Explication Of My Guilt | Jessica Pulver
I want to write about my guilt, so first I will say what happened. On the afternoon of February 19, 2011 in our white farmhouse in New Hampshire, I pushed our son Leo out of my body and onto the blue rug in front of the wood stove. The labor had dragged past forty hours. I’d sucked on supplemental oxygen to keep my strength up, and left the birthing tub to walk naked circles around the house to jostle my body along. Kathryn, my midwife, had pried her fingers up inside me to nudge Leo’s head this way, that way. Leo was descending – I had seen his dark hair in a mirror between my legs – then pulled back in again. Kathryn and her assistant had tried different positions, on the floor with my legs up. Every time they moved me it felt excruciating. Then, suddenly, Kathryn saw meconium — babies’ first poop which comes out before birth if they are in distress. If Leo took a gasp while still in the uterus and aspirated meconium into his lungs, it would lead to respiratory dysfunction. Kathryn reached and dialed 911. A minute passed, four minutes, I was breathing, we were waiting, not knowing for what. Just as paramedics filed into our living room, Leo dropped from my body with one tidal heave. He lay there gray, his eyes closed. He didn’t cry, he didn’t move.
Other details survive. The smell of blood, of pads soaked in witch hazel. My husband Eric’s face, blank. The tug of the umbilical cord as they lifted Leo up, forgetting we were still attached. A glimpse of my rabbit, trembling in the corner of his cage, as they angled my stretcher through the narrow kitchen. The ambulance bumping on the frost heaves along the dark road to the local hospital. Wide glass doors sliding open. Nurses counting, clipboards, everyone rushing, no one saying what was happening. The sudden burn of IV pitocin when they realized my placenta was still inside me; the disappearing forearm of the woman who fetched it out of me when it was obvious pitocin was useless through my shock. A wail of agony. Being wheeled beside Leo: “You can touch your baby now.” Locking onto his dark eyes – for an instant we were familiar strangers, brought face to face from foreign worlds, and then they took him away again. Some time later, peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s Kiss centers my friend had baked, eating them and eating them, ravenously, insanely, not understanding how I could be in the car beside Eric as we followed Leo’s ambulance on its way to the NICU at Maine Medical Center. Rain on the windshield, Eric silently crying. Still knowing nothing.
Overwhelmingly, what I remember from that day is a distinct confusion, a lens that both sharpened my sensory experience and scrambled my cognitive experience. I witnessed events unfolding without any tether to a storyline. My voice arrived uninitiated. People I knew – loved – were like strangers acting parts.
Guilt was the first way my mind offered up to make sense of the situation. In no way did I choose guilt; in fact, as a therapist, I knew the pitfalls of guilt from seeing them play out over years of work with my clients. Guilt uses trauma as a substrate – it is opportunistic and predatory. Guilt can be blinding, like an addiction. Guilt can be isolating and unspeakable, a recipe for profound loneliness. Guilt can be grueling and wear a person down to the bones. Guilt can be bossy, it can lead someone to try controlling everything. It can be vigilant, can steal sleep and rest and peace. It can also be beguiling, resisting resistance, a chameleon in the realm of rational conversation. All this I knew well and yet I was defenseless when it came to my own trauma and the way guilt grew from it.
Early in the morning of Leo’s second day, as I sat in the NICU rocking chair and held him in my arms for the first time, breathing and feeding tubes attached, and sang him Edelweiss, guilt arrived without question. It lodged in my throat like a clump of dirt I couldn’t rinse down. It staked a claim on me that was as incontrovertible as the fact of my new motherhood. It said: you are responsible for this baby, and since you are responsible, his birth is your fault. You were reckless to plan a homebirth, candles, birthing tub; it was all foolish romance. You should have known your baby better, what he needed; you were hasty, began to push too soon. You should have taken fuller breaths on the living room floor to send the oxygen to him. You were naive to the stakes; even after they saw meconium and dialed 911, you believed he would be fine. You should have worried more.
