Enter: Thaddeus (A Birth Story by Christina Kleehammer)
My husband says it was a real Hollywood moment. The moment I rolled over in our bed around 2:30 a.m. on Friday, November 14, 2014, and tapped him on the shoulder saying, “Josh, I think my water just broke.”
We turned the lights on, checked the bed, and sure enough! Water, water everywhere!
I rushed to the bathroom, and he called Katie, our doula. “That’s so exciting!” she said. “Now try to get some rest, and call me when active labor starts.”
But as the day would unfold, I would describe it as anything but Hollywood. There was no script for this kind of story where maybe the only thing more challenging than experiencing it is trying to make sense of it afterwards.
Only through prayer has it been possible to do either.
I was having a bit of writer’s block when it came to working out our birth plan, so I decided to get creative and pretend it was a treatment for a screenplay. I entitled it Enter: Thaddeus with the subtitle A Birth Plan by Christina Kleehammer. Then, I listed the characters, the setting, etc.
A birth plan is the thing to write when you’re having a baby these days. Gone are the days when being a good parent means doing whatever the doctor tells you. Now, you take the reigns. And there are so many nuances and choices to make regarding how you want your baby to come into this world. In a hospital, or at home? Midwife or doctor? Natural? Medicated? Scheduled C-section? It’s like choosing your ideal scenario a la carte. Then, you hand it to your birthing professionals and say, “This is what we want.”
Josh and I took several birthing and parenting classes. We read a few books. I stayed very healthy and went to prenatal yoga and fitness classes to prepare my body, because I was going for 100% natural, unmedicated labor and delivery.
First of all, it is the ideal, healthiest scenario for mom and baby. And second, I’d begun to learn the value in suffering. I didn’t want to try to avoid the pain. I was determined to embrace it. As a Catholic, I saw myself in the intensity of labor uniting my suffering to Jesus in his own life-giving suffering on the cross—He, for the love of humanity, and I, for the love of my child. Throughout my pregnancy, I prayed constantly for a healthy, natural labor and delivery so I could bear this cross.
And Josh had his plans, too. He wanted to catch the baby. He had talked to the doctor about it already and everything.
Birth plans are a great idea. I highly recommend writing them. But I also recommend remembering the saying that goes, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”
I don’t think our birth plan made God laugh, but it definitely did not make Him comply.
We would never end-up calling Katie to tell her that I went into active labor, because I did not. Fluids gushed for hours and hours, but no regular contractions.
By late morning, Josh suggested we go ahead and get to the hospital so they could monitor for infection. When a pregnant woman’s water breaks, the baby is no longer in a sterile environment. He’s exposed to external factors while losing protective fluids, so they worry about these things.
I agreed to go, but I was reluctant. I knew what it meant, that if I continued to leak fluid and not have any contractions, they would want to induce labor. I did not want that! I did not want to try to force my body to do something it wasn’t ready to do on its own!
But my water already broke, so didn’t that mean my body was ready, and it just didn’t know it? How long was I willing to let my baby hang out like this? It was starting to get a little complicated. So we went to the hospital, and Katie met us there.
Ready to leave for the hospital.
And I was right. Not long after our arrival, a pelvic exam revealed that I was not even dilated half a centimeter. I was open just enough for water to get out, and germs to get in. Dr. M recommended inducing with pitocin, which we did not decline. It was not what I wanted, but the water was moving, and the baby wasn’t.
The pitocin started dripping into my system sometime after noon. We started low and slowly worked up the dosage, as per the usual procedure. I started to feel the pressure. The monitor showed evidence of contractions in bell-shaped curves that my doctors described as “pretty”.
“That’s exactly what we want to see,” they said.
I prayed, and I breathed through the pain with Joshua by my side, my calming labor soundtrack playing on our jambox, and Katie massaging my feet and ankles with lavender oil.
A tall, slender man I had never met before came in the room to examine me, and see how things were progressing. He informed us that if things weren’t moving as quickly as he wanted, he was going to insert a catheter to help pull the cervix open, or something like that.
He didn’t ask. He told.
“We don’t want that,” Josh explained.
“Well, if we’re not going to move forward with the induction, then what are we doing here?” was this doctor’s snide reply, met by my *oh no you didn’t* face.
I honestly couldn’t tell you what I said to this man, but I can tell you that Dr. K and I did not hit it off right away.
When this new doctor left the room, Josh told the nurse we wanted to talk to our doctor, Dr. M., not Dr. K. She then informed us that Dr. K was Dr. M’s boss.
I very much remember what happened the next time Dr. M came in the room.
“Hey! How are you guys doing?” He asked in his usual friendly manner.
“We’re fine,” I said. “Although we were a little taken back by Dr. K.”
