Saturday, 24 March 2012

For my son, in honour of his second birthday

On my son's first birthday, his father and I, along with his paternal grandparents, abandoned him with a sitter to go see the Tallis Scholars in concert. Seeing the U2 of renaissance polyphony in your own hometown (unless said hometown is in Britain) is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I felt a little guilty all the same. Upon post-concert reflection, however, I concluded that an evening of powerful, peaceful music was a highly appropriate celebration of such a beautiful birth, and it was really the only year we'd be able to get away with it. This year, he gets a visit from his auntie, a chocolate cake, and his own baby doll (so he'll stop stealing his sister's - and yes, I nabbed one wearing blue). And I'm celebrating his birth this year by sharing his birth story. If you're friends with me on Facebook, you may have already seen it, but I think it's a story worthy of a larger audience all the same. And yes, I know I'm incredibly biased. Happy birthday, little monkey!


My son was conceived just a few short months after midwifery got funding in Alberta. While my daughter's birth more than two years prior had pretty much put me off of hospitals, I was still not sure I was ready for a home birth, so I called up the Stony Plain Shared Care program (a now-defunct maternity care program run by a cooperative of doctors, nurses, and midwives aiming at natural, non-invasive births for low-risk moms) the morning after my positive pregnancy test, hoping for a homebirth on training wheels. Also, I knew that Westview, the hospital that headed the program had a birthing tub and by then I had heard wonderful things about waterbirths. Unfortunately, my uncharacteristic promptness did me no good: spots in the program were awarded by lottery, so I would have to wait until more expectant moms had called in before they would make their decisions. This made me very nervous - I really wanted a midwife, and, as funding had just gone through and midwives were scarce, I knew I needed to act fast. So I spent the rest of the morning looking up midwifery practices in Edmonton, leaving messages, and wondering if having a midwife at a "normal" hospital was really going to do the trick.

Meanwhile, my husband was reading birth stories out of the latest Birth Issues magazines. He was struck with one in particular which ended with mom and the new baby tucked in to their own bed. There had been no private rooms available at the hospital after my daughter's birth, so the proud but blitzed new daddy had had to go home alone while his newly-minted daughter and elated but exhausted wife (that would be me) stayed overnight in a semi-private room where neither of us actually slept. The idea of not having to go anywhere after the birth sounded really attractive. It didn't take too much to convince me that a home birth could work for us after all. We'd moved a year prior from the cramped four-plex that had made me dismiss the idea of a homebirth last time around to a comfortable bungalow, and our living room had just enough floor space to accommodate a birth pool. The idea of giving birth surrounded by our icons, houseplants, and candles was very appealing, not to mention easy access to the fridge, our stereo and our entire cd collection. On top of that, we were now just minutes away from the nearest hospital on the chance that anything went wrong.  I really didn't have any intention of heading there, but I thought it might be a comforting thought for any friends or family who might be troubled by our decision. Fortunately, one of the midwifery practices I called did have an opening; their office was in Spruce Grove, a bedroom community 30 minutes drive from home, but, as they did do homebirths in our end of the city, the care was well worth the extra gas.

Thirty-eight weeks later, I was so done with being pregnant. Since my eldest had been ten days "overdue", I was pretty much assuming I had another couple weeks to go, but having a homebirth meant being prepared at thirty-seven weeks, just in case. So here I was with a laundry basket full of homebirth supplies, my girlie's overnight bag half-packed in anticipation of sending her off to my in-laws' place once labour got under way, lists printed off with the locations of things that couldn't be out of use for potentially five weeks, and a home-made sign ready to be put in the snow bank in case our landlord didn't get around to fixing our house numbers on time. I was so ready to go, and all there was to do was...wait. And wait. And wait. And, oh yes, have copious amounts of Braxton Hicks contractions. Many an evening was spent with me wondering whether I should keep getting my daughter ready for bed, or if I should be packing her off to Grandma's. I got so frustrated with myself for not being able to tell whether or not I was in labour. My husband had to remind that since my daughter's birth was induced, I shouldn't really be surprised, but that didn't make the waiting any easier.

