It’s an incredible thing, really; that moment when you become a mother. I would say, in fact–with total confidence– that in my incredible life, it is the most incredible moment I’ve yet lived. I don’t care if I sound like an asshole, either. If your life doesn’t feel incredible you better do something about that immediately. And I’m not saying that you have to have a baby, that’s not what I mean at all. But I am absolutely recommending that you do the hardest thing you can imagine. Because you will feel like a fucking champion when you do it. There are lots of ways to give birth. Starting a business is giving birth. Writing a book is a birth. Opening a store is giving birth. Running a marathon is a birth. Speaking your truth to someone who hasn’t heard it before is a birth. But choose the thing that seems impossible and blow your own mind when it isn’t. Start small and start now.
Ok, I’m back. I can’t even call that a tangent, because birth is on an existential level so gnarly that I was on a tangent before I even got to this point. The point is: birth is sickAF on so many levels but that MOMENT. That ONE MOMENT is the thing that trips me out the most. On one side you are you, and on the other you have MULTIPLIED. On one side of the moment you are a screaming wildebeest breaking all the blood-vessels in her face, and on the other you are a 12 time Olympic gold medalist. On one side of it you are one, and on the other side you are two: mother and child. Two unique worlds, forever after.
When my doula finally decided it was time for me to leave the sanctity of my home to give birth under the watchful eyes of medical professionals, I had been in labor for about 12 hours. With only a few synapses left to rub together, I left my house wearing house slippers, a very unapproachable sweater and the only stretchy gray garment that still fit. I rode to the hospital on my hands and knees in the back seat of my car, moaning and lowing, but all-in-all it could have been several thousand times worse. The prayers I spoke must have been heard because nothing less than divine intervention shepherded me the 4 miles and change to the hospital with just two contractions. Whatever spirit guides were in attendance on that ride, I thank you deeply.
I landed on the back doorstep of the hospital (I’m not trying to get political but isn’t it fucked up that that’s where the labor and delivery entrance is? Like, hide them where we don’t have to hear them!) at 8:45 and GODS BE PRAISED was inside the doors being strapped in to their monitors by 9pm. Things that struck me on the trip from my car to the admitting room: I realize that there are literally oh-shit handles lining the length of every wall. There is never a need for me to reach a corner, I can just hold on to these. Second, I am by far the loudest person on this floor, even though ostensibly every one is in labor. Oh well.
They gave me a hospital bed while they admitted me and strapped me in to the fourth non-stress test I had taken in 10 days. I was 9.5 centimeters dilated (that means the opening of my cervix had changed from roughly a pinprick on most days to the size of a lemon. So cool.) and it was “time to push.” Before they rolled me out of the room I asked if I could go to the bathroom. When I did, the force of a contraction shot something out of my body at mach speed and I screamed because I thought I had just given birth in the toilet. WHAT WAS THAT!? I screamed to the nurses and my doula. But not to fear, they said. Apparently I hadn’t shit out my baby; it was just the “bag of waters” being expelled and another one of those aforementioned “good signs” that birth was imminent.
I didn’t have long to suffer in the admitting room. Only moments later, on my hands and knees in full-on labor, strapped into the non-stress test monitors and bellowing like an animal, I was rolled down the hall on a gurney to my suite in the beautiful, spacious, magnificent birthing center, complete with is instagram-able hot tub, its private shower, its refrigerator and its resplendent full-size bed. Even in the midst of my labor-induced stupidity I was able to grok the glory of such a bounty. I had done everything in my human power to avoid losing the privilege of this room, and I was ready to stand in the shower for several hours if need be. Or soak in the gorgeous big tub until my child swam up for his or her or their (because we are millennials and cool with whatever) first earthly breath. But what happened was this:
There was a flurry of concern between my nurses. The non-stress test was registering some distress. The baby’s activity was very low and the nurses recommended an IV of fluids straight away. I will tell you without shame that up until this moment my entire thrust in creating a birth plan (loose though it was) was to avoid IVs. I hate intravenous needles. They even make me uncomfortable on TV or in movies. But by the time I reached the birthing room I was so ready to get this shit over with, and so totally without calories, I would have let them give me intravenous glitter, nacho cheese, or gasoline. I agreed without hesitation.
