Enter Sabre Ruth

In which we must conclude that our new daughter is…wait for it…a contrarian

Palmer, Alaska.  Saturday, 13 December, 2008.

Cathy woke me somewhere between 3 and 3.30 in the morning. She had just knocked over her water glass in the dark, but this was not about to keep her from a singularly urgent bee-line to the bathroom. (It should be said up front that Cathy was extremely easy on me during the whole pregnancy—seriously, almost none of what I had been prepared to encounter—but even in a sleepy stupor I was smart enough not to argue with a woman in her 38th week.) I mopped up the spill and promptly sacked out again.

I awoke on my own a while later (probably somewhat over an hour) because something was definitely not right: I have no idea how I knew this, but Cathy had not returned from the bathroom since the spill. At that realization, I was bolt awake, and as gingerly as I could manage—let’s face it, this is not a delicate operation—I tapped on the door to check in on her.

Turns out Cathy had been awake since midnight-thirty or so. She was pretty uncomfortable with what felt like menstrual cramps, on the normal side of intense but with the alarming beginnings of back pain. She also noticed she was leaking slightly, no more than say a tablespoon at a time, clear and odorless. Above all she could not get back to sleep. We immediately thought that this was probably the baby descending into the pelvis—that precursor event that heralds a little relief for mom’s lungs but hard times ahead for the bladder—and which usually happens about two weeks before birth, for a first time mom.

(Looking back on this, of course, it seems rather obvious that she was in labor even at this point, her water having already broken, but we were in no way prepared for that. Our official due date was still 11 days away, and everyone had been drilling into us how first babies are usually late, first babies in Alaska are almost always even later, and winter first babies in Alaska are almost always later still. We had just had the 38-week appointment three days earlier, at which the owner of the midwifery concluded that the baby still hadn’t descended yet, so there was no real need to do a manual exam—we would do that next week, at the 39-week appointment. Cathy and I were expecting descent, not labor, and we had been advised that the sensation of the baby descending into the pelvis would feel like, well, menstrual cramps. And presto, there they were, so that’s what we assumed. For anyone who doubts that Whoever Is In Charge has a sense of humor, I submit this as yet more proof.)

Somewhere along in there, two things happened: the back pain kicked in pretty good (far worse than the cramping), and the cramps started becoming quasi-regular. It became clear that something was up with the back pain—I could hear some fear in her voice, mostly a “what is happening here, nobody ever said anything about this” sort of anxiety. We later joked that we had both thought during this time, “holy crap, if this is what descent is like, we may be in over our head when real labor comes…” I mean, Cathy had always been told she had a good tolerance for pain, but what did that mean, really? We weren’t exactly in familiar territory, and maybe we were wrong all along… I switched into caretaker mode, figuring that something was up, labor or not, and focused on my tasks: 1) keep her calm, 2) try to keep her fed, and 3) try to get her to sleep. I fetched the little “chronograph” we had picked up to time contractions with, thinking that I might as well start measuring the cramps in case they were contractions. I quickly found out that we had selected an absolutely worthless POS for this task. That I got any semblance of accurate information out of it was in spite of, and not at all due to, its design. We quickly learned that the “contractions” were not meeting the standard that would warrant a call to the midwifery, but we started calling them “contractions” nonetheless, as they were not stopping and getting pretty intense. (At least the back pain was getting pretty intense.) I all but shoved hot cereal down her, and did what I could to help her get comfortable enough to sleep—that latter being a real losing battle. (In our education and training, it had been well-impressed on me that moms do much, much better when rested and fed, and I was not about to set Cathy up for exhaustion if there was anything I could do about it!)

Eventually, probably about 5 in the morning, I called the midwifery. (The general rule is that if mom can call the midwifery, she’s not ready to come in yet, but if dad has to do the calling because mom can’t, it’s time. I knew that we weren’t there yet—I was calling as a courtesy, and to keep Cathy calm.) As I would have expected, the general tenor of the call struck me as testing to see if we were really ready to come in, or if it would be better to get her to sleep as long as she could. In the end, we concluded that we were probably doing the right thing; Cathy had even tried a bath, which often calms down false labor, after I had mopped up the water spill and gone back to sleep.

The bath had helped a little with comfort, but it didn’t stop, and the back pain was still getting worse. We called back several hours later, probably 9 or so, and after some back-and-forth with Peggy, she suggested we come on in. (Remember: at this point, all we knew for sure is that something was happening, but we still weren’t convinced that it was real labor. I was honestly half-expecting to get there and find out that we were still two weeks away.)

Come on in. Holy cow, was that a moment for me. When I say that we were not ready, there is a bit of understatement at work. We had been planning to take that very weekend and get our “grab-and-go” kit ready; we were probably at least two and more likely three weeks out from delivery, but best to be ready, right? Likewise, we were going to get a few more things around the house firmed up, like getting the new desk set up, the second car into the garage, etc. We were technically ready to bring baby home, in terms of having car seat, bassinet, a few clothes and supplies, but we were not exactly set up. And so here I was, with a 38-week-pregnant wife writhing with back pain, suddenly charged with getting everything together myself, right now.

And so I did. We found the suggestion list from the midwifery (very useful!), and I rounded up everything on it, including food and clothes for mom, food and clothes for dad, clothes for new baby, car seat, supplies and a few niceties like music. (It wasn’t a pretty packing job, but it was pretty fast, and all there.) As I did, I could not help but think about the desk that had been in the car just the night before. Earlier in the week, we had bought an “assembly-required” desk in Anchorage, which took two people and a pallet jack to get into the back of the car.  There was no way I was getting that out of the back myself; I had known that I’d have to disassemble it in the car and carry the pieces in bit-by-bit. I’d figured we’d do that on Saturday, but for some reason I could not explain to you, I got some bug up my butt to get this done Friday night, in temperatures of probably five below zero or so. But it got done, and as the car was warming up not twelve hours later, I put the seats back upright and got that car-seat base in place and started to wonder about things like unconscious prescience. (If that beast had still been in the car it would have added at least half an hour to our departure time.)

I’ve also gotta say that we couldn’t have picked a more absolutely gorgeous winter day to have a baby. It was brilliantly clear and sunny, if very cold—the car’s thermometer read thirteen below when we left. (I consciously added to my list of divine thank-yous the fact that Cathy is an even bigger polar bear than I am, and the cold didn’t seem to faze her a bit.) Amazing what you notice at times like this, but the quality of the morning light on the mountains, with the fog in the Knik valley and the rime ice on the forest canopy, was breathtaking. We now live in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen (and I have seen some impossibly beautiful places), and on this particular morning, Mother Nature was even more spectacular than usual.

Enroute, I can remember steeling myself to the idea that we would probably be coming back home in a few hours, with weeks left to go. We chatted and tried to get Cathy to relax and take her mind off the back pain, which really was getting alarming for me. The half-hour drive to the birthing center probably seemed like an eternity to Cathy, but we got there and settled into our preferred delivery room with Peggy, who started working with Cathy while I shuttled stuff in from the car. It was about 11 in the morning on Saturday, 13 December. Okay, we were now here, with supplies. The only thing we didn’t know yet is whether we were actually going to have a baby.

A word, here, about working with midwives at a birthing center. One of the reasons we had chosen to work with Mat-Su Midwifery has to do with the delivery experience we wanted for ourselves. It has been said that with midwives, the birth of a baby is a natural event, not a medical procedure. That sounds really trite, but isn’t—not when it counts. Cathy wanted the ability to move around, wanted to be able to make choices on the fly, wanted to be in charge of the operation. For my part, I wanted to be able to catch and cut, to work with Cathy during labor and delivery, to be educated as it all happened. The midwives (Peggy and Jackie, on this particular day) gave all those things to us, and more. They were brilliant at keeping Cathy calm and focused, keeping us aware and informed at every turn, letting us drive the decisions while being happy to offer advice when asked, and apparently being extremely prepared for things to go wrong. (It was not until after the birth that I noticed all the emergency equipment that had been on ready standby the whole time.) I later asked Cathy if she could imagine having the same sort of experience in a hospital…hers was as emphatic a “no way” as mine was. (I suspect that we could have had a marvelous experience, to be sure, but just not the same. I will always appreciate that, and I’ll choose it again if I have a choice.)

When I was actually able to turn my attention to being there, I noticed that the room smelled marvelous (lavender, I recall) and somehow was very homey and calming. At this point, Peggy had concluded from talking with Cathy that what we were going through was quite possibly real labor, with the back pain indicating back labor. (Perversely, this “validation” made us feel at least a little better, that we weren’t crying over a little nick.) When Jackie arrived, they got an antibiotic drip into Cathy to counteract a positive test for “Group-B strep”–our one concession to modern medicine during the process. Poor Cathy, of course, simply detests needles, as her veins are not particularly cooperative for phlebotomists, and it was a minor struggle to get the shunt (an evil-sounding name unto itself, isn’t it?) into that most uncomfortable of all possible positions—on the back of the hand.  Oi.

The whole point of this was to find out where we were, exactly. The signs thus far had not pointed to anything we could count on, and for all we knew we weren’t dilated at all. We couldn’t reasonably do a vaginal exam until the antibiotic had had a chance to do its work (its whole purpose is to protect the baby while passing through the birth canal, so the exam itself presented a risk), and so during the time it took to get hooked up, empty the drip, and wait for it to have full effect, we tried to get a handle on the back labor. I got into comfortable clothes (still not knowing how long we’d be at it, I came prepared for a haul), put on our own music (a newgrass collection featuring Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, and of course Sam Bush, which drew some nice comments from Jackie), and went into learn-and-do mode.

We had taken recommended classes, read recommended materials, and did some of our own research, but in the end, as always, it came down to, er, “just-in-time” learning. It’s not that preparation is not essential, but it’s essential only in that it is background, it is context. Looking back on it now, every bit of that background was useful, but for us, only part of it happened in a manner that even resembled what we had seen and read. What really made it was having the midwives there, with their attention focused on the most important matters of principle, guiding us along, adapting and teaching and showing us as we went. (At a time when you are under a considerable amount of stress, in completely unfamiliar territory, not knowing what comes next even under ideal circumstances, for things to take a turn you not only did not expect but hadn’t even considered, it can be very easy to get derailed from the objective. As Sun Tzu so appropriately said, “in any battle the first casualty is the battle plan.” Just so. And at that point you must fall back on principles and pay attention.)

The back labor was the big unexpected factor. Back labor essentially means that the baby is turned backwards so that the baby’s spine is aligned with mom’s spine. This is not an ideal position for a gentle birth, and if you can remedy it, you remedy it. It certainly explained the pain Cathy had been having, but was a bit alarming in that it presented a potential problem to go with the one we already had (not knowing if we were even in labor or at all dilated), and with the one we were currently discovering, which was that we could not find distinctively where the heartbeat was—that is, our best guess was back labor, but with no real confirmation yet. So, with the best intelligence we had available to us at the time, we set about focusing on getting that baby to turn around and align properly. (This is all during contractions, mind you.) Okay, great, how does one do that? We had heard in the classes that there are “things you can do” to get a baby to turn around, but no mention of what those actually were. Suddenly that detail was pretty important:  what’s the trick to getting a baby to turn over on its own accord?


Yup, apparently simple gravity works, even in the womb—baby’s backside is heavier than its frontside, and so we got Cathy on all fours, which was at least initially not comfortable for her, but she was a trooper and did it anyway. With a little bit of time and with some attention from dad and the midwives, she learned how to work with her own contractions, and got visibly better at managing the pain and discomfort.  I was amazed by this, at how much better she was handling these much-more-intense contractions than the ones that we had started with. Along in there somewhere she even tried a shower, which definitely made things better. (It’s a weird thing for a first-time parent to really buy into the idea that you don’t want the pain to go away—it’s going to happen whether you are ready for it or not—you want to learn to ride the contraction like a surfer, letting your body do the work instead of fighting it. The whole purpose of labor, if I understood all this right, is to achieve effacement and dilation, which is involuntary. Mom will do best to simply learn to get out of the way.) This went on for a while, with Cathy on hands and knees and the birthing ball, and with both parents praying hard for a little coaxial roll, until we were confident the antibiotic had had its full chance to take effect. Hopefully, we could now find out where the heck we were.

Peggy was the one that did the exam, and I confess I was still pretty worried at this point—for me, the worst part of anything is not knowing, and we didn’t seem to know much for sure, despite quite a few hours of what sure seemed like labor to me. I was doing my best to keep Cathy calm (meaning, I was doing my best to keep me calm; Cathy was already a proven rock star by this point) when Peggy started, and almost immediately got really wide-eyed—but it was a bright sort of wide-eyed.

“Oh my God, I feel hair!”

