Sister Ass: a Birth Story
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of those acetic Pagans who called it the prison or the ‘tomb’ of the soul, and of Christians like Fisher to whom it was a ‘sack of dung’, food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans (they seldom know Greek), the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious. But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body ‘Brother Ass’. All three may be – I am not sure – defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money.
Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now a stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body.
C. S. Lewis on St Francis of Assisi (The Four Loves)
So, quite a while ago, I had a baby!
I keep trying to write her birth story out in my journal so that I can cut it down and put it in a post on here, but to be honest, I can’t really get through it in detail yet. So I’m just going to put it here, however it comes out, and try not to make it not too long!
Toward the end of April, I had been showing signs of preterm labor. My doctor was assigned to Labor and Delivery and wasn’t allowed to see patients in the office because of COVID, so I saw a random OB who was covering for her, and she, according to the custom of her kind, told me everything was fine and sent me home despite tearful protests. 36 hours later, at 2 a.m. on April 29th, my water broke with a loud pop and a gush while I was sleeping, and we drove straight down to the hospital. I was 27 weeks and 3 days pregnant, and I was terrified. And very wet. (And MAD. I’m still mad! I can’t get into it without going on a full rant, so I will stop there.) We checked in, they tried to send me to triage but took me straight to a room when they saw the small waterfall when I stood up, and somewhere in the flurry of activity, they found the baby’s heartbeat and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
They attached monitors to both of us, gave me the first steroid shot for the baby’s lungs, and started me on the magnesium drip, which was pretty much as terrible as everyone said, but I didn’t really care. After 12 hours, she seemed pretty stable, so they sent me upstairs to the complicated pregnancy/postpartum with no baby floor, and the plan was to keep me there for as long as we both were safe, and deliver the baby at 34 weeks if possible.
We lasted almost 3 days after that, monitored more and more closely throughout. We started out with a routine non-stress test in the morning, and then were sent for an ultrasound, and then had a follow up NST in the evening, and then another one in the morning, and another ultrasound, another evening NST, were frantically wheeled back downstairs and spent another 12 hours in Labor and Delivery overnight on another magnesium drip, went back upstairs for 20 minutes (almost enough time to eat my oatmeal! But not quite...) and determined that even my very mild contractions were causing cord compressions and making her heart rate drop too dangerously. The high risk OB team came in and told me that they thought we should move toward delivering the baby for safety, rather than try to prolong pregnancy, since I couldn’t be on constant monitoring for seven weeks. I wholeheartedly agreed- I was nervous about having a 27 week preemie in the middle of a pandemic, but I was at peace with the decision, and relieved that I would have constant proof that she was alive, rather than having to wait for the next heart rate check or count kicks. Plus, my gut told me that she was strong and she would be fine, and my gut really is almost always right.
For reasons I couldn’t tell you, since the baby wasn’t tolerating contractions, they decided to try a pitocin induction. I had been awake for three or four days at this point, listening to a little heartbeat or counting kicks, so I agreed. This did not go well, as you might imagine, so the pitocin was turned off after an hour and they prepared the operating room and told me to try to get some sleep. (I did not get any sleep.) On May 1, sometime between 8 and 9 p.m., Lucy Catherine (Lucy because we liked it, Catherine because I was admitted on her feast day, she is my patron saint, and she was born prematurely during the Black Plague) was delivered by emergency C-section. She blessedly came out crying, six minutes after the incision was made (I think it was 8:36? It’s all a blur), a tiny 2 lbs, 3 oz. Brian baptized her, and she was given a BIPAP for breathing support.
The team took Lucy over to the NICU and admitted her. They intubated her for about 24 hours to give her surfactant for her lungs, and then she was put back on the BIPAP, and given blue light treatment for her bilirubin levels. At first, poor Lucy seemed a little bit shocked. This was her preferred position for about 3 days:
Meanwhile, they wheeled me back to the postpartum recovery floor and gave me a pump within one hour after delivery- such good care! So many moms have issues breastfeeding or pumping because it takes too long for them to be able to start. After a few hours, they cleared me to go see Lucy in the NICU, so Brian wheeled me over there. I felt a little bit self conscious because I still had a Foley catheter inserted, so
there was a bag of my own pee hanging right next to me. We got into the NICU room, and I saw my little red baby, impossibly tiny and somehow impossibly huge, hooked up to so many tubes, and looking so still and helpless. I wasn’t sure how to talk to her, and I was afraid to touch her, and I felt suddenly like an outsider in her new medical life. Some nurses came in and called me Mom (Who, me? I’m not really a mom! I’m just an observer of nurses and babies of uncertain size!) and explained lots of things to me that went in one ear and out the other.
