I woke up on Thursday morning feeling off. It had been a week of low-level, go-nowhere contractions, of waiting it out and stalled progress, and that morning it felt like my heart was fluttering like a butterