The Position We Were In

appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Summer 2017, selected as a Notable essay in The Best American Essays 2018

The Midwives

I had nine of them, an army of midwives. I was warned that when I went into labor, whomever delivered my baby was whomever was on duty, so it was my responsibility to book appointments with all of the midwives over the course of my pregnancy in an effort to meet each one. Each visit, I took in the new face like a Rorschach, my interpretation of their haircut or earrings a reflection of my chaotic emotional state. Thirty-three weeks. That’s when they started writing breech on my charts.

My baby was frank breech, which is one of three types of breech presentation. Complete and incomplete breech were the folding of either one or two legs underneath the body like a little Buddha in lotus position. My baby was folded in half, like a boomerang. Feet tucked into the top of my belly, he was butt down rather than head down the way he was expected to be at thirty-three weeks, unable to shoot out into the world with relative ease.

I imagined the manically compliant human cannonballs on Looney Tunes, stuffed into a cannon, or the spaceships on TV during my childhood, slowly rotating toward the sky, magnetized toward momentous launch. Something had stalled him, and just like in the movies, red hazard lights started flashing in the control room. Mission control wanted to know if there were astronauts with cold feet or a misfire in the engine. Late in pregnancy, the body secretes hormones that trigger the baby to turn. Was I lacking? Or was this his rebellion? Was he sitting up already, head above heart, evolved proudly past babyhood? It was the summer of 2015, leading up to an election year: looking back, it seemed entirely possible that he just didn’t want to face it all.

The midwives weren’t worried. Babies turn all the time, they reassured me, even right before labor. I let them lull me at every appointment. And yet from that point on, I wanted to learn to see for myself. I knew how to press cantaloupes to predict if their flesh was fresh, why not this? I would drink a glass of ice cold water, lie on my side and put my hands on my belly, and wait for something to move. I thought I felt him kicking in the top of my stomach, which was opposite to where he should have been kicking by then. But I also felt movement near the bottom of my stomach, which indicated he might have turned. And then there were a couple knobs around my belly button—head or hip bone? —which I gently cupped and pressed, waiting to see if he shifted. 

What was that cartoon in which the character lit a candle next to an egg to reveal the silhouette of a baby chick? I never did attain the primordial knowledge of my baby’s position at any given time, even though I stumbled upon what is called “belly mapping” online, where women are taught techniques to ‘read’ placement and stand proudly with their belly painted in vibrant colors. Feminist and poetic, they translated the felt into the seen. Like newborns posted on Facebook, these babies didn’t know that they were being exposed to the world, but the curve of their spines connoted yin and yang, as if they were spinning in complete acceptance of our need to know. 

Midwives generally don’t give scans very often, preferring less invasiveness and unneeded intervention, so I never had a scan at a routine appointment. Instead, they rubbed a jelly-covered wand on my belly to listen to the heartbeat. Their philosophy was the more you know, the more you stress, often needlessly, yet I suspected that the midwives could be mute fortune tellers at times, reading a belly and withholding what they portended. 

“The heartbeat was great but he is in breech presentation,” one said. 

I couldn’t believe I only had seven more weeks to get him to turn. Why hadn’t they told me earlier?

When I asked about the availability of a scanner, the pregnant midwife said it was stored in the next room, and sheepishly admitted that she couldn’t resist giving herself a scan every once in awhile.

 

The Birthing Class Leader

I liked her right away. She wasn’t afraid to say that the birthing class offered at the hospital was fine, covered the basics, but didn’t address the “feelings and fears we may bring to the birthing process.” She was the type of speaker who zoomed in and looked audience members directly in the eyes as she spoke, which made you think she had a secret message intended especially for you.

I signed up for her birthing class soon thereafter, and every Wednesday evening my husband and I hiked up industrial stairs to the roar of the nearby Chicago train and sat on the floor in a circle of calico pillows with other tired future parents. We started by writing our deepest fears on index cards and she addressed each of the comments anonymously, reading our words slowly as if translating them from a foreign language.

Her voice contained a combination I hadn’t heard before: a sing song kindergarten teacher and steely professor, steeped in righteous indignation.  The body and the word were of equal importance to her. One minute she was on hands and knees on the carpeted floor demonstrating hip circles, the next she was lecturing with a straight regal neck in her chair:

“Never let anyone call it a c section. You’re not being sectioned off like a piece of meat. It is a cesarean birth.”

While we were taught that a successful birth was more a mystery of the body than the result of a detailed birth plan, the class consisted of about 90% lecture and 10% physical movement. We sat still for long periods, our brains cooking with contingencies: What if the doctor pushed Pitocin? What if they cut the cord too soon? What if the nurses try to use a fetal heart monitor? 

