It was Monday, June 2nd, and I was wide awake at 6 a.m. Maybe to some of you this hour doesn’t sound remarkable, but for me it was. It was the first day in a lifetime of six in the mornings, and I made the three-hour leap all in one go.
By this point, it was 10 days past my due date, and I had a very specific and recurring fantasy of being moved around town in a hammock flown by a helicopter. I wanted to be airlifted between boroughs.
When I told my fiancé, Dustin, this wish, he was quiet for a second. He had learned to reply to me with caution, but I imagine in this case he just couldn’t help himself.
“Like a whale?” he asked.
I laughed, standing on the curb somewhere. Actually yes, come to think of it: Like a whale.
On the morning of June 2nd I had been waking up “still pregnant” for quite some time—41 weeks and two days to be exact; 289 days. My mom was in town already, at an Airbnb rental a block away. Dustin was done with work. I was chugging raspberry red leaf tea, bouncing on a purple exercise ball whenever I could, shoving evening primrose oil pills up my vagina, paying $40 a pop at community acupuncture sessions I didn’t believe in, and doing something called “The Labor Dance.” The Dance (preferred shorthand) involves rubbing your belly in a clockwise direction—vigorously—and then getting as close to twerking as one can at 41 weeks pregnant.
* * *
I never did get far enough into adulthood where I was waking up at 6 a.m. for self-betterment, which is one among many things I thought I would master before having children. Add to that: novel writing, working out, makeup, clothing, getting up early. As I got closer and closer to childbirth I still held out hope for a few of them. I went to Sephora; I opened Google Docs; downloaded the Couch to 5k app for the tenth time; waddled around the track at my local park, my baby bump a-bouncing. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.
Anyway, it was 6 a.m. and I was wide awake and staring at the wall. Then ow. It was like the crest of a wave of a period cramp; the worst moment, if you have forgotten to take Tylenol and then are cursing yourself that you forgot to take Tylenol. I lay there with my mind racing for awhile, then got up and ate Frosted Mini Wheats the way I had done for much of my pregnancy. Dustin was sleeping. I had another one. Another “thing.” Ow. I was kind of smiling at them at this point. Whoa, no way. Could it be? I got in the shower, jittery with this new development. Ow-ow-ow. I grabbed the towel rack and wondered how many more showers I’d take that day. In all of my natural childbirth classes everyone was raving about the magic of hot showers. I suspected, or feared, that their analgesic powers were not as good as advertised. Ow.
I got back into bed and lay there naked and huge, staring at Dustin sleeping, waiting for him to wake up. I didn’t want to look at the time, but I looked at the time and the ows were 15 minutes or so apart. Ow, ow, ow I whispered into my arm. I grimaced; I cringed. So far the pain was about as bad as a stubbed toe. It was a “Damn!” pain, but it was still amusing. I was kind of proud of it, too, of my body. It had finally kicked itself into gear.
I was also a little excited because I didn’t feel like working that day, or going to another one of my doctor’s appointments at the hospital, a 40-minute commute away. The appointments are for overdue women. You sit in a room full of hospital-style armchairs (comfy but upholstered in cornflower blue, and with the kind of material you could wipe down with a washcloth) and you pull up your shirt to reveal your belly, while the nurse lubes you up and straps monitors to you and you sit with the other women whose bodies have not kicked into gear, and a chorus of fetal heart tones sing out in the room like horses galloping. The first time I sat there I cried with some kind of joy at this.
Today though, I was done with all of it.
Whether I woke Dustin up or he woke up on his own I don’t know, but when he did I lay there for awhile without saying anything. I must have waited for the next ow-ow-ow.
“Is this it?” he asked me.
I don’t know, I think I told him. I had suddenly felt very shy, like I was getting my first period and didn’t want anyone to know. “It could be nothing,” I said and we smiled. He got excited, I tried not to. “I don’t know!” I shouted, laughing at the truth of it. Then ow-ow-ow.
My mom came over and our plan was to grab breakfast at a coffee shop where I would stay and do work. She’d leave me be, then pick me up for my appointment a few hours later. She rang our bell and came and sat with me in the living room. I wondered if I could pretend to do work and then go into labor secretly, on my own. I waited and waited and squeezed a couch pillow in silence while she drank coffee and I pretended nothing was out of the ordinary, then finally I shrugged and tried to hide a smile and announced, matter-of-fact, that I didn’t think I was going to be doing any work that day.
“Stuff’s…happening,” I told her. She got excited, I told her not to. She ignored me. I covered my face in my hands. I flashed back to me walking in on her in the bathroom in 1995 and asking her for a maxi pad. She had tried to give me a tampon. I shook my head and ran out.
We all went for a walk to get things moving. I should be walking, was all that I could think. I did not want to fail at birth. In practice, this meant I drank half of an iced coffee and bent all the way over on street corners, burying my head in Dustin’s chest approximately every 10 minutes. We made it to a park that was just filling up with small children and their mothers who eyed me suspiciously; I was soon to be one of them. I side-eyed them back, and then muffled my shouts into Dustin’s shirt sleeve. I kneaded the flesh of his arms, pulled on his belt loops, yanked at all of his pockets, grabbed him by the hips, sipped iced coffee, trudged forward in the sun. I laughed at myself, shaking my head between contractions. It was, it seemed, really happening. The pain was getting much worse. It was now a much more painful, sustained toe stubbing. Like your body being twisted and wrung out from the inside. But temporary! You just had to ride it out. It was almost fun at this point—a personal challenge. “You’re going to stub your toe very, very hard every 10 minutes for the next few hours, but then you’ll have a baby!” It seemed okay.
“Annnnd here we go!” I’d say, then shove my iced coffee into my mom’s hands and slam my head into Dustin. I did my breathing, dutifully, skillfully, and I moved around rhythmically, alternating between belly dancer and mentally disturbed person slamming her head against the bus seat in front of her.
I did my breathing, dutifully, skillfully, and I moved around rhythmically, alternating between belly dancer and mentally disturbed person slamming her head against the bus seat in front of her.
My contractions moved to seven minutes apart, and we walked home. Going through labor surrounded by my closest loved ones, who were not themselves going through labor was, well, it was embarrassing, but not in a way I really felt. There was the me of polite company who felt ashamed, angry and slighted by the whole affair. Then there was the bodily me, who was very busy having her organs tightened with a belt made of barbed wire.
I would float out above my body and smile in wonder and awe, and then I would be yanked back in, like a gust of wind through a subway tunnel. Knowing it was supposed to be happening was the only thing that kept me from screaming, from calling an ambulance, from being sure I would die. Also the temporary-ness. It was like doing battle, or having battle be done unto you, every seven minutes.
* * *
Time wore on. We moved from room to room, I ate piece after piece of watermelon. We never listened to any music. I don’t know, really, what we did in those minutes between contractions. Read our phones? Talked to each other? I know at a certain point I Googled “average length of labor first time mom.” I remember debating typing in “length” vs. “duration,” my eye on the clock. Do most people know the word “duration”? I wondered.
We finished packing the bag. I ate a yogurt popsicle, buried my face in pillows, and leaned over tables and countertops. I thought about how it was almost pornographic: my ass in the air, me moaning. Pornography of one.
I carried my big purple yoga ball around the house and was rolling all over it. I wore my blue and white cotton striped maternity dress, crew socks, and purple Crocs.
I labored in a dress? I labored in a dress.
We went for more walks and I was fine with having contractions around the neighborhood as long as no one from my building saw me. I tried to time our trips out the hallway with my contractions. Still, on our way out, I heard our neighbor say to Dustin, “Baby?”
“Not yet, we’re workin’ on it,” he responded.
I stood frozen in the doorway, and crawled back to my purple ball.
* * *
At some point, the contractions were three minutes apart. Then five. Then three. This happened for a while, and we were gathering our stuff, readying ourselves. It was was now 6 p.m. Dustin called the on-call OB and then hung up to call a car. That’s when the contractions stopped.
