Every mother I know told me that my delivery would not go as I planned it; boy were they right. First of all, I did not anticipate going two full weeks past my due date. The waiting was torture, as was the extra pound my son put on in that time, even though I did put on that much weight overall. Babies gain rapidly at the end. My lower back was killing me, even rolling over in bed was a chore. Ten months of pregnancy is no joke, and I was beginning to despair that he would never come.
I tried everything in the homeopathic playbook to get him to come out so that I would not be chemically induced: I had my membranes swept, I went to acupuncture daily, used a moxibustion stick, drank some awful mugwort concoction from a Chinese practitioner on Canal Street, and consumed copious amounts of red raspberry leaf tea. I attempted the old wives’ tricks too: I sipped Guinness beer, champagne, ate spicy curries, and drove down bumpy Joralemon Street in our shock-exacerbating Smart Car.
Being overly-pregnant had become a full-time job, as I had to go in for testing at the hospital every few days to make sure my baby had enough amniotic fluid and that his heart rate was normal. Apparently my womb was too cozy a place, for the doctors told me that he was getting big but they wouldn’t induce me until 42 weeks.
I had planned for as natural a birth as possible at the Mt. Sinai West Birthing Center, but the cutoff for eligibility is 41 weeks and 6 days. On exactly the last day of that window I finally went into real labor. At 2:30 am the night before his birth my contractions began randomly but in earnest—sometimes 40 minutes apart, sometimes 20—but they were completely manageable for the whole next day. They were more intense than the Braxton-Hicks practice contractions, but they didn’t bother me much. I made my partner go in to work the next morning, and I relaxed and drank water and tidied up the house.
When my partner got home from work early that evening my contractions were about fifteen minutes apart, but they still weren’t painful. We took a long walk and I ate some scrambled eggs and toast at around 7:30pm. My contractions started to quicken to 7 minutes apart at 8:30 and I called the midwife. Neither one really believed that I was in active labor because I didn’t “sound” distressed enough. My wonderful doula, Ash, came over at 9:40, and just as she arrived my water broke. She confirmed that I was indeed in active labor and we called the midwife and the hospital to prepare the Birthing Center—it looked like I would just make the cutoff.
The rupture of the amniotic sack was such an odd sensation. I heard a pop and then felt a trickle of fluid. It was a painless event, but after my water broke my labor became increasingly painful. Each time I moved there was more fluid and my contractions went to three minutes apart. What followed was the worst Uber ride of my life—even though the driver was a saint and avoided every pothole and hard stop.
By the time I arrived at the hospital I was 9 cm dilated and almost ready to push. But there was a complication.
I was worried then but I tried to stay calm even though the nurses kept shouting “lots of mec” to each other like a chorus as we headed to the laboring room. Luckily, I suppose, the pain of transitional labor makes it really hard to think much about anything else so my focus turned inward. Curiously, after dallying for an extra two weeks, my son decided to come out like a freight train. My contractions were coming at about 40 seconds apart, and they didn’t let up that pace even when I was pushing. (Normally women get a reprieve during the pushing phase and get 3 minutes in between.)
It was hard to recover or even take a full breath in just 40 seconds, and I was given oxygen so I wouldn’t pass out. What was incredibly frustrating to me was that because of the meconium threat and a concern about shoulder dystocia I was forced to push lying flat on my back like a potato bug—no gravity or freedom of movement to help me. This was so that a doctor could catch the baby easily and immediately suction his mouth and nose, but it was a terribly difficult position in which to labor and I was miserable. I don’t really remember, but it seems I used my limited oxygen and downtime to shout that my position felt inorganic!
The pushing was by far the hardest part—and probably the most painful. I could feel my pelvis pulling apart to accommodate him, it was bizarre (and actually kind of fascinating in an out-of-body way). The whole endeavor was absolutely exhausting. I felt like I had nowhere to push from in that position, and Rhett turned out to be a big baby. He came out through whatever brute strength I could muster and sheer willpower. He emerged at 1:40 am at 9 lbs 3 oz and 22 ¼” long. The doctors worked like a NASCAR pit crew as soon as he emerged and he was perfectly fine. He scored a 9 on the Apgar test despite all the meconium. That nanosecond of waiting for his first cry felt like an eternity, however, and we were elated when it came!
Unfortunately, because of Rhett’s size and how I had to deliver I had some significant tearing and I had to be stitched up for nearly an hour afterward. I had only injected spot-treatment anesthesia because I didn’t have an epidural in. That, I can tell you, was painful. I just wanted to cuddle with my baby (at least I was allowed to nurse him during part of the procedure). I was also beyond famished. My legs were shaking, my hip flexors throbbed. After it was over I nursed Rhett in one arm and wolfed down two smoothies in succession with my free hand before they transferred us to a recovery room.
For days afterwards I was the most sore I have ever been in my entire life: especially my neck, back, thighs, hips, even my jaw. But I felt brave and accomplished. I felt like I handled the pain of childbirth fairly well, and I managed to get by on Motrin in the immediate aftermath. Yet I am amazed that childbirth is an everyday occurrence: that it simply happens all around the world all the time. Women do this every day. In all kinds of conditions. And many do it again and again.
It is a surreal, paradoxical experience: at once a great brush with mortality and a connection to the annals of humanity. It is intellectually challenging and also bestial. It is painful, yes, but it is wondrous. And it is only women’s work. I am so lucky to have experienced it.
During those last two weeks of waiting for Rhett, Ian McEwan’s novel Nutshell was released. It is a fabulous book—the kind that evokes the phrase tour de force from every reviewer until it seems trite, but then it actually delivers on that promise. It is the story of Hamlet told from the perspective of a fetus in utero. This premise is, of course, absurd and it is incredible that McEwan is able to pull it off at all. (Although Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, one of my all-time favorite novels, also begins with a fetus narrating the moment of his conception. Who knew such a literary coup could be accomplished twice?) Nutshell was a great distraction for me at the end of my pregnancy, and I keep returning to passages in it now. I’ll end with this fetal Hamlet’s monologue on pain, which I dedicate to women everywhere. Women who are experts on pain, who will hopefully find redemption, and poetry, in time.
I’ve heard it argued that long ago pain begat consciousness. To avoid serious damage a simple creature needs to evolve the whips and goads of a subjective loop, of a felt experience. Not just a red warning light in the head—who’s there to see it?—but a sting, an ache, a throb that hurts. Adversity forced awareness on us, and it works, it bites us when we go too near the fire, when we love too hard. Those felt sensations are the beginning of the invention of the self. And if that works, why not feeling disgust for shit, fearing the cliff edge and strangers, remembering insults and favours, liking sex and food? God said, Let there be pain. And there was poetry. Eventually.