This past weekend my ten-year-old son and I were putting together some patio furniture in preparation for his birthday party. As I handed him the parts, and he capably affixed them to the table, his blond hair glowed in the afternoon sunlight. Ten summers ago, I was building patio furniture for my husband’s parents, while the boy now in front of me was still resident in my womb.
On that warm day in early June my husband and I were visiting his parents on the East Mountain in Hamilton. I was teaching my future sister-in-law how to use tools and we were assembling a metal and glass table together, while my husband and his brother were digging vegetable garden beds in the clay-rich soil.
The first contractions felt like a little cramp I attributed to working in an awkward position. Soon afterwards, the cramps spread into my back and pelvis and became regular, about five minutes apart and lasting a minute and leaving me a bit breathless. We finished the table and I sat down and asked for a cup of tea while the others continued to work.
Later, back at our tiny two bedroom apartment overlooking Hamilton Harbour the contractions intensified. By dinner time I could not eat, and by eight o’clock pm the back labour had begun.
Qver the next 12 hours the pain became increasingly intense. Nothing could calm it. Sitting on the exercise ball made me feel nauseous. I walked as much as I could around the building outside and from the bathroom to the bed to the bathroom to the bed. I remember not even being able to walk one step without a contraction.
As the night progressed into the next morning, it felt like what I imagine it would feel like if someone stuck the tong of a back hoe into my spine just around my low back and just kept pressing down into it relentlessly. I felt like I was being snapped in half without ever bending. Dry heaving from the pain, nothing we tried could change it. Even my husband pushing on my SI joints the way we learned in the birth classes helped only marginally. I couldn’t even cry because I could scarcely breathe. I was terrified, and I was sure I was going to die.
With my cervix still stuck at six centimetres dilation, we went to the hospital the next morning. As I held onto the top of the door and the roof and swung my huge body into the rental car, I felt something inside me shift, and the waters that my midwives had broken hours before finally released onto the back seat. Now I could breathe a little easier, though I felt every bump in the road on the way to the hospital. St. Joseph’s hospital parking lot was under construction and the midwives thought it would be good for me to walk to the door. I remember walking over the pale dusty gravel in the intense heat. I was being held up on either side on the long slow walk to the door.
When we got to the delivery room, the midwives went out to meet with the anesthesiologist. I thought I had to have a bowel movement so my husband helped me to the bathroom. I couldn’t really go. My rookie mistake was that I didn’t know that this was a sign that the baby was coming now. My other rookie mistake was that I didn’t tell the midwives. Some time later I was on the delivery table and some poop came out and my husband had to clean me up. I wish we had known then that meant the baby was ready to come out. I was probably fully dilated by then. The labour was still really intense but I wasn’t terrified anymore. I probably could have given birth then with very few complications.
As it was, the anesthesiologist came in and gave me a large does of the epidural anesthetic. I couldn’t even feel anything below my breasts anymore. At that point my labour stalled. I was hooked up to monitors for the baby. I looked up at the ceiling and the weird light fixture/camera thing reminded me of Doctor Who. I could breathe easily and could think straight again. I felt no pain at all. I rested and my husband napped on the chair beside me.
When it came time to give birth the midwives offered me a stool but it felt way too precarious up on top of a birthing stool on top of a high delivery bed so I ended up pushing sitting up on my backside – exactly the way I had not intended to give birth. I wasn’t even sure that I was pushing so I ended up tearing significantly because I couldn’t regulate that territory because I couldn’t feel anything at all.
It was after eight o’clock pm when the baby was finally born. He wasn’t breathing, so a team of people whisked him away to another part of the room and cleared his nose and mouth. I don’t even remember delivering the placenta but there it was, whole and healthy, spread out on a table beside me. I went into shock then because my bladder was over-full. I was shivering and cold and lethargic. The midwives had to empty by bladder into a bag by pushing on it. There was, no-word-of-a-lie, a full litre of urine in there. I know because they showed it to me after they pumped it out.
