It is two a.m. The pain in my back continues to throb as if I had withstood a clubbing by some massive, repugnant ogre in a medieval battle. It is unlike the kind of pain I am familiar with – that of elbows to the solar plexus, sprained ankles and black eyes dished out by sturdy, thick-legged women on the rugby pitch (some of them not unlike ogres themselves). Rugby pains are sharp and surprising. This pain is a locked room filling slowly with murky water. The water is too black to perceive what evil creatures might be lurking below the surface. The fear of what lies there rivals the unpleasant sensations themselves. It sifts through my tissues and permeates me, encompassing cell by cell in its steady, confident rise to the inevitable domination of my entire body. I cower with my cheek up against a smooth stone wall (am I in the dungeon?), huddled for the last hour in a crouch, knees spread to accommodate the large, round incubation chamber of a small creature trying to come into this world.
My first labor went on like this for hours. Twenty six point two of them to be exact. After 24 hours of sleeplessness, my body burning calories at the rate of a marathon runner, my head bobbed and lolled on my neck like a dying yo-yo on a string. My eyes rolled back in their sockets. When the doctor visited me in my hospital room every few hours, I tried to pay attention to what were probably important instructions, but my focus wavered between dreams of sleep, the mesmerizing shiny blur flashing from her stethoscope and the sudden violent zigzag of contractions that ripped through my consciousness and stopped up my ears for 45 seconds every 2.5 minutes. After each contraction, my chin fell to my chest again, my neck too worn out from its electrified state of rigid attention moments earlier to support the heaviness of my cranium. I was drunk with fatigue, sleeping in one minute increments.
The contractions had started in the late afternoon, and, as our childbirth instructor predicted, they were mild and distant. They felt like a warm buzz, an inflammation or a stirring in my pubic bones, like they were thinking about spreading. Once I became aware of the contractions, I knew it was time to take a nap while I still could. But my husband, anxious to ensure he wouldn’t get stuck delivering a baby in the back seat of the Honda, insisted that we go to the hospital early. Almost instantly upon arrival, after a particularly efficient nurse took us into a private room and stuck her finger up my vagina to see how much my cervix was dilated, they sent us away. I wasn’t far enough along to justify taking up a hospital room and adding to their workload. But soon the contractions were coming closer together and the pain was more noticeable. I thought perhaps we should stay and see if they developed into something more noteworthy.
I tried to rest, sitting in the hospital waiting room, but no position was comfortable. I stalked the maternity hall for hours. Contractions started coming every 7 minutes. Then every five. My strides downgraded to a modest walk. My walk shriveled into short spurts of uncertain movement, followed by long pauses that had me holding onto the wall. All of a sudden, I threw up. Luckily, I was standing next to a janitor’s sink when the bile came bubbling up. The nagging inflammation-feeling cracked out of its shell and tendrils of pulsing soreness crept out, sending thin, green suckers along my spine and pelvis. The sensations thickened and grew, leafing out and climbing heartily on the now-weak trellis of my bones. My body moved on slow-motion auto-pilot as I staggered from one patient’s door to the next. Contractions came closer and closer.
Finally, the nurses decided I was ready for a room. I checked in, officially this time, but the labor didn’t progress. The night wore on. I wore a path in the linoleum as I circled the ward, now shuffling a paltry 12" every second. I moved like an ailing 92 year old, hunched over, holding my back, groaning, then shuffling on in the hopes that the movement would shake the baby loose. Soon, I was groaning and holding my back every 2.5 minutes. The hours crawled like a ragged man in the desert, dying of thirst. I succumbed to the hospital bed, but found no solace in the short, pain-free intervals. Every time I would drift into blissful sleep, I would immediately awaken to the wrenching twist of muscles pulling impossibly tight, bones shifting. Every time, I called out to my husband, the time-keeper, “Contraction!” He got little more sleep than I did.
Why didn’t the baby come? My body was holding back, not ready to take the final step in this life-altering commitment my husband and I had made nine months earlier in a pre-calculated month of arduous love-making. My mind had been willing, but now my body was rebelling. What was there to be afraid of?
