Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Nostalgic much?

I don’t remember how the contractions felt—not really anyway. I remember feeling crampy and exhausted all day, barely able to keep up with Jon on our morning walk, even though I wore my trusty cross trainers, and he sported flip flops. In the evening, Jon and I went to Barnes and Noble, and I had to sit down before lumbering up the ramp to the children’s section. In retrospect, I should have stayed in the grown up area for one more day. Also in retrospect, Jon and I shouldn’t have made fun of the guy with the black and green moles on his head, neck, and hands who was in line ahead of us at Potbelly. He was the brother of the girl making our sandwiches—something we found out when she said, “See you at home. Love you,” to him and their mole-free father.

I remember doubting that the pop I felt and the trickle of water that followed it were signs of labor’s beginning. I was minding my own business watching Last Comic Standing and building a SimCity while Jon took a call on the balcony—and all of this was going on three weeks before my due date. And besides, first babies are always late. My doctor seemed doubtful, too, telling me not to bother my husband on his business trip until after I came to the hospital to get checked out, ensuring that Ben would miss the last plane home from Minneapolis. My stomach hurt on the car ride to labor and delivery, but I blamed the baby curling up under my ribs and kicking with all of his might; he’d been doing this for days, and I was used to the pains that came and went at intervals. In triage, the resident would ask me if I was having contractions. When I said no the baby was just in a weird spot, she put her hand on my tight belly and said, “You’re having a contraction right now.”

“Oh!” I replied, brightening. “Then I’ve been having them for a week!”

The resident and the harried triage nurse (who was not amused when she asked me my weight and I said “160—can you believe it!” before looking at her and realizing that she could believe that and a whole lot more) rolled their eyes over my head when I refused pitocin and told them I wasn’t planning on an epidural, either. “As natural as possible,” I said, a feminist impulse to control my birth experience, my history of miserable menstrual cramps, and a healthy mistrust of needles near my spine conspiring to convince me that I could handle the pain without the intervention of medical men. Jon and I had just settled down to watch Dave Chapelle’s Block Party, which we had the foresight to snag from its perch atop the DVD player as we left the apartment when I realized that “as natural as possible” wasn’t going to be very natural at all.

My nurse—adorable, younger than I was, competent and very pro-intervention—bonded with me immediately, telling me that her sister also had psoriasis, that she and her husband were building a new house, that she loved my pedicure. I barely noticed the 3 bags of fluids she skillfully fed into my arm—three bags of fluid that all found their way into my chins-- and she slipped out to call the anesthesiologist before I realized I agreed to an epidural. After Harry was born, Ben and my dad both asked if I was going to keep in touch with her, since we had so much in common. I tired to explain that it would be awkward to go out for coffee with someone who may or may not have seen you poop on the table, spent and evening in charge of your urine bag, and definitely sponged gore from your thighs and ankles (ankles—my god how’d it get all the way to my ankles?).

The epidural was everything “the books” told me it would be—mainly numbing and delicious. Jon watched the doctor work, and he told me everything looked good—just like that, noncommittal and bland-- but after the needle was taped to my back, and I was gloriously unfeeling, content to watch the monitor and trill, “That one looked bad!” he told me I bled. A lot. It was a couple of weeks before I finally scrubbed the final stubborn tape marks off my back. Harry lost the last of his umbilical cord first. I’m not sure if that’s testament to the amount of tape or to my poor post partum hygiene, but it’s a detail I’d like to remember for next time.

Ben flew into the room ten minutes after the anesthesiologist wheeled his cart out and left me with the crack head itches as my only complaint. I think because Ben showed up after the pain and missed seeing me cling to the head of the bed and moan (and that’s where the idea that I could control my birth experience fell apart for me; I hurt so bad that a shower or a roll on the birth ball, or even a back rub or a walk were not in the realm of possibility), he never really knew how awful, how much work, labor was. And yes, I realize it’s called labor for a reason. It’s hard to talk about, though, almost impossible to describe. There aren’t any words for that pain probably because it’s easy to forget what we can’t describe and if we could remember, we wouldn’t have any more damn kids, that’s for sure. As a result, labor is lonely, a solitary act of an individual woman who wonders if maybe these feelings aren’t right and maybe something’s going horribly wrong and maybe she might actually die from this or maybe she’s weak and everybody else can handle the pain or maybe her pain is less and there’s something wrong with her because it doesn’t hurt enough or maybe this is what Elizabeth Cady Stanton was talking about and the solitude of freaking self is what we need right now on this table, but Stanton didn’t have stirrups probably or even twilight sleep, let alone this blissful numbness. Labor becomes something we never talk about except to say pain, hurt, discomfort, transition, pressure—all of these words too flat, too general, too common to describe such a terrifying miracle. Childbirth needs its own language, like Esperanto only not stupid.

