Birth Story: Ildi Martonffy
Dr. Ildi Martonffy is an incredible family medicine physician in Madison and the director of the residency program the UW Madison Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. She and her husband, Aaron, are also friends of our family! Here she shares the her journey into parenthood, first with the birth of Makeda (10) and then the adoption of Joon (8).
Did you have experience with birth or parenthood before you had your children?
I’m a family doctor, so I’ve attended many, many, many births. I knew the mechanics of how it happened. I am the second oldest of 5 kids and my youngest sister is 11 years younger than I am. I was right at that age when she was born that I was really excited my mom was having another baby. My mom was 44 when she was born. My parents had kids on the older side during that day and age, so lots of experience taking care of kids and did tons of babysitting growing up. Obviously, it’s super different when it’s your own, and you can’t get away from them!
I definitely knew the textbook stuff about breastfeeding. Totally different story when it’s 3 am and you’re trying to get your kid to latch. A lot of the experiences with Makeda were what prompted me to go on and get my IBCLC certification. If I’m not very good at helping myself at 3 am, how good am I at helping other mamas?
Our journey also was such that we had started the process of adoption, and then I got pregnant with Makeda. By the time I got pregnant with her, we hadn’t been using any form of contraception for about 4 years, but we were already about a year into an adoption process. We had not pursued any assisted reproductive technology. It just wasn’t happening, and we kind of thought we wanted to adopt anyway. Then we got pregnant with her! The agencies make you put any adoption on hold until the youngest child in the home is a year old. We had done the home study, all the social workers, all your background checks. Essentially you have a social worker blessing you, saying “Yes! I think you’re a fit parent!” In our adoptive families groups it’s kind of like “Sure you can play at so-and-so’s house. I don’t know them that well, but some social worker said they were a fit parent!” That’s really how our journeys were interwoven.
Going into Makeda’s birth what were you most nervous about, if anything?
I don’t remember feeling nervous as much as “Ok, let’s get this done!” She was 10 days past her due date. I was just like “Come on!” You know how some women, at the end of their pregnancy, are just antsy in terms of “Get this thing out of me!”? I didn’t feel like that. I kind of knew this was going to be my only pregnancy. Almost certainly. I was just enjoying. I had a pretty easy, healthy pregnancy. I always enjoyed feeling her move. We didn’t know, but I knew she was a girl. I mean, I didn’t, but I knew. I didn’t care either way, but I had a feeling. I was kind of eager to see if I was right! That’s what I remember the most, not being afraid necessarily.
How did your labor start?
I was induced with Makeda, for post dates, so we kind of knew when that was going to be happening. Maybe we got in at 1pm on the 30th? They tried the balloon, and they probably did misoprostol.
Describe your labor:
I was having contractions for about 24 hours. It wasn’t horrendously uncomfortable. I was also, I think, not talked into, but offered, an epidural earlier than I needed. That was interesting because I think that was one of the downsides of being a healthcare professional. There happened to be 7 babies born on New Year’s Eve, which is a lot. There were just a lot of women in labor that day. They knew I was a doc, and I remember the nurse saying “Well, you can get it now or you can be 7th in line.” That might not have helped, but I was not humongously uncomfortable.
It turns out, throughout the whole process on the monitor, the contractions looked amazing. But they were not! Once they got the internal monitors in it was kind of like oh...I don’t feel like I brought it on myself or caused this by mentally thinking it wouldn’t work, but I definitely thought it wouldn’t work. “I’m good, let’s just go to section.” Then all was well.
Was the labor what you expected?
Yeah. When you attend inductions enough, you kind of know what it’s going to look like.
How was the C-Section experience?
There’s one funny thing I remember about it. One of the OB’s, when they were closing the skin, was like “Do you want me to do dissolvable sutures, so you don’t have to have staples removed?” I was like “I don’t know! Just close! I cannot think right now!”
