Ch 6: “B” as in Birth Mother

Excerpt from Chapter 6


purple_leaf_outerglowAny woman who has delivered a baby knows how frightening it can be. And if you ever want to deliver a baby anonymously, go to a military hospital. It’s totally impersonal. That’s how it is done in the military.

My prenatal visits had all been the same: I was just another pregnant woman standing in line, like so many fat cows. No one asked questions, they just delivered orders: stand on the scale… Get your blood pressure taken… Have your blood drawn… Next! The nurses always addressed me as Mrs. Rowland, which sounded so strange since that was what people called my mom. I didn’t bother to correct them; I actually preferred it. It added to my feeling of anonymity.

My baby was born in a Navy hospital, in the summer of 1977, three days after my due date. Before I had time to register what was happening, I was admitted and marshaled through one process after another. Caught up in a whirl of tests and activity and shaved in places I’d rather forget, I felt like I was being prepared for slaughter. Finally, I ended up in a darkened room receiving labor-inducing drugs through an intravenous drip with my mom at my side. It was a miracle that, in those days of no cell phones, someone had managed to get hold of her in time. How she got there so fast I didn’t know or care. I’d just always known that, somehow, she would be there for me when I needed her—and thank God, she was; I don’t know how I would have survived without her presence.

To say that I was not prepared for what was happening to me would be a huge understatement. As the pains started coming hard and fast I remember screaming that I had to go to the bathroom because of the intense pressure I was feeling. That pressure was my baby coming. I thought I was being ripped in half. I also remember wanting desperately for there to be a time out—a pause in the unstoppable cascade of events. Please, somebody, anybody, let me have a moment to get a grip. But such is not the way with induced labor. There was no break, no stop in the persistent push towards delivery.

Mom sat quietly beside me while I labored to give birth. Looking back from the vantage point of today, I realize how incredibly difficult it must have been for her, watching her teenaged child delivering a grandchild she would never see grow up. It breaks my heart to think about that. I never said it back then, but thank you Mom for being there.

I saw my newborn baby only once. I am certain that if the people in that room knew what I was about to do, they would have thought twice before placing her on my chest. She was so small and so suddenly and unexpectedly close, just inches away from my face. I lay there staring into her deep brown eyes. I couldn’t deny her existence any more; the truth was staring me in the face, so real and so beautiful, like a gift that leaves you breathless. I wish I had thought to touch her then, or to say something profound, but she was so delicate, and I was too awestruck to formulate any thoughts, let alone words. Instead, I simply stared at her, and smiled, and for those few sweet, fleeting moments, I wasn’t different, or flawed, or unworthy—I was part of that sisterhood of women, all the mothers of the world, resting after labor, and blissfully counting my newborn’s fingers and toes, as mothers have been doing since time immemorial. To this day, I am grateful that it happened; it was a shared experience with my daughter and my mom that no one can ever take away from me.

And then she was gone…

They took my beautiful little girl away to the nursery and moved me to the recovery room. And as they did—wham! There it was again: that familiar, searing sense of separation! Only this time, it was accompanied by a feeling of someone having ripped away a piece of my heart.

How could I not have known? What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I stop them? Why did I stay silent?

I’d had my baby with me for a few precious seconds. And then my moment had passed. She was gone.

The nurses must have sensed my anxiety because as they stitched and cleaned me up they kept clucking soothingly about how I would soon be with my baby. I couldn’t blame them for saying the things they did. It was so common for them to have wives delivering their babies while their husbands were overseas, that it probably didn’t occur to them that I might not only be unmarried, but that I wouldn’t be keeping my baby. And I was too tired and too distraught to disabuse them of the notion. So, I suffered their ministrations in silence, all the while wishing they would go away and leave me alone with my emptiness. As they chattered on, I floated further away, repeating my well-worn mantra repeatedly in my head: I’m not worthy of being her mother. I’m not capable. I’m nothing.

