By Susan Ford Collins
Exhausted from a 14 hour day, I had been asleep for 15 minutes when a call from my daughter Cathy suddenly woke me up, "Mom, I think my water just broke."
Those words took me back to 31 years before. I had been baking cookies with one eye on late news, when a sudden gush of warm water rearranged our evening’s plans. Grabbing pre-packed bags, my husband and I immediately headed for the hospital and, in less than two hours, I was holding Cathy in my arms.
With that memory prodding me, I packed quickly and drove an hour and a half north to West Palm Beach, praying I would arrive there before the baby did, and rehearsing what I'd say if I was stopped by a state trooper.
But what happened to me didn't happen to Cathy. After two hours, anesthesiologist Dad-to-be Alan and I were still tossing and turning on lumpy cots in her room. At sunrise we took pictures of her sitting up in bed, ready and beautiful. But she wasn't in labor. The birth was 34 days early, so the doctors ran tests to determine her baby's maturity. Twelve hours later, the results were all positive. They would induce labor the next morning at six.
After 20 minutes on Pitocin, a printout of high spikes and low valleys confirmed that Cathy was in labor. Alan stood to her left, breathing through the pains with her. Her sister Margaret and I took turns on the right.
The pain increased and she needed anesthesia, but the anesthesia failed to work for this anesthesiologist’s wife… despite three painful attempts at correctly inserting the needle in her spine. My doctor-daughter Margaret and I winced as we watched her husband stand helplessly by observing a procedure, he had done successfully 200 times, go wrong on his wife. Having instantaneously assessed that jumping over the bed and jerking the needle out of that doctor's hand was illegal and inappropriate, he remained as calm as those circumstances allowed.
Cathy rose to the occasion. Focusing on her breathing, she managed herself masterfully for 12 grueling hours with only a minute between pains. As the baby’s head crowned, the obstetrician shouted, "Keep your eyes open!” On the next push, he helped Cathy reach down and deliver her own baby. At 5:47 p.m. Dylan's cone-shaped head and slippery supple body finally emerged, and Cathy pulled him up to her chest lovingly, gasping and sobbing as she glimpsed their new son for the first time. We all stood awed by the miracle of birth.
His waxy face looked exactly like Cathy's had when she was born—the same tiny nose, the same peachy complexion. But this baby was my daughter's, not mine. Our babies looked alike, but our deliveries were quite different. I had been taken off to labor alone, comforted only by a call button and overwhelming anesthesia. My husband paced the halls while my mother, recovering from electroshock therapy, sat limply by in the waiting room, knowing I was her daughter but not remembering my name.
As Cathy began to nurse her new baby, I reflected on the profound changes that had occurred in the generation between these births, changes in my life and my society. Today I can ask for what I want, and, even when I'm told No, I still hold my outcome. And I've long since learned how to avoid individuals who try to manipulate and control me—attempting to get their way by blocking mine.
But I hadn't known how to ask for what I wanted when I was Cathy's age, and even if I had, the hospital staff would have told me no. What I wanted didn't matter to them, bound by procedures, right ways and wrong ways, have tos and musts. So I simply did what I was told.
This birth was different. First and foremost, Cathy and Alan focused on their baby's safety and health. Second, they expected their staff to perform effectively and efficiently. Third, and most satisfying, Cathy and Alan had made choices. Dylan's birth was their creation. They had been preparing for months—visiting local hospitals to discover the one they wanted, interviewing obstetricians, pediatricians and delivery nurses to ensure their personalities would be compatible. Cathy had chosen a room with a sunrise view of the water.
It had never occurred to me to look at rooms when I delivered, to find which ones I liked and I didn't. So when Cathy asked me to walk through the halls to check out rooms with her, I was constrained by a certain residual compliance. I had taught her to make choices and she was comfortable doing it—even more comfortable than I was at times.
Cathy and Alan chose to leave the phone turned on during labor so friends could check on her progress. Nurses came as needed, doctors did too. There was no secrecy, no separation or aloneness. Anyone could hold her hand. Anyone could brush her hair, not just genetic family but family of heart. The entire birthing process took place in her room. Alan and I slept there the whole time. Dylan stayed there too, his tiny rolling glass-sided bed always within eyeshot. We bonded as a family in those precious first days.
I had reached a new level—The Grandparent Level. My leadership responsibilities had expanded again.
The Grandparent Level
My children are now asking me how to raise their child—how and when to feed him, when and how to bathe and pick him up. I am no longer just parenting, I am teaching them to parent.
Cathy and Alan are temporarily dependent on me, not knowing how to handle their screaming child in the night. Not knowing what to do when a fever spikes suddenly, or a rash erupts painfully. Their phone calls have increased. Their visits have increased. And my perceived value has increased as well. Oh how I wish I’d known about this stage when we were going through the rebellious and unappreciative teenage years. The years when I was viewed as "stupid and out of touch.” The years when my only value seemed to be paying their way.
Soon we will be teaching Dylan how to deal with new experiences—which ones are safe for him and which ones are dangerous, which things he can reach for and which ones he should draw back from. What’s possible and impossible for him, temporarily. We are installing his “basic life program.” And we’ll be responsible for updating it as he grows.
By the second week, I began noticing Cathy's resistance to my input. Her self-confidence was building and she was beginning to feel competent again. I was already backing off, remaining nearby in case she needed me. Even when there was nothing she needed, I was busy holding the vision of Cathy and Alan as successful parents and looking forward to Dylan's creations and inventions, to what he will teach us, to what he’ll contribute.
For the 10 Responsibilities of a Leader... a Parent or Grandparent, go to the Resources page or The 10 Responsibilities of a Leader... a Parent or Grandparent.
(c) Susan Ford Collins. For permission to use this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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