I had a good birth. While I was pregnant, up until the final push, nurses and doctors fussed over me.
It was the part that came afterwards that was painful. Once my baby emerged from my body, their focus shifted. I was just a vessel for the baby, and my health was important only up until I was no longer the vessel.
For one joyful moment after he was born, I held my son, Leo, on my chest. Then a team of doctors and nurses swooped in to work him up. I had developed a fever and infection during labor, and now they were worried the infection might have spread to my baby. When the nurse told me that the baby would need the same antibiotics that they gave me, I didn’t understand that this meant he would be taken away from me. If that weren’t enough, Leo had difficulty transitioning from the womb to the outside world. He was not breathing well on his own — his skin tone purple as I cradled him — and his blood sugar was low, although I didn’t comprehend either of these facts until much later. Leo needed to be transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit, but the staff so downplayed this news that I was left confused and unprepared.
While I craned my neck, trying to figure out what was happening to my baby in the room’s alcove, the obstetrician directed me to place my feet in stirrups, stretched wide. I had managed half of labor well with breathing and the other half with an effective epidural. I had felt the tearing during birth when Leo’s shoulders emerged, the most difficult push, but I had been so focused at the time that I’d barely cared. After all of that, I wasn’t worried about a few stitches. So I was surprised when I felt the OB’s needle enter my flesh with a searing stab. I could feel every instance of the needle going in and out.
I sucked in a sharp breath.
“Does it hurt?”, the doctor asked, exasperated at my flinches.
“Yes,” I said in a shaky voice.
My husband, Mike, moved to my side and took my hand. “Didn’t they give you anything?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“I’ll get some lidocaine,” the OB said, an edge to her tone.
After giving me a shot in the vaginal tissue, she did not wait for the numbing medication to take affect and continued stitching. I felt no difference.
While the stitching continued, the neonatal physician approached my bed and introduced himself. Great timing. He began to tell me about Leo’s condition, throwing around words like “respiration” and “antibiotics.” I struggled to concentrate through the pain. While he spoke, I winced and grunted at the needle’s movements. Finally, the neonatal physician couldn’t keep the annoyance off his face.
“Does it really hurt that much?” he asked.
“I’m almost done,” the OB muttered.
Mike told the neonatal physician to direct his comments to him and give me privacy. Although I hadn’t cried throughout labor and birth, tears streamed down my cheeks from anguish and humiliation. A few minutes before I had felt powerful and strong as I birthed Leo. Now I felt weak and vulnerable. Trying to absorb the health needs of my just-born baby, with my legs spread under fluorescent lighting and a sharp object at my vagina, the pain overcame me.
When the OB finished stitching, my body flooded with relief. Leo was transferred to the NICU, my eyes following him with longing, and the room emptied as the doctors and nurses followed him out. After 16 hours of labor and an infection, I was physically exhausted. And now with the worry for my son’s health, I was emotionally exhausted, too. I needed rest.
Instead, I was transferred to a recovery room in a separate area of the hospital from the NICU. I asked to see my son, but the nurses said I was not to attempt to get out of bed or even go to the bathroom without assistance. Walking, especially, could jeopardize my healing, so Mike took me to visit Leo in a wheelchair. We went up and down corridors, nurses buzzing us in and out of units. When we finally reached the NICU, seeing Leo in his tiny plastic bed with tubes hooked up to him took the breath out of me. We were told it wasn’t serious – he just needed glucose, a little oxygen, and antibiotics – but not being able to have him with me felt serious.
The NICU nurses told me that I needed to start breastfeeding Leo. This being my first child, I didn’t know what to do, but I dutifully held him to my breast while Mike set up privacy screens around us. “If you want your milk to come in for Leo, you need to come down here every two hours,” Leo’s nurse told me.
At this point it was late at night, and I had hoped to sleep, but the nurse assured me that this schedule applied to night as well as day. “I’ll call your room to remind you,” she said. “And you should use the breast pump in between.” I didn’t question her. She was the nurse and my baby was sick. I would do whatever she told me I should do for him.
The feeding schedule was relentless. Making the long trek to the NICU every two hours, attempting to breastfeed Leo, and then wheeling back to my room to pump resulted in my getting no sleep in the days after birth. Much of the time Leo wouldn’t latch despite the nurse grabbing my breast and shoving it into his mouth. I couldn’t stand or pee without assistance, but I still hauled my weary body back and forth across the hospital and attempted to nourish another human with it.
Each time I started to drift off for a moment back in my hospital bed, the phone would start to ring. “Leo’s hungry!” the chipper voice would say. I was still in pain and bleeding and falling asleep sitting up. But I continued this routine for days.
Once, Mike and I got set up to nurse Leo again when an administrative assistant came rushing up to Leo’s station. There was a call from my hospital room. My doctor was there to check me. Breasts bare and pillows stacked around me, I began the difficult transfer back to the wheelchair.
“This is ridiculous,” Leo’s nurse said. “Don’t they know you need to feed your baby? That is more important.”
Mike wheeled me brusquely away. “She’s ridiculous,” he said. “You just went through birth. I’m worried about you.”
He was right. Leo was a patient, but so was I. Anyone else in my condition – weak, torn flesh, recovering from an infection, bleeding – would be told to stay in bed and rest, but because I was a mother, my health was an afterthought.
We returned to my room where I received an exam and pain medication. Mike insisted that I eat and sleep, and he fended off calls and visitors. It helped, but in the following days, I continued to tread to the NICU to feed, worried for my son, and began to walk well before I was supposed to. I had more bleeding from my stitches, which resulted in improper healing. The scar tissue is still painful for me today.
My experience is not unique. Studies show that the devaluing of mothers’ health is a particularly American phenomenon. In fact, even as the infant mortality rate in the United States has decreased, we have one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the developed world. According to NPR, “Every year in the U.S., 700 to 900 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, and some 65,000 nearly die.” In one percent of all US births each year, women suffer significant complications.
The focus of healthcare professionals is often on the defenseless baby, and mothers do not feel comfortable prioritizing their own health. Women are socialized to listen, be polite, and put others’ needs before their own. This expectation is even higher for mothers. “Good” mothers are seen as those who sacrifice themselves for their children, and it is widely accepted that that sacrifice is our biological urge. Any deviation from that, or perceived deviation, is shamed. This belief so pervades our society that even the medical community buys into it and treats mothers differently because of it. But a mother who is not healthy is no use to her baby.
I was very lucky. My son and I came away from this experience healthy. When Leo came home from the hospital with us, I felt immense joy and relief. But another emotion crept in behind those feelings – anger. I was angry at the way I had been treated. My baby mattered, and I was so grateful to have him safe. But I mattered, too, and I should have been treated that way.
Leo is my first baby, and if I have another I will advocate more strongly for myself. I will demand pain medication before stitches, and insist on a few hours of sleep after birth. I will be in my hospital room for exams and monitoring. I will say no when the hospital staff places unreasonable demands on me.
But wouldn’t it be nice if I didn’t have to? Wouldn’t it be nice if new mothers didn’t have to summon extra strength to protect herself from the hospital staff? If the natural order of things was that the mother’s health was as important as the baby’s?