Tov’s birth story

This post is for my newborn son, Tov Jun Lee-Herrmann, born May 4, 2022 at 5:51 a.m., weighing 5 lb 1.5 oz and measuring 18.5 inches. He burst into the world yowling 5 weeks earlier than his due date, a tiny but strong, wiggly human bean meeting the world with curious eyes. I am not a scrapbook mom, nor am I good at taking pictures, but words, I have plenty. Here is our birth story.

“I think we need to go to the hospital.”

It was about 4:20 am, and I had to shake David out of a deep REM sleep before he finally rustled awake.

“Wha?” he mumbled.

“Wake up, we might have to go to the hospital again.” At that moment, I felt another contraction building up, and I bent over onto the bed, moaning.

And so it began. Tov’s birth. His conception was a big surprise. His birth, at five weeks earlier than expected, was also a big surprise. We weren’t ready for either, but no matter: Tov was ready for us.

———–

Whenever people asked me my due date, I told them June 5, but added that I have a feeling he might be born a little early. Lots of mothers say they have a “mommy intuition” about their babies, and sometimes they’re wrong. I knew my “intuition” stemmed mostly from a desire to be done with all the aches and discomforts of pregnancy. But our baby had been measuring small, so I didn’t want him coming out too soon.

David and I had made a bet on when he’ll likely be born. David said June 2. I said I think he’ll be born between week 37 and 38. Either way, we thought we still had at least several weeks to prepare, and let the list of “things to do” pile up unchecked. We were both wrong about the due date (but I was closer, so I win).

We had our baby shower on April 30. It was a casual and simple but lovely event. I near broke my back prepping most of the food, spending more than three hours baking a three-tier confetti cake from scratch the night before, and getting annoyed at myself for once again, overestimating my capacity to do it all. I had also been suffering awful cramps for days– painful, gnawing aches in my lower abdomen that felt like bad menstrual cramps.

I was not a joyful mama. I remember mostly feeling irritable and tired and uncomfortable the days leading up to the baby shower. The morning of the shower started out terrible. I did not have enough sleep. My back ached; my uterus ached. I found out that the three-tier cake I had spent hours making had slid onto the floor into white creamy mush. Several people texted me last minute saying they could not make it to the party for various reasons. A friend who had planned to fly out from Baltimore to help me assemble the charcuterie canceled her flight two days before the party because of an unexpected work situation. I felt ugly and mean, mired in one of those moods in which I latch onto anything to worsen my irritation. I was even tempted to just cancel the whole event, because I hate these sort of events and why am I doing so much work for what would surely be terrible anyway, blah blah whine whine.

David, too, was feeling the stress. That week had been emotionally fraught for him, and therefore for me as well: His father was in town– the first time he visited without David’s mother. It felt weird to have him here without his wife. He walked around the house unwhole, like he’d lost his limbs.

“Lee would have helped you with the baby shower,” David’s dad said repeatedly: “She would have loved being here for the shower. She would have been so excited.” And that, too, was echoing in David’s mind, and my heart broke for him, yet I confess that during my meanest moments, I also felt pity for myself: We couldn’t have one moment of pure celebration for the new baby, one special moment of “us” as soon-to-be parents, and one moment of honoring me as a very pregnant, soon-to-be mother, without death casting a heavy shadow over it all. I think I was mostly too busy to really process all these tangled, twisty thoughts and emotions, but they were there, pinching and inflaming my inner peace and joy.

So that morning, three hours before the baby shower, I snapped at David. He was incredibly emotional and weepy that morning, and my mean state didn’t want to make room for sympathy or empathy. I just wanted to get the day over with, and any display of vulnerability, of having to be a caregiver, felt burdensome.

We would have hosted the party with frayed nerves and tension had David then not asked, “Can we please pray? I feel the enemy attacking us. I really feel like we need to pray today. We haven’t been praying enough.”

“Fine,” I said, and kept my stony expression as David prayed out loud. And though I still felt irritable, my cold heart melted, drip by drip. We needed that moment of prayer, even if it was just for five minutes. Why do we always forget this most vital practice to shalom? We need to pray– not just when we’re feeling sad and chaotic, but every time, any time, anywhere. I also felt assured. My respect grew: David is a good husband, and he will be a good dad.

