Both seemed to offer first-time mothers a false (but deeply, intensely desired) sense of control over something they ultimately have little real control over – namely, how the birth of a child happens. So as an alternative, Joe and I watched an informational DVD series about what happens in the mother’s body as the end of the pregnancy draws near, how to recognize early labor, etc.; and, at the urging of our doula, we filled out a birth plan that essentially said, “Jenn would really, REALLY like an epidural, but otherwise, we’ll try to roll with whatever happens.”
Things went relatively smoothly and by-the-book before Lily’s birth, with a general sense of physical discomfort – which I really hadn’t experienced up until that point in the pregnancy, and which began while I was at work – being the earliest sign that the end was nigh. But with Lily, contractions didn’t start until several hours later.
On Wednesday evening this week, I started feeling, and recognized, that same physical discomfort. I told Joe, “We’re probably looking at contractions beginning tomorrow morning,” so we went to bed to get some sleep.
Indeed, the following morning – after I slept on the hardwood floor next to Lily’s bed for a few hours (she’d had a bad dream and called out for me at 4:30 a.m.) – I felt something more like low-grade pain. But the pain didn’t take the form of a recognizable contraction until about 8 a.m., and at that point, they followed no discernible pattern (10 minutes apart, 15, 3 (?!), 10, 8, etc.).
While Joe went through his morning routine of getting ready for work, still thinking he might attend a 10 a.m. meeting (“You could be like this for a few hours,” he noted, after our doula confirmed by phone that early labor could be erratic), I sent out work e-mails to alert the people who needed to know that I was having contractions, and thus wouldn’t be coming in. I did have a doctor’s appointment scheduled for 11:20 a.m., and I was comforted by the idea that I’d likely get some clear direction from that.
Yet while the contractions were weirdly spaced apart, the pain was growing more intense. Thankfully, I told Joe that he shouldn’t go to the meeting and leave me alone, and that we should wake up Lily and get her to pre-school.
We did, but the process took longer than a woman in escalating pain would want, of course (rushing a 3 year old who doesn’t quite get what’s going on, and whom you don’t want to completely scare the bejeezus out of, is a tall order). She ate her breakfast, got dressed, and was her happy little self when Joe and I dropped her off at 9:30 a.m.
Joe and I returned to the house to grab a last few items, and as he headed to the basement to grab a onesie for the new baby, I panted, “Don’t worry about the onesie. We’ll buy one, they’ll give us one – let’s just go.”
Now, when I was in labor with Lily, I took some sort of weird pride in the fact that I remained reasonably quiet and stoic throughout. I breathed as I do when practicing yoga and steadily worked through each contraction until we got to the hospital and I got my blessed, blessed epidural. I was practically British in my stiff upper lip-ness.
This time, though, I had no opportunity for a measured, controlled labor. As we drove off in the car, the contractions sharply spiked in their intensity, and they also started coming fast and furious – as in 3, and then 2, minutes apart – leaving me screaming in two minute-long fits, lowering the passenger seat back, pulling down the waistband of my maternity pants, and wondering if we’d even make it to the hospital before this baby arrived.
Joe, meanwhile, started telling me, “You’re doing great, just hold on, and keep doing what you’re doing” – a sure sign that although we didn’t acknowledge it aloud, we both knew how close we were to having this baby, since he’d said the same things to me when I was in labor with Lily – and called our doula, as I screamed in the background, to tell her we were on the way to the hospital. Then Joe tried to call my doctor’s office, only to get a recording that told us the office was closed, and that we should call, well, the exact same number.
Understandably, Joe was losing his mind over this, while also driving 90 miles an hour on M-14, so in a rare moment of rest, I suggested calling one of the other numbers listed on my doctor’s office’s pamphlet, just to try and track down a human being.
Eventually, we did reach a live woman, whom we spoke to – fittingly, as it turned out – while driving around the traffic circles on Geddes (which became for me, at the moment, Dante’s seventh circle of hell). Again, I was screaming, so the woman struggled to be heard, and Joe yelled back, a few times, “I can’t hear you,” leading the woman to chuckle a little while trying to communicate with us.
Though I was in incredible pain and frustrated by the situation, I understood her reaction to the sheer absurdity of it all. Because here’s pretty much how the conversation went:
Joe: “We’re heading to the Emergency Room. Is that where we go?”
Woman: “No, you go to the building that says triage, or family medical center, or you can follow the signs to the cancer center.”
