It used to blow my mind when my mom told me she “didn’t really remember” the pain of childbirth. It seemed to me like there were plenty of easy reminders at hand: huffing puffing ladies birthing on TV shows, or screaming and glistening in movies, or even the two pains-in-the-ass she gave birth to after me (the “easy baby,” obvi). But, no, she said, she forgot the rigors of birth almost instantly, and fell hard in love with her beautiful new bundles of debt/joy.
I now believe this failure of her memory was due to painkillers.
To be fair, childbirth is not a bloodbath the entire time. Parts of labor are almost calm, meditative, or—as my doula describes it—transcendent. There is stillness in the midst of the chaos, moments of clarity and complete sentences. But that river goes both ways. On the other side of transcendent is stupid-with-pain, and those moments happen too. You may find yourself at the nexus of the human condition, ecstatic with the gravity* and significance of it all… or you might find yourself on the hospital toilet, after pushing for the length of 2 and a half Disney movies, wondering whether someone can just stuff the baby back up there so you can eat something and start over in the morning. What I’m saying is: don’t be naive. This is not your Bat Mitzvah. This is not a fucking hot yoga class. This is a rite of literal passage.
Like so many nerds I thought I might read or imagine myself into preparedness, but that proved to be impossible. There just wasn’t time. The psychotic break known as “Nesting” was at a critical stage by the time I stopped teaching yoga, so instead of reading, I white-gloved my air ducts and furiously organized bathroom cabinets. I did glean some tips from the books that my doula gave me about breathing (deeply, for as long as you can through each contraction) and about the stages of labor (less terrible, very hard, fucking terrible, and absolutely unfuckingbelievable). I read Ina Gaskin’s book about the home-births at The Farm, which for a cult (if you capitalize Farm, it’s a cult, right?) sounded pretty nice overall. We were also required to take classes at the hospital in order to use the birthing center, and those were generally informative; my husband (KB) and I learned some very scary facts about pain management drugs, (which we ultimately opted out of). We learned quite a bit about when NOT to leave for the hospital (this must be a problem for hospitals, being overrun by partially ripe pregnant women). We toured our birthing center, complete with its Instagram-able hot-tub and full size bed. And of course, we learned how to swaddle.
But still, most of what I knew about birth was anecdotal, and most of what I had learned went soaring out of my brainpan as soon as the hard labor (the “fucking terrible” stage) started. So I guess what I’m saying is this: you might read something here that will come screaming back to you at the height of a contraction, but it’s equally likely you won’t. And I’m not going to waste your time telling you that this is how it will be, because it probably isn’t. The best I can offer is the story of how it was, for me. Because the wonderful thing about birth is this:
Though you will join the immense crew of badasses who, through the gates of their bodies, deliver every human being to this planet—your birth will be entirely unique, just like you, just like your baby. It is a defining act of surrender. And in performing it you become something humble, common, and impossibly heroic.
And you should remember that when you can’t find the milk vomit on your shirt but you can smell it so you know it’s there.
Like a frog being slowly boiled to death,* labor starts relatively innocuously. “Hmmm,” you might exclaim, as your skin begins to smoke, “this water feels a little warm.” It was in this way (that is to say, I was clueless) that labor started for me at 5am. It was still dark, and I couldn’t be sure if the minute splash I felt was even a thing, since I had spent the previous two weeks jumping to conclusions and calling my doula every time I had a gas pain. I was hardened now by these false alarms, and conditioned to think of all sensation as “a good sign.”
So my splash barely elicited a raised eyebrow. I didn’t bother to turn on the light, I didn’t wake up my husband, and I certainly did not allow myself to get excited. But there was no denying the very horrible-but-aptly named “bloody show” when I went to the bathroom. Oh, and if you are squeamish about mucus or blood—or mucus PLUS blood!— then I recommend you stick to raising houseplants and maybe click off in another direction. The internet has room for all of us.
And yet even after passing the MUCUS PLUG (this part is almost over, I promise) I was still skeptical. Why? Because my feelings were limited by my extreme pregnancy and distilled down to variations on: frustration ie: “I’m stuck in this ______,” helplessness or overwhelm, ie: “I’m crying about food” and discomfort, ie: “I have to pee.” I turned off the light in the bathroom and went back to sleep. But about an hour later there was another splash. And this time it was a big one. This time something was literally shifting; I felt the baby move down and out of my ribs for the first time in several months. On hands and knees I felt around in the bed to confirm that it was wet. I turned the bedroom light on, and briefly woke KB and had him confirm the wet spot. It was real. My heart began to swell now with feelings, but I had to be sure. I had to hear it from a professional.