I stood up from being bent over the butcher block and looked at my phone, bereft. Ten minutes. Then 7. Then 10. Then 12. Then 15. They stalled out. I panicked. We walked. Ten minutes. Twelve minutes. Twenty minutes! Soon it was late. I argued with Dustin over how long a “normal” labor was. I thought about friends whose labors were six hours, or eight hours. That was normal. I tried crawling into the other room and looking in The Birth Partner when he was in the bathroom. I tried to visualize a worksheet my yoga teacher gave us in a workshop about average early labor durations and couldn’t find it on my desk. I spent whole hours wishing my mom would go home and go to sleep, but unable to communicate this. She did finally, and I felt such gratitude. Like maybe now it would work. Maybe she was a psychic block.
When that didn’t happen we tried to sleep, too. We slept in 12-minute intervals, then 15, then 20, then seven. All along the worst pain, rocking, cringing, shouting, kneading pain, waking me up every 12 minutes. I was so weak.
At midnight, I was exhausted and in tears and mad at Dustin for not calling again. I was cursing the piece of paper we had hanging on the fridge: 3-1-1. Three minutes apart, lasting a minute, for an hour.
“Maybe,” I whimpered, “this is just how labor is for me. Maybe I’m close. Maybe my contractions will never get closer together.” I sobbed, hopeless. “That happened to someone on Babycenter!” I said. I wanted to be monitored, to make sure the baby was okay. I was still feeling him kick but who knew? If he stopped, then what? It could be too late. We couldn’t see in there; couldn’t access it. This was what I hated most about pregnancy and what I wanted over with more than anything: the opacity of it all. I wanted him out where I could see him. But before that I had to be made to suffer. Before that: this.
When Dustin called the doctor again, seeming so grown-up in the next room, I got a contraction and made sure to moan extra loud for effect. Everyone told us the doctors gauge your labor sounds for signs of progress, so I hoped she’d overhear me and grant us access. Dustin paced and reasoned with her and then hung up and came back to me. She told him that normally she has patients wait until they’ve gone 24-36 hours and then at that point you can come in and get monitored for a bit. He put this to me gently, but without the despair I thought it required. He became, too, then, the enemy.
“No,” I said, crumbling. I was crying out of desperation. I needed a fix. I felt unheard; misunderstood. This was much different than physical pain. This could not be, I thought. It just cannot be. I wouldn’t make it that long. I’d never make it.
I don’t know how I endured the next eight hours, but it mostly involved making deals with myself. Keep going until 2 a.m. 3 a.m. Six. My mom came back over at 7 or 8 and I was feeling stubborn again. I didn’t want to go in, to ride in a horrible car during rush hour, only to be turned back. Everyone said the car ride was the worst part. I was scared of it, I cried at the thought. I wanted to set up shop, to have the baby, I wanted to be flown there by helicopter in a hammock, goddammit.
And all along: pain, pain, pain. The grooves of it were beginning to feel familiar, well-worn. Tired. Sore.
Gathering our stuff to get in the car gave me a second wind. I felt like a kid about to go on a big trip. I tried not to grin, feeling the bigness of the situation as I lived it; I was setting off to a terrible fate. I was screaming on the bed as Dustin would pop his head in holding something or other up in the air and asking if he should bring it. He picked up the yoga ball and looked at me and I looked at him and shook my head no. I was decisive, certain. No, no, no. I wanted to show up unarmed. I wanted to be taken care of. There would be no more bouncing.
We loaded into the car with me on the far left, Dustin in the middle, my mom on the right. I hadn’t imagined my mom with us, for any of this actually, but there she was and I wasn’t going to ask her to leave. She was quiet, like a ghost—a nice ghost—hovering, but unobtrusive. When she came over in the morning she said she had a dream we went to the hospital without her, implying she was worried about that. I took that to mean I shouldn’t ask her to meet us later. I said nothing; she climbed in.
It’s not that my mom bothered me by being there so much as I was constantly evaluating whether she was bothering me by being there.
We opened the door and I felt like Miss America, walking out onto the dais of my front stoop. The driver didn’t flinch when he saw me. I watched for it. The three of us slid into the back seat, Dustin in the middle. He patted my knee and leaned forward toward the cabbie. “She’s in labor,” he said with comic disregard. “You might hear some noises,” (driver roll up the partition, please) “but she’s not going to have the baby in the car or anything.”
I gripped the handle above the car window, the one that must have been invented for women in labor. I got three contractions during our 40-minute commute to the hospital, through rush-hour traffic. I handled them silently, like a professional. We careened across Houston St., up the West Side Highway. The wind blew onto my face through the open window, saving me. I closed my eyes and breathed it in. It was as if I was on my way to the first day of school.
* * *
The problem with walking through the lobby of the hospital and riding up the elevators is that everyone at the hospital is having their own moment; it isn’t only you. This is not the story of you in labor, walking through the hospital. No one is even looking at you. People are dying, or visiting the dead, or coming in for surgery, or leaving from it. People are here to visit babies, ex-wives, get skin grafts. There is no evocative music playing as you glide through security. I’m having a baby! you might want to announce, as if your body doesn’t, but no one looks your way. The opportunity doesn’t arise.
The first place in Labor and Delivery you go is to “triage”, which is a not-nice name for a not-nice place. It is not triage for the whole hospital, just us women with a mark on our heads, or I guess in our bellies. As we burst through the doors of L&D—and there is no other way to enter it but bursting—my mom stopped us. “Wait, wait guys!” she shouted, laughing, but I was so over it. “I’m sorry but let me take your picture.” Only one person can accompany the woman-in-labor into triage, so my mom was about to be on her way back down the elevator.
In the picture, I’m swollen and huge and have this teenaged look where I’m trying not to roll my eyes.
I had a contraction as soon as we walked through the doors, which is convenient for the sake of seeming legitimate and un-foolish, showing up here with contractions 10 mins apart. This made the woman at the first desk nicer to me.
“Are you in labor?” she asked sweetly. I was bent over the counter. I shook my head yes, like in the movies. She used her ink pen to point us to triage, a tiny corner office. It looked like the DMV. We handed the woman my insurance card, and I bent over chairs that are as awful as any waiting room chairs you’ve seen in your life. There were other people in there, people not in labor, and they looked at me with sad eyes. I didn’t have much time to think about them, which was possibly a watershed moment in my life, in labor and in such pain that I couldn’t care anymore what other people thought of me.
Maybe this was the first time in my whole life I was truly unselfconscious, my face pressed into Dustin’s chest, my ass stuck out into the little U-shaped room.
Maybe this was the first time in my whole life I was truly unselfconscious, my face pressed into Dustin’s chest, my ass stuck out into the little U-shaped room.
We were called into a little section of triage; it was a big room with a bunch of beds and curtains. They had been doing construction on it when I went in. There were ladders and fresh paint, and I worried about the paint affecting the baby. I was told to go in alone.
Someone told me to change into a hospital gown, and to put my clothes in a bag. The thought of doing this by myself was overwhelming, but I did it anyway, bit by bit. There was a stretchy, crop-top-like thing I had to put over my belly to hold the monitors in place. It would be the same material they use to make the baby hats, but I didn’t know it yet. At this point I didn’t believe, really, that either of us, me or the baby, would make it out alive.
I was finally on a monitor which I loved so much, with all my heart. It was behind me a bit, over my left shoulder, and I lay in the bed and looked up at it the whole time, craning my neck. It had my heart rate and blood pressure, and the baby’s heart rate and my contractions. I told them again and again about my pregnancy, which was totally uncomplicated—perfect even. I had been in labor for 28 hours. No one cared. No one gave me a medal or batted an eye. They wrote it down. I wondered if they believe me. I wondered if they can know the pain I’ve been in.
