Two ounces short of 5 pounds. That’s the way I say it, though we never announced it on social media or typed out in a fancy font below his name in a birth announcement. I was so ashamed of that number. He was born on his due date and was predicted to be an 8 plus pound baby. One midwife went so far as to say “well, he’s not giant, but a good size.” He was what is called “small for gestational age” and that can happen for a number of reasons, but the only box I ticked was being an older mother. His umbilical cord was very tightly coiled with a few knots. This could also be a developmental thing that could happen at any age. Unfortunately we don’t know why it happened to Wylie, which means we have no idea of it would happen again.
I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Our genius doula encouraged me to think about his birth story as a triumph (is that the word she used?).
I worked a full day on Friday, but was starting to have contractions that were coming at regular intervals. I walked the long loop at Sapsucker Woods on my lunch break, which was pretty uncomfortable. We left work around five and headed to an Indian Creek Orchard to pick some peaches and walk around a bit. We did lots of sampling and took some photos and then went out to dinner at Ithaca Beer Company (my camera roll transitions from basket of fries to the first photo of a screaming Wylie). After a nice meal outside, we stopped at a bar for a friend's birthday at which point I became way too uncomfortable to wait around for cake. I tried to chat and drink ice water, but we left early and headed home.
The rest is a bit blurry, but I spent the night in and out of the tub and moaning and groaning on our couch. I told Eliot to get some rest and timed contractions and was definitely in some denial. I couldn't sleep and the pain was a bit scary. I might have cursed Ina May's name a few times. In these situations I'd normally be texting my sister (I texted her through much of my first half marathon..."started too fast, I'm really hot, this is so hard"), but this felt like a very different kind of personal challenge. Eventually I got Eliot up or my moaning and beating on the walls got him up, we called the doula, called the hospital and decided to head in.
The contractions were about three minutes apart and I was really questioning how on earth I'd do it without drugs. It was the kind of pain I couldn't imagine pushing against. It was, in fact, quite different than climbing mountains and running hills. That pain - I know how to lean into. When we got to the hospital, I reminded us not to be disappointed if I wasn't very dilated and in the moments between contractions we took a small walk before going inside. Once inside, things seemed to intensify and I had to take quite a few breaks to breathe through contractions, stopping in the hall to hold onto various counters and walls looking at everyone in this new light. Holy hell, they had all been birthed by women who had endured this pain.
It must have been around 5 am when we got in our room and they gave me a gown that I was in too much pain to figure out putting on. I even had a plan of what I would wear to labor in, but it went to hell. I ended up wearing the gown like a robe over the clothes I wore in. My confidence in my ability was a bit low and my not so cool outfit reflected that. Our doula, Kate, was there trying to help me get more comfortable and they hooked me up to check baby's heart rate pretty quickly. The nurse (who smelled like my Grandma Martha and Lilly of the Valley) and midwife weren't super happy with how his heart rate reacted to the strong contractions, so we tired some different positions, oxygen, and eventually some IV fluids. I lost the mucus plug and things were moving along, but maybe not fast enough. At some point a doctor was consulted, I was not even to 5cm dilated and we figured I likely had a long day of labor ahead. The doctor explained that likely something was funky with the placenta or the umbilical cord and that we shouldn't stress the baby out with a vaginal delivery.
A c-section is not what we had planned for and Eliot and Kate knew that I really wanted to avoid surgery, but I knew that meant that we would get to meet the baby soon and I had already had a really good taste of what labor feels like. So, we had some time to discuss it and come to terms with not having a perfect birth story and then came a spinal block from the most lovely anesthesiologist. It's crazy cause you know your uterus is still doing the mambo, but you can't feel it other than some funky pressure. So, in we went and everyone was kind and explained everything. Eventually everyone in the room who was watching my naked body with the mamboing belly was introduced to me (including a neonatologist) who would check the baby out right away.
