It was going to be the perfect birth. Under soft gentle lighting, bathed in quiet contemplation of the perfection of this tiny soul we were welcoming to the planet, my son Eric was going to make his appearance. Everything had been planned: the warm-water birthing tub, the midwife, the music. Everything was going to be just right, down to the last detail. Everything was going to be perfect.
Every woman does this, especially when she’s already had a birth or two and remembers the inevitable last-minute changes in plan that accompany the inexact art of birth. I know I did: though I already had three births that were each as different as the children that resulted from them, I wanted this one to be the culmination of all my past experience. I wanted it to be perfect.
The thing is, it didn’t start out that way. Eric’s beginnings were far from perfect. In fact, at first I almost didn’t even want Eric to be born. That’s a horrific thing to say about your own child, but it’s part of Eric’s story and it’s part of mine.
I was almost free when it happened. It had taken years to find the resolve to leave Eric’s father, but I was almost there. Trouble was, I still loved the man. Part of me was afraid to leave him, afraid of what I’d find in a new world with only two small children and myself. The pity sex that occurred when I told him I was leaving was partly pity for myself and for the pain of wanting to leave but being afraid to. When I found out about Eric a few weeks later, my world collapsed in irony. My fragile shot at freedom had vanished. Instead, I lifted a veil of obligation over me that completely covered me. I would stay. I would forget my past pain and think instead about creating a new future over its ashes.
Staying was one thing; accepting this pregnancy was another. From the start I almost resented the tiny being inside me who seemed to wield such enormous power, forcing me to stay in a marriage that crushed me. I did little things to get back at my situation and the pain it brought. I ate as little as possible. I told no one I was pregnant. I felt overwhelmed by the destruction of my life.
At seven months, reality caught up with me. I couldn’t hide it any more despite the fact that my regular jeans still buttoned below the tiny Eric-bump of my belly. So I did a 180 and suddenly embraced what I had denied, denying it even further in the embracing.
I enrolled in a Hypnobirthing class. I researched birthing tubs and home birthing options. I selected a midwife who was friendly to all my last-minute ideas. I threw myself into the process, becoming in each passing day more obsessed with creating that one perfect moment that would somehow prove my worth as a mother and turn my ambivalence into the love that lay underneath.
My midwife told me later that she had seen how I had clearly known something was “different” about Eric, even before his birth. Did I? I adamantly refused all prenatal testing, swearing to myself and to anyone who would listen that he was my fourth child and therefore I knew what I was doing and besides, didn’t I know myself? Didn’t I know my body? I was NOT going to have testing even though all the advanced-maternal-age indicators pointed straight toward testing. For Down syndrome.
But I ignored that. I knew better. In retrospect I know that yes, on some level I DID know something was going to be different about Eric and that I couldn’t bear to be confronted with the choice to abort him. I believe in the right to choose, in MY right to choose, and this was my choice. The choice to not have to choose.
In the end, Eric’s birth was almost according to plan, except for, well, everything. But finally, he was there. Despite everything I couldn’t wait to meet him. We had shared so much. I loved this baby with every fiber of my being.
I saw the midwife exchanging glances with her assistant and then looking quickly at Eric’s palms and ears. What was that all about? No matter, there was a baby here, a very tiny baby, and this baby needed attention. I knew how to do this, had done it three times before. It was time to get to know this little boy who had been magically created from my essence.
It was quiet. We were alone. We were at peace.
Later the midwife knelt by my bedside and told me blankly, “Your baby has Down syndrome.”
No! Not this baby! Look at him! He’s, well, he’s perfect! Sure he’s small, but he’ll grow. He’s…he’s really cold, isn’t he, and he can’t keep himself warm. He’s not adjusting to this world yet. Yes, go warm him. I can’t do it. I’m failing him. He’s less than a day old and I am failing him. I love him but I’m failing him.
Down syndrome? All I knew about it were the jokes about “mongoloids” my older brother told me when I was 10. Down syndrome. Everything was clear now. I had made this happen. It was time to get to know my son. It was time to find his perfection.