Two weeks after my due date, I was frantic. I could barely breathe and sleeping was out of the question. The baby’s endless hiccups (“An excellent primitive breathing reflex,” my doctor assured me) kept me awake, staring at the changing colors of the sky every night. I couldn’t eat more than a single piece of fruit at a sitting due to my squashed stomach and (I timed it one morning) I was in the bathroom every 15 minutes. Besides all of these mundane physical discomforts, I was beginning to think I was carrying an alien life-form within me. I could see the outline of feet against the tight skin of my belly as the baby moved around in his limited space, but without a proper visual, “baby” became “intruder” at the end of this ninth month. Who or what, I began to wonder, had taken over my body? I also began to suspect that I would never go into labor naturally. It was in this state that I found myself in the hospital’s waiting room on the morning of July 22.
“I’m not leaving until he’s out,” I warned Maya. “I don’t care if they have room or not. I’ll give birth right here if I have to.”
There was one other, nonpregnant, woman in the waiting room listening to this frenzied conversation I was having with my sister. She waited for a lull before she said, “Is this your first baby?” I admitted that it was, and she asked when I was due. When I told her that I was already two weeks past my due date, she nodded sympathetically.
“They going to induce you?” she asked. I answered that this was my fervent hope.
“Make them do it,” she said stridently. “I was three weeks late with my first and they did nothing about it. The baby ran out of oxygen in there. He died. My baby died. They could have saved me if they’d given me an induction.”
I stared at her in open-mouthed horror, unable to come up with any kind of positive response.
“Stand your ground,” she added. “You wouldn’t want that to happen to you.”
My obstetrician rescued me at that point. She appeared like a guardian angel at my shoulder and said, “Good news, we’ve got room for you downstairs. Looks like you’re going to have your baby today.”
I was, perhaps foolishly, unconcerned about the pain of labor. My mother had given birth to five children without any pain medication. Her labors had been short and uncomplicated (at least, this is what she’d always told me). I thought women who complained of endless labors and excruciating pain were wimps who were too emotionally detached from childbirth to appreciate the process. Although I never would have classified myself as a goddess/earth-mother type, I was actually looking forward to birthing my baby. I felt fearless. But it was the process I was focused on in the hours and months before delivery, not the baby. At that point, despite the fact that he’d had a name for seven months, it was still all about me. My response to my birth, to my baby.
My family arrived at the hospital in stages. Maya was with me from the beginning, alternately watching TV, eating snacks from the cafeteria, and keeping a running commentary about the shrieks of pain from other women in labor, all of which we could hear through the walls. Our favorite was the woman who kept yelling, “Ow, ow, ow-ee, ow-ee! Shit! Shit!” over and over again, her words in the exact same pattern each time.
“Ow-ee?” Maya questioned, eyebrows raised.
“Just don’t let me do that, OK?” I begged her. “Just shoot me if I start screaming.”
“Ow-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” came the wail from the next room.
“Yup, OK,” Maya said, staring ruefully into her Styrofoam cup. “You know, this is supposed to be hot chocolate, but you’d never know it. Everything comes out of the same nozzle down there: hot chocolate, tea, coffee, soup. I can’t tell what this is. Want some?”
By the time the drugs I’d been given to induce labor had kicked in and I was having contractions every minute, my parents and my siblings were all there, wandering in and out of the room, eating potato chips and chocolate and arguing with each other. It was then that I realized that having a baby is a singular effort. There was no way to drag anybody else in and have them take over. I could barely see and could not move with all the equipment strapped to my body. There were several IV lines and a fetal monitor that amplified the baby’s heartbeat to a level that was impossible to ignore. That rhythmic thump was so loud and elemental I continued to hear it hours after BB was delivered.
After three hours of one-minute contractions, my legs started to shake and I worried about losing control and screaming in agony. The pain was so great it was almost supernatural. I began to wonder if I was going to survive it. Visions of camels passing through the eyes of needles danced through my head.
My mother, worry etched into her face, stood at the end of the bed and grabbed hold of my feet, the only part of my body she could reach, squeezing hard. I looked at her and felt an immediate and deep sense of betrayal. I couldn’t believe that, as my mother, she hadn’t seen fit to tell me about a pain that was, as close as I could equate it, like having my legs tied to two trucks that were driving off in opposite directions.
“Why,” I panted between contractions, “didn’t you tell me it was going to be like this?”
“Would you have believed me?” she answered.
After several hours of hard labor, I demanded that Maya kick everybody out of the room. “I need drugs,” I told her. “Now.”
“But you told me you didn’t want —”