I am quite good at making paper snowflakes. People have started asking me for tips, so I threw together this quick tutorial. It speaks for itself.
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A year ago today my sweet Penelope Mae was born. And with her arrival our lives were thrown into a chaos deeper, more tender, and joyous, and frightening than I’ve ever known. And the three of us–David, Penny, and me–have emerged from it all. We have stepped (yes, even the tiniest of us, stepped!) into the light. We survived.
I cannot put words to all the new feelings that live in my heart. I cannot explain or describe the myriad of ways in which I have changed in the last year, and the ways in which I have stayed exactly the same. I am always cracking open, each day a new split or break as I find even more ways to love my daughter and my husband and nearly burst with the immensity of it.
Motherhood is so hard. It is relentless and desperate and rewarding and magical. I am so fortunate to have an amazing network of support. People who have encouraged me, helped me, carried and sometimes even dragged me through this first year. I am so grateful to you all. Your friendship and kindness and wisdom has meant more than you can know.
But today is about Penny. My funny, cautious, curious daughter. I love her sing-song voice and her stoner laugh. I love that she inherited my nose-crinkled smile, and David’s incredulous facial expressions. I love that she is her own, whole person and each day I have the honor of getting to know her better. I am so excited to see more of who she’ll be.
Being Penelope’s mother is one of the greatest gifts of my life. Here’s to her first, shining year.
A few weeks ago I pulled up a slow song on my phone and hit play. I coaxed David up off the couch and asked him to dance with me. We revolved slowly in the center of the living room, amid a sea of baby toys and burp cloths, in pajamas and unwashed hair while Penny napped in the next room. And in the beginning it felt goofy and we grinned. But as the music went on we relaxed into each other’s arms and slowed to a sway. By the time the song ended I had my eyes closed and my face nestled into David’s shoulder, and I felt the same wild, quiet joy I felt during the last dance of the night on our wedding day.
Our lives have changed so much, even in the last year. We are parents, and the birth of our daughter transformed our lives. We do a lot of negotiating, a lot of planning, a lot of cleaning (and yet–never, ever enough cleaning). Every day is a delicate balancing act as we learn how to care for our daughter, care for each other, and care for ourselves. A friend describes the first few years with young children as the “business years” of marriage, and I can see the truth in that. There is a lot more responsibility, now. A lot more to manage, and a lot less time.
But the romance is not gone from our lives. We snuggle up on the couch and binge-watch Orphan Black together. We sit on our small balcony with cold beer and blow bubbles, watching them float over the railing and burst on the tree branches below. We sit at bars and lean in close together over a plate of calamari, our knees touching, our faces flushed with wine. Thank god for babysitters. We send saucy text messages and leave little love notes on the fridge and the bathroom mirror. We kiss every single day.
Marriage is a choice, and I always choose David. I choose him when I am tired. I choose him when the week has been long and my temper is short. I choose him when I am jealous and scared and annoyed. I choose him when I need someone to talk to, or someone to make me laugh. I choose him, always, to be my partner. To be the person with whom I pay the bills and fold the laundry, and share in all the other minutiae of my daily life. He is my partner, my co-parent, my love. He is–quite simply–my most favorite person.
His generosity and depth of feeling impress me every single day. He makes me want to be the best version of myself, and loves me even when I am the very worst. He encourages me to take care of myself, to find and pursue new challenges and passions, to stake my claim. His support is such a precious gift; I try to be aware always of its worth.
Everyday after work I drive into downtown Saint Paul to pick Penny up from daycare. We wait outside in the sun for David to leave the office and walk over to meet us before we all get in the car and drive home. When Penny first sees her Papa, her face beams. I can almost see her heart thumping as her whole tiny body wriggles and radiates with joy. As he gets closer, she stretched out her arms and kicks her little legs until he takes her up and holds her at last.
I know exactly how she feels.
All photos in this post were taken by our stellar wedding photographer, Kate, of KNG Sommers Photography. I cannot recommend her enough; she is magnificent. If you’d like to see more of our wedding photos, I have a ton shared on FB, or you can search Instagram hashtag #vansantwedding.
