Aimee and her husband were clients of mine over a year ago. Their youngest son's birthday is coming up in just a short while and she wanted to share her birth story with all of you. At the same time, she wanted to give you a change to partner with her family in celebrating Given's beautiful smile and life in a very humbling and life-altering way! I am going to let her share her story, as she does it so beautifully!
I have been struggling to write this for a year. In three weeks it will have been one year since my Given was born. One entire year has come and gone and I still sit here staring at a blank screen because I don’t know how to begin to tell a story like the one of his birth. It is too big and life changing for words. It has loomed over me begging to be told and I feel that I have failed to tell it properly or do it any justice before I even put pen to paper. I feel like I cannot tell something like this and have it really, really be felt that way I felt it or have it change someone to read it the way it changed me to live it. Above all, I want to tell his story so people who haven’t been there can have a glimpse of it and for those who have been there will know they aren’t alone.
I’ll just start. Details have faded over the past year and all of the ins and outs of labor and lengths of contractions seem so unimportant now. They are the things that add structure and timing to a normal birth story. Markers along the way that help you keep the story in order and allow people to make sense of it when they read it later. My story doesn’t have many of those anymore because all of the order and structure and timing was blown away completely when my doctor said the words ‘looks we have a little cleft here.’ Once those words were spoken all of the letters were blown off the page and flew around the room over my head. For a year I’ve been waiting for them to settle so I can arrange them to make sense but I’m sure now that they won’t. My world has been so deeply and irrevocably changed that it’s impossible to make sense of, or remember clearly what happened that day. What has happened to my family is ultimately too beautiful to ever make sense of. I am sure that I am not that talented as a writer or a thinker.
I’ll begin by saying that I had been ready for our second child since our first was only 6 months old. I dove into the deep end of pregnancy and motherhood - loving every second of my new identity and all that came with it. I wanted to do it all over again, it had been so wonderful and mysterious the first time. It solidified all of my desires to have 4 kids, as soon as possible. To have a house full of screaming, running boys (or girls) breaking things and laughing and making our family complete. My husband, on the other hand, waded in up to his knees and needed a minute to feel out the water. He thought I was joking when I held my 6 month old and said ‘let’s do this again. Like, now.’ He actually laughed out loud. So we waited until I literally felt like someone was missing from the backseat of our car. We would drive and I felt like we had left someone behind. Like our family was bigger than this but they just weren’t with us. We tried again, and got pregnant in 3 months. I was completely elated. I am one of those women who enjoys every minute of being pregnant and having babies. Yes, even when I’m huge and swollen and can’t see my toes. Even when I’m in labor and the pain is unimaginable. Especially when I get to hold a warm, sweet life and know that I helped create this beauty inside of my own body. That in a sense, my body went and made it with no real help from me, except to eat and drink and sleep when I should. It is the most magical thing a woman gets to be a part of; a tangible partnership to be a co-creator with God. I am completely convinced of this.
I spent the first half of my pregnancy trying to find a doctor who would let me deliver vaginally. My first son was born via cesarean after 35 hours of natural labor with a midwife. His birth (apart from the miracle that was him) was the hardest thing I had ever been through. Months of growing him and reading books and looking forward to my very first birth experience, carefully choosing a wonderful midwife and birthing center, reading more books on birth and natural birth and labor, and then working for 35 sleepless hours to make it happen, all to have to deliver in a hospital, with an epidural, in a room full of strangers, and not hold or nurse my baby for 3 hours... I had been heartbroken about this. Thankfully my little man had healed these wounds with a close bond and 2 years of breastfeeding. He was, and is, an extension of my heart. But his birth story had broken me on a level I couldn’t fully access. It had taken away my ideals of birth and made me feel less than capable; less than invincible as a Mama.
