A. and I sit cross-legged in the back room at the Potters House in D.C. on a rainy November evening with about 20 small slips of paper in front of us. We’re charged with arranging them on the carpet from least important to most important.
I breathe hard and reach over my massive belly to grab one of them. It reads, in small type at the top, “It is important to us to…” and then, in large type, “Wear our own clothes.” I make a face and put it at the bottom of our list of priorities. I’ll probably be naked.
After that, it gets harder. I want all of them, really. Access to a shower/bath. Yes. Avoid labor induction. Yep. Have freedom of movement. Yes. Avoid epidural. Definitely. Delay cord cutting. Check. Avoid forceps/manual extraction. Oh goodness yes. Avoid Cesarean surgery. Absolutely.
At the top of priorities, I put “Have a healthy baby.”
A. looks at me with disapproval.
He grabs the slip that says “Have a healthy mother,” and slaps it above healthy baby.
“If something happens, we can always try for another,” he admonishes me. “There’s only one you.”
We’re taking a Bradley Method class and learning about labor and delivery. We signed up so we’d meet other couples in the same boat. And we want to learn how to be our own advocates in the delivery room. Turns out, most of the women are birthing at home or in a birthing center. They’re anti-hospital and anti-intervention. I do have wishes around giving birth, but really, I just want me and my baby to get out of this alive.
A month later, and seven days after my due date, my water breaks in a gush all over my black maternity pants. My contractions haven’t started. And all of a sudden, I’m on a clock: I have 24 hours to get this baby out of me.
It’s 11 a.m. on a Friday in early December when I check in at the hospital, brimming with adrenaline. I put my bathing suit on under the hospital robe. “Is this the birthing tub?” I ask a nurse. “Yes,” she says, “but since your water broke, you can’t use it.” Oh, I think, disappointed. One wish, rejected.
A resident checks me: 3 centimeters dilated and 80 percent effaced. And still no contractions. She says I have till about 2 a.m. till they’ll induce me. She suggests I walk up and down the halls, use the labor ball, whatever I can to get labor going. And so I walk and walk. I jiggle and bounce and dance. Nothing. This baby is comfy, kicking me and saying: “No thank you! I’m just fine where I am!”
By early evening, my doctor enters the room, his arms folded.
“How long do we have, doc?” I ask cheerfully. A., S., my mom and I are playing Hearts.
“We should start you on Pitocin now,” he says, very serious. “The longer we go, the greater the risk of infection.”
I look at A. He nods. The nurses assure me they would drip the drug in me slowly to get my body used to it. Every half hour, they would up the dosage.
“I got this,” I think. I trained by doing squats in yoga and holding ice cubes in my hand. I listened to Hypnobabies (though I always fell asleep). At one point I say to A.: “I have a high tolerance for pain, maybe this won’t hurt very much.”
Now I’m hooked up to an IV, getting induced, and my movements are restricted. Two slips of paper, out the window.
I don’t feel anything until about midnight, when everyone starts to fade for the night. I try to lie down, but that’s when the waves hit me. Each contraction starts slowly, like a pinch and then it builds till it feels like someone is cutting into me. I start to writhe. I plant my feet to the floor and lean over, my arms resting on the bed, rocking, rocking. The nurse asks me to move into a position where she can monitor the baby. I don’t want her to touch me. The pressure on my abdomen intensifies the pain.
The next three hours are a blur. I go into a trance to deal with this pain I have never known and hope to never know again. I throw off my gown — buck naked, shaking my head back and forth, hair in a frizzy pony tail, eyes squeezed shut, waiting for that knife to stab into me and twist. S. strokes my hands and A. presses into my back. The contractions come aggressively, one on top of the other. They make me want to throw up. Moaning, groaning, this wretched awful pain. I want to crawl into a ball on the floor and retreat. I’m like a trapped animal, confined.
One of the contractions hits me so forcefully it throws me backwards onto A., who bends his knees to hold all 185 pounds of me.
“I think I need an epidural,” I say to A., breaking, but wanting to stay strong. (A. and I had agreed that once I asked for it, we’d give it another 20 minutes.)
Then another doctor comes in and checks me.
“Hm, she’s a 5, maybe a 4 (centimeters dilated)?” she says flatly. “Closer to a 4. And the baby is sunny-side up.”
“Oh, f*&#,” I say.
My trance is broken. I come undone. I can’t handle the pain anymore — I can’t do this for another several hours and then push out a sunny-side up baby. I’ll die.