What a silly question! There was so very much to be afraid of, from the unknown pain of delivery, to the unknown personality of the person coming to stay. What if she didn’t like me? What if he wasn’t what I expected? I was growing a life that was totally independent from my own. Giving the baby that last bit of free rein took away the control that, up until this point, I felt I had. I had given up alcohol. I had eaten healthy foods and exercised regularly throughout the pregnancy. Even yesterday, I had run 2 miles to encourage my very tardy child to make her appearance before the doctor performed an intervention, scheduled for Tuesday. All this time I had been in charge of the healthy growth and development of a part of me – I imaged the baby as a miniature me - but now that the shit was hitting the fan, my subconscious didn’t want to let go of that control, that ownership. I didn’t want him to be his own person, as inevitable as that obviously was.
The running helped. Or maybe it was the looming threat of a procedure to induce labor that kicked my resistance out of the way and got the ball rolling. Labor started. But now I was back to my old tricks again, holding back, retaining my power-position, trying to stay in the driver’s seat even as the baby pulled at the wheel and dug her heels in behind my ribs. A battle was playing out between us in guts and muscles. He wanted out. I wanted him to remain mine.
The doctor arrived at my bedside. She stood watching me, probably entertained by how closely I resembled the possessed girl in ‘The Exorcist’. I sensed her presence more than saw or heard her, but I did make an effort to receive whatever message she was delivering. I leaned toward her. My eyelids drooped, my mouth hung slack. I bet I drooled.
“…give…shot…drug…get labor moving,” were the words that reached my brain. Apparently, they were getting impatient with me and wanted me out of there, so they were going to inject something, somewhere, that would make the contractions come more forcefully. The goal was to complete the dilation and start in on the actual delivery of this little bundle of thorns.
The baby must have heard it too. As the doctor turned to leave, a contraction ripped through me, strong enough to take my breath away. My eyes flew open wide and I gasped. Progress was being made! Our collective subconscious was working together to avoid that injection, or else the baby was simply stronger than me and had won the battle to be born. A few more big spasms pulled me apart like an old-fashioned conquistador quartering, and suddenly, I was wide awake, feeling an urgent need to push.
Strangely, the prior pain disappeared and I was overcome with a vomit-like heaving, but it wasn’t food coming up, it was baby coming down. The nurse told me to reach down between my legs and touch the place that used to be loose folds of skin. I felt a hard, round protrusion through my taut flesh – so close! The previous 26.2 hours had been spent stretching back my cervix, shortening my vaginal canal and unzipping my baggage full of repressed control issues. Now it was show time, and the baby was centimeters from joining us in the open air, separated from the world only by the depth of my skin.
The doctor put on her gloves and poked around my nether regions.
“Push now,” she instructed, but I didn’t need any help knowing what to do. The urge was as natural and as impossible to ignore as a bowel movement. I reveled in this new feeling, completely different from the permeating ache of before. Each pause between uterine contractions allowed me to store up energy and willpower. When the contraction came, I was ready and I actually enjoyed joining in; I couldn’t not push. The baby and I were working together to free her from her cage. I was letting him escape my absolute control. I had decided that she could be her own person after all.
With only five or six contractions, in a short 9 minutes, my first child clambered out of my body and into her own existence, separate from me, an individual. The delivery brought the kind of pain I was used to. “Skid marks” the doctor called the scrapes and the small rips in the vaginal tissue caused by the fast stretch of such a short delivery. It felt like skinning your knee.
Amongst the howls of new lungs functioning for the first time, the doctor brought my baby up to my eye level.
“It’s a girl,” I said, sheepishly proud of what we had accomplished, my new daughter and I. Her inflamed, sticky body still bore the bloody rights of passage. Her mouth was open in a long wail. She was gangly and red. She looked like an old homeless man, with her long-soaked, pickled flesh and her hair full of mucusy detritus. She was a person, her own beautiful person, and I had helped her get to this point. The scream drove home that I was no longer in charge. This baby girl made her own decisions, had her own personality and would live her own life The realization humbled me. From here on out, my job is to enjoy her and care for her. Her job is to discover who she is going to be.