Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Liberty's Birthday 2007

Today the 4th of July is my son Liberty's birthday.

This morning, I was planning to start the day with a visit to a rehab center to visit Dorothy James, the 96 year old mother of one of the choir members (who is out of town and won't be visiting her mother this week). Mrs. James broke a hip around Easter and because she hasn't been able to bear any weight, the bone is healing slowly. At first she kept asking to come home. If she was only back in her own bed she would be all right, she thought. So far, that just has not be able to happen.

Susan Weisberg, another choir member, and I had planned to make the visit together. Around 9 am, I called Susan to tell her my throat is raw and swollen. We agreed that it would not be a good idea to bring germs into a place like that where the residents are so vulnerable.

Susan told me that she doesn't like 4th of July. Her mother died on that date. So, she thought, why not visit someone else's mother? I love the way she thinks.

While I was pregnant with Liberty, I was studying art at City College of San Francisco. I remember one sunny Spring afternoon I was walking down a sloping expanse of lawn on the campus in a long red corduroy dress and sandals, very pregnant. A young perhaps-drug-addled man came up to me and told me I looked beautiful with my long brown hair blowing in the wind, and he asked if I would hold him like I would hold my baby. I just laughed and kept walking.

Liberty doesn't like to plan anything. It's 11 a.m., and He is still in bed. I am prepared to put together food for a BBQ he was going to have at a friend's house and to make his favorite birthday pie.

He never liked cake. This pie is basically whipped cream, cream cheese, and sugar in a homemade crust topped with glazed red and blue berries in honor of the day. Strawberry, sometimes Raspberry, Blueberry, Cream pie.

I hope I have the energy.

For decades, almost all births were medical events, doctor-managed. While the mother was under anesthesia the doctor would do an incision at the vagina and go in with a forceps and drag the baby out. The woman would stay in the hospital for two weeks. The baby would be kept in a nursery and fed either by the mother or the nurse on a strict schedule.

Breast feeding was not supported and hardly ever practiced. Feeding a newborn entailed sterilizing glass bottles and preparing batches of baby formula using evaporated cow's milk, corn syrup or sugar and vitamins and pouring the formula into the bottles to be refrigerated. If the baby was hungry before four hours were up, the baby would just have to wait. Achieving success as a mother was like achieving success as an efficiency expert, preparing the right amount of "formula" as needed and training baby to live according to the routine.

There was a lot of between schedule crying going on in the nurseries. I always thought that it must be traumatic for the babies, to be born and taken away from their mothers right away without a hug or a kiss, wrapped and put in a hard little bed by themselves under bright lights, surrounded by other crying infants. What kind of a world have I been born into? wouldn't the poor newborn wonder?

Bottle feeding took away the intimacy of mouth to breast contact between the baby and its mother. Parents could feed the child without even holding it. It was very common for a baby to be laid on its back alone in the crib with a bottle propped up at an angle into its mouth.

I believe that vast amounts of psychological and physical harm was done because of those practices, and I have some stories I could provide as anecdotal evidence. Scientific evidence has now established the physical benefits of nursing are clear along with the bad health consequences of bottle feeding. (Oddly enough, the scientific demi-gods had proven to a couple of generations of mothers that bottle-feeding was a superior way to feed their babies. But that's a big subject I won't explore further here.)

Hippies and others who wanted to return to nature in many aspects of their lives championed natural childbirth without medications along with a return to nursing. The ideas made sense to me. Giving birth is a natural thing done with the help of midwives for all of human history. It's not a disease requiring medical intervention. And as for giving children formulas made from cow's milk: Calves grow big and bovine on cow's milk. Humans grow human on human's milk. There wasn't much soy formula around in the 70s, but I cannot imagine a human child thriving on a bean-based diet.

Two anti-anesthesia in childbirth books called _Childbirth Without Fear_ and _Thank You Dr. LaMaze_ were very popular at the time. Even so and even though I was living in San Francisco at the time, in 1970 I could find only one obstetrical office that offered natural childbirth, Miller, Moss, Wench, and Boyce. The hospital I picked, French Hospital, pioneered letting the babies stay in the rooms with the mothers, but you had to request "rooming in." And you had to be very firm in making sure the nurses knew you didn't want them feeding your baby with bottles to avoid waking you up or to save themselves the trips back and forth to your room to drop the baby off and pick it up again.

I had devoured the books about the method of breast feeding, and George and I had taken natural childbirth classes. We were supposed to practice the breathing methods they taught that were supposed to ease labor pains. But we worked so badly together as a couple that we didn't practice at all.

Liberty was due on June 22 two weeks before he was finally born.

The weekend before he arrived, we chanced to visit a friend of a friend, a school principal in her Forest Knolls Marin county home and stayed overnight. I remember sitting up against a tree in the backyard most of the night with heartburn. Around dawn, I was shocked from a doze by the sound of a donkey braying in one of the neighbor's yards.

One day a few weeks earlier, in San Francisco, a woman came up to me outside of the Palace of the Legion of Honor and said, "You are going to have twins. I know. I'm a doctor." What she didn't know was that because of scoliosis (curvature of the spine), I didn't have much room between my rib cage and my hips, so the baby bulge was much bigger than she was used to seeing.

On July 3, I had what I thought was an attack of indigestion as I was clambering up a sand dune after a picnic on a beach south of Santa Cruz.

