Note: I wrote this piece for a magazine call for submissions that had the prompt "Fail." This version is a now-edited draft for readers of this site. The version I handed in to the magazine, I realize now, is a more watered-down version, one that tried too hard to be more clinical or professional or something, in order to fit the tone and editorial requirements. The article was rejected, i.e. it failed. Goes to show that writing for the market doesn't really work....
Only a week after our daughter was born, I decided I wanted the hospital records about her birth. I was a mother now; I was responsible for things like records. I wasn’t prepared, however, as I waited in the hallway for an attendant to make copies, for how many times I’d see the word fail and its derivatives on the pages. Failed home birth. Failure to progress. Failed vacuum attempt. I read those words in the elevator and then again in the truck as my husband drove me and our tiny, sleeping daughter back to our home on the coast. I looked out the rain-splattered window at the soggy fields of the Willamette Valley and cried.
The whole perfect pregnancy, I’d worked, read, exercised, practiced with my husband, and simply hoped and prayed to have our child peacefully and quietly in the bathtub at our midwife’s birth center. I even worked hard to not have any expectations about the birth – I knew labor and delivery would be more grueling than anything I’ve experienced and didn’t even write out a birth plan. So, after thirty-six hours of labor at the birth center, which included ten hours of pushing, water broken, full dilation and still no baby, when the midwife recommended we transport to a trusted hospital in the valley, I felt disappointed, but my main concern was my child and getting her out safely. I didn’t think then about a failed home birth.
The transport after pushing for so long and then trying not to push felt something akin to dying a horrible death and by the time we arrived at the hospital, I was screaming quite loud for the anesthesiologist to get me the epidural, which, after administered, gave me a new appreciation for why women would choose to get one in the first place. In a cruel act of human biology, I de-dilated on the way over, so we had to wait again for the magic ten centimeters. But, by the time I reached the magic ten, I asked them turn down the drugs on the epidural so I could feel the contractions and know when to push. I squatted so low and pushed so hard, I could see in the giant mirror the nurse held up my baby’s wet, matted hair. But, the image was just an illusion, she wasn’t actually coming down. I’d failed to progress. The doctor recommended the vacuum apparatus, a procedure which scared me, but which I agreed to, and which, didn’t work for us anyhow. Failed vacuum attempt. The doctor looked up at me from between my own legs, his mouth hidden behind in a blue mask, and breathed out. “I don’t know what else to do,” he said. Fifty-four hours of labor later, I finally felt exhausted and frightened enough to agree to a much unwanted cesarean-section.
We did the operation, my daughter was born, and aside from one bump and one bruised caput on her head, she was strong and healthy and big.
I can only remember being glad she was out safely and that my ordeal of a difficult birth was over. Or so I thought. Soon after getting wheeled into recovery, I experienced serious complications: a hemorrhage which dropped my blood pressure to thirty over forty, required six pints of blood and a two night stay in intensive care where my body was subjected to more prodding, poking, and pressure than I thought possible, all while trying so hard to breast-feed my newborn baby whom the nursery staff wheeled into the ICU. I share these details not to be gory – though the irony that my daughter was born on Halloween is not lost on me – I tell them to show contrast between reality and the former hopes that existed in my mind and heart. My hopes and prayers were, effectively, blown out the hospital windows. But, still, I’m not sure I’d thought I’d failed until after I read those records.
For the medical world, the word fail is not a judgment but a professional term, like the word “asynclitic,” a word I’d never heard before, which explained my daughter’s difficulty in descending – her head was left ear first and too wide to pass through. Right of access to patient records is a dilemma currently facing the medical community as paperwork becomes digitized and easier to disseminate. Many patients argue they have a right to see their records at all times. Many doctors argue seeing records may not be in a patient’s best interest if it unnecessarily upsets or impedes their healing. Before this birth event, I surely would have sided with patients’ claims to see their records. But once I got mine, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d feel less like a failure if I hadn’t repeatedly read that word in the doctors’ notes, especially so close to the actual difficult delivery? For me that failed word carried with it a weight like a stone on my chest.
For many women, a c-section does not feel like failure, especially women who have unforeseeable emergencies and are just grateful their babies make it. I also know women who didn’t exactly have emergencies but a cesarean was recommended by doctors, like my friend whose son was breech and her water broke five weeks early before he had a chance to turn around, or another friend who’d been in a serious car accident as an adult and had metal plates in her hips that wouldn’t allow for a vaginal birth – for her just carrying her child to term was a victory. And, too, all those women were probably smart enough to not order up their medical records.
Still, many women, records or none, who had an unwanted cesarean do feel a sense of personal failure, or feel, at least, that their bodies failed them. People often say to me, “all that matters is your baby is healthy,” and of course that is all that matters, but her health doesn’t take away the tape in my head that says I failed to deliver our child the right way.
In my case, my sense of failure lasted for a long time, even though I tried to ignore my feelings while doing the day to day juggling act of taking care of a newborn. The sensation was physical; in my lower regions I felt a deep loss, like a marathon runner who had to stop the race a mile short of the finish line. I felt pain and numbness in the site of the surgery when doing the most mundane acts like buttoning my pants or leaning over to pick up my daughter. That weird mix of stinging needles and deadness in the place where my child was pulled out only served to deepen my feelings of failure.
Often when in despair or confusion, I look up the usages of words and their origins to help me make sense of things. In the case of fail, none of the definitions helped me feel better – they all included synonyms such as “deficient” “insufficient,” “fall short,” “to disappoint,” “to cease functioning properly,” and the origin of the word, which is a derivative of the Latin word “to deceive,” simply confused me and left me bereft.
After about eight months of getting it together as a mom, I fell into what I’d call a delayed post partum depression, serious enough that I sought help. Underlying my depression was my feeling of being a failure, and not simply because I didn’t deliver my child vaginally, but, I learned, for other more subtle aspects, too. At one point, I remember, I sobbed to my husband that I had failed to show him the real power of my body’s ability to deliver our child. He held my hand and said, “Honey, you showed me how powerful your body was by enduring fifty-four hours of labor.” I’d never thought of that perspective before and his comfort did make me feel better at the time, but the road out of the sadness has been long.
What’s important to know is that “fail” is not a feeling. We say – indeed, I’ve written all along in this essay – “I feel like a failure” but that statement is a thought. Real feelings do not use the word “like.” I may feel sad, feel disappointed, feel despair, but I can’t, rhetorically speaking, “feel failure,” or “feel failed.” So, to say, “I feel like I failed” is not a real feeling but a thought, a perception. And if I’ve learned anything from the sleep deprivation of new motherhood, I’ve learned my thoughts are often skewed, and my perception is often deceiving, an understanding that has made the origin of the word failed finally make sense.
The other day, I settled my now twenty-three month old daughter into her car seat after we’d spent a lovely and rare warm sunny day at the beach, splashing in the waves, having a tea party, and writing the ABC’s in the sand. As I buckled the last clip and handed her a snack cup, she looked up at me with her warm hazelnut eyes and said, unprompted for the first time ever, “I love you Mama.” Then she reached out her hands and said “hug,” and hugged my neck, then said “kiss” and kissed me on the cheek. Yes, the medical records show I failed to give birth to my baby through natural means. But, you know, I’ve failed at other things in my life that didn’t wreck me, and this failure I can live with because I helped create and give birth to a healthy, vibrant, brilliant daughter. I’m blessed to be her mom.