And from then on, instead of rooting for things to get annoyed about, I found genuine gratitude: My friend Lindsey sacrificed her Saturday morning to help me assemble chicken salad sandwiches, chop vegetables, and everything else I needed to prepare a mini feast. She saved the party. I couldn’t have done it without her. My friend Olivia, who couldn’t make it last-minute from Baltimore, provided more than half the stuff for the charcuterie– a magnificent cheese board, five kinds of cheeses, gourmet preserves, dried fruit, nuts, crackers…she went all out, and refused to accept any payment from me. Another friend, Chelsea, opened up her charming beach house in Manhattan Beach to hold the event– and that space turned out to be perfect.

About 30 people came to the shower, many driving a long way. I don’t know of anyone who gets excited about attending a baby shower. Well, I know I myself never found those all that exciting, so I felt weird asking people to attend mine. But people came, bearing smiles and mazel tovs and gifts, showering us with their love and blessings. (Tov, remember these people. The blessings they sprinkled on you that day are like fairy dust, glitters of generosity and good will that I hope you’ll sprinkle on to others.)

That baby shower was only about 10 days ago, yet it feels like a lifetime away. That was Before Tov. Little did we know, it’ll be the last party we’ll be attending for a while.

——–

Tuesday, May 3. I woke up feeling some mild upper abdominal pain and lethargy. The day before, I had woken up feeling slightly nauseous and had projectile-vomited my breakfast, but had felt better after puking. But this time, all throughout the day, I felt like crawling into bed and staying there. I wondered if I should call my ob/gyn. But I had an interview that afternoon with an author for work, so I didn’t call my doctor until around 4 pm after the interview. She said it might just be gas reflux, but asked me to visit the clinic to get my vitals checked, just to be sure.

“I’m just going to pop over to my doctor for a bit,” I told David, as though I was making a quick grocery run.

David gave me a look of alarm: “Should I come with?”

“You can, but you don’t need to,” I said. “We’re just doing a quick check-up, for peace of mind. It’s probably nothing.”

David decided to tag along. And good thing he did, because my “quick check-up” turned into “you should probably go to the hospital,” which became an eight-hour observation. We didn’t return home until past midnight.

Here’s what happened: At my ob/gyn’s clinic, they strapped my belly for a non-stress test (NST). The baby’s heart rate was beating at about 170 bpm, which is abnormally high. His heart rate had never gone over 156 bpm before. We kept observing his heart rate, waiting for it to slow down, but it stayed above 170, at times leaping to 190 bpm. After more than an hour, my ob/gyn recommended we go to the hospital for longer observation. Again, I thought: Probably not a big deal. Baby’s just a little excited, that’s all. (I don’t know what’s with me– I always seem to assume there’s not a problem until it punches me in the mouth.)

By the time we reached the hospital, 50 minutes later (darn LA traffic!), I was feverish, shivering with a chill, and aching all over my body. My temperature was 101.6. The nurses strapped me up for a NST again, and once again, the baby’s heart rate was consistently above 170, sometimes reaching 200. That was when I actually got worried. They tested me for Covid (negative), flu (negative), and respiratory syncytial virus (also negative). They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. They hooked me up to an IV drip and antibiotics. By 10:30 pm, the baby’s heart rate had thankfully dropped to a steady 150s, and my fever had gone down. I was experiencing some mild contractions, but otherwise, the doctor didn’t see clear signs of preterm labor, so she sent us home, telling us to come back if I start having contractions that are five minutes apart.

I knew I wasn’t feeling 100 percent, however. When we got back home, I was feeling hot and trembling with chills and aches again. I went to bed right away, hoping a good night’s rest would blot out the remaining virus or whatever’s ailing me.

4 a.m. I woke up feeling like I needed to pee. I would have lingered in bed a little longer, had I not felt some liquid trickling out of me. I bolted up– is that my water breaking? Or is that pee? Still heavy with sleep, I waddled to the bathroom and emptied my bladder. And that was it– no more trickle of unknown fluid. OK, phew. I guess it was just pee. Some random incontinence, which is normal during third trimester. I washed my hands, changed, and went back to bed.