Leo has Cerebral Palsy and it matters every day. He is in fifth grade now, and he has a hard time from the moment he wakes up. Extracting his limbs from under his quilt, walking to the bathroom to pee. He stumps across the floor, hobbled by spasticity, trying to balance on his bent left leg and right big toe. The entire right side of his body is more affected than the left, and the tightness pulls his right heel up so it doesn’t ever fully touch the floor. In the mornings he’s the stiffest; as the day wears on, his heel descends a bit. He leans on the doorknob. He leans on the sink and smears toothpaste across his PJs. He leans on the flimsy towel rack, forever overloaded by our family of five, and it collapses again. When he goes down with it, he slams his head on the tub, hard. But he doesn’t cry, he is used to falling down. He forms his stiff lips to call out, “I’m okay!” He even takes a deep breath first to project his weak voice so we can hear him from the kitchen where we are making coffee, bagels, a fire, and stick our heads out to the hall when we hear the thump upstairs.
Thumps like those are the drumbeat of my guilt that has aged over a decade. In them, I hear reverberations of fears and shame. Like an echo chamber: Leo might not walk. Leo might not talk. Leo might not have a friend, a career. Leo might not be able to kiss the person he falls in love with. Leo might not be happy, might be in pain. And his pain is my pain because it is my fault.
There is nothing special about guilt; it is common as a weed. From the beginning, when I talked with Eric about the birth, I could hear myself blame myself harshly. I cringed when I felt like guilt had become old and stale and almost self-indulgent in a masochistic way. Eric had his version too. On a date a few years ago, we were trying to relax by paying to soak in a hot tub. We got talking about Leo again, and Eric told me how he held himself accountable for allowing the labor to stagnate for so long and not insisting we go to the hospital.
“All I said was, ‘How long are we going to keep doing this, guys?’” he said to me, and I could see the tears in his eyes through the steam.
Kathryn, my hapless midwife, stayed with me for the first few days after Leo was born, bringing me pillows and salves for my hemorrhoids, helping me clean the breast pump parts. Maybe she would have done so regardless, but it seemed like guilt was prompting her to linger. Then she took a few months off from midwifery to reflect on whether she could continue. My grandparents came to visit Leo when he was four months old and failing to thrive, unable to coordinate his mouth muscles to draw in enough breastmilk. Even they spoke ruefully at our dining room table of wishing they had tried harder to convince us not to have a home birth.
Sometimes guilt gets turned around and the blame points outward at someone else. My mother and my mother-in-law do not have a lot in common, but they both gave cold shoulders to Kathryn when they saw her ministering to me in those early days. It made me uncomfortable to see this. I felt fiercely defensive of her and said repeatedly that she had done her best for me. I was shocked, when I began to read Cerebral Palsy websites, how many parents sued their doctors for malpractice in their children’s deliveries. It’s true I spent a long time poring over the details of the labor, and the medical records from the weeks before. Some of the explanations were flimsy because there really was no way to know what exactly had gone wrong, but some were because Kathryn tended to be an inattentive notetaker and was often flaky about her agenda at appointments. It would have been easy to hold this against her but I concluded instead that I should have been a better judge of character or taken a more active role. I steered far away from blaming Kathryn because I needed to keep the blame for myself.
What does it mean, this haunting? Pain is at the heart of what I want to say about guilt. Because despite the fact guilt caused me to suffer at various times in all the ways I recognized in my clients’ lives, the pain it kept me from was worse: I did not have to face the idea that CP was not my fault. What kind of terrifying, arbitrary world would that imply? How would I know how to live if anything bad could happen to me, if I wasn’t exceptional, if I had no power? Guilt was working for me, soothing me in a haze of lies, so I didn’t have to surrender my entire worldview to a meaningless existence. So for a long time, I relied on guilt to fuel my denial. Guilt snugs up close to regret, as if reality were something we chose, as if it were something we could have controlled, as if it were something that shouldn’t have happened, wasn’t supposed to happen, as if it were something bad, as if it were a mistake. And a mistake has no meaning when it comes to Leo.