So I sent pictures of the mucus horror in the toilet to my doula Kassandra who assured me that receiving toilet photography is part of her job description, but also, that this was it. This was the real deal. It was all happening.
I tried to lay back down but I was electric with excitement and beginning to feel real contractions. Besides, KB had school in three hours and needed to sleep so I went out to the living room to do the most natural primal thing that a laboring mother can do:
I watched so much HGTV.
Some hours later when King Boo woke up I was still only in occasional discomfort, every 8-15 minutes or so I would get a very intense stomach ache and then it would pass. We knew that this part of labor could last several days, and since KB had accidentally forgotten to go to school during our last false alarm, I insisted that he make it to classes and that I would be fine. I even asked him to stop on the way home for stamps!
And for most of the morning I really was fine. I enjoyed a relaxing breakfast. I quadruple-checked that every drawer and cabinet had been organized. I touched base with our families. I added flip flops to the hospital bag. Then, for the first time in almost a year, I drew a lovely hot bath, and added a rocket-ship shaped LUSH bath-bomb to a tub so scalding hot I almost felt delirious. Very hot baths, delightful as they are for adults, are apparently bad for babies, but I felt that since the eviction notice had already been served, I wouldn’t cause undo harm. And besides, at that point I was the kind of maniac who–just the day before–had taken a shot of castor oil with her orange juice. I set up the Full Term contraction-timing app and relaxed.
It was in the sparkling blue waters of my lovely hot bath (as I languorously texted my girlfriends that labor was “not that bad”) that things began to take a turn. What started out at a manageable degree and frequency was ramping up a bit. I found myself changing positions more frequently, and I was no longer feeling calm. In the course of this bath, the contractions went from an almost forgettable 7 minutes apart to 5, and the squeezing and binding sensation in my midsection was cause for deep breathing and focus. I was not relaxing so much as gripping the side of the tub. The water, figuratively speaking, was coming up to a simmer. I was now an uncomfortable frog in a very hot pot. But don’t all rush to remove your Mirena, now! There’s so much more!
It became clear that the previous several hours had been shots across my nose, and that now the real battle was beginning. It was time to bring all my troops to the front and replenish my reserves. (Maybe a war metaphor seems wrong, but maybe you’ve never had a baby, either.) I carefully exited the tub and went to the kitchen where I called KB and told him to forget about the stamps and come home right away. I ate a roast beef sandwich and tried to stay relaxed. I squeezed my eyes closed when the contractions reached their apex and leaned hard against my kitchen island. It was noon.
Because I was so many weeks overdue, I was required to visit the midwives office frequently for non-stress tests which measured my baby’s movement and the movement of my uterus. I was already scheduled for one of those at 3pm that day so when KB got home we decided we would keep our original appointment, have the non-stress test and then decide our next move. We knew the hospital would send us home if we weren’t far enough along, and the midwives could give us the same answers. Besides that, they were just a little bit closer to our house if we had to come back.
At 2ish I was growing impatient, so we left early. I was timing the contractions with my breathing in an attempt to manage the pain and keep myself sane. Inhale 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Exhale 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. The counting gave me something to focus on and the breath was critical in order to manage the pain. But the contractions were now only 4 minutes apart (which is not a very long time) and sometimes even less. WARNING: sometimes contractions just roll right into each other without a break, and those three minutes of peace you’re counting on don’t happen and you feel really, really cosmically shorted.
I was a frog in lava.
The car ride was misery. If you are in labor and driving in Chicago do not take Cicero Avenue for any reason. Every divot, every pothole (and there were several), every manhole cover had me gripping the oh-shit handles for dear life. Each time we hit a bump, I pulled down hard to lift my butt off the seat, as if hovering might oppose the fierce downward pressure exerted by my child’s head. It was one of many illogical things I thought that day. Maybe you’ll experience that, too. Let me know.