Then my lower abdomen started hurting. This time, they weren’t throbbing menstrual-like cramps– they were sharper, deeper, coming and going in powerful waves. I lay in bed, trying to go back to sleep, but the pain only increased. By then, I had had only about three hours of sleep, and David was lightly snoring beside me, completely out cold. Surely this can’t be labor, I thought. I’m only 35 weeks along and I just came back from the hospital! But I couldn’t ignore this pain. It worsened until I was moaning, while my exhausted husband slept on, completely unaware.

I realized this was something different. I went to the kitchen, called the hospital, and told the nurse on call what was happening. She asked me the usual questions: Any bleeding? Strange discharge? Etc. “Come in if you feel really concerned,” she said.

And that’s when I felt another pain daggering me from inside, and I couldn’t respond to the nurse without gasping. Her tone shifted; she sounded more serious. “Come to the hospital,” she said. “OK,” I gasped.

So I woke David up. He got out of bed in a daze, barely registering what’s happening.

“Oooh, I’m so exhausted,” he groaned. “I don’t think I can drive all the way there again.”

I thought I might smack him, but then another wave of contraction began. My knees unbuckled, and I groaned louder than my husband. That’s when I saw his eyes focusing more, suddenly aware that I wasn’t just complaining about a minor ache anymore.

We had nothing packed. The next 15 minutes, we scurried about the house, throwing things into a suitcase just in case we had to stay overnight at the hospital. It took me longer because I kept having to stop as the contractions rolled in and out, no more than two or three minutes apart. Yet even as I dumped toiletries and clothes into the suitcase, I couldn’t believe I might be in labor. This can’t be happening, not now. I was a first-time mother– what did I know about contractions and labor?

But then I started feeling leakage again– not a gush, but uncontrollable leaks that flowed in little squirts. The fluid was clear, sweet-smelling. “I think my water broke,” I told David.

Somehow we got into the car. My pain level had gone from 7.5 to 9 by then. Or maybe it was 10. I was writhing and bellowing in pain, yet I underestimated my pain level to be at 7, because my mind just couldn’t comprehend: I thought labor was an hours-long or days-long process, with pain levels gradually increasing. How could I already be in the later stage of labor, with contractions only a minute apart now? My experience defied all the research I had read up on labor. But if I was in labor now and already in this much physical anguish, what would a level 10 pain feel like? Unthinkable!

It took us about 30 minutes, without traffic, to reach the hospital. I was holding onto the handle bar by then, and my moans were now little screams. David screeched up to the entrance, and the parking attendant, seeing my expression through the window, rushed up with a wheelchair, and told David he could just park in front of the entrance. I waited for that one minute between contractions to hobble onto the wheelchair. The elevator roll up to the labor and delivery unit felt like forever. A couple entered the lift with us. The woman was not in a wheelchair, and she looked peaceful, like she was on her way to the mall. They had a scheduled C-section that morning, they told us. “Congratulations,” I groaned from my wheelchair.

Level 3. Finally. The nurses at the front desk, like the parking attendant, took one look at me and immediately called for more nurses. A small team in scrubs greeted me in a rush. One nurse– I’ll never forget her kind face– leaned towards me and asked if I wanted an epidural. I was confused– right now? Right away? “Maybe I can wait a little longer,” I told her. Again, I thought I had hours left till delivery time, so I wanted to pace myself. Besides, I still wasn’t sure if I was actually in labor.

I’m an idiot. I had no time. I was at pain level 10, not 7. The contractions rolled like stormy sea, crashes of lightnings and thunder and jagged waves. I writhed and screamed and cursed. I don’t know how, but somehow the nurses managed to get me into a hospital gown, though I remember them gripping me by the shoulders and telling me I needed to stay still for a few minutes while they hook me to an IV. They called my ob/gyn, but by then, I was already 8 cm dilated. Five minutes later, I was 10 cm dilated. It was only about 5:30 am, 90 minutes since I woke up needing to pee.

I turned to that kind-faced nurse: “Um, I’ll get that epidural now!” I remember her saying nothing, just looking at me with sympathy. David was standing to the side, not knowing what to do. A nurse beckoned to him: “Dad, you can stand next to her now.”

