Our Birth Stories

Our Birth Stories

By Katy Rank Lev


Sharing our birth stories with our children.


“Will Mommy be the next person in our family to die?” my five-year-old asked my husband as I lay on the sofa, drugged up on Vicodin. My grandmother had died a few weeks earlier and we’d just brought our third son home from the hospital. The birth had frightened my husband and me—a crash cesarean, blue baby, initial Apgar score of 4.

We’d done pretty well preparing the older kids for labor, we thought. We explained the essentials of a baby’s arrival, told them I’d be making some sounds at home as my muscles squeezed and we’d drive off to the hospital, where I hoped to push the baby out of my vagina. Late in my pregnancy, this concept caused my sons to barge in on me in the bathroom and beg, “Let me see up in there,” thinking they could catch a glimpse of their new brother while I peed.

I told my boys there was another way babies entered the world. “Sometimes, if things seem unsafe, a doctor has to cut the baby out from Mommy’s belly,” I told them. “That’s what happened with you and your brother.”

There’s nothing like a new pregnancy to spur young children to ask about their own entry into the world, and since my boys each arrived after long labors with nurse-midwives and doulas, followed by heart decelerations and hurried Cesareans, I found these questions the hardest to answer.

Was I born the wrong way? Was I sick when I was born? Did I hurt you when I came out the slice in your stomach?

I’ve been wading through my own sadness, my own lasting fear at hearing my babies’ heart rates slow until the inevitable distress surgery. I hadn’t considered how it would feel to share these birth stories with my actual babies. I can’t seem to find a way to explain without upsetting them.

After my new baby was stable, my mother left me at the hospital to pick the big boys up from daycare. My oldest and most sensitive son immediately asked, “Did they have to cut the baby out?”

He sighed deeply upon hearing they had. “Oh. Just like us.”

Our older boys came to the hospital to visit, and they felt uneasy seeing me in bed, a tangle of tubes and wheezing compression cuffs. They wanted to hug me, but couldn’t figure out a way to get up close. They walked around to my least-encumbered arm for a squeeze and a smile. As the doctor came in to check on me, my oldest asked to see his scalpel.

My kids came to visit each day in the hospital, and each time a staff member entered the room, my son asked to see the scalpel that had delivered his brother to us. Eventually, one of the midwives sat down with him to explain that the blade from the scalpel is discarded after each operation, that the handle remains in the sterile operating room, and nobody can go to see it.

Not until his question about my dying did we really understand his fear and concern about his brother’s arrival, possibly his own, too. A birth affects everyone in the family, we realized. It’s his story, too.

We saved my placenta to plant under the hydrangeas in the back yard, and when our doula came to the house to visit, she spread it on the dining room table and explained every bit of it to my wide-eyed boys. She showed them the umbilical cord where the baby was attached to me on the inside. She showed them the sac where the baby lived. She showed them the placenta that nourished the baby while he grew. Finally, she showed them the incision that cut straight through the middle of the placenta, where the obstetrician worked so quickly to bring their youngest brother Earthside.

This hands-on experience seemed to bring some closure to everyone. We showed the boys my incision and told them how every day, my body felt a little healthier. We talked about how each of them is healthy now, and how their baby brother was just fine after he got a little extra oxygen.

I tell them it’s ok to feel afraid, because remembering it all makes me feel afraid, too. Not every baby slides into the world peacefully. Thankfully, our family has lots of arms and shoulders to hug when we feel sad about that. As I press their tiny bodies to mine, I feel their hearts pounding in their chests and each day, the stinging fear of their frenzied arrival echoes with less force.

Katy Rank Lev is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. Her three feral sons inspire her work covering parenting, women’s health, and family matters. 

Photo Credit: Jeni Benz Photography

An Open Letter To My Placenta

An Open Letter To My Placenta

By Jessica Dur Taylor
0-8Dear Placenta:

You might be wondering why, nearly three months after your birthday, you are still wrapped in that indelicate red plastic, frozen solid. Each time I fetch an ice cube, I feel a pang of guilt. You, the unsung hero of birth, nestled in between the Rocky Road and the Trader Joe’s meatless corn dogs like so many bags of peas! (Then again, you don’t see me using them for bicep curls, do you?)

It’s just that I’ve been way busier than I bargained for, what with all the cloth diapering and sling-wearing and breastfeeding on demand. Has my daughter (who owes her life to you, placenta) stolen your thunder? Well, obviously.

But today is your day.