“I need an epidural,” I tell A. Now I’m panicking. I can’t breathe and I can’t handle any more contractions.
“Are you sure?” he asks. I’ve never been so sure.
The anesthesiologist takes his sweet time and then flings on the harsh, bright, fluorescent lights and starts questioning me — name, age, birth date, Social Security number? His mustache curls up at the ends. He’s cold. He certainly doesn’t care that I’m in the worst pain of my life. All I want is relief. I’m slumped, my eyes still closed, terrified of the next wave. That’s when I notice A. crying: red faced, tears streaming down his cheeks. And then another contraction throws me backwards — S. rushes in behind me and, lying on her stomach, pushes her arms on my lower back. The back of my head rests on hers, my breasts arched toward the ceiling. The doctor tells me not to move when they stick the long needle in my back. I whimper and ask him to wait until I endure another contraction.
Once the epidural is in, the anesthesiologist gives me a handheld device and tells me I can press for more drugs, but to try not to. Thanks doc. [Eye roll].
The lights go out and everyone sleeps. Except me. I can still feel the contractions on my left side. I grip the white device, stare at it.
“I don’t have to push you, you f*&#er.” And then another contraction. And another. It’s dark and lonely in the room and I don’t want to feel any more pain. I press the call button.
“I still feel it,” I whisper. The nurse suggests I push the button. I do and miraculously fall asleep.
A couple hours later, another doctor comes to check me. The sun is rising.
“You’re 100 percent dilated an effaced,” she says. “Would you like to do a test push?”
The baby is coming down the canal. It’s time. A. grabs one leg. S. eventually grabs the other. I push. And push. And push. The nurse and med student can see hair. Keep going, they say, you’re doing great.
Two hours later, a new doctor introduces himself. He’s fit with a buzz cut, holds a large Starbucks cup and is booming with energy. He wants to see a push. He suggests I try a different way, and says he’ll come back to check on me. He leaves. He returns.
“Yes, we’d like to have the baby’s cord pulse for at least a minute after it’s born. Can we do that?”
“I’ve never done it before,” he says. “But sure, we can do it. You won’t get your baby till I cut the cord,” he said, adding something about not lifting the baby above my heart. I don’t understand, and wish I had listened better in class.
He leaves. He returns to check on me. He leaves. And then, when he returns again, he looks serious.
“You’ve been pushing for almost three hours,” he says. “You’re doing well, and the baby’s heartbeat is great. But we should start talking about other options. What are the options? We could do a vacuum extraction. In that case, you get three tries, and if it doesn’t work, we roll you down to the OR [operating room] and we cut you. Or we could do a C-section. What are the risks? We could nick you. We could nick the baby. We could nick your bladder, unlikely. You could die, unlikely.”
No, no, no, I think. The mood in the room shifts. I look up at A., who is crying again. A. knows the last thing in the world I want is a C-section. All of these slips of paper are crumpling before me.
“Look, you’re a world-class pusher,” the doctor says and disappears.
His speech ignites a fire in me. I call up my soccer training. I call up my marathon training. And the next contraction, I push so hard that I start to growl. The nurse’s eyes light up. “Good!” she says.
This was the way I had to push from now — grunting, growling, fighting — till I forced this baby through my hips. There’s a new current in the room, and now there’s cheering. I’m a swimmer or a sprinter or some kind of insane athlete and I have make this happen. S. yells, “PUSHHH push push push push.”
As I push, the pain on my back intensifies. The baby is heads up and I’m sideways in the bed, contorted. The baby is pushing down so hard on my tailbone, I’m sure it’s going to break. I just have to bear it and work harder than I’ve ever worked. It’s this, or a C-section, I remind myself. I have to get this baby out of me to end this pain. Groaning, grunting, whimpering and then PUSHING PUSHING PUSHING.
Then there’s a flurry in the room, tools coming out. I’m so close, I can feel it. The baby is coming, pushing through, I’m afraid of the release, but need it. And then I can feel the baby coming down, down, down — RELEASE. A great big gush and a wailing baby. Red, wrinkly, screaming.
Euphoria. My baby floating between my legs. My eyes still closed, a few breaths.
Oh my god, I did it. We did it. I hear someone ask A. if he wants to cut the cord. “No,” he says.
And then he makes the big announcement: “It’s a boy!”
And the doctor, asks, taunting, as my baby wails: “Do you want the cord to pulse, or do you want your baby?”
Screw our plan. Screw those sheets of paper. All that matters is that I hold my baby so he knows he’s safe. So I cry: “Give me my baby!”