Four days past my due date, on December 1, 2010, I found myself staring into my refrigerator in a state of mounting mania.
In my most recent invocation of labor, I’d popped a few capsules of evening primrose oil and noshed on a handful of black licorice. These seemed to be having no more effect than the Mexican food, Thai takeout, homemade curry and copious eggplant that I’d been consuming for the past week. My fridge, meanwhile, was crowded with the fruits of my mother’s grocery shopping list, crammed in alongside the standard detritus in search of inspiration. Was there anything in here I could eat that would send me into labor? Anything I could just cook, because, for some reason, I had to?
Cherry tomatoes. Chicken broth. Mushrooms. Milk. Fingerling potatoes. A lemon. A desultory tub of Fage yogurt.
Somewhere in the cosmos, something clicked.
A half hour later, the potatoes were roasting in the oven and a batch of homemade yogurt was simmering away. I turned my attention to the cherry tomatoes, which for no reason had begun to offend me to the point of actual anger. Oooh, I was going to crush those damned tomatoes. I threw them in a saucepan with the chicken broth and some herbs and garlic, brought the mess to a boil, pulled out my potato masher and started venting my aggression.
“That smells good,” Mom remarked from the living room. “What are you making?”
“Pizza,” I decided, noting the bag of Trader Joe’s whole wheat pizza dough in the fridge. “I’m making sauce out of those cherry tomatoes, and then we’ve got mushrooms, and –”
And we didn’t have any mozzarella cheese. But we had milk, and a lemon.
“– and I’m going to make homemade ricotta to go on top.”
If Mom suspected that this nesting binge was a sign of anything to come, she politely kept her own counsel. As did &, who no doubt must have been surprised when I texted him with a request to bring home tomato paste and cheesecloth.
By eight o’clock we were dining on homemade mushroom pizza and watching last night’s episode of Jon Stewart on the DVR. While I’d gone nuts in the kitchen, & had finished lighting and decorating the Christmas tree, which now gleamed happily in the living room. The roasted potatoes had gone direct to Tupperware, the yogurt would be cured in another hour or so, and I was, to my consternation, still not in labor.
But something was up. My underwear felt unusually wet — more so than the customary late-pregnancy incontinence. I moved from the couch to a plastic chair and wondered aloud: “Maybe I’ve sprung a leak.”
“Nah,” said Mom, “when your water breaks you’ll know, it comes out in a gush.”
But something was leaking; I could have sworn I felt fresh moisture every time I cleared my throat. Right? Didn’t I? Was I still just driving myself crazy with phantom signs of potential labor, only to be frustrated when labor itself never actualized?
I sat back on a folded towel and settled in for Stephen Colbert, telling myself not to make too big a deal out of my apparent pants-peeing. Or (when did this start?) the strange discomfort in my back. Intestinal discord of any sort does strange things to your mind in your third trimester; these vague passing moments of abdominal tension, these intermittent lower-back cramps, all of these could simply be the physical noise of late pregnancy. Or they could be incipient labor. But more likely, they’re all in your head.
& walked the dog. The yogurt finished cooking; Mom got up to screw the lids on the little jars and put them away. I went to the bathroom in consternation, noted that it seemed to make my back pain go away, and then saw —
“BLOOD!!!” I hollered. There it was! Actual blood! From an orifice that had shown me no such thing since February! Flush with victory, I emerged from the bathroom just as & and Buford returned from their walk. “There’s blood!” I squealed again, delighted and relieved to see even the slightest sign that I might not be stuck at nine months pregnant forever.
And then my back hurt again.
It was a little before nine-thirty. The back pains were coming and going, along with things that felt like menstrual cramps. “I think we should start timing these,” I said to &. (His phone has an app for that.)
