I’m lying on the operating table, cool metal against the bare skin of my back. The glare of the fluorescent bulbs from the giant lotus-like overhead lamp is hurting my eyes and in the background I hear the clang of trolley wheels, tapping of monitors, and the pitter patter of footsteps as nurses prep me for an emergency C-section. 12 hours have passed since I admitted myself to hospital for a scheduled induced natural birth, as I’d done 5 years ago with my son. Plan B? Didn’t need one then, but I do now, apparently. It’s time to push, but my daughter’s heartbeat races every time she tries to descend, indicating distress. The irony is hard to miss—all those months I’d spent needlessly worrying about the recovery of an episiotomy wound I wouldn’t even have.
Surrounded by beeping machines, shiny instruments and hi-tech apparatus, I’m struck by how much this scene looks straight out of an ER episode (sans George Clooney)—and the startling realization that it’s absolutely freezing. Everyone around me is clad in layers of clothing, rubber gloves and face masks, but in these Arctic conditions, all I have on is a flimsy hospital gown. More and more, I grow convinced God had arranged for this unexpected turn of events to catch me by surprise. Only through ignorance could I have been spared my tendency to obsess over a procedure 200 times the trauma level of a natural birth. For now I am too preoccupied processing the chain of events unfurling before me.
My epidural from this morning is already starting to wear out and soon sensation returns to legs. I wiggle my toes for the fun of it and try to do calf lifts. From the corner of my eye, I spy my obgyn (soon my surgeon), standing a distance away and busy making repeated calls. I overhear snippets of what she’s saying and am able to put the pieces together. The anesthetist who’d administered my epidural at 8am this morning is already on his way home, and 12 hours later at 8pm this rainy evening, he is loath to return and assist in my emergency C-section; another anesthetist must rise to the occasion—one who hopefully hasn’t left the building.
While my fate (and my baby’s) hangs in the balance, my mind plays back an old scene. I’m having dinner at a friend’s. Trying to conceive while striving to stay skinny is like attempting to clap with one hand, I’m telling him. One palm flails about trying to find the other, each doing its own thing. In the rare moment both hands meet, they are so misaligned and ill-coordinated it’s no more a clap than a chance tap.
“All I ever wanted was either to be pregnant again, or skinny, but I’m neither,” I mope.
My friend listens attentively, then tries to break it down for me. “Why can’t you just be happy?”
I roll my eyes. “How can I happy if I’m neither thin nor pregnant?” Did he not hear how I only had two options?
“Forget thinness or the state of your womb; what about just you?”
We drop the subject soon after, but his question stays with me. Of course I know what is implied—that I am much more than I allow myself to be. Clearly the world holds countless specimens of the human species who aren’t shackled to my sort of conditional happiness. They don’t let their weight or fertility define them, and hence live in freedom. On the contrary, I’ve chosen to lock myself in a state of purgatorial limbo.
I stare at the empty doorway. Any minute now, I expect my husband to arrive in a pair of scrubs, and not because he’s part of the surgical team: his role is to sit by me and hold my hand throughout it all. My son and mother-in-law have been waiting in the hospital lobby since early afternoon, and hubby is there telling them my induction hasn’t gone as planned; that it’ll be awhile yet before Etienne gets to meet his little sister. Best they go home to rest and come back tomorrow morning. He’d also called my parents, but when the phone was passed to me, my earlier show of bravado all but evaporated. Me, the baby of the family, about to have her second baby, choking up like a baby at the sound of their voices.
“Boo hoo hoo, don’t worry, I’ll be fine, boo hoo hoo.”
My obgyn gets off her phone, and my mind returns to the present. As she lets the nurse help her into her scrubs, our eyes lock in a sort of triumphant moment. She walks over and puts her hand on my shoulder. “I found this other anesthetist, Dr. W, a very nice lady. She’s one of our most experienced doctors and we’ve worked together many times. You’ll be in good hands,” she reassures me.
“Thank you, Dr. C,” I say, meaning it from the bottom of my heart. Before today, I never did thank her properly for the safe delivery of my first child and for seeing me through challenging pregnancies, while managing the turbulent patterns of my reproductive cycles and a miscarriage in between. Admittedly there’ve been more than one occasion when I’ve wondered if she truly had my best interests at heart, but none of that matters one iota this instant, because I’ve entrusted myself (and my daughter) in her care—and I know she’ll come through for us.
My husband presently shows up, grinning widely in his yellow scrubs and looking ridiculous with a matching cap. He takes his place beside me and the nurses erect a veiled barrier between my neck and the rest of my body so I can’t witness my obgyn work her magic through my many layers of tissue and body fat to reach my long-awaited baby girl. Dr W the anesthetist has also arrived, and she chats amiably with me while replenishing my supply of epidural. As the drugs kick in, I tremble from the side effects and can hear my teeth chatter. No longer am I able to wiggle my toes or do calf lifts. Hubby is talking to me and I’m lucid enough to respond, but not with much eloquence.
