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It’s Been 5 Years: A Mom Processes Her Son’s Birth Story

Submitted by Rita Brhel on 31 May 2023

This morning, it snowed in Seattle. It reminded me of the night Max was born, almost exactly five years ago, when it was sunny and rainy and windy and then, in the middle of the night when we were upside-down with time and date, we looked out the window and saw snow swirling around. I don't remember much about those early days and hours, but I do remember the snow.

Five years ago, newly pregnant, my husband and I were full of expectation and wonder at how much our lives were about to change. Like many mothers-to-be, I was fixated on the labor and delivery part of this journey. I felt somewhat confident the newborn challenges would be manageable, but I knew the labor and birth were all on me. I diligently took the birth classes, read the books, talked to our midwife, and hired a doula.

The one piece of information from our birth class I recalled in the middle of a long and arduous labor was the phrase: "Transition is usually the shortest and most intense phase of labor, lasting about 30 minutes on average." 

Labor Detoured

When I arrived at the hospital birthing center, 24 hours into labor with Max and nearly fully dilated, I heard the nurses' whispers: "Transition; she's in transition." Five hours later, I was still "in transition," and nothing I had learned in class seemed applicable anymore. 

It would be another seven hours before Max would make his appearance in the world. During those hours before Max was born, a lot of things happened. 

It turned out that not only was he a "sunny-side-up baby" whose head position was causing me tremendous back labor, but he was also tipping his head back and up as though arching backwards to see us. Knowing him as I do now, this fit with his determined, strong, curious personality. At the time, however, it put us in a challenging position.

We ended up needing almost every intervention possible, despite our boldest attempts to avoid them. At the climax of the emotionally charged day, the obstetrician who'd been called in to assist told me I had three choices: vacuum, forceps, or Cesarean section. I opted for the first and second choices. 

I knew that a C-section was a major abdominal surgery, so we opted for the less invasive interventions first. I felt like we were prepared, well-supported, and certainly all ready to meet Max. 

As it turned out, the vacuum did not work, despite two attempts, so the doctor turned to the forceps. It was 5:30 p.m. on a Monday. The room filled with people, reminding me of a circus car with clowns climbing out, except this was not funny. Nurses, another obstetrician, two pediatricians, the anesthesiologists, and our doula filed somberly into the room. The next 30 minutes were a blur of pain, tears, hope, and a deep longing within me for Max to arrive safely and all of this  to just be over.

At 6:01 p.m., nearly 36 hours after active labor started, Max was born. 

Motherhood Born in Fear

I kept asking, "Is he okay?" and crying, "I'm so sorry, baby," over and over again. Specialists whisked him off to be examined. I later learned they had been fearful that they might have had to resuscitate him.

It was incredible how a single day could be both so joyous and terrifying. 

It would be many more weeks before I healed and many more weeks before poor Max, with his huge, cone-shaped head with bruises from  the vacuum and  forceps, would heal, too. Our midwife called him a "warrior" who had "been through the war."

I Am Still Grieving

I sometimes feel like I am cheating Max, because every year, as his birthday rolls around, I do not always feel joy and excitement. While there is grief in remembering our birth story, I am excited that he is growing older and doing more interesting things and blossoming into this amazing young person. 

Aging is bittersweet; when we are young, we don't realize it is happening. When we are old enough to appreciate it, many years have already passed. Didn't someone once say that "youth is wasted on the young"?

My emotions have been all over the map these past few days. My recent trip to California with just Max was important and wonderful. I am glad we made the time to do that together, but coming home was harder because all the stress of life was still here, waiting for me. 

This week, we hit the ground running: work and school and laundry and classes and planning his preschool birthday celebration. There was also his friends and family birthday party to plan and my thinking that hosting it at our house would somehow make it simpler. Good grief, what was I thinking? 

Now, here we are, on the precipice of his last day as a 4 year old. I know that tomorrow night, when I kiss him goodnight, he will still be the same Max he was today and the same Max that will wake up Sunday morning.

While his birthday is a celebratory day of Max and one that ultimately should bring us joy, it also marks an anniversary for me of one of the hardest and most difficult days of my life. It's complicated when the day that is supposed to be one of the highlights of my life is also one of my greatest hurts. I tell my students and my children frequently that you can feel two emotions in the same moment. For me, Max's birthday is the holding of two emotions, if not more. 

Time Has Allowed Healing

The further out I get from his actual birth, paradoxically the more I seem to recall. It has taken many months and several of his birthdays for me to realize that what happened the day he was born was not my "fault." It has taken me that long to find ways to have empathy for myself and our shared experience, but it hasn't been easy.

Yesterday in the car, I was listening to the kids' radio station and a song came on by the Okie Dokie Brothers called "Along for the Ride." The song, about life and traveling down a river, gets to one lyric that says how I will go along for the ride if, "child, you'll be my guide." I started crying right here in the car. 

I thought about how much I have learned about myself and life from being a parent to Max. I have learned a lot about parenting, too, but I do not think this evolution of self would have ever occurred for me, had I not had the birth experience I did with Max and had I never been Mom to Max. 

I realized how much Max is truly my guide, even though I am his parent. I cannot navigate these waters without understanding him, and every day he shows me how to do that better.

As the Hard Memories Fade...

Every day that we continue down this road, we also get further from the starting point. Mostly, that's okay, because it means leaving behind something painful and scary and sad, but also it is painful and scary and sad to leave it, because it means Max is further from being that tiny baby who fell asleep on my chest, who cried for us so often in the night, who fell in love with trains before he was even 2 years old. 

I keep thinking I will remember all this, and some of it I may, but much of it slips away as I make space in my mind for new memories.

This is the crux of parenting: not the diaper changing and the spitting up and the messes and the tantrums, but the shifting of older memories and experiences to make room for the new, and us trying to hold on to them just a little longer, to glean a little more of the sweetness of our babies, before they slip away and turn 5. 

How long has it been since your child's birth? How many times have you shared your birth story with others? How do you continue to celebrate the good and work through the challenges? 


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