One night, she set up seven stations and we were asked to traverse around the room. Like planets in a confused solar system, we swayed while holding onto belts of fabric or bounced on yoga balls, our partners our tentative moons, shyly bringing hands to our waists, even though we all knew that touching got us here.

I had never seen a birthing video until she showed us one on the final day of class. The crowd was a bit sparse that night. The landing page on the DVD had the different couples’ names in fluorescent letters and our leader excitedly hovered over one title like a teenager wanting to play us their favorite song.

“This one is really remarkable; notice how hands-off that doctor is, how he trusts the couple.”

We watched a beautiful woman sway in pain and give birth without medication, in a squatting position, the baby slowly inching out. I teared up in the dimmed room.

We graduated that night, educated yet clueless. She stood near the door, dispensing hugs. 

“Send your birth story!”

 

The Librarian

Years ago, a librarian gave presentations to the college writing classes I taught, as a part of the routine orientation. She talked fast, had messy short hair and I later found out she moonlighted as an actor. From time to time, if I happened to see her sitting at the Research Help desk, we would end up having long rambling conversations about books and theatre. Sometimes, she awkwardly looked over my shoulder, at a student waiting in line behind me.

When I got pregnant, I began stopping by the help desk on my way out of work. She had told me about her two-year-old and when I finally found out that my son was a breech baby, she said that her son was, too. The process was exhausting for her, as she tried everything to get him to move, to no avail. I asked her about the concern that breech babies are at risk of developing hip dysplasia and she assured me that there was nothing to worry about and that her son was completely normal.

At some point during my late night breech baby research, I found an unpublished dissertation that investigated the connection between maternal education level attainment and the frequency of breech presentation: the article posited that the higher the level of maternal education, the more likely one was to have a breech baby.

Of course, correlation was not causation and the research methodology was fuzzy, but the article did make me smile. And since a part of me did feel slightly responsible for my upside-down baby, my calculating mind began adding things up: I had a master’s degree. The librarian had two master’s degrees. Anecdotally, in my family, my engineer Mensa member cousin had two epically difficult labors that resulted in cesareans, despite having attempted to prime her body and mind with an expensive program called Hypnobabies.  Her older sister never attended college and had all six of her children vaginally, all within a couple of hours. 

I went by the help desk to show the librarian the unpublished dissertation but she wasn’t there. I asked around for her, but couldn’t recall her name. I described her infectious laugh and wild hair.

 

The Acupuncturist

Moxibustion is a traditional Chinese therapy that involves burning mugwort near different meridians of the body in order to stimulate circulation. From my research, I found that moxibustion is believed to be one of the more efficacious methods to turn a breech baby, so I was excited to try it, especially after getting my mugwort sticks tucked inside a box painted with gold Chinese letters. 

The acupuncturist pulled a book off the shelf and opened to the advice: moxibustion can begin at thirty-four weeks and should take place twice a day for a week, followed by a week off. She kindly offered to meet with me, so she could demonstrate and prepare me to do it on my own. 

“Just hover it, and pull it away. Hover, pull away.”

I laid on a stiff cot as she held what looked like a cigar stick, complete with a cherry red ember, near my pinkie toe. Just as my skin began stinging with pain, she pulled away, to give me a break. Within no time, she was back at the toe again, repeating the same cycle for ten minutes before switching to the other foot. She had sleek brown hair, cat eye makeup and elegant hands.

I later religiously burned myself in my living room, breaking out the clandestine supplies, hoping that no one knocked on the door: crackling cellophane wrappers, lighters, the ashtray I made out of a mason jar with a lid to smother the evidence when I was finished. I put my foot up on my coffee table, as if I was going to paint my toenails, but my giant belly got in the way and I strained to reach. I used to enjoy playing with ashes and fires and paraphernalia when I burned incense or smoked pot in the middle of my living room in college, but I was much larger now, and older. Moxibustion was negatively affecting my social life and hurt my back. I wondered if my neighbors smelled anything.

Near the end, I recruited my husband to do the duty, and put my foot up on pillows luxuriously, preparing to savor a break. This lasted two minutes because he didn’t know my pinkie toe the way the acupuncturist or I did: he got too close and I howled in pain.  

The acupuncturist never let me pay for the sticks and I never had a chance to tell her if they worked. I owe her a note.

 

The Chiropractor

If babies constantly shift in the belly and may turn at any time, who is to say that any one technique has any efficacy? Like those cute amber necklaces people put on their babies to relieve teething pain, the Webster chiropractic technique is supposed to work miracles, though after shelling out seventy dollars for a visit, I was just happy for the fantastic massaging she did to my lower back. I felt euphoric for hours, and when I reported this to her and her receptionist in unrestrained terms, she laughed but seemed taken aback, as she was applying a method, not a massage.

