And Rachel Mourned...
"With God, all things are possible."
When we think of Christmas joy, why would we want to ponder the Holy Innocents? How often do Christians meditate upon the meaning and death of the babies in Bethlehem and nearby towns - that most unexpected tragedy following the birth of Our Lord? Like Easter, Christmas has its own Passion. For every great gift, it seems there is also sorrow.
Two years ago, my husband and I were anticipating the birth of our fifth child, a little son we decided would be christened Matthew. For the first time, however, I was not sure of the baby's actual due date. I believed the date would be December 28th - the Feast of the Holy Innocents. However, an ultrasound earlier in the pregnancy showed January 19th as a more likely due date. For many reasons, I remained unconvinced that modern medical technology could be that right.
A long and complicated series of events led me to looking into a natural, unmedicated birth. Researching 27 books on the subject of natural birth also introduced the subject of home birth … something I never seriously contemplated, due to my history of c-sections. With the hope of helping someone avert a similar tragedy or comforting another grieving parent, I share our sorrow and our story.
While expecting Matthew, I lost trust in the medical profession with my obstetrician's shocking revelation that three of my four surgical births were "not really necessary." Beside the normal human aversion to physical pain, the inconsistencies and attitudes of hospital medical personnel made me uneasy. Certain events inflicted mental suffering, resulting in my inner flinching against another surgical birth.
During my third cesarean, I felt so much pain when the baby was pulled through the abdominal incision that I screamed. In the next pregnancy, we had been told our baby would be so mentally retarded, he would probably die at birth. They were wrong, I am overjoyed to say. After five month's of mental anguish, our fourth baby was born perfectly normal, both mentally and physically.
Physical recovery time after each birth increased, caused by the pain's intensity and duration. Nobody beside my husband really knew the depth of my suffering, or the depths of my fear. People, we soon discovered, think cesarean birth is "the easy way out." They repeatedly failed to understand that mothers must recover from major surgery in addition to pregnancy itself.
Even more, these kind of people aren't ashamed in their attempts to make c-section mothers feel like second class citizens. I was strong-minded enough to dismiss such prejudices, thrilled that each baby had safely arrived into our waiting arms. The only thing that matters is that the baby is healthy and living, I always knew. However, I could not dismiss my own fear, knowing each cesarean was harder than the last.
It took months, not weeks, to recover from the fourth baby's birth. My husband and I decided we had to postpone another pregnancy indefinitely. I simply could not endure another surgery.
Five years passed, and one spring we were pleasantly surprised to discover baby number five was on his way. Almost seven months later, a long-distance friend with a history similar to mine gave birth to her fifth child. After four cesareans of her own, her first natural birth was at home, assisted by a midwife!
I had no desire for a homebirth but the idea of a natural birth attracted me. I had been in labor with my first baby, all the way to the end. It was hard, but I felt recovery from surgery was worse. After initially agreeing to a trial of natural labor, it was then that my doctor informed me that my last three surgeries were medically unnecessary.
Just a few weeks later, my doctor abruptly changed his mind about a natural birth. He would offer no medical reason. He was surprisingly abrupt and curt with me. My research into the subject suggested doctors were prejudiced against VBAC's (vaginal birth after cesarean), and my doctor seemed to be proving that research true. That same research not only expounded the virtues of natural birth but inevitably pointed to homebirth.
My first reaction to homebirth was skepticism. I had no intention to attempt one. The more I read and studied on natural birth, however, I wanted to delve a bit further. After discussing the situation with my husband, we agreed we would at least speak to a midwife.
The certified midwife recommended to us had twenty years of experience. During the course of a three hour interview, "Lisa" (not her real name) was calm and collected, allaying my fears with her answers. She even told us she believed that were times medical intervention was necessary. In fact, she said she would not accept me as a client if I refused possible medical help during the birth.
A few days after receiving my pregnancy records and reading them, the midwife showed me discrepancies between test results and what I had been told. We felt she was right and my last vestige of trust in doctors vanished. I was actually preparing myself for not just a natural birth, but a certified midwife assisted homebirth.
Through the entire pregnancy, our family prayed a nightly Rosary, Novenas to Our Lady and Padre Pio, invoked the venerable Fransisco and Jacinta of Fatima - in short, we stormed heaven for a happy, safe birth. Readers of my magazine (The Catholic Family's Magnificat! Magazine) wrote with promised prayers and Masses for our intentions. After confession and Mass, my husband and I would often ask our parish priest for the blessing of an expectant mother and her unborn child.