No one ever likes being sick. It always throws you off whatever you were in the middle of–whether it’s a streak of days with exercise, a project at work, or well laid plans to surprise your partner with a special evening. I’ve just found out, however, that it’s the worst being sick while being a parent.
Lucky for us–I feel forced to say–is that we were both sick in the same week, but consecutively. Having us both sick at the same exact time would have really stunk. (I know it’ll happen, eventually) That said, I’m feeling like Kelly being sick was probably worse for Kelly right now than David being sick is for David. I don’t have to maintain waking up during the night to feed our baby. I even got a break from waking up to bring baby to mama for said feedings when I was really sick.
I really don’t like being sick. It brings out my inner hypochondriac. I’m always sure that I have the worst case scenario, suddenly escalating life-threatening thing. It makes the whole thing even more unbearable than it needs to be. I find myself dwelling on the what-ifs. What if I’m suddenly not here tomorrow? What would Kelly do? WHAT WOULD KELLY AND PENNY DO? See where this is headed…
Of course I usually refuse to go see a doctor. They can never tell you with accuracy what is going on or prescribe anything that helps much more than home remedies. Until it gets really bad. Then I usually suck it up and go in. And by that point…the health care provider just tells it looks like the worst of it’s past and I should be fine in a day or two. Inevitably I am.
On a positive note, the maniacal dwelling usually leads to self-oaths about being a better, healthier human being when I’m done with this cold. And that’s a good thing. At least now that I’m in my thirties. I feel like I’m an upward trajectory. While in my twenties I also swore up and down that I’d get back in shape, drink less, sleep more, smoke less, eat better. I had no reason to follow through. Now I do. While I still cycle through bouts of good habits, the stretches last longer and my general health improves. So, back to what I said at the top of this post, I think that solid streak of daily bike riding is about to start anew. Now that I’m feeling better, I can get back to designing that better, healthier me…to the benefit of the leading ladies in my life. A mentally and physically healthy David is a better husband and papa.
It is three days after Penelope’s birth, and we are home in our apartment for the first time. I am hiding in our bedroom alone, stuffing fistfuls of the white down comforter into my mouth, my whole body shaking violently with sobs. I feel myself breaking, cracking open. Out in the living room my mother-in-law rocks my tiny, wailing baby. My husband scurries back and forth between us both. I cry, and cry, and cry. My daughter is starving.
When filling out the paperwork for daycare, I have to write in that Penny is “combination-fed” both breastmilk and formula. I try not to die inside. Why won’t my body do what it was biologically designed to do?
We overslept and we are rushing. Penny plays on the floor while David and I swoop around getting things ready so he doesn’t miss the bus. I open the fridge. “Where’s the breastmilk?” I say. Yesterday I pumped a record 7 oz total over three pumping sessions at work. It’s the most milk I’ve ever pumped in one day, and I am damn proud. “What?” says David, pausing in the kitchen. “The breastmilk,” I say, panicking now. “Didn’t you bring it up from the car yesterday?” He had. And there it is, sitting in the lunch bag on the kitchen counter. Neither of us remembered to stick it in the fridge and now, fourteen hours later, we are paying for it. Spoiled. It is no one’s fault. It just is. David holds me in the kitchen while I blink back vicious tears. It takes every bit of strength I possess not to apologize to my daughter as I kiss her goodbye. After she and my husband leave I collapse on the floor, sobbing. I can’t bring myself to pour it down the drain so I leave the bottles on the counter where I found them. I go to work. Start again.
I had planned to breastfeed from the moment I got pregnant, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. I have always been uncomfortable in my body, and breastfeeding frightened me. My husband tried to mitigate my discomfort by assuring me that breastfeeding was normal. “Well, I’ve never had milk come out of my boobs before,” I said tartly. “So it’s not normal for me.”
But when I saw her, when I held Penny in my arms for the first time all of that discomfort and apprehension melted away. Of course I was going to nurse my daughter. Of course.
It wasn’t that easy.