I'd been wanting a second baby since my first was six months old. So I wasn't just counting the eight-plus months of actual pregnancy, but all the months of dreaming and hoping, then hinting, then finally sitting my husband down and planning, then conceiving and almost immediately miscarrying, then three months of mourning, and finally six months of trying again before this baby was ever conceived. I felt like I'd been waiting pretty much forever. While I was still against having another pitocin-induction or having my membranes stripped, which had sent me into three days of sleepless latent labour before my daughter's birth, I started warming up to the idea of moving things along more naturally. My massage therapist was studying acupuncture at the time, so I took her up on her offer to try acupressure induction, then actual acupuncture. I also picked up a homeopathic birth-ease remedy from my midwives' office, drank gallons of red raspberry leaf tea, and walked miles around my neighbourhood. Still, the forty-week mark passed with nothing but more Braxton Hicks for my trouble.

Six days after my due date, I called up the midwife on call (yet again), to discuss my options. I was so tired of false alarms, I worried that I'd end up needing to be induced with pitocin again, which would mean giving up on our homebirth. The midwife told me that since I would be a week overdue, I could try doing a verbena and castor oil induction the next day - I would just have to come in to the Westview hospital in Stony Plain (the next town down the highway from Spruce Grove) for a non-stress test and make sure I was dialated far enough first. I agreed to book the test for the following morning, and the midwife commented that I didn't sound all that excited about having the baby the next day. I claimed to just be distracted - which I was, since my three-year-old was still in the middle of lunch - hung up the phone, and got to work rearranging our plans. It wasn't until I got my daughter down for her nap and lay down for one myself that I started to wonder why I wasn't excited. It dawned on me that I was still pining for the baby I lost, which warred with my desire for the baby that was actually on the way, since I mostly likely would not have had another one so soon had the first had survived the pregnancy. I wanted them both. I still do. So I had myself a good long cry, said goodbye to my lost little one once again, and then I felt ready to have my third baby.

My husband and I decided that getting out to Stony Plain for 10am the next morning would be much easier without having to work around our girlie's usual 9am wake-up, so we sent her off to Grandma & Grandpa's for the night and planned to turn in early ourselves. Before we did, we made one last effort at a love-made induction, and, sure enough, a couple hours later I was having the most regular contractions I'd had yet. So there we were, at one in the morning, snacking on sausage and inflating the birth pool, when my contractions slowed down yet again. They went from five minutes apart, to ten minutes, and we decided we'd better go back to bed. I kept timing my waning contractions for a couple hours, then awoke to find it was 7am and they'd stopped completely. It looked like we were headed out to Stony Plain that morning after all, but without the good night of sleep. At least the birth pool was up and ready to go.

The non-stress test went fine and it turned out I had dilated a couple centimeters, so the night's work may have yielded some progress, or maybe not. Either way my body was ready for action, and we were sent on our way with a vial of verbena essential oil, and some almond butter for the castor oil chaser. We picked up the castor oil and apricot nectar, the last ingredient of the home-induction cocktail, on the way out of town, stopped at McDonald's for one last pre-baby lunch, and headed home to take the stuff. The verbena tasted kind of like Pine Sol, but I knocked it back quick and set into my castor oil, almond butter, and apricot smoothie, which wasn't half bad. Around 1pm, we took our midwife's advice and went down for a nap while we waited for the verbena and castor oil to kick in.

We got up a few hours later after a blessedly contraction-free sleep on the assumption that I would have to take a second round of verbena et. all if nothing serious started up by 5pm. I was feeling somewhat crampy, but the five hour mark came and went, so we mixed up the second batch anyways. Things were picking up by the time it was all prepared, but I knocked back the verbena all the same and sipped on my castor oil cocktail between mild contractions. Memory's starting to fade, but it seems like no sooner was the last bit gone than my water broke; not with Hollywood splattering dramatics, but with enough of a flow that I was glad I was wearing a pad. It wasn't ten minutes before I was reminded what active labour felt like. We called our midwife's student with the update, and heard they'd soon be on their way.