Thereafter the “Dance of the Million Positions” began. In labor, almost nothing is comfortable, nothing feels “good” and nothing seems to be “working.” At least it didn’t for me. Keep in mind that I had no fucking idea what I was doing, everywhere I went the IV had to come too, and my last meal had been almost twelve hours ago. I was definitely getting hangry. I realized that nothing I had read or heard was conducive to meeting the demands of hard labor and that was annoying. Everything I did felt ineffective and haphazard. It was like I had to escape from a dark, unfamiliar room… while wearing a fat suit…with people shooting at me….while pulling along a skinny metal pole strung with bags of fluids that were connected to my body with needles.
I was tired and frustrated. How could I be experiencing this total lack of body awareness? Hadn’t I heard repeatedly (this is another reason why anecdotal evidence can be a problem) from several insistent mamas that since i “do yoga” I would “know what to do”?! Well that was definitely not what went down. I didn’t know when to push or where to push, I didn’t know how to push or what it felt like when I was doing it right. The least-favorite midwife kept telling me that everything I did was a “good job” and that got old really fucking fast because I wondered, if everything I’m doing is such a good job, then where’s the baby?
I pushed on the birthing ball. I pushed on the little squatty chair. I pushed with my legs in the air and leaning against my husband and leaning on the bed and finally in the tub which lasted all of two contractions before I screamed, “HOW IS OVERPOPULATION SERIOUSLY A PROBLEM?!?!?!?” and went back to the bed.
I pushed for four hours that way, confused and awkwardly stumbling over the IV—which really took the romance out of those black and white birth photos I imagined we might take. In fact, we have none, my only regret. I did remember at a certain point that I had made an iTunes playlist and asked that it be put on (I think what I said was, “ISN’T THERE SOMETHING TO LISTEN TO BESIDES ME?!”) and I tried to suck some almond butter out of a little packet but it made me wretch. If you learn anything from this at all, let it be to EAT WHILE YOU HAVE AN APPETITE. It’s ridiculous to try and meet the physical demand of labor on one fucking sandwich. Do not make that mistake.
Eventually I began to lose hope. I was exhausted. The pain was arresting and constant. I had no idea what I was doing and I could feel myself, regardless of the IV fluids, running out of steam. I asked if I could go to the bathroom alone and they let me. I wheeled the IV in behind me, and sat down. I felt the incredible pressure and physical presence of another person’s head crushing my pelvis, and in all likelihood probably wrecking a perfectly good vagina, and leveled with myself.
Ok, I thought. You’ve been a real trooper up to this point. You said you were going to do it without drugs and you’ve really done it. You’ve put up a great fight.
But this is stupid, my brain told me. You’re going to actually die. You’re so hungry and so tired and nothing is working, the shitty (but accurate) inner-critic said.
Here’s what we’re going to do, said the logical part of my brain, the part that has a college degree: We’re gonna go back out there and ask for something that will put you to sleep. You’re gonna sleep until the morning, and then eat something and try to get the baby out after you’ve had some rest.
Good idea, I thought. Let’s go with that.
I returned to the nurses and the least-favorite midwife (who was still just being so goddamn nice I couldn’t stand it), faced my husband and my doula, who were taking a well-deserved break on the bed, and said: “Ok. What are my options?”
All of them stared at me blankly for a few moments. Finally the charge nurse Deirdre looked at my doula, who looked at my midwife, who looked at me with her irritatingly kind doe-y Disney eyes and said, “This is the only option. You have to get the baby out.” It was the end-game. There were no drugs I could take at this point besides the nitrous oxide and honestly I don’t know what that was doing except giving me something to do with my hands between contractions.
Realizing the immensity of the task at hand and the diminishing capacity not only of my corporeal self but also my cognitive self, I called a huddle. I got real with the midwife: You keep telling me I’m doing a good job, right? Well, stop doing that. I need to know exactly what is a good job, and when I’m doing it so I can repeat it again. I need more information. She agreed. I asked the charge nurse to get the mirror back (they had been using one to try and show me the progression of the baby’s head down the birth canal but I hadn’t really been able to see it. Now I knew if I didn’t have a visual, I would surely give up.) They wheeled it to the end of the bed. KB, Kass, I said, you two hold my thighs. And HOLD THEM HARD. I laid on my back and got my GAME FACE on.
