Back when I was working the phones at a fancy restaurant in Manhattan, one of our servers became pregnant and was relegated to the back office with me and my team. Although the restaurant was very busy, we had lots of time to chat in that environment, and I remember asking her, as her due date drew nearer, if she was scared of giving birth. Her reply was “not really.” Of course, I was asking because I realized that when I imagined going though that process, I was terrified. And I hadn’t even considered that fact that tearing could be involved…
Fast-forward a couple of years to when I actually became pregnant. I’d done enough reading to know that there are often many interventions required to safely deliver a baby from its mother’s womb, and I was self-aware enough to know that I would have a hard time coping with any of them. To say I am a skittish patient would be a gross understatement. I have passed out in doctor’s offices at least a dozen times. I can’t even imagine an episiotomy without getting lightheaded.
So, I read some more books—this time ones focused on natural childbirth—with titles like Childbirth Without Fear, Hypnobirthing, and Orgasmic Birth (Hey, why not?) Ina May Gaskin became my patron saint. I switched from an ObGyn to a Midwife, took yoga for birth classes, and made my husband watch The Business of Being Born with me one Friday night. I realized/remembered that a woman’s body is actually designed to give birth—that childbirth is one of the most natural things we can do.
Now, whenever I imagined my birth scenario, I pictured myself as a character from The Red Tent, surrounded by the spirits of my female ancestors and all those mothers who’d gone before me, cloaked in the sisterhood of motherhood. I convinced myself that I had nothing to fear but fear itself and that pain is all in one’s mind. I moved forward through the rest of my pregnancy excited, but fearless. I looked forward to experiencing that rite of motherhood known as “labor”.
On a Thursday night, I started having intense contractions. I called the hospital and was instructed to call back when my contractions were so painful that I couldn’t talk or walk through them. Knowing, as I now did, that pain in childbirth was nothing more than patriarchal myth ingrained in women over the centuries to punish us for Eve’s transgressions in Paradise, I doubted that I would ever feel the level of discomfort my Midwife was speaking of (When I drink some Kool-Aid, I really drink it).
It was possible, too, that I was just really, really tough. But, I waited. I took several hot showers and paced most of the night. Eventually, I fell asleep. The next day around noon, my Midwife told us to come in—my contractions were deemed close enough together and we had to travel roughly thirty miles up 95 on a Friday afternoon in the middle of summer. In my hospital bag, I had my labor playlist on my laptop, my birth talismans which had been sent to me from my mother-friends all over the country, and a copy of my birth plan—the one that requested that I not even be offered an epidural.
Of course, you know how this will end. We were admitted and I was allowed to labor in the room for about ten more hours. I breathed, remained calm (the L&D staff declared my use of Hypnobirthing the first effective one they had witnessed) and waited. All systems seemed to be a go, but baby wouldn’t come out. My Midwife broke my water at midnight. I started to realize what the Midwife had meant when she talked about contractions that took my breath away. The low moans and exhalations I had uttered through the contractions slowly turned to long intonations of the “f” word. I’d done such good prep that I was actually surprised at how much it hurt. (Pain in childbirth a patriarchal construct, my butt). My husband turned out to be a better birth partner than I could have imagined—holding my hand and counting me through the peaks of the contractions as he watched them on the monitor, and putting on and throwing off the blanket around my shoulders as I alternated between chills and full-body sweats.
At 2:00 a.m., I was told I should have an epidural, because Pitocin was coming and I’d surely want to be numb once the Pitocin kicked in. At that point (twenty-six hours of natural labor), I felt pretty complete with the whole experience. I’d felt that I had truly experienced labor, my body at work doing its thing. Besides, I wanted to get my hands on that baby—bring on the Pitocin. The epidural was administered while my amazing nurse stroked my forehead (I was still terrified of the non-natural stuff and of long needles). Then my husband and I were instructed to get some sleep.
Fast-forward. We woke up. I pushed for a little bit. Nothing happened.
Because my water had been broken for a while and there were traces on meconium in it, the Midwife declared it was time to move on. She said we needed to do a c-section. She had my complete trust, but I was incredulous. I’d been training for this for months. Wasn’t there something else we could try? Could I at least have some time to think about it? “Sure,” she said. “I’ll be back in five minutes.”
I spent those five minutes in tears. I’d done all the work. I’d read all the books. My body was made for this! Wasn’t it? The answer is, of course, yes. But sometimes you need some help. I had to put my ego aside and realize that the most important thing was not confirming what I had come to believe, but getting that baby out safely. The daunting eight weeks of recovery would be worth it if my baby were healthy. When the Midwife came back, I was scared, but compliant. Our wonderful, funny, smart, beautiful baby girl was born at 5:34 a.m. She spend two days in the NICU because of the meconium in the fluid, but other than that was perfectly healthy. I had a healthy child in my arms. Mission accomplished.
The impetus for writing this piece came in the form of something I saw on Facebook. It was a screen grab of a text conversation between a soon-to-be Mom and the birth photographer who was now cancelling her shoot after discovering that her subject had “opted” for a c-section and would not actually be “giving birth.” (I assure you, these are the photographer’s words, not mine.) While I don’t know all the particulars of the situation, the client did tell the photographer that she hadn’t “opted” for anything. Let’s be in the Mom’s corner here, and assume she’s being honest about not “opting” for major abdominal surgery, but was, say, following the advice of her trained, licensed healthcare provider by agreeing to it. Is that something to be condemned for? Isn’t that why we go to doctors and midwives and don’t just treat Google as if it’s a real doctor? And even if she did choose to have a c-section, for whatever reason, her personal convenience (and let’s face it, there’s not much that’s convenient about an eight week recovery process…), or, say, a totally over-the-top fear of an episiotomy, or forceps, or a vacuum (gah!)…it’s her choice. Just like it’s her choice to have a child in the first place. How dare anyone suggest that this person is not actually giving birth? Of course, you and I know it’s absurd.
As I began preparing for the birth of my second child, I asked my provider if I really needed to have a c-section again. She assured me that it was the safest way to get baby out, and because I trust her, that’s the plan. Am I happy about it? No. Do I still wish I could birth in an incense-filled tent surrounded by chanting women in long flowing robes? Yes. (Well, maybe we’d skip the incense). Am I looking forward to eight weeks of minimal exercise, zero abdominal strength, and a lifetime of scarring? No. (I am looking forward to those mesh undies they give you at the hospital. You really haven’t known true comfort until you’ve worn a pair of those. And they’re disposable!) But this is the hand I was dealt. So, at the end of what will probably be a very long (but not twenty-six hours long!) day, I will have, what I hope will be a very healthy baby girl in my arms, and that’s all that really matters.