I don’t know what my estimated blood loss was, but I know I bled enough to where I heard concern in the OB’s voice. “Ok, turn the pit up. No, turn the pit up!” I remember that and thinking “Oh, yeah, I’m bleeding.” Obviously, you can’t see anything, but at that point, Makeda was out and I heard her crying. And then you know, post C-section you have the IV in and the Foley. My Foley must have been kinked because the next morning I peed out a liter! No wonder I didn’t sleep! Between the things squeezing your legs and the IV in, everything was beeping at me that night. This is why people say hospitals are terrible places to get sleep.
How did your support team help you?
My friend Heather, who is also a family doc, and her daughter, Indy, came down on New Year’s Eve during the day and played cards with us. And as Indy says now, she was proud that her job was “to distract Aaron so he didn’t pass out.” They are very close friends of ours. Heather and I met when we were residents, interns. Her daughter was just 6 months old when we first met. They were actually hosting a New Year’s Eve party at their house that night, so Makeda was born at 3:12 in the afternoon, so they got to be the first ones, other than us, to see her. Then they went home. Then we had time the 3 of us. Over the next couple days my family, who lives around the Chicago area came up. I don’t think anyone came the very next day. Aaron’s dad came up to see the baby. My family came up. My family was there the day of discharge. It was really just us, though. We don’t have a lot of family nearby. Aaron’s mom came to visit when Makeda was about 3 weeks. She was born right in a cold winter, so it’s not like we were getting out and about.
With Joon, with adoption, you really want to keep that nest small at first. It’s not usually a great idea to have a bunch of people coming by. My mom and one of my sisters stayed with Makeda during the trip. They were there immediately when we got home because our trip was like a 5 day trip to Seoul. I think they left the next day. I remember we went to the park. It was summer then. Aaron’s dad came to visit maybe 3 or 4 weeks later with his girlfriend at the time. She was lovely. It worked out beautifully, very understanding. Like “this kid might have temper tantrums that are above and beyond.” There was one afternoon, when he was just having a really hard time. And some people might be obtrusive in that way, trying to help. But she just stepped back, which was really good.
How did things unfold differently with Joon?
When we first got in queue for Korea, it’s weird, you have this big checklist of medical things you’d be open to, and we were pretty much open to everything. The social worker had called me wanting to know a little bit more, “Would you be open to this? Would you be open to that?” And she was like “Ok, I’m not supposed to tell you this…” But there was a girl, actually, that may have been becoming eligible for adoption. It sounded like this girl potentially had a family history of schizophrenia and a whole bunch of other things. But I said I would still look at the referral. Absolutely! So, I was expecting to get a phone call about a kiddo with a lot of needs potentially and stuff. I was actually at work, February 24th, 2011, when I got the phone call from the social worker about his referral. Obviously, it wasn’t the kiddo I thought I was getting a phone call about!
Anything you can know about the referral is all filtered through the social worker and, in his case, Korea. In the paragraph we had, it said things like “His father has acne skin.” And I’m like, “I don’t care so much about that…” You never know much. He was born full term. In Korea, it’s a foster system. He was with the same foster family from the time he was about 2 months old until the day we met him. By the time we were matched with him, he was about 6 months old, so we knew he’d been developing normally and growing normally and all that. There are adoption medicine specialists, like docs. Sometimes people will have files reviewed by an adoption specialist, but there was nothing to review. I could look at his growth chart and see there was no sense in that. Sometimes the reason people do that too is just because you kind of learn the lingo. Stuff like “His mother is very friendly and outgoing” can actually mean his mother is a sex worker. There’s stuff like that.
We accepted the referral right away, but it’s still a long process between when you accept the referral to when they get a travel visa. In the case of Korea, they only let a certain number of kiddos out of the country. It’s kind of a great shame to them that they’re letting their treasures, their children, go. But, yet, adoption within Korea is becoming more accepted but not very accepted. There was a year and a half almost until we got to travel. But we were allowed to send care packages every month. It had to fit in a gallon ziploc, so I got very good at packing things in gallon bags! You could send clothes and toys and stuff like that, but also disposable cameras for them to take pictures. The foster family at that point couldn’t communicate back with us at all. Everything was through the agency. We would get updates when he would go in for a well child check. It’s kind of funny, I remember getting multiple pictures of this little mole on his thigh. As if we’re going to say “Oh no! We don’t want him!” He must have been about a year old and it said “Says ‘no’ emphatically.” And I’m like “Oh yes, he does still!” It was always really exciting to get an update and really fun to send a care package. And ultimately we got the travel call. I think we flew out on a Sunday and came back on a Friday. It was really quick.