My earlier ultrasound due date came and went. I tried all the natural means to go into labor. Anxious as one week turned into two, I called the midwife on a daily basis. What would happen if I didn't go into labor soon? She had an answer for all my concerns. She even insinuated that my earlier experiences were causing all my anxiety and kept repeating to me, "You must tell yourself that you can give birth." Lisa suggested I could schedule an ultrasound with an associate midwife if I wished. I felt her coolness thinly disguised a patronizing manner. Alarmed, I insisted on going to a hospital for the test. Lisa finally agreed and made arrangements through a doctor friend at a Catholic hospital, Our Lady of Bon Secour.
My entire being was ringing alarm bells, but I was told that was just maternal apprehension. I broke down with my husband, telling him if I didn't like the sonogram results, I wanted to contact my ob-gyn doctor and ask him to do the surgery. Even Tim was surprised at the intensity of my feelings, saying everything he could to relax me.
Little Matthew kicked and squirmed through the whole test, and the technician beamed, "Looks like a strong boy - I have never seen a baby move this much! Usually they are so quiet at this stage." We were so happy and relieved, and my anxiety lessened considerably. The midwife said she would call later when alerted to the remaining results. Though we called her many times later that day, she had nothing to tell us. Finally, she said that if the doctor called her with any unusual results, she would contact us. We did not hear from her.
My labor began the very next morning, on February 7, 1996. When I called Lisa, she said, "Oh, good. The doctor told me that your placenta was mature." Alarmed by the way she said this, I asked what was wrong with that. "Oh, nothing," she said. "It just means it's time for this baby to be born. I'll get my stuff and be on my way."
Three hours after calling her, the midwife and her assistant arrived. Lisa examined me and confirmed, "This is the real thing." Contractions had been 2 minutes apart for hours. We were excited to hear the baby's strong, clear heartbeat through the electronic doppler. Everything seemed to be going well.
Within twenty minutes of her arrival, Lisa told me it was time to take a warm shower to both relax me and help labor progress. While I was in the shower, Lisa told Tim, my husband, and my mother she had an errand to run and would return shortly. My mother didn't like this turn of events and tried to talk her into staying. Lisa insisted she would be "right back."
Time passed, and labor was getting difficult. Suddenly, leaning over our dining room table for support, I began to weep. My mother thought I was crying from pain, but it was an overwhelming sadness that I couldn't explain away. Looking at the time, I saw it was three o'clock in the afternoon.
Another hour and a half passed before the midwife returned. She decided to check the baby's heart rate. She had me turn on my back, then from one side to another, pressing the stethoscope all over my lower stomach. It was then I knew something had to be wrong.
Lisa calmly suggested we go to the hospital. Fear gripped me along with the pain of the contractions. It was so intense I could not stand without help. Tim, determined to stay calm, helped me dress for the short trip.
The Cross is Given
My midwife called the hospital to warn of our arrival. We heard her say, "The heartbeat is there but it's faint." We were instructed to bypass the emergency room and come straight to labor and delivery. After two more hours of terrible pain, silence on the part of attending medical personnel, growing anxiety, prayers offered to heaven, and finally - a bio-physical ultrasound of the baby - a doctor came to tell us, "We are very sorry for your loss."
Tim held me as I whispered, "No, no, no..." My husband's voice shook with tears. He murmured "Marianna, my love...listen to me. Marianna...remember, God never gives us a cross we can't bear." My mother wept. Between waves of pain and despair, I could barely hear the doctor's next words, which sounded like jabbering. I tried to listen. He wanted me to agree to a c-section, saying, "Mrs. Bartold, your blood pressure has reached a dangerous level. Ma'am...Let's avoid a further tragedy. We don't want two deaths today."
In shock and hoping against hope that he was wrong about the baby, I submitted. Prayers turned into pleas with God. "With God, all things were possible," rang through my panic-stricken mind. But little Matthew, beautiful and perfect, was dead. Reality flipped a sickeningly ironic twist on us....we had no healthy, living baby and I had the dreaded c-section after all.
We were told later that the cause of death was unknown. There was no wrapped or compressed or kinked cord, no abruption of the placenta, nothing. Our little son was in the correct position for birth. He himself was perfect, with no physical problems found. Muconeum was present when he was born, proof that he had been in recent distress. Their only conclusion was that somehow, the placenta was compromised during the labor, slowing or cutting off oxygen to the baby.