I wished for a way to communicate pain more precisely than a scale of 1 to 10. But the scale is subjective, I longed to say. We have no way to know. I hated this. I said 7, 8. I didn’t know. It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt, but I have never had my arm cut off. That was what I always imagine to be the worst pain: having a limb chopped off. I saved 10 for it, out of respect. I wanted to save 9 for the moment the baby tears its way out of my vagina. So what’s left is 8. I wanted to seem brave, so I said 7, but then I worried they wouldn’t understand the immediacy of the situation, so I came back with 8. I shrugged. I tried to communicate in a gesture that I didn’t agree with their method, with these yellow emoticons, with the Spanish above it. DOLOR. I stared at this sign so much, waiting for some answer to come from it. MUY DOLOROSO.
Eventually Dustin came in and holds my arm. He’s betrayed, I sensed, after having been left out there so long. The residents wanted to check me. I was told this wasn’t a teaching hospital, I wanted to say, but don’t. They asked me if it was okay with me if two people checked me. I thought it had to be for accuracy but no, it was for their own benefit. If there’s anything I’d take back from labor it would have been the fact that I let two people fish around in my vagina for their own benefit.
If there’s anything I’d take back from labor it would have been the fact that I let two people fish around in my vagina for their own benefit.
I’d been “checked” before. This is what they call it. They want to “check you.” You means your cervix. You are your cervix. “Check” means stick a hand inside of “you”—your vagina—and measure how open your cervix is. They do this with their fingertips, because that is where we’re at with science in 2014: We use fingertips as a unit of measurement. Then you are pronounced whatever number of fingertips wide the gap in your cervix is. You are your cervix.
“I’m a three,” means your cervix is dilated three fingertips. You get checked, typically, at your last few OB appointments. “I” had been found to be closed. Or “soft and closed” or “high and tight.” “Low and soft and closed.” It’s all fucking subjective, obviously, and also means almost nothing. You feel as if you are failing some made-up game you don’t want to be playing in the first place.
Being checked sucked at my OB’s office, but it sucked more after being in labor for 30 hours. Everything was swollen and under fire. After the first resident checked me he pulled out his hand and it was covered in goo and blood, and I couldn’t help but notice that after he walked over to the trash to throw away the glove he kept his two fingers in the fingering position. Maybe I was projecting, but he seemed a little grossed out. I hated him for this, and still do, this resident with a goatee who pretended to be chipper. I’ve never had a male doctor before and I would like never to again.
Next came the other resident, who seemed superior to him in rank if not humanity. She went in and did something horrible to me, in a way I won’t ever forget. She stuck her index and middle fingers up there and rammed them around every which way, like she was trying to tear a hole in me. I trusted, with some hesitation, that this was proper procedure, but it shouldn’t have been. I wanted to show up with painted signs and picket the way this woman had handled my vagina. I thrashed and yelled out while someone held my thighs open in goddess pose, feet touching. “Oh my god!” I yelled, taken aback. She pulled her hands out, satisfied. “You’re going to have some spotting,” she said in a tone that can only be described as smug. Like oh, you are gonna have some spotting. She snapped her glove a little, or she did in my memory of her.
They went away for awhile, and I suspected they aren’t pleased with me. I was “a three.” I had been in labor for 30 hours. Fuck the world, fuck humanity, fuck God. I looked up at Dustin, scared.
“They want to kick me out,” I said.
“Yep,” he said.
I feel like I have failed them, like I’m a fool, the cliched person who shows up to the hospital too early.
I wanted to hide. On another planet. Not so unselfconscious after all, I wanted, for the first time of many to come, to leave my body.
The medical professionals came back sighing. I saw my OB through a crack in the curtain, standing in the hallway chatting with everyone. She was in a dress and heels and glasses, holding a bunch of manila folders, having it all. I hated her for living her life while I was enduring this. Did she know that I was there? Did she resent my arrival? Was she mad at me for coming before 3-1-1?
The physician’s assistant who manually tore open my cervix came back and announced, “Dr. R has you scheduled to be induced today at 4 p.m.” She said this like I should have known. Dustin perked up at this, and got that attitude that embarrasses me.
“Oh really?!” he said. “How wonderful of her to let us know!” Normally I would have walked away and pretended I didn’t know him, but under the circumstances this was not an option.
And everyone laughed uncomfortably and shrugged as if to say, Sorry, this is how it works. I want to be mad but what am I going to do? Refuse? Stay in labor for a few more days?
(I wrote that as a joke, and yet there is a part of me that is sure that someone of sterner stuff would have done just that. I wonder if this is the moment that I failed, where my fate was determined.)
I sat with my anger at feelings so not-in-control for a few moments but then thought, Okay fine, if this doesn’t happen by then, then I don’t give a shit.
The kind nurse came over to my bedside and spoke in hushed tones, my conspirator, “Hey have you eaten anything?”
I wanted to tell her all the amazing Foods To Eat During Labor I’ve had, how I had them written in a list and stuck to the refrigerator. I wanted to say how proud I was of Dustin for keeping me fed and hydrated, and I wanted to tell her about the yogurt popsicles in the rocketship molds, but instead I said, “Yeah kind of? I mean I am in labor.” I laughed weakly.
She said something like, “Oh! Well once you are admitted you can’t eat or drink anything so you might want to go eat lunch then come back!” Which was of course, news to me and contrary to the hospital policy that was parroted to me again and again and at the multiple tours and classes we took.
I imagined myself at an Indian buffet, crashing face first into it and then tearing it down with the force of my rage at women’s biology. Instead I was grateful for the advice and nod obediently and say, “Okay I think we will do that!”
I took what felt like 10 years to get dressed again, and was half-tempted to wear my hospital gown out onto the streets of New York, because my god the pain. On our way out, the nurse tapped me on the back and, laughed, telling me to have a glass of wine and caviar.
* * *
We hobbled out into the lobby and found my mom who was surprised to see us again, but not as surprised as I’d have liked. I, defeated many times over, told her that yes we were going to be admitted, but I wanted to get lunch first. She watched our bags (“Are you sure?” “You don’t have to!” “But Mom, are you sure?”) and Dustin and I ventured, blinking, back out into the day which had been, inexplicably, going on without us.
Not five feet out the door the old “what do you want to eat” routine began between Dustin and me. It was considerably higher stakes than most days. I didn’t want caviar. I didn’t want to walk far, but I didn’t want to be still, either. I wanted to not exist, but this was not an option. Men in suits were out on their lunch break. We paced by a deli, which seemed like the only option. Everything seemed awful. I asked for a plain bagel with cream cheese. I urged Dustin to eat, too. He ordered some kind of sandwich, but never ate it. While he paid I walked outside and stood on the corner of 58th Street and Amsterdam, and had a contraction. I leaned against the brick wall and then leaned over onto my knees. We crossed the street and walked up some stairs and a security guard told me that once we went through the doors I could get a wheelchair. I didn’t want a wheelchair, because I wanted to be able to walk away from my pain. This was not something you could do, I had found, but I wasn’t ready to come to terms with that, to lose it as an option.
I took a bite of the bagel, then keeled over. I took a bite of the bagel with my hands on my hips and asked my mom to come with me into the bathroom. There was a lot of blood last time and I suspect there will be again. She looked and said it was normal, and I felt as if I were 12 years old.
I wanted to be somewhere and to stay there. I wanted to be surrounded by medical equipment.
We went back and the nurse from before saw us and said, “Back so soon?” and I felt like I had failed her. I hadn’t walked enough; I hadn’t eaten caviar. I nodded silently, and she asked if I ate something, and I said “Yes!” hoping to satisfy her. The woman at the desk pointed back at triage. “Again?” I ask and she nodded. I hung my head and we went back in there.
Eventually we get checked into a delivery room. It wasn’t so bad. My nurse was named Kathleen and she’s youngish and sweet and pregnant, too. She asked me the same dozen questions they asked me in triage. “Are you in an abusive relationship?” their voices, each time, fell to a whisper. Only with myself, I thought. Kathleen was proud, it seemed, of my uncomplicated pregnancy. Or I was the proud one, ticking things off: no, no, no. Either way there was pride in the room. There was a feeling that I was a good one. I bent over the bed, buried my face in it, and breathed deeply through a contraction.