I looked so forward to being completely healed. That last tiny bit of me that hurt to think about Ransom’s birth story was going to be erased with this one, I just knew it! I searched Houston for midwives who would let me vbac. Birth centers, hospitals, and finally OB-Gyns. No one. I was shocked and frustrated that what I had thought was becoming mainstream and safe was apparently not an option for me. Then, finally, I found him! Dr Tobey Stevens, although I wasn’t his ‘favorite candidate for a successful vbac’ would let me try. It was all I needed. After all, he was just the baby catcher. I already had a doula (the lovely Cole Deelah, who I felt understood me deeply from our first meeting) and a husband to believe in me and help me get there. I was positive that I could vbac. And, vbac I did.
On June 10th, I woke up in Ransoms twin bed with steady and uncomfortable contractions. It was around 7am. I had been sleeping in his room for the past few nights because he had the habit of climbing into bed with us in the middle of the night. Mama, Papa and Ransom plus Mama’s belly was asking too much of our queen bed, so when he came to our bed, I went to his. I got up thinking it may just be practice contractions. Just a few days before I had seen Dr Stevens and heard him say ‘no progress, but you still have a week until you’re due. I’ll see you in a week and we’ll see how long you want to go before we schedule a cesarean.’ The answer? Indefinitely. I suppose my tiny man heard him say that and decided to make his appearance sooner than later. I was so excited to realize that this was labor! Actual, real, rhythmic, increasingly painful LABOR! All of my waiting was about to become a baby. A baby boy, nonetheless. A brother for my little man, a wearer of the precious hand me down clothes I had kept boxed in the closet. Someone to sleep in the space between my husband and I, and who I could finally touch and smell, and love right out here in the open. I couldn’t wait.
I had looked forward so much to labor this time. I actually loved it the first time around. The pain was manageable and the anticipation was overwhelming. I remember clearly everything I ate, everywhere I walked, how we timed contractions meticulously, when we called the midwife. All of it was seared in my brain just as fresh as if it had been yesterday. It was a beautiful out of body experience that I had looked forward to doing again for a long time. (of course minus the hospital bits I mentioned before) This time around was.... different. Good LORD, it hurt. It was sharp and blunt at the same time. It was in my back, my legs, my arms, my belly. It hurt to breathe or move during contractions. All of the pacing I had planned on doing turned into me sitting as still as I possibly could during those squeezes, as if willing myself to be a human statue would make it hurt less. I breathed as slowly and shallowly as I could because I was pretty sure I could feel my lungs in my back. That’s when I first realized how little I really knew of childbirth. We called the doula, and my husband took some birth video which consists mostly of the soccer game that was on, and nervous pacing through the house and staring into the yard. I do make a short cameo appearance, frozen on the bed in a contraction. We passed most of the day like this. Cole came and helped tremendously. She convinced me to leave the bed and try a bath. With Ransom I had fallen asleep in the tub. This time I felt like I might seize in pain and drown, so I got out. She worked doula magic by slinging my belly with a scarf and gently shifting it back and forth until (I believe) he turned and the pain subsided significantly. I hung from Edward’s shoulders, I hung from a scarf over a doorway, and finally I allowed her to check me.
I remember you wanting to know but not wanting to know - asking how far I thought you were. You asked every question about how far you might be except that one - how far dilated you were. When you finally did ask, it took you a good while to decide you really did want to know. I felt that there was something holding you back from the information.
I had been laboring for 10 hours and was fully expecting her to find me at a 9 so we could make the final trek to the hospital. I wasn’t about to march in there at a 3 and have them mess up the experience for me.
She found that I was at a 2, maybe a 3. I sunk. Ransom’s birth suddenly was all over me. The hours and hours working at home. Going to the midwife to be sent home again. Going back hours later to find no progress. Having my cervix manually opened because it seemed completely lost as to what it was supposed to be doing. 35 hours and a surgery. Please, God, not again. NOT again.
And I believe that that was what was holding you back; the last remnants of another birth were hanging onto you. You went into yourself then, working through things that you didn't articulate to us. But things were definitely changing, and fast. Your contractions were strong and there was a mental giving over/up - just as you had been doing all along with your body; this was crucial.