With our adoption timeline, you kind of have an idea of when you’ll get the travel call, but it’s not quite like a due date. But I knew I wanted to relactate for him, knowing that he probably would never go to the breast. He was 22 months when he came home, almost 2 years old. I still wanted to be able to pump and give him my milk. It was about 10 months between when Makeda had self-weaned and Joon came home. A little bit before he came home, I started pumping. I had actually enough of a freezer supply stored up that his night time bottle was 8 oz of my milk, which I think helped a lot with his body getting used to us. He just didn’t get sick as much as other kids who come from another country. Maybe it helped bonding. This is totally probably pure coincidence, but in Korea they gave us this big canister of toddler formula that they used. At first, just to get him used to the taste, I was mixing my milk with the toddler formula. His 6th night home he had the first bottle of just my milk. He drank it and rolled over on my chest and fell asleep. That was awesome. That felt good.
Did you pick out the name Joon?
No, that was his name. Often in Korea you have a 2 syllable first name and not really a middle name. His first name was Joon-Hyuk. We do know that his birth mom gave him that name and that she gave him her last name, as opposed to the dad’s last name. His full name is now Joon Hyuk Choi Mitchell. It was important to us to keep that. Joon-Hyuk means “bright and great,” which I think he is, of course!
Also, if there’s any information that we don’t already have in his file or stuff that’s happened since then, like if his birth mom has checked back with the agency, he can have that information when he turns 13. Our plan is to do a family trip back to Korea when he’s 13 because that’s also when he’d be able to meet up with his foster mom again. That will have its challenges too because kids are obviously emotionally a lot more ready to understand things.
We talk a lot about Korea and his birth mom. We don’t know anything about her. I tell him “I’m sure she thinks about you all the time and I’m sure she loves you very much.” When he first came home there are pictures of him playing with his foster parents. We made this little collage for his room. I don’t know that he as any true memories of Korea, but he’ll be like “I remember my foster dad would play trains with me.” Well there’s a picture of that. There’s a picture of his foster mom at the park with him. So I don’t know. We talk about it a lot.
What words of wisdom do you have for expectant parents?
Trust the process. Whatever the process is, trust the process. Which is so hard, so hard to do at that point in life for so many people. This is tangentially related, but I have a good friend from high school who, at the time I was pregnant with Makeda, was deciding whether she and her husband wanted to pursue assisted reproductive technology or adoption. They ended up adopting 2 stinkin’ adorable kids domestically. We were having a lot of conservations because she said “I want your perspective because a lot of people tell me I’ll regret it if I don’t have a child who’s genetically related to you.” I was halfway through my pregnancy and also half way through the adoption process, so we talked a lot about trust your gut, trust what’s right for you. Trust your process. I remember with Joon, shortly after he came home, I was laying on the couch feeding him a bottle and Makeda was sitting by us too. I remember smelling the top of his head and thinking “This smells like my kid.” You cuddle babies all the time and they smell good, but it’s just a baby. Now he smells like a sweaty 8 year old boy!
The other thing I think about, not so much regarding my own experience, is talking to patients who are so concerned about “Will I get pregnant? When will I get pregnant?” The whole pregnancy they’re freaked out. And it’s like, there are 18 plus more years to freak out even more! You have to find your own way to come to terms with all the uncertainty.
Also, if I did have another kid, I would for sure hire a doula. So, I try talking more intentionally with patients about the kind of support that they want, the kind of support they should ask for. It would have been awesome to have a doula and a postpartum doula!
Thank you, Ildi!