Kathleen loved it. She said she was going to administer my IV. I asked her if I can get a hep-lock, which is like an IV but instead of bags and machines there is just a little tube stuck in a hole in my hand, taped onto me, ready for medication. She was taken aback. I was taken aback that she was taken aback. She said that if I want an epidural I’ll need an IV. I told her that I didn’t think I wanted one, that I wasn’t sure, but at that moment, the answer was no. Kathleen said, OK, but if did want one, I would need to take in an entire bag of saline fluids, which would take about 45 minutes. This scared me.
“Okay,” I said, thinking, ‘oh, this is why people get doulas.’ But I was my own doula! I would not foget how to assert my right to a natural, unmedicated childbirth. I kept an image of our Google doc, the one with our “birth priorities” in it.
Birth plan notes:
• avoid pain medication, incl. epidural. do not offer pain med unless
requested/INSISTED (go through Dustin)
• delayed cord clamping
• skin 2 skin, tests on chest if possible
• delay eye drops / bath for an hour
• intermittent monitoring
• no routine IV; hep-lock if necessary
• want to avoid episiotomy unless medically necessary
• I plan to do rooming in & breastfeeding
Nurse Kathleen said she had to ask if I could have a hep-lock. I said okay. She left and when she came back, I said, “Actually, I want the epidural.”
Dustin asked me if I was sure. “This isn’t want we talked about,” he said. “This isn’t what you wanted.”
I told him that I knew that, but that I also didn’t want a 36-hour labor. When I said I didn’t want an epidural, this is not what I imagined. He said okay.
Fuck everything, I thought. Bring on the cascading interventions. And they came.
Fuck everything, I thought. Bring on the cascading interventions.
* * *
I was on the saline drip and then Kathleen told me I had to stay in bed. Oh fuck. I breathed through a contraction and she said, “You are so good at your breathing. Did you take some special classes or something?”
They were going to break my water with a knitting needle; I knew it was coming for me. I couldn’t stop looking at the cabinet where they kept the hooks. I know it’s the one because it’s been labeled with a label-maker—they all were. AMNIOTIC HOOKS. I wanted to take a picture, but when you are in labor you don’t really have your purse on you. You are the patient, and things like purses and phones no longer exist for you, you who are Going Through Something in the grandest sense, a sense so grand you can’t even really know it yet, the magnitude of it. People keep trying to tell you, but what’s the point?
“I can’t really fathom it,” is what you say to strangers, well-rehearsed. The woman at the baby store said, “Oh, of course you can’t. If you could, you wouldn’t be here…” She trailed off. I loved it. Where did she think I would be?
Now I knew: curled in a ball on the floor, beside the bed, staring at the wall. Drinking.
* * *
I hadn’t wanted an epidural for a few mostly ineffable reasons. Stubbornness, yes. Over-achieverishness, too, sure. I wanted to experience it, I guess, this most human/female/whatever experience—to know I could do it. But mostly: fear. Fear of someone sticking a thing into my spine. Fear of being punished for taking the “easy route.”
But the water breaking, the amniotic hook, was what did it. I don’t even think it’s a painful procedure, like popping your inner balloon, but the invasiveness—the invasion!—the very thought of it had me reeling. I wanted to pass out at the thought of it, when I had the capacity for thought.
That’s the thing about all of it, it’s something coming for you, if not one thing than another. People talk about riding the waves of contractions, submitting to all of it. And I think that’s true, it’s necessary if you want to do it, but I was washed up. I was a dehydrated corpse out in the middle of the ocean, bloated with saltwater. Hook me up to a buoy, man. Helicopter me out. Fuck this shit.
When the epidural crew wheeled on in with their cartoon shower caps and sneakers and watches and black-framed glasses and well-toned physiques—anesthesiologists, it turns out, are the only doctors who look like TV doctors—the very word “epidural” still filled me with a cringey panic. As if they knew, the three-person team of anesthesiologists talked quickly, all of them seeming a little drunk on power and slightly manic. The energy in the room immediately shifted. Before they came in I was a decrepit sea log being beat upon by the waves, my mother, fiancé, and nurse three seagulls floating just above the water, feeling helpless and horrified, bearing witness to the very kernel of existence.
After they came in, it felt like my body was a thing to be beaten, a war to be won. In that moment, it felt right.
* * *
Obviously the epidural is a very routine thing, but it’s also, as they were legally required to remind/reveal to me, a surgical procedure. Hence the shower caps. I was given one, too, in all my pain. No one made sure I tucked my hair in perfectly, which I thought about a lot as they started in on me. Would a hair fall into my spinal tube? They talked quickly, all of them drunk on power, seeming slightly manic. I felt like I was being inducted into something (and I was); like I was brave for choosing this; like here we go.
I thought there would be guilt, but there was none. It occurs to me that I could be writing this only so that you understand the state that I was in and you know the circumstances under which I got the epidural.
The nurse has you squeeze a pillow to your (very pregnant) belly, and hunch your back so that your upper body is a C. They have your birth partner sit on a little chair in front of you, at eye level. You focus on him. Never have I hunched and focused so hard. I could have hunched that baby right out. They paint that sterilizing iodine all over you and feel your spine and I worried that I was too fat for them to feel my vertebrae and fought the urge to ask them if they were absolutely sure they had placed the target in the right place. They used a permanent marker to mark where to get me—I saw this a few days later, when I was up and walking. There was also a bruise. A bruise on your spine! There is something viscerally disturbing about all of this, isn’t there? Can you feel the twinge in your spine? Are you about to pass out? Yeah, me too.
So they stick a big needle into your back and you jump and are sure you have just paralyzed yourself. The needle is to numb your skin and then a bigger hollow needle goes in with a tiny tube that gets threaded into your spine. It seems like you shouldn’t feel it, but you still totally feel it. Or I did. You feel like like you can kind of feel your cervix—not pain-pain but feeling enough to make you want to pass out. It felt like someone was stapling my back, but deep inside me.
Stay still, though, or else you’ll be paralyzed.
* * *
I bored my eyes into Dustin and broke a sweat I think, from fear. I felt as if I were in some kind of war (I was). I felt like this was my moment, my big test, and I was rising to the occasion. I would save the world.
Except I wasn’t. I was doing the most banal thing in the world. I was giving fucking birth.
The doctor spoke to me over my shoulder, “Okay I am going to put in the medicine now. You might feel a shock go through your legs, almost like you put your finger in the electric socket.”
“Okay,” I nodded. Then my legs, hanging off the side of the hospital bed, shot up in the air on either side of Dustin. And yes, an electric shock shot through me. It was horrible. Horrible! Wild. I screamed, of course. Then laughed nervously. “Wow you weren’t kidding.” They taped it all up—a tube! Snaked into my spine! Taped onto my back. I was supposed to just lie down on top of it, to not even think about it. This was really hard at first, as anything spine-related, in my book, should be.
I didn’t have much time to think about it, though, because the anesthesiologists were out the door and the nurse was telling me to lie down so she could put a catheter in me.
A catheter? I didn’t not read this part of Babycenter, or else I did not remember it.
My legs, by this point, were just big meat sticks attached to my body. It’s as if your foot has fallen asleep, but it’s the entire lower region of your body. It is very hard to have this bodily experience without your subconscious screaming out that something is terribly wrong.
“I CAN’T FEEL MY LEGS!”
I tried to move them, to make sure I still could, to shake them back into being. It didn’t work. I dragged my huge, lumpen legs across the crinkly paper of the hospital bed, and they fell into place.
I feared I was doing something awful to them and wasn’t feeling it. I feared the tube in my spine would be yanked around, would be boring a hole in my spinal tube and leaking fluid into the sack of flesh I was being rendered into.
