Published on October 26th, 2015 | by Mary Doyle3
By the Horns: MARY DOYLE on STDs and Pregnancy
Before I could legally drink, I became a mother. Pregnant at nineteen and deathly afraid of hospitals, succeeding in having a home birth felt like the most important thing in the world. Between the ultra white glare of florescent lights, the sterile reek of disinfectant, and the way they talked to me like I was eight, I wasn’t going anywhere near a hospital unless I was heavily drugged or bleeding out.
Home birth was also an obvious choice because it was the cultural norm I grew up with. My mom had me at home, followed by a quiver-full of siblings, also born at home. I’d been present at the births of my youngest brother and two youngest sisters. The closest thing to feminism I got growing up was that giving birth unmedicated, at home, and through one’s vagina was a necessary facet of Good Mothering. As far as I could tell, maternal virtue and female power were essentially one in the same. I considered childbirth a rite of passage, something that might unleash this whole chain of command in my brain, cracking the code of my internal lock-box labeled “Maternal Instincts,” thus granting me the golden compass I would surely need in the next round. Being young, single and broke, I felt pretty behind the eight ball in the Good Mothering department, so having a home birth came to signify my redemption.
I met the other half of my kid’s DNA while tripping on acid, and three weeks later, I was “with child,” as we’d say in Sunday School. I was homeless when I conceived, so I moved back in with my folks, who were not exactly taking my news as cause for celebration.
About 3 months into my pregnancy, I noticed a strange, rough texture on my vaginal walls. I asked my midwives to look at it, and they said they suspected it was Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), otherwise known as warts. They suggested that I make an appointment at our local women’s health collective to get it diagnosed and possibly treated, so I did.
Sure enough, I had about a hundred warts all over my vaginal walls. I was grossed out, embarrassed, and most of all, ashamed. The nurse at the clinic said we could try freezing them off. We did one freezing treatment, but I can’t remember if it happened during my pregnancy or after. I talked to my midwives about the possible risks. From what they knew at the time, there was an itty bitty risk of my kid contracting them during labor, but it was not significant enough to warrant an elective cesarean. I just heard the part about “very small risk,” and put the rest out of my mind.
Six months later, I succeeded in having my unmedicated, at home, vaginal birth. It started with my water breaking, and while we did monitor closely for signs of infection, the HPV issue stayed safely tucked away. It took fifty-two hours and involved finding a new midwife during labor, but that’s another story for another time. The birth was amazing and I did feel the vault of my lizard brain hacked open, indeed releasing copious amounts of ferocious maternal instinct, aka oxytocin.
Years passed, and while parenting was certainly no cakewalk, my worries about the HPV lay peacefully dormant. And then, one day, the dragon woke. My dear darling toddler got what seemed like a cold, but without the cough or runny nose. He had a sore throat, and his voice grew more and more hoarse. For two weeks, I tried not to remember that conversation I’d had with my midwives, but couldn’t help googling it late at night. I learned that when HPV is transmitted to the newborn, it usually takes a couple of years for warts to develop. They usually appear in the throat, along the vocal chords, and can cause a sore throat, hoarse voice, wheezing, and possible asphyxiation. The only known treatment was frequent surgical removal until puberty. For some, they persist into adulthood.
I remember the moments of dawning: lying awake in my bed, listening to him breathe – raspy, wheezy, effortful. I remember the sense of panic, erupting in my belly, volcanic. I remember my own breathing: how I’d force myself to slow it down, stay steady, and forget about it long enough to fall asleep. “There’s nothing I can do tonight. Tomorrow–I can deal with it tomorrow.” But when tomorrow came, there’d be a million other things to deal with. And everything seemed different in the daylight. It wasn’t until night, where there was nothing but that deep, persistent rasp, that I surged headlong into the catacombs of my unconscious, where the most frightening and unspeakable things get locked away. So now, rather than finding a little cauliflower virus growing in our bodies, I found the mushroom bomb of woman shame, slut shame, and fear of punishment, mixed up haphazardly with something like desire to be punished, or more accurately: a willingness to do almost anything for the sake of redemption. Night after night, I stayed in this purgatorial limbo, hoping it wasn’t real. Maybe, like Abraham and Isaac, it was all just a test, a mean joke by that trickster God, who would call the whole thing off just as soon as I could demonstrate my penitent desire.
So one morning, after two weeks of this, I got out of bed and called the doctor.
The doctor referred us to an ear, nose and throat specialist, and the day soon came when we found ourselves in the ENT’s waiting room. I tried to act calm, to say with my body language that it was okay, that there was no need to worry. When they finally called us into the exam room, the doctor, before properly saying hello or explaining anything to us, had two nurses hold him down while he pushed a scope down this throat, kind of like a small speculum with a flashlight at the end, and the alarm went off in our conjoined nervous system. I watched my feral child fight like hell, crying, kicking and screaming, while I sat perfectly still, as if paralyzed.
The specialist said nonchalantly that he had HPV all over his vocal chords, partially blocking his airway, and that he would need surgery now and often until he was a teenager. I did what I did best: defiant denial. I said I would get a second opinion, and I picked up my red eyed, sniffling three-year-old and marched out of the office. More than anything in the world, I wanted to say, “I’ve gotchyu babe. I won’t let anyone hurt you,” but I knew there was no one to blame but myself. Still, there I was, storming out all mama bear, intent on finding the magical cure of chanting and crystals and herbs.
