Rethinking Fiona’s First Minute

I’m reading a book called HOME/BIRTH: A Poemic, by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker. It’s a fascinating book-length essay, largely about the culture of American hospital births and the harm they can do to babies and women. It’s also a manifesto in favor of home births.

I had hospital births. With both my kids, I arrived at the hospital fully dilated and an hour away from popping my babies out. Because I arrived so late in both labors, I didn’t experience the kinds of hospital interventions and treatments that the book I’m reading rails against: inductions, fetal monitoring, episiotomies, multiple strangers “checking me”. . . . To me, a hospital is a wonderful place to pop a baby out because it’s like a sparsely decorated hotel with mediocre room service and free laundering. For a person who hates domestic chores, I considered these services major pluses.

But the book, Home/Birth, is making me rethink my births. Namely, it’s making me rethink one particular moment from Fiona’s birth, a moment that perhaps initiated my course as her mother in ways I haven’t acknowledged.

I read in the book that the first moments following a birth can profoundly affect a mother’s relationship to her child. This claim is nothing new, and it initially makes me want to say Meh. The claim puts an awful lot of pressure on those first minutes, and I shrug off that kind of pressure. Life is messy. Funky things happen. Nothing is perfect. Humans are resilient. People recover.

But the claim made me recall Fiona’s first moments. I birthed her in a warm pool, and the midwife lifted her out of the water and dangled her above my body. “She’s a little peanut,” she said, but I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so yet-unnamed Fiona just looked like a peanut-shaped blob.

That wasn’t the troublesome moment. The troublesome moment happened a second after. “Cut the chord,” the midwife told my husband.

“I thought we were going to wait until…” my husband said, thinking of our birth plan, of my request to keep the chord intact until later.

“Cut it now!” she said, full of urgency. Then the midwife whisked Fiona away.

It was a simple moment. I’d written in the birth plan that I wanted my baby on my chest immediately following birth, but no birth goes according to plan. Besides, the midwife was concerned. She did for yet-unnamed Fiona what she thought was best.

But here’s the thing: my spontaneous, unmedicated waterbirth was followed, not by celebration, not by the Woo-hoo, Great job Momma, She’s here!, but by a certain wave of hushed concern that smelled like static. The wave brought a phrase that hung above the room like a stained drop ceiling: Something is wrong.

Her Apgar scores were 8 and 9.

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Something is wrong.

As best I can tell, they whisked Fiona away simply because she was underweight. Her color was fine. Her breathing was fine. She just didn’t measure up on the chart.

Something is wrong.

She would never, will never, measure up on the chart. Nothing is wrong. But I didn’t know any of that then.

I got out of the tub, shivering violently from the shift of hormones, and hobbled to a bed. I lay down. Fiona was being examined on a table behind my head. A nurse stayed with me. I asked what you’d expect a new mother to ask when her baby is whisked away. Is she okay? I asked the nurse. What’s wrong? Is something wrong?

The nurse didn’t answer. The nurse’s silence was uncertainty. The nurse’s silence was a Maybe.

Something is wrong.

But even when asking the question—Is she okay?—I noticed I’d turned half-numb. And I’d turned half-numb the second they took my baby from me. I’d felt the rejection in the room. I’d internalized it. I’d given myself a mini epidural.

They scored her, checked her, and eventually handed her back to me. I got to put her on my bare chest like I’d requested.

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But reconsidering Fiona’s first minutes, I realize that Home/Birth’s claim is right: the first minute had mattered. It had mattered a great deal because it had sent me a powerful message. And as fiercely as I carried a love and protectiveness for my newborn daughter home with me–evidenced by my anger at the Mack trucks speeding past our vehicle–I also brought some of that message of rejection home. She’s too small. Something’s wrong.

She was small. Very small. Nothing was wrong. No hospital would understand this. No medical community’s lenses will ever grasp this. You have to put on other glasses to see this. Ones you use to gaze at the irregular twinkle of the Northern star. It took me months. Maybe it took me a year.

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Nothing is wrong.

When Kelle Hampton, author of Bloom, had her second baby, the pediatrician came to talk to her about what the doctor suspected was Down syndrome. The doctor said, “The first thing I’m going to tell you is that your daughter is beautiful and perfect.” Then she said yes, she suspected Down syndrome.