We decided to go to the hospital in the hopes that being there, where I had decided to be, would speak to my body subconsciously and allow me to progress. We loaded the car and left and the whole way there I prayed and thought and prayed some more. I needed this baby to come out the ‘right’ way. The way I had missed before. The way I had been dreaming of.
When you stepped out of the car, your face was flushed and resolute. This was a different woman.
When we arrived at the hospital, 12 hours into labor, I was a 7. Praise God, this baby was coming out the front door! I was blessed with nurse who allowed me to stay in my own gown from home, and looked the other way (or really didn’t see) when I ate grapes and crackers and drank water. I wasn’t about to fool around with ice chips at this point in the game. My body needed food. And rest - I had been going and blowing pretty hard since 7 am and when 8 pm rolled around I realized that even if I was allowed to push right then I was sure I wouldn’t be able to do it. My mind was engaged, but my body was completely sacked. Somehow I just knew that if I didn’t get real rest before ‘go time’ I would end up in surgery again. There was literally nothing I dreaded more. SO, much to my own surprise I actually asked for an epidural. A partial, because I wanted to move and change positions and be somewhat in control of my body, but an epidural nonetheless so I could rest. So I could vbac. It was a sacrifice I was more than willing to make for what felt to me like certain vbac.
Once the drugs were on board I could rest. I slept for a short time, and Edward took the opportunity to pass out on the mini-couch-chair things they keep in delivery rooms. He looked so horribly uncomfortable when I woke up, but insisted on not folding it out. I’m sure he thought if he folded it out that he would be in a deep sleep when the baby came and would miss it. After a short nap I couldn’t sleep at all. The pain had been numbed and the excitement took over and then my labor completely stalled out at a 9. I mean, stalled for hours. To this day I’m torn about the epidural because if I hadn’t had one it’s likely he would have been born on the 10th, but he probably would have been a cesarean birth which I’m sure would have put me over the proverbial ‘edge’. So, stalled at the very edge of my new life, my doula and I had a slumber party. We talked about my son, and her kids, and this baby who was just waiting at the gate, and we talked about names and why the meanings are so deeply important to us, and life, and we (at least, I) ate those awful hospital rainbow popsicles until the wee hours of the morning, and the later hours of the morning. I would doze off to wake up and see her sitting up still, right next to me. She was a willing and enthusiastic sentinel. She got coffee and snacks for Edward, she rubbed my back, she forgave me for slapping her hand away when pain had taken away my ability to use words. She was incredible. At one point we had a good laugh because she fell asleep sitting in her chair, face down at the foot of my bed and woke up with waffle print on her face from the hospital blanket. It was a well deserved nap that I was glad she took.
That's what I got for sleeping on the job!
I had a stubborn bag of water, so after all of this time it was bulging but still intact and showing no signs of weakness, so I agreed to an artificial rupture. My doctor (who had shown up Monday morning) believed I’d progress quickly if we did that, and turned out to be right. A short time later I was allowed to push, and push I did! God, how I love to push. It’s like that first gasp of air you take after being too deep in the pool - just bursting through the surface and inhaling for all your life is worth. It’s a total release from all of the painstaking work of contractions and a promise that the baby - MY BABY is almost here! A few hours of pushing and he’ll be in my arms, perfect and sweet and suckling at my breast. I could just about taste it. I was also pushing that little epidural clicker for all I was worth - what felt like every 5 minutes to me, and it wasn’t working. At all. I was later told that I only pushed it about every 30 minutes, but good lord it wasn’t working! I could feel my legs and feet again - and I don’t mean numb, tingly feeling, I mean I could FEEL. At the time I wanted anything but to feel all of it, but now I look back and am so deeply thankful that the (originally unwanted) epidural did it’s job of letting me rest, and then backed off so I could also have the feelings of vaginal birth I had longed for. I wanted to know where he was, and how fast he was moving, and feel him join the world for the very first time.
You moved your baby down so fast! And I truly believe it was because you could feel the pressure and a little of the pain.