And then a few minutes had gone by and I hadn’t had any pain.
I looked at the monitor. I was having wild contractions, up and up and up and down, and I didn’t even know it.
Disembodiment complete, I asked for my iPhone.
* * *
Dustin dug my phone out of the bag we packed and off I went, group texting up a storm. I asked my mom to take a picture of my new bag of urine which was hanging off the side of my hospital bed. My new home. She obliged, standing up, newly alive and cheerful. She took a photo of my monitor, my wild contractions. I was laughing, stuck in a hospital bed. I could have stayed like that forever.
I itched like crazy, a side effect. Did I want Sudafed? Sure, fuck it. I got Sudafed in my IV. I also, it was found, had a fever, which is a problem because of the baby. The nurse asked me if I had ever had a suppository, like I was going to protest at this point. I told her no, but I hadn’t ever given birth either, so?
I was already on my side; she yanked up my gown and went to town. I was laughing. She asked if it hurt. I told her I felt nothing. We laughed. Modern medicine! She gave me more Tylenol in my IV. Then antibiotics. And then soon my OB came in to break my water. The hook! I spread my legs for someone for what felt like the millionth time that day, in the way they preferred—bottoms of your feet touching each other, knees flopped open, legs in a diamond shape.
I don’t remember any of the great amniotic balloon pop except the warmth, spreading all over and under me. Like sitting in a bowl of chicken soup. It was beyond pee. And it kept happening, too, for hours. I’d shift and more soup. It did make me feel plentiful. I contain multitudes. Of amniotic fluid.
And then contractions really started going, up off the charts. They’d go high and then plateau up there, up in the pain that I didn’t feel.
Until I did. Until I did.
* * *
It was probably 6 or 7 p.m. at this point, 36 hours after labor had started. I had slept in a few 10-minute intervals the night before, but sleeping for 10 minutes when you know you’ll be awoken by soul-crushing pain is not exactly restful. And here was the soul-crushing pain again! And boy was I crushed by it, gripping the bars of my hospital bed as if I could pull myself away from it. I was still numb everywhere, but, rather inconveniently, the right side of my uterus, so I couldn’t move. I had gone through the personal nightmare of getting the epidural, I had mentally exited the battle of contractions, and yet here they were, chasing me down. It was like going through the pain of breaking up with someone and just when you thought you were free, they show up at your house, and, I don’t know, throw knives at you?
I screamed in the hospital bed, thinking of the other patrons, newly afraid when they heard what came out of me. I writhed as much as my numb meat body would writhe. The cool kid anesthesiologists came back—an Asian woman I wanted to be friends with (she must have been the student body president in a former life) came in clapping her hands and declaring that they would get me the pain coverage I DESERVE! I perked up. Finally someone was concerned with justice. I nodded yes and yes and yes. It was a feminist act, the pursuit of my pain coverage. Top me off ya’ll. And they did. They topped me off. And again. And again. And again. And they did. And they did. I was afloat on a pool of medication, nerve block and lidocaine and Tylenol and Sudafed and saline and god knows what else.
And still the pain “broke through.” The rest of me just got number. Numb except for about 5 square inches, where some demon (male, surely) was hitting me from the inside with a hammer. I wanted to die, and was yelling that fact repeatedly, feeling like no one was listening. No one seemed to understand.
“This is normal, baby,” Dustin said.
Did he know what this was? This was not normal, not by any definition of it. This should not be normal. Soon my heart rate was in the 140s, which was setting off an alarm on my monitor, and sending people in running who were all very concerned about my heart when they should have been concerned with my pain.
Then my OB wanted to “check me.” I was screaming and flailing about, even as I strained to be the perfect patient. I was crying again. She couldn’t keep my knees apart and I certainly wasn’t going to relax shit while the entire right side of my body had a vice around it.
She gave me a little talk about how sometimes people just have a “blind spot” when it comes to pain relief and no amount of epidural would “cover” it. I interrupted her multiple times to scream, but she just kept talking over me, not missing a beat. She was used to the likes of me, inured to it.
I shrunk back into myself. I was being pummeled. I writhed in bed and felt like a madwoman, climbing the walls, cursing Eve for eating that damn apple.
I writhed in bed and felt like a madwoman, climbing the walls, cursing Eve for eating that damn apple.
“Just knock me out!” I cried. I was joking, but the joke was that I said it out loud. I had never asked for something more sincerely.
“We’re not going to do that,” the doctor chuckled, making eyes at the nurse. I peered out at her from behind my pain, through a crack in the bedrails. The alarm on my heart rate monitor was sounding off better than I could.
After the coolest cool girl anesthesiologist “topped off” my epidural a few times, to no avail, my doctor was back in the room saying we’d need to do another epidural. That was our only option.
Wanting to try to go without the epidural was one thing, getting it and having it fail was quite another. It was unjust. It was traumatic. My stupid body. I thought. My awful gender. The limitations of medicine. Of sex. Of humanity. Fuck it all. I don’t deserve this.
And I meant that. I still mean it.
Of course outwardly I just nodded, and scrunched up my entire being, and felt a little glimmer of hope. Then fear. Then hope. Then pain pain pain.
My family still sat beside me, no longer much comfort. I felt very alone, inescapably tethered to my body. They watched me drift out to sea, safe on the shoreline.
In reality, Dustin hadn’t slept or eaten, and I’m sure he was in much emotional turmoil. He said, later, that he was sick and had a fever, but when they started worrying about mine, he decided not to tell anyone, not even me, for fear that they would kick him out.
I did not want to experience another epidural, but in the game show of this childbirth, I felt like, well, bring it on. The left side of my body was heavy and barely there. All of the extra epidural was definitely settling in there. We spun my body back and forth—I say “we” because there is no way I could have turned myself—hoping that the epidural, apparently a rudimentary thing, would drip, would run, over to the right. This did not feel very scientific. And it did not work.
Soon another doctor came in with a shower cap and tried to set me at ease. An old pro, I was pulled into a seated position and hunched over my hospital pillow, staring at Dustin again. The epidural felt viscerally horrific again, torture, but a few minutes in I felt better.
My OB came back in so she could check me properly. She groped and prodded and shoved things around inside of me, trying to see where the baby’s head was.
Oh yes, the baby. He was in there through all of this. The thought of that now seems bizarre. It felt so much about me, my body, my pain. He was still so abstract. We’d never seen his face, or heard him cry. A large part of me didn’t believe I’d ever see him. Certainly not alive. I continually reminded myself, near the end of pregnancy, that even if he died, I’d still get to meet him. He was still a corporeal reality. He would not disappear into me, as it seemed he might. It was not all a dream. He could not be taken from me. Despite the truth of this, he remained unfathomable, his existence a mere idea, a source of anxiety. The potential for heartbreak.
Soon, Dr. R stood up from her perch beside my, at this point ironically-named, birth canal and folded her hands together in front of her clipboard. (Did she have a clipboard? Everyone seemed to. Everyone seemed to have the answers to the problem of me written on their clipboards, just out of my reach.)
She told me, in a tone I imagine she usually reserves for informing family members that their loved one is dying, that my cervix hadn’t moved. I was still a 3 or a 4 or a 5, I don’t remember. It didn’t matter. Whatever I was, it wasn’t enough. Worse yet, his head was “floating.” This was not good. My child was bobbing within me, even after all of this. He did not want to to make the trip. Could I blame him?
It felt preordained, all of this. Was this the thing I was worrying about all pregnancy long, some sort of psychic? I was a water sign, after all. Swimming in it.
* * *
She repeated a theory she’d told me about a week or so prior, and my very last office visit. My baby’s head was lodged in my pelvis. My kid had Dustin’s head and I had my pelvis and they were not a good match. This was probably what was causing my “breakthrough” pain, my pain that defied intervention. As she said this, I felt it again, the pain sneaking up, and it scared me. I felt it the way you hear someone’s keys in the door before they walk in.