My baby rooted on my chest and then we were transferred to the neonatal unit. When they tried to transfer me to a wheelchair I suddenly realized that not only could I not feel my lower body, but I couldn’t make it work either. They must have given me a whopper of a dose of anesthetic. I would’ve landed on the floor if no one was holding me up. Even the next day I could barely feel my legs and I was unsteady on my feet and my legs remained swollen for days.
In the recovery room my baby was able to latch and nurse and I was pleased. My husband was with me and we had a private room with an extra cot. Soon after his first nursing the nurses took him for a bath and my husband went with them. We were going to be okay.
A few hours later, the baby’s nasal passages became so congested (from the vigorous suctioning I imagine) that he couldn’t breathe through his nose to breastfeed. He was taken to the neonatal ICU where the nurses fed him formula through a tube inserted down his throat to his stomach.
I remember being upset because I had been told that breast milk is best and that if you give a baby formula they won’t accept breast milk later, and I really wanted to give my baby my best. I didn’t want them to give him formula, so I tried to pump milk with an electric machine they lent me. Of course, all that would come out was colostrum because my milk hadn’t come in yet. That usually happens on day three.
“So, if my milk naturally doesn’t come in until day three, why do they need to be feeding him formula through a tube?”, I questioned. Confused and sore and numb and upset, I tried as hard as I could to produce milk. I pumped my breasts so hard that I injured my nipples. I could barely produce anything to give to the ICU nurses to give my baby.
Over the next couple of days, different doctors came in to talk to me and every duty doctor told me a different story. They kept him in ICU and I had to go there to see him, to hold him. I felt like a caged tiger. At one point I remember being so angry I didn’t want to allow any other health care professionals into the room and I started meeting them at the door.
We went home from the hospital a few days later when my son could breathe through his nose and nurse again. I remember being in the elevator leaving the hospital and a stranger offered “Congratulations.” I barely restrained myself from telling him to “Go straight to hell!” I was already there.
At home, I was still bleeding. My vulva was bruised and torn and I felt the constant pulling of my stitches. The hospital had me fill in these charts where I was supposed to keep track of every time the baby nursed and how many wet diapers and how many poops there were and how often I took pain medication. It was horrible even just trying to keep track of it all. (And no one ever even looked at it!)
That, and my milk came in HARD. Each breast was bigger than the baby’s head and the nipples were so distended there was no chance of a easy latch. Each time we tried to nurse I was in toe-curling pain. I was walking around the apartment in a diaper-thing and a pair of men’s boxer shorts over top, leaving a trail of sticky-sweet milk drips everywhere I went.
I called the La Leche League and they sent a coach to our apartment. She helped us work out the latch by having me hand-express enough milk to soften the nipple, recommended cold cabbage leaves on my breasts to bring down the inflammation, and some magic ointment I had to get made especially at the pharmacist worked wonders for the pain.
Because I had been a student and then self-employed I had no maternity benefits, so my partner took three months off of work to spend with me. We lived off the minimal benefit from Employment Insurance and our savings account. He returned to work in the fall at a new job.
I can scarcely remember much else about that time now except feeling incredibly lonely. I didn’t drive, but we would go to the park at Dundurn Castle and no one was there. The Ontario Early Years Centre nearest our apartment was a permanent facility but mainly served a community of new residents of Canada, of whom almost none spoke English. My son would cry a lot, especially when he was teething. Sometimes I would cry too. My mother and my mother-in-law were both still working full-time in those days. I was definitely suffering from postpartum depression but it didn’t make any sense to me to take medication since it was obviously circumstantial. The problem was that I needed help, support, and company; not medication and counselling. To my thinking, the way I was feeling was completely reasonable considering the circumstances. Anyway, I had been down that road in the past with anti-depressants and talk-therapy and neither had been the least bit helpful for me.
In those days, my family doctor was an RPN who worked solely with babies and their mothers. I used to look forward to going to see her. That, and the La Leche League Canada meeting held once a week on Thursday mornings at Erskine Presbyterian Church nursery. Those meetings were my lifeline. It was there I made a friend who later became very important to me.
For further reading about Postpartum Depression, please visit the Canadian Mental Health Association.
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