Now, it took me a moment to realize what that meant. I’m fairly sure that everyone else in the room figured it out well before me; in fact I think I got it right about the time Peggy was explaining it to me. This one little revelation was pretty conclusive proof of the following:

  • Cathy’s water had definitely broken. (In fact, it suddenly occurred to me, it had probably broken even before she was awakened by the cramps. All those little tablespoon-sized leakages had probably added up over the course of everything that happened.)
  • Baby had most certainly descended, and apparently went right into labor directly thereafter. Apparently this is common in a mother’s subsequent deliveries, but not common for her first.
  • She was not just dilated, she was really dilated. We went from not knowing we were dilated at all, to being at 10cm. This also meant that all the pain and labor she had gone through thus far was not only not in vain, it was real, honest labor—and it was already behind her.

As if this news were not heartening enough, Peggy also said that she felt the head turned correctly, toward Cathy’s back. Jackie was instantly on it, figuring that if that were the case, they should try listening for the heartbeat again—since we had been looking for a baby that had not even descended yet, not one that was already at zero station. “Well, if that’s right, then we should be able to listen right about here…”  wump-wump-wump-wump-wump… Cathy and I both got a huge jolt of both adrenaline and relief at that one. Big, strong and beautiful, and right along the anterior the way we wanted. (Imagine that…just getting her on all fours, and working with the birthing ball, caused that baby to roll right around and cooperate. If I hadn’t already accepted that a successful, healthy birth really is something of a miracle unto itself, I was definitely there now.)

“Hey, let’s have us a baby!”

With that, we shifted gears and started walking (again, that marvelous gravity thing), while the midwives drew the bathwater in case Cathy wanted to do a water birth, which had been an intriguing option but one that just kinda got overtaken by events. (We may yet try one in the  future—personally, I am fascinated at the idea that it presents no risk to the baby because it does not try to draw any breath until air hits its face.) We did several laps around the birthing center’s “classroom”, and even a couple trips up and down the stairs. It was during this process that Cathy felt the shift into transition, when the urge to bear down and push starts to become inexplicably compelling. (And it continued to simply amaze me, having grown up with such a limited mental image of births in hospitals, moms strapped to metallic beds in white rooms with green scrubs, that almost every minute of our own experience was spent in our own clothes, with the ability to walk around, and work things through entirely at our own discretion. Here we were at full dilation and effacement, and were taking a stroll up and down the stairs! I simply had no idea that it could be like that.)

The midwives had Cathy try several positions to facilitate the birth, including both the high and low stools, which can seem almost amusing or medieval until you actually take a look at how they open up the pelvis to, well, exactly the right attitude to let a baby come out. The contractions for Cathy seemed to take on a very different flavor; it wasn’t so much pain as it was discomfort, and not so much discomfort even as an uncontrollable urge to get this done. We got to the point at which the midwives must have known the birth was imminent, as they seemed to be testing her to see how effective her push was. Apparently at this point, you want to push as hard as you can, but no harder, to avoid tearing the perineum. The midwives used olive oil and literally supported the perineum with fingers, during the pushes.

This segment was fascinating for me to observe, as Cathy seemed at turns to doubt herself, and the midwives on a couple of occasions actually had her take her own hand and feel where the baby’s hair was, for herself—this immediately produced a positive reaction in Cathy, who found the strength to bear down again and more besides. (Interestingly, Cathy does not remember any doubt, herself; she remembers the intensity being overwhelming, and thinking that she really wasn’t as far along as she actually was.) I was also tremendously impressed at how with every contraction and push, the midwives checked in on everything—perineum okay, heartbeat okay, mom okay. They’ve got your back.

We eventually got to the point where we chose a birth position, with the deliberate intention that this is it; it’s time. It was at that point that I reminded Peggy and Jackie that I wanted to catch if I could, and they didn’t even blink, but immediately put me to work. Initially, I held the perineum as Peggy worked on the crown and Jackie worked with Cathy; the position she had chosen was sort of sideways-supine, with Peggy and I manipulating legs to simulate the great effectiveness of the taller stool but without having Cathy feel like she was sitting on the crapper to give birth. (I get the impression that a birth is necessarily an indelicate experience, and we had certainly long since subordinated any sense of propriety to the desire for efficient function. I cannot imagine that anyone who has attended a birth would argue that efficient function does not have its own compelling dignity.)

