Today's story is written by one of my personal heroines, Carol Leonard, midwife, author, advocate, and a foremother of the modern midwifery movement. She is co-founder of the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA), which represents all midwives in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and served one term as its president. Her work to improve maternity care in Moscow, Russia, was featured on 20/20 and was written into the Congressional Record. Her memoir, Lady's Hands, Lion's Heart, is one of my all-time favorite books, and I highly recommend it (read my full review, here). I've recently been in touch with Carol and she very kindly agreed to share the story of the birth of her son, Milan, with Marvelous Kiddo readers. Thank you so much, Carol!
So, it begins. I lie awake in the dark; the first firm squeezing of my uterus has wakened me. I lie in bed with my heart pounding. Labor has taken me by surprise; it is a full week early. I am astounded. Another one comes. I look at the clock. Twenty minutes apart. I get up quietly and walk around to see if the contractions stop. I pace around our bedroom loft. I look out the window to the trees shadowy in the soft moonlight. I am tingling with anticipation. Today I will meet my child.
I lie back down and try to sleep. I try to ignore my excitement and the strong squeezing. John is curled up on his side facing away from me. I feel my belly mound in rhythmic waves. I lay my hands over the stretched paper-thin skin of my abdomen. My child within stretches his foot out to deliberately push my hand aside. This is his game. I manage to grab his foot through my skin; he immediately jerks his foot away and rolls to the other side. He tentatively sticks his foot out in the new spot, teasing me. I pinch it again. He retreats quickly. This makes me smile. I am so in love with this child. I haven’t even seen him yet.
In mid-afternoon, I drive through a late spring snow into town to my OB/Gyn’s office to be checked. I know the prenatal nurses whisper about my appearance. Sanctimonious wenches. It has been a long harsh winter in the back woods of New Hampshire and we heat our home with a wood stove. I am wearing my heavy winter boots and smell like gasoline from the chainsaw. I notice I have wood chips in my hair. I see they have written a sarcastic “MOUNTAIN WOMAN” on the front of my chart. This makes me grin.
I squirm down into the cold metal stirrups and I lie with my legs splayed. One of the bitchy nurses snaps on a pair of latex gloves, squirts on some KY Jelly and prepares to examine my cervix. She doesn’t speak and does not bother to warm her hands. She plunges her fingers into me and her eyes widen in surprise. She says I am already five centimeters dilated and wants me to go straight to the hospital because of the bad weather. I decline. I opt to go back home.
I go back home because I don’t really want to hang around in a sterile antiseptic institutional environment waiting for labor to kick in. I also go home because tonight we are having a fabulous dinner party for the men who helped us build our new house. I love these guys. They are all committed bachelors and very baby-phobic. But they are incredibly hard working and funny, intelligent friends. Together we have all built a beautiful handmade home in the NH woods.
The dinner party is frankly ridiculous. The contractions shift gears and are now coming every five minutes. I try to be nonchalant and charming. Every five minutes I tense, catch my breath and try to fake a sickly smile. I begin squirming uncomfortably in my chair as I feel my bottom could very possibly—at any minute–turn shockingly inside out. I try to breathe unobtrusively, but my nostrils are flaring. I grit my teeth and my eyes start to water.
Every five minutes, the guys stop eating and hold their breath. They stare at me in horror. Robert looks like he may retch.
Michael says, “Shouldn’t we boil water or something?”
I go upstairs and call my neighbor, Talie. Talie has had three babies…all born at home with a local doctor. I don’t know about the home birth part, that seems kind of sketchy to me, but she’s a pro at childbirth. The story about Talie that I love the most is that when she was shopping in the IGA grocery store in Bradford, her water broke in the condiment aisle. Talie was so embarrassed; she grabbed a huge jar of pickles and smashed it down on the floor right in the middle of her puddle. “Clean up in Aisle Three” boomed over the loudspeaker.
Now I need her seasoned wisdom. Talie tells me to lie down, concentrate on the intensity and that I will intuitively know when it is time to go. I lie down. I throw up green beans and roast chicken. Now I know. Definitely time to go.
John and I fairly fly out of the house, leaving the guys standing there helplessly. Their eyes are wide and shocked mouths drop open.
“Good luck!” they mutter.