We struggled in the hospital. I expected there to be a learning curve when it came to breastfeeding. A learning curve for me, that is. I just assumed my baby would be born knowing how to breastfeed. It never occurred to me that she would be learning, too. We struggled with latching, positioning, getting Penny to swallow, keeping Penny awake long enough to nurse, waiting and waiting and waiting for my milk to come in. The nurses were all eager to help, but each one had different–often conflicting–advice, and we would inevitably reach a point in the process where the nurse would just grab my breast, place it in Penny’s mouth and hold it there, while stroking her throat with the other hand to get her to swallow. I felt invisible, detached, and so sad. One nurse dripped formula onto my nipple to try to get Penny interested enough to suck, because there was just no milk there. I was so empty and so far away.
Before we were discharged from the hospital the resident pediatrician instructed us to set up an appointment at the clinic for the following day rather than waiting for two week check up. “She’s looking just a little jaundiced,” he said.
The first night home was the worst night of my life. I did not know it was possible to feel as exhausted, as heartbroken, as ashamed as I felt when I could not feed my daughter.
Somehow we survived the night. At the pediatrician’s appointment the next morning, Penny was more that “just a little” jaundiced. She was fluorescent yellow down to the whites of her eyes and had lost 13% of her birthweight. We immediately went into crisis mode. Penny’s pediatrician, Mary Jane, is also a specialized lactation consultant, so she watched us nurse and then went to work. My left nipple was inverted, so we focused on that. Mary Jane showed me new holds, tips to get Penny to latch, and ways to make sure she swallowed. She got us an electric pump and instructed me to start pumping for a minimum of 15 minutes after every feed. And she gave us a supplemental nursing system.
An SNS is a thin, flexible tube that is taped to the nipple and attached to a bottle filled with formula. The idea is that the baby is still breastfeeding while simultaneously getting supplemental calories from the formula. My milk still wasn’t in, and if Penny didn’t begin gaining weight immediately she was going to be hospitalized. So we were sent home with the SNS and the pump and got to work.
The SNS was shoddy, a temporary device we were hoping to get rid of as soon as possible. Most of the time David held up the bottle for me, but on the rare occasion that he couldn’t there was a clip that would attach the bottle to the brim of a baseball hat. When David held it up for me it was easier to pretend that it wasn’t there. That my body wasn’t totally betraying me. But when wearing the baseball cap the bottle hung directly in my face, gently clunking my cheek whenever I moved, a tangible, forcible reminder of my failure. Wearing the SNS–which I did at every single feeding for the first two weeks, slowly dropping it one feed at a time for weeks afterward–filled me with shame. Fresh, undiluted shame. I wept through every feeding.
With the constant nursing and pumping, my nipples cracked. The pain was agonizing. I remember sitting on the couch after a feeding, slowly peeling the tape off my nipple while David sat beside me and held Penelope. The pain was so intense that my whole body shook as I grit my teeth and kept peeling. More painful, less purposeful than childbirth. Tears streamed down my face as I pulled and pulled and pulled. David cried watching me.
Penny had doctor appointments every day that first week, and weekly appointments for the first month. Little by little she gained weight, but never enough. It took her over a month to get back to her birthweight.
It rapidly became clear that exclusively breastfeeding my daughter was not going to be an option. She was always, always going to need formula. Especially because I couldn’t pump enough to sustain her when I returned to work.
I tried everything. We were skin to skin for the bulk of my maternity leave. I drink lactation teas, eat oatmeal every day, started taking fenugreek capsules, and have been taking a drug prescribed by the pediatrician to help increase milk production. I nurse Penny on demand: she eats whenever she wants for as long as she wants; we have never tried to cut her off or impose a schedule. I have pored over books and articles and forums. I have been to lactation consultants. If it has been suggested, I have tried it. And it hasn’t worked.
It hasn’t worked.
We dropped the SNS after a few months and switched to a bottle for Penny’s formula feeds. I couldn’t handle the tube anymore. At my insistence we never took a photo of me wearing that contraption while nursing, the dreaded bottle swaying horribly in front of my face. Now, though, I wish we had. I wish we had a photograph that I could pull out and shove in the face of everyone who thinks I didn’t try hard enough. “See, see?! I did everything I could.”