Cathy pushed and she pushed, and in the end it really didn’t take that long. I was on perineum duty when the baby crowned, and I gotta tell you it is heart-wrenching to see that little head suck back in just a fraction as mom lets go of one push and rests for the next one. Holy cow!  But the next contraction came, and Cathy bore down, and the head came out with Peggy’s help—and here was another one of those images that a new father has simply never even fathomed; the head is out and mom rests for a minute or so before the next push. The baby even began to cry in between, which both startled me and brought tears to my eyes.

“Okay, dad, time to pull him out.” Ah, right! I was so flabbergasted at the whole spectacle that I had to be reminded that this was my moment. And here’s the crazy part: I kinda figured that by the time the head crowned, the shoulders would just sort of slip through and I’d truly be catching a baby that was sliding out on its own. I was not prepared to actually have to pull to get the little munchkin out, but I learn pretty quickly when I have to, and with a little tug, we had us a newborn.

And, for you eagle-eyed readers, about that “him” in the quote above: all throughout our time at the midwifery, through all the appointments with all the midwives, we can recall only one comment that did not predict a baby boy—on one occasion, Jackie had said “either it’s a boy, or a sleeping girl”, referring to the relatively slow, steady heartbeat. Apparently boys’ heartbeats are very steady, while girls’ heartbeats will fluctuate and flutter with certain stimuli, and every heartbeat we had heard previously had everyone confident of “boy”, right down to the birth itself. Which is why it was so amusing to pull our new daughter into the outside world. Somehow, the mental image of “my child, contrarian from birth” seems perfectly right for the occasion, and I will always remember that.

Peggy and Jackie deftly got her cleaned up and onto mom’s skin while Cathy and I both had some pretty nice tears. The time was 3.50 in the afternoon, after probably 16 or so hours of labor, and less than five at the birthing center. Looking back on it, Cathy handled it all with amazing grace and not even so much as a Tylenol; I was there with her the whole time and I can still hardly believe it.

Sabre Ruth Wilmeth (first name is pronounced SAY-bree) was 6 pounds 13 ounces, 20” long, with a 13” head. She is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and I have never been more in love with my wife than I am now.

(When you’re male and grow up with such a limited view of what the birth experience is like, it is easy to think of some of the common clichés as little platitudes designed to make moms feel better about their accomplishment, but without really meaning anything. Well, I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but brother, it’s real. The birth of my child is the most astounding thing I have ever witnessed, in almost every one of its parts—the mother’s body that somehow knows exactly what to do, and does it without direction—the voluntary cooperation of the baby who has not yet drawn her first breath—the very development of this miniature human, against all sorts of odds of defect and mishap—the mother learning how to voluntarily submit to what must be tremendous discomfort and pain—and the midwives, performing the incalculably valuable function of showing us all, by demonstration, that this is a perfectly natural process. And there is the indescribable spectacle of literally watching your child come from your wife’s body. It is impossible to describe how impressive that all seems to someone who is completely and utterly not capable of these feats. Cathy has told me countless times since then that my assistance was valuable and even essential to her success, and I certainly appreciate that, but it just pales in comparison to what she can do—to what she has done. That she chose me to do this with is probably the greatest compliment I have ever received.)

We ran tests, and did the foot-prick, and cut the cord (tougher than you think!), and before long Cathy delivered the placenta naturally. Even here, the midwives did a great job of educating us as we went along, showing us by looking at the placenta that everything looked great. I filled out some paperwork, Cathy got little Sabre nursing on colostrum, and the postpartum checks on Cathy started. Everything looked good, with the perineum intact and those marvelous words, “mom and baby are doing fine.”

It was late enough in the day that Peggy and Jackie invited us to stay the night at the birthing center. By 7pm, we would have been cleared to go, but we took them up on this offer. The midwifery ordered dinner for us, a pizza from a local and fairly swanky Italian place down the street. (To mom & dad, this simple meal tasted pretty exquisite.) We finished the evening off by making the most important calls, to parents. We were lucky to reach both sets of parents directly (it was getting late in St. Paul, and not exactly early in Bozeman), and they seemed quite pleased, if as surprised as we were that Sabre had arrived eleven days early.

As we calmed down a bit after the events of the day, we also reflected that our first daughter had been born to a Sam Bush record. Somehow, that seemed extraordinarily right. After all those years watching Sam at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, literally watching pregnant women one year return with babies the next, and seeing those kids grow up each subsequent year, I wouldn’t have chosen it any other way. A small thing, to be sure, but at the same time, not so small.

