The other day I pulled out a little jar of nail polish and painted June’s fingernails for the first time. She was wide-eyed, wondering what exactly I was doing and then, after a bit, admired her sparkly pink nails and (of course) couldn’t quite resist touching them before they’d had a chance to dry. The nail polish was a gift from a patient at the hospital, a thank you from a family who’d appreciated the care we nurses had provided during and after labour. That’s the thing about working on a maternity unit; because you share in the intensity of birth and the radiant joy of new life, you are also flooded with thank you gifts. I’m surprised the nurses on our unit aren’t all overweight as makeup accessories are not the norm; rather chocolate, donuts and cheese and cracker baskets are a regular part of the rhythm of our days at work.
Of course, the thank you gifts are only a small part of why I enjoy my work. A maternity unit is a special place. While other parts of the hospital may bring out the pitiful and anxious nature of people, a maternity unit often is a place of community, encouragement and service, because that’s what a woman in labour needs. Attentive care. Steady support offered by people she trusts. And lots and lots of encouragement.
I’d worked on a maternity unit before I was married, but after I had James, I thought I could never work there again. Birth was so intense! And so overwhelming! I needed other people, my doula in particular. And while I’d known about the intensity of birth and the benefits of labour support in a careless sort of way before having my own children, I hadn’t truly understood it.
And yet, here I am, working on a maternity unit after all, hopefully equipped with a larger measure of sympathy than my childless self of former days. The unit I work on is small, so it’s actually fairly seldom that I work with women in labour. It happens once or twice a month, and I love it. Birth is both thrilling and terrifying. It’s a marvel every time to see a woman’s strong body bringing forth a little baby; a miracle and a profound relief to hear a newborn’s first cry; and a wonder to witness parents beholding their child for the first time. Sometimes you just have to stand there quietly and soak in the joy of the moment for a while before you come back down to reality and think about vitals and pads and other non-transcendent necessities.
And it’s terrifying because the story has not yet been told. You are in the middle of it without knowing exactly how the ending will be reached. Certainly slow and steady labours are a reality, but any maternity nurse can tell you a story of a woman who was 4cm five minutes ago who is now delivering her babe. There’s a tension you have to bear until the baby’s been born.
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Imagine you’re a nurse caring for a woman having her fourth baby. She’s had a healthy pregnancy. Her contractions started several hours ago and they’re now strong and three minutes apart. She’s swaying back and forth during contractions, moaning lowly, and when it comes to pain control she says, “Just let me do my thing.” She was checked an hour ago and her cervix was 7cm dilated. The baby’s heart rate has been lovely.
And then her water breaks and you see what looks like pea soup all over the floor. You realize that the baby, whose heart rate has been normal, has already taken a poop. This can mean that the babe is in some distress. And you know that when a woman’s water breaks and it’s her fourth baby, chances are the delivery will happen quickly. You call the doctor and the baby nurse and keep an eye on the baby’s heart rate. A few extraordinary pushes later and a little baby girl wriggles her way into the world, warm and wet and a little stunned. The baby nurse dries her off with towels and that is just the stimulation she needs; she lets out a hearty holler that is music to everyone’s ears.
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More of my days are spent helping new mothers and their newborns adjust to life together. And while there is something marvelous and profound about witnessing and assisting another person’s entry into this world, there is also something very satisfying about helping a woman flourish in her new role as mother. And you do that by sloooooowing down, taking the time to acknowledge her little one, and meeting her where she is.
Is she having a hard time breastfeeding? Let’s work on her baby’s latch and see if we can improve it. Is she exhausted? Is she in pain? Is she worried about anything? Let’s take the time to talk about how her last baby didn’t gain enough weight and how she’s worried she’ll have to supplement again. Are there questions she’s wondering about? (Is it normal for babies to cry like this? How do I know when she’s had enough to eat? What should I use to trim her fingernails so she doesn’t scratch her face? Is that sound normal? Why is her head so cone-shaped? It seems like she’s breathing too fast.)