I am feeding my kid. What matters is that I am feeding my kid. She is getting food. It doesn’t matter where the food comes from. She is healthy. I am doing the best I can. This is what I tell myself over and over again. David is more worried about me than he is about Penelope. He wishes I didn’t take this so much to heart. He wishes I could see how much I am giving, and not view that as a failure. He wishes I could be proud of myself, the way he is so very proud of me. I wish all of that, too.
We are still nursing as often as we can, and I dream of making it to a full year although I’m currently setting my sights on six months, which is on our horizon. But until she transitions to an all-solid food diet Penny will always need formula to be healthy. I just cannot make enough for her. And it is devastating.
This spectacular image of Pen–when she was just a few days old–sums up the past 12+ months for me. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words…tired, wired, mired…
In March I turned thirty-one years old. The preceding year was a trip. In that single year I experienced:
- most of my first year being married to my best friend
- a pregnant wife
- the birth of our child
- caring for a newborn and a new mom
- being the proud father of a beautiful daughter
- completing an MBA
- working into a huge promotion
- being a core member of a team that launched a new state agency
- being a core member of a team that launched a new (faulty) website
- developing and implementing multiple programs, products, and services
- hiring a team of professional staff
- formally supervising someone for the first time
- formally managing a team for the first time
- firing someone for the first time
- being the subject of a deposition
- making multiple headlines (mostly bad, but some good)
It was a thrilling, stressful, not fun, eye opening, crazy fucking year. I think it was worth it.
I have a great life. A wonderful life. A healthy daughter. A promising career. Most important of all, a wonderful partner to share this all with. Good and bad.
So what’s thirty-one about? This next year is about designing a better me: a good career trajectory, a healthy body and mind, a well read citizen, a close family member, an engaged friend, an interesting acquaintance. I’m going to continue building my home–a happy place for a great, budding family. Eventually everything will come together. But I’ll always be working on something. Life’s about moments. And there are a lot of awesome moments ahead. I’m on a path as an individual. I’m on a journey with my girls.
When we were dating, David and I spent Sunday mornings at his Brooklyn apartment in our pajamas with the New York Times, coffee, and a box of crunch mini donuts. Spending all morning reading and getting crumbs all over the bed (it’s ok; Sunday is also laundry day) was fantastic, and I wasn’t about to give it up just because we no longer have a bodega downstairs and instead have a tiny, demanding baby.
So we did our best to make it work.
It’s not as relaxing as it used to be, but we did successfully spend our morning and early afternoon in bed. We hung out with Penny and read magazines and had a delicious breakfast of coffee and Mojo Monkey donuts that Mary brought over for us in honor of David’s recent birthday. In a few years we’ll make a point to go to the library on Saturdays so that Penny can have her own reading material for Sunday mornings. In the meantime, this is just fine.
The first time I was away from Penny was two nights after she was born. We were still in the hospital and she had been crying incessantly for what seemed like hours. I refused to let her be taken to the nursery, so David and I took turns trying to console her and attempting to sleep, with no success at either endeavor. Finally, David insisted on taking her to the nursery so I could get some rest. He promised to stay there with her the entire time, so I gave in and let them go. I cried myself to sleep. Four hours later, they came back and woke me up so that Penny could eat.
The second time I was away from my daughter, she was three weeks old. My mother was visiting, and David and I left Penny with her and ran up the street to our favorite Mexican restaurant for some nachos and beer. I cried on and off for five hours before we actually left, but once we got out of the apartment I felt amazing. We were gone for an hour and half.
The third time I was away from Penny, she was six weeks old. I needed some time to myself and David needed some time to bond with Penelope after going back to work. I sat in a coffee shop and wrote up her birth story while drinking coffee and munching on a gourmet ham and cheese sandwich and a donut. On the way home I went grocery shopping and ran a few other errands. I was gone for a total of six hours.
Last night I was away from my daughter for the fourth time. Penny is seven weeks old, and David and I went on a date.
