“And you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” —Donald Trump
When the Democratic party nominated its first mother as a candidate for president, I was laboring toward motherhood. My son, George, was induced on the first day of the Democratic National Convention. When Trump was nominated the week before, despite my typical interest in politics, I spent most of my mental and physical energy that week focusing on a more personal problem: trying to force my body into natural labor. I avoided some of the more revolting sounding Google results— ingesting castor oil, for instance—but if I ran across a suggestion that was something I would do without hesitation pre-pregnancy, I penciled it into my plans for the week. I walked for miles through our humid and hilly West Virginia neighborhood and into the wooded trails at our local park. I ate spicy food from the Thai restaurant downtown. Despite the ninety degree weather, I drank hot peppermint tea. I had sex (several times, my husband eventually resenting my advances stemming from an ulterior motive). I stimulated my nipples. I began using a breast pump.
And still, despite my persistent efforts, my body did not yield into natural labor. The night before my scheduled induction, I resigned myself to medical intervention, and I set my alarm for four in the morning.
I arrived at the hospital when it was still dark, and I was led to a spacious room with a nice view of the still relatively empty parking lot. I was nervous; I’d read many narratives of induced labor lasting for over a day and concluding with an emergency C-section. I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to eat once labor started, so I ate a large breakfast, the sort of breakfast I typically fixed myself before running a long race. A nurse began to take my blood, and the air-conditioned room suddenly felt warmer, stickier. No one else seemed to notice. I glanced over at the nurse, and she was shaking a vial of my blood, a little bit of it spilling on the floor. “Oops!” she said nonchalantly. “Look how bubbly it is—like champagne!” As the nurse poked around to find a good vein to start my IV, I began feeling hot, dizzy, and within seconds, I threw my entire breakfast up all over my hospital gown.
“Oh, goodness,” a second nurse in the room said, “let’s get you cleaned up.” With my IV successfully inserted, my husband wheeled the pole to the bathroom where I changed out of my Wheaties-and-banana coated hospital gown and showered off. I kept apologizing to the nurses, to my husband, and internally, I kept thinking, if I can’t handle the IV, how in the world am I going to be able to handle labor?
My husband anticipated these thoughts. When the nurse left the room, he quietly said to me, “it is really warm in here—I’m going to ask them to turn the thermostat down. And I don’t know what that nurse was thinking shaking your blood around like that. Made me feel kind of sick, too.”
Several moments later, a new nurse arrived to my room – the day shift had just arrived, and my former nurse was relieved from her duties. She introduced herself confidently and said, “I heard you were nervous—don’t be. I do this all the time, and I promise you, having the IV inserted is the worst part.”
I laughed — “yeah, right,” but she replied, “you’ll see—it’ll be fine. I promise.”
During the early stages of labor—when my nurse first started pushing Pitocin – I watched the coverage of the DNC on CNN with my husband and my parents. My parents, Republicans but not Trump Republicans, were not excited about Clinton’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination: “it’s time for a woman, sure,” my mother would say, “but does it really have to be her?” We avoided debate in the delivery room, though, and as labor intensified, I turned the tv off, and I didn’t watch anymore of the DNC from that moment on; it was almost as if I was being catapulted to another planet.
Through a series of weekly non-stress tests and biophysical profiles, my pregnancy had been monitored for the bulk of the summer. An ultrasound early in the third trimester revealed that George was measuring small—at the 18th percentile. He wasn’t so small that the doctors were terribly concerned—he would just be a little guy, my OB said—but they wanted to watch him, just in case.
In clinical appointments, my OB would reassure me based upon fears he anticipated I harbored— “he is likely just a small baby,” he told me. “It hasn’t been anything you’ve done,” he’d say. As a precaution, though, I began attending multiple medical appointments weekly where I would undergo a variety of tests to monitor the growth of our son.
I had been warned about the proclivity toward discovered pathology, prescribing interventions, in many of the articles and books I’d read prior to and during pregnancy. The medical community, many argue, deliver babies guided primarily by fear of complications rather than the hope for the best possible outcomes for the mother. This mindset—one that looks for constant red flags, for dark clouds on an otherwise sunny horizon, has benefited many babies and women, often saving lives. But this predisposition to look for the negative in an otherwise healthy woman’s pregnancy is not without its problems. Intervention often leads to intervention, and while those additional steps may be taken due to real medical problems, sometimes the insertion of the human agent and his technology becomes the most pressing problem of all.
