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The Longest Shortest Time

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Nine months ago, during the last storm of the snowiest winter in Philadelphia history, my stomach began to gurgle loudly like a draining bathtub. It took about an hour to realize what this meant: my daughter finally wanted out.

Toward the end of my pregnancy, I’d found out that my baby was facing my belly in my womb—“sunny side up,” the midwives called it, which sounded to me like an apartment listing that calls a tiny studio “cozy.” I was told to hang out on my hands and knees as much as possible and the baby should turn in time for delivery. She was angled in a way that meant she’d have to do nearly a full 360. Apparently fetuses can only rotate in one direction, like a flushing toilet. If only we were in Australia.

I killed time in my last few weeks by watching the winter Olympics on my hands and knees. When I needed a break, I crammed—re-reading key passages from my stack of childbirth books and handouts from classes at the hospital. Which breathing techniques to use for which stage of labor, which types of massage to request, which props to use. I was prepared.

Here is what I knew. If you just relax enough and surround yourself with people you trust, you’ll be able to have a natural childbirth and it might even be euphoric; you must, must, must breastfeed the baby immediately after she is born, plus keep her in your room with you that first night no matter how tired you are; and with Dr. Harvey Karp’s five S’s technique—swaddling, side/stomach position, shushing, swinging, and sucking—a bawling infant is magically soothed.

Here is what the books didn’t tell me. That I would be in so much pain I wouldn’t even want to be touched, let alone ask for a back rub. That the only type of breathing I’d possibly be able to muster was to blow raspberries. That I would get stalled for half a day at 5 centimeters. That just the teensiest, eensiest bit of Pitocin would send me into a series of 10-minute-long contractions that would leave me yelling for an epidural. That my baby wouldn’t turn, making it impossible for me to push her out without an episiotomy. That she’d take her first poop inside me, breathe it into her lungs, and need to be rushed to the NICU immediately after being born.

No nursing her; no keeping her with me in my room. I was kept up all night by a screaming newborn, but it was my roommate’s, not mine.

They had Sasha hooked up to machines for the first 3 days of her life. I tried nursing her a bit but we couldn’t really seem to get the hang of it, especially with all those wires in the way. I was given a breast pump without much instruction, so I basically didn’t use it. Besides, the only thing holding me together were the moments that I could go to the NICU and put Sasha inside my hospital gown, pressing her warm bare skin against my own. I wasn’t about to give that up to pump little splutterings of a substance that wasn’t even milk yet out of my boobs.

A few days after we took Sasha home, we discovered that my episiotomy stitches had busted and I needed to be recut and stitched. It was sort of like going to the dentist, getting shot with local anesthesia, except in a much more sensitive part of your body. The surgery left me unable to climb stairs for 2 months—or walk, really—so I lived on an air mattress in my dark living room during that time. I couldn’t stand long enough to change the baby’s diapers. I couldn’t carry her around to comfort her. I couldn’t even sit and comfort her because sitting on my butt hurt too much. With the help of pillows and rolled-up swaddling blankets to get us in exactly the right position, I could nurse her. But it turned out that because I had neglected to pump at the hospital I had low milk supply and had to feed her 3 ways each time she ate: at the breast, then a bottle of pumped milk followed by a bottle of formula. I was swollen, I was sore. I wept every time I went to the bathroom, during every infrequent shower I took. There were fluids pouring out of me from every orifice, except maybe my ears.

We tried the “five S’s.” We tried really hard. Sometimes they worked. But more often they didn’t. And at those times we didn’t just have a crying baby on our hands; we had a crying family. It all came to a head one night when my husband, Jonathan, was sick—passed out on the couch with a fever. It was 2:00 a.m. I was trying to nurse Sasha and she was yanking her head back and doing what Jonathan called her Fay Wray scream. She was clearly starving but she just wouldn’t eat. I frantically dug through my breastfeeding handouts, trying to find an answer. Nothing. It was too late to call anyone. I started doing this thing that I think a lot of people do when they’re desperate, where I’d loop my memories over and over in my head. I’d relive the birth as if it were a movie and I’d always get stuck on this one frame. This split second during labor when I was sure, absolutely convinced, that if I had just gotten on my hands and knees one last time and accepted a massage from my midwife instead of opting for drugs, everything would have gone differently. I would’ve been able to turn the baby, which would mean I wouldn’t have needed an episiotomy, which would mean I wouldn’t have needed to be restitched, which would mean I’d be more capable with Sasha, which would mean she’d be happier right now, which would mean she’d be nursing calmly in my arms, gulping and making little sighs of baby satisfaction. But I was weak and I did choose the drugs, and here we were: Fay Wray. I was suddenly so full of rage that I nearly threw the baby across the room. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever felt and I quickly put her in her bassinet and walked away.

Just about every mom I know, or at least the honest ones, has had at least one experience like this. Especially in the early days. When I told my friend Kirsten about what I was going through, about how I couldn’t stop looping, she told me this: These first few months are the longest shortest time. Remember that. They go on forever. And then they’re over.

When Sasha was about 9 weeks old, I had to take her with me to a dentist appointment. I knew I’d have to feed her there and I was terrified she’d go into Fay Wray mode. The receptionist offered to let me feed her in an exam room. So we sat in the reclining chair, me feeling practically naked without my pillows and swaddling blankets to prop her up. She lay there with her mouth around my nipple but wouldn’t latch. I braced myself. And then Sasha looked up at me. She looked me right in the eye, not at the top of my head, which is where she usually looked. She kind of gave me this smile and she grunted a couple times, like unh, unh. Her first laugh. It made me laugh, which made her laugh more, which made me laugh more. I wondered if the receptionist could hear us cracking up like a couple of maniacs.

