My second baby, due September 29, 2012, wasn’t born until October 13. My first child had been born a week and a half past his due date, but surely the second wouldn’t be even later than that, right? I assumed. I hoped. By the second week in October, I was desperate to reclaim my aching skeleton, and I’d tried everything I could think of short of castor oil: spicy Thai curry, pineapple, eggplant, sex, acupuncture, having my membranes ruptured. I was deeply grateful that my body was so committed to this baby, so supportive. But I could not take another day of being shoulder-patted, joked at, smiled at, stared at quizzically by anyone I had been foolish enough to inform of my due date (wisely, but not wisely enough, I had told people October 1). I could not take another day of mood swings, of bursting into tears, of sweating from places on my body I did not know had sweat glands, of baby-head pressing on my pelvis. I could not take another day of the hottest summer in recorded history.
I wanted to go into labor on my own both because my misery was turning me into a full-time “grouchy mama,” to quote my then-2-year-old, but also because I was scheduled for a hospital induction at 15 days past my due date. I had had an induction the first time, and I wanted to find out what “real” labor was like. It was more than curiosity; it was a yearning.
I had all but resigned myself to induction when, 13 days past due, Friday evening, things began to happen. I noticed contractions at 7:00, 7:15, 7:30, then diarrhea at 7:45 (counts as a contraction, right?), and 8:00pm. The pattern then faded a bit, but this was at least a start. I went to bed feeling hopeful and eager to rest. At 1:30am I awoke in violent shakes and chills, and I couldn’t get warm. I did not have a fever, but my body was extremely stiff and sore, as with the flu. My husband R helped me into a hot shower, which worked – I got warm, and was able to sleep till 7am. I also took a nap from 9:30-10:30am.
Stronger, more frequent contractions began around 11am Saturday. I called my doula, Jennie, at 12:45pm and she arrived at 1:45pm. I had also called my mom and stepdad, who had been ready to come to take care of my older child around 4pm, to tell them 3pm – then 2pm… as I realized this might be happening sooner than later. From around 1:00 till 2:30 I labored on the ball in the living room with R and Jennie squeezing and massaging my hands when contractions came. Around 2:30, R, Jennie and I moved upstairs and I continued to labor on the ball until a bath had been drawn. At 2:50pm when I climbed into the warm bath, I was able to joke amiably, between contractions, “Ahh, I’d recommend this to anyone!” By the time I climbed out of the bath about 30 minutes later at 3:20, I had peered into the depths of hell. I wept, I blubbered, I begged, I confessed to crimes I had not committed. The pain was so intense. I thought I had to vomit, but didn’t, and could only lay my cheek against the cool side of the stainless steel pot positioned in front of me, and cry.
I had asked Jennie what would signal to her that it was time for us to go to the hospital, and she said she would know it when she saw it. In my breakdown, there in the bathtub, she saw it. She and R help me out of the tub and got me dried and dressed according to my barked instructions — underpants in top drawer, maxi pad in the box over there etc. — and as they dressed me I had to drop to my knees each time a contraction came. Even before the most intense part started to ebb, Jennie got me up and said let’s go, let’s go. We got down the stairs, I said goodbye to my older child and said to his question-mark face It’s okay Sweetie, we’ll be back soon, and then I dropped to my knees for another contraction, accompanied by house-shaking moaning. [Moaning was something I did I guess by instinct; it helped in part by distracting me from the pain – a long moan the duration of the contraction required steady breath and concentration, and any focal point besides the pain was helpful. It also helped, in a way that makes sense perhaps also in dreams, by drowning out one sense with another. I could overpower the pain with noise.] I was aware that my mom and stepdad were there hearing every moan, and I refused to feel self-conscious, except that when I heard my mom whispering something as we were making our way out the back door, I found it so irritating I yelled “Stop whispering! Just wait till I’m gone!” We got out the door and down the walk and to the car, and I got in and seatbelted, before another contraction came. I told R that if I was holding on to the overhead door handle, he must not speak to me – my signal, as if the scream-moans weren’t sufficient, that I was having a contraction. I had been terrified of having contractions in the car because I couldn’t position myself, I couldn’t squeeze the bones out of anyone’s hands. The car ride was indeed the scariest part of the whole experience. For weeks I had flashbacks. To this, specifically: in the last few minutes of the car ride, I had a contraction which brought with it a popping, gushing sensation: the breaking of my water, I realized — THANK GOD FOR THAT MAXI PAD — and then another in which I pushed — I couldn’t help it. I know it was a bad time and place to push. My body did not f—ing care what time and place it was. I could tell the baby’s head was right there, with just my undies; the maxi pad; a wad of Subway napkins, yes, Subway, which I had grabbed from the car door and stuffed down my pants in a desperate attempt to reinforce the maxi pad; my pants; and a short length of vagina separating it from the seat of the car. We were pulling into the parking garage and I was screaming at R that the baby was COMING, oh my God, I just pushed, oh God please hurry. After a contraction that happened as I was trying to get out of the car, Jennie, who had followed us in her own car, ran up to me, having left her car in the valet area. I waved away an orderly who offered me a wheelchair – I could not sit on this baby-head; I had to move. I clung to Jennie as we race-walked down the endless corridor, the concourse, the lobby, the elevator hall of the hospital, racing past the humiliating possibility that I might have to drop to my knees and push out a baby on the gleaming white floor of hospital lobby. My eyes were squeezed shut, opening every few seconds for snapshots of where she was leading me, on and on, up six floors to L&D triage. We blazed past the reception desk as Jennie told the receptionist that I was ready to push, and we were waved to an empty triage room. I saw a stretcher, sprinted to it, kicked off my shoes, and Jennie helped me whip down my pants. I climbed up and on all fours just in time to have another contraction which I announced to the two nurses who had come running, one of whom was yelling at me “No, no, don’t push! Pant! Pant! We’re not ready for you!” She was frantically unwrapping little packages and pulling things out of cabinets. I panted for maybe five seconds, reaching down and feeling the baby’s head, and then I said I’m sorry, I have to push. I pushed once, and the baby slid right out and thank God there was a nurse behind me to catch him or her (we had not found out). I was visualizing the baby flying out behind me, slipping on the amazing mess on the table and out the door of the very small room.