At that, Dr. K stepped out from behind Dr. M so I could see him, and waved.
“Yeah, you!” I said, pointing at him with a *you’re lucky I’m in labor right now* look.
Dr. M did his best to diffuse the tension, saying doctor-ish things like his boss did, only nicer and with options. I think it worked, so they left us to our pitocin and went about their doctor-ing elsewhere.
And then, there was the anesthesiologist, Dr. Nummy. (I’m not giving all the doctors’ names, but I couldn’t resist telling you this one. Turns out that wasn’t his nickname. He was an actual anesthesiologist named Dr. Nummy.)
A shorter, sturdier man, this doctor was a talker. While I was trying to breath through the pressure of the rising levels of pitocin drip, Dr. Nummy was there explaining anesthesiology things to me, and getting me to sign a paper permitting them to give me an epidural or spinal block, just in case I needed one later.
The idea of signing that paper made me uncomfortable. I had absolutely no intention of getting my spine injected with anything. Whatever pain this kid was going to cause me, I was going to endure it. Keep your little spinal injection permission slip, Dr. Nummy!
…But it was just in case, and I wanted him to go away and stop talking, so I signed the darn thing and went back to my pitocin experience.
Nine, Twenty, and Not One
It was a long experience. I was on pitocin for about 9 hours, the last two of which were spent on level 20, which is the highest level they will allow without an internal monitor. (For readers unfamiliar with birthing culture, just know this level is notoriously intense.)
At the end of nine hours, Dr. M returned to examine my progress. And upon doing so, he shook his head, then hung it.
At the end of nine hours, nothing. No progress. At all. Not one centimeter.
And every pelvic exam in that condition presented new potential risks to the baby.
But how was that possible? I felt the pain and pressure. I saw the bell-shaped curves on the monitor.
A failed induction. I was in total disbelief. But there was no time to make sense of what was happening, because Josh and I needed to make a decision, and fast.
It had been over 18 hours since my water broke, and the baby wasn’t budging. Dr. M gave us an option. We could take a break from the pit, let it leave my system, and start the whole induction process over again in an hour to see if it would work the second time… Or I could have a C-section.
Those were my options. Nightmare and other nightmare. Neither even close to what I had envisioned, or prayed for. I felt completely out of control.
At that point, we simply had to let go of all expectations, and become fully present with the actual situation and what needed to happen next.
We asked the doctors for a few minutes alone to discuss it. We prayed. We talked. We decided.
A C-section was the absolute last thing I wanted. It was our worst case scenario. But to try the induction again just seemed like trying to force an ideal that no longer made sense.
We chose the other nightmare.
And the strangest thing happened when we decided to go ahead with the C-section. We felt peace. Immediately, we went from stressed to calm. Our baby was about to be born, and we were ready for him.
Headed to the operating room.
The Birth of Thaddeus James
The doctors wouldn’t let Josh into the OR when I was getting my spinal injection. Something about dads having a tendency to pass out at the sight of the needle, so he had to wait until that part was over to join us. And this was an Army hospital, so they teasingly said this was especially true of Ranger dads.
I sat on the operating table waiting for that giant needle I had previously given Dr. Nummy permission to inject in my spine.
“Put your hands on my shoulders,” Dr. K said. I didn’t expect that, but he was different now. Not cold and arrogant. He was sincere. Human. Offering support as he prepared to surgically remove my baby from my womb.
I gripped his shoulders tightly, and we strangely ended up in a sort of embrace as Dr. Nummy did his part.
The spinal block hurt. I gripped Dr. K’s shoulders tighter, trying not to move. He held me up, and still. Maybe I didn’t like him at first. Maybe he could be a jerk. But I was going to have to trust him with my life now. And my baby’s life. So I might as well grip his shoulders.
Soon, I was lying on the operating table, a curtain going up, my body going numb, and Dr. Nummy’s face upside down, leaning over mine.
“Before they start, they’re going to test and make sure the anesthesia is working, okay?” His main responsibility complete, Nummy took on a major supporting role, narrating for me, reassuring me about what to expect, and that everything was going really well.
One moment, you can wish a person would be quiet and go away. The next, you are so grateful they are there to talk to you, and keep you company. Nothing changed. Only the circumstance.
When it came down to it, I was so grateful for all of my doctors. I found love in my heart for each of them.
They finally let Josh in the room, and he was at my side encouraging me, loving me and peeking over the curtain. Nummy still upside down over my head feeling like an old friend at this point.
The room was bright. The curtain green. I amusedly sent signals from my brain to my legs, telling them to move. They were off the grid.
I could hear the medical team communicating with each other, several people, each with a specific role, organizing, synchronizing themselves. Focused. And it occurred to me that everyone in the room was united over one goal: bringing my baby into the world with both of us making it out alive. Suddenly, the whole C-section experience was not so evil. It was not a Monty Python sketch. There was a beauty to it. A coming together. I felt safe, and valuable.
