But now that I've gotten that last post out of my system, I'm feeling compelled to reign it in a bit and be...well...civilized. Special thanks go out to the calm, male voice of rationality piping into the comment thread:
Everything I knew about birth pretty much came from synthesizing hundreds of television and movie portrayals. Now that I’ve been through one successful birth process, my knowledge includes that.
I had not one inkling of what happens with stillbirth and the related processes until I read this blog. I hope you can forgive the sins of the ignorant, because there’s just so little information out there. It’s not a common conversation topic, and I’ve never heard of stillbirth featured in a movie or sitcom.
That’s one reason why these blogs are important. Many readers are all too familiar with the heartbreak and reality of stillbirth, but many of us never had a clue.
Blogs are a great place to vent about common frustrations. But also, I'm pretty sure he's right: that most people don't mean to be insensitive our women's past KuKd experiences, that the "sins of the ignorant" ought to be forgiven. How could people understand? They can't, of course - which is one of the things that makes miscarriage/stillbirth such a lonely and confusing experience: there are just so many things in there that the world doesn't get. So we're forced to work through it on our own minds, and bitch about it in places like this.
Anyway, Chris' comment got me thinking: why not just put it out there and explain this thing that I wish others understood? That is, use this blog as...an educational tool of sorts? Maybe - just maybe - someone who hasn't been through it before will read it, and have a little bit better an understanding than before. And maybe, somewhere down the line, that little bit of understanding will have a positive effect for somebody else.
Here goes nothin.' I'm going out on a limb here with all kinds of general platitudes and "you" instead of "I," so correct me if I miss or misconstrue anything.
* * *
It's one of those extra logistical matters slapped on a stillbirth-mommy by the doctor, no less surprising for us than for you: when a pregnancy ends, the fetus or baby must be expelled. And if the baby has developed into anything beyond a floating blob of blob-ness, that means going into labor, whether naturally or induced.
I'm not talking about some special, less jarring, more merciful variety of labor that Mother Nature reserves for stillbirth mommies. Indeed, one would think that modern doctors would have some trick up their sleeves to allow you to avoid such a dramatically painful, physically challenging "end" to your life as a pregnant woman - especially when you've just had the emotional wind knocked out of you. But no, they say. It's best for everyone - including your own internal organs - if you undergo labor the straight-up old-fashioned way; the heavy-duty, screaming-and-shitting-yourself-while-your-partner-stands-by-dumbfounded way.
With good reason, you wonder how your life reached this level of surreal horror in the past 24 hours. Nobody - your mother and grandma, your childbirth classes that you may or may not have taken, your now-useless What to Expect pregnancy bible, your sex-ed teacher from junior high - ever taught you how the fuck to do this particular...thing. You've never seen it on TV or in movies, so you've no pop-culture knowledge to draw from.
Yet amazingly: you find yourself suddenly knowing with primitive certainty that you can do this, and you will - because Mother Nature wouldn't ask you to perform the impossible. That's the remarkable thing that dead-baby labor teaches you:
Humans are capable of doing a whole damned lot.
Armed with that knowledge, it's time to grit your teeth, strap on your workboots and gloves, and get the fuck going. Nobody is going to push this baby out of your vajayjay for you.
* * *
Good news: you do have a bit of help along the way, aside from the casseroles already stacking up on your distant front porch from well-meaning friends and neighbors.
The most prominent "help" is the formation of a temporary, translucent blanket of numbness around brain. This film of numbness (which has been unscientifcally proven to last longer in men than in women) is one of your body's most brilliant natural survival mechanisms, for it enables you to stop thinking and feeling just long enough to focus instead on this final, painful task at hand. Think of it as a shield of sorts, blocking - for the time being anyway - the black tidalwave of grief lapping at your ankles and threating to pull you under. It keeps you afloat in the short term. Without it, nothing would ever get done in this world.