As soon as the baby was out, seeing nothing yet but hearing healthy cries, I laughed with relief. After a few seconds of confusing pronouns flying around, I learned the baby was a boy, for whom we were still unsure of a name. I couldn’t believe it was over. No birth in the car, or the parking garage, or the lobby, or the elevator. No filling out insurance forms while having contractions. No ring of fire. No hep-lock. No induction. No interventions. No ice-chips-only nonsense. No protracted pushing. I couldn’t stop laughing and saying “Holy shit.” Then it occurred to me maybe I should express myself with a bit more reverence, so I said “Holy, holy, holy,” but that made me feel kind of… Catholic… and not-right either. The point of the self-consciousness about what I was exclaiming: as soon as the extreme stress and terror were over, I was very much my neurotic, verbally-obsessed self again. R was not even back from parking the car when our baby, a nine-pound healthy boy whom we soon named Sebastian, was born. R came in as I knelt there, baby out, placenta still in, shark-attack mess all over the table and floor, while about ten people swarmed in the tiny room, bumping into each other and being irritable about having been ambushed and saying to me, dryly, “Next time, you might want to come in a little sooner.”
I was helped to a sitting-lying position in order to birth the placenta and to be stitched up (only three level 1 tears, with no perineal preparation – another thing to celebrate). I had just pushed a baby out, but when it was time to stitch me up, I demanded several more hits of Lidocaine, unable to tolerate the sting. Pain comes in many packages. Besides the anesthetic for the stitches, the only poking done to me was the large-animal-veterinary-style shot of Pitocin I got in the thigh just after I birthed the placenta, which the mean nurse seemed to enjoy administering. At that moment, no one, least of all a mean nurse, could have brought me down.
I was having complicated feelings towards my doula Jennie: kind of wanting to kill her for cutting it so close, but grateful that all was okay in the end. I have come to realize that when I stepped out of my bathtub, four miles from the hospital, I was probably ten centimeters dilated, and instead of “okay, it’s time to go [for a twenty-minute car ride] to the hospital,” I should have heard the words “okay, it’s time to push your baby out!” But my doula was not a midwife, and she could not have known that my labor would take off like a wild horse. The paradox of that wild-horse labor is that the very conditions of being at home and laboring in the bath may be precisely what facilitated it – conditions which would have been unavailable in the hospital. A tangent which I will try not to write another whole essay about: my hospital had recently instituted a new (craven, insurance-driven) policy that if a woman wanted to labor in one of its three tub-equipped rooms, her bathwater temperature would have to be measured every ten minutes by her primary practitioner – whether midwife or doctor. It sounds too ridiculous to be true, but my doctor confirmed it. While a midwife, who stays with the “patient,” could take an official look at a thermometer every ten minutes, a doctor, who is mostly absent until the pushing phase, wouldn’t dream of it. I have a dim view of the over-medicalization of birth. But I wasn’t quite comfortable with a home birth. And 40 miles to the nearest birthing center was just not an acceptable commute for us. So the price for my getting the best of both worlds was the years off of our lives which my husband and I gave up during the terror-ride between the two worlds. Thank God the city’s annual marathon, held that day, had already wrapped up and there were no street closures between our house and the hospital. Thank God for R, to whom I have stopped trying to express my gratitude for bearing that terror with me, for getting us safely there. I suppose the best expression of my gratitude is our marvelous little boy.
I was proud to have done it all by myself, to have done it in hands-and-knees position (take that, lithotomy position!), to have been raped by Satan’s pain-demons in the depths of Hell and survived; however, “doing it naturally” had been a pretty soft goal. I had eagerly accepted an epidural while in induced labor with my first baby. (And here’s a little secret only R knows, if he even remembers it: as he was helping me get dressed before we departed for the hospital, and Jennie had already raced ahead down the stairs to collect her things, I hissed to him, practically grabbing him by the collar like in a cop show, that I wanted an epidural the SECOND I got in the door at the hospital. The embarrassing part is not that I wanted pain relief; it’s that I was so clueless as to how close the end I was, that the last thing on my mind when I walked in the hospital door, 20 minutes later, would be paging an anesthesiologist.) This labor hurt like hell. But the fact that the intensely painful part was so short is another on the heap of gratitudes about the birth of Sebastian. A few more on the heap: there was no time, nor reason, for an IV in my hand (something I had found so painful and intrusive with the induced birth of my first). I liked the perversity of signing a consent-to-treat form after I had marched in and pushed out a baby on their asses. Best, of all, of course: Sebastian was healthy. He was eager to nurse, and meconium was his only issue. And I’d meconium all over myself too if I were two weeks overdue. When I first held him, having been secretly afraid I couldn’t possibly love another baby as much as I loved my first child, I was immediately invited in by his beautiful, serene, and slightly smug expression (what’s all the excitement out here?), and the fact that he looked so much like his big brother.