Labor progressed early, as I mentioned, leading me to the hospital within hours; then a mean midwife threw me into reverse and sent me home. An hour later, though, I was back to where I started, contracting regularly, and in increasing, sledge-hammer quality pain from what turned out to be back labor. But we couldn’t go to the hospital or we’d be back once more under the jurisdiction of the mean midwife. We decided to tough it out at home.
From about 12:30 AM until 6:30, we used the tools at our disposal: a yoga mat, water, highly-diluted Vitamin Water, bendy straws, massage, frozen vegetables, mantras, more water, and a rubber ducky from the O’Haire Motor Inn in Montana. There was also quite a bit of cursing and crying. Every few minutes, I looked at Mr. Ben and said either: “It huuuuuurts” or “I can’t do it. I’m sorry, honey, I can’t.” And he would say, “You are doing it. You’re doing great,” and empty the freezer of more bagged produce to push against my back.
“Breathe, honey,” he told me. “Don’t forget to breathe. Keep breathing.”
We ruined the frozen corn, the raspberries, the edamame, turned them all to slime. I didn’t notice. I sprawled on the bathroom floor in various positions, clutching my husband’s hand, listening to him tell me it would be okay. I spent about an hour in the shower and then another hour in the bath with him pouring water on me, singing to me, doing anything he could to distract me from my certainty that I couldn’t do it, that I couldn’t push to the other side of the smashing, obliterating pain.
BEN NOTE: The pain had a predictable peak, it would be painful and seem endurable, and then would ebb, and then would come back much much stronger and you would cry out and you would have to breathe in and out about four times until it was finally over. I was aware of every contraction because I was trying to time them on the app I had downloaded to my iPod touch, at least at first. I stopped for a while when I realized that we were in it for the long haul and the contractions were not really changing in length or frequency much.
(Hereafter Mr. Ben’s comments are in blue bracketed italics within the text.)
I shivered, and then I sweated, and then I shivered again. [We got to know our bathroom floor better than any other bathroom floor before or since.] I drank what felt like gallons of water [in fact you took on the tiniest sips that I had to force on you] until the very sight of a bendy straw made me nauseous. When I could catch my breath between contractions, I repeated a phrase from a prayer my shul’s congregation recites every Shabbes: “We have not come into being to hate or to destroy; we have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.” Possibly this nauseous, moaning, hand-gripping, childbirth-type labor was not exactly what the writers of that prayer had in mind, but the words helped soothe me, even the tiniest bit, so I kept saying them. To praise, to labor, and to love.
And eventually, after hours that felt like whole deserts that had to be crawled across, the sun began to rise, timed perfectly to a newer, even more intense kind of pain and pressure. If I stayed at home any longer, I felt like I would have the baby right there on the bathroom floor, which, though not cold, hard Mexican ceramic tile, was not my ideal birthing locale, either. Mr. Ben called a car and a portly bearded man from Arecibo arrived with his chariot. “It’s okay, Mama-ji,” he told me as he helped unload me in front of Park Slope Methodist hospital in the misty half-light. “Girls do this every day, all over the world. Fifteen, sixteen year old girls!”
All the wheelchairs must have gossiping over their morning coffee together or something, because the lobby was empty. A resident who happened to be walking by changed direction and helped Mr. Ben support me up to Labor and Delivery. At that point, I could barely stand on my own. “I can’t do this,” I told Mr. Ben for the bazillionth time as we made it to triage. “You are doing it,” he assured me. The nurses summoned the midwife on call, and we held our collective breath until she entered — Donna, one of the other four midwives, a practical, confidence-inspiring woman with a wry sense of humor. Glory be, Hosannah, we had done it. If I could have relaxed, I would have. The mean midwife faded from memory as Donna took charge.
[SPOILER ALERT: FROM HERE ON OUT, THINGS GET KIND OF GRAPHIC. AS DR. SPACEMAN SAID, WHEN PRESIDING OVER A BIRTH, “EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS IS DISGUSTING!” READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.]