“My mother was a DES daughter,” I mentioned to a friend who also recently found out that she was pregnant and was consumed with all of the anxiety that grows in you throughout those nine months. She paused; she didn’t know what that meant. I named a more infamous drug: “like thalidomide,” I said.
“Oh, shit—what happened to her?”
I knew she was envisioning the babies in the documentaries, many of whom died shortly after birth, and if they survived, were often physically disabled.
“Well, DES wasn’t as bad as thalidomide,” I continued, “but the babies had issues with fertility.”
Though less well-known, DES was a medication prescribed by doctors to pregnant women in the 1950s; the medication was meant to help prevent miscarriage in patients who were considered high risk. My grandmother took the medication with little concern; she and my grandfather had a hard time conceiving, and when she finally became pregnant, she was close to forty years old. She experienced bleeding early on in her pregnancy; in the hope of preventing a miscarriage, her doctor prescribed DES, and she took it for the duration of her pregnancy with my mother.
A decade after my grandmother took this medication, the term “DES daughter” became a medical label, an identifier of pathological fertility. Many DES daughters had full hysterectomies before they ever reached adulthood. My mom was more fortunate; my brother and I were born small, but not too small, and there were no physical deformities of significance save one: on my right hand, an additional thumb extended from my original, “normal” thumb. The eleventh digit contained no joint, but it rivaled the other two thumbs in size. My third thumb has since been removed, but I still glance quickly at my hands to look for the scar that helps me distinguish left from right.
When my mother carried me, she was considered high risk because of early bleeding and what doctors later labeled a weak uterus. She was placed on bed rest for five months and spent the warming of spring and the hot nights of summer expanding on the couch. She watched a lot of tv. I am named after my mother binge-watched the 1980s Anne of Green Gables series, except I am “Ann” with an “a” rather than an “e.”
While my mother was closely monitored throughout her pregnancy with me, my additional digit was a surprise, and between the extra thumb and the dark hair that covered my newborn back, my dad was near tears after my birth, envisioning all of the ways that boys in junior high school would mock my appearance. The back hair fell out and faded, and my parents scheduled a surgery to have my thumb removed before I turned two, but I knew that this condition was a dominant genetic trait, and so when I was pregnant with George, in one of the first ultrasounds after the technician measured his head, heart, and femur, I quietly asked, “Do his hands look different to you?”
I would elaborate with context about my own extra digit—polydactylism, as it is technically named. The tech would spend time zeroing in on each hand, finally saying that nothing looked out of the ordinary, and I would feel a slight pang of disappointment, having held a secret hope that my son would be marked in appearance with a trait that could have only come from me.
Whenever I give my history to any physician, I am always sure to mention that I am a third generation DES daughter. On the CDC’s website, information about third generation DES daughters and sons is sparse. The page notes that we are just now “reaching [an] when relevant health problems […] can be studied.” The rest of the website provides very little information. Anytime I have mentioned this history to my doctor, I am always reassured that, all the research shows that the third generation has not been affected by DES. My physicians usually do not mention, though, that there really hasn’t been much time for us to be observed.
Unlike my mother, I had an unconstrained pregnancy. Three decades before, I probably would have been placed on bed rest due to George’s low percentiles, but that prescription has since fallen out of fashion. I went for long runs in the park, though those runs became frustratingly shorter as the summer progressed. I, like my mother before me, was due to give birth during the month of August. As my stomach grew, my center of gravity shifted, and a run of even just a short distance would send sharp pains up the back of my calves, but out of pride, or determination, or love for that feeling of freedom that only running can provide, I still ran. I asked my doctor if running was okay; he assured me that, if my body could comfortably do it, it was. So I ran until running morphed into walking.
Despite this freedom afforded to me, my pregnancy was labeled “high risk.” I didn’t realize that I met the criteria for this official classification until days before birth; I looked down at the paperwork I was to submit on the day of my labor and delivery, and those words were printed clearly and frequently on the document.
