My Father Was Asked to Choose - Save the Mother or the Baby

One Writer

Difficult choices define us.

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When my mother told him “My water just broke,” in the wee hours of one July 25th morning, my father told her it would all be ok. He changed the sheets and cleaned up, he tried to coax her back to bed, and finally asked her exactly what that meant.

Well, it doesn’t mean she wet the bed, as he finally figured out.

It’s the first stages of labor, she’d explained.

The story of that “first baby rush to the hospital” is one I never grew tired of hearing when I was a child, even when the other four siblings came along. We all had our own versions of the event of our birth.

In one birth story there were the incredibly dangerous icy roads to travel. In another my little brother looked through the glass at the babies in the maternity ward and proudly exclaimed “Look at all the puppies!” (In a large family like ours you can bet all your embarrassing stories will be told and retold — sorry, little brother, but your “puppies” story will never get old.)

My mother’s births went quicker with each child and by the time the fifth child was born there was a brief 45 minutes of hard labor — most of which she spent in a wheelchair stuck in an elevator. Dad had wheeled her in there and run to park the car — I’ll meet you up there — and well, she rode up and the doors would not open. The back doors of the elevator did but not the front. She rode back down to the lobby level and there opened the front elevator doors. Back up she went to the maternity floor and the back doors opened.

I am not sure how many times she went up and down that elevator before someone figured out there was a problem but this was one of the humorous birth stories we all celebrated together growing up.

My birth story was a little more upsetting, perhaps more frightening — being their first. He was 19, she 18, and I would be the first grandchild on both sides of the family. A boy named Christopher. My proud grandfather (we called him Pop) brought a baseball to the hospital. Imagine their surprise that I was not a boy.

I wonder what happened to that baseball?

Birthing was a little different in those days as the fathers were to wait in the waiting area. I understand my father paced and sweated as you’d expect any first time father to do. I am sure he was unprepared for the question from the doctor, who’d come out of the delivery room and taken him aside.

If if comes down to it, who do you want us to save — the mother or the baby?

(This is a good time to point out the misogyny of this moment--but that is a story for another day.)

My father became a father in that moment. It wasn’t the moment I came screaming into this world, or the moment they drove me home from the hospital — it was in that moment.

I don’t recall this part of any of the birth stories being passed around or discussed by anyone in my family. Perhaps my father never told them this part of the story. But, he did tell me when I was a teenager.

My mother wasn’t supposed to be able to deliver any children naturally because at the age of three her grandfather had backed the car down the driveway and accidentally ran over my mother, crushing her pelvis. She’d spent many months in a body cast and had to re-learn to walk. No children, they’d said.

Yes, she had five, but I am to assume that first birth was a little “touch-and-go.” Save the baby, my father had said. She wouldn’t want to live if the baby died, he had thought. As a very young and frightened man, he was asked to decide what was right for himself, my mother, and me, their baby.

That was the moment I became a daughter. It wasn’t the moment of my birth or the moment I cried in their arms for the first time — it was when they chose me.

My father did the best he could. He decided what he thought his new wife would want. It was a terrible position for him to be in--and my mother, who apparently wasn't asked. But life is full of unfair choices. Unfair situations that make us choose between two unclear options or two options that are both awful. We do the best we can as humans. We make our choices and we live with them. Fortunately for my mother and father both, the birth progressed and both myself and my mother survived.

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