“Seven centimeters,” she told me. “Let’s get you to a room.” [That moment was one that I will never forget. Donna waited for a contraction to end, and you whimpered “It huuurts” while you were having the contraction. Then when it was done, she stuck her fingers up into your vagina and said, “You’re seven centimeters dilated” and smiled, and then I think she said “You’re not kidding it hurts.” I was so relieved, I just beamed at you. Because up until that point I really didn’t know how painful it had to be. Everyone was saying that women want the epidural at 3-4 centimeters, and I was just praying that we had gotten at least a little further than that. When we were at seven, I knew that we had gotten through the worst, the endurance/psychology of pain part.]
For the first time in my life, I saw things from the perspective of a patient on a gurney as I was wheeled through double doors and down a hall. [And I got to be by your side in the crowd of nurses and midwife wheeling the gurney!] For the first time, I felt myself attached to an IV and then given a HepLock so that I could move around. Seven centimeters meant that I had made it through active labor and was now in transition: the most challenging phase but also the shortest, and the very last before pushing. A very nice nurse asked me if I wanted an epidural. [She said it in a really sweet voice, like she was offering you candy. She was not making it easy for you to say “no thanks.”] I quavered. If I got the drugs, I could stop feeling like I was being repeatedly run over by an SUV. But they might also interfere with the last stage of the process and lead to a c-section.
The only decision I could make was that I wanted to be in the shower again. [Actually, you looked at me and said “I think I might want the epidural . . . .” And the nurse said “OK,” and started making arrangements for it. And then I had to say “she hasn’t decided yet,” because I knew that your use of the word “might” meant that you weren’t sure.] Charrow appeared and she and Mr. Ben together took on the job of getting me from 7 cm to 10 and across the finish line. They supported me as I stood crying under the [pathetically low-water-pressure] faucet, trying to twist myself into a comfortable position; afterwards, they took turns rubbing my back and holding my hand, listening to me babble and telling me I was doing great. They used up all the cold-packs in the room and moved on to latex gloves filled with ice, which they had to refill from the machine in the hall. I couldn’t have made it through without them. They propelled me forward; they propped me up; they cheered me on.
Then it was time to push.
“Hold your breath, bear down, and then roar like a lion,” said my otherwise sensible midwife. I looked at her like she was crazy, but she didn’t offer an alternative. I tried, though I wasn’t very successful. After several really strong contractions, she broke my water for me on the table and unspeakable liquids poured out of me, including meconium, a sign of fetal distress. Donna’s demeanor didn’t change — she remained calm and controlled — but a grim nervousness settled around the table: it was clear that I needed to deliver the baby soon. An hour later I was doing no better at the purple pushing. “I can’t, I can’t,” I sobbed. “She’s coming, she’s coming!” everyone replied. “Just a little more! We can see her hair!”
Donna summoned a team of pediatricians to be on hand as soon as the baby emerged. I was beginning to feel like she never would. All there would ever be of her was hair. Why had I not immediately said yes to the drugs? I couldn’t stand the pain; the pain was bigger than I was and it had eaten me alive. I wanted to go unconscious, to have them cut the baby out of me, to be done with all of this. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t.
“Her head! It’s coming! Just a little more!”
Mr. Ben on one side, Charrow on the other, pushing with me, crying with me; the nurse and the midwife exhorting me from between my legs; the unbelievable pressure; the pediatricians grouped just out of sight, waiting; roaring; and finally, finally, a tremendous swoosh and release. Donna caught something squirming and hot and passed it to the pediatricians. My eyes couldn’t focus — I found out later than I had burst blood vessels in and around them, leaving me looking like a boxer who’d gone down in the fifth. Charrow stayed with me while Mr. Ben followed the tiny, messy human being struggling in the gloved hands of the doctors.
[Things happened very quickly: there was the moment when Donna pulled over her rolling tray covered with surgical tools from the side of the room. Then there was the moment when they got your legs into the stirrups, the moment when there was a quick snip snip that no one commented on, but I asked about afterwards, and the moment when they put the big blue tarp up to catch whatever liquid came out with the baby. When the baby came out, it looked like the impossible was happening, it looked like CGI. There was this smushy yellow elongated alien with hair and eyes that emerged out of the area immediately next to your vag.]