I was surprised by back labor. I had never heard of it, but I had it. Maybe it was made worse by the spinal operations I'd endured as a teenager. I had a metal rod in my back.

I probably still have a photo somewhere of me sitting in a wheelchair at the registration desk, grimacing. Oh yes, another new fad was the taking of pictures during the birth. As video cameras became readily available, 20 years later, everyone was making movies of births. Sometimes I wonder, "Do people show these photos and videos at dinner parties?" That question has never been answered to my satisfaction. But moving right along . . . That was the only picture George took after all.

In the labor room, as I grimaced some more, George smilingly quoted me something I'd read him from one of the natural childbirth books, "The pain is only in your head." I was not amused.

I caved early. I ended up taking some pain medication after only an hour or so. I don't remember what kind they gave. All I remember is that this was the first step in the disintegration of my dream of natural childbirth.

After 24 hours of labor with little progress in the dilation of my cervix, the doctors decided to take an X-ray. The X-ray confirmed that the baby was in breach position and revealed that my pelvis had spurs extending at the point where the head would pass through.

During a normal birth, the baby's head is pushed into the birth canal gradually by the contractions. (Sometimes this results in some newborns having oddly shaped heads.) Since Liberty's feet would be coming first, his head would be coming last. It would not undergo the gradual compression that happens during a normal birth and could be stuck in the narrow opening for quite some time. The doctor explained to me that there was a good chance that the umbilical cord would be caught in the narrow opening along with the head, which would prevent the flow of oxygen to the baby. He could be born brain damaged from oxygen deprivation if I didn't have a C-section.

So I did, very reluctantly, because I had set my heart on having a natural birth.

I don't remember how I learned I had a boy.

When I awoke, he wasn't in the room even though I had asked for rooming in. The nurses were observing him in an "isolette" in the nursery. I was surprised when my friend Carol appeared from where she had been hiding behind a curtain so the nurses wouldn't see she was there. She had flowers for me. I told her I was upset that my baby was in the nursery in spite of my best-laid plans to spare him that trauma.

George came in jubilant with a bunch of orange roses for me. Orange was my favorite color. We had painted our VW bus that color in house paint before we had started out from Boston on the trip that had brought us to San Francisco 3 1/2 years earlier. I wore a lot of orange clothes.

A nurse found him a white plastic ice cream bucket, and George put the roses in the bucket on the windowsill.

George had been gazing for quite some time at Liberty with his hands cupped around his mouth pressed up against the glass nursery window. Our son lay in his little isolette with only his diaper on, serene and white skinned, his head perfectly shaped. George told me that the other babies around him, who had been through the birth canal had lumpy mottled red heads.

Contrary to how some say that the birth trauma is an essential part of human formation, George was now convinced that all babies should be born by C-section. Thinking about my incision, I said, "That's easy for you to say."

We had picked out the baby's name when we thought he would be coming on his due date on June 22. There had been no connection with the 4th of July. We liked what we'd heard about the Indian practice of naming children for qualities. And our hippy friends were calling their children a wide range of new agey names. Just to cover the first part of the alphabet, I remember three girls named Artemis, Branch, and Calliope. Carol's boy had been named Alaric until his repeated bad behavior caused her to rethink her decision and rename him Michael at 6 years of age. My friend Judy Delmar had changed her first name to Denali. And in a commune in Northern California, I'd run into two children, a boy and a girl, both named Buffalo. The name we chose, Liberty, stood for the highest good according to the philosophy we held then. Freedom above all! His middle name, Russell, was after the famous athiest philosopher Bertrand Russell, a favorite of his father. I had lost my Catholic faith as a freshman in college, and it would be six more years before I regained it, so I didn't mind naming my son after an atheist.

When I finally I held my new baby boy in my arms, my sister Joe-anne had arrived. She told me that she had seen George leaving the hospital on his way out to get the flowers. Normally undemonstrative, bearded long-haired George had been skipping across the parking lot on his way to our van.

I gazed at my darling little boy and I said, "I don't think I can name him Liberty after all. He is a person, not a concept." But my sister Joe-anne piped up that because he was born on the 4th of July that I had to name him Liberty. It was cosmic!

I couldn't argue that. So cosmically-named Liberty is 37 years old today.

He stopped using the name Liberty when he started in a new Catholic school as he was entering sixth grade. Legally a person can use any name as long it is not for fraudulent intent. When I was enrolling him, I told the religious sister who was the school's principal that I thought his choice of John was kind of boring. As the principal reminded me of the many great Johns, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, John Kennedy, a light bulb went on in my head. Oh yes, I chimed in, "Sister Mary John! John is a fine name."

Then when we all as a family started acting in the Minnesota Renaissance Fair when Liberty was 13 or so, he found that the other kids in the acting troupe thought Liberty was a cool name, so he started using it again. When he was 15, he went to Japan as an exchange student, and he took the name John back while he was there. He told me that to put yourself forward as unusual is so frowned on, that Liberty was looked on as a bad name. Then since his return to the US, he has been Liberty ever since.

Liberty is dark-haired and has a wonderful expressive handsome face, with a strong jaw and huge brown eyes and long eyelashes. Unlike some of the other family members I could name, he is always reasonable and never impulsive. I have seen him lose his temper perhaps twice in his whole life. He is intelligent, creative, funny, and kind. I thank God for the gift he has been to me with all my heart.
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