(Jenn, screaming rhythmically in the background)
Joe: “I don’t see anything about any one of those places. I see a sign that reads…” (He lists the entire menu of signs before us. None of them have anything close to what she’s named.)
Woman: “Where are you?”
(More screaming from me.)
Joe: “We’re driving away from the ER.”
Woman: “OK, now look for triage.”
Joe: “I can’t hear you!”
Woman: “LOOK FOR TRIAGE!!”
Jenn: “She’s saying, ‘Look for triage.'”
Joe, yelling: “I don’t see anything labeled triage. I’m really sorry.”
(Jenn’s screaming commences again.)
Joe, yelling: “Look, I’m just going to turn around and go to the ER.”
Woman, chuckling: “OK, that’s fine. Go to the ER.”
It was like a bad, childbirth version of a vaudeville act. But the woman did alert the IHA doctor on duty at the hospital that we were coming, at the very least, so if nothing else, this ludicrous phone call accomplished that.
And after Joe ran into the ER to flag down help, I agonized my way through yet another intense contraction. He soon came back out and drove off, saying he got directions to where we needed to go, and that it would, in the end, be faster.
I thought then that I’d either die, or this child would soon find itself flying into the glove compartment of Joe’s new Ford Edge. Could’ve gone either way.
We pulled up to – surprise! – a building labeled “Triage” and “Family Medical Center,” and Joe ran to get me a wheelchair. I thought, while screaming, “There’s no way I can physically move myself from this car to that chair. My body will simply split in half.”
But somehow, Joe and I and a third party lowered my body into it. (Joe asked if he should move his car or come with me, and I shook my head and said, “No, come with me” – and I was absolutely right to do so.) I was wheeled into an elevator, where I began another round of pain and screaming, until the doors opened to the admissions area. Still screaming, I heard someone say, “You just have to fill this out” – um, right – and I also heard a few nervous giggles from the nearby waiting area. You know the kind. The “there but for the grace of God” kind. The laugh that conveys, “Hey, I don’t want to really hear or think about how painful this process actually is, because someone I love is back there, thank you very much!”
But pain is pain, no matter what your personality, and things get primal and beyond your control at a certain point. So I’d become a sitcom cliche – the screeching harridan in the maternity ward. Which annoyed me, but I reminded myself that I wasn’t, and couldn’t be, in control in this situation. I simply had to give myself over to it. And I reminded myself that we were now in the right building. We were in a place with doctors. Hopefully, this would all work out somehow.
To be officially admitted, though, I had to be examined by a doctor, so several people swirled around me in a nearby exam room to get me lying on a table and to pull my clothes off the lower half of my body. The on-duty doc quickly checked things out south of the border, while I screamed, and then he called out to everyone, “Looks like we’re in the wrong room, kids. Let’s go!” (This same doctor appeared in my room the next day and said, “You probably don’t remember, but I was at your delivery,” and I thought, “Oh, yes, I vaguely remember hating you for being a gatekeeper and keeping me from going directly to the delivery room.” But he turned out to be a very nice man, of course.)
While being rushed to the delivery room, I asked – already knowing the answer, but feeling compelled to ask, anyway – whether an epidural was out of play. Yes, that boat had sailed long ago. (So much for MY low-key “birth plan.”) This caused me to panic. For I wasn’t one of those tough women who actively chose to face the pain of childbirth “naturally” and just endure through it. I was someone who desperately wanted anything and everything that would make the pain more bearable.
Now that I couldn’t have that, I wondered, would I really be able to get this baby out of my body, despite the excruciating, soul-draining pain I was feeling?
I didn’t know. But then, in situations like this, you don’t have much choice.
And again, as someone asked me to move my body from the gurney onto a delivery room bed – a simple thing under normal circumstances – I thought, “Why, no. I don’t think I can do that.” But I gave it the old college try, leaning into it. And almost immediately upon reaching my final destination, a bizarrely warm tidal wave gushed from my body.
“Her water just broke,” I heard Joe announce – a new and foreign physical sensation for me, since the doctor had had to break my water for me during my labor with Lily.
The nurses asked me to lift up my hips – again, the confidence in my ability to do this was shaky at best just then – in order to place a dry surface beneath me, and then, we were pretty much off to the races.
The problem was, the doctors and nurses wanted me to stop my now well-established exhalation pattern of screaming, and instead, hold my breath, relax my legs (ha, ha – good one!), and push. And in case I forgot what I should be doing, a nurse yelled the instructions repeatedly in my ear as I struggled to follow them. Ever the good girl, in a down moment, I protested, “I’m trying. I’m trying to do what you’re asking,” to which the nurse said, “I know you’re trying. No one said you aren’t. You’re almost there.”