An aggrieved cry resounded through the hospital room and we all breathed again. “Can I stop pushing now?” I asked the nurse, who rewarded me with a laugh. Then I added, “OK, I’ll take the drugs.” Charrow grinned. A world with no contractions in it! The very air was euphoric. My sense of humor, my sense of self, came back. I had a brief glimpse of something pulsing, huge, and red, like a jellyfish from outer space, as Donna delivered my placenta and started sewing me back together.
Lara had come out occipital posterior, or sunny-side up, which is rare and accounts for the extra difficulty of the delivery, including a natural tear and Donna’s small incision. (Which, by the way? OUCH.) The difficulty was compounded by Lara holding one fist stubbornly next to her face, like a stuffed animal she was clinging to, as she emerged.
The doctors finished prodding the baby, whose Apgar score had gone from an initial, worrisome 4 to a robust 8 within minutes, and handed her to me to warm up against my chest. She was skinny and long, funny-colored and scrunchy-faced, with lots of dark hair and an exhausted look in her eyes that I could imagine mirrored the one in mine. She was amazing: an amphibian churned out of dark water and thrown up on the shore of my body. All I could do was hold her and breathe.
Nearly two months later, I haven’t advanced much further than that, but she has. She’s become a very successful, charming, chubby little mammal who seems none the worse for her atypical delivery. I spend half my day staring at her, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that she used to be floating inside me, and and now thrives on the milk my all-you-can-eat Brestaurant provides. We had quite an adventure together, her and her father and me, one I can’t imagine two of the three of us, or Aunt / Doula Charrow, will ever forget.
How is it possible almost six weeks have passed and I haven’t chilled you to the bone with my How I Had My Baby story? Well, grab your warmest blanket and a mug of hot chocolate, kidlets, because here we go.
Thanks to an incredible series of classes with doula and midwife-assistant Shara Frederick and some serious book learnin’, both on the subject of childbirth itself and, more broadly, on the question of what kind of parent I didn’t want to be, I felt reasonably prepared for what was to come. (As part of that intelligence-gathering effort, I reviewed a couple of the Bad Mommy Memoirs I plowed through for Cheek Teeth: Are You My Mother? and Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?) I knew it would be difficult, especially for someone with so little experience dealing with enduring pain, but I also knew that putting it off wouldn’t make it any easier. So BRING IT ON, said I.
It was like shouting at the ocean. The baby had her own plan. In accordance with that plan, I found myself a week later still pregnant, still awkward and sore and quite tired of the ten-month gestation process. My “What to Expect” app had run out of even semi-useful tips and had started preparing me to “Start losing the baby weight!” First I need to lose the baby, I growled.
In an effort to lose it — or, more specifically, to loose it — on my due date, Monday, Sept 10, I got a prenatal massage from the fabulous folks at the Providence Day Spa on Atlantic Avenue and then ate a brownie the size of a cinder block.
I’m not sure which was more delicious.
By the time I was done, the contractions were both noticeable and regular, and the birth team stood ready: Mr. Ben with his catcher’s mitt out, Charrow in a rubber apron and gloves. We expected the early stages of labor to be rather slow-going, since it can often take at least half a day to make significant progress. But again, the baby had her own plans. After just a few hours, the contractions had gotten stronger and closer together enough that Mr. Ben called the midwives and the midwives said head to the birthing center.
CONTRACTIONS. MIDWIVES. BIRTHING CENTER. There’s been an infant cooking in my belly or dangling from my breasts for almost a year now and I still can’t believe this is my life. [/end note]
We gathered the ten bags of stuff we had put aside to bring to the hospital, called a car, and got to Methodist at about 8:00 PM. The pain was still manageable; everyone was excited; it seemed like perhaps the baby could propel herself out that very night and avoid the trauma of having her birthday forever synonymous with national tragedy.We all squeezed hands and waited for the midwife to come in.
There were five women in the midwife practice, and whoever happened to be on call when I went into labor would be my sherpa for this arduous, uncertain journey. Five women, and I really liked four of them. Any one of them would be fine; I wasn’t picky! Just, please, I told Mr. Ben, not Grumpy Gail — she had the bedside manner of a 12-year-old boy.