For nine and a half months you held tight to my uterine wall, kept waste and nutrients flowing in all the right directions, and blocked the stray molecules of carnauba wax and yellow #5 from infiltrating my fetus’s bloodstream. Dang those rainbow sprinkles! You did exactly what you were designed to do, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

So why, given all your awesomeness, didn’t I just eat you outright? You were delivered by a midwife in a low-light room after 22 hours of excruciating “natural” labor. Surely you figured you were headed straight for a red wine marinade and the broiler. Or at the very least dehydration. And believe me, after hearing the horror stories of postpartum depression, of new greasy-haired moms hovering under the sheets with the curtains drawn, I seriously considered having you dried out and made into handy capsules, just in case I felt myself daydreaming about putting my baby in the freezer. Or worse.

But by the time we finally met, I was too exhausted to care what happened to you, placenta. Can you really blame me? I’m a woman of average size, even after forty pounds of pregnancy weight gain. So why did I grow a ten pound baby? (Okay, to be more accurate: why did we grow a nine pound, ten and a half ounce monstrosity?) Was it my daily froyo habit? All that grass-fed beef and Dino kale?

All I know is that after pushing for four hours, until my face was swollen and my hair nearly dread-locked, I could give a rat’s bung about imprinting you on acid-free paper, the way I’d once imagined. Was I expecting to be charmed by my baby’s first bedfellow? Did I think you’d make for some artsy photos, maybe inspire a multi-media collage? Perhaps. What I didn’t expect was something resembling a giant uncooked liver, better fit for a haunted house than a matte frame.

Still, heavyweight drippy squid creature or not, you never pulled any punches. I read the disquieting What to Expect When You’re Expecting (note to self: burn it), so I’m well aware of all that could have gone wrong. Even in my post-labor semi-alert daze I knew I couldn’t let you go the way of the hazardous waste bin. You faithfully delivered the antibodies that made one healthy, alert, dare I say it, exquisite little baby–naturally, I was in awe of you both. So I lugged you home, along with my unworn nightie and uneaten snacks, with benevolent, if cloudy, intentions. The last thing I wanted for you was freezer burn!

Have you heard that in some regions of Africa the query to a stranger is not “Where are you from?” but “Where is your placenta buried?” In fact, a quick Google search reveals that burying the placenta is de rigueur all over the world. Here in California, there are more than a few lemon and olive trees growing out of placental internments, I assure you.

And so. The hole has been dug. The cupcakes are cooling. You’re defrosting in the kitchen sink. Soon you will be released from your plastic prison and returned to your natural, gooey state. Time for one last look, cord and all. I may even snap a photo or two.

Since I’ve been flummoxed about what to do with the remains of my wedding bouquet, all dried out and crumbly, I hope you won’t mind me tossing that in as well. Somehow it seems appropriate—after all, that auspicious event did essentially lead to your creation. I’ve also gathered a few heavy rocks to place on top of the burial mound, just in case the neighborhood dogs come a-sniffin’.

As for what to plant on top of you, I’m thinking something low maintenance and hassle-free, like wildflowers. May you nourish them as you nourished my sweet baby girl, and may you rest in peace, placenta, at last.

Jessica Dur Taylor teaches college composition, writes about food for the Bay Area alt-weekly the Bohemian, and makes the most of her daughter’s nap time. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Stealing Time, Prick of the Spindle, The Mom Egg, Gloom Cupboard, Hip Mama online, and others. She lives in Santa Rosa, California.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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By Beth Malone

Shield Art 2The first thing the baby does is split in two.

One half—through some miracle from beyond the fringes of the cosmos—will multiply, cells popping out of nowhere, until there are tiny fingers, shoulder joints, hammers beating in her ears, blood pummeling through her veins, the doors of her heart opening, closing, opening again. This half will write itself into a bent toward music, an aversion to crowds, a hunger for the wild things of stream and sky. She will emerge from the womb hundreds of days later to shock you with her matchlessness, the way you cannot predict or control her, the way she reflects you and then doesn’t, her being so intricate and exact, a whole person written from the code folded and tucked into that first tiny cell.

The other half will become a shield against her mother.

The baby never attaches to the mother; the shield, which is the placenta, does that. This is the barrier meant to separate the body of a baby from her mother. The blood of baby and mother never mingle. The mother shall not oppress the baby with a policy of territorialism, assaulting the alien body; and the baby shall not announce herself a foreigner in a land not her own. The shield is crucial; without it, the baby dies. This is how the system is designed.

For hundreds of days, the shield grows, red as the strength and fury of mother-love, bursting with blood. It sends out fingers to grip the mother’s veins, sucking and drawing on them, devouring her nutrients and her oxygen along with things more subtle: her anxieties, her chemical transgressions. The shield is not impervious. It is not iron erected between mother and daughter. And so the shield lets these things pass, and they transmute a baby’s brain, molding it for survival. It whispers how safe the world outside might be. Or not.