We slept well that night, given that we didn’t sleep much that night. I got some great daddy time with the wee miss on my chest, after she made it fairly clear that the midwifery’s bedside bassinet simply would not do. I had read a number of testimonials about how nice it can be for a dad to have the little one sleeping like this, and I gotta say oh yeah, that is just one hundred percent a-OK with me. (Naturally, my subsequent ability to achieve this same result has been woefully inadequate—at least by my reckoning—but whenever it does happen, it makes everyone happy.)

The next morning, we were visited by the owner of the midwifery, Judy, who checked in on us and ordered us breakfast (completely above and beyond the call, and highly, highly appreciated). Both Sabre and Cathy got a clean bill of health and we were good to go home right away. This worked out well for everyone, including Judy, who was on her way to an alternate church service that Sunday morning. It seems that someone found it necessary to burn down the governor’s church the day before, which just happened to be the same one that Judy goes to. I wish I could say that I was really surprised by this, but sadly in my observation, naked arson is just about in keeping with the type and quality of attack against her that we had seen throughout the campaign and even well after her loss.  At any rate, it impressed me that the church had decided to meet elsewhere, at last minute on word of mouth, and if Judy was any indication of the congregation, they did so with considerable grace and class, and little if any judgment. (She never even hinted at what she thought of the governor, one way or the other. Gratifying.) It probably will not surprise you that we wished Judy well and let her get on her way as soon as we could.

So! We had a healthy baby, and a healthy mom, and it was time to go home. Sunday was another really cold and clear day; the car thermometer said eighteen below, and lemme tell you, that was one of the most gingerly handled car rides of all time!

Sabre Ruth at home

Okay then. At home with new baby. Now what?

It has been said many times that babies do not come with an instruction manual. Okay, some people are true masters of understatement. The next four weeks would prove to be the most educational in my life, bar none, and the featured methodology would again be called “just-in-time” learning. I hate that damn phrase, but that doesn’t mean there’s one better! Among the things that we learned:

First, let nobody distract you from this Golden Rule:  context is the most important “detail” you can get.  Lemme ‘splain

In the first week, little Sabre didn’t seem to follow any of the expected behaviors. It started with acute narcolepsy at the breast: she would try to latch on but whenever she managed to do it, she’d take a couple of sucks and fall right asleep. (This is far more frustrating to a new mother than it may sound.) Sabre never refused the breast; she was always interested—she just zonked out right as she managed to latch on. As well, she had started out with some simply amazing fuss fits through the night, which changed to lots of sleepiness later in the week.  And right before the first week checkup at the midwifery, it occurred to us that she hadn’t had a dirty diaper in over 24 hours (this was something specific we were told to watch out for), after a most impressive start with passing the meconium. (Dad had had the first diaper change, at the midwifery, which was comedy incarnate. The sheer volume of that black tar was eye-popping, and because even the preemie-sized diaper was like a muu-muu on her, meconium had already smeared all over the carefully chosen first outfit as well. Sigh…Not to be deterred, dad got the diaper out of the way and made with the wiping, carefully observing the front-to-back guideline…whereupon…you guessed it: Sabre re-flooded the torpedo tube with approximately the same payload, at the exact moment when dad had two feet in one hand and a maxed-out wipe in the other. We have since established that Sabre Ruth can specialize, at will, in diaper changes featuring multiple diapers per change!) Anyway, at that one-week checkup, we found her weight was 5lb 11oz, and our jaws hit the floor.

It is expected that babies lose a little weight after they are born, and that they tend to re-gain their birth weight after about two weeks. So, we were expecting to lose a little bit, but not almost 20% of her body weight, which was surprisingly low to both of us to begin with, and 5lb 11oz really did start to sound like “preemie”. When we saw some concern about her weight from the midwives, we latched on to that concern, hard. Now…in hindsight, we may well have misjudged the amount of importance others were placing on weight as the preeminent indicator of health (I suspect it, now), but our biggest mistake was then focusing so hard on the singular goal of getting weight on her, that we lost sight of other indicators of health.

We felt horrible about this. We could now see that the symptoms we were seeing before, pointed to Sabre actually not getting the food we thought she was getting: no dirty diapers because there was nothing to poop out; increased sleepiness was actually the lethargy that the books warned us about; and the screaming fits were because our new daughter was actually going hungry. We thought she was getting food at the breast but now it was pretty clear that was not right, and there are few feelings that can compare to the utter pit-in-the-stomach sense that you have been starving your first-born child without even knowing it.

