the mysterious nature of tummies

Posted by on March 12, 2009

I haven’t really blogged much through this pregnancy, and now, as I enter into the narrow tunnel of its finality, in which All Things Childbirth comes into sharp focus, high relief, and dramatic potency, it is difficult to tidy my thoughts.

Because I’m not just thinking of myself and the birth of this mysterious new baby who likes to push so strongly against the walls of her in utero apartment. I am waxing philosophical about humanity at large. And humanity in particular. Some friends of ours who are our age and have two daughters– a girl close to Esme’s age, and an infant under the age of one– have been in the hospital for several weeks now with their youngest girl. I learned that something was going on when I caught a cursory glance of one of their newly uploaded photos on flickr and saw the unmistakable pink and blue stripes of a standard hospital baby blanket– the kind you always see on photos of newborns before they go home. I thought irrationally: why are they just now uploading birth photos? Then I looked closer and saw tubes and wires hooked up to their baby girl, clearly lying on a hospital bed, and my heart leapt. Next I investigated facebook and learned the news that something mysterious was going on with her intestines that required emergency surgery. That was a few weeks ago. Since then they haven’t been able to leave the hospital as doctors are still trying to figure out what exactly is wrong. As of yesterday J, the father, updated his status to say he was “still worried– [my daughter’s] tummy is still a mystery.”

There are successful television dramas built around the tantalizing potential of a difficult diagnosis– when the human body doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do and an entire staff of brilliant, over-achieving doctors must solve the puzzle. These cases get tidied up in one hour on TV. But how agonizing to be a parent, sitting by your child’s side for weeks in the hospital, while her continued well-being may or may not skitter just beyond the fingertips of the best human effort, intelligence, care, and control. How frustrating and confounding when a seemingly automatic component of nature, whose functionality should not require even the slightest effort of conscious human will– the bowels– suddenly decides to malfunction in one small, new person, for no apparent reason. A tummy that doesn’t work is indeed a mystery, when tummies almost always, in all cases, work just fine without our ever telling them to do so.

A few weeks ago I was trying to leave the house for a routine pre-natal appointment in the afternoon. I had been busy at home all day with Esme, doing housework, keeping her entertained and her two-year-old energy reigned in. In my bustle and distraction I had forgotten to eat properly, and then, on a whim, made myself a really strong cup of hot chocolate. A neighbor had agreed to watch Esme while I was at my appointment, so after the hot chocolate I started rushing to get her in her coat, shoes, gather her sippy cup and other items into a bag. Then I started feeling strange and my eyesight seemed spotted. But I didn’t think anything was really wrong until I started to write a note for Jeff and the words came out scrambled and dyslexic. I couldn’t believe the nonsensical words and random letters that were coming from the tip of my pen. I knew what message I wanted to communicate, but it would not transfer from my brain to the paper. I crumpled up four different notes before giving up and thinking: whatever is wrong, it is probably a good thing that I’m headed to see the doctor at this very moment.

My mind seemed to clear by the time they called me from the waiting room, but of course I wasted no time in describing to my doctor what was clearly an alarming incident. I was disappointed in his lackadaisical reaction. I wanted to shake him and say: Can’t you understand??? My verbal ability just abandoned me!!! Ironically, it was this appointment at which I was to learn the result of my gestational diabetes test, which came back clear. I thought for sure I would be told that I had tested positive for gestational diabetes, with my blood sugar levels performing such crazy tricks. Instead I was told that everything looked fine. The doctor said I had probably had a hypoglycemic episode, and I just needed to be sure to eat protein snacks regularly and not let my blood sugar drop. It appears that an hour or two of total mental murkiness is, according to all standardized modern medical care, within the range of normal. Interesting.

Bizarre as this incident seemed to me, I decided to let it go. Then, a few weeks later, it happened again, this time a little more dramatically, on Forgiveness Sunday, which is the day before Lent in the Orthodox Church and thus the last chance to eat dairy. Ice cream being (need I even state this?) the pinnacle of all possible dairy foods, we went out with a group of friends for ice cream at Bonnie Doon, our local retro ice cream parlor. Pregnant women do not fast for Lent, but I was still happy to indulge in the spirit of the excursion. I won’t go into the tedious details of what I’d had to eat that day, but it had been a strange eating day for various reasons that were somewhat out of my control, and I could tell that, once again, something was amiss, when I started seeing blackish spots in front of people’s faces. I knew better than to order anything sweet so instead I opted for the cheesy, deep-fried genre of 1950s diner indulgence. After about a half-hour of sitting there, chatting with friends, I noticed that my words were not coming out correctly. In fact, I was speaking gibberish. Again, like before, I knew what I wanted to say, but the words were morphing and distorting themselves upon exiting. Alarmed, I managed to say to Jeff pointedly: I need to go home.