For some reason, I was really concerned that my healthy-snacks-for-midwives get dealt with, so I had my husband running around chopping vegetables between helping me with contractions. The verbena cocktail came right back up, at which point I made the pleasant discovery that leaning over the toilet felt really good during contractions. When the midwife and her student got to our house, they found me in a similar position, against a chair this time, with my husband still busy in the kitchen.

We spent a pleasant couple hours in our own living room/dining room, chatting between contractions, giving my husband a chance to get to know at least a couple of the women who'd been involved in my prenatal care these last few months. After a while, the midwife suggested we check my cervix, and we discovered I'd made little progress in terms of centimeters. Thankfully, no one was overly concerned about that one. I went back to labouring in the dining room for a while, drinking or eating jello when I felt like it (the freedom!), and eventually the contractions got somewhat harder to deal with. Bending over the chair stopped working, so I switched to kneeling over the seat, vocalizing all the while. Suddenly I got very cold, so I put on a sweater, requested some tea, and hobbled back to our office and lay down under a blanket on our sofabed to wait for the water to boil.

My sofabed and I had gotten very well acquainted during my pregnancy. While we had bought it on the intention of having our office double as a guestroom, its deep seat and firm mattress had made it the ideal place to sit when our living room couch became too soft and un-supportive, and I'd spent many an hour napping there as well. It felt so natural to lie on my side with my back against its back as I had so often of late, and I guess I fell into "the zone". Someone had turned off the light, but I don't know when. My tea was left untouched, contractions came and went with the whispered mantra of "relax, relax", simple prayers for strength and mercy streamed through my mind, intercessions to the Theotokos and Mother Olga, patroness of labouring women and Jenny Flett of the Aleuts, repeated silently over and over. If someone came in, I tensed up, as if to prove "I'm still in labour, honest! See? Ow, ow, it hurts". But as soon as they left I relaxed again and contractions came and went almost without acknowledgment. My midwife, who had seen a much similar state when helping her own daughter with a birth, came and sat with me for a while, encouraging me quietly from across the room to keep doing what I was doing, and then left me alone.

I wasn't aware how long I lay there in the darkness, but my husband tells me it was only an hour and a half before my midwife came in to check me again. Low and behold, I'd dilated to 7.5cm! My husband told me later that the atmosphere went from "maybe we should take a nap" to "we need to fill that birthpool NOW!" Lying in silence was no longer an option as I shunted into transition. Water was heating on the stove in the largest pots we had to offer to supplement what was already coming from the hose via the kitchen faucet. The hot water tank held out, but they just couldn't get the pool filled fast enough to suit me. When I finally got the go ahead to enter the pool, I stripped and jumped right in. Modesty be damned, I was cold! The water was only up to my knees, so getting submerged in warmth wasn't an option yet, but my midwife's student got me a towel and bailed warm water onto my back as I hung off the side of the pool. At some point I had the presence of mind to ask my husband to fetch my bathing suit top, and the pool was filled up enough to do without the towel.

From the birth story that had originally introduced me to water-births, I had been left with the impression that being immersed would totally change the feeling of the contractions. Not so for me, but the buoyancy allowed me to use positions to help me deal with the building intensity that I had neither the strength or stability to attempt on land. My husband, sensing that someone needed to be in the pool with me and deducing that he was the only one with a bathing suit handy, changed and got right in. It wasn't something I'd thought to ask for, but I was so glad for his strength and support, and it allowed for a physical intimacy while I laboured that I wouldn't have wanted from anyone else.