Slowing down is necessary. In a way, caring for a new mom is akin to caring for an elderly person. A new baby is very, very precious and very, very distracting. The tiniest little grunt or peep or gasp can make your words float away, a cloud of unheard sentences. And especially for first time moms who haven’t held a baby or changed a diaper before (and there seem to be an awful lot of people in that category these days) things just take a long time. It can be an exercise in patience watching someone use fifteen wipes to clean a small poo that required one, but that is what you do. It’s the first diaper and while it would be more efficient to do it yourself, it helps to see it as a first step.
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Now imagine you’re a nurse taking care of a first-time mom who gave birth yesterday. She’s tender and a little swollen, but managing fine with her icepacks, acetaminophen and ibuprofen. She rings the call bell for a bit of help latching her babe. He’s got a lovely thatch of dark hair, a small mouth and a ravenous appetite. She explains that he’s been nursing on and off for the last two hours, but still seems hungry! She begins tearing up as she points out that he quickly gets frustrated if he can’t start nursing right away; he demonstrates this by tossing his head from side to side frantically and wailing.
You sit down next to her and help latch him on again. And once he’s settled down and is feeding quietly and contentedly, you remind her it’s quite normal for babes to begin cluster feeding on day 2 or 3. It’s totally exhausting, but it helps your milk come in. “You’re doing everything you need to do. This is totally normal, and you’re doing amazing. Things will settle down in day or two and then you can catch up on some rest. You got this!”
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This season of Advent has made me recognize our need for Christ’s return in a fresh way. I used to think of Advent as a season of joy, because it’s a time during which we anticipate Christmas . . . But I read this quote on Sarah Clarkson’s blog a few weeks ago (she’s an author living in Oxford, England) and have been mulling over her wise words ever since. She writes,
“But Advent isn’t a season in which we force ourselves to be sad, it’s the season in which we recognise how sad we truly are. In Advent we remember that we are still waiting. Christmas is when we remember that Christ has come to defeat death and ‘overcome the world’. But Advent is when we remember that we are still in that world. We are children of God, inheritors of glory, and we still get cancer, we still fight wars, we still suffer loneliness, and death. Advent is when have the chance to stop running and be still, the season that allows us to recognise our need for Christ’s final coming to right the suffering of children, the loneliness of the poor and forgotten, the grief of the sick, the darkness crouched in our own hearts.”
Because while most of the time our unit is a happy one, it hasn’t been this past month. We’ve had a baby weaning off of narcotics because her mother was addicted to drugs during her pregnancy. She sneezes, has watery poops and is constantly irritated because of something that’s no fault of her own; and while you’d like to blame her mother, her story is one that chills your heart, too. And then there’s an abusive father whose baby has been taken into foster care; and you ache for a woman who can walk away with a heartless coward and leave her baby behind alone in a hospital. And the most difficult experience for me, a child the same age as Alice dying of a common virus. You hear the Code Pink alarm with a sinking heart, and then you watch this mom kissing her baby’s limp, pale hand while the nurses do CPR and you just can’t bear the suffering.
We are still in this sad and suffering world, and this time of Advent has been a powerful reminder of just how sad this world truly is. Jeremy’s dad nearly died of a heart attack, too, and so the frailties of life have been on stark display.
Christmas Day has come and gone. And I’ve been thinking about how wild the Incarnation really was. God became a helpless baby! Even in the hospital nowadays there is a note of anxiety as we wait for a child to take his or her first breath; how much more so when that little one was the Son of God and was born in a cave! There’s no account of a midwife attending Mary’s birth. No note about a professional trained in neonatal resuscitation. Just the simple line that the time had come for her baby to be born, and the sweet extra details about how she wrapped Jesus in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger. Isn’t it incredible how frail and humble God made himself?
And all so that he might indeed heal the world of its suffering and sadness.