We kicked into high gear, steering everything toward getting weight on this girl. She continued not to latch on in the way that everyone told us that a normal baby would—not helping already exhausted and now nearly panicky parents—and we turned to other means. Eventually, one of the midwives (who were being heroically accessible to us the whole time) suggested manually expressing milk and spoon-feeding it. And so a heart-wrenchingly frustrated Cathy tried this one afternoon, and the effect on Sabre was immediate. Her eyes opened up wide and alert, she calmed down, and then slept naturally. Okay, so…when we know she gets food, she suddenly starts acting exactly as we’d thought she should from the beginning. Great. So, now, the best way to get food into her? The midwives suggested a pump and a plastic-needled syringe, and Dad sprang into action to secure the equipment. (Hey, it was something to do other than feel utterly helpless!)

The syringe imposed its own imprisoning box, again inadvertently. Pumping and feeding with syringe meant two things: one, that she did start getting food, and two, that we knew exactly how much food that was. That was fantastic, because we could see her getting the food she had not been getting before. And that was also very difficult, because knowing exactly how much food we were putting in her imposed new and very specific expectations on mom, dad and baby, that in hindsight we probably paid way too much attention to. Over the next roughly two weeks, through both visits to the midwifery and housecalls by the midwives and a lactation specialist, we kept a close eye on her weight, and it did start to come up, well enough that we could even see the rate of weight gain increasing.

On the syringe, our problems turned to managing the pump, keeping the “right” amount of food going into Sabre, and trying to figure out how to do a proper latch at the same time. This involved a three-step process at each feeding: 1) try to nurse, working on the latch, then 2) feed Sabre pumped milk via the syringe, and finally 3) pump for the next feeding. For poor Cathy, this often meant that a feeding lasted three times as long as it would for a “normal” nursing mother, prompting one of the midwives to comment sympathetically, “you know, we often say that new moms feel like they do nothing but feed their babies, but for you, it really is like that, isn’t it?” Even with Dad volunteering to take some feedings, Cathy still had to be awake to pump, and the fact that we now knew that our daughter was getting food, kept us going. In the middle of all this, too, Cathy even tried using a nipple shield (which essentially fits over the natural nipple and presents a different shape to the baby’s mouth…we had established that Sabre’s mouth was both very small, and that like her mom she could not open her jaw as much as one would expect) to work on getting her the best chance for a good latch.

The lactation specialist, Heather, was an absolute godsend. Now the midwives are no slouches when it comes to nursing help and advice, but the specialist over several visits was able to help Cathy work through her frustrations, help her find the latch she needed with confidence, and help encourage her to try going off the syringe and back on to the breast. (What I find interesting in hindsight was that Cathy and Sabre seemed to “figure out” the latch almost all at once, after one of Heather’s visits. We had been told, both by Heather and by Sue O’Dell in Denver, that many babies having trouble finding a latch seem to “just figure it out” in the third or fourth week. In the end, Cathy did the work herself, but I suspect that the outside help was invaluable in reassurance and confidence.)

It was during the help-with-nursing stage that we got a few little pieces of context that were amazingly enlightening, in hindsight. First, we learned somewhere in there that the amount of weight that Sabre lost that first week was certainly on the high side, but not unprecedented—and one resource specifically said that people too often use weight as a singular measure of success, rather than taking into account other indicators of health.  Other indicators of health? It was at that point that a few other things swam into focus. It occurred to us that at no point had anyone actually said that she didn’t look healthy…her skin and color looked great, she seemed normally alert, not abnormally distressed, and so on…just a little on the light side, something to try and work on, and a little jaundice. From the beginning we had felt that something wasn’t quite right, without knowing exactly what…and when we heard that the weight had dropped more than we’d expected, we zoomed right in on that, putting everything into remedying that problem. Classic tunnel vision.