Epidurals cover pain, not pressure. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around that. I still have my doubts. But there it is. His head was possibly—just a conjecture, of course—slamming into the right side of my uterus and tugging at my tendons, yanking the entire side of my body up and down with the contractions. There was nothing, really, they could do.
He was stuck. Or he might be. There was no way to know. No way to know? I thought. When she told me this in her office, that she couldn’t measure my pelvis to know whether he’d fit through it, I was dumbfounded. They can measure the thickness of my baby’s neural tube 11 weeks after he was conceived, but they can’t tell me if his head will fit through my pelvis? What is science even for?
They can measure the thickness of my baby’s neural tube 11 weeks after he was conceived, but they can’t tell me if his head will fit through my pelvis? What is science even for?
This was when everyone started looking at the clock, started tapping their watches. It was just like all the natural birth advocates warned it would be, and what they trained us to fight against. Except now that I was in it I felt like tapping my watch, too.
My normally fast-talking OB started crossing her arms and dragging out her syllables. “Welllllllllll at a cerrrrtain point we have to take a step back and aaask ourselves…” It was time to further intervene. I was sad not at the thought of whatever was facing me, but that my body was not playing the game correctly.
My body had finally gone into labor on its own, 36 hours earlier. I was still in awe of it. And still it wasn’t enough. Things were kicked into gear but not high enough gear. (Or high enough gear, but not effective enough gear? I don’t know, the car metaphor kind of falls apart.)
My OB gave me two options: start Pitocin, a medication that “induces” labor which arguably I was already in, and had been in for a few days now, but it would make my contractions artificially strong and hey, maybe my baby, who had been squeezed for days now, would get squeezed on down through my vagina. Or I could get, you know, the thing. The thing we are supposed to avoid at all costs. The failure. The intervention to end all interventions: the c-section.
It was totally up to me.
At this point, I desperately wanted someone to strap me down and put me out of my misery, but I am also a stubborn bitch who did not want to fail at birth. I did not want to fail to give birth.
“So what if you induce me,” I said, from behind a wall of pain, “and it doesn’t work? Which it probably won’t, if his head is stuck?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say probably,” the doctor chastened me. “We don’t really know. My guess is he is stuck but there is no way to know. But yes, you could still end up with a c-section. I can’t really say either way.” She motioned toward the monitor. “The baby’s fine, his heart rate’s normal. You can still try. I’m not going to take that away from you.”
“Okay,” I said. “So we should do the Pitocin. Right?”
As she said this I felt my contractions breaking through the second epidural.
“Of course, yeah, that would mean possibly hours more of contractions, then the whole pushing stage…”
The pushing stage! The internal monitors! I don’t know why the thought of having an internal monitor placed inside of me seemed like the worst thing in the world, why it seemed somehow worse than having my abdomen cut open, but there it was.
The thought of staying awake 12 more hours and then actively pushing was unfathomable. I looked at Dustin. “What do you think?” I asked him, begged him to tell me. He was at a loss, too.
“Whatever you want to do, it’s your body.”
I hated this. Stop reminding me. It was my goddamn body, I had to endure the physical, at the very least someone else should have to do the mental arithmetic.
I wanted the c-section so badly. I wanted it like you want a glass of water at a stranger’s house, but you still feel like you should demur. I wanted it the way I wanted someone to stick a finger in my butt during sex, but would never ask for. I was thinking like a woman. I was in the most essentially oppressed, essentially female situation I’ve ever been in and I was mentally oppressing myself on top of it.
* * *
“I should do the Pitocin, right?” I looked around at everyone in a panic. I wanted to know everyone’s honest opinion. I wanted to know what they would think of me either way. Would I make a decision and would everyone roll their eyes at me internally? Would they think, “Well that was the wrong call to make!”
“We can’t tell you,” people kept saying. My doctor would shrug behind her clipboard, clearly growing impatient. I stared at her and said nothing. She didn’t offer to give me time. She just kept saying it wasn’t an emergency. And yet. And yet the clock was ticking anyway. It was an emergency of capitalism, of everyone being sick of my shit. Lucky for them I was sick of my shit, too. Utterly.
I wanted the c-section because I was tired. “But the recovery!” I said out loud. I knew you were supposed to think about this, to be haunted by this; it was supposed to keep you from “giving in,” but damn if I could think out beyond the pain and the urgency of my current situation. I did not give a shit about any recovery.
There was a chorus of, “It’s up to you”s. I writhed and flailed, staring at the ceiling and trying to concentrate, to make a decision. I had a diaper full of ice on my head, to combat my fever, and it kept slipping off. Everyone stared at me, waiting, and I wished that I at least didn’t have a diaper on my face while I made what feared could be a life or death decision.
I mean, I had bled, I had a tube up my urethra and a bag full of urine hanging off of me, someone had stuck a pill up my butt, my legs were numb, I was screaming and screaming and begging to be killed. But the diaper, man. It kept slipping over my eyes and I would peer out of it and say, “Well, what do you think I should do?”
A woman with a diaper on her face asks you a question, you answer it.
* * *
I imagined dying during the c-section. Bleeding out, or something similarly horrible and as of yet unimaginable. What if they went to cut me open and they cut the baby? This happens. Or has happened, which for the purposes of my monkey mind are one and the same.
It would be my responsibility.
“She died during her c-section.” “Well, she chose it, so…”
I would become an argument for not going into the hospital before 3-1-1. A use case discussed in birth classes everywhere. Ina May Gaskin would write anecdotes about me in the updated editions of all of her books.
But then part of me shifted. I’m not sure which part; some, “you don’t have time for this shit,” aspect of me. Some, do what you fucking need and fuck everyone else, fuck what anyone thinks, part of me woke up and I looked around the room, convicted.
Some, do what you fucking need and fuck everyone else, fuck what anyone thinks, part of me woke up and I looked around the room, convicted.
“Okay give me the c-section. Let’s do the c-section. Yep.”
Everyone nodded, said, “Alright!” Like I had just read out from the playbook at the big game and my people had clapped their hands and gone running.
It happened about that quickly, too.
My doctor nodded. I did not detect any judgment. As soon as I said “Let’s do the c-section,” I got, for the first time, genuinely excited to meet my baby, as if this whole natural childbirth thing, long ago thrown out the window, was a sort of block. The smoke had been cleared and we were going to finally do the thing we came here to do.
Dr. R told me she would go write my name on the whiteboard, which loomed large in my imagination thanks to television sitcoms and she must have known it. Then I would be “on the schedule.” I got the impression this might not happen for a while, and I would have the opportunity to get used to the idea. i.e., freak out about it, Google it on my phone between contractions, make Dustin console me, find out if he thought it was the right decision, apologize ahead of time in case I had just volunteered to go to my death. Was I walking the plank?
(I was always walking the plank.)
What felt like 30 seconds later, a team of people scurried into the room. They must have detached wires and tubes from me. I think they placed the bag of pee between my legs. I think they moved me into a portable bed but I don’t remember. It was all so fast, this non-emergency.
No one gave my family any instructions, but they stood up as I got wheeled out and I imagine, rushed to grab their things. They left my purple clogs in the corner somewhere, unwittingly, and ran out.
* * *
Only one person could accompany me in the operating room, the nurses said to my family in the hallway. “Who will that be?” Dustin quickly raised his hand, “Me.” He was so serious; sure. My mom rushed up to me in the bed, put her head over mine and said she was so proud of me. She was crying but I think they might have been happy tears.
“You’re going to have a baby,” she said. “You made the right decision.”
I think I shrugged, but she was emphatic. I hadn’t asked her in the delivery room but maybe I should have. She cried and kissed me and told me she’d see me soon and I heard someone corralling Dustin somewhere to get suited up. They wheeled me along, through double doors, just like you imagine. Everyone was happy, though, and I got happy, too. I was no longer oppressed. I was liberating myself from the tyranny of the body.