Days later, the midwife began to change the succession of events during the homebirth, even saying that what we thought had been the baby's heartbeat was mine. In the calmness that surrounds the shock of a death, I told her, "My heart rate is not 144 beats a minute. You should know the difference between a mother's heartbeat and her baby's." She was momentarily stunned by my astuteness, but then her lies continued. It was clear to us she was trying to cover her own possible negligence in the tragedy.
As I have explained here, the events and reasons that led me to attempt a home birth were many, layered and intertwined. But they do not stop the emotional pain and, even today at times, the self-accusation. It has been hard for me to forgive the midwife, too, for her complacency and her later lies.
The Spiritual Crucifixion
My husband has reminded me often that God could have intervened but, for reasons we don't know, He did not. I understood that but it seemed to confirm God's abandonment. He knew everything and was all-powerful. Why were all those Masses and prayers and blessings for naught?
Why wasn't Matthew's brand new life spared? This baby was perfect and healthy. I reasoned it must have been some defect in my body that caused his death. Why was he even created if he had to die so soon? Why wouldn't the Creator of the universe just will that this baby overcome whatever was the difficulty? What was the use of it all? I kept asking the same questions, but no answers ever came. For me, the horror that my little baby had suffocated to death gripped me in an unmerciful vise. I blamed myself. Why did I do it?
And then there was question that was one of my greatest tortures: Was Matthew in Heaven or in Limbo? Did my his life slowly fade away painlessly or did he suffer - only to find himself denied the presence of God? We had called three priests before the cesarean but none ever came. The abandonment was complete, and so my doubts remained. Where was Matthew?
My husband and I baptized the baby as he lay so still in my arms. We used the traditional form of conditional baptism. My heart was dying within me; the baptism came too late. It took months before hope returned that our baby was baptized through our desire and our earlier plans for his baptism. Surely God would accept our intentions, especially since He knew we had asked that all our other children receive that first sacrament. The Catechism of the Church commends such children to God's mercy. The existence of Limbo - that place of happiness but deprived of the Beatific Vision - is a theological discussion. Its existence is not a doctrine or dogma of the Church.
If God accepted a church baptism for a living child based on the parents' desire, wouldn't He also accept the baptism of a preborn child based on the parents' pre-existing desire? It is true that I do not know the answer for certain, but there is every reason to hope these reasons are sound.
My spiritual life went into a tail spin as the months followed. There were the added sufferings of unkind conjecture. Family members who wouldn't discuss Matthew with us vocalized their views to anyone and everyone behind our backs. Some said, "Don't discuss it. You'll get over it quicker." To my husband's face, a relative uttered, "Your wife is too sensitive. Besides, why is she crying? It's her fault, anyway." My husband valiantly defended me. But I remained frozen in my grief.
Some people even offered their conclusions as to our little son's death - none of them were something a parent would want to hear. "Perhaps he would have gone bad and God took him while he was still innocent." "God wanted another angel in heaven." "Maybe God is telling you that you've had enough children now. You don't have to do this anymore." No, those reasons were not what we wanted or needed to hear. These comments made our wounds deeper.
I had greatly suffered from the early deaths of my baby sister and my young father when I was still a child, but the long grief of those tragedies still did not prepare me for the loss of my own baby. I know now that the pain of those first losses was so deep I couldn't talk about it. During the day, I kept busy with homeschooling and related subjects. When my husband returned from work, we would talk to each other about Matthew. Our other children cried and suffered with us through it all.
At night, when everyone was asleep, I wrote, I studied, or I read. To stop meant to think. To think meant to remember that the cold, winter winds were blowing over my baby's resting place, covering him with snow... my little baby who should have been in his cradle, covered by his warm blanket... I worked until I fell into bed, exhausted. Work was my therapy, helping me cope in those first few months.
Matthew, my beloved baby with his curly red brown hair, round cheeks and rosebud mouth. What color were his eyes? I had wanted to open his closed eyes but felt that would be a desecration. My mother, who had suffered the loss of child and spouse and now a grandchild, later revealed she had gently opened his innocent eyes when holding him minutes after his birth. "His eyes were dark blue," she said with tears in her eyes. We cried together.