The George Washington University Hospital counsels expectant mothers to observe the “5-1-1” rule: don’t go rushing off to the hospital until your contractions are five minutes apart, last for a minute, and have been that way for an hour. But after forty-five minutes, my synchronized front-back cramps were regularly two minutes apart, and hurt badly enough that I saw no need to delay pain relief any further. We’d go to the hospital, they’d give me something, and whether or not this was labor would work itself out.
(So much for my plan to spend early labor at home, watching funny movies and dipping into the jacuzzi. I did, at least, manage to dampen the pain through two cramping episodes by singing a few lines of Erbarme Dich. And I still had grand plans to serenade the corridors of Labor and Delivery with my rendition of the world’s most perfect cry for mercy, during the hours of labor that were sure to ensue.)
Two more Things That Might Be Contractions broke over me in the taxi. (“We’re having a baby!” my mother told the cabbie. “Oh, yes, right here in my cab!” he laughed back at us.) A third hit me outside the locked main door to the hospital, where a sign counseled us to use the emergency entrance after 8 pm. “No emergency here,” I waved at the ER desk guys as we walked by, “I’m just kind of in labor, I guess.”
“Someone still needs to walk you up,” one guy said.
“I think I’m — having enough of — all this walking,” I muttered to & as another Contractionlike Thing hit me on the way to the elevators. He slowed down to my pace and squeezed my hand. “We can walk slower,” he said. The hospital elevator agreed, crawling to the third floor in perhaps as long it’s ever taken.
“Sign in please,” the Labor and Delivery desk lady told us, indicating a clipboard. I managed my name, but couldn’t get to the date or time before another Putative Contraction insisted that I sit down. As & completed my clipboard entry for me, a nurse appeared and matter-of-factly asked us, “So what brings you here?”
I caught my breath, looked her in the eye, and snarled, “Oh, I don’t know, we just thought we’d stop by and say hi.”
The nurse looked blankly at me. “What?”
“I’m in labor,” I admitted at last, letting go of any doubt.
We were promptly installed in room 7, where after multiple re-verifications of my (boringly uncomplicated) medical history, a resident gave me a quick internal exam. I’d been dilated to two centimeters for several weeks, so it was an enormous relief when the resident brightly announced, “You’re dilated five centimeters and fully effaced! Congratulations, you’ve been admitted. You’re in active labor.”
Well, that was good to know. “I’d like an epidural,” I told her, “please.”
“Anesthesia is on the way,” she replied.
On the way from where, exactly, was unclear. It was right around eleven when the Good Doctors With Drugs were alerted to my request, but at least forty-five minutes passed before any sign of an epidural appeared in room 7. Meanwhile, my contractions — for that is indeed what they were — continued apace, each one menstrual-crampier and back-stabbier than the one before.
On the nurse’s advice, & would “apply counterpressure” — shove the heel of his hand into the small of my back — with each contraction. This was essential, but ultimately insufficient. Where was my epidural?? I curled up in a ball, stretched into a back arch, writhed and twisted however I could in an attempt to stretch out the pain or find a position that didn’t hurt.
Even vocalizing had slipped beyond my reach. “Sing!” my mother urged me at one point, but by then the noises coming from me were neither voluntary nor within my control. Groans turned to growls, which progressed to primal wailing and roaring, as though I’d been possessed by some prehistoric animal. I’d calm down between contractions and revert to a somewhat breathless English, but then I’d lose it almost immediately as soon as the next contraction began its wind-up: oh no. oh no. another. make it stop, make it staaaahhhhhhh…
(At this point I should say: yes, labor hurts. But it did not hurt nearly as badly as I expected it to. On the standard medical pain scale, where a doctor will ask you to rate your discomfort on a scale of 1 to 10, my labor never hit a 9. Possibly not even an 8. No one who was in the room with me will believe me, though, not after they heard the noises I was making.)
The anesthesiologist had arrived, but was moving maddeningly slowly. “I’m swabbing down your back with betadine,” he narrated, “it’ll feel cool.” In fact, it felt like another contraction, and then another, and then what I was certain was a fountain of blood gushing down my leg. “Actually,” remarked my mother, “that’s probably your water breaking.” And so it was.