Other little things came into focus as well. Not too long after going on the syringe, the wee miss had started to make up for lost time with regard to both wet and dirty diapers. It turns out that this is another indicator of health—you know she’s getting enough food when you can see it coming out the flipside! Also, we had started to notice that Sabre would fuss badly after she had nursed a little bit, which did not bode well for weaning her off the syringe and back onto the breast. We did not consider that we might still be looking for a nail for our hammer—it never occurred to us that she might have been fussing over the syringe, not over the breast. In hindsight, it seems pretty clear that it was the syringe that she wasn’t entirely happy with. (The little critter probably took it the same way we did, in the end: “this is not my preference, but it’s getting me what I need, so I’ll do it”) In short, each time we backed out and took a broader-context look, things became  much clearer, and much calmer.

At the end of the third week, with new confidence in the latch (brought about at least in part by a slightly bigger baby!), Cathy and Sabre went “cold turkey” off the syringe, and onto the breast, and seem to be doing fine. (Happily, we made it through this process without resorting to formula.) The concerns about “how do we know she’s getting enough, now, when we can’t see it going in her?” seem to have abated (since we can certainly still see it coming out), and each day things get a little closer to what seems “normal” to us. Looking back on it now, it seems pretty clear that we lost sight of the right context, and probably chased our tail unnecessarily. Context is hard on a new parent—how on earth do you even know what you don’t know?

So, we learned things that we expected to learn, but got caught in some of the traps anyway. Perhaps this was simple vanity on our parts; I still believe that one of our strongest assets is our ability to keep things in perspective, but I am humbled at how we still managed to lose sight of many things that probably could have kept us much more calm and rested during the process of figuring out how to get Sabre successfully to the breast. Likewise, I know that I usually have the ability to adapt to change pretty flexibly, but I gotta say, when your newborn daughter seems to throw something new at you every hour or better, challenging everything you think you have learned to this point, it can get rough. (I have had cause to be thankful for every bit of background reading and knowledge that I have managed to acquire, and yet I’m not sure anything could have really prepared me for this.) And I suppose we should take some solace in some of the comments from the midwives who complimented us on being very aware and observant about things that might not be right. Here we felt that we had failed so miserably that we were literally starving our daughter, but the comments from others suggested that we were actually ahead of the curve. I guess that’s what happens when you want to succeed that badly.

We learned that you really do know more than you think you do. At various points in this process, we got what seemed like conflicting information, or at least conflicting priorities, from multiple parties. Sometimes we were faced with the choice of doing what people were recommending, or doing what we knew to be getting ounces on our little girl. In the end, we made our choices and are happy with where we have come, and as we continue to incorporate what seems right to us with what people recommend to us, things continue to get better all the while. (It is important to note here how significant it is that the midwives and Heather supported our right to do this at all times. Had we been in a traditional environment with this set of circumstances, it is quite possible that the loss in weight may have prompted an immediate mandate for formula supplements, which we really wanted to avoid. We were able to work it out naturally, if not without challenge, simply by some attention and investment of time. Now obviously we don’t know that it would have been different, but having the conspicuous choice is intensely gratifying.)

We certainly have learned that a new parent’s sense of time changes. Before Sabre, neither Cathy nor I would have ever believed that you could put one or two ten-minute items on your day’s task list and not be able to get to them, literally. With a due nod to The Powers That Be, okay, we get it now. (And that seems to be the crux in making it seem a little less impossible the next time you attempt it, by the way.)

Finally, I have learned just how much of a rock star my wife is. I know I’ve been singing her praises elsewhere in this tome, but please allow me to close with another accolade. I am intensely grateful to have been around pretty much the whole time since Sabre was born; I work during the days now but I am still here at the haus when I do, and I’ve only been away for a handful of supply and grocery trips. This means both that I get to help out a lot (which I am very happy about), and it also means that I have been able to see how Cathy interacts with Sabre, frequently and uncensored. In a nutshell, her patience and devotion has surprised even me—and I had some pretty big expectations. I mean, I figured Cathy would be a good mother, but I have been here to see what she has been through, the frustrations, the  triple-time feedings, the inconsolable newborn fits, the obvious soreness from the enthusiastic munch that produces a good latch…but most of all, I have now seen her try everything that her considerable mind can come up with to do right by her new baby, in spite of scares, all sort and manner of little curveballs, and of course all of it on broken or no sleep. When I know good and well that she must be crazy tired, and nothing that I have tried is calming the fussing miss down, she calmly takes her from me, sits down with her and starts to work her patient magic. At her level worst, she is still more impressive than I could have ever asked for. Sabre Ruth may be the most beautiful creature I have ever seen, but Cathy is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. Of course that doesn’t make sense, except that it does.

Trust me on this.