I found the technique on a list of suggested ways to turn your baby, and Googled around Chicago to find a person who offered it. Her office was in the busy Loop district, and I had to pay a lot for a parking spot. Once face down on the table, I noticed that everything about the chiropractor contrasted my current condition: her upbeat chattiness, her dexterity as she flitted around me like a bumble bee, zeroing in on a part of my body and invading my space for our mutual benefit. She didn’t have kids but made an effort to relate by telling me about her aspiration to be the cool aunt, shifting me on the table and punctuating her sentences with downward thrusts to my body. Instead of responding to things she said, I was forced to simply grunt.

After two adjustments, she called me a few times and left voicemails. 

“Hi there, just wondering how you are feeling…” 

Like most chiropractors, she recommended that I see her at least three times a week for best results, but the baby was not turning. I needed to move on to different, less expensive methods. I listened to her voicemails with dread, knowing I would never see nor speak to her again.

 

The Home Depot Associate

I sat on a metal rack, eyes closed, waiting for him to cut me a long piece of wood. Then, with a wood plank poking high out of the end of my cart, I asked him to help me out to my car. He gave me a weird look, but we ended up chatting through the parking lot and as he hoisted the wood into my car, he told me how much he hated his job, that all the other employees expected him to pick up the slack. I drove home with a piece of wood circumventing my Honda Civic, nearly taking out my rearview mirror.

From thirty-two weeks until thirty-nine weeks when I gave up, I had a ramp propped up against my couch in my living room, as instructed on some website. I laid there twice a day for at least twenty minutes at a time, longer if I accidentally fell asleep. I was an ascetic, seeking purity through lengthy daily inversions, except for my lack of grace getting up: belly pushed boobs into face when I turned my feet upward. I breathed deeply and attempted to meditate as my face turned red.

The hope was that by pushing him toward my ribs and restricting his space, the baby would naturally migrate toward the bottom of my belly and turn in the process. Would he instinctively imitate living things that travel when cramped? A mole pushing toward light, bees funneling from tight nest into tree cavity, a school of minnows escaping a net?

Or crammed toward my heart, would he pretend to be asleep, like a teenager refusing to get up for school? 

 

The Therapist

I found myself speaking in breathy, never ending sentences the moment I sat down in her wingback chair, as if an actor performing a monologue. As I went on, her brows progressively knit tighter, she wrapped her weaved fingers around her crossed knee and one of her brown riding boots bounced in impatience.

“My greatest weakness is surfacing in a big way: blaming myself for the things that happen around me and in response, shoring up even more will and resources to see if I can turn the circumstances around. I guess you could call it an internal locus of control…if I did something differently, things would have turned out differently: maybe, if my thyroid levels would have been normal, my son would have turned…but what about external locus of control? What about the unique cultural forces at play on women pregnant in 2015: a distrust of the medical industry paired with a plentitude of information available online…and let’s not forget more women isolated from their families and people who might pass on a stronger sense of comfort…”

For the first time in my extensive history of talk therapy, a therapist interrupted me, broke the third wall.

“I had two cesareans and don’t have any remorse. It is all ancient history, actually. In fact, I am now focused on helping one of my sons navigate the social pressures of middle school.  I think there is too much attention and energy tacked onto the birthing process.”

She was the middle school biology teacher who saw that I was too zoomed in with my microscope, taking in the frightful hair of zygotes. She brought my hand to the knob and helped me to see a larger picture, the entire system of my cell.

 

The Pool Regular

She was always there and I could not get her to meet my eyes. Resting her neck in the semi-circle of a pool noodle, she sent ripples across her lane as she imperceptibly paddled from end to end. Her eyes seemed to be leveled toward the point of infinity and I wistfully realized I would never again be that profoundly alone. 

Every other day at around 11 am, I approached the balmy platform of the community gym pool in an ugly maternity bathing suit, scoped out my lane and hoped there wasn’t anyone around. 

And there usually wasn’t, just the mystical pool regular’s floating head, some big bellied men taking in the scene from the hot tub, and a group of older ladies doing aerobics in a corner of the shallow end. 

I was there with a mission: to do the suggested baby-turning pool handstands. The problem was, I was never going to succeed: I could barely take a deep satisfying breath above water, so my three attempts to merely reach and linger at the bottom of the pool resulted in heart palpitations. 

So instead, I did my invented ‘dolphin dives:’ shooting to the bottom of the water and then shooting to the top, over and over again, hoping that this would shift the baby. I mostly just created lots of waves and probably annoyed the pool regular.

Everywhere I had read that swimming helped babies turn and yet at some point I realized I was called to the water for myself. I finally resigned, paddling and periscoping my head into the humid pool room, becoming momentarily singular, my belly hiding underwater.

