We just got back from a short and sweet and mostly relaxing holiday. We came back to find mouse poop on our spare bedroom bed. I went to sleep last night before the kids, and was awake before 6 this morning, imagining that we have a mouse nesting in the box spring of the bed, making more mice. And into the thoughts of mouse-ness, another thought occurred to me, a much deeper one that has been incubating for days and days, stemming from a conversation that happened while we were away.
Sitting with friends, all adults, probably talking about babies and pregnancy, one person, who is now an anesthesiologist, told us that when a pregnant woman has heart failure, they do an immediate C-section simultaneous with the beginning of resuscitation. The mama has more chance of being resuscitated if the baby is out. This person said they had attended to a situation like this not long ago. The baby was premature and went into neo-natal ICU. “How was the woman?” someone asked. “She was fine,” was the answer.
It is this, out of all of the detail that I heard, that caught my attention days later while making plans to evict a mouse. That a human’s insanely traumatic experience could be summed up in three words. She was fine. We do this all the time. We do this to ourselves: at the end of a hard week that beat us down, we run into an acquaintance, and instead of wanting to go into it all, in answer to “How are you doing?” we answer, “Fine,” even when the body knows different and is humming with residual stress, hasn’t slept properly in weeks, hasn’t been able to drop into a deep rest cycle for months.
Off-hand I can think of a bunch of ways in which that new mama and babe are likely not fine, but they require a non-medical point of view to see them. The strength of our medical system is in keeping life in bodies. I have noticed, though, and probably so have you, that in doing so, often the joy leaks out said body, out of said life. So that mama, when she finally gets to go home with her baby out of NICU, will have just had the most edge experience of her life: the edge of her baby’s life, the edge of her own life. Both of their hearts are beating, lungs are bringing in air, arms are reaching out for each other. Medically, they are both fine. And both of their lives have been marked and altered by the proximity to the edge of death.
One of the huge pieces that will be affected here is the relationship between that woman and her baby. They both almost died. The baby was pulled from that first home long before time. The mama was most likely not ready to let that baby out into the world. Each of them, in their bodies and in their deep minds, will have made stories and ways of coping around these facts. Each of them, without the chance to question these stories and beliefs, will operate for the rest of their lives as though these stories are true: I am fragile. I was born too early. I almost killed my mother. I can’t take care of my baby. My body isn’t strong.
There is so much grief here. And we are so unskilled at grieving. I can imagine this woman feeling that she is failing at being fine when all the professionals around her tell her that, according to her body stats, she is fine. Or feeling that her world, after a certain number of weeks, expects her to be over it. But how do you get over something like that if not by grieving in waves and letting all of you come back eventually to life? Pleasure at being in this life with this new little life must come on its own, not through the expectation that if your heart is beating regularly, you must be fine.
I’m probably simplifying a lot, and I’m definitely making assumptions. But I have some stake in this story: I was delivered into this world by a C-section, and almost died of pneumonia 14 months later. My mother worried about me dying a lot. My second child was delivered by C-section because the placenta was totally covering my cervix: there was no way out. Without the medical system that we have, that child and I would likely both be dead, and further back, without it I probably wouldn’t even have made it into this world, or my mother wouldn’t have survived my arrival.
I would like to advance the notion, though, that simply having life in your body should not equal fine, medically or otherwise. I was most definitely NOT fine from the moment that I found out that I would have to have a C-section in order to bring that second small human into the world. I spiralled into a depression that deepened and deepened as each new revelation or incident was piled on: I had to know that if I started bleeding out-of-control during the C-section that the protocol is to remove the uterus. I had to choose a date for the C-section that was before my due date because it was dangerous for me and for my baby to get too close to labour. All of this was imparted to me dispassionately, and, being the good stoic that I am, I had no pathway to dealing with it just then, and was not being offered one by the medical system or the midwife that I was working with, or by my overwhelmed, frightened family.
Turns out I didn’t bleed to death, my baby didn’t die, my uterus is still inside my body and my baby was out of NICU within 12 hours of birth. Turns out we were fine. Except that we weren’t at all fine, and it is only now, almost seven years and a huge amount of self-work and introspection and grieving later, that I actually do feel fine most of the time.
So I guess my question is, how do we build effective emotional/spiritual support into our pretty effective system of keeping life in the body, and what would that support look like?
I think, at the very least, we need to question our attachment to “fine” as a measure of wellness.
I still have a lot to say about this, but the day has fully arrived, my people are rising from bed and I have a mouse to roust out, so I shall leave it at that for now.