Maybe I wasn’t the one pushing the baby out, but the truth is that our children are not primarily our own in the first place. They are God’s. And He was still bringing new life through me, and through this team of professionals. So instead of pushing, my work in that moment was to simply surrender and trust.
I felt pressure, someone pushing repeatedly on my abdomen. And then I heard him. Thaddeus James. I heard my baby crying loudly. The kid has lungs like his dad! And I heard someone say, “Whoa! That’s a big baby!”
(For details on the procedure, you’ll have to ask Josh. He saw the whole thing.)
Dr. M poked his head over to my side of the curtain. “Nine pounds, seven ounces,” he said.
“I can’t believe I gave birth to such a big baby,” I replied.
Josh went to be with the baby, and I heard laughter as my son pee’d on his new daddy, a nurse, and Dr. M all in one shot.
Then, they brought him to me, and I saw my baby for the first time.
Meeting the person that began in my tummy.
The general consensus is that at 37.5 centimeters, the baby's head was simply too big for my pelvis. So he never descended. That simple.
Josh envisioned himself catching the baby, and I envisioned myself having a full hour of skin-to-skin time with the baby immediately after he was born. Neither would happen. Life is like that sometimes. But it’s also like this—as I was laying in the OR getting stitched back together again, Josh was able to have the first skin-to-skin time with our new Thaddeus. Somehow, it satisfied both of our wishes. And by the time I was ready to hold the baby, we hadn’t missed a beat. He was warm, stable, and ready to find his mommy’s breast, which he did right away.
Joshua and Thaddeus, just moments after the birth.
This is what we call grace. It’s not always the beauty that you expect, but it is beautiful in its own right.
Beauty From Ashes
As I write this, Thaddeus is exactly 7 weeks old, sleeping in a sling against my chest as I type. People keep telling me to cherish this time, because they grow-up so quickly. But it’s hard to imagine how quickly it can pass when these have been the longest, most challenging weeks of my life.
For me, motherhood has begun with a total shut down of my immune system, leading to a case of Bell’s Palsy that paralyzed the right side of my face for several weeks. My face is still a little numb at times. Since the end of my pregnancy, I’ve had several skin conditions, including a staph infection and a full body rash that has not completely healed yet. All this in addition to postnatal high blood pressure, challenges with breastfeeding, and the everyday, you know, healing from major surgery while adjusting to new motherhood.
It’s pretty safe to say that I am a bit traumatized by the whole experience. I tease my newborn son. Sometimes that I hope he enjoys being an only child; sometimes that his siblings will be Ethiopian.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve suffered it all very bravely with no complaint or challenge to my faith. There have been moments like that. And also moments of complaining, lamenting, griping, questioning, doubting and generally freaking out.
All I can do is try to find God’s grace at work in the midst of it. When I look, it’s actually not that hard.
My husband is in the military, and often away from home either at a school, or on deployment. And not only was Josh home, but our baby was born on the first day of block leave, meaning Josh was able to stay home from work with us and take care of us for the first two and and a half weeks, and then some. I see grace in that. And in our healthy baby learning to coo and smile.
God showed his grace through everyone who brought us meals, and through friends willing to bring us communion, help with physical issues, and offer their time to watch the baby so we could simply take a nap.
I find God's love in the joy Thaddeus brings to the rest of our family, especially his grandparents.
And I see a miracle in that we are both alive. While, yes, childbirth is a natural process, it is also one that many women and children have died in throughout history. With our complications, that might have been us. But it wasn't. That's how C-sections are actually a good thing, not bad.
So much of my life seems to be about finding light in places I thought would be dark, when things turn out exactly how I hoped they wouldn’t.
I realized eventually that I had a lot of selfish pride wrapped-up in my decision to embrace the pain of natural labor. I could easily be arrogant about succeeding at that. But my Father loves me enough to choose for me a cross that I could not take pride in, one I was too proud to chose for myself. The cross that truly says, “Not my will, but Your will be done.” More like the one Jesus embraced, and with it, true humility. I am still finding ways to see God’s purposes in all of this. And am learning more and more that prayer is less about getting God to do what we want than it is about listening for what He wants for us. It is not about control; it is about surrender.
In the first few weeks following Thaddeus’ birth, Josh watched the entire Harry Potter series again. And I kept calling to mind the Phoenix, bursting into flames at the end of its life only to be reborn from its own ashes. I feel very much as though I’ve burst into flames once again, as I do from time to time. And from this pile of ashes, I am slowly—ever so slowly—emerging. Taking new shape. This time, the shape of a mother holding her baby boy.