When I was told that George was measuring small, I was faced with a series of choices, but all of those choices were subsumed by a larger choice about belief – who do I believe about my body and my baby? I had a good amount of faith in the medical community, despite my mother and grandmother’s history. As an otherwise healthy woman, I had the privilege of not having a personal history of negative anecdotes to color my evaluation of my current physicians. I found contemporary statistics regarding longer-life expectancies, fewer maternal-fetal deaths compelling. My husband is a physician, and through medical school, residency, and in general practice, I’ve met many of his colleagues, and most of them are kind and decent people, perhaps a bit jaded from long work hours, difficult patients, and high student loan debt, but people, nonetheless, who seem to have patients’ best interests at heart.
I knew, though, that once I said yes to an intervention, I was really saying yes to the potential of many more—resistance would be futile. Once I was labeled high risk, my physicians, without necessarily being immediately conscious of it, would be operating out of a spirit of fear, rather than hope. We would all be inserted in a system larger and more powerful than our collective desires for individual agency; choices would diminish after I made that initial choice.
The medical model is often classified as a patriarchal system, which I used to find funny, even a bit absurd, an entire profession gendered male, and colored that way as a criticism. As I looked at our ultrasound results, though —my baby’s small abdominal circumference, his low overall percentiles—it felt reckless to not heed the directive for more interventions, more ultrasounds, more technology. The fear of not doing enough overshadowed that of doing too much. As my doctor kindly told me in his office – it was nothing that you did to make this happen – he reinforced a more complicated, less comforting message: there is nothing you can or cannot do to make things happen.
This, of course, is not the implicit message given—which is why it’s so hard to believe a message that lets you off the hook. From your very first appointment, you are given a list of very specific rules for pregnancy: no alcohol, no tobacco, no soft cheese, no sushi, no cookie dough, no peppermint tea, no hot tubs, no high elevations. The prohibitions are lengthy, and with the list you are given a not-so-subtle message that the health of this baby is up to you.
Once you’re told, though, in the kindest of voices that there was nothing you did, the next message is often, and we’ll take it from here. It is at this moment that your entrance into a system more powerful than yourself and even your doctor becomes apparent, the man and his technology now the critical voice in the outcomes of your body and baby.
In my case, this usurpation of agency was a good thing—maybe even a life-saving thing. George’s growth percentiles dropped with each passing week, and in correlation, my blood pressure rose higher and higher, hitting preeclamptic levels on the day I was induced. This is often the case, and this is why people are often willing to hand the reigns over to doctors.
My nurse ended up being completely right—the insertion of my IV was the worst part of my labor. My induction did not follow the narrative of those countless horror stories I read on the internet; after an early epidural, I dilated to 10 in a few relatively painless hours. I pushed for twenty minutes. When my son was born, after his initial cry—a tiny scream, a cat cry—the nurse laid him on my bare chest, and I counted his fingers and his toes: ten on both counts, and the slightest twinge of disappointment. I scanned his features, searching for another physical link to me, embodiment that proved he was truly mine — almond eyes, dark wisps of downy hair, but nothing as clear as an extra digit.
He was, though, tiny, pixie-like, perfect, and just above his earlobe, he had a small, oval birthmark that I would check each time the nurses would bring him back to me in the hospital to be sure he was mine, my George.
Shortly after I delivered my son, I also delivered my placenta, the organ that sustained, or perhaps failed to sustain, my son’s life in utero. My doctor told me in a firm voice as I cradled my minutes-old son on my chest, “we’re going to have this sent to the lab; I want to have it analyzed.” Weeks later, at my routine six-week checkup, I found out that this organ had a small tear that made it difficult for George to receive adequate blood flow. This, I found out, likely accounted for the inverse relationship between my son’s growth and my blood pressure: in an effort to circumvent the damage caused by the split, my blood was being re-routed to him, and there wasn’t enough blood for the both of us.
