A few days after a positive pregnancy test, I stumble across a photo of the most horrifying baby shower cake. Some newly-expectant mother is about to encounter at her party, not the ubiquitous cupcake, but a frosted vagina. A Cabbage Patch doll's head emerges vacant-eyed from its jello-filled depths. It seems that Betty Crocker has hemorrhaged in the birth process -- a pool of strawberries spills from poppy seed-encrusted labia to the bottom of the cake pan.
I am aghast. Pity the first-time mother who sits down to a slice of such indiscretion! She's probably hungry enough to eat it, mind you, but the image will bury itself in her mind and resurface with her first urge to push.
If you are like me, your maiden voyage into motherhood was accompanied by lots of advice. People you don't even know approach you to congratulate you. It's lovely, but then suddenly, they're uncaging hairy, snarling words like "vaginal wall" and "third degree" -- words that most certainly should not be off-leash in the grocery store or bank. "It'll help you prepare mentally!" they smile, caressing your burgeoning bump.
It won't. It really won't. Like the vagina cake, this advice will only give you indigestion and nightmares.
"The week I announce to my work that I am pregnant, I discover that professional distance is a thing of the past. Vaginas, perineums, sex after childbirth -- everything is on the table now."
For me, it starts at work, right after I announce my pregnancy:
"You need to toughen up your nipples ahead of time. That's important," a voice suddenly advises me from across the office.
I look up from filing report cards and scramble for context. The school secretary is perched in her chair, bathed in fluorescent lighting and looking at me over her glasses. I blink and nod blankly.
She leans forward, gesturing in a way that makes me very uncomfortable. "You just start with a wet cloth in the shower -- clockwise over each nipple ten times, then the reverse. The next week you move on to a toothbrush." In my two months of employment at the local high school, she and I have only exchanged professional pleasantries. I'm disconcerted to abruptly find myself in a conversation about nipples.
She smiles encouragingly. "In a few weeks, you can graduate to a hairbrush."
The photocopier hums. It seems I should say something. "So... that does the trick, huh?"
"Oh yes. I did it re-lig-ous-ly and my nipples never cracked while breastfeeding either of my babies."
I find this revelation frankly disconcerting coming from a woman with whom I've heretofore only discussed the photocopy machine and lunchtime PA announcements. But the context is making sense now, at least.
"Well, thank you," I say, swallowing. "I'll definitely keep that in mind."
The week I announce to my work that I am pregnant, I discover that professional distance is a thing of the past. Vaginas, perineums, sex after childbirth -- everything is on the table now. Teachers with whom I have never spoken come pouring out of the woodwork with a sudden desire to revisit and process their traumatic deliveries with me.
Women seek me out in the hallways to warn me of the travails of breastfeeding. ("My cousin actually lost her nipple," one woman confides when she catches me after class. "It was awful, just awful.") There simply exists no segue from discussing report cards to the vice principal's birth hemorrhage experience.
As desperately as I try to staunch the flow of words, more details keep on pouring out and pooling around my ankles. "You'll be fine, though," she calls cheerfully over her shoulder as she clicks back to her office.
The entire female staff is revitalized by my pregnancy revelation. At my desk, I type progress reports while secretaries exchange pregnancy horror stories. On lunch break, I chew my sandwich to frothy details of third-degree tears and near-death experiences. Eventually, everyone feels emotionally unburdened enough to conclude with a reassuring, "But you'll be fine!"
"Childbirth advice, I conclude, can do more harm than good ... Some things are better left unsaid."
I'll get a shoulder-squeeze, meaningful eye contact and then they're snapping lids onto Tupperware and trotting off to their next class, leaving me spattered with the metaphorical gore of their four-day labor.
As my belly grows, I soon realize that the stories and advice are not limited to my work. At the grocery store and the bank and the public bathrooms in Costco, all manner of strangers approach me to rub my belly and offer me advice. "Kegels", one man concludes cheerfully as he pays for his 12-pack of cheese-filled weiners. "Your husband will thank you!"
My labor is certainly not pain-free. After the first few real contractions, I abandon all technique and resort to silently chanting "oh shit."
But neither is it a horror story.
I don't scream at the midwife or go unconscious. My nipples don't fall off during those first few weeks of breastfeeding, and I don't pass orange-sized blood clots. Without a doubt, it's the hardest thing I've ever done, but I get a real live baby at the end.
I'd been so busy either dwelling on or blocking out horror stories that I'd neglected to connect the idea of pregnancy with producing an actual human being. I'm startled to suddenly find myself holding one. This was the part always missing from all those horrific birth stories -- that it's hard, it's really hard, but at the end of it all, there's a little person who needs me and loves me already.
A few months later, a friend finds out she's pregnant. "What's labor like?" she asks me, over the phone. "I want to know everything."
I don't go into the details -- the stitches and the crying and the exhaustion. Some things are better left unsaid. Instead, I describe the smell of fresh baby skin and the feeling of holding a new life in my arms.
"But do you have any advice? For labor?"
I reflect on nipples and hairbrushes, baby shower cakes and over-sharing secretaries. Childbirth advice, I conclude, can do more harm than good. Her birth experience will be hers alone and she will find herself more than capable of dealing with whatever difficulties arise.
"Don't eat the vagina cake," I say. "Have some ice cream instead. Maybe with a pickle on top."
Emily Casali is a mama, language-lover and doula living in the Pacific Northwest with her two little boys and soon-to-be-teacher husband. Her work has appeared on her mother's refrigerator and the insides of various bathroom stalls.