Spontaneous rupture of membranes, my medical record notes. 23:45.
By midnight my back-piercing had been achieved, and an IV bag labeled “Fentanyl” (O lovely, lovely word) had been added to my download rack. “It should take about ten to fifteen minutes to take effect,” the anesthesiologist said. And ten minutes later, when a truly epic contraction left me caterwauling like a wounded sabertooth tiger, that same anesthesiologist — without a hint of irony — drily remarked that if I didn’t feel any effect after the next contraction, we’d have to re-place the epidural catheter.
This would have been fine by me, so strong was my belief in the magical analgesic powers of the epidural. But Mayhem had other plans. “Wait,” I blurted out as the staff rearranged me back onto the bed, “wait — hold on — there’s so much pressure, it feels like something’s coming out.”
“What?” the nurse said as she lifted my knees.
“I think — I think — it feels like I’m pushing,” I managed in English before another contraction overcame me and I lapsed back into a primal growl-roar.
The nurse did a lightning-fast internal exam and shook her head. “You’re at nine,” she said with a disbelieving twinkle in her eye. “More than nine, even.” The medical record concurred: Full dilation, 0:12.
“OK, we’re going to break down the bed,” said a resident, right before I got lost in another contraction and missed the entire process.
Transition, the last phase of active labor before you progress to the “pushing” stage, has a reputation for driving people insane. But even this, as I blew right through it, didn’t hurt the way I expected it to. The back pain all but disappeared. The menstrual-cramp part, which had never been as awful as the back pain part, felt different now — insistent and expulsive in the same way that vomiting is, or diarrhea. Yes, it was painful. But it never came close to the level of ur-agony I’d heard recounted, seen on birth shows, and feared for months.
I credited the epidural for this, but by then (I later learned) someone had shut off my cherished, if ineffective, fentanyl drip. This blew my mind almost as much as the actual Miracle of Birth: somehow I’d made it all the way through to the end of first-stage labor before my epidural ever took effect. Completely unintentionally, I had endured an unmedicated childbirth. And now, at a quarter past midnight, people were folding my knees and telling me to push.
This was unreal. Labor is supposed to take hours. I was supposed to pace the hallways in my fluffy purple bathrobe and sing Bach and sneak Shot Bloks when nobody was looking. Instead, the magical spiritual experience of childbirth was rocketing past me like the view from a bullet train. “You’re doing great! You’re doing great!” & whispered in my ear, and all I could think was that I was barely doing anything at all, that this was passing me by so quickly that I could hardly keep up. “Push! push!” a half dozen different voices exhorted me, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5…”
“I can see her head!” & murmured excitedly. “She has light brown hair just like yours!”
“What??” I managed in response. That couldn’t be right. You wouldn’t be able to see the baby’s head until she crowned, and I’d barely begun to push. There was no way…
“I can see her! I can see Natalie!”
We’d decided long ago that Mayhem was not going to be christened Mayhem, but we’d avoided speaking her chosen name aloud, half out of superstition and half as insurance against insensitive comments by people who didn’t like the name. Hearing & say “Natalie,” even in a barely-audible whisper, meant that there was a Natalie now, to a certainty, and we could name her freely without risk of jinx or judgment. Natalie was here. & could see her.
“Deep breath in, hold your legs back, chin down and push! Come on, you’re doing great! 6, 7, 8, 9, 10!”
“Wow, LOOK at that head of hair! She’s almost here! She’s almost here, just give it another push!”
This was impossible. Even on television people did not deliver babies this quickly.
Then I heard the supervising obstetrician (not Dr. B, my longstanding doctor, but rather Dr. M, who had interpreted Mayhem’s last ultrasound on Monday), talking to me. “She’s experiencing decels, and I’m a little worried. I have the vacuum ready here if it becomes necessary. But right now we need you to push. Right now. This isn’t about you any more, this is all for the baby.”