This information was comforting—it gave me an “answer”—but that answer led to more questions, and those unanswerable questions led to guilt, to a constant rewriting of the narrative of George’s gestation. Did my behavior cause the tear? Was it because I was too active, too reckless? I considered my runs in the park, my walks with our dogs. A friend of mine who had hemorrhaged in early pregnancy once told me that after the bleeding, she refused to pick up anything even as heavy as a crockpot until her baby was born. Perhaps I should have taken more care.
When I voted for Hillary Clinton several months later, I took George with me to the court house. He’d been listening to NPR with me each day. The house was so quiet, just the two of us, and I would turn on Diane Rehm, On Point, On the Media, All Things Considered, to fill the silent gaps. The shows always had a variety of topics, but one name kept cropping up, no matter the show’s focus: Trump. Trump had said something terrible about a disabled reporter, so his name was invoked on a show about disabilities. He said another awful thing about women, so he was the topic of discussion on a show about gender equity and equality. And, of course, he was discussed on all of the overtly political shows. Commentators debated the size of his presidential loss, the decimation of the Republican party. He was always discussed in the negative, but he was also always discussed.
I joked to my husband that George’s first word would be Trump.
As I strolled with my son to the voting booth, I told him that we were voting for our first female president, our first mom; I told him she would win—not because people loved her, but because her opponent was just that bad. I told him that I liked her, though, partially, precisely, because she was so “unlikable.”
It would be reductive to talk about the election of 2016 as man versus woman, though gender was certainly a focal point in the election, with the Clinton campaign using the feminine pronoun “her” as an identifier in their three word slogan, I’m With Her. It would be reductive, too, to mark Trump as a vote for patriarchy and Clinton as a vote for something else. Patriarchy, we know, is not just about gender; men do not have to be or perhaps cannot be part of patriarchal systems. Patriarchy is about established systems of power, systems that often leave those on the outside in subordinate, at best, or oppressive positions, at worst. In this way, the electorate—with conflicted views of who was in power and who was the oppressor—voted against the patriarchy, no matter their candidate. Trump was a candidate seemingly outside of the political system, acknowledging the oppression of individuals in particular industries, classes, and geographies. Clinton acknowledged oppression of individuals often included in discussions of identity politics. In many ways, both candidates really were part of the patriarchy, pandering to the very real pain and hurt of many of their constituents.
After we voted, we walked out of the courthouse, and I snapped a photo of the two of us in front of a bench and some shrubberies. George was asleep, an activity he preferred to engage in during daylight hours, outdoors, and often in direct sunlight. I was in a pink sweater, smiling, trying to appear more well-rested than I felt; I envisioned showing the photo to George when he was older, saying, see—this is when we made history together.
But, of course, our vote did not align with the course of history—though everyone was so sure she would win. Following this loss, the narrative changed; we saw moments of foreshadowing that were, somehow, otherwise missed. I thought I was paying attention to the story; I listened to the news for hours on end while feeding, diapering, burping, and practicing tummy time with my son. I was paying attention, but I was also in my own bubble, quite literally—there were days I didn’t even leave the house. Who was I to pretend to know what was going on in the world when my whole world had contracted down to four walls and a 5 lb. 12 oz. human being?
On the night of the returns, I settled in to listen to the election results. Even though I expected to wake every two to three hours throughout the night to feed George, I still wanted to treat the evening as a celebration. It was nine o’clock, and I poured myself a glass of wine. I drank it slowly, engaged in the streaming NPR commentary while refreshing FiveThirtyEight.com every few minutes. After finishing my glass, I decided that the best way to celebrate our new president would be to wake up to the good news in a few hours and to scroll through the election results on my tablet.
I crawled in bed, and a few hours later, as my son began to grunt and whine, I pulled him from his bassinet and onto my chest. I reached for my device and refreshed the browser: the winner flashed red. I rubbed my eyes, confused, surely the results were premature. I refreshed the browser again. Again. I began to shake. I looked for different answers elsewhere—but as I cradled the back of my baby’s head in my hands, all I saw was red in the dark.
Anna Rollins lives in Huntington, West Virginia with her husband, two young sons, and two beagles. She works at Marshall University as the director of the Writing Center and as an instructor of English. Her creative work has appeared in Literary Juice and in Thanksgiving Tales: True Stories of the Holiday in America.