I had the blue paper between my upper body and lower, which was fine with me, but in the reflection of the lamp, I could see the process and feel the tugging. I made some dumb jokes about wasted padcicles, suggestions of giving me a six pack when done, and tried to hide my extreme anxiety that something would be terrible wrong with our boy. I was also maybe trying to lighten things for Eliot, who is not a fan of hospitals or viewing his wife's guts. I remember the doctor saying she wanted to hear his cry when she got him out. Once they saw him, I remember them saying meconium (tar-like baby poo that plugs things in until birth...not great if it is in the amniotic fluid...and it was).
But, in moments, he was out and cried in a way that sounded like a cat. Oh well, still a cry. They told me he was small and then rushed him over to wipe him down and check him out. I encouraged Eliot to go over and try not to look at my guts on the way. In the meantime the anesthesiologist (who had a better view than me) reported that the baby looked great and had "no extra parts or missing parts." That was not a phrase he designed, it was my own that he simply repeated. Baby was pretty alert with an APGAR of 9 (this is the score c-sectioners use to make ourselves feel less terrible that our babies exited through an alternate portal). I don't know how many minutes or seconds passed before I got him on my chest and our kind nurse held him there because my arms were shaking so much I couldn't use them. He latched pretty quickly and seemed to know what he was doing. The doctor said, "we did the right thing, wait until you see this cord."
As the doctor sewed me up, she explained that the cord was really tightly coiled, which is why he was small. He was getting what he needed for his vital organs, but there was little left to build fat. I was so grateful that we had this perfect little baby who looked just like some part of me knew he'd look. He was like a tiny Eliot after a hot and humid night camping or just after waking up post too much sodium for dinner. He was small and I'd had an urgent c-section, but there was our baby. I was nursing our baby.
Small babies get their blood sugars tested frequently and it was pretty stressful before my milk came in. For many one year olds, their first birthday is their first chance to taste real sugar. Wylie had some glucose pretty soon after his first colostrum. He had lots of heel pricks to test his glucose, he had photo therapy from a little jaundice (we called this the jaundice cave and it was torture for us to not be able to touch him), and he also had to have some IV dextrose. He had no time in the NICU and for that I am grateful.
We spent some effort trying to figure out why the cord may have behaved that way, but there were no pathogens, no weird clotting issues, no genetic explanation. Nothing. The doctor told us she'd only seen it twice in her career and this was the only living baby she'd seen with it. She explained that it was good that I was so healthy and took good care of myself during the pregnancy and had a wonderful placenta. She also suggested we name him "Sherman" because he was such a tank. She said, it was "his fate to make it." Talk about emotional.
We took our time naming him because I wanted to be sure that all the drugs from surgery were out of my system and I am not a speedy decision maker. One meaning of Wylie is well watered meadow, which we loved. Funny enough he'd wet about 15 blankets a night before he gained enough weight for his diapers to work better. Very well watered bassinet and lots of laundry.
He only had one extra day in the hospital, but it all felt pretty traumatic. I was pumping at regular intervals and that helped get my milk in a bit early. It was also the milk we used to supplement while I nursed. This meant that Eliot would use a syringe and a tiny tube to push milk into Wylie's mouth as he nursed. This worked well because Wylie didn't have to spend calories to get that milk. He had free calories delivered via Eliot. A positive spin on this is that for the first few weeks of Wylie's life, his dad was part of the whole feeding process. It was stressful to say that least.
I had a lot of guilt (even though my scientist self knew that an umbilical cord isn't made by me alone). What if we had tried to forgo the c-section? What if I had had babies in my 20s? What if we'd discovered this earlier and gotten him out? What if I'd eaten more ice cream? Was it that I could only eat almonds, potatoes, and cheese for my first trimester? What if he is forever damaged? This didn't necessarily improve for a long time. Google was not my friend. Those anxieties decrease with every milestone we hit. I understand though that those anxieties are just the tip of the iceberg for parenting responsibility and vulnerability.