“Do the dishes!” I shout victoriously as our car careens down the driveway.
Thirty minutes later, when we can see the lights of Merrimack Valley Hospital in the distance from the highway, I get my first real wave of serious labor. That sucker hurt. Without warning, the contractions begin coming every minute. This is no longer fun, nor funny. I am gripping the dashboard of the Peugeot. I find I am panting like a dog. Yup, this is serious pain. Not pain like if you broke your leg or something without a pattern to it, but real genuine pain, none the less. The insides of my nostrils are getting hot from panting. Beads of sweat are dripping from my forehead. I am seriously wondering how I am going to get out of the car once we get there.
The two of us manage to make it to the receptionist in the lobby of the hospital. John has to drag me the last half of the way. The receptionist informs us that since it is still a half-hour until midnight, we will have to pay for a full day. John and I look at each other. We don’t have medical coverage. I decide I’ll be damned if I’m going up to the maternity ward before midnight and get billed for it. I stay in the lobby. I huff and puff and pace, waiting for the clock to tick away. I begin to get tremendous pressure in my butt. I groan and squat down, pretty unconscious of my actions at this point. The other lobbyists peer over their magazines in abject fear. At 12:01 AM, I accept the offered wheelchair and am escorted up to Merrimack Valley Hospital’s Maternity Ward.
I am wheeled by a night nurse down a long beige tiled hall into a large beige tiled room with several curtained-off, high railed hospital beds. I catch a glimpse through a crack in the curtain of the woman in labor next to me.
“Jesus, Joseph and Mary, this is all your fault!” the woman keeps yelling, over and over like a litany.
I am about to make a snide comment on the woman’s Catholic choice of labor coping mantras, when I am engulfed in the worst pain known to womankind.
“Holy Crap!” I yell.
When I can breathe again, I find myself repeating my own, personalized mantra during contractions.
“Oh shit! Oh dear! Oh shit! Oh dear!” I wail.
“Jesus! Joseph and Mary!” is screamed in unison from the other side of the curtain.
This proves to have a strange comforting effect, a technique not commonly taught in Lamaze class.
I am ordered to hoist my rock hard belly up onto the rock hard bed and to spread my legs in order to be “prepped”. Prepping consists of shaving off all my pubic hair and giving me a “Triple H Enema” (High-Hot and a Hell-of-a-lot) so that “we” will be “clean” for the doctor, as the labor nurse so delicately puts it. The labor nurse is an older woman and she is chewing gum. The old nurse examines me and looks quite pleased. She announces that I am already eight centimeters dilated. “Only two more to go! Good work, deah!”
She instructs me to use the adjoining bathroom if I need it. IF? With seven gallons of hot soapy water in my rectum? She’s kidding, right? She says to be careful not to soil the bed sheets and leaves the room and closes the door.
Within minutes the enema is becoming unavoidably insistent. I try my best to make it to the loo without leakage, shuffling in between whopping contractions. I am semi-successful. Now, I am sitting on the throne, reassessing my predicament.
Here I am panting on a rusty toilet in a harshly lit, drab concrete room, shitting my brains out.
I am thirsty, very hot and sweaty, kind of dizzy, and I am all alone.
There is a woman shouting desperately to the Holy Ghost in the next room.
I am about to experience one of the most profound and meaningful acts possible in my entire lifetime.
What the hell is wrong with this picture?
And how come no one has even checked the baby? Maybe because it’s late at night and they are short staffed? And what if my baby is born in this jailhouse toilet with nobody else in here? Then what?
Labor certainly is an interesting process. I am in awe that my body knows exactly what to do; it is functioning like a finely tuned machine. I am feeling pretty proud of myself. However, with the next contraction, I do believe my bottom is history. My yoni is excruciating, on fire. This is impetus enough for me to drag myself out of there and back up onto the scaffolding of the bed. The Jesus woman has been taken away.
Now the pain is overwhelming. I can’t move. I can’t even swear. Forget the breathing, jasus. I lie here as wave after wave of crushing spasms wash over me. I gape at the ceiling. Oh my god. I can’t handle this. This is truly unbearable. Then…a remarkable thing happens. I separate from myself. I realize that I can give my life to bring my child through, that I will willingly die to be his gateway to this world, my love for him is that strong. I stop struggling. I feel myself surrender and open up…I start to push. I push in big, involuntary moose-call pushes. The old nurse comes running back in. John is allowed in after filling out all the necessary payment forms.
Pushing is unbelievably powerful and I am unbelievably vocal. I am not prepared for this. Either I am really being that loud or it just sounds that way inside my head. The old OB nurse is pleasantly perched between my legs, snapping her gum. She gives me a thumbs up and an ongoing progress report on the visibility of my child’s head.
“I can see a dime. Yuh, now I can see a nickel”, she reports in her New Hampshire drawl. “Hell, I can see a quatah!”
I like her. In between straining, I ask her if she can just deliver my baby right here in the bed. Maybe tell the doctor it was born too fast to make it to the delivery room. She smiles a huge smile but shakes her head, no. The doctor on-call would have all hell to pay if she failed to wake him up in time. Especially since it is Dr. Easey.
Dr. Easey! Damn. I hadn’t thought about this. The OB practice I go to is a group of five men. They are secretly referred to as “Fifty Fingers” by their women patients. Easey is the doctor I like the least. I see him as a cold, steely man with mocking, ice blue eyes. Now he is the OB on-call. Shit, Murphy’s Law.
John sees my momentary distress and attempts to comfort me by placing a cold washcloth on my forehead. Just at this moment the strongest bearing down urge hits my butt. I angrily wing the washcloth across the room. I tell him not to touch me, as a matter of fact, to never touch me again, ever. John retreats to the safety of a chair in the corner of the room to wait it out. He hides his face in his hands.
An hour and a half later, a lot of Milan’s head is visible; it no longer retreats between pushes. I can see bald wrinkles. Then all hell breaks loose. The doctor makes his cameo appearance. He is grumpy and rumpled with sleep. He takes one look at my efforts and grunts something unintelligible and turns to the delivery room to scrub up. Some orderlies appear from nowhere. They slide my contorting and pushing body onto a high, narrow gurney and rush me down the hall at high speed to the delivery room.
Once there, I am moved again onto the even higher delivery table, all the while with a head between my legs. I am made to lie flat on my back with my legs up in the air in metal braces, like a June bug stuck helplessly on its back. The table is cracked in half with the lower part removed, so my butt is now suspended in midair. Because I have had no drugs, I am allowed to watch the proceedings in a standup mirror. I see myself being painted from navel to kneecaps with orangey brown Betadine.
Now Milan’s head really starts to crown. The stretching is merciless. I feel as if my fragile labial tissues are splintering into a thousand shards of glass. Nobody is paying any attention; they are all getting ready to do their assigned jobs. My butt is still hanging in midair and my poor expanding yoni is BURNING. I do the natural thing. I reach down to soothe the fiery skin around my child’s emerging head.
Dr. Easey sees me do this. He flips out. Totally and irrationally. He is irate that I have the audacity to touch myself in front of him. He slaps my hand away. He shouts that I have contaminated his sterile field! Goddamit! He gives orders for me to be restrained, for my hands to be strapped down. He continues ranting as though I am a disgusting, wild beast. The nurse ties my hands securely with leather handcuffs that are built into the table; they look like the wrist restraints found on electric chairs. I watch as Dr. Easey cuts a huge mid-line episiotomy in my vagina. Milan’s head is born.
It IS a miracle! As Milan’s body slides out of me, he kicks me for one last time. The doctor puts him in a clear plastic warming cart across the room. I am straining to see what my son looks like. All I can see is one pudgy leg stretched up tentatively testing the air with his toes. How sweet! I want to hold and inspect that chubby thing.
“Please give me my baby.” I say politely.
Nobody pays any attention to me, so I say it louder.
“Please give me my baby!”
On the third try I actually shout for my child. “GIVE ME MY DAMN BABY!”
They all stop bustling around and stare at me as though I have postpartum psychosis already. Dr. Easey looks irritated. He picks up Milan and unceremoniously plops him on my chest. My hands are still strapped to the table. I struggle to look in my newborn’s eyes, not being able to move my arms. I feel someone tugging angrily at the straps, untying my wrists. I look up into John’s brown eyes over his surgical mask that is streaked with tears. So much emotion in those eyes! With my hands finally free, I begin touching my baby all over his sweet, fat little body. I start rubbing the white creamy vernix into his skin, massaging him. I smell him; sniff his neck, behind his ears. I want to lick him, but I already have the sense that Dr. Easey thinks I am a borderline fruitcake.
My bald baby is so beautiful, so perfect, even if he does look a little like Gerald Ford. Milan looks at me and frowns. Then his eyes focus and he squares me with the most intense, penetrating gaze, “Who are you?”
This important meeting is cut short by a very rough and painful delivery of the placenta. I look up in time to see Dr. Easey yank the placenta into a bucket waiting on the floor by his feet. When I look in the mirror, I can’t believe my eyes. My poor yoni has been transformed into something unrecognizable. It is draped, shaved, stained dark brown, cut, bleeding and gaping open. It looks like a Thanksgiving turkey ready to be stuffed and trussed. This is when the conflicting emotions begin. I am incredibly high from giving birth, proud that my body is so strong and wise. I am speechlessly in awe of the process. I have just done the most powerful thing I will ever experience in my life, and yet…I am completely pissed.
A growing feeling of anger is starting to cloud my euphoria. I feel thwarted that my accomplishment has somehow been belittled, that I have been strapped down like a lunatic, degraded and humiliated in this most sacred of times. It is an increasing uneasiness; it is at first hard to grasp what is wrong.
Milan weighs in at a whopping nine pounds. Ouch. Must have been all those nauseating Adelle Davis Brewer’s Yeast and Wheat Germ shakes. My little Budgie is taken from my arms to go to the nursery for the high-test newborn exam. Supposedly he has to wait there until the morning shift when the pediatrician comes to do his rounds. Milan will be thoroughly checked out during normal business hours. John goes with his son.
Dr. Easey repairs the episiotomy in silence. It seems to me that he is taking an inordinately long time down there. I wonder if he’s embroidering his initials. I ask how bad is the damage and how many stitches are needed. I am trying to make inane conversation at 3:00 in the morning with someone who has just cut my vagina to shreds. Surprisingly, Dr. Easey says his first full sentence of the entire night. He proudly states that he is doing his trademark “Husband’s Stitch”, which is putting in a few extra stitches at the top of the perineum and pulling it tight so I won’t be floppy and stretched out from having a baby. How thoughtful. He’ll make sure I am good and tight so there will always be enough friction for my husband. I am going to be even better than before! Is this guy serious? I picture my yoni pursed and puckered together with all the flexibility of a vise-grip. For the rest of my life I will have a numb spot there.
Dr. Easey finishes up his needlework and comes up to my head. I think, now he’s going to congratulate me for doing an outstanding job.
Instead, what he says is, “Some women are meant to be workers and some women are meant to be breeders. You are definitely a breeder.”
That does it. The man is a sexist sadist. I need to get out of here. Fast.
I say to him, “I want to go home.”
Dr. Easey looks stunned for a moment, then gets an imperious look.
“You are aware that hospital policy is that you must stay for at least five days postpartum for observation? You do understand this? Comprehend?” he growls. “You absolutely may NOT leave against my orders.”
He turns abruptly and heads out the door.
“I am outta here!” I yell after him as he disappears down the hall.
The OB night nurse comes back with the orderlies and they wheel me down some more beige halls to the beige postpartum ward. This is a big open room with about a dozen beds arranged dormitory style, for those patients without insurance who are unable to afford a private room. They get me settled in for the night; the nurse squeezes my flaccid belly with a vengeance. She puts a veritable mattress of a sanitary pad on me.
After they leave, I slide out of bed and tentatively try walking. I feel like I have a bowling ball in my butt. I’m sure I am popping stitches with every step, but I am famished and I want my baby. I shuffle with baby-steps down the hall, cringing with each movement. I am following the sound of my baby crying to the nursery.
John looks surprised to see me. He is holding Milan.
I say, “Let’s go.”
I bundle up my baby and the three of us sneak out of the hospital in the early morning hours of April 9, 1975. It is written in my medical chart that I left “AMA”–against medical advice.
This is the beginning of my life’s work.
~ Excerpted from LADY’S HANDS, LION’S HEART, A MIDWIFE’S SAGA by Carol Leonard, Bad Beaver Publishing, 2008. Order a copy, here, and read more on Carol's website and blog.