KB finally stopped the car and let me out to go park and I attempted to walk in to the office myself, but gave up at the doorway and gripped a fire-nozzle on the side of the building. We then attempted the rest of it together, but had to stop in place regularly to wait out a contraction. I avoided looking at people because I felt like a spectacle, that what I was experiencing was meant for the woods, or a thatch hut, or really anywhere besides a crowded elevator. When we finally reached the doors of the office I was ready for a trophy with my name on it or at the very least, my choice of the waiting room couches. But, ah, Universe, you hysterical ironic douchebag, you had other plans for me. As my eyes rattled in my head with pain and confusion they took in this scene:
The spacious waiting room, which KB and I had previously only ever shared with one other couple, was literally FULL. All 3 couches were completely occupied. There were strollers parked next to each of them so that even the armrests were off limits. There were living CHILDREN playing on the floor, and the only non-stress test (and with it the wonderful lazy boy) was in use, by Lisa, an actual friend of mine whom I could not yell at. As casually as one who is afraid they will fart and shit their pants, I leaned on the farthest table making low guttural sounds, and tried not to look directly at any of the pregnant women or children, whose eyes I imagined widening in fear.
I had to take 3 breaks in the twenty-yard hallway before I made it into the office when our name was finally called. And it was just my luck that the midwife on call that day was my least favorite midwife in the entire practice. She was my least favorite because she was just so INTERMINABLY NICE and I am from the east coast (especially when I am uncomfortable) and I prefer people with serrated edges. She would turn out to be the hero in due time but at that moment I wanted her to stop smiling so fucking much and tell me that my baby was ready to come out. She checked my cervix and announced that I was only 3.5 centimeters. Not ready. SO close, but not ready.
What do you recommend, I asked, while loudly thinking FUUUUUUUUCKKKKKKKKK MEEEEEEEE.
This could take several hours, the least-favorite midwife explained. And the hospital won’t admit you at less than 4 centimeters. You can wait here or you can go home.
I wanted to exit my skin. I was a frog who was rethinking the whole decision to get into this pot. This was unbearable. How long could a person go on feeling this way?! Through gritted teeth, squeezing his hand like I wanted to detach it, KB and I talked it over, and decided if this was going to take a long time, I would rather not roam the main streets of Oak Park moaning and gripping the corners of buildings.
So, even more slowly and painfully than we had arrived, we left. As we rounded the marble stairwell to make for the front door, I was struck with a contraction so violent that I had to stop and grab on to the railings. At that moment a lady in the lobby wandered over and asked if I was in labor. ARE YOU BLIND OR STUPID YOU FUCKING YUTZ? I thought. Yes, said KB, not offering more in the way of conversation.
“Oh wow!” She continued, “Are you in pain?” I nodded, and imagined shoveling the potting soil from this nearby planter into her mouth.
“My sister has two kids.” She said. I closed my eyes and attempted to sublimate into the atmosphere. “Her labors were terrible. Especially the second one. Really bad.” I ignored her and looked into my husband’s face which signaled that he, too, wanted her to burst into flames. Should I stay with you? He asked. No, I said. Get the car. Hurry. And then under my breath, “If she’s still here by the time the next contraction starts, I might kill her.” I continued to breathe loudly as she offered me a bite of her sandwich and the details of her sister’s “terrible” labor. I hope she was mentally ill. I also hope there’s really no hell for Jews, because I’m definitely going if there is.
When we finally made it home (by way of a much gentler North/South thoroughfare) I was like a wild animal. I don’t actually remember much of this part, to be honest, because I was an extraterrestrial willing myself back to space. My doula Kassandra arrived at about 6pm to facilitate and support—though truthfully KB was on point the whole time. (Early on in my pregnancy, based on the stories of my mother’s labors, I was concerned that I would hate him during this process and so enlisted my doula friend; but really he was extraordinary.)The two of them suggested different laboring positions and I, sweaty and and stupid with pain, bellowed like a wildebeest and attempted to follow instructions.
In the end I did most of the hard laboring on the toilet, because the position is well-designed to expel things from your body. I remember thinking about the very trippy fact that each contraction helps the baby make a quarter-turn down through the birth canal, (isn’t it heady that babes “spiral out”?) and that visualization motivated me not to freak out that it was taking so long. In all likelihood it was probably an hour. But by that time I was a frog without its skin, moving toward the light. I wrapped my arms around Kass and KB and squeezed the living-fucking-daylights out of them as I worked through sensations that obliterated conscious thought and all my previous understanding of my body. It was both the most real and unreal thing I’ve ever done.
SEE YOU ALL TOMORROW FOR THE THRILLING CONCLUSION!!!
- “Ecstatic with gravity/We lay ourselves on everything” Rainer Maria Rilke
- Al Gore’s “frog boiling” metaphor for climate change in an inconvenient truth. Not mine.