This is all to say that it changes. Motherhood is not always giggles and hand-clapping and learning to walk. But things do change and often they get better. And the things you’re going through, even if they’re not in the books, they happen to other people, too. In this blog and podcast you can hear other moms—and sometimes dads—tell stories about their longest shortest times. And maybe, in your darkest hours (both literally and figuratively), you’ll hear a voice that reminds you that this part is only the beginning of the rest of your life with your new little person.

Photo: Richard Frank

31 thoughts on “The Longest Shortest Time

  1. I had such a similar moment. Hubby was playing video games at the other end of the house and my girl maybe 3 weeks old at the time was so hungry and not latching and was screaming, screaming, screaming. And I let her scream thinking my husband would hear her and come to us. Finally I screamed his name and boy did he feel terrible. He’s never done that again. He ended up having to go get tummy drops while I cried with her as we waited. God that was horrible.

    Also, I’m 30 and my baby is 4 months. I thought we would birth naturally but the pain was incredible and I begged for the epidural. She came so fast down the birth canal that my skin had no time to stretch and I got an episiotomy.

    Even after all that, I already want another baby! As soon as my girl is 2 or 3, we’ll start trying. :)

  2. hillary!
    what a great post and blog this is. i consider myself to be just out of the woods of the longest shortest time and finally clear headed enough to reflect on it a little bit. so i’m discovering your blog at at great time.
    i have two sons 20 months apart. i got pregnant with my second child the same week i weaned the first one, so i was pregnant or breastfeeding without break from may 2009-july 2012. and, my second son didn’t sleep through the night reliably until he was almost a year old.
    pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood have been more emotionally and physically grueling than anything else in my life. and i’ve been though some tough shit. it is mind bending how it can be so wonderful and so brutal at the same time. i have never been so happy but i also have felt some days like i am being ground to dust by the experience and effort of it.
    i also had an episiotomy with my first childbirth, which i had actively feared from the time i first heard of it, probably decades ago and which, after 3 hours of pushing, i welcomed. i was very fortunate to have an easy healing process from it. i was less fortunate with my early breastfeeding experiences, having several mastitis infections with high fevers and ER visits.
    feeling incapacitated when you are trying to keep a newborn baby alive with your breasts is terrifying. my breats never did anything before! how can i trust them to handle the most important thing that’s ever happened to me?!
    my second son was also in the NICU for two days after his birth and i felt the stress of that early disconnection for MONTHS.
    life is much more stable now. how else would i have time and energy to write a long comment on a blog! thanks!

  3. Dear Hillary:

    Looking back at the age of 66 to a childbirth experience very similar to yours, I have the time and additional life experience to somewhat diminish its impact on me, but the sensitive scar tissue will always be an issue and never lets me forget. And the aftermath of the birth was one of the low points of my life.

    I was in England when I gave birth to my second child, a large baby, and I suffered a severe third-degree tear, in spite of an episiotomy. The sutures burst several days into my hospital stay, that ended up being for a month. We were scheduled to move back to the United States in two months, I had a four-year-old at home, the doctors were exasperated with any questions, and the prisoners who did all of the hospital laundry were on strike. I was lucky enough to have a stable of close English and Irish friends who stepped in and a husband who was able to work half-time during my hospital stay. The hospital nurses filled in the gaps left by the doctors and were honest about what was happening to me. I am eternally grateful to a young nurse from Hong Kong who had the job each night of tending to my “wound” and was a kind and supportive listener, especially the night before surgery when I made the painful decision to switch to bottle feeding when I went home. I had to switch to the bottle as part of surgical prep and did not feel I had the strength to go back to square one afterwards, especially when I was going home to my daughter, who had also been without her mother for a month when I was in a serious car accident when she was 20 months old. In spite of my experience, I remained a National Health Care advocate.

    I applaud you for your honesty; there’s certainly not anyone I could ever talk to about any of this with a couple of rare exceptions. Fran

  4. I feel like I just discovered an old friend I never knew I had :-)

    I’m tearing up from this post and wishing I had the rest of the day to read and listen to more. And I’m sad, and so grateful, but mostly sad, that my longest shortest time is all behind me.

  5. I think we might have had the same baby… and the same birth story. Thank you for this podcast… its so reassuring to hear other people’s stories and how they come out on the other side.

  6. Hillary, I’m finally surfacing enough to get on my computer (I swear there were weeks over the last two months– my longest shortest– where I didn’t open it once) to write and say how much your podcast has been a companion for me. It’s been a wonderful, honest friend, and I can’t help but think of YOU that way now too. Thanks for your work on this project. So very, very much.

  7. WOW! Thank you for sharing your story! I’m slowly discovering your website and podcasts, and I love everything! Your story reminds me of an advice a friend gave me when I was pregnant (yes, people with advice can be annoying, but this one stuck with me!). She said: “At some point, it’s possible that you get the urge to throw you baby out the window. It’s normal: most mothers get that feeling at SOME point. As long as you don’t actually act on it, there’s no problem.” I was so grateful that she said that to me before I gave birth! It helped me get through my depression with a little less guilt! (But given that I’m a champion of guilt, my guilt level was still way above any other mothers I know… But still, that advice REALLY helped me!)

  8. This is to say, the needs for lullabies for me has only become more clear. Or maybe I was just too unaware when my daughter and I were younger. She is now fifteen. Taking the time to care for me has become more and more important as I age (60) and have more to think about, more realities to consider and balance. Mommying is really the most continually demanding job in the world. I love it, wouldn’t have it any other way AND sometimes I just want to run away and merge with the ocean, or at the very least, be writing in community all the time. The lullabies have to come from very deep.

    I’m so glad you’re doing this project. I’ve been meaning to be here for a while, been busy. Thank heaven for radio and WNYC.

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