By the time the backup midwife arrived, I think I was pushing. I was encouraged to breathe, to vocalize deeply rather than explore the high reaches of my register, but, surprisingly, no one was telling me to "PUSH PUSH PUSH". My baby's heartbeat was checked regularly with a Doppler as he descended, I was given a homeopathic remedy to help my tissues stretch, but, unlike my daughter's birth where my doctor had doubled as a cheerleader urging me to get that baby out ASAP, I was assured that I didn't need to push with all my might but, if I relaxed, my body would just do what it needed to do, slowly and gently, saving my baby's head and my perineum the trauma. This was probably the most dramatic difference between the two births. When I shared this observation with my midwife at a postnatal appointment, she assured me that we could have gotten the baby out in a hurry if we needed to, but he was doing fine, so why rush? I'm so thankful we didn't. After the hustle and bustle at the tail end of my daughter's birth, where the urge to push was met with the appearance of a dozen anonymous hospital workers, bright lights, and a tray of medical instruments, the peace and beauty of this stage of labour was breathtaking.

I was sitting in my husband's lap with my legs straddling the opposite side of the pool. Candles were flickering in the night, a couple dim lamps being the only other light in the room. The blinds were down. No one unknown appeared. My husband had put Avro Pärt's "Spiegel im Spiegel" on repeat (accidentally) sometime before entering the pool, and the soft arpeggios of the piano and smooth slow climbs by violin welcomed our son into the world outside the womb. Crowning seemed endless, but somehow enjoyable; a moment to savour, not a trial to endure. I was encouraged to feel his head a few times, and was confused by what met my fingers. I kept thinking, "How far out can my labia bulge before parting?" before realizing that was I was feeling wasn't me, it was just that the head was so squished up the middle that it didn't seem round. A mirror confirmed the cranial fold right down the middle of his fuzzy head.

After about thirty minutes, his head was born, followed quickly by his body, and no sooner was he all the way out than he was swooped into my arms. It was 11:34pm. I knew from the moment I first saw his face that we did indeed have a boy, as I suspected throughout my pregnancy, but I checked between his legs just to make sure before calling him by name: "well hello, Levi Nicholas". It was a wonder to be able to do that myself, to not have to wait through the endless minutes of APGAR scores and cord cutting to hold in my arms the child who had just left my body. And I got to keep holding him, while my husband cut the cord, while the placenta was born; he didn't leave my arms until it was time to get out of the tub. I tried nursing a bit, but he more interested in looking around with those big eyes of his, so eventually I relaxed and just took it all in.

Warm towels and dry clothing appeared. The shakes started sometime in there but I was soon in my own bed, munching on almonds and apple slices while my husband got to know his son and our midwives made the supper I'd planned out and left in the freezer. I'd thought pyrogies and farmer's sausages would hit the spot and boy was I right! Just like after my daughter's birth, that first meal was to die for. Hunger is the best spice after all, but it was satisfying to choose what I ate. The midwife's student came in and showed us the placenta, and my husband and I got to geek out over seeing it. The membranes were still around it - she showed us the hole where they ruptured and commented on the size the placenta. It was huge. No wonder Levi wasn't in any hurry to leave!

Levi's first bath, along with being weighed and measured, waited until I headed to the shower myself. The midwives cleaned up whatever mess had been made, covered the pool, checked me for tears (only a minor one), and made sure I could handle a trip to the bathroom before packing up and heading home around 2am. And there we were, just as we'd hoped: Mom, Dad, and baby tucked in our own bed, enjoying the afterglow of a beautiful birth together. Best day of my life.


The story of my lost little one can be found here. My eldest's birth story will be coming soon (ETA April 16).

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Portrait of a (young) lady

It all began innocently enough. My daughter's preschool teacher approached, poster template in hand, her smile belying her somewhat startling news. She informed me, with the lyrical sri lankan lilt that brings out the drama and emotion in the simplest of children's story, that my daughter had a project for Family Day weekend: to create a poster (guided by the aformentioned template) about herself, with help from her family. I must confess my first thought behind my smile-and-nod was "homework? How can my preschooler have homework?"