I spent much of pregnancy grieving. I did not want to become swallowed by motherhood. I did not want to be a slave to my child. I didn’t want to lose all the things that make me who I am on my own. Could there be room for everything? I wanted to be a mother, but I didn’t want to be ONLY a mother. I grieved for the end of my autonomy, but mostly I grieved for my relationship. I was irrationally afraid that having a child would cause my marriage to suffer. Even though I had no reason to believe that this would happen, I was obsessed with the conviction that my marriage was on the brink of crumbling. I spent most of my pregnancy in fits of weeping whenever David showed me kindness, which was often. In order to harness this fear, I vowed over and over again to make my marriage a priority after the baby was born. We would continue to communicate, we would continue to show one another affection, we would go on dates, damnit.
Despite the fact that my fears are unfounded, I’ve taken them seriously. The first night we brought Penny home from the hospital was the worst night of my life, without exaggeration. I was struggling painfully with breastfeeding, and no matter how hard we both tried, Penny was clearly starving and not getting enough to eat. She spent the evening howling inconsolably, body-shaking, heart-wrenching screams. I sobbed endlessly, with my heart gurgling in my throat, drowning in my own despair. All three of us were beside ourselves, and I remember thinking that it was going to be impossible to survive until the morning, when we had an appointment with the pediatrician and lactation consultant. David was in problem-solving mode, but since the problem was breastfeeding it was one he was unable to solve.
Finally I turned to him and said, “I need you to be my husband for the next ten minutes, not just my co-parent, ok?”
And we crawled into bed and held each other and whispered lots of good, reassuring things. Just for ten minutes, but those ten minutes were an amazing recharge and we were able to make it through the rest of the night.
David, Penny, and I have come a long way in the weeks since.
So when I got an email this week from Hennepin County Libraries saying that one of my favorite writers, Lorrie Moore, was in town promoting her latest short story collection with a reading and book signing I knew we were going. David’s mother kindly offered to babysit, and after leaving her with some pumped milk and simple instructions I blew Penny a million kisses and went to pick David up from work.
We got drinks and some appetizers at a bar a few blocks away from the library and chatted about the things we’d like to do in the next few years. We arrive at the library and were able to snag front row seats for the event. I felt so overwhelmingly happy that my eyes welled up with tears. We held hands through the reading, which was smart and funny and striking. We stole sidelong glances at one another and flirted. We went on a damn date, and it was wonderful.
“I feel like my old self,” I said to David as I squeezed his hand. “This is something the old me would do. Drinks. A bookish event. Kissing you on street corners. This is exactly the kind of thing I was afraid I would never do again after being a mom. But look! Here we are!”
There we were. And home in time to put our sweet baby girl to bed.
In the beginning Penny was jaundiced and lost 13% of her birthweight after leaving the hospital, so we were putting in regular appearances at the pediatrician’s office.
Bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, I held my daughter so a lab technician could prick Penny’s heel and draw blood to test her bilirubin levels.
“Name?” asked the lab tech.
“Penelope Van Sant.”
“Date of birth?”
A long, long pause. “Uh, hers or mine?”
The technician gave me a pitying laugh. “Hers.”
That was the first time I realized that I was a parent. The first time it really sunk in. All my life, the only birthdate that had ever been requested of me was my own. Until now.
There’s a new layer to my identity. In addition to so many other things, I am now also Mama. I’m not sure what that means, just yet.
I love my daughter. I was actually a little bit worried about this before she was born, because I’ve been told that sometimes the love doesn’t come right away. That I might feel awe, that I would surely feel responsibility, but that love–real love–might take a little bit longer, and that it would be normal if that were the case. But it wasn’t. I loved Penelope completely as soon as I saw her. Awe and responsibility, too. But I was full to bursting with so much love.
I’m still exploring what it means to be a mother. It means feeding Penny, changing her, keeping her alive. It means cooing at her and delighting in her smiles. It means holding her and rocking her and getting up in the middle of the night. It means doing these things over and over and over again until I’ve lost all sense of time. It means doing these things even when I do not want to do them. Even when I am tired or stressed or angry or sad or overwhelmed. I take care of her anyway, no matter what, because I am her mother.
But that is only for a little while, and those are only the tasks of being a mother right in this moment. Those are the things I do, but not who I am.