The Doula

“Women need ritual to process a birth…you enter the birth a maiden, and walk away a mother…” 

Well, she was twenty-four and I was thirty-six, so I certainly wasn’t a maiden, but we spoke the same language. I admired her verve.

Two months before my due date, she visited our apartment for the final appointment and barely drank the water we offered her; she was so excited to be there. Her skin shimmered from both sweat and the frenetic energy it contained. She had a list of things to cover: expectations for birth, do I respond to essential oils, what would my husband offer as comfort measures? 

We were busy checking items off the list, sitting cross legged on the floor, when seemingly out of nowhere she began moaning with increased intensity. Then she closed her eyes, got very quiet and looked at us earnestly. 

“How did that feel for you? Don’t fear the sounds that come up during labor.”

A week or two later, I emailed her that I had scheduled a cesarean. She immediately sent me a link about releasing disappointment surrounding getting a cesarean, which mostly just made me wonder if I should be more disappointed about getting a cesarean. She also sent an Amazon link to Earth Mama ointment for cesarean incisions, which I purchased but barely used because I couldn’t bear to look at the incision. And by the time I was able to look, it had healed on its own.

My dear doula still attended the birth, but since they wouldn’t let her in the OR, she stayed after to help me breastfeed in my hospital room. She also calmed my husband down after he nearly fainted while watching the nurses put my IV in.

 

The Obstetricians

The first was a brisk man, with bushy expressive eyebrows and shots of red on his cheeks and nose. He gave me a scan, examined me quickly and said, “Yep, he’s frank breech. And he has been in that position for awhile.”

When I found out my son was breech a week prior, my midwives told me it was time to meet the OB. They warned me that he was a bit lacking in bedside manner.

 “But rest assured, he is a really good surgeon.” 

And they were right, on both counts. He felt up my stomach and said, “I don’t think he’ll move on his own. You can schedule a cesarean right now—I will just need to look at my calendar.” 

I started crying. I felt guilty for scheduling the baby to come out before labor naturally happened. “Poor baby might not want to come out early.”

He took this as his cue to exit and called over his shoulder, “Well, let me know what date you want.” 

My therapist later said, “He’s a surgeon. You don’t need puppies and flowers. You need a damn good surgeon.” 

I surrendered and got the date I wanted in the surgeon’s calendar. We knew our son’s birthday weeks ahead of time. September twenty-first. Leonard Cohen’s birthday. The night before, we went out for Indian food and a beach walk, taking hours-before-becoming-parents selfies.

I suppose I was in denial or assumed the numbing epidural would be a cure-all, but I entered the OR in shock upon finding out I would be fully awake for the surgery. I laid on the table, rubber curtain drawn from my waist to the ceiling, shivering violently as I waited for them to begin. I counted the voices behind the curtain: five people? I turned to my husband and asked him to say positive, uplifting things into my ear and to not stop until we met our son. He diligently started and it worked for awhile, but soon I was panicking and yelled for some meds: “Laughing gas? Something to make me not aware?” 

The anesthesiologist came around the curtain and patted my arm, blew me off. It didn’t escape me that his rate was by far the largest on the itemized bill we would later receive from the hospital.

Then, behind the curtain, the energy became electric as someone entered the room. He said hello and everyone began bantering as if it was cocktail hour. It was the second OB, whom I had never met. He sounded vaguely like Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, I was lying there, taking in my husband’s new age free association poem and waiting for their conversation to turn toward my procedure. When it finally began, I didn’t feel a thing except some tugging at the end, but heard the bushy eye browed OB say cheerfully, “Yep, Frank Breech.” My husband frantically muttered in my ear. I was opened up and stone cold sober.

I saw my son in the corner of my eye on a table and my throat closed. I didn’t breathe until I heard him cry. I was in a magician’s box, the bottom of my body cut off and my husband hovering somewhere over my head. Hands and arms intertwined, we pulled on each other, as if arm wrestling. Then a heavenly delight was laid on my chest and we found our new north.

The Sinatra surgeon visited me in the hospital twenty-four hours after the surgery to check my incision and ask if I had a plan for birth control. It was the first time I had seen him and sure enough, he had an easy gleaming smile and gelled hair. Somehow it came up in conversation that a few months ago, he had badly cut his thumb while playing around in the kitchen. 

I interrupted: “I am sure your incision was nothing like mine.”

“Actually, I nearly lost my thumb…incisions to the hand are riskier than belly incisions.” 

I was glad he hadn’t lost his thumb.

My son laid nearby in his bassinet, bent like a beautiful paper clip. The nurses instructed us to swaddle him tightly to help straighten his legs but that just didn’t seem right. This new world was enough; why ask him to be ironed out so suddenly? 

The swaddle blanket was supposed to resemble the comfort of the womb, so we loosely wrapped him, making sure he was warm, yet able to tickle his chest with his toes.