I ended up in a semi-private room in another part of the hospital next to a woman who never stopped crying. I wondered what was wrong with her, but didn’t ask because, in truth, it wasn’t important; she was giving voice to my own inner sadness, and I took comfort in her ability to express a gut-wrenching sound when I was unable to. So, I made up stories about her instead. She’d lost her baby during childbirth. Or perhaps she’d had a miscarriage. We weren’t in a maternity ward so maybe she had just learned that she had only days or weeks to live. As I lay in bed filling my time, making up stories about a stranger, my thoughts kept straying to my baby. I thought often about going to the nursery to see her, but for some reason I just couldn’t move. In my mind, I would imagine myself getting out of bed and walking alone down endless hallways until I finally found the nursery. I would look through the window, searching the room, wondering if I would recognize her—wondering if I would feel the same pull I’d felt when she had lain upon my chest. The nursery would be quiet and peaceful… until the nurses spotted me. Then the alarms would suddenly start ringing, and people would appear screaming “Get her out of here!”

I lay in that room for three days, unable to watch TV or even read a book—just replaying my imaginary scenario and listening to my roommate cry. And then she left. I missed her when she was gone. The stories in my head stopped and I was left staring at the wall, alone with my longing, until my mom, who was my only visitor, would come by to see me.

I would ask her if she knew how my baby was doing. She said she had jaundice, but that she would be just fine. When I asked her if Dad had seen the baby, she shook her head gently and said “No. That would be too hard for him, Kimmie.”

Bam! Like the paddles they use when they need to restart your heart that jolted me! I had hurt my dad.

Worse yet, I had forced my mom to be somewhere I knew she would rather not be—next to her child in a hospital, down the hall from a grandbaby she would never get to know. The reality of it all hit me hard. I had hurt my parents, and I couldn’t figure out how I—or they—could possibly recover from this.

I’ve heard that it’s possible to go mad with grief; that there’s only so much emotional and mental pain that one’s brain can deal with before it shuts down as a protective mechanism. Looking back, I think something like that happened to me. Not that I went insane, but rather, that a part of me simply closed itself off in an attempt to numb the fear, shock, and the sheer helplessness I felt. I’d never experienced anything like this in my life, and I was too young, too immature to have developed the resources necessary to deal with it any sane or logical way. So I simply reverted to the only default mechanism I had—withdrawal.

During the rest of my stay at the hospital, I never cried. I simply retreated once more behind my familiar wall, doing only what was absolutely necessary, like going to the toilet, and forcing a little food down me when Mom was watching. I didn’t take a shower, or brush my teeth. I just lay in bed, despising myself and wondering what kind of monster I must be for not trying to find my baby.

On the last day of my stay in the hospital, I finally forced myself to get out of bed and go onto the terrace. It was a beautiful Hawaiian day, but somehow it was as if only my eyes were functioning at a normal level. For while I could see the sun, the blue sky, and even the birds in the trees, I could not feel the warmth of the day, or hear the birdsong—it was as if someone had turned off the sound and the heat. I felt strangely outside myself, caught in a haze, searching for passage past a mind numbing emptiness. I stood by the third floor porch railing, wondering what it might feel like to take flight over the edge. How would it be to feel again? I wondered, as I thought of the sweet freedom that absolute weightlessness might afford me. What a relief it would be. Would my body, ultimately, leave an impression? Would the grass be soft enough to cradle me when I landed in its warm inviting arms? With that last thought, the smallest whisper of reality began to reassert itself in my mind, bringing me back to the present. Where had my mind gone? I wondered, as I found myself standing at the edge of myself, with the sound slowly beginning to return.

I remained there for some time, staring at the cars rushing past in the distance as they hurried from place to place and wondering what had just happened. Would I ever find myself busily going about my life with a sense of purpose like those people in their cars seemed to have? Would I ever feel connected to humanity again? Or would the inner scar of my monstrosity keep me separate forever?

Taking it a step at a time, I slowly backed into my room. If an empty, darkened cocoon had been available, I would have crawled right into it and stayed there.

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