In time, the shield will grow old. Parts of it will whiten, harden, grow fibrous and tough. It is not meant to support the child forever. The way a mother passes her food and breath to baby, the way the baby presses her feet against her mother—it is not intended to be permanent.

Listen, my darling, so be sure to understand. It is not intended to be permanent.

In time, the shield grows old; it cannot sustain its position. The baby becomes impatient, cramped; there’s no more room to grow. Hell, there’s no room to turn around. Something or someone sends out a signal. Like the voice in the crowd that begins a riot, the origin is uncertain.

Right before it happens, there’s a whistling in the air, like the sound of a missile, the sound it leaves in its wake, the sound of a space no longer occupied.

And then the shells hit. The mother’s body explodes in civil war.

She will understand what is happening. She will grip her hand in the hard vice of her teeth, drawing blood. She will gasp and cringe, the shelling toppling her constructs: Now she does not feel strong. She does not feel able. She wishes to abdicate, abandon her body in exchange for peace. She begs for a bullet to the head.

The baby is malleable; she will arrange her skull into a torpedo. The mother, though, is feral with pain, unquenchable; she will tear herself to pieces to build her baby a tunnel out of that country. The baby—slicked with mother’s blood, her hands balled in fists—punches her way into the world.

She drags the shield out after her, ripping her mother open as she goes.

Some mothers eat the shield afterward. They press its pieces against their cheeks and suck. They chew and swallow. Or they package it into something sterilized, a casing of plastic, and eat it without connecting to its nature. Other mothers bury the shield, plant trees by its disintegrating body. A tree is a more permanent fixture than a child.

Me, I felt my daughter’s shield fall, pulsing, out of my body, while I held my baby girl, warm and wet, in my arms. The shield was hideous. I had expected something like a pancake and instead found myself confronted with something like the skinned body of a rabbit. I remember being truly amazed with how large it had grown. So large my baby couldn’t live there, with me, anymore.

I did not want to touch that shield. I only wanted my daughter, her body wet with my blood, streaked with vernix, warm as the sun on my breast. That night, I couldn’t sleep without her beside me.

I don’t know what happened to her shield. I assume someone threw it away.

Here is one other thing about the shield though: It does not do its job perfectly. Migrant pieces of the baby slip out of the barrier, passing silently as spies into her mother. The baby’s cells circulate the mother’s system, passing the landmarks of bone, teeth, heart. And somehow, somehow, the mother’s body does not attack them. They survive—for months, years, decades.

Maybe they swarm to the places of pain—a burgeoning tumor, a damaged heart—and there transform themselves. Their future is full of opportunity, for like stem cells, they retain the ability to choose whatever destiny they wish. They might heal a mother’s broken places. They might be her cure. Those cells that survive.

So goes one theory.

Maybe instead, those cells chafe against a mother’s bones, inflaming joints and calling for a mother’s defenses to send soldiers to the scene. The mother’s army flares up, roaring. But even though the cells of her baby are fundamentally different, written with alien DNA, the mother cannot kill them off. Instead, she fights her own body. It translates as arthritis, lupus, inexplicable autoimmune disruptions that blow her body up into a warzone. And yet, the baby’s cells survive.

There are many hypotheses. Maybe the mother keeps those cells around on purpose, because she sees potential and she has hope they might help her. Maybe she fights them but her heart isn’t really in it; there’s pain but never extermination.

Or maybe the mother’s body simply doesn’t notice them.

Scientists just don’t know. But I do.

Of course the mother notices. She only pretends not to. This is how she keeps from breaking in half.

I know this because I have held my baby girl in our rocking chair, patting her back and humming long after she fell asleep, long after she could have gone peacefully to her bed. I know this because I have nursed her just as we almost finished the terrible process of weaning, because she asked and I wanted to experience her as a baby again. I know, because one day she will pack her things in boxes, jump in a car, smile at a future stretched before her, and leave my home forever. And her room will not be her room anymore, and I know I’ll go in there and pick up the pieces she’s left behind, pieces I’ll never be able to sell at garage sales, pieces I won’t call her to come pick up. I will hug her old favorite stuffed dog to my chest, and cry into its fur the way she did when she was a baby.

Nature gave me no shield to cushion the blows of my love for her. These left-behind pieces: They are all I have.

Beth Malone is a working writer with a background in journalism. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in Literary Mama, Salon.com, Drunken Boat, U.S. Catholic, Wanderlust and Lipstick.

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