I saw him holding up the vacuum extractor, a small yellow hemisphere at the end of a plastic tube, and briefly thought: hey, there’s a way to simplify things, just suck her out. Because I could not push now, not between contractions. “I can’t,” I said simply, “but — just wait –”
And the next contraction came. And with a primal roar that would have inspired a woolly mammoth in estrus, I pushed for ten seconds — breath — 1, 2, 3, 4 — it felt like the most intense case of constipation I’d ever forced out — 5, 6, 7 — “You’re probably feeling what’s called the Ring of Fire,” someone said, and I suppose I was, but everything was so noisy and so bright and so fast that it too was over before I could really perceive it —
— and the residents were holding up something humanoid, covered in chunky yellow vernix and still plugged in to my body by an umbilical cord that resembled a thick, translucent telephone cord. And there it was. I’d had a baby. Mayhem, my constant companion of the past nine months, was gone. That sticky squirming stranger was my daughter, Natalie.
Delivery of baby: 0:31. She’d missed a December 1 birthday by half an hour, but had barely even kept us up late.
Someone explained to me that the pediatricians had to look at her first, before they passed her to me, since there was some chance she might have inhaled meconium. “Sure,” I said, just as someone else called out “Afterbirth!” and I felt the most wonderful warm smooth thing come flowing out my nethers, exactly the way the baby had not. Delivery of placenta: 0:36.
I’d had plans for that placenta. One of the most impressive auxiliary miracles of pregnancy and childbirth is the body’s ability to produce foodstuffs suitable for human consumption. Lactation is one example of this. But did you know that when you have a baby, you give birth not only to a person, but to a steak as well? And that eating this item reportedly stimulates lactation, instructs your uterus to return to its normal size, and wards off postpartum depression? All of this sounded great to me (even though & skeeved at the mere mention of consuming this biohazard; I told him he didn’t have to have any).
But alas, my placenta was not on the menu this evening. At some point over the past few days, Natalie had pooped, and a placenta contaminated with fetal feces didn’t sound terribly appetizing. “We have to send it down to the lab,” the OB told me, “but here it is, you can see it.” It didn’t look terribly appetizing either, not even to someone who ten minutes earlier had been possessed by a cave bear. With regret, I let it go.
“You did tear a little,” said one of the residents stationed between my legs, “so we’ll need to repair that.” A snap of disappointment hit me like a rubber band. I’d hoped to get through labor and delivery without needing stitches. I hate stitches. Then again, I’d hoped to preserve my placenta too. But I realized even then that a jettisoned placenta and three stitches where the sun don’t shine, in the grand scheme of things, represented a small price to pay for the fastest, easiest, most impossible labor imaginable. “Seven pounds seven ounces,” someone called out. I relaxed into a cool swell of relief. Monday’s ultrasound had been wrong. My baby wasn’t underweight. My baby was just fine.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad!” I said to &. “Let’s do that again.”
And the next thing I knew, I was holding a baby. The youngest, freshest, softest and squishiest baby I’d ever held. Her head was perfectly round; she’d come cannoning out of the birth canal so quickly that it hadn’t had time to deform into a cone. She had bright deep eyes, giant chipmunk cheeks, dark fluff on her ears and down her back, pale peeling hands and feet and a squinched-up face that I couldn’t stop staring at. Who did she look like? What did she look like? I had lived nine months with Mayhem, but this was someone I’d just met. My daughter.
Time passed. Doctors dispersed. Family converged, notwithstanding that it was the middle of the night. And everyone was wondering what to call this baby, who clearly would no longer answer to Mayhem. We’d long planned that & would be the first to name our daughter, and he did, whispering her name in her ear before handing her back to me. But we hadn’t planned how we’d announce her name to the public. Now I simply sat her up on my lap and introduced her to the assembled family (and myself): “This is Natalie Eleanor Martin.”
And she is. And she’s ours. And we have never been more complete.