Luckily the doctors spent lots of time answering questions before we left the hospital. The neonatologist spent a while going through everything. Ruth kept notes, which continue to bring me reassurance. One thing that helped me feel better was that the blood oxygen levels in the cord were high, so even though he was lacking fat, he was at least getting oxygen. The nurses were fantastic and shared their own stories of tiny babies who had grown into genius basketball players.
Our friend Marie scoured the stores of Ithaca for preemie clothes so that we had something to put him in to bring home. She also brought fresh blueberries and bubble water. A gem. Mary brought flowers and pearl earrings and a trashy novel, Anne brought chocolate and celebration, and I had a lovely surprise of finding a friend from pre-natal yoga roaming the halls. She had given birth moments after me (in fact, she also labored, but ended up with a c-section and had to wait for us to leave the operating room before she got in). She has been pure gold to have as a check in. Our parents came to help and to be joyous and to tell us he was beautiful.
By the end of our 4th day, they were ready to release us, which I think feels scary for many people, but with a baby they've been monitoring so closely for several days, it was bizarre. Eliot and I laughed that some people get nervous about getting the baby in the carseat for the first time. After the skill set we'd acquired in 3 days, that carseat was small potatoes.
A tiny baby with little body fat must be kept warm and close to your heart. You should maximize nursing and skin to skin contact. With these instructions I would rarely put him down in the bassinet for the first few weeks. Luckily, his Mamaw Gran was here to hold him for the first few hours of his and our sleep, which helped ease our transition into not really sleeping much at all. In the beginning you can still remember what good sleep is like and you almost think you deserve it. Soon, that memory fades.
I’m so grateful that nursing has worked for us considering so many other things went differently than I’d planed. Nursing helped me to feel like I was mending some of the damage done by the faulty cord. After he turned 5months and was much sturdier and I was back at work, I found myself in a co-sleeping arrangement. A friend who is also a working mother and has found herself in the same situation prefers to call this sleep-sharing, since there's often not much sleep for mom. This happened because it was the best way to get sleep. There is some decent evidence that this can ease trauma. I think hormonally that’s likely true. The amount of sleep I lose likely negates that advantage, but it is the situation we’ve found ourselves in for the time being and I certainly like to have him close where I can inhale top of the head baby smells like it’s the last spoonful of peach cobbler and melty vanilla ice cream (or first sip of a cold IPA after a summer run with my feet in a cold stream...if I’m being more accurate).
Generally, I am incredibly grateful that my care team did some good detective work and got Wylie out safely. Though I know it likely seems selfish, some part of me still feels a little lame about the c- section. I read Ina May's first book long before I was ready to have kids and I always thought I'd do it as naturally as possible. I was there to watch my niece's birth and it was the most amazing feat of human strength I've ever seen. In the back of my mind I worry that because I missed out on a "natural" birth, my powerful adult woman level can will never be activated. Mostly, I'm still in disbelief that we made this perfect little human who is now babbling, cooing, giggling, playing games, splashing in Ithaca creeks, and forcing me to focus on how to live better in every moment that I have the energy to. Did I already say that I'm incredibly grateful and lucky?
Some of this I wrote on my iPhone using my thumb while on a trail run last week (don't worry, I'm not training for anything) and some I wrote during nap this morning, but luckily I wrote down the first story soon after he was born, which added some detail here. The last sentence from the first time I wrote the story:
"And now it is the end of dawn chorus on August 2nd and this little bundle is here in my arms with a belly full of milk administered not just by me, but with the help of his dad. An extension of my heart is the truth and I have never loved Eliot more."
Grandparents to the rescue! Wylie had that little thing on his hand for his IV dextrose.
Eliot brought Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer to read aloud and we found this passage that was just perfect for our wet place in the meadow, Wylie.
First evening at home
I’ve written a million versions of this story and intended to share it many times, but I always feel the need for a disclaimer that this blip of sadness in my life is small in comparison to the tragedies of our current world. Maybe if I release this story into the wild, I’ll make room for other things.
I knitted this through three pregnancies, two were short and one was Wylie. There are many flaws and holes that I never corrected in this blanket. I just moved forward with all the ugly bits left in. It’s a story. It is one way to tell the story.
