It was autumn when I peed on a stick and saw two pink lines.
The very word “autumn” brings a flood of sensory memories, suffused with nausea: cool, crisp days; the colorful trees of old St. Louis neighborhoods; the Indian masala chai my husband used to make back then; the three part-time jobs I’d found on Craigslist: English tutor, substitute teacher, church musician; pre-sunrise traffic jams from the city to the suburbs; furtive trips to the gas station for chocolate milk and bags of chips; other desperate emotional episodes involving food; sitting outside in the sun between students or classes, shivering on a warm, sunny slab of concrete, hugging my sick, fatigued body.
We called our new microscopic baby “Freckles.”
I’d had a miscarriage three months earlier at nine weeks gestation. I had seen blood in the toilet at the doctor’s office. Had seen the fetus on an ultrasound, its body curved, tissue wrapped around a proto-spine, already coming apart.
And nine weeks into my new pregnancy I woke up and felt un-pregnant. Un-nauseaus. My emotional state had shifted—from one in which everything was enhanced and made more intense by the hormones—to a blank, gray, let-down feeling.
I was certain that I was going to miscarry again.
Since I hadn’t announced my pregnancy, I didn’t tell anyone about the secret despair I carried around for three or four days. Going through the motions. Panicking every time I went to the bathroom.
I finally called my doctor, and he had me come in for a sonogram. My husband and I waited in one of the rooms, wood paneled, with country décor from the early 1990s. A large photograph of the doctor, in dim light, delivering a baby. Pictures of babies and children and kittens. Medical pamphlets about women and low sex-drive. People magazine.
The nurse led us into the sonogram room. My husband and the doctor chatted casually, about baseball or something, while I lay there on the table, eyes fixed on the screen.
And there was Freckles: Two bubbles. Head and body. Arm buds and leg buds. Heart beating. Swimming. Doing somersaults.
Around that time I began tutoring a young girl in the late afternoons. She’d come in looking a bit harried and breathless, in her navy and white Catholic schoolgirl uniform, blond messy hair in a ponytail, stray pen marks on her white polo shirt.
The second or third time I worked with her, I looked at her and thought, if we’re having a girl, our girl might look a lot like this: blond and tanned, blue-eyed, messy. With this thought came the conviction—the almost-certainty—that we were, in fact, having a girl—and the hormonal tears came to my eyes and I had to step out of the room for a moment and compose myself.
My hunch was confirmed when I saw the photos of Freckles at the twenty week ultrasound: heart, brain, ribcage, arms, legs, fingers, toes, eyes, nose, mouth, and girl parts.
As morning sickness subsided and the beautiful second trimester began, I would walk around the neighborhood amid the cool, naked trees and pray and muse and wonder what kind of person Freckles would be.
I had a feeling that she would be strong. (This hunch could have been based on her constant, painful kicks.) And we would be her old parents—37 and 38 when she was born—in our sixties when she graduated college. We would give her everything we had—and then—she would be shot out into the world (as per the Khalil Gibran poem) like an arrow to find her own way and to dwell in houses of tomorrow, “which [we] cannot visit, not even in our dreams.”
When choosing names, I was drawn to names with the meanings “strength” and “light.” Independently, my husband was drawn to names with similar meanings. But finding a real name for our Freckles was not easy; we were both sensitive, I think, afraid of being shot down by eye rolls, by comments like “no child of mine will ever be called such-and-such.” We had to schedule formal meetings and sit there with our index cards of our top ten choices, names, meanings, and current popularity rankings. Painfully, over time, we narrowed our lists, and decided, ultimately, to name her when we saw her.
To my dismay, I wasn’t destined to be one of those toned, slender girls with beautiful hair who post weekly sportsbra selfies on social media, flat abs accompanied by signs which tell us the size of the baby—grape, olive, peach, etc,– till that lower belly just starts to distend slightly, in a very cute, feminine way.
Instead, I grew large and ugly. Round. Bowling ball. Basketball. Beachball. Snowball. Snowman.
In an attempt to combat my growing body-shame, I took a belly dance class at a local birthing center in a hospital. I figured, I have this belly, why not use it? All the other students in the class were natural birth enthusiasts with doulas and midwives and lots of knowledge and opinions about birthing tubs, the Bradley method, tearing vs. episiotomy. We would dance in circles, holding hands, and then we would sit on exercise balls and do kegels together, wearing sparkly sashes. I was the odd one out, having a doctor and everything.
My husband and I didn’t take birth classes. Instead, I watched birth videos on YouTube. I couldn’t stop crying each time I saw the baby come out–natural birth, water birth, epidural, C-section–whatever. I would see that slimy, bloody head come out of the birth canal and I would cry. Or I would see the doctor slit the abdomen open and yank the little urchin out and I would cry. And not because I found the process to be beautiful and miraculous, but because I was thinking, how on earth will I do that? How will I possibly live through that?
I ordered a Lamaze DVD from Amazon, hosted by two blond Canadian nurses from the 80s—shoulder pads, poufy hair—who pronounced the word “centimeter” as “sontimeter.” They kept talking about how many “sontimeters” you were dilated.
Sontimeter? Is that a Canadian thing? Maybe from the French part of Canada? (I have to admit, I spent a little too much time the next day googling “sontimeter.”)
So I got the basics on breathing through the pain and also some great tips about pillow placement for better sleep while pregnant.
The due day came and went: a depressing day. Nothing. “High and tight,” the doctor said, after a highly disconcerting cervix check. Freckles was locked in and showed no signs of descending.