Such worries were soon surmounted by a single word: "pictures."  I, as the proud parent, was to decorate said celebratory poster with photographs, presumably of my daughter in all her recent glory. Photographs I suspected might not, in fact, exist. Upon returning home, I confirmed my fears: I had not taken a single picture of my first born since Hallowe'en, and the only decent shot from that episode included her little brother wandering in the foreground, clad in naught but a diaper and his teething necklace. Perhaps not the best choice to grace her preschool walls - the boy has enough unwanted admirers (read: impulsive huggers and squealers) among his sister's peers as it is - but the other pictures were even older.

I had known for some time that my relationship with my camera was on rocky ground. Far from the days where we feverishly documented infantile cuteness, our interactions had dwindled to the point where the closest we came to cooperation was the odd occasion where I picked up the dreaded device only to discover that it had worn down its battery waiting for me to remember its existence, yet again. If the thing was sentient, I'd accuse it of being passive-aggressive. Recent history aside, too much of my teacher's pet mentality persists to allow me to botch my daughter's very first homework assignment (let's face it - when your 4-year-old has homework, you have homework). Clearly a photo-shoot was in order. Just as soon as the battery finished charging.

Thus, aging Lumix in hand, I stalked my unsuspecting prey. Confession time again (it's Lent after all): my aversion to digitally capturing my daughter's precious moments lies not only in my inadequate skills and clunky equipment. It is also due to her growing self-awareness, the kind which interprets "smile for the camera" as "make hopelessly awkward and unnatural faces until the lens goes away". I know that stage well. In fact, I don't believe I've ever quite left it. I'm starting to wonder if it's some form of modesty in an increasingly technological age, a veil made not of pins and fabric but of squints and smirks and furrowed brows that mask a fair countenance from an audience whose membership lies beyond one's control.

Given that the target audience, in this case at least, involved only those who had already seen her in person, I felt no guilt in using stealth, nor in telepathically urging my grudging mechanical accomplice to tell the truth for once. Whoever invented the phrase "the camera doesn't lie" hasn't seen my pictures; the objects appear in the view finder alright, but the spirit that leads my attempt to preserve what I see for posterity (or, at least, my own personal archives) continues to elude me. I'm sure that acquiring some knowledge of lighting, shutter-speed, and good old fashioned practice would lead to better results in child portraiture than parapsychology, but in the jungle of the living room, time and telepathy were all that I had. And, for once, they were all I needed.

The camera did not lie, but it revealed a truth I'm still loath to accept: my baby's growing up. Those wispy blond curls that took forever to come in now spiral nearly to her shoulders. Any trace of baby fat has long been gone, but I had not realized how its lack had elongated her from cheek to chin with an aching maturity. Even curled up in an armchair, her coltish limbs declare her a school-girl; her choice of book that afternoon may have been of the board variety, but her serious study of the pictures therein reminded me more of the focused features of school-aged bookworms than the wide-eyed fascination she bore back when she turned those stiff pages with chubby fingers rather than the delicate digits that now grace her hands.

It was a timely reminder. School hunting season is in full swing, and many an hour has been spent browsing school websites, attending open houses, and attempting to grasp an understanding of Edmonton Public's school bus system. As I continue to buckle her into a five-point harness for every car ride, it's hard to believe my baby is ready to ride a yellow bus, unfettered and practically unsupervised. And yet the prospect fills her not with fear or trepidation, but excitement and wonder, so I squelch my worries and think of strategies to encourage this budding independence.

Come September, it will be time to loosen those apron strings, mix my metaphors, and watch her fly. In the meantime, however, I'll keep pulling out the board books, indulging requests for extra-long snuggles, and rocking out to Raffi before he's shunned for whichever boy band is making young girls swoon and the rest of us gag. Remind me to buy earplugs.

