Thursday, October 30, 2008

Attack of the belly cast

So, I've switched from my Upper NW Washington rich-white-yuppie-woman OB practice to a midwife practice at the DC Developing Families Center which has a decidedly more diverse clientele. The mission of the Center includes performing outreach to low-income and minority women, lowering DC's appalling infant mortality rate, and providing first-class, woman-centered midwife care to any woman of any income level who needs or wants it. I described the setting of the Center as "super-urban" to someone recently. It's housed in a converted Safeway, near a big strip mall, off of some busy streets with no trees in a part of Northeast DC that most people don't really have any reason to go to. I was a little apprehensive the first time I went there, even though it's a 5-minute drive from my Capitol Hill street. There's a security buzzer to get into the building. The waiting room is full of young women and men, small children and babies, pregnant women. Most are black. A few are not. I wondered if this place was for me.

After an appointment with a midwife, and speaking at an orientation session with a couple more midwives, and with some of the peer counselors who work at the Center, I realized what an amazing place it is. Midwives, on the whole, are passionate about and utterly devoted to their profession. They really feel called to it. I haven't met a midwife yet who was "eh" about her job, despite the odd hours, middling pay, and sometimes fanatical opposition and non-cooperation from OBs. And these midwives have their door open to anyone. No money, lots of money, insurance, no insurance, they treat anyone.

Which is how I found myself a few weeks later in a classroom with a couple of other thirty-something white and Asian pregnant women, a couple of black pregnant teenagers and their moms, a few tired-looking 20- or 30-something pregnant women with other children in tow, and a few visibly uncomfortable husbands and boyfriends. The Center does a lot of its prenatal checkups in group sessions: if you're due in November, you come in every other Wednesday from 2-4 pm. You sign in, and then head to a conference room with the other women, where there's an educational session of some kind. It could be peer counselors giving breastfeeding tips, or one of the midwives talking about all of the possible post-baby birth control options. I was skeptical about the group sessions, over-informed, over-Googled Type A that I am, but truly, I learned something at each one. It was also crazy to realize that I was a full eighteen years older than the gorgeous pregnant girl across the table from me with a similar due date, and if my life were different, I could be her mother. And then I traded premature contraction hospital visit stories with the 17-year old and her family. We're all just a bunch of pregnant chicks here, going through all the same things.

The midwives and other birth center staff want to make all of the women who come there feel positive about their pregnancies, no matter the circumstances. You're not maligned for being a pregnant teenager -- a peer counselor who was also a teenaged mom talks to you about her experiences, the midwives educate you on how to control your fertility in the future, the center offers pediatric care after your baby is born, and at each session they make sure there are snacks and water. I wonder if the young black women wonder what a white woman like me is doing there, and I want to tell them, it's because this is some of the best prenatal care in DC. These midwives are the best. You're so lucky to have them caring for you. I don't know if they know that.

Part of the pregnancy-positive celebration vibe includes the making of a belly cast at one of the group sessions. What's a belly cast? You can see some here. I'd seen them lining the halls of the birth center, white plaster and rainbows of paint drying, reminiscent of elementary school art projects. And frankly, they creeped me out a little. More than a little. I think it's because they look like plaster casts for broken bones, which always scared me as a child, because they meant someone was terribly hurt and broken and in pain. Disembodied mummy-casts of full breasts and bellies, marching down the shining tile floors of the birth center. I thought, oh, it's nice that some of the women want to do that. How fun for them. I definitely never thought, oh, I want one of those!

So, I was a bit surprised when I showed up recently for my Wednesday prenatal session, and found the conference room windows covered over with paper, and with large signs saying "NO MEN ALLOWED." In the room, all of the tables were rearranged and covered with butcher paper, as was the floor, and there were suspicious-looking tubs of water and strips of plaster. One of the teenagers, Cache, and her sister walked in after me, asking "Are we having group in here today?" "I guess." I answered. Then Cache said, "Oh, we're doing those belly cast things today." What? And I chose a seat in the furthest corner from the plaster and mildly panicked, eyeballing the art supplies like a spooked horse, because uh-uh, no f-ing way I am stripping down and anyone is plastering my belly. I AM SO NOT DOING THIS.

Fortunately, one of the midwives came into the room just then to call me for my checkup. It was short, and uneventful, other than the baby doing her usual attempt to escape from the Doppler check of her heartbeat. I walked back with the midwife towards the conference room, and she smiled, and said, "You're doing belly casts today! That's always such a special time." I nodded and smiled. And as soon as she was out of sight, I fled. Bolted. Ran. Out the door. Practically running to my car so no one would see me from the conference room. So I wouldn't set a bad pregnancy-negative example for the teenagers by ditching the belly cast class. I could not get out of there and away from that plaster fast enough.

What's it about, my visceral reaction to the belly casting? Aside from the general creepiness, I also wondered what in the world one does with the thing once it's done? I'm pretty open and relaxed and all, but I just don't see me hanging a mold of my giant pregnant boobs and belly on the wall. Perhaps if I were very talented and artistic, and could really paint it so that it was a stunning work of art, it could be hung. But really, I think mine would just end up in the trash.

I've also felt very "meh" about pregnant belly photos. Some of my friends have beautiful ones, and y'all know I am all about great artistic photos. I obsessively researched wedding photographers before choosing ours, who produced amazing, dreamlike photos of our day. Some of ours are even on her website. But I just can't muster the enthusiasm for the artistic pregnant belly photos for myself. Perhaps if my good friend Heather, who does this sort of thing professionally, lived nearby, and it were easy, I would do it. I even pondered Amalah's suggestion of the DIY pregnancy portrait, but well, I need a new tripod, and my clamp lights are somewhere in the construction zone, and, eh...too much effort. My friends all say they are so glad they have their photos. I keep probing myself to see if I think I'll have any regrets, and I don't think so. I've been documenting the belly growth pretty regularly in photos, so there's plenty of evidence of what it looked like and that I was indeed pregnant. (There are no photos of Seth's mom pregnant with him, which has led to lifelong taunts from his brother of "You were adopted. See, there are no photos of Mom pregnant with you." Seth still obsesses that this might be true, in particularly neurotic moments. I am not kidding.) Someone suggested recently that I make a flip book of the belly photos, which might be quite funny. That may be more my speed than something lovely and touching and artistic in sepia tones.

What does this mean about how I feel about my pregnancy? I don't know. I just don't love the whole experience, like some people say they do. It's not that bad. But not that great. The best part is feeling the baby move around in there, which is endlessly fascinating, as you wonder what in the hell possible pointy baby part was THAT. It's a means to an end. An end in which I get to wear real clothes again, reclaim my stomach and my bladder, and finally meet the mysterious little kicking nymph inside of me and hold her so gently in my arms.

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