Naturally, the midwife on call was Grumpy Gail, giving my laboring body a choice to make. Should I keep barreling forward and aim to have the baby on September 10th, or throw the process into reverse and (probably) have the baby on September 11th with one of the others? The decision was made before I was even conscious of what it meant. My labor shuddered to a halt. Grumpy Gail sent us home with instructions to drink some wine, get some sleep, and come back in the morning.
Unfortunately, it turned out, the baby could only be put off for so long. About an hour after I tried to go to bed a contraction woke me with the force of a sledgehammer. It was followed in short order by another contraction, and another, both of which made the contractions of the evening — even the ones that sent me to the birth center — seem like cuddly embraces. There was no going back to sleep; no vineyard on earth had ever made wine strong enough to help me now. But what could we do? If we went back to the birthing center, we would have to put our trust in Grumpy Gail to see us through, and that was why we had left in the first place.
We decided to tough it out until dawn, when we figured the shift change would bring another midwife. What I didn’t fully grasp was that I was also electing to go through what would turn out to be a night of back labor at home without any kind of drugs. Back labor. At home. Drug free.
That, friends, is where our story really gets going. Stay tuned for Part Two!
Introducing Lara Calliope, born 9/11/12, 5 lbs 14 oz, 19″ long. She’s done some serious growing since then.
She is soft, warm, portable, sweet-smelling, and constantly hungry. We’ve had her now for almost three weeks, which means that we have passed the deadline to return her. Anyway, even if we had returned her, we wouldn’t have gotten our money back; we would only have been eligible for stork credit. (ba dum CHING!)
The blanket pictured above, by the way, was crocheted for us by our friend and Lara’s potential future mother-in-law, Tamar. That’s what she was doing while she was pregnant, besides also being a full-time medical resident at Johns Hopkins: making us both beautiful baby gear by hand. What was I doing? Tweeting, mostly, and trawling the Park Slope Parents list to get as much free and cheap swag as possible. But you know. We all have our priorities.
And now I’m a MOMMY. I know because that’s what they kept calling me in the hospital. (“How’s Mommy this morning?”) I never knew quite how to respond. (“Mommy’s cooch is a bit sore from all that labor, and can she maybe get some steak to put on her black eyes? She looks like she was in a bar fight.”) Luckily Mommy wasn’t in the hospital very long. She gave birth on September 11th at 12:00 noon and was discharged on September 12th at 4:30 PM. In between, of course, she had a very exciting adventure that involved lots of screaming and fluids and a midwife exhorting her to “roar like a lion” and the world splitting open and a new human being spilling out.
The new human being is tiny and perfect and more-or-less worth all the trouble of producing her. Her tall funny Southern friend Tara Leigh came to visit and marveled at just how tiny Lara is. “But of course,” she added quickly, “I’ve never met a Jewish baby before.”
Ben and I are overwhelmed and tired and happy and dizzy and all those things new parents are supposed to be. We’ve been very fortunate to have help from our own parents up until very recently. That allowed us to maintain a semblance of cleanliness & organization in our apartment. Now we’re on our own, which is daunting, but we still have our community, which has also been incredibly supportive & welcoming to our little bundle of needs.
We also have our health, which is not to be taken for granted. For example, and women do not talk about this enough, post-partum: it is super awesome not to be pregnant anymore. I can sleep on my stomach! My back doesn’t hurt! My feet are my own again! Of course my breasts have been appropriated and turned into a full-service, eat-in-and-take-out, open-24-hours Dairy Queen, but at least while I’m feeding the little piglet I can look down and admire my totally normal ankles.
My pregnancy is going fine. Anytime anyone asks, that’s what I tell them, and it’s the truth — comparatively, I’ve gotten off easy and I feel grateful. Yes, I was nauseous but not too drastically or for too long. Yes, I gained weight but my body didn’t morph into an entirely other formless, unrecognizable being, comme ca:
Largely I’ve been able to continue living my life with an acceptable level of inconveniences. I have been able to travel, I have been able to work. Of course, the inconveniences started to feel a bit like they’ve been piling on as I got closer to full term, including:
More uninvited interactions with strangers — in elevators, on the subway, at the coop.