P.S. the poster was a total success - mostly because my little chatter box provided her teacher with extensive background on all the princesses and fairies she drew on every spare inch of the paper (including under all the photographs). There wasn't room for the fruits of my impromptu photo-shoot after all, so instead I've placed the reminder of my growing girlie on my very own fridge. Thus my education continues.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

In loving memory on my baby's saints day

In Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones, a mother is left to deal with life after the disappearance and probable death of one of her daughters. In meeting anyone new in the years that followed, if they asked if she had children, she would answer "two", but in her head she'd say "three." As a mother of three, but only two living, I often follow a similar pattern, for when it comes to early loss there's very little to say - especially in comparison to the continuing adventures of my obvious offspring - and while it takes little effort to bring even strangers to share in our joy, it's considerably less comfortable to share our pain, even once time and prayers have dulled the edge of grief. I can't say that's it's always the best choice, but it's certainly the easiest.

One of my intended blogging ideas was to share my children's birth stories in honour of their next birthdays. I'd written my son's some time ago, and I believe it's a story worth sharing, especially in a world that hears predominantly about birth in terms of pain and fear and medical emergencies, for his entry into this world was pretty much the opposite. My daughter's birth was not as peaceful, but just as powerful, and she ought to know her story too, and her coming birthday gives me a deadline for writing it. I cannot in good conscience, however, present these stories on such special occasions while keeping silent about the one I cannot tell. Even when there's so much I don't know about the child I lost through a very early miscarriage over three years ago, I do have something I can share and a date to share it on. And even if it isn't happy, it's good to remember.

I do not know what day my middle child was "born". It was our first month trying to conceive another child, and I do chart my cycles, so I have a ballpark of when that life may have begun. The date of my baby's death is no clearer; the blood tests that confirmed the miscarriage showed pregnancy hormones at levels so low that the child had probably been gone for more than a week, meaning the faint positive on my one pregnancy test told not of a very new life but of one so brief that it had already ended.  It was just one more of many things I do not know about this child, but if it weren't for such garnered knowledge on human procreation I may have never known at all. I very well may have mistaken that brief pregnancy as a late period and wondered why I felt so awful.

Given what I do know, I was left with an unhealthy choice: to brood over my loss and all the knowledge it denied me for the first half of every October, or to leave honouring my baby's existence to a whenever-maybe-never limbo-land. Thus, it was a great comfort to find a patron saint for my lost little one, for she had a life with a clear beginning and end, and is remembered on a particular day: March 10th.

We had named our child Anastasia Innocent. Picking a non-gendered name proved more difficult than I'd anticipated; we'd gone looking not in a baby name book, but the synaxarion, an encyclopedia of sorts that lists the saints remembered on each day of the calendar year. But as we read through the list for October, names that would never have to pass the test of the playground felt foreign to our Anglo-mouths, and how were we to remember if we couldn't pronounce our child's name? In the end the Resurrection proved the most fitting name, the time when we know we'll finally get to meet. And if it turns out that feminine Anastasia is really the less familiar masculine Anastasios, we pray he'll forgive us.

It was not until several months later that I stumbled upon St. Anastasia the Patrician. That Christmas, I had been given a book of daily Bible readings that also included a short write-up of one of the saints remembered on that day. So on March 10, I read about a lady-in-waiting in the 6th century court of Constantinople who had fled the unwanted advances of Emperor Justinian, first by entering a convent in Alexandria, and later by hiding in the desert under the name of Monk Anastasios. And so she lived out the rest of her days in prayer, her true gender and identity known only by the abbot who had provided her hiding place until after her death. More detail on St. Anastasia can be found here. She seemed a perfect fit for my own Anastasia/Anastasios, and she gave me a day to remember.

It never fails to surprise me how a life so limited can be missed so much. I suppose it's one of the many mysteries that love makes. I am so very grateful for the children I have been blessed to raise, much as I forget in the thick of things, and for the faith that has given me an avenue in which to process this grief. And I am thankful for this day, a mnemonic hook to hold my child lest she flee from my thoughts entirely or prove spiral for despair.

Memory eternal, little one.