The next morning, a nice lady from the Department of Children Services showed up at our doorstep and asked to come in. She was polite, even warm, and listened to my rantings about how rude that doctor was, his arrogance and aggressiveness. She nodded sympathetically, yes yes, and then, with the most excruciating tough love, she laid it out real clear for me: “All that may be true, ma’am, but the fact remains that your three year old has a major obstruction in his airway caused by the overgrowth of Human Papilloma Virus, and he is at risk of suffocation if this tissue is not immediately removed. Second opinion or not, this needs to happen now and your cooperation is required if you wish to keep him in your custody. Otherwise, the state will have to place him in the temporary care of someone who will comply.”
I felt as if she’d grabbed me by the horns, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “Listen! I know it sucks. I know you hate it. But buck up kid. Be the adult, accept the truth, and take care of business because you’re his mother and that’s your job.”
And so, with a deep sigh, I agreed to move forward.
For the first procedure, we didn’t know what to expect. I could tell he was nervous, but trusting. I told him they were going to make it so he could breathe better. When they came to wheel him away, I said, “I’ll be right here. I love you.” He sat real still on the gurney in his tiny toddler gown as he was carted through the double doors.
I met him in the recovery wing an hour later, while he was still asleep. I remember the terror in his eyes the moment he woke, looking directly at me. Then he looked around wild eyed, panicking. He found the IV in his leg right away and started clawing it, trying desperately to pull it out.
Each round of procedures was worse than the last. Once he knew what was coming, he would dread it for days, hardly eating or sleeping. I’d try to wait until the day before to tell him, but then, when he learned how soon it was, he’d panic even more. I’d give him all the great pep talks I could muster, yet still he was consumed with fear and dread. When the day came, his nerves would be ravaged. When the people in blue alien suits came to wheel him away, he’d go into a fit of hysteria and reach for me. I’d kiss his cheek and say, “I love you. I’ll be right here,” and then step back, trying to maintain some semblance of composure.
Afterward I’d go to the recovery suite and sit by the bed as he came to. “I’m so sorry. I love you so much. I’m here.” He’d look up, disoriented, always pulling at the IV. He’d tell me over and over about being physically restrained by the adults, how they’d held a mask over his face as he tried to scream, how they’d promised it would smell like bubblegum but really it smelled like poison, how he’d tried to tell them, “I can’t breathe!” but they wouldn’t listen. He’d tell me this story every time in the hours following the procedure.
After five or six rounds of this, a nurse suggested he be given an oral sedative an hour or so before the procedure. The thick narcotic liquid tasted disgusting, he said, but the effects were dramatic. When the people in blue came to wheel him away, instead of thrashing like a rabid tiger, he’d point to the doctor and say, “YOU… HAVE… FOUR… EYES…” then giggle uncontrollably. He was subdued as he went through the doors, and far more calm as he came to.
Eventually I found him a new doctor: a woman who was kinder and more patient, who had a bright, beautiful office, and an all-star staff. He began looking forward to our visits. Even the surgeries became less dreadful, now that the worst part was swallowing the cherry red goo. Afterwards, we’d celebrate the relief of another round completed with endless ice cream and movies.
Throughout his years of procedures, I unleashed my full arsenal of witchy healing support. I gave him herbs and homeopathy, put crystals and magic symbols under his pillows, found flower essences, learned Reiki, and sought out many alternative practitioners. It’s hard to know for certain how much any of this helped, but more than once, in the surgery prep room, a nurse would lean in and say something like, “You think you guys have it bad? That poor kid over there has been here about every two weeks for the past five years. Once a year is almost unheard of. Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.”
One of the biggest challenges of getting older is making peace with the past. Would I have fought so hard for a home birth had I truly known what I was risking? Honestly, all of this is hard to talk about because I’m still so fucking angry. At the heart of my rage is the lack of compassion towards women who have pregnancies which are not socially sanctioned. A system that decides who deserves to be celebrated as a mother, based largely on class, seems to me a deep and indefensible hypocrisy. In a broader sense, this is the bit I must make peace with.
At nineteen however, I lived in a simpler world. I still believed in right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and sin. I subscribed to a doctrine in which the onus was on me to redeem my dignity, and to prove (if only to myself) that I had what it takes to be good at this. I hoped that in childbirth I might discover something pure, like tapping the magic well of our essential female power. The whole notion of womb as vessel, of our fertility being linked with our value and virtue as women, I once accepted as obvious truth. But now, after almost two decades of deeper inquiry and investigation, I see it quite differently. All that said, I did feel powerful giving birth. I did feel connected to other women. Most importantly, I felt forever linked to the struggle, suffering, and miraculous survival of countless mothers all over the world since the beginning of time, and maybe I needed that.
I now live in a messier world, one where paradox and contradictions are almost always truer than “the truth.” The saving grace of my life as a parent has been letting go of the need to defend myself as a Good Mother. We all fuck up our kids. I’m no exception. But I never gave up. In the end, that’s all we can really do. Hang in there. Protect the flame.
My son, who is now a junior in high school, gave explicit consent for this story to be published granted I not use his first name. Since the time of his birth, much has been learned about the prevalence, risks, transmission and prevention of HPV. In 2006, the FDA approved the first preventative vaccine for certain strains of HPV linked with cancer. Since that time, about 38% of females and 35% of males have been vaccinated in the United States.