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The post that took a month to write because I cannot type with one hand

July 30, 2011

Fizz, whee! Pop! Shwooo!

In the early hours of the Fourth of July, I’m sitting in bed in my house, listening to the usual ritual sounds of the neighborhood, and accompanied by the least independent person in town on this Independence Day, a 48-hour-old girl who so far thinks that sucking six drops of milk every 30 minutes is an appropriate means of celebration.

Friday, July 1, I went out for lunch with a pregnant friend, where our young waiter generously suggested withholding the raw fish eggs from my salmon skin sushi. That night, intent on developing some musculature for a delivery I now felt would come after my July 9 due date, I went for a one-mile walk in the cool evening. I was still stuffed from lunch, so dinner wisely consisted of a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Twenty-four hours later, I’d be regretting my insubstantial nourishment.

My delivery anxiety insomnia led to falling asleep at 2 a.m. after watching the movie “In Bruges.” Three hours later, I awoke to a leak, the kind I so often got these days from a sneeze. I headed quickly into the bathroom, where the leak turned into a whoosh. My water, as they say, had broken. I stood in the hallway, paralyzed by indecision: Should I go tell My Young Man? Grab the bag for the hospital? Call the doctor? What comes first?

So much for laboring at home as the contractions slowly increased. Instead, we were on the way to the hospital, driven by a heroic friend who had offered to drive us, but ended up spending 7 hours coaching me through the first part of labor. Soon I was sitting at a desk in Labor and Delivery, being asked things like my work address, as if I had any concept of that at the moment. At the last second, I asked, “Oh! Could we get a room with a tub?” Of all the parts of the birth plan, I was most enthused by the idea of the tub. Forgetting, of course, that when your water breaks, baths have been thrown out with the bathwater.

In fact, having my water break threw most of the birth plan out with the bathwater. Suddenly, the cynic who had spent months saying that my birth plan would be, “Get us out of here alive,” was in tears as I watched my labor and delivery speeding out of my hands. Everything that I had read or heard about medicalization and interventions seemed to be coming true. With a risk of infection, a leisurely progression was no longer an option. My doctor, after some insistence on my part, gave me an hour to walk around the hospital and try to kick-start contractions before he started Pitocin.

Off we went: My Young Man in a wheelchair to save his strength, E and I walking, through the corridors of the fifth floor. As we walked, we mocked. Specifically, we mocked the artwork hanging in the halls. There, on display, were portraits of babies so kitsch, so inappropriate, that they were what Robert Mapplethorpe would have created were he trying to elbow in on Anne Geddes’ concession. Toddlers kissing on the lips? Check. Two elementary-aged boys shirtless, in overalls, staring directly at the viewer in an erotic take on Huck Finn? Uncomfortably check.

On our return, my contractions were thoroughly mild and irregular, and I was dilated less than a low-flow bottle nipple. Pitocin was the soup du jour.

“You’re really anxious,” said Perky Nurse.

Really? Is anxiety a unusual characteristic for first-time mothers in labor and delivery? Because it seems to me that anxiety is exactly the called-for response in such a situation. As Adam said to Eve, “I don’t know how big this thing’s gonna get.”

Along with the Pitocin, of course, came the fetal monitor, the IV, and assorted other bondage regalia that kept me within a two-foot radius of the bed. I didn’t know how lucky I was. The contractions started, and I had my own cheering squad as E rubbed my back and My Young Man looked on from the wheelchair, offering encouragement or holding my hand. By moving the IV stand about, I was able to sit on a rubber ball or get on my hands and knees to weather the contraction. They hurt, and I was psyched: I was doing this. I could do this.

Another, older, nurse was unimpressed. “You keep moving the fetal monitor and we can’t get the baby’s vitals,” Nurse Scoldy said.

Oh, I’m sorry. Am I doing this wrong? I had no idea I would be graded for my performance. How about if the people getting paid worry about the equipment and the person whose internal organs are being gripped by the hand of Lucifer focuses on staying alive?

Not only was I doing it wrong, but I wasn’t doing it fast enough. As the contractions became increasingly painful — funny thing, the way Pitocin works like contraction methamphetamine — nurses and doctor began the chant: “Epidural! Epidural!”

Now, I already knew I was probably going to have an epidural. While I had danced on the curb of natural childbirth for a few weeks, that plan vanished around Month 9 when E pointed out, “I don’t know, I figured, when I have a headache, I take an aspirin.”

At the thought of an epidural, I reacted in my normal, rational manner: I burst into tears. This was too soon, wasn’t it? I’d seen the movie. I was headed straight to C-town.

Everyone had told me not to worry about the epidural, that having an enormous needle jabbed into my spinal cavity would come as a relief from the pain of contractions. I will never speak to everyone again. The epidural was terrifying, both in the sharp jab and the terror that I had to hold absolutely still during said jab. (Note to anesthesiologists, even sweet Irish ones: If you don’t want me to jerk my body about during the epidural, you might want to give a heads up as the needle is nearing terra firma.)

Also: The epidural didn’t really work. Sure, there was about an hour of sweet relief from agony, and then the creeping sensation that my left side was feeling every contraction once again. Only now, thanks to the epidural, I wasn’t allowed to do so much as sit upright or roll over. The next four hours were a cycle of the following:

Contraction pain
Increased medication
Minor relief
Dilation check
Concern that dilation had not progressed
Threats of C-section

Don’t rinse; repeat.

By 9:30 p.m., I’d been in labor for about 15 hours (only 12 with contractions), I was dilated to five centimeters, and my OB was officially Done With This Shit. Either I was going to spread ‘em or he was going to cut ‘em. When I didn’t spread ‘em, he took his hand, jabbed it inside, and manually dilated me another two centimeters. Sounds brutal? To me, it was cruel to be kind. Miraculously, as the C-section room was prepared (something a nurse later told me she did as a kind of superstitious hedge to give me the delivery I wanted), my cervix opened up and greeted the world with an open-mouthed smile. It was time to push.

Now, I’m not the kind of person with enormous confidence in my physical abilities. Maybe it began when the boys in third grade made fun of me for running with “chicken wings.” Maybe it is a result of my complete lack of interest in physical exertion. Either way, the last two months of pregnancy were consumed with the idea that I would be physically unable to push this baby out. I imagined a room full of medical practitioners shaking their heads in disgust and saying, “Forget it. We’ll do it.”

In fact, pushing was the most pleasurable, thrilling part of labor for me. I know plenty of women who have had C-sections, and they are to a person stronger and more determined than me. Their deliveries were heroic. But for me, getting through a vaginal delivery was rewriting the narrative I had constructed for myself as a wimp. With each push, I could hear my Czech nurse saying, “Yes! Another one just like that!” I felt like Abby Wambach head-butting a soccer ball. I was all-powerful, and I could get free drinks in any lesbian bar in the country. Or maybe I just had good kegel muscles.

Either way, 45 minutes of pushing felt like seconds, as I experienced the sensation of extreme challenge followed immediately by extraordinary relief, followed by a tiny little creature with a mop of black hair and dark eyes looking up at me as if I had something for her. Apparently, I did. But nowhere near as much as she had for me.

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