And that part, I think, will take a little longer. I have only recently gotten used to being a wife. It took over a year to fold that into my identity, to say my new surname with confidence. I still haven’t recorded a new voicemail message, though. Being a wife is something I grew into, and I imagine motherhood will be the same.
For now, being Mama is strange, but so sweet.
About halfway through my miserable pregnancy David and I were lying in bed, and he made up this song:
You are not a kittay
You are a babay
It became our mantra for the remaining months: coming soon, coming soon, coming soon.
Penelope did not come soon. She came late.
I did everything I could think of to send myself into labor. I walked and walked and walked. I bounced on the birth ball, and climbed stairs, and yes, had sex. I ate spicy food, I made those cookies that the internet swears will start labor, I wished and wished and begged.
But on January 17th, at 41 weeks and three days pregnant, an ultrasound showed that my amniotic fluid levels were too low to allow us to wait any longer, and my midwife kindly but firmly told me that I needed to check into the hospital that evening to be induced with pitocin.
David and I went home for the afternoon and crawled into bed and I mourned. For hours, I mourned. I mourned the natural labor I wouldn’t get to have. I mourned for the end of my days as a non-parent. Tears leaked out of my eyes and my body shook. David cradled me in his arms and whispered reassurances, validated my grief, reminded me of my strength.
I was terrified of being induced. I’d heard nothing but horror stories about pitocin, and was convinced I was headed for an emergency c-section at the worst, and tons of needles and IVs at best. For someone with a medical phobia, even that best case scenario was a looming nightmare.
David read aloud to me from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. We watched some tv and ordered in a feast from our favorite Indian restaurant. I cried.
At 6:30 we packed up all our things and walked out the door, knowing that the next time we walked through it we would have baby with us.
Checking in at the hospital took only moments, and we were shown to the small room where we would be staying for the night. I changed into a large and shapeless hospital gown and laid down on the bed while the night nurse hooked me up to machines that would monitor my contractions and the baby’s heartbeat through the night. Soon, the midwife on duty–a kind, blonde woman, younger than I expected–appeared and checked my cervix. I was only 1.5 cm dilated and 50% effaced. She gave me a suppository of cervidil, which would speed up the ripening, and told me I would be starting an IV drip of pitocin in the morning.
“Will I be able to leave the bed?” I asked. Being confined to the bed for labor was one of my biggest fears.
“Oh, yes,” she said reassuringly. “The IV will be on a rolling pole. You’ll be able to move.”
I nodded as big fat tears leaked out of my eyes and collected under my chin. David squeezed my hand.
I was given sleeping pills and a shot of morphine to get me through the night.
“A lot of women are uncomfortable after the cervidil,” said the midwife. “And we want you to get as much rest as you can before you go into labor tomorrow.”
The morphine, I’ll admit, was wonderful. I felt aware of my entire body, and was completely relaxed. Like when I wake up some weekend morning, with sun leaking through the slats of the blinds, and no matter which way I shift or roll whatever position I land in is the most comfortable position imaginable. I loosened my grip on a small part of my worry, and drifted off into a deep sleep while watching David lying, cramped, on the pull out chair beside my bed.
At three o’clock in the morning I woke up entirely, alert and in pain.
I had heard contractions described before. In our birth class the instructor said it was a pain that would start in your back and wrap around to the front, growing in intensity as it went. I’ve heard women compare their contractions to amplified period cramps. Like so many things in pregnancy, describing contractions–and labor in general–to someone who has never experienced them is fruitless. Contractions did not feel like anything I’d been told to anticipate, and as a result I wasn’t sure I was having them.
I laid in my hospital bed for an hour, waiting for each rolling wave of pain and wondering whether or not I was in labor. I watched David sleep. I took out my phone and started timing the pains on my contraction timer app. The were lasting roughly a minute, and were coming three minutes apart. At four o’clock I woke David and made him pad across the room to the machine print outs and tell me whether or not the monitors were registering what I increasingly suspected were contractions. They were. David took over timing them on my phone.
