No other joy I have experienced can compare with watching my child come wriggling out into the world and with being present for the breathtaking first moments of a new human being. Almost all my memories of the births of my three children are memories that I treasure.
But some birth memories are less pleasant, and those, too, are instructive and worth sharing. One involves the birth of my daughter, Amelia, twelve years ago.
My wife Theresa went into labor while she was at work on the afternoon of February 11, 1987. We met at home, then after waiting a couple of hours, took our three-year-old son to a friend’s house and went to the hospital, two blocks away.
We were feeling fairly confident. Our son’s birth, at the same hospital, had gone quickly and well, helped along by a supportive and experienced OB nurse. And we had talked to the doctor who would be delivering the baby, explaining that we wanted as little intervention as possible. “Don’t worry, I’ll support you 100 percent on that,” he had said.
When we got to the hospital, however,the doctor wasn’t there. And the nurse who was assigned to Theresa insisted that she had to be connected to an electronic fetal monitor. The baby’s heart rate was a little elevated, she explained in a no-nonsense manner, when we balked at the idea. “Sorry, it’s hospital policy,” she said, insisting the machine had to be used at least until the doctor arrived.
So a large, uncomfortable belt was trapped unceremoniously around Theresa’s contracting belly, connecting her to a machine that I recall being as big as a chest of drawers. The machine beeped and whistled. Lights blinked on and off. Mysterious numbers flashed on digital screens.
The entire effect was discomforting, distracting and annoying, at least to me. I don’t know how long it went on. It seemed like a long time, although we were only at the hospital for about two hours before our daughter was born. Eventually the doctor showed up, but—for this I’ve not forgiven him—he went first to the machine and checked all the readings and dials. Only then did he turn to Theresa and release her from that oversized belt.
When our third child, Kevin, was born three years later, we were ready. A different nurse insisted the monitor was needed. “No, sorry,” we said. “We don’t want it.” The nurse seemed to accept our refusal of the device. Then, every fifteen minutes or so, she came back and gently tried to persuade Theresa to be hooked up. Again we said, “Sorry, no.” Finally we agreed to a compromise: The nurse could periodically hold the sensor against Theresa’s belly and the sound on the machine was turned all the way down—no belt and no beeps.
Now our children are a long way from being babies, and it’s sometimes hard for me to recall all the details—who was born when, how much they weighed and so on. I remain grateful that they were, and are, in good health, and that I had the privilege of being part of their birth.
I understand why lawyers and accountants write policies that promote defensive medicine. I realize that hospital employees have no real choice but to carry out those policies. And I accept that my memories may not be completely accurate. Theresa, in fact, recalls this business with the monitor of not being that big a deal.
But I’m still troubled sometimes by the memory of allowing myself to be caught off guard and failing to be a force-ful advocate for my wife and baby. And that beeping, flashing machine remains for me a symbol of how technology and balance-sheet decision-making can sometimes overwhelm our own choices about our health, and our children’s.