very young children, I’m guilty again as charged. I say hi to the mom but my attention automatically goes to the little person in mom’s arms, and that’s what we talk about. I forget that the mom was her own person before this little critter took over her world.

I do this to my patients and their parents without realizing it. I see the patient, and see the vital signs. I see the tubes and the medication lines attached, and I form a list of tasks in my mind to define who this patient will be to me today. A busy patient. An easy patient. A high maintenance family. A helpful family. They are who they are in this hospital room until I see the photos and hear the stories that show me a fuller picture of who this patient and this family was before illness struck. A love for bicycles, art, and silly hand-painting projects. An honors student who got in some trouble here and there but was trying to work things out. And then I remember, this child is ill, but this child is not his or her illness.

This morning, I woke up to a busy day ahead at church. I was tired on many levels. I had just worked two busy 12-hour nursing shifts the previous two days. I said to the husband, “Sometimes it’s hard to be both a nurse and a pastor’s wife.” And then my Father in Heaven reminded me, “Well, good, because that’s not who you are today. Don’t be a nurse. Don’t be the pastor’s wife. You are a child of God. You are a friend to those in your church community, and they are friends to you. So just be who you are today because that’s what you need the freedom to be.”

Today, I kept conversations about my pregnancy to a minimum. I tried hard not to look at my church community through the lens of a concerned pastor’s wife, but just as one who was simply part of the community, just being me, being there. I know the roles are necessary sometimes. But today, it wasn’t about the roles, and that made today a really good day.

letter to baby, at one trimester

I wasn’t sure for a long time if I wanted you. No, that’s not quite it. I just wasn’t sure if I could be the mommy you deserve to have. Life was so unrelentingly full with big things, unusually big things, some good things and some really sad things, and I was scared that I couldn’t give you the attention and priority and love you would need. Your daddy was so patient with all my crazy fears and our God was so gracious. And now here you are. We saw you, heard your little strong heartbeat, and there’s no turning back. Your head is huge and your legs and arms are still forming. I think you look ridiculous and adorable and amazing and just perfect. I can’t believe you are inside of me, connected to me, depending on me to take good care of you because right now, you are literally a part of me.

I can’t help but wonder if you have any conscious thoughts at this point. Do you mind that I still sleep on my stomach sometimes at this point, or is it annoying? Do you feel ravenously hungry when I feel ravenously hungry? Does it startle you when I sneeze? Did you hear the music I was making on the keyboard this morning? I hope you are comfortable and happy and safe in there. I think you have your daddy’s gas.

I’m eating a whole lot these days because of you. You sure do like all things potato, egg, and orange. Apparently you hate mushrooms and green beans, and the taste of coffee is a bit much for you (which makes me wonder if you’re really my child). You’re making my relationship with food really complicated.

I take care of a lot of sick kids at work, and it’s scary for me to know that you are not necessarily exempt from any of the things I have witnessed. You belong to God and your life is in His hands, and that is a good place to be. I hope to make good choices that will give you only the best quality of life at the end of the day. If you are healthy, which means you are running around and babbling and exploring and getting messy and sometimes screaming incessantly, I hope to not take that for granted too much when I’m exhausted and longing for peace and quiet.

I pray to grow and stay rooted in enough security in Christ and humility before Him that I don’t let my ego get wrapped up in your future behavior, your future success. I don’t want to raise the pastor’s kid. I just want to raise you. He is weaving your heart and mind and being together in my womb, and I hope to nuture you well so that you might know your Creator and live for Him, with all the gifting and passions He’s putting in you. Even if you and I have completely opposite personalities, interests, everything. I hope to value you well for all you are.

Well, enjoy it there in my belly for the next few months. The world is a big place and you’ll have a lot to take in. I don’t know if you sleep sometimes, but if you do, sweet dreams, little alien baby. Mommy loves you, and mommy’s praying for you.