There are also various forms of "help" for kicking your confused-as-all-hell body into baby-expulsion mode. Some women prefer the "scenic route:" that is, waiting for her body to discover on its own that oh yeahhh! I get it! I'm supposed to get RID of this now! Other, less patient types (like me) prefer the faster and efficient (although much less scenic) "interstate route" to labor. And that, of course, means things like pills lodged between your gum and cheek, and seaweed sticks shoved up your vag. Yes, seaweed sticks. Don't ask me what these do; it's something involving the cervix. And certainly don't ask me how someone invented this as a labor-inducing method, what ancient Chinese woman was experimentally sticking things up there "just to see what happens."
* * *
Welcome to the danger zone: this slow-motion window of time after news that you won't be getting your living child, but before labor has begun. Even with these meds, going into labor can take hours, days, even longer. During this time, you've nothing to do but lie around in a hospital room and wait. And think. And feel. And rest your hand longingly on your still-bulging-but-now-unmoving belly. And watch cheezy infomercials in the middle of the night - lots of grinning elderly people with white dentures. How depressing.
Not surprisingly, it's during this lag time that your treasured "temporary blanket of numbness around the brain" can falter, slipping down and exposing your psyche to the cold, harsh wind of reality, the magnitude of your loss. On and off, you bawl. Your partner is by your side instantly, clutching your hand, dealing with grief in his own way - but ultimately you two are alone on separate islands for a while as you work through this in your heads.
Sleeping through the night is difficult if not impossible. Nurses slip in and out of your room to adjust various wires connected to you, waking you from half-sleep. A few of them look you in the eye but most don't. Either they've been in the business too long to still feel compassion, or the sight of your still-bulging belly makes them uncomfortable. Friends and visitors might come by to see you, too. They'll look at you, right in the eye - but not at your belly either, because they can't. It's like the elephant in the middle of the room that nobody wants to talk about, gone from a symbol of life to a symbol of death in an instant.
It's no wonder you can't keep your grief at bay during this time. You wish these seaweed sticks would hurry the fuck up and do their job.
* * *
And then, labor itself. No point in going into that here. It's just like any other labor, for the most part. The cramping, the breathing, the pushing, the groaning, the epidural (for some of us), the partner hovering above you, the hoping the sight of a bloody infant and its accoutrements coming out of you doesn't ruin your sex life forever.
The only difference between this and "real labor" is that, at the end, something big and three-dimensional and quiet slips out of you, instead of something screaming and writhing around. The placenta comes out afterward, this gigantic disk of tissue. The nurses whisper as they whisk these things away while your head falls back on your sweaty pillow. The air feels heavy and static, sad. Even the doctors, the old crusty ones who've seen everything, have grim looks on their faces. Nobody throws confetti or brings foil-wrapped chocolate cigars in pastel pink or blue; nobody's snapping pictures on their cell phones; nobody's making mad phone calls to friends and family to share the glorious news. Everyone is just glad its over, and wishes things could be different. The communal sense of that is palpable.
You're exhausted but relieved, astounded at the capabilities of your female body, and your partner is clutching you in your arms and pretty much loving and admiring you more than he ever has before. On his pyramid of needs, your survival comes before the baby's - and now that he's seen you make it through this physical hurdle, he knows that the two of you will ultimately survive.
* * *
What happens in the end is different for everyone. Some women hold the baby, as we're told again and again that we should. Some don't. Just about all stillbirth-mommies, though, can't wait to get home. The job of that "temporary blanket of numbness around the brain" is now done, and you can feel it shedding quickly as reality hits you. Time to go and begin what will be the much, much harder job of grappling psychologically with this death of someone you love, perhaps one of the most confusing and misunderstood sorts of death in the world.
The good news is that, having now made it past this physical hurdle, you know deep down you'll survive this part too. Delivering one's dead offspring turns out to be one of the most intensely beautiful, macabre, transformative, awe-inspring, humanizing experiences a woman can possibly have.