“I can see all of your insides,” he says. “Like ALL of you.”
“Eewwww, like slimy, throbby things?”
“Worse. Believe me, you have no idea.”
“Are you freaked out?”
“What, by this? Please.”
“Is the baby going to be all right?”
“She’ll be, she’s a fighter, remember?” And with that, he squeezes my hand.
It’s been a long day and I haven’t eaten anything since the night before. Exhausted and running on adrenaline, I keep my mind on my baby girl—Christabel (or Belle). Truly, this baby’s put up one heck of a fight to be here today.
At a 13-week detailed scan, a sonogram revealed an unusual amount of fluid behind her neck, typically a marker of Down Syndrome. Gauged against blood tests, my age and medical history, I was presented with the odds of having a Down Syndrome baby: 1 in 25.
1 in 25’s not like 1 in 2, right? It doesn’t seem so serious to me at first. But then I’m told women with odds ranging downwards from 1 in 2,000 are advised to go for further tests to rule out fetal abnormalities, and suddenly my 1 in 25 odds start to not look so good.
There I am, in that same consultation room of my ogbyn’s clinic, where 9 months ago she’d examined me and broken the news that I would miscarry. I am suddenly filled with hatred for this very room and my presence in it. Can’t I just get pregnant and have a baby like most people do? I’ve certainly managed it once before. I feel an irrational impulse to bolt towards the door.
Instead, I sit feebly and listen as she shows hubby and I pamphlet after pamphlet to explain two diagnostic tests I can undergo to find out for sure: amniocentesis and CVS, and the risks involved for each. She urges me to book an appointment for either quickly, as the waiting lists tend to be long.
“We’re not going. We’re keeping the baby either way,” my husband cuts in abruptly.
My obgyn purses her lips and I see her draw a deep breath for that sentence beginning with “But”.
“But—and I mean no offense—you’re not the one carrying the baby. We should hear from her too. She might want to know before she decides what to do.”
My eyes fill with tears. “I will keep this baby no matter what,” I hear myself say. “However I want to take the test to be emotionally prepared.”
“You don’t have to decide now, take the test first,” my obgyn insists. “There are many factors to consider in raising a child with special needs. You may feel prepared now but it’s a heavy responsibility and there are many factors to consider, like how your lifestyles will have to change for one. How your son will be affected… how…”
It’s hard to describe how much her “well-meaning” advice hurts me at this point but I accept that she is offering what she considers an educated medical opinion to a dilemma she thinks I’m facing. Yet neither doctor nor doctrine has a part to play in a very natural decision I arrived at in absolute freedom. In a similar way, I suspect that the instrumental hymns playing as background music in her clinic do not represent any part of her medical ethos which, based on what I’m hearing so far, leans towards a pro-choice stance. It’s fine what she believes or doesn’t. In fact, religion hasn’t even entered my mind, for I know my being Catholic has no bearing on my absolute determination to keep the baby, Down Syndrome or no.
“Thank you,” I say, “I just want to take the test to know for sure—not to decide if I’ll keep this child, which I will.”
Back home I lock myself in the room, hug my tummy, and cry. I think about how nobody knows if she has Down Syndrome and yet it already feels like she’s rejected. I feel the discriminating gaze that Down Syndrome individuals must face daily, their parents’ pain at their marginalization, and consider the 90-something percent who never even make it into the world. “But know this,” I say out loud, “Mummy and Daddy want you. You’re wanted. You’re loved. Hang in there. We’ll be OK.”
At 16 weeks I go for the amnio and a week later results come back negative for Down Syndrome and all other abnormalities. “Oh, and it’s a girl,” announces my obgyn over the phone. “See you next Tuesday at our check up.” I forget what I said because I was too busy crying amidst commuters on a crowded train.
“We have a stargazer!” My obgyn’s voice resounds through the hitherto quiet operating room—she’s describing to everyone how she’d cut through the final layer to find Belle facing up with her eyes wide open. “I was lucky not to nick her in that pretty face!”
Then I hear the piercing cry of a newborn.
“She looks like her brother!” hubby exclaims as the nurses wipe her down and place her in my arms. Snap, snap, snap goes hubby’s camera phone. “Happy birthday, Christabel!” he coos.
She’s calmed down somewhat and is making a tiny whimpering noise. I stare at this pinkish baby with her tiny fingers and toes, squirming in her white swaddling blanket. I’m a mum of two, I think, stroking her cheek. The beauty of new life feels like a novel experience, even though I’m witnessing it for a second time. There’s a tired cliché about how one’s heart gets bigger with the addition of each new child, but in my case it’s feels much more than that. There’s a wondrous sense of renewal a newborn baby can bring to its mother—a kind of utter and immense love, and a reflection of something even larger, deeper, more complete.
Catching but a glimpse into this very special love, I discover something I hadn’t realized I’d been seeking: a newfound conviction and courage to love myself wholly—and tenderly.
[to be continued]