When I was little, I loved listening to my mother tell the story of how I was born. My two sisters and I would each beg to hear how she had gone into labor, where Daddy was at the time, and how long it took. And of course I paid the most attention to the details of my mother's labor and delivery with me. The fourth of five children, I took a mere 30 minutes. No time for drugs, no time to think or to be scared. I just appeared. I grew up thinking I was special because of this.
My mother was a pro by the time I came around. Her water broke in the kitchen and Daddy pulled the car around. On her way out the door, she grabbed a sleeve of Saltine crackers from the pantry to quell the nausea.
Her contractions felt constant, she said -- no break between them. She was relieved the hospital was close by. My father pulled up to the covered entrance, jumped out and grabbed a wheelchair for my mother. He burst through the double doors of the maternity ward and saw the nurses at their station, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes (it was, after all, 1970).
"Hit it, girls!" he announced dramatically, as he was wont to do. They whisked my mother off to the delivery room where fathers were simply not allowed.
He went outside to park the car, and when he returned, a nurse was waiting for him, smiling. "You have a baby girl," she told him. Boom. Done.
That's the birth story I carried with me through the years and visualized during my first pregnancy, nevermind that the birth stories of my siblings involved hours of labor and episiotomies and enemas and the shaving of areas I did not ever want shaved, especially by a stranger. I blocked those details out of my mind. I wanted to be gracefully draped during my labor and delivery. I had visions of walking the halls contentedly to speed labor along, perhaps getting in a whirlpool bath for its soothing effects. My husband rubbing my back and offering words of encouragement. I would have no drugs, no unnecessary interventions. I would breeze through labor like my mother had. Why are you laughing?
I lived in a remote area on the coast of Alaska, accessible only by plane or a 6-hour ferry ride. The hospital had three doctors on staff, but no anesthesiologist. If you wanted drugs during labor, you flew to Anchorage. The only delivery possible in our little hospital was a natural one. There was risk involved. And there was no way out.
My water broke late at night. And when I say broke, I mean there came a gusher -- like someone turned on a faucet in our king-sized bed. Fluid rushed out of me and I had this sensation: "I'm peeing and I can't stop." Which, to be honest, wouldn't have been so far out of the ordinary for me during my pregnancy. Or since, come to think of it.
We headed in to the hospital. I still felt good. I was not in pain. Not scared. But as soon as we hit that delivery room, everything changed. They laid me down and stuck fingers inside of me and attached wires and tubes and drew blood and then I realized I am not in control here. And about that time, the games began.
Each contraction was a wave that I was lifted up and over, waiting for the crest of pain to come crashing down on me. We began using the Lamaze breathing techniques we had learned. We had four patterns. After the first 20 minutes, we had sped through the first three.
"It's not working!" I screamed to my husband. After every contraction -- that seemed to last forever -- I would immediately begin retching. There was nothing in my stomach, but I heaved and heaved. There was calming music playing on the portable stereo we had brought, the lights were dim, but I was anything but relaxed. I did not want to get up and walk around as I had envisioned. I didn't even want to walk to the bathroom. I wanted to curl up and die, like a wounded animal.
Out of desperation, we turned to our last breathing pattern: the graduated pant-blow. It was the most complicated and our least favorite 0=-- we had practiced it very little because we didn't think we'd use it. It involved counting to 4, first forward and then backward. Sounds simple enough, right? It wasn't. My husband held up his fingers in my face and counted, 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4 and back down again. I breathed accordingly: pant-blow, pant-blow-blow. You can see how that would force you to concentrate and focus on something else besides the fact that a person the size of a watermelon was trying to come out of an opening in your body the size of a lemon.
In Lamaze class, they told the husbands, "Whatever your wife is at her worst, that's what you should expect during labor." Naturally, my husband expected an ill-tempered woman who cursed like a sailor. Not the case. I was the opposite. I became withdrawn. Quiet. Alone in my pain. He was scared shitless. I was overwhelmed with the thought that there was no escape. This bun in the oven? It was coming out and I was panicked because the pain was getting worse, intensifying with every hour. I kept wondering, "How bad is this going to get?"
I felt betrayed by every mother I knew. Why had they not described this hell? They had only said, "You forget the pain as soon as you have that baby in your arms."
But I would never forget this pain. Ever.
The only thing that brought me comfort was this thought: "I never have to do this again." I chanted this mantra to my husband. Announced it to the nurses who breezed in and out. And whispered it to the doctor. "I never have to do this again."
Gripping tightly to things helped. I had the bars of the bed in one hand and my husband's hand in the other. Once I grabbed the collar of his shirt and twisted, tighter and tighter -- to match the contraction -- until my knuckles were wrapped up in the fabric and made contact with his throat and I still didn't let go. He coughed, but didn't even try to pry my fingers loose. We looked into each other's eyes. "I never have to do this again," I promised.
At some point, I looked up and in the doorway saw a man, holding a dust mop, watching me leaned over against the bed, my ass in the air, trying to find a more comfortable position. I didn't even care. My husband pulled the folds of my gown up in an effort at modesty. Those visions of being gracefully draped? They were gone.
After 12 hours, I was told I could push. "All right! We're almost done!" I thought. Only we weren't. When the doctor told me she could see the baby's head after two hours of me pushing, I didn't believe her. "You're lying," I spat. In that moment I gave up hoping there would ever be an end.
And then my crotch was enveloped in fire, followed by numbness, and out came a baby. A 9 pound, 11 ounce boy. The biggest baby ever born in that hospital, according to the nurses. Not that there'd been that many -- it was Alaska, after all. But still.
I was shaking with fatigue and excitement, focused on the continued pain involved in delivering the placenta and then the doctor's needle and thread passing through me, repairing the damage. My husband held our baby, kissing him and me. "You did it!"
My mother -- who had been waiting outside the delivery room, furiously crocheting a baby blanket -- held him next. I looked at her and said, "That took a hell of a lot longer than 30 minutes." I was angry. She only smiled at her first grandchild, over the moon for this chunky redhead.
I'd been had. Fell for the fantasy in our culture that women have any control whatsoever with this whole business. You don't give birth. You are given a birth. It's why they call it labor -- because it's hard work. My mother knew this -- she had done it five different times. What I'd missed in the telling of my own birth story was that she had no control. It was something that happened to her. Unscripted. And isn't that what makes a life? From birth to death, it is the unexpected things thrown our way and how we manage to survive them that make us who we are.
By the way, it's true that you forget the pain. Nine months later, I decided we should have another one. That I would willingly do this shit again. Only the universe had even bigger plans. Because the next time? It was twins.