The midwife started giving real-time instructions. “At the height of the contraction, hold your breath and bear DOWN. Wait for it to get most intense. Good!” I started to get what she was saying. At the top of the wave of pain, I gritted my teeth, held my breath and pushed out, not through the hole you would imagine, but the other one. This seemed to be more effective. Now I could see the crown of the head! “Wait for the contraction! Don’t waste it! And PUSH!” She yelled up to me, laying on my back with my legs in the air, like every hippie book had told me not to, pushing so hard I had to collapse back into the pillows each time. “Three pushes, now!” she said, finally producing something besides an effete “good job!” I pushed hard on the first, as hard as I could on the second, and honestly was so exhausted by the third push that I just made a face so it looked like I was doing something.
You see, what I hadn’t been told before was that the height of a contraction is when the muscles of the uterus are working their hardest to push the baby down the birth canal. When you’re in incredible pain already, it’s hard to distill out of the chaos at which the moment the pain is at its greatest, but the difference in utility between just pushing randomly and “using the contraction” is tremendous. I could feel the baby moving, and even better, I could see the hair on top of its head! Things were progressing, I took heart. There was hope. But the reality of the situation was stark. It was almost 1am. Twelve hours since that roast beef sandwich, and 18 hours since labor began. There wasn’t much left in the tank and I knew it.
KB says that in the next few minutes, he saw a change come over me. “I don’t know what you did,” he remembers, “But you went somewhere else. You pulled up something deep.” I began pushing as if my life did actually depend on it. Like there was a gun to my head. Harder and harder. Then the midwife told me the pain was about to intensify and change, because I was about to get the baby’s head out. I took a huge breath at the beginning of the next contraction, held it, and pushed down and out so hard that I thought I would pass out. With all my strength I pushed, first at 100% of my power, then weakly at about 20%, and then once more pretty much just for show. I screamed and pressed against Kassandra and KB. I fell back hard and delirious into the pillows after each contraction. I thought several times with absolute certainty that I might die. And then it started to get really scary. The monitors said the baby’s heart rate was falling. Suddenly the least favorite midwife went into beast mode. I saw a totally new side of her, a really fucking bad-ass side of her; she manipulated her hand around the baby’s head, move the flesh of my body aside and reached in for the neck and shoulders. She began to pull as I pushed.
Finally, with one last searing, indescribable (I’m sorry, I wish I could do it for you) sensation, the head was free! What a fucking relief! I collapsed into the pillows for what I hoped was the last time. But have you noticed the theme with labor and then parenting and really all adulting? THERE IS NO REST. “Ok, good work!” the midwife said, “now let’s get the shoulders out!” I was pushing through absolute exhaustion. I pushed not only during the contractions but straight through them. I burst every blood vessel in my face. I was losing consciousness, I dropped my head to look at KB on my left. He was white as a sheet. I heard the midwife shouting instructions and I followed them. I pooled every last calorie, summoned my final effort and pressed my thighs into four sets of hands, fixed my every thought on the release of this being from my womb, and then….Yes. That was it. I felt something warm and bony slide out of my body. And with that enormous physical and emotional release came a wash of pride and relief so embracing, so complete, that I didn’t even realize that I was shaking, or that the baby wasn’t in my arms, or that the fervor in the room was escalating around me significantly.
Like catching a fish, suddenly a hot, wet little creature landed with a wet slap on my chest. It lifted its head and looked me dead in the eyes and then just as quickly something like 45 nurses swept it away. I was vaguely aware of the midwife furiously working with gauze and suppositories to “stop the bleeding” and I registered that several nurses were carrying away large plastic sheets bowing in the middle from the weight of, wait….was that BLOOD? Is that MY blood? I was cold, confused, and King Boo was no longer at my side. I saw him standing shirtless next to the mobile incubator on the other side of the room, his hands on his hips, looking pale and concerned.
Who is it? I called over to him. Because we has kept the sex of our baby a surprise. What kind of baby!? I yelled again. Was I speaking? Was anyone listening to me? The room was insane with activity.
