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A Birth Plan for Dying

Posted inEssays & Criticism, Nonfiction, Story, Unapologetic Women

A Birth Plan for Dying

Hanna Neuschwander grapples with ending a wanted pregnancy, and finds that “right” or “wrong” fail to describe the moral reckoning.
Aaron Burden / Unsplash

Hanna Neuschwander | Longreads | September 2018 | 18 minutes (4587 words)

A week before my daughter was born, I typed up her birth plan. Reading it now, it sounds strange and stilted. “If the baby is born alive, we would like both a birth and death certificate. … I have fears that laboring will be painful without the joy of knowing we will be giving birth to a healthy baby who will come home with us. I have fears that I will be deeply sad during labor/at birth instead of happy to meet our daughter.”

How do you organize anguish? How do you bureaucratize grief and fear into bullet points?

River’s birth was scheduled for September 26. She would be born in the same hospital where I had given birth to our daughter, whom I’ll call M, two years before. The staff were ready for us. A kind nurse checked us in at noon and led us to a delivery room with a small sign on the door — a leaf with droplets of water that looked like tears. It’s a secret code. It alerts everyone who comes in the room that your baby is going to die, so people don’t accidentally congratulate you for being there.

It’s hard to know how to give birth under these circumstances. While you wait for the Pitocin to kick in and get labor started, do you read? Do you make small talk with your husband? Can you will yourself to disappear? I had trouble sitting still. I went out into the bright afternoon sun and walked a paved labyrinth in the courtyard. As I circled toward the center of the labyrinth I imagined I was coming to meet her. As I unwound, I prepared to say goodbye.

Once the Pitocin-induced contractions got going, they were intense bursts of knotty pain with just 20 or 30 seconds rest in between, very different from the long, rolling waves I recalled from my first delivery. It was tiring. I paced around the room, tried to lie down, paced again. As the sun was setting, we went for another walk. Twilight had painted a dark rainbow at the edge of the sky, and Mars or Jupiter or some planet was twinkling just above it. It would have been beautiful except for the ugly parking lot we were walking through. I remember being confused and then excited about the large silhouette I took to be a horse statue at the end of the sidewalk — what is that amazing statue doing in this ugly parking lot, I wondered — arriving at it only to realize it was a Dumpster.

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