It really did feel like that. It still sort of does. Man triumphing over man. Err, man triumphing over woman?
We passed another set of doors and someone handed me a tiny paper cup, the size of a shot. They warned me it would be truly horrible, but it was meant to fight off heartburn. Only as I write this am I hit with how ridiculous this was, worrying about heartburn before they slice me open. I’ve been in the worst pain of my life for nearly 40 hours now. It was 8:30 p.m., June 3rd. I had gone into labor at 6 a.m. the morning before. I was a fucking warrior. Heartburn? If you told me now that it was all a lie and it was really a sedative, or something to keep me from having a full-on fucking heart attack as I had been tachycardic all day (“She’s tacky!” nurses had been whispering)—well, that would make more sense.
The medicine was disgusting but I didn’t care. And at the time it just felt thoughtful, like someone was caring for once about my comfort.
And then, there I was, in the room. I couldn’t believe how much like an operating room it felt. Cold, bright lights, antiseptic, people scurrying around and chatting with each other. It was like being present at my own death, except once in a while someone would ask me a question and I would call out to everyone, trying to be funny.
“You’re smiling again,” the doctor said to me, “Guess you’re feeling more like yourself.”
Is “myself” smiley? I wondered. Does she think of me as cheerful? Was I less myself before, stripped of politeness? That seemed sad.
They told me that they were going to move me from my wheely bed to the table. “Oh boy,” I think I said, or something like it. I was a rock from the belly button down. They coached me somehow and I said, “I don’t think I can do much!” and the doctor said, “Don’t try to help us at all!” and she and another tiny woman heaved me, rolled me really, over to the operating table. I helped this shuffle my half-corpse to the center. It was a disturbingly narrow operating table. People had to be able to reach over me and into my body cavity, so I guess it made sense.
They were going to prep me first, and then let in “Dad.” Poor, sweet dad, stuck out in the hallway somewhere. Were they putting the scrubs on him somewhere, like they do in the movies? They said they didn’t want Dad to see the prep. They wanted everything all set up and covered up and hidden before he came in. Must be nice, I thought. Why spare him? I thought. I have to live it, why can’t he bear witness?
Someone spoke to me from a place I couldn’t see. “Sometimes they get squeamish,” he said. “Does Dad have any issues with this, Mom?”
Who were these Mom and Dad people they kept talking about? Certainly not us.
“No,” I said, trying to defend his reputation. “Or, I don’t know,” I remembered that he actually was squeamish, or so he had told me.
“Well, its hard to say,” I said. “We’ve never done this before.” I said. Everyone laughed. I decided I would try to make jokes while splayed out naked, disembodied. A woman had an electric razor out and was shaving my pubic hair. I played out jokes in my head, some version of expressing that I should tip her. I decided against it, I stared at the ceiling. I felt in awe of the whole thing.
Had I slipped onto the set of the scary scene in E.T.?
It was horrific, but wonderful, too. I felt at peace in a way, like things were being taken care of, finally. This I could endure.
There was a new anesthesiologist, who introduced his assistant to me. She was southern, pretty, youngish, and on her first day back from maternity leave. Her baby was four months old, a girl. She missed her, but it was nice to be back. She ended up with a c-section, too, she told me. “You’re going to feel really, really weird stuff, okay?” she said. “I mean REALLY, REALLY weird. It’s so weird. But you’re going to meet your baby really soon. It’s so exciting!” I nodded to her, she was my new mother. I was trying to keep it together for her. They must have put a shit ton of medicine into my IV, I want to think they told me what it was but I don’t remember.
‘You’re going to feel really, really weird stuff, okay?’ she said. ‘I mean REALLY, REALLY weird.’
Pressure, though. You feel pressure. How is this possible, pressure and not pain? I could feel them tapping my pregnant belly. I told my new mother that I felt strange lying on my back. “I know, right?” she laughed, “But it’s okay.” There weren’t any more monitors. He could be dead inside of me and no one would know. I tried to wrap my head around that, to prepare myself for that news, while simultaneously trying to convince myself it wasn’t possible.
I remember being very worried that I had to lie flat on my back, which you aren’t supposed to do in pregnancy, for risk of the baby resting on your aorta and compressing the blood flow to both of you. I imagined coming all this way only to have the baby die because I was lying flat on my back on the operating table.
Before Dustin could come in, they hung up a sheet blocking my view of my naked body and my bulging belly. My arms were, truly, spread out wide, the table shaped like, I’m sorry to say, a crucifix. The drugs made me shake. I was cheerful and scared and so, so excited all at once. It felt like I had run a marathon and was getting a baby at the end, right when I was ready to eat a big meal and take a nap. My teeth chattered. My arms flopped around on the crucifix table. I asked if this was normal. It was totally normal. They said it was partially hormonal and partially the medication. It was very worrisome, and embarrassing, too. I kept apologizing. No honey, no. This just happens. It’s ok. Shake-shake-shake. I tried to treat my body like a science experiment, to float above it and simply observe. Everything was amazing. On some level I loved being there, witnessing this horrific act.
“Okay,” the new mother said, “Your husband is coming in soon.”
“Fiancé,” I corrected her. I normally would have gone with it, with “husband,” but this seemed like official business, like our passports would be checked at the end and they’d look at me and shake their heads. A liar.
I hated saying fiancé during pregnancy, I felt it conjured obligation, guilt, etc., but it was the truth.
“Oh, okay. Your fiancé will be here soon. Is he the father?”
I laughed, shaking like a late-stage Parkinson’s patient. “Yes!”
“Well, no judgment!” she said. My new mother proceeded to tell me about a friend of hers who had a baby and married someone else while she was pregnant. This might sound inappropriate, but I loved hearing it. It made me feel good about this world I would soon bring a person into. I laughed and shook. A man’s voice called out to me from somewhere in the room.
“Boy or girl?”
“Boy!” I said, trembling, grinning. We were shouting out to each other like acquaintances in a loud bar.
“What’s his name?”
“We don’t know yet!” I laughed. We all laughed. People in scrubs and masks shook their heads.
“Gonna wait and meet him, huh? I like that!”
He didn’t have a name yet, because nothing had felt completely right, the way we thought it would. We wanted, or I wanted, a revelation; a name that was traditional, simple, strong, but that all of society had somehow forgotten; a name that we alone had unearthed. I wanted everyone to kick themselves, wishing they’d thought of it first. I wanted it to be hiding in plain sight.
This never happened.
* * *
The anesthesiologist’s assistant offered me “something,” as in, I can give you something. A sedative. I nodded, shaking. Yes. Give it to me. I don’t even know what it was, but she put it in my IV, I think. Or else it was a shot. I was basted like a turkey at this point. Nothing fazed me. Drugs were now my friend.
The curtain was up and my woman was explaining to me how they would get the baby out. They would not be, as I imagined, plopping my uterus on my stomach and tearing me open like a Christmas present. They cut a three-inch hole on my bikini line. I have never worn a bikini in my life, and I certainly never will now, but the cut was right where my pubic hair stops. Or where they would stop, if they hadn’t just been shaved off. It’s a natural wrinkle. A fat roll? It’s hard to remember what was there before. You can’t see it, is my point.
In order for the baby to get out of this little, well, this little slit, he would have to be pushed out. He would have to be born.
My doctor gave birth to my baby.
I don’t even particularly like my doctor.
I love her as a character. I love her from afar. I admire her. I would never choose to interact with her. She makes me uncomfortable. She is cerebral, nervous, she over-explains and my jokes are off-putting to her, but I think she likes them. Every interaction with her I am left feeling like, What was that?! Why was that so hard? We don’t connect, she and I. Somehow, this helps me trust her better. Our relationship is strictly professional, unmuddied by affection.
So my doctor, the anesthesiologist’s assistant said to me, would be climbing on top of my abdomen and literally pushing my baby out of me. She’d be leaning in (heh) and kneading him down from the outside. Shove, shove, shove so that he finally stopped bobbing and was forced out, once and for all. She would have to climb up on the operating table because my doctor is five feet tall.
