Birth order (of a different sort)

January 31,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I recently heard a story on NPR about how here, in the state I live in, midwives cannot legally deliver a baby without the presence of a licensed doctor. And, of course, doctors never do attend homebirths because of how afraid they are of malpractice lawsuits.

Learning this surprised me at first, but then it does make sense. The area we live in is rich with medical resources, but the flip side of course is that everything is just so medicalized. Still, this has not bothered us too much, since we have needed many different medical services at various points in the almost seven years we've been here, and we have been incredibly lucky to have such good resources and skilled doctors available.

But the news report did make me reflect on how different my children's two birth experiences were--for them, and for me as well. When pregnant with L. I flirted briefly with the idea of a homebirth, but my understanding of what it entailed didn't extend much past what I saw on the TLC show "A Baby Story." When it came down to it, both my husband and I decided fairly early on that we just didn't feel wholly comfortable with the idea of a homebirth (well, I didn’t feel wholly comfortable; my husband broke out in a cold sweat at the suggestion), but because there just wasn't a middle road available to us, we found ourselves having a completely antithetical experience--this, I suspect, happens to quite a few couples.

My son was born at a huge teaching hospital affiliated with the university where we were graduate students. He was also born at the beginning of July--a month when, I was later to find out, the new interns rotated through the birthing center. From the minute we checked in to the minute we checked out we were constantly surrounded by medical staff. There were ten people present in the room when I got my epidural, craning their necks for a good view of the needle slipping into the space between my spinal column and lower back. Each night following my delivery, a steady stream of interns and doctors paraded through my room, turning on my bedside lights to poke and prod at me. L., who inhaled meconium at birth, spent three days in the hospital NICU, his little plastic bassinet right under a bank of lights, and a noisy air vent, and with a nasty IV line snaking out from his beautiful, rounded newborn head. Even our first attempts at nursing were carried out under the watchful eyes of several NICU nurses, who kept a stash of tiny formula bottles on the shelf right next to the glider, and who clucked with concern constantly at L.'s reluctance to latch on.

My daughter, however, was born in a different state, at a small community hospital (one that has since been swallowed up by a major giant of a hospital). No one bothered me at night at all while I recovered there. T. was with me throughout; the first sounds she heard were our voices, the first touches our hands, as we cradled her, swaddled her, and as she nursed, her little hands opening and closing against her cheeks.

It never ceases to strike me as fundamentally ironic that my first-born, who was and is always the high-needs child, who is so sensitive to all aspects of his environment and so easily thrown off-kilter by the presence of people around him, was born into such hospital world, and that for his first three days of his life he spent much time lying on his back, sucking his fingers, and squinting at the white glare around him, and at the endless circles of strange faces that came and went. And my daughter, our little social extrovert and charmer, the one who leaps with both feet into every new situation, was born at that sleepy little community hospital, where the nurses called me honey, and left us alone, she and I, to discover each other in the quiet of a sunlit room.

Maybe we are shaped more than we think by those first few precious minutes, or hours, or days after birth; maybe our beginnings are not so incidental, after all, but instead leave their imprint on us in ways we can’t imagine.