I remember lying on my side (because that way my heart rate and the baby’s were steady) for hours while the baby made his steady descent into the birth canal and my parents and Jon and Ben and I watched the contractions get bigger and bigger. The doctor (not mine, but someone in my doctor's practice-- a man I had seen before at a routine visit and at a 33-week scare) told us it was time to push at 7:20-ish on Tuesday, June 14th, 2006, and Ben and I kicked everyone out of the room, holding hands alone and childless for the last time. My contractions stopped, so I pushed without them, and I didn’t realize how hard it was—how exhausting—until I tried to talk and couldn’t. The doctor’s resident was frightening, and our terror kept Ben and me together, making us lock eyes and smile scared little smiles. It was her first birth, and the doctor was telling her what to do—correcting her several times, which is what frightened us the most. After an hour or so, the doctor said, “Well, it looks like you’re going to tear. Would you like an episiotomy?”

This question undid me. I was not prepared to be asked that way. ("How about some rumaki? Or a cocktail frank?") I thought episiotomies were passé, and all the books I read and message boards I visited assured me that doctors only performed them in times of crisis. This didn’t seem like a crisis; even the twitchy intern looked calmish. I was depleted in every way I could be, and I started to cry a little and said, “Uh, I don’t know. What do you think?” before I saw my nurse, who was shaking her head vehemently and mouthing NO.

“No. No thank you,” I said, remembering that I was at a teaching hospital, and there was no crisis, just an opportunity for learning.

Because of the epidural, I didn’t feel the baby slip out, the way I thought I might, but he was on my stomach at 8:40 a.m., mewling with his eyes shut and his tiny body covered in goo, and I felt him then. I burst into tears and remember saying “Oh my god,” over and over again, trying to pull him closer to me and feeling the cord grow taut because he and I were still connected. Ben cut the cord, and we both held him and stared at him and couldn’t believe him. After my stitches (“About fifteen minutes worth,” the doctor responded when I asked how many) and my sponge bath and a fresh coat of powder and lip gloss—yes, I am That Person; are you really surprised—I tried to feed him. My nurse had on purple latex gloves, and she kept trying to shove my whole nipple in his tiny mouth, but he couldn’t take it. He was too tired from the meds and the trauma, and this is when I completely fell apart, positive that I would be one of those women who “can’t” breastfeed. This perceived failure kept me from enjoying the grandparents’ first looks at Harrison Benjamin, or Harry’s first bath, or my first lunchmeat sandwich in nine months, washed down with my 900th milkshake in nine months. I was in such a funk that our parents left town that day. Jon stayed until we all came home from the hospital, decorating our apartment and getting sandwiches for a celebratory lunch. I remember he was starving by the time we finally got home because we had a run-in with the hospital photographer and my post partum hormones, and I totally ate his sandwich, the one that he ordered special with extra guacamole. And I don't even LIKE gucamole.

That first night in the hospital, Ben fell asleep on a fold-out couch, shivering directly below an air vent, and I laid awake, staring at the baby in his plastic bassinette, too tired to sleep, too worried about nursing and losing weight. In retrospect, I should have been happier—the nursing takes care of the weight, and it’s easy eventually. My milk came in on Harry’s third day. One minute he was thrashing around at my breast, and the next minute he was gulping and swallowing. He was so tiny that his whole body fit neatly between my breasts. Now, he lops over onto the bed, happily kicking my pillows with his ever-expanding feet. That first night, I couldn’t see a year down the road, a year of successful nursing that we’re going to keep doing for a while longer, a year of smiles that turned into laughter and cries that changed from cat like to lusty, a year of diapers that got stinkier and a baby who is impossibly sweeter every day, hour, minute until I think that this is it—this is as happy as I can be, this is as much I could possibly love him—and then I am happier and more in love. This feeling—one that we can and do speak about, one on which many books have been written and through which many cultures flourish (and, to be fair, in the name of which society is structured to the detriment of women the world over)—is the reason we have more kids and the reason I want to have more right now even though Harry still wears diapers and can only take a dozen steps without falling down and still wakes up at night.

I wish I could have seen a straight line from our first night as our own little family to this night, our 364th. Ben is long asleep and Harry, too. I should close my eyes until Harry wakes up, indignant to find himself in his crib when he remembers quite clearly falling asleep in my arms. He’ll come snuggle in his parents’ bed for the rest of the night, and in the morning, we’ll smile at his six-toothed grin and tell him that it’s his birthday, that he’s such a big boy.

Harry's first picture

Getting ready to leave the hospital

Our first day home as a family


  1. Anonymous11:46 AM

    That was beautiful. Wow. Happy birthday, big boy!

  2. Anonymous3:15 PM

    Sarah, I will never forget the day you called to tell me you were pregnant and I remember being shocked and worried for you. What a lot of responsibility it was and how busy you would be and yet somehow this girl whom I had loved since the age of five had become a woman and a mother. I am in awe of you and am so proud to be your friend and so proud of your beautiful son. Congratulations on making it through this first year to you and Ben and a very happy birthday to Harry!

  3. I love this post!!! Happy birthday, Harry!

  4. So beautiful, Sarah! And you are such a beautiful family. I cried reading this, but that shouldn't surprise you. I miss you, can we play soon? Theo should have the brakes on the car fixed this week, so I can steal it and head to Madison! Parks, Zoo, Mall? I'm game for anything. Miss you. Happy Birthday, Harry! The car is way way cool!