Natural is Not Always The Best
After many months, I stumbled onto some spiritual reading that gave me a glimmer of understanding, a fragment of answer. I do not say I like the answer, but I believe I re-discovered part of it. I say "re-discovered" because, in my pain, I had forgotten some of the basic truths revealed by the catechism of the Church. It was teaching this catechism to my own children that helped me in my suffering.
Do we realize that "natural" is not always good and that, in many areas, is not always God's will? Natural comes from the word "nature." Our human nature - physical and spiritual - is tainted and flawed by Original Sin. Human beings are not "naturally" good. The notion that anything "100" natural" is the best way to go is, I dare to say, a false notion. The same school of thought says natural birth is best.
God did not will us to die. But because we lost a special grace when our first parents fell, our natural bodies die a little bit each day. Our human bodies are frail, prone to ailments, physical flaws, and terrible diseases.We die a bit each day because our first parents followed their "natural" inclinations.
We sin because our natures have been stained by Original Sin. We make mistakes because of our natures. These things happen to us because our natures (spiritual and physical) are seriously affected by the marks of Original Sin. Thank God for supernatural and actual graces!
And so, a child who dies before birth, or at birth, or in early youth from a physical deformity, or a genetic or virus-born illness, is a victim of nature. This is true whether death comes through some fatal flaw in the birth process or through the effects of nature. The punishments of Adam and Eve included suffering and death.
The stillborn birth of our Matthew was due to some accident of labor, the result of nature's affects on my body and his. We were both children of Adam and Eve. For reasons known only to Himself, God did not intervene. Does this natural occurrence make Matthew's short life and early death any less tragic? Was our grief lighter because we did not "know" him or, as some people mistakenly believe, could not love him? Oh, yes, we loved him, especially me, his mother who carried him and whose whole life was centered around him all those long nine months.
And Rachel Mourned
My message to others has three parts. First, the tragedy taught me that "nature's way" is not the best way; we must use our knowledge in conjunction with our instincts. The knowledge and the facts about home birth seemed right to me...but my instincts, at the end, were telling me otherwise. I allowed myself to be persuaded away from trusting my inner voice.
Secondly, the loss of Matthew has taught me that, in most instances, God lets nature have its way. Lest I give the false impression that I have found the reason for my son's death, let me say I have not. I have accepted it with a broken heart, but I do not pretend to know why God allowed it to happen. Yes, I believe my baby's death was allowed, not decreed, by God. Still...like Rachel of old, I have wept and find no comfort because my child is no more.
Finally, the Scriptures tell us that "Rachel" -- the mothers (and, I'm sure, the fathers) of Israel -- mourned because her "children were no more." Shall we also note what it does not say … that Rachel should quickly "get over it and get on with her life"? Were the parents of Israel happy that their children had "gone to the bosom of Abraham"? No, the Bible says "Rachel mourned." It takes time to recover. Our recovery can be helped by the compassionate patience of others. Our healing does not come on others' timetables.
"And Jesus wept." Jesus knew He would raise Lazarus from the dead … He even knew the reason why Lazarus had died -- and yet -- He wept.
Isn't this God -- a God of love, justice, and mercy -- the same One Who understands the separation pain that death brings? And didn't He go even further to show us that when the time of mourning is past, our ultimate hope is the Resurrection? He showed us this with His own Life, Death and Resurrection!
The great yearning of my heart now is for the Resurrection Day. It is not just a vague event of the future for me. If I should attain heaven, I will see God face-to-face. The Resurrection is also a promise of hope and reunion with my baby son, my father, my little sister, and all those I have loved. Though I mourn them and miss them, they are not gone forever. They are praying and waiting for me and mine.
In October 1997, Marianna and Tim Bartold welcomed their sixth child, Michael Matthew, who was born via scheduled cesarean birth. Mrs. Bartold is the founder of Keeping It Catholic! a grass-roots faith and education organization in support of the Catholic family.
Editor's Note: This is a story of a homebirth gone wrong, for some human unexplained reasons and some Divine, unknowable reasons. Many home births go well, many midwives see their role as a vocation, a way to serve the Lord by serving the particular needs and desires of a Catholic mother.
Domestic-Church.Com would appreciate receiving other submissions from our readers about home birth, midwifery, child birth, and finding the necessary balance between human reason and God's plan. A quote from Saint Augustine explains it well; 'God makes the wind, but man raises the sail.' To send your submission, just mail us.
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