At some point we called the night nurse in to confirm that really, yes, I was having contractions. She looked at the print outs out of obligation and said, yup, those were contractions all right. She asked if I wanted breakfast delivered at six. I said sure, and then the nurse vanished. David and I were both a little astonished. I think we expected something more from her. Confirmation that I was in labor? A plan of action? Something? By this point I was lying on my side, moaning my way through each contraction. Long, low moans that didn’t accomplish much of anything except to keep me from crying.
The next few hours were a blur. I assume they were much of the same. Me, moaning. David, perched beside me, keeping watch and timing contractions as they came and went. At eight in the morning breakfast still had not arrived, and the nurse had not returned. David went out into the hall in search of some answers. My breakfast, which had been sitting under a warmer forgotten for a few hours, arrived shortly after he returned, and the day nurse, Deb, came in. She apologized for not checking in on us sooner, but the night nurse had told her I was sleeping and didn’t want to be disturbed. In the middle of her apology I had a contraction. She watched me go through it, and then said excitedly, “You’re in labor!”
She removed the cervidil, and checked out my progress. I was 5 cm dilated and 100% effaced. “We’ve got to get you to a delivery room right away,” she said.
I looked up at her and choked out, “Does this mean I don’t have to have the pitocin?”
I’m pretty sure she laughed. “No, honey,” she said. “You’re in labor.”
“Eat some breakfast and I’ll get a room ready for you.”
The scrambled eggs were cold and rubbery, and I did not want to eat them, but David insisted. After just a few bites I knew I was going to be violently sick. Until that point in my life, I had never spray-puked. But, oh, I spray-puked that day. My range was impressive, covering not only the floor and the wall beside me, but a large portion of David’s lower body as well. I sat there, in horror, looking at the mess. And my one and only thought was: we have to clean it up. We have to clean it up and pretend it never happened. We have to clean it up before Deb comes back, because I’ve read that if you vomit they put you on an IV for fluids and I can’t, can’t, can’t have an IV and survive.
Labor is not a rational time.
Of course, before I could execute this brilliant plan, Deb returned. I must have apologized a hundred times, but she had seen far worse before and said so. We began to pack up some of our things to make the move to the delivery room, and Deb asked about our birth plans.
“I’m very flexible,” I said. “I really want to try to deliver without medication or intervention, but I’m open to other options if the need arises.”
Deb’s face lit up. “If you want to do this without medication,” she said. “I am the best nurse you could have.”
And she was.
I don’t remember how we got to the delivery room. David tells me we just walked down the hall, but I have no memory of it. Much of my labor from this point is hazy.
I know that when we first got to the room I headed for the bed, but Deb stopped me. “If you want to have this baby without pain medication, you cannot get in this bed. If you get in this bed it is all over, and you won’t get out again.”
I didn’t get in the bed.
David and I slow danced. I sat in the rocking chair. I bounced on the birthing ball. I stood up, bent in half, and swayed.
In our birth class we learned about all sorts of coping techniques for labor. Aromatherapy, massage and accupressure, visualizations. Comforting music, comforting objects. We had a suitcase full of things. Lemon essential oil and tennis balls and books and my two stuffed animals from childhood. We had an ipad, an ipod, and a bluetooth speaker.
We used none of it.
I asked David to tell me the story of our first date. And when he finished that, I asked him to tell me another story, and another, and another. He talked me through my entire ten hour labor, and I don’t remember a word he said. I clutched his hand like a lifeline, squeezing the blood out of his palm with each new wave of pain, closed my eyes, and curled deep inside myself and stayed there.
I felt removed from my body. I kept my eyes closed the entire time, only fluttering them briefly open as David and Deb coaxed me from one position to another as the hours went by. Through a dim, watery fog I could hear David’s voice, and that anchored me and made me feel safe as I drifted.
I met my attending midwife, Karen. I vomited a second time, but managed to request and receive a bucket before it was too late.
The pain grew worse, and David stopped telling me stories and started talking me through each breath. It was hard to breathe. It was hard to remember to breathe, and then once I’d been reminded it was difficult to actually execute it. Each breath was a ragged struggle, and when I started shaking they put me in the bathtub.