She is a five-foot tall black woman with size 10 shoes, another thing I love about her. On one of my final appointments, where we conjectured about the size of my pelvis, she asked me my shoe size. “Five,” I said, “Sometimes 4.” She shook her head laughing. She clicked her tongue. She told me her shoe size and extolled the virtues of her pelvis, through which I am almost certain she has never given birth. I know this because when I Google her I find her wedding announcement, and that she found love, for the first time, at 43. Another thing to love about her, of course.
As the anesthesiologist’s assistant explained how strange this would feel, the tugging him out, I think they started cutting. They whispered so that I wouldn’t hear which meant I imagined they were whispering something like, “She’s bleeding out, what should we do?” “I don’t know, but look at this gigantic tumor here!” “Wow is this woman fat. I mean I know she’s pregnant, but STILL!”
While I shook and smiled at the anesthesiologist’s assistant and strained to decipher the whispering, I felt butterflies on and off, thinking I’d meet him soon, that this might really be it. Was he really going to live? What horrors would they find on him that they couldn’t find via ultrasound? Just then someone yelled, “Where’s Dad? Did we bring in Dad? Bring in Dad!”
* * *
Before I could turn my chattering skull to the left, there he was, hovering over me as if in a dream. I’ve never been so happy to see him in my life. My love. Everything was better in this room with him in it. Everything was best with him in a shower cap, looking like they did in the movies, all in shades of hospital teal and baby blue. He had a gown on, too, over his clothes. And a surgical mask. Would I have known this was our moment if he was not dressed in this costume, this signal?
He sat on a stool near my head and held my hand, tangled in IVs. We cried; I shook. His surgical mask was wet with tears and snot. You can see it in all the pictures.
Our baby. His baby. I felt that the first time, then. That this baby was ours, yes, but it was also mine and then it was his, in ways that our relationship couldn’t encapsulate. Maybe it will grow to contain it but then I knew, this baby was his baby, too. Privately.
My woman, my new mother, joked with us and assured us and directed Dustin. She told him to get his camera ready. He only had his cell phone—our new camera, bought with this moment in mind, was in the hallway with my actual mother. She told him that he could stand up and look when they were pulling the baby out, that when she said so he could take a picture.
He got it ready and smiled at me, crying behind his surgical mask. He tells me now I was so out of it, not myself, but I didn’t feel that way at all. I felt tuned in, fighting forth from behind a cloud of bodily horror. I was a brain in a vat, one with the universe.
“Ok!” she said, tapping me, “they’re going to start pushing him out! It’s going to feel really weird, ok? But that’s normal!” She held my right hand, Dustin my left. I tried not to play with her engagement ring. The diamond was huge. Her hands were perfectly manicured. I loved her in that moment, this woman I’ll never see again. I would never recognize her even if I did.
They started to tug. The force of it had my half-dead body swaying like a canoe. My eyes, I’m sure, got huge. I stared straight ahead as if to focus on the task at hand. The task at hand was to not scream, to not use whatever strength I had left to fling myself off of the operating table. The task was to endure the most bizarre experience of my life, the feeling, painless, of someone yanking all of your organs out. I am a vessel, only. I am something to be pillaged. I am a cabinet, a pantry door. I am lying naked on a table in a cold room under bright lights, my arms splayed out to form a T, and a team of people are gathered around my body, peering into it.
The task was to endure the most bizarre experience of my life, the feeling, painless, of someone yanking all of your organs out. I am a vessel, only. I am something to be pillaged.
The doctor, my doctor, put a knee up on the table for leverage. I saw her head bob a bit above the curtain. She made a little joke, I don’t remember what, her voice straining with effort. We laughed nervously. My baby was in there, soon to be out.
And then I heard a cry.
What I felt then, above all, was recognition. This isn’t possible, it’s an incorrect feeling if feelings can be described that way, but this was the part of my brain that lit up. His cry was a familiar face in the crowd. I was lying on my back staring at the ceiling, shaking, with tears streaming down the sides of my cheeks. His cry, I was surprised to find, sounded like him. He sounded like his own person, distinct. Before then all baby cries sounded the same to me, but his cry was a voice. A self.
I couldn’t see him but this fact didn’t even really bother me. I did not pull him out of me and straight to my chest. He did not crawl up my stomach and latch onto me, the way it happened in my Ina May-fueled fantasies. No one shouted, “Catch your baby! Reach down, Meaghan, and catch your baby.” I was not on a birth stool. Although Dustin was, now that I think of it, telling me I was “doing so good.”
I was doing so good. In that I wasn’t having a panic attack. I was enduring. My baby had lived. I had lived through this.
They hoisted the baby up and Dustin stood up from his stool and took a picture with his iPhone. We were crying and kissing through his snotty surgical mask and the anesthesiologist’s assistant squeezed my hand and kept telling me that, “Oh, he is really, really cute.”
All of the doctors and nurses commented on how big he was. I didn’t see any of it but in photos he looks big and blue, like a slimy teddy bear in my doctor’s hands. I can see my umbilical cord snaked around the blue sterile paper. There is a hole in my body. This is also in the photo. My doctor is smiling, one hand on my kid’s swollen balls and another behind his neck. He’s screaming. Why is my doctor in my son’s very first photo? I’ve only seen it once. I liked to look at it, like hearing about a party I didn’t go to. “Are those my boobs?” Dustin and I squinted at the photo for a very long time. “No that can’t be right.” We turned the phone this way and that. They were my thighs. “Wow,” I said.
I never saw my placenta. On one hand I don’t give a shit. Why did we even talk about saving it? Paying someone hundreds of dollars to encapsulate it? Was this just another thing to occupy us before the sea change? Another thing to put on the to-do list? It is so ridiculous. I am not that ridiculous of a person in other aspects of my life, but when it came to childbirth, I was apparently some sort of witch. No matter, I never got it together enough to pay someone to freeze dry my placenta and put it into pills, much as it disappointed my curious friends.
Soon I heard a great suctioning noise, which correlated either with someone suctioning liquid out of the baby’s lungs or liquid out of my body cavity. We were the same in that way; underwater.
They called Dustin over to watch him get weighed, measured. “What were his APGAR scores?” I asked later but Dustin had no idea. I couldn’t believe this. Our child’s first test. I needed to know.
The baby looks so alone in the photos, lying by himself on that scale.
* * *
A minute or two later there they both were, back with me, the baby wrapped in a blanket, subdued in his father’s arms. I tipped my head back, my chin up, to get a good look at him. I struggled to lift my arm, to touch his cheek. I put my face to his face. I am sure I didn’t know what to say, how to touch him. “Hi baby,” is what I’m sure I said. I’m sure I kept crying. He looked so cute, so distinct, so himself. The anesthesiologist’s assistant took a photo of the three of us with Dustin’s phone.
The baby and Dustin went somewhere for tests or baths or who knows what, and I was still on the table. They would reappear later in the recovery room, where I’d be back on monitors, still numb, setting off alarms with my high heart rate. I would breastfeed, my baby like a piranha, knowing better than me how to be an animal. My mother would say that she couldn’t stop crying. I would ask how to get some food. It was one in the morning. “So is anything open anymore?” I’d ask, meaning the cafeteria.
“Oh you can’t eat for 24 hours,” the nurse said, and I think she savored saying it. She’d bring me ice chips, ask me if I could feel my legs. Dustin would stand back as a nurse gave our nameless baby his very first bath. He said she was rough. It made him so angry. He said if he would have known he never would have allowed it.
“So they’re basically putting you back together right now,” the anesthesiologist said to me, matter of factly. I appreciated her honesty. The horror of it felt appropriate. I nodded, brave. All of it felt right, actually; to become a mother like this.
* * *
Meaghan O’Connell is a freelance writer and an associate editor at The Billfold.
Edited by Mike Dang.
Illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.
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