Less breath for climbing stairs, let alone the gym. At this point, walking from my door to the door of the gym is all the exercise I can handle.
More waking up at dawn to feed the ravenous, insatiable creature that is [in] my belly.
More crying triggered by sudden, terrifying realizations, like that I don’t know how to change a diaper.
Less attention, time, money, and brain power available for anything besides Planning for Squee.
Once I blew by the milestone of Full Term (i.e., MORE THAN nine months pregnant), the pace of the piling on began to accelerate. One of my ankles decided to swell. Just one — but it had been my favorite! For a day or two, I looked like a pirate with a peg leg.
The swelling went down, and then the waddling started. For every step I take forward, I also move side-to-side, calling to mind a very poor imitation of Marilyn Monroe. (“Like Jell-O on springs!”) My boss, fondly, started calling me “Fatso.” It was definitely time to (maternity) leave.
Today, on my second day of baby-free maternity leave, I got my hair chopped off. (“Jo, your one beauty!”) Once I waddled all the way home, I realized I’d been wearing my dress backwards. Then I hoisted myself off the couch and had my third breakfast of the morning. This is just the way of things: the way pre-motherhood breaks you down, like the Marine Corps, so that you can be built back up again without your old, no-longer-useful standards of dignity. After all, soon you’ll be handling someone else’s poop on a daily basis; you have to get used to a certain amount of humiliation.
Squee, aren’t you eager to join the non-stop embarrassing hilarity that is the outside world? How can my womb compare? Come join the party, little one. We’re all waiting for you.
But time is creeping up on me. I’m 8-and-a-half months along now; I look like a beach ball with limbs and feel like I’m lugging a five-and-a-half pound octopus around with me everywhere I go. Squee is a very active presence who seems to have way more feet than is possible. Especially when I’m lying down, it can feel like a toy store has exploded in my midsection — something’s vibrating, something’s whooshing side to side, something’s jutting out in a repetitive fashion, all at once. If this child, when it emerges, is as inexhaustible as it seems, there’s going to be trouble.
The problem with following Jewish superstitions about not having showers or setting up a nursery before there is a real live infant on the scene is that it can leave you feeling a bit out of control. (Or, as someone astutely put it, “So … Jews believe in being unprepared?” For babies, yes. For medical school, no.) To help remedy the situation, a friend suggested that I start putting together a baby registry even if I’m not buying anything off of it yet. I could still do the research now rather than later, and, when ready, only need to press “Add to Cart.” It seemed like a great plan — and then it spun out quicker than a Geo in the rain. There are so many damn different kinds of everything, and it’s overwhelming to add one thing to the list and have Amazon immediately suggest three more.
After I closed the site and collected myself, it seemed like this might be a good time to ask the Internets for advice. Just, you know, general, helpful tips. If you have any experience with newborns, or with life on the other side of the threshold I am soon to cross, I’d appreciate your sharing some pearls of wisdom — ideally less of the “OMG Youll never sleep again!!1!” variety, and more like “I really wish I’d known [X].” Even if [X] is, for whatever reason, quantum physics.
When I was almost 7 months pregnant, and almost 3 months from D-Day, I was convinced that I looked like this:
I wasn’t too far off, either. I comforted myself with the knowledge that it could be worse, of course: I could look like Cookie Monster. Then I went to Vermont for my 2-week residency. The key to pregnancy self-esteem, it turns out, is:
1) wear maternity clothes from Brooklyn outside of Brooklyn (the other fellows exclaimed over my dresses, none of which would get a second glance in Park Slope);
2) be the only pregnant lady in the immediate vicinity, which guarantees you affectionate attention; and
3) live in an artificial, artsy, heady world totally lacking in full-length mirrors.
Returning to the real world took some adjusting, of course, but it was good practice for the summer’s real challenge: attending, at 8 months pregnant, my brother’s wedding to a bona fide Santa Barbara princess at her parents’ ranch. I knew she would look gorgeous, and she did.
My brother was no slouch either in his custom-made three piece suit — he looked, as I told him, like a young Roger Sterling. The setting itself was as lush, flowering, spacious, warm, and sunny as anyone could have wished. The female guests, not to be outdone by the wedding party or location, tottered around in blow outs, tiny, brightly-colored cocktail dresses, and heels that were almost as high as their hemlines. The one pair of fancy sandals I attempted to compliment turned out to be Miu Miu; after that, I realized I was unqualified even to express admiration.