And sure enough, while clamping my teeth and putting any energy and strength that I had left in me into the following push attempts, the baby’s head, then its whole body, exited my body – at 10:46 a.m., 11 minutes after we’d reached the hospital’s registration area.
Things get hazy at this point. I have a cloudy memory of someone briefly placing a strangely colored, tiny baby on my chest before whisking it away, and Joe – I think it was Joe – telling me that the baby was a girl.
And while I soon heard the baby’s cries across the room, I was mostly focused on the doctor pressing his hand on my belly and telling me that after I pushed out the placenta, he would need to stitch me up, because he’d had to do an episiotomy, and that he would be using a local anesthetic for this purpose. (The doctor also reported at this time that the cord had gotten wrapped around the baby’s neck – thank GOD we didn’t give birth in the car – and given how quickly everything had happened, the episiotomy was part of a generally rushed process.)
So although the baby was out, there clearly wasn’t going to be complete relief for me anytime soon. As warned, the local anesthetic felt like a long series of pokes and burns, and then the multiple stitches seemed to take a long, long time. (Unfortunately, the process may have been slowed down further by the fact that the doctor was demonstrating the procedure for a medical student, who had her arms crossed on one of my knees like I was a nice, comfy couch.) I also started shivering and chattering my teeth like I’d suddenly found myself at the North Pole. Though everyone was still busily swirling around me, I weakly voiced a request for a blanket. A nurse heard me, and as soon as she could, she placed one onto my body.
Joe, to his credit, after taking a quick photo of Neve, stayed by my side and repeatedly said, “You’re amazing! You did great!”
“I didn’t have much choice,” I said, still shivering and wincing in pain at the stitches.
Several minutes later, when they finished, a nurse came and pressed on my upper belly hard – which is, of course, PRECISELY what a woman who just gave birth wants – and said she was going to have to do this once every 15 minutes for the next couple of hours, just to make sure there wasn’t too much internal bleeding.
She soon arrived to press on me again, and as kind as she looked, I began to dread seeing her. “How many times are you going to check this?” I asked softly, politely, knowing she was just doing her job, but anxious for all the pressing and poking on my poor, beaten-up body to stop.
Eventually, they brought Neve to us, and we got to really take her, and what had just happened to us, in. I nursed her, and although I was still having the stomach pump of doom every 15 minutes, the light at the end of the tunnel had become visible.
Our doula arrived – having had absolutely no chance to get to the hospital in time – and Joe brought me some lunch, since I’d had nothing to eat since the night before. Then we finally, finally got to take Neve to the mother/baby ward, as Brahm’s lullaby played over the loudspeaker to mark our arrival.
Once there, Joe and I took our first real relaxed breaths of the day. We’d survived somehow and made it to the other side, and the baby girl that was suddenly with us – who looked almost exactly like Lily did as a baby (that is, like a little Joe, thus demonstrating Mother Nature’s own paternity test) – was healthy. By hook or by crook, we’d completed our little family, and now the only missing piece was Lily.
Later that afternoon, her grandparents picked her up from pre-school, and I first saw her face, looking a little tentative and scared, peeking around the curtain that separated the door from the bed. She came toward me and Joe and we introduced her to Neve, whom she immediately wanted to hold.
Joe led her to a chair, taught her to put her elbow up on the armrest to support Neve’s head, and placed the baby in Lily’s arms. Lily said, “Neve is cute!” and several times bent to kiss Neve on different parts of her face.
Based on advice from others about helping Lily make the transition, we gave her a small gift “from Neve” – which was a male doll (she always asked why there wasn’t a “daddy”) and I offered to read a couple of her favorite books to her.
Yet Lily wanted to give Neve the chance to play with the dolly, as well as include her in reading Lily’s books. So the three of us cozied up in my bed to read. But ultimately, Lily couldn’t really concentrate on the books. She kept kissing parts of Neve’s face, announcing each occasion when Neve stuck out her tongue or moved around, and was generally fascinated.
“Neve is so cute,” she said again. “I love her!”
This nearly made me melt, so relieved and moved was I to see how excited Lily was about her new sister.
Now, I’m not gullible enough to think there’s nothing but sunny days ahead, in terms of integrating Neve into our family. But after a harrowing beginning, the interaction between Lily and Neve made me think that there’s at least hope that we’ll all, as a family, see each other through whatever lies before us.