Had the midwife allowed me to keep my baby on my chest immediately following birth, I think she would have helped me hear that message from minute one. Your daughter is beautiful and perfect.

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It’s okay. No birth is perfect. Humans are resilient. I recovered.

What I mean is, I’m not harping on this. I don’t wish I birthed elsewhere. All worked out fine. But if the midwife had followed my birth plan, I don’t think I would have had to work quite so hard to construct that truth in the weeks and months–in the year–that followed. Your daughter is beautiful and perfect.  I think that message would have been delivered to me, along with my baby, right into my arms.
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8 thoughts on “Rethinking Fiona’s First Minute

  1. That’s beautiful. I think about my birth story often, and I have written a few versions of it. None feel right or true. Maybe your words will help me craft something that works.

  2. Twenty years later, I still go over my daughter’s birth. While it wasn’t then that we knew “something was wrong,” it was an induced birth, traumatic and not even close to the one I had imagined: natural. There was never any danger, but I came home with my baby feeling traumatized and unable to articulate that because she was “fine,” and healthy. As a writer and a storyteller, I know that I’ve used that birth as a sign or symbol, a metaphor that’s followed us for many years. This is a beautiful post that I will think about for a long time. Thank you.

  3. Looking at the picture of Fiona looking up at you with her little hand under her face, one that I have seen before, is absolutely beautiful and shows what is now known, as seen in the current pictures posted, nothing is wrong…. she is sweet, God-given Fiona.

  4. Elizabeth sent me here. I am a midwife and I attend home births and birth center births that are not connected to a hospital. My own second child was home born as was my grandson. And so many babies after 42 years of this work. The way we’re born does matter. As you know. Who is there, what is said, the emotional climate of the room. It’s all important in that timeless space directly after the baby emerges ready to be held and spoken to and loved…there is no other experience like it. Penny Simkin’s work speaks to our memories of the birth days of our children. We remember and I think our children do too.

    The photos of your daughter are wonderful. What a sweet little face. Yes, some babies are big and some are small and some have DS and they are all perfect. All of them.

    Thank you for writing what you did. For me, being there to preserve what is our right as parents literally guides my hands and my heart. We birth professionals need to get out of the way and let the unfolding happen. Because it’s sacred.

    Bless you.

    ~Beth

  5. Everything you write leaves me breathless with joy and appreciation that you write. A circular dynamic, that.

    Beautiful sentences married to smart content are hard to come by. Thank you for feeding my brain.

  6. I never had the baby to chest moment either. I saw my son very briefly before he was intubated and taken up to NICU by the neonatal team. (Quick aside in the “things you find out” folder – my image of birth was 1-2 people in the room besides me and my husband. I had about 15 – the neonatal team, the anaesthesia team, the surgical team. Cast of thousands. Thank God I didn’t have twins, then there would likely have been 20 people in there.) I did have the “he’s perfect” moment though, in that brief time they held him up for me to see. And then he let out a loud wail, and I went “he’ll be OK”. (I have a surprisingly touching faith in medical science, as it turns out.)

    I think where I was fortunate was that I knew from 22 weeks that if he could hold on long enough he would be born prematurely. The fear was always that we wouldn’t get far enough, that the placenta would fail too early. So for him to be born alive and to then cry was so much of a miracle to start with that him being a perfectly formed extremely tiny baby was just icing really. The other way in which I was really lucky was the support from medical staff – there was a midwife whose entire job was to let us know what was happening during the birth, the high risk obstetrician talked to us several times before and after, the neonatologist came up and answered questions, we had weekly meetings at the start in NICU, the midwives listened and answered questions and wheeled me to NICU before (so I had some idea of where my son would hopefully go) and after he was born (before I was able to walk the distance.) It did make a difference coming from the high risk pregnancy side of things – my birth plan contracted to “have live baby”, my long term goals contracted to “get to tomorrow’s scan”, “one more day in utero” and then “there is only today, and maybe tomorrow.” As I said, I was fortunate – he made it both into and home from NICU, and everything since then has been much less stressful in comparison. (This doesn’t stop me bitching though.. I suspect nothing bar death will do that!)

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