And I did. I worked, and Edward and Cole worked, and the nurses worked, and Dr Stevens came in just in time to catch my baby boy as he fell from my body and breathed air into his precious lungs for the first time. 28 hours after I woke up in labor, I felt him leave me and arrive all at once, and all at once I was healed of the years of hurt I had endured over a broken birth experience with my first. The physical scar I carried may as well have been erased and I was whole as a mother and as a woman. And then he said it. He spoke the words that broke me all over again. ‘Looks like we have a little cleft here.’
From there my life changed forever, and it’s where the story gets a little fuzzy for me now. I changed, and my family changed so much that I don’t really remember what I was like before those words were spoken. See, Given had been in there just as he was the whole time. He never changed or wavered from who God was making him in my belly, but all of a sudden the baby I had pictured and talked to, and sang to, and loved was ... not what I thought he’d be. He seemed like a stranger to me for just one split second.
I vaguely remember saying something like ‘I don’t care, give him to me.’
You did say 'Give him to me'. :)
I wanted to hold him first and although I’m sure it was seconds, I felt like they were hogging him and he was mine. What was taking so long? I wanted to be the one to snuggle and wipe him down, to kiss his head and make him feel safe. They wrapped him in a towel and handed him to me. I remember seeing his little face for the first time. So beautiful and so broken open at the same time. His grey eyes blinked and looked for me, and when we met each others gaze we both knew we would be alright. He was absolutely gorgeous. The gaping hole in the middle of his tiny face broke my heart for him, but I knew we’d be alright. Aside from the wide open cleft that gave him a permanent look of shock, his face was so expressive and inquisitive, and calm. He spoke to me without words and we fell in love. I looked at my husband, and with both of us crying, said ‘he’s perfect. He’s so perfect.’
Cole took beautiful photos the entire time and I have relived this day over and over through them. This is one of my favorites because of my hand in the left corner. I couldn't wait to have him in my arms.
I love this photo, taken just seconds after we saw him for the first timeIt was then that the rest of the room gave a collective sigh and then cried. A beautiful family - joined together for the first time. And it was sacred.
hello papaThen the questions came. Can he nurse? Does it hurt? Can he take a pacifier? What do we do now? Answers were there for some of them, but not all. ‘You can try’ and ‘no’ and ‘sort of’. My picture perfect daydream of taking him home, nursing him and co-sleeping was shattered. All of a sudden my crunchy, granola, natural mama routine seemed out of date and insignificant. Eating organic wouldn’t fix this cleft. We can’t co-sleep because he can’t breastfeed. I fooled myself for a few days into thinking we could work out a way for him to latch. The nurses knew better. They brought me a pump the first night and I have a love/hate relationship with it to this day. We went through weeks of syringe-feeding and trying different bottles, sleep deprivation, spit up, reflux, worse reflux and gas pain. I had never heard a baby so tiny burp like a man and hopefully never will again. He had such painful, body shaking burps. Because of a 13mm wide complete unilateral cleft (which just means the right side of his mouth is open front to back, all the way into the nasal cavity) he swallowed air constantly. He burned about as many calories as he took in because eating was so much work. But Lord, that boy loved, and still loves, to eat!
Our first night in the hospital was surreal. He slept in my arms and in his little plastic bin next to my bed. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. The doctors wanted his blood sugar monitored to check for gestational diabetes. It surprised me because at 8lb, 2oz he was my little baby. I’m pretty sure now they just wanted to see that he was eating something. I made my husband follow him to the nursery and back anytime he went. The nurses could tell I hated to see him go and they graciously let Edward stay right by his side anywhere he went. He passed his hearing test which everyone was happy about because it meant that he wasn’t deaf. He could have been deaf?! We were learning more than we ever thought possible in such a short time. I had been put in touch with a cranio-facial team in Houston and we had appointments set up before we even went home. I had personal phone numbers to keep in touch over the weekend ‘in case we needed anything.’ What could I possibly need that badly?