First, yes there was trauma, but also as there often is, great strength. Leo and I managed together to get him born in the nick of time, before the paramedics loaded me onto the stretcher and brought me in the ambulance down the long bumpy road to the hospital, a ride during which he would have surely died inside me. Eric has called it miraculous more than once. So we have Leo in the world, and who would he be apart from CP? I love him immeasurably, and I mean I love all of him. I love his crooked lope across the baseball field. I love the way he starts laughing uncontrollably before he can finish telling a joke, and the laughter makes him drool.
Also, CP slows us down, brings us together, gives us perspective, patience, and resilience. I am proud of the strength of our family, Leo’s siblings, our marriage. And last, there is the nature of life, which is that it’s complicated. Who can know what would have happened, if this, if that? How responsible can we ever be?
I have learned it’s okay to hate CP sometimes and wish like hell that Leo didn’t have it, and still to find meaning, and even identity, even beauty in his disability. I have learned I can tell someone that Leo has CP because I had a homebirth, and in that sense I claim responsibility, but stop short of culpability. I have learned it’s important to try hard to make a good decision for Leo, but that trying too hard to get things right can lead to a place of arrogance or fantasy where it’s possible to live with only good outcomes. And that this way of life may feel safe but is constraining, is missing something. Pain. Discovery. Slowly, the contradictions of my world have settled into background mystery. I can’t really say how this happened. Time? And dipping back into the morass of memory, coming up sticky and swollen. By crying. By counseling. By writing in journals, walking with friends, screaming at the ocean. By waking up and loving Leo every morning.
These days, guilt still shows up in the form of doubt and an unending incantation of questions. Maybe we should stay upstairs with him every morning in case he falls. Should we bolt more handles to our walls? Maybe he should wear a helmet. We struggle to keep the routine of stretching him on the massage table before school, to loosen him up just a little. We grapple with possible surgeries – will they do more harm than good? Leo is eleven now; how should we involve him in the decisions? We visit specialist after specialist who dispenses contradictory advice. And how much difference does wearing his braces really make? But I like to think that guilt shows up somewhat guiltily now. It knows better than to come masquerading as something authoritative and scary. I have quelled it, if not vanquished it. I know that asking these questions is part of parenting Leo well, and that is work I am committed to excelling at.
Now, when hard parts of CP pop up, I have learned to say: this is not guilt, this is grief. Grief for his falls in the bathroom. Grief for when he can’t ride a scooter with the neighbors, ski with his cousins. Grief for when he cries out for me, brave as he is, when the neurologist injects him with Botox to take the edge off the muscle spasms. Grief for the toll that parenting Leo has taken on our marriage and the hurts we have endured in order to stay together. Grief lives on. It is hard, and heavy, and long. Sometimes it nudges guilt back alive, to distract from the pain. But the pain is the truth and the truth is brilliant. It’s not that I made a huge mistake by having a home birth and we all had to suffer the dreadful consequences. It’s that I made a choice that winter, and then we abided the rest of our incomprehensible lives.
At dinner, after a couple sentences about band practice antics, Leo gives up telling about his day because talking makes him tired and takes too long, and he has to focus on chewing so he can put in enough calories. Spasticity involuntarily contracts his muscles so he is constantly dumping energy. Just sitting in his chair at the end of the day is an effort. Still, he is amazing. Instead of talking, he smiles at me across the table, and his smile is like none other. A big part of me believes he would not have that smile if not for CP.
About the Author:
Jess Pulver is a mother, social worker, and aspiring gardener nestled in the woods outside Portland, Maine. She majored in Creative Writing at Swarthmore College over twenty years ago, but has only recently returned to the writing life. Her work is forthcoming in Literary Mama, Waccamaw Journal, and Kaleidoscope Magazine. She attempts to look deeply at the complexity of emotions, in her therapy practice and in her writing.