The bathtub was wonderful. It was warm, and the water helped relieve me of some of the gravity that had been pulling me down for so many long months. David poured cupfuls of warm water over my body with each contraction, as I clenched the handicap rail with both hands until my knuckles went white and my fingers went numb. I’m told that between these contractions, I fell asleep.
When the water cooled, and there was barely any respite between contractions they got me out of the tub and into the bed. When the midwife checked my cervix we were all surprised and disappointed to learn that I was only at 8 cm; we expected more. I wanted to cry, except that I was too tired. I labored in the bed for I don’t know how long, hooked up to monitors again to time my contractions and keep tabs on the baby’s heartbeat.
“Do I have to wear this stupid gown?” I asked, half sobbing. No, no, of course not. They rushed to help me out of it, and just like that I was naked in front of a room full of people.
They made me try a variety of positions: on my hands and knees, on my side. I desperately wanted to be on my back, which I knew was not the most natural position for delivery, and which Karen and Deb clearly did not approve of. But eventually they relented, and I was so much more comfortable. When I was 9 cm, Karen asked my permission to break my water, and I gave it.
“Meconium,” she said. And Deb called the NICU nurses to come in.
“If the baby doesn’t cry right away,” Karen said, “They’ll take her and clear her lungs. If she cries then we’ll hand her right over to you. Everything will be fine.”
I crushed David’s hands.
After what seemed like forever, they finally let me push. Pushing was the easiest part of labor. It was long and arduous, but I was buoyed by the fact that the pain at last felt productive, that my daughter was, finally, coming soon.
But with each contraction I pushed two to three times. She moved forward a little, and then slid back. Her heart beat slowed, and they had to call in an OB. Now besides naked me, David, Deb, Karen, and the NICU nurses, Dr. Fall was in the room. She appeared above my head and started talking at me. I didn’t register a word she said, except for “possible emergency c-section” if the baby’s heartbeat didn’t recover. David told me later that the midwife and my nurse shot daggers at her with their eyes, and I don’t blame them. If I hadn’t been so far inside of myself as to be almost absent at that point, I would have murdered her. They reached inside me and attached a monitor to the baby’s head, which would give a better read on her heartbeat than the external monitor I was wearing.
I pushed, and pushed, and pushed. David kept a damp cloth on my head. Time went on forever, though I’m told I only pushed for a little less than an hour. They said they could see her head, and had me reach down to feel it. I knew, then, that the next push would be the last one. Not because she was almost here, but because I knew I couldn’t push any more. I pushed for the last time.
And at 1:27 PM she was born. I watched her slide out of me. She didn’t cry, and they whisked her over to the NICU nurses to clear her lungs, although they kept her in the room. It was probably only 20 seconds between when she was born and when they handed her to me, but it felt like eternity. I was gushing tears, big gulpy crying. “Is she ok?” I sobbed, on the verge of hysteria. “Is she ok, is she ok?”
She cried out, and the nurses brought her to me, grinning. “She is perfect,” they said.
And oh, she was.
They placed her on my chest and I wrapped my arms around her. The nurses went to work, covering us both with blankets, placing a hat on the baby’s head. I cried and cried and pulled David down to me and kissed him. We stared back and forth in wonder between each other and our baby.
I touched my daughter’s face.
“Hi, baby.” I whispered. “Hi baby. Hello, sweet thing.”
“What’s her name?” Deb asked. David looked at me.
Early on, I had pushed for the name Penelope. It was one of my favorites and I lobbied for it hard. David got on board, and we started referring to the baby as Penelope Mae. But with only a few weeks to go I got cold feet. There wasn’t another name I preferred, but I felt the impossible weight of choosing a name for another human being. It felt like an immense responsibility and I wasn’t sure I was equal to it. I stopped using the name Penelope and reverted back to just “baby,” much to David’s dismay.
I looked down at my daughter, at her pink skin, and bright copper hair, and knew that we’d chosen the perfect name.
“Penelope,” I said. “Penelope Mae.”
Penelope Mae Van Sant
Born January 18, 2014 at 1:27 PM
7 lbs, 18.9 inches.