In the days and weeks following his birth, we were flooded with love from friends and family. We were also flooded with questions we couldn’t answer, and suggestions and recommendations, and contacts and doctors appointments. We were assured that he’d be fine because this, or that celebrity had a cleft and look at them now. I remember thinking that I wasn’t worried about how he would look. I was worried because he couldn’t eat or speak properly. He couldn’t just be comfortable and nurse himself to sleep. Everything was such hard work. We felt like we were barely treading water and just when I felt my face going under each time I would hold him and he would look knowingly at me, or nuzzle closer into me and it would all be alright again. And then came the smile. That incredible, heart melting, wide smile was worth every millimeter of the cleft. He was my life saver through it all. He was worth every bit of the unknown, and fear, hurt. Because, you see, he brought all of the joy and beauty and wholeness as well. There wasn’t anyone missing from our backseat anymore and that was the most important thing I could imagine.
On the first morning in the hospital he was already beginning to look 'normal' to me and I just couldn't stop kissing that sweet face
And after months of horribly difficult treatments, and pumping exclusively for almost a year now, and a surgery behind us and one ahead, we are in a place that we can look back from and see how much we’ve grown. Given is a gorgeous, mischievous, happy boy who would follow his big brother to the ends of the earth. We call him Tiny because he’s a little guy, but it doesn’t reflect his personality at all. If I had the power to go back and take his cleft away, I wouldn’t. I hate it for all of the hurt and frustration it has causes him and us, but I also know that it is a gift. Without it, he just wouldn’t be him. We wouldn’t have grown and changed and sought God the way we have. We wouldn’t have anything to give to other parents who are surprised with cleft babies in their lives. We wouldn’t have our hearts truly broken for all of the children and mothers and fathers affected by this all over the world. Those changes in us have been deep and are lasting, and they are invaluable to me, just as Given is. In a way they were his, and God’s gift to us.
My boys! For the record, Ransom never flinched. He said he wanted to give him kisses, and afterwards would draw pictures of Given's 'pretty little lips'
When I think about his birth now, the one thing that stands out to me the most is what he taught me in the first moments I held him; my first of many lessons from Given. I took him in my arms and kissed him and he stopped crying almost immediately. We said hello to each other and I offered him my breast, not knowing what else to do for him and praying he could nurse. He immediately went to work. He knew exactly what to do and had no idea that his body wouldn’t let him do it. He had no clue that he was anything less than perfect and that’s what made me realize that he was right. He wasn’t anything less than perfect. He wanted to nurse, and I wanted it for him but it just wasn’t meant to be. What I realized by his enthusiasm in that moment was that he was not a victim of his cleft. In his eyes, he was complete and made just exactly as he was meant to be. He knew nothing about deformities or brokenness. All he knew is that I was his Mama, and he was my baby and we were meant for each other.
That is what I think of in the moments of weakness when I want to feel sorry for myself, or for him. He is only a victim if I make him one and he deserves more from me than that. All I need to know and teach him is that I am his Mama, and he is my perfect baby and we are meant for each other. I am truly so grateful that he was meant to be mine.
One year ago our sweet Given was born with a cleft lip and palate. Even with all of the amazing resources we have had at our fingertips, the past year has been (sometimes excruciatingly) difficult in a lot of ways. We have been so incredibly blessed to have access to specialized bottles, pumps, medicines, teams of doctors and emotional support. Given has had everything he could possibly need to thrive and be happy, and is doing incredibly well. He makes us laugh everyday and brings us so much joy.
To celebrate his first birthday, in lieu of traditional gifts, we are asking our friends and family to consider partnering with us in giving a gift to a child born with a cleft that doesn't have the resources they need. It's so easy to change a child's life and it is such a deeply meaningful and lasting gift. Given will have his second surgery on June 14th, just 3 days after he turns one. We are believing that we can raise enough money to provide 2 surgeries for another child by that date. It only costs $240 for one surgery!
Go here to make a donation:
Here is a video with a little more information about what Operation Smile does:
I hope to see many many smiles changed through the selfless giving of my friends, family, and readers. Let's make Given's first birthday even more amazing (if possible) than it already is! Thank you, family Sanchez, for sharing your journey with us and for allowing me the privilege of knowing your wonderful family.