On the fourth day—June 20th—I went to the doctor. He checked my cervix again. It felt like he was palpating my spleen. I breathed through it— Lamaze breathing—and afterwards, found out that he was pleased—I had dilated one sontimeter. He told me to get dressed and come to his office so that we could discuss inducing this labor.
While getting dressed– putting on my godawful maternity pants with their huge beige stretchy band– I started leaking all over.
Water break? Or really bad urinary incontinence? They brought pH strips—held them up to my jeans—it was my water breaking. Tears streaming down my face.
“Why are you crying?” My husband asked me.
“I don’t know.”
We walked into the hospital. It was a hot afternoon, and there we were walking down the sidewalk, a handsome, normal-looking man (my husband), accompanied an elephantine woman with soaking wet, ill-fitting pants. A passerby saw us.
“Maternity is this way,” he said, pointing. Is it that obvious, I thought?
Up in the room, they me hooked up to monitors, waiting for contractions to begin naturally, or else. My husband went home to get our bags and to bring me my last meal: Taco Bell.
Around 8 PM I was given my first dose of pitocin.
Contractions were bearable at first. I breathed through them easily, feeling like a Lamaze guru. But my cervix not dilating quickly enough—after hours of contracting, there was only another sontimeter or so– so they upped the pitocin. As night deepened, the contractions were more and more painful.
My husband turned the lights down and put on some music. He was on the cot in the corner, sleeping intermittently, and I was on the hospital bed, hooked up to monitors. I asked for painkillers—something short of an epidural—and they gave me halidol, something that made me a bit sleepy between contractions but didn’t really touch the pain.
The pain ramped up. A nurse suggested I walk back and forth during contractions: Back and forth across the room—with the IV, holding onto my husband—two hospital gowns—one forward, one backward—moaning. I had to moan. I couldn’t silently breathe through the pain anymore.
They say you forget the pain. My mom told me I would. And I have. (In fact, here I am, getting ready to have another baby, a llttle over a year later).
But I remember many of my thoughts: Should have opted for an elective C-section followed by tubal ligation, like my sister-in-law.
Other thoughts I had: Eve in the Garden of Eden. “In sorrow you shall bear your children.” A bit harsh, don’t you think, God?
Which led me to the Catholic popes and bishops and every other religious patriarch who encouraged women to have lots of children: Who did they think they were?
I think my husband and I both harbored a mild fear that I would verbally or otherwise abuse him during this process, but I didn’t. I needed him. He was calm, steady, patient, walking back and forth across the floor with me, hour after hour. I learned that he is great in a crisis: he forgets himself and attends to the situation at hand.
Getting my dilation checked in the middle of all this was a special kind of torture. It felt quite medieval, like Satan himself wrapping his icy fingers around my cervix.
Four sontimeters. Hours of torture and only four sontimeters dilated.
I began to believe that there was no baby. I began to pray the serenity prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept that there is no baby, that I will be having contractions every one-to-three minutes for the rest of my life.
More hours of pacing back and forth. More hours of resignation.
And finally—somehow—they gave me the go ahead to push anyway—and the doctor comes in—the nurses push my knees up to my chest—I push—there’s a feeling of relief, and it feels sort of like vomiting—giving way to your body’s will.
They tell me to stop for a minute—the room transforms—nurses fly around—furniture moves—instruments are brought–get your camera ready” the doctor says, and I don’t believe him—I hardly believe him at all—there is no baby, only contractions—only pushing—
The room is dim, shades drawn—nearly 9 AM—first day of summer–and one more push or two—
There she is.
Wow, she’s big!
Look at those rolls!
They wipe her off, immediately place her on my chest. Little tiny whimpers.
They are sewing me up: For some reason, this pain feels worse than the labor pains, worse than the pushing and crowning and all that, and all I can think is that I want this pain to stop so that I can look at my baby’s face. I want to tell them, look, if this is about fixing some physical deformity in my nether regions, just leave it.
I cry out when the needle goes in—sharp, silver, stinging—and the baby cries when I do. I comfort her: it’s ok, it’s ok. She calms down. The needle goes in again; I cry out again—she cries again—I comfort her again–she quiets down.
Somewhere in all this I turn to my husband and say, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I couldn’t have done it without you.
“You did great,” the doctor tells me. “You should do this again soon.”
Is he kidding?
They put the baby to my breast, and I fall asleep nursing her. There is a picture of me, naked from the waist up, mouth hanging open, baby on the breast.
The day that followed was a blur of joy and pain. They took her and weighed her: 9 lbs, 4 oz. They brought me food. Had me rest while my husband did the bathing tutorial. Calls to friends and family. Visit from sis-in-law and mother-in-law. A few hours after the birth, they had me stand up—and I passed out.
Do you know where you are? They asked me.
Did I just have a baby? I asked, the wonder of it coming to me anew.
The nurses asked visitors to leave: I needed to rest. Blood pressure. Heart rate. Blood loss.
That night they swaddled her and laid her in a clear glass bassinet across the room from me. I saw my little girl’s eyes through the glass, looking at me. Distinctively-shaped eyes that everyone had remarked on. She seemed just as curious about me as I was about her.
A day and a half later I put on a red and white striped maternity dress I’d outgrown in the last trimester, and we dressed Freckles in a footed PJ outfit her daddy wore when he was born, and I was wheeled out in a wheelchair, and we put her in the car seat, all of us looking at each other in wonder.
The next day, after much deliberation, she got her name– Audra Leora Brecken: Strength, Light, Freckles.