WHO IS IT? I called, as loudly as I could.
“It’s Marshall!” The name we had chosen if we had a son, and then “he’s ok!” And with that the needle that had been skipping wildly across the record settled into a groove. I heard, with massive relief, the sound of my son’s voice, protesting the gloved hands that were adjusting him on the scale, I heard his ragged cries over the steady instructions of my midwife, who was still working tirelessly to help me pass the placenta and stabilize my bleeding. Holy shit. I have a son. In an instant, my entire self-concept reformatted. It may sound corny, but it was the realization of my greatest dream. I felt so whole, so cold, and so proud. It was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I had ever done. I felt like a superhero.
Because I was so out of it, KB took Marshall and did skin-to-skin contact. The baby passed all his baby tests, was given the go-ahead to room-in with us for the night, and Deirdre, the charge nurse, handed him to us and described him as the “cleanest baby” she had ever seen. The room however, was a bloodbath. But what did I know? I had never given birth before. I was alive, my baby was alive, and I assumed that what had happened was within the normal margins.
Apparently it was not.
I learned later that, after I delivered his head, Marshall’s shoulder had gotten caught on the hooked bones of my pelvis. A shoulder dystocia, they said. Caught between two worlds, not quite free of the womb but unable to breathe in his new atmosphere, his heart rate dropped precipitously. I remember feeling an effusion of liquid when he was finally freed, which was in fact the beginning of a massive hemorrhage (hence the bone-deep cold that lasted for the next two days). We were both in danger at that point. The charge nurse called a “code,” which brought every nurse on the floor into our room. It was, in KB’s words, “like a crime scene” and when I asked later if he took any pictures of our son’s birth he responded “no. No one wants to see that.” I learned, because someone used a large, graduated hospital water jug to show me, that I lost just short of 2 and a half pints of blood, nearly enough to require a transfusion, but not enough to die, which of course I had to ask. Regardless, it was pretty hardcore.
The next two days, while I was too weak to even go to the bathroom by myself (they made me call a nurse every time. It was ridiculous) KB and I vacillated between sleep and open-mouthed awe at the living human being we had created out of our love. We professed repeatedly how perfectly cooked he was, marked the equal preciousness of his two speeds (eyes open, or eyes closed) and marveled at his little heels, so round, having never once touched the earth. As a gag gift, King Boo had gotten a trophy made for me, dedicated to “Queen Boo, Mother of All.” But delivered it with utter seriousness, saying “I didn’t realize how much you were going to actually earn this.” But it was the most appropriate gift, because it felt equal to the accomplishment. All mothers should be given trophies after birth. Heavy, super awesome ones. Frankly, I felt like an Olympian. A fucking Goddess. In the moment I became a mother, I conquered so many stupid lingering doubts I had harbored about my worth, my strength. In delivering my son (through the door he had come in, and without drugs, mind you) I had faced —partially because of personal values but equally out of sick curiosity—what people had described as “the worst pain ever,” and survived. I knew myself better than I had before, and I knew what I was capable of.
My lifelong need to mother those around me, the constant and defining impulse to care for everyone in my reach, now had a focus. My moment to truly shine, to fulfill my purpose had arrived. I was born a mother. It was apparent to everyone close to me. It guided every job I had. I expressed it in every relationship (sometimes to a fault). I had spent my life up to this point nurturing and guiding, (probably frustrating the shit out of my adult friends) and all that energy finally had an appropriate outlet. My need to mother was wholy and purely directed at my child, who satisfied my every appetite for showing love, confirmed an immense well of personal fortitude, and catapulted me into a joy without boundaries.
The night was long, composed of thousands of important moments, but there is one that is indelible. The moment he was free of my body the self I had been shed it’s fur, exited a chrysalis and became something coolAF. In one moment I was myself. And the next I was a mother. One moment I had a life all to myself, and the next: I was split into two selves, with two hearts. One heart swollen with pride and beating hard against my ribs with excitement and a refinement of purpose, and the other heart weighed 8 lbs and 3 oz, had my husband’s face, and lived on the outside of my body.
Welcome to your new life, I said to Marshall, and also to myself.