We did, and I was fine within a few hours, but still really alarmed and confused about what had happened. I later spoke with a diabetic friend who said that it was clearly a case of low blood sugar– hypoglycemia. Another woman I told said that something similar happened to her after the birth of one of her children. She was speaking nonsense and the hospital staff thought she had had a stroke. It turned out to be a migraine headache that was putting pressure on the speech center or her brain. Well, I had had a headache too while this was happening, so perhaps somewhere between blood sugar and headache something somewhere was “putting pressure” on the speech center of my brain. I like that term: speech center. It is good to know that my brain has a speech center, and that most of the time it works just fine, but that it is not always guaranteed to do so, as I would have naively presumed. Twice now, in fact, it has roundly betrayed me, in a way that I was helpless to control. This experience– though harmless in the long run– has now become a part of my own history. It has left me with a distinct impression– an impression of human beings, starting with myself, as strangely plastic, changeable, mysterious things.

If there is anything that pregnancy twice over has also taught me, it’s this mystery. Obviously, it is very mysterious to have an autonomous being, separate and distinct from myself, grow from seemingly nothing and then poke its elbows at you from the inside. Of course. But there is also the mystery of an unwritten drama as I approach the birth of this baby. I guess I should mention that at my 35 week appointment I found out, as I had suspected, that this baby is breech. The vast majority of babies turn head down just before birth, but some do not, for various reasons. Esme never did, and my doctor didn’t catch it until 39 weeks, which made it far too late to do anything about it, so they scheduled a c-section, and I was knocked off my feet by the disappointment of having a “normal” birth taken away from me.

I thought that perhaps if I wanted a VBAC badly enough in my second pregnancy (which I do), and also sought out better, more attentive pre-natal care (which I did), that I just might achieve it. Now it is not looking very sure. Now it is looking like I may very well be headed for another surgical birth and the long recovery that follows. If the baby cannot flip on its own, and/or will not be flipped by the doctor’s hand, this is what will happen. I will not know what it is like to wait for the exciting surprise of spontaneous labor. I won’t know what it’s like to have a single contraction. I will not experience the gratification of pushing a baby out. I won’t have a story about the full moon breaking my bag of waters, and so on and so forth.

Please don’t tell me. I know too well: in the spectrum of human griefs, losses, and disappointments, this is really quite banal and insignificant, and reifying this into something next-door to tragedy is not entirely valid. In fact, it is arguable that my disappointment in not being able to have a natural birth is quite irrational, given how difficult and painful natural birth can be. I cannot think of very many solid arguments for why it should necessarily be important (although, in the circles I move in, it certainly seems to be, without question).

I think of friends who have trouble conceiving, and who pine and pine for pregnancy. I think of friends who have been pregnant, and miscarried. All is mystery, mystery, mystery. Nothing bears comparison or questioning. Some tummies digest food while others do not. Some tummies grow babies while others refuse. Some tummies specialize in breech babies. One tummy, if it is not irreverent to call it that, was the expansive dwelling place of God. Tummies are mysterious indeed.

At my last doctor’s visit, after a quick ultrasound confirmed that the head was up, the doctor actually said, “Crap, there’s the head.” (This wasn’t my regular doctor, by the way.) Then he proceeded to explain that sometimes the shape of a woman’s pelvis can prevent the baby from getting comfortable with its head down, and showed me with his hands what a “normal woman’s” pelvis is shaped like, and other–narrower–possible shapes. My own pelvis is now a mystery to me. Perhaps it is not “normal.” But I can’t see it to confirm this, so perhaps it is. Perhaps I’ll have another c-section. Perhaps things will still right themselves, and I’ll have the birth of my heart’s desire. Right now, I have to live within that ambiguity and accept it.

But is it not totally absurd that I could go away from that appointment envying the pelvises of other women (of all things), even while some women, unknown to me, might be envying my pregnant abdomen, even while these friends of mine in the hospital might be envying their own lives before they were suddenly turned upside down by the problem of a mysterious little tummy?

I have a mounted reproduction of the above icon on the wall in our bedroom. It is the Theotokos of the Sign. The night after finding out about the baby’s breech position, I took it off the wall and put it near me, so I could face it and think about it. The baby had an unusually active night of churning, kicking, stretching, pushing. I was on high alert for whether or not turning might be included in all of this activity. I did not really think my baby would turn downward, but the very hope kept me wakeful. It would be natural. It would be supernatural. I wonder how often hopes of various kinds like this keep people awake at night, fully alert and alive within the reality of the ambiguity we all appear to inhabit.

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  1. anna j
    March 12, 2009

    I have been hungry for word of your pregnant tummy . . . so thank you for posting, and forgive my word choice 🙂
    In fact, just earlier this evening, as we chopped veggies in her kitchen, I was telling a friend here about you.
    with love and prayers,
    p.s. the word verification for your blog tonight is “mothers,” oddly enough . . .

  2. Jenny
    March 13, 2009

    Oh Julia,

    Beautiful, beautiful post. A sweet ending to my day. “Some tummies specialize in producing breech babies.” Ha! Oh I wish I could laugh with you in person, and also marvel at the mystery together, and how fragile we all are in the face of it.

    Prayers for you as labor draws close. Can’t wait to see photos of this one! I hope to come to Chicago this summer. Let’s try to connect!

  3. Molly Sabourin
    March 16, 2009

    Spectacular, Julia. I believe many women would find a great deal of comfort in your own brave/honest and beautiful approach to the uncertainties that pregnancy and childbirth and motherhood bring with them. May God quiet your late night worries (I’m assuming, here, I’m not the only one who battles nocturnal doubts) with His peace.