And then I felt the urge to push. Or poop. Both. Gross. Everything about labor and delivery is just gross. Wet. Messy. Uncontrollable. Undignified.

Speaking of undignified. I had watched a dozen birth vlogs on YouTube, and had listened to a dozen women bray like a donkey, moo like a cow, neigh like a horse, yip like a dog while they were in labor. How undignified, I thought: What are we, farm animals? I imagined myself giving birth with my mouth firmly closed, silently, elegantly bearing the pain with grace.

HA! I wasn’t a farm animal. I was worse. I was a banshee. A banshee howling expletives. My screams and curses shook the room, probably woke up the entire block. They just blared out of me. I could hear myself sounding like a torture chamber, but that was the only way I knew to manage the pain without an epidural.

5:51 a.m. The dreaded ring of fire. And then…I felt him slide out of me. And there he was, in the midwife’s arms, purple and wrinkly and smeared with white gooey vernix, his mouth shaped into a triangle as he released his first cry on earth: “WAAAAAH!” Someone put a pink and blue striped beanie around his head, and they lifted him into my arms.

“Oh my God.”

I remember in one birth vlog, the mother immediately bursting into tears. “I love you! I love you sooooo much!” she repeated over and over again, sobbing and sobbing. “I love you so sooo sooooo much!”

All I could say was one phrase: “Oh my God.” I awkwardly, gingerly held the tiny 5-lb human being in my arms, just staring at him in silence.

I was simply in shock. The love and joy came later. Everything had happened so fast. Between Feb 1, when I first found out I was pregnant, and May 4, when I held my baby in my arms for the first time, three months had passed. Three months, from “oh my god I’m pregnant” to “oh my god he’s here.” How did this happen? Now I had a living, fragile, wiggling crying creature on my chest, his heartbeat pulsing on mine, his body heat warm and sticky, with so many urgent needs the moment he was born. He was no longer an invisible alien in my womb. He had a face! Ten tiniest fingernails and ten tiniest toenails. Little indented nipples. A nose. Blondish eyebrows. Blue-grey almond eyes that opened and stared, framed by teensy eyelashes. Pink gums, tiny tongue, skinny arms and legs. A human expression that looked like David.

And he was mine. Ours. Oh my God. Oh, my God. Life is so indescribable. Oh Lord. You created life so magnificently, it mutes me.

David cut the cord after a second of hesitation (why are men so squeamish with blood?). I had enough sense to ask my ob/gyn, who arrived just in time to hear the baby’s cry, to let me see the placenta. She lifted a disk of wobbly, bumpy, veiny black-red organ. “This is the miracle right here,” she said, with wonder and admiration in her voice, even though she’s probably seen several hundred placentas: “This here kept your baby alive. It is a thing of miracle.” She also showed me the bloody, deflated amniotic sac, and the spongy, twisty tube that’s the umbilical cord. I too was in awe. What hideous organs. Hideous, but magical.

“David! You want to see my placenta?” I asked.

“Nope,” David turned away, swallowing his bile. Well, he did good, all things considering.

After cleaning up the baby and checking his vitals, the whole delivery team cleared out, dimming the room and leaving David, the baby, and me alone in the room to bond for two hours. The two hours flew by. We kept staring at the tiny boy, touching his ears, stroking his full head of hair, laughing for no reason. Because the baby is premature, he needed to go to the NICU for 24 hours, so we soaked up the first two hours we had. (I was still running a temperature at the time, so I was no allowed to visit our baby for a whole day– understandable, but brutal.)

Tov Jun Lee-Herrmann. Tov is “good” or “goodness” in Hebrew (as in, mazel tov). I’d always loved that word since I read A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. Jun is Korean for “handsome, pleasant.” My mother came up with that name. Lee-Herrmann because I’m a radical feminist (ha). I’ll explain his name in another post.

Tov is exactly his name. He is good. Beautiful. Perfect. God is good, perfect– tov. He had brought goodness into our life when we most needed it.

Today, as I write this, Tov is one week old. For us, it’s been 7 days into a new era: From Before Tov, to After Tov.