Were all the girls blond, or did it just seem that way? Regardless, altogether it was the best-looking wedding I’ve ever attended. And there I was, the groom’s short, curly-haired, boob-splosion of a sister in platforms from Aerosoles and haute couture from Madison Rose maternity that may well have cost less than my corsage, and a belly that looked like it contained a Thanksgiving turkey. In a way, it was a gift. How can you be expected to compete with a bunch of tanned, skinny Real Housewife-types when there’s a second, almost-full-term human being inside you? I probably got more sorta-compliments (“You’re carrying so well!”) than those glamazons got actual compliments.
Now I’m back and heading into the home stretch. Wedding accomplished! I made it across the country and back again, lugging around a 4.5 pound, very energetic octopus of some kind, and I even managed to dance. (The band was incredible and also, duh, attractive. Total hipster chic.) In two days, I turn 30 — THIRTY — and after that, in mere weeks, I unceremoniously expel Squee from her comfortable, portable bio-dome and become a parent. What should I be doing with my last precious minutes of youth and freedom?
At lunch with coworkers today, I asked the waitress for a refill of my Diet Coke. “We don’t really do that,” she said, hesitating, so I assured her, “It’s not for me. It’s for the baby.” She laughed and said, “OK!”
Apparently last night, I was snoring and farting in my sleep, because pregnancy is beautiful. Much more of this, and I wouldn’t blame Mr. Ben for deciding that maybe we’ve been doing too much co-sleeping and we should move from Attachment Relationship-ing to an arrangement that has me in another room in a crib. [EDITOR’S NOTE: This is parenting humor. If you don’t get it, you should reward yourself with another vodka shot and one night stand.] I mean, I’ve never snored before, and “it was so loud in my dream that it was a dog,” he reported. “Then I woke up and found it was you.”
The baby totally owed me for that, so helping me get that Diet Coke was the least Squee could do.
No, I shouldn’t complain: it was great that I could go at all & take Squee — she’ll never be so easy to transport again; in fact, I am her very first mobile home! I had a fantastic time filled with sunny gem-colored days, waterfalls, mountains, swimming holes, ping pong, pool, karaoke, three meals a day served to me in the company of friends, Adirondack chairs, old barns, even older cemeteries, horror movie showings, books, cable TV, freshly baked bread, and massages that cost $45 for an hour. Communing with animals helped me get in touch with my maternal side!
There were a couple of days in the midst of the heatwave when the humid airlessness of my studio, which was utterly unprepared for temperatures over 75 degrees, made it difficult to write. Still, I got to page 60 of my nascent novel. Plus research, plotting, charting, reading & thinking! Yeah accomplishment.
I also felt so social — thanks very little to my own extroversion and more to the set up of the fellowship. A whole slew of residents arrived in unison, a mix of young, old, poets, fiction-writers, visual artists, students, teachers, and guest lecturers, to live and eat and play together on a campus well-integrated into a picturesque little northern Vermont town. Almost immediately, I was lucky enough to fall into a cadre of talented, smart, incredibly goodand beautifulgirls, with whom a run to the supermarket became as entertaining as a road trip.
And I got to bond with some impressive writers & artists of various ages, including the funny, kind Matthew Guenette, with whom I did work study in the kitchens, an experience that bonds participants together much like service in ‘Nam; high priestess of Tarot, calm, and good-humor Lynne Thompson; knife-making Mountain Man with a heart of gold Nick Anger; pop culture feminist professor-poet extraordinaire Simone Muench; and others.
Caitlin Doyle’s creepy masterpiece about adolescence “Thirteen” stuck with me for days. (Apparently it also pleased the editors of Best New Poets 2009.) And I’m still in awe of Nomi Stone, who has managed to publish poetry while amassing Fulbrights, advanced degrees, and experiences living around the world. As I discovered this fall during my residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, it’s invigorating to be around so much skill & energy.
Leaving was hard, and I would like to go back if at all possible please. Not for me — for the baby.