The first was a missed miscarriage and the second was an ectopic pregnancy.
When we went in for our first appointment well into my first trimester, there was no heartbeat and the floor of my reality fell away. A missed miscarriage occurs when you lose the pregnancy, but your body keeps trucking along as though you are very pregnant. I felt like I had failed as a female.
We waited, but potentially not long enough, before trying again.
By the end of our delayed honeymoon to South Africa, I knew I was pregnant, but by our layover in Cairo, I had started cramping. I had trouble convincing my doctors here that something was wrong because my hormone levels were such that I still appeared quite pregnant. It was a midwife friend who really looked at my numbers and listened to my symptoms and then said it sounded like a classic ectopic.
When you miscarry, you get to know your clinic and the phlebotomist really well. Weekly blood draws let you know just how pregnant your body still thinks it is. This can take months. I got a 5 dollar weekly bill for my blood draw for many many weeks.
I can’t remember when I was finally not pregnant anymore. It took a while. In the meantime, I did acupuncture, cut back on running, ate more protein, picked up pennies on heads, let all the spiders live in our house, meditated, took relaxing baths, did yoga, took my vitamins, and consulted with a fertility specialist. Granted, even though they are very good at helping people get pregnant, that wasn’t really our issue. It was keeping it and keeping it in the right spot, so that wasn't super helpful. We waited and waited and I tracked my cycle and knew way too many details about fertility and temperatures and timing. I finally couldn’t wait any longer. I was 37.
Then, there was the very stressful election, a sort of stressful board presentation at work and then somehow a positive result and very clear first trimester symptoms. My betas were super high and I saved the message from my doctor where he says that it is a very good indication of a healthy pregnancy. This was the same doctor who told me he thought I’d be just fine and we worked strictly with him until I was released to the midwives. For anyone going through this, find a doctor who will listen to you, tell you when you need to stop with all the intricate details of your cycle and help you come up with a plan of action (even if that plan is..take a breather).
There was nearly a year between deciding to try and finding out we were pregnant. During much of that year in a new town I was full of first trimester hormones and mostly, although loosely, holding onto that secret.
Honestly, there was never a time when I felt totally confident that everything would be just fine and that we would get to come home with an actual baby in our arms. I’ve heard many people who have had loss say this very thing. Your opportunity to have that feeling doesn’t really exist.
In truth, I never REALLY understood pregnancy loss and I owe many people in my life an apology about that. I would rattle off something from Evolutionary Biology class about how common it is or how they were lucky that it happened early or some other insensitive remark. I get it now. I get how quickly it becomes all you think and plan, and dream about. How sad you feel in secret. How you feel like a biological failure.
So what is it about telling your story that is so scary? I think it is the permanent settled feeling of it. The story has less room to evolve once it has been written and then observed and then told by others. Setting a story free means that you no longer have control over it.
I am not sure where I stand on what we gain from over-sharing. I feel especially confused lately, but I certainly can say that when I was going through a hard time, the thing that was most helpful to me, the thing that normalized my grief and gave me hope was reading the stories other women had written about their own loss. Many of these were on blogs I check in on like Cup of JO, Peanut Butter Fingers, Apples Under My Bed, and many others I can no longer remember. So, I am grateful for their sharing and I hope that my sharing can help somebody who has experienced loss, who may someday or who loves someone who has or might. I don’t love that I couldn’t share this until I had a successful pregnancy. I wish it didn’t feel so secret.
One thing comes from sickness and loss is the room it makes for that really good human stuff. We were overwhelmed with the immense outpouring of empathy, shared grief (maybe those are the same), disappointment, loss, and the stories of other couples and families who have also experienced this. I am grateful for their candidness and their ever-evolving stories.
Most of the time I can’t believe how lucky I am to get to do this. Below are all the pictures I took of him with the blanket every time I meant to write about this. His birth was another crazy story, which hopefully I'll get to soon as he is almost turning 1.