At this point, the COVID policy dictated that only one parent was allowed on the visitor list for the duration of a child’s hospital stay. One, period. No switching. And since I was feeding her breast milk and I was the mom, it would be me. Brian was allowed to stay until I was discharged, and could go back and forth between the NICU and my postpartum room. And so he did- washing all my pump parts, running tiny amounts of colostrum over to Lucy, doing all the communication with our families, and trying to soak up the moments he had left with his tiny new daughter before he couldn’t do anything to take care of either of us.
Three days later, I hobbled my C-sectioned self over to the couch in the baby’s room and moved in. Lucy had a 90% chance of survival- this sounds pretty good, but it’s also a 10% chance of death, and so I had to try to prepare myself for the possibility that she would die after Brian went home, potentially weeks after, and I would be the only one there, and the only one who had seen our daughter since she was three days old. I’m not a COVID denier, and I am grateful for the extra sanitation and masks, but nothing is worth that. Nothing. The policy was changed about a week into our stay, so he got to come back, but I will always wonder how many families had to endure that nightmare during the time it was in place.
They told us to expect a roller coaster ride with a 27-weeker. But then.... she thrived. I felt like we got to the top of the first hill, and I covered my eyes for the big drop and instead, we just went smoothly forward. Her truly scary moments were few and far between. She never needed to be intubated after the first 24 hours. She never had a PICC line. She grew and grew. She got really good at regulating her own body temperature, so she was allowed to wear clothes:
She went down from BIPAP to CPAP to nasal cannula in about 3 weeks:
Her heart rate and oxygen levels stopped dropping as drastically or as often, and she didn’t need so much attention from the nurses, so they moved her to the NTCU (neonatal transitional care unit- it’s called special care and is usually in the NICU at other hospitals) and put her in a room with windows and a crib:
She was happy! She loved her nurses! And she got some little rolls! And she learned to breastfeed and liked it, which is often very difficult even with much older preemies.
At this point, her progress stalled for several weeks, because she was a real stinker about learning to eat from a bottle and getting off the last little bit of oxygen support that she was on. I cried a lot. Dad (Brian, not my dad) took a firm hand and told her what a stink she was being. I tried negotiating. It didn’t really work, but eventually she took bottles okay:
She got off her oxygen:
On her dad’s birthday, she pulled out her feeding tube. (Okay....she started it. I finished the job.) And it stayed out!
And then, on July 23rd, three days before her due date, she came home!
She likes it here.
She really has no lasting issues except for BPD, which is a chronic lung disease caused by being on oxygen for as long as she was. It’s pretty unavoidable with such a tiny and early preemie, so we basically got off scot-free. And it shouldn’t affect the rest of her life too much, except that colds, flu, and RSV in her baby and toddler years will be more dangerous, so we will be living a fairly quarantined life for a while. (Yes, I have a lot of feelings about that...)
And that is the story of Lucy!
Well, friends. I am in love. She is amazing and beautiful and chubby-cheeked and blue-eyed and funny and very chill and a great eater and a good sleeper (until the past week...). And in addition to being objectively awesome, she has helped me heal so much. She’s the girl of my dreams!
But obviously it was not the birth of my dreams. I had hoped that this would be the pregnancy that restored my trust in my own body, affirmed its strength and competence, reassured me that I was made for this, as pregnant women so often hear. Instead, I think it has successfully ruined any chance I had of peace of mind in future pregnancies.
My very first reaction, when my water broke, was to roll my eyes and sigh and say, “Of course.” From there, I quickly leaped to fear for my baby’s life, anger, a good amount of denial once she was born, the whole nine yards. I have grieved, and continue to grieve, her early birth and all that came with it. But the further I get from that first moment, the more appropriate that eye roll and sigh seem.
I think that the modern conversation about childbirth and motherly bodies oscillates between the two extremes of hatred and idolatry that C.S. Lewis mentions. We treat our bodies as something dangerous and disobedient, that we must keep under control by whatever means possible. And when doing so tires and hurts us, we turn the other way and enshrine them. But the virtue lies in the mean- in appreciating the good that they do and the beauty that they have, in tolerance (perhaps grudging at times) of their shortcomings, in treating them with gentleness and respect.
There is something sacred about the body, and something terrible. But for now, I’m trying to “neither revere nor hate” mine, to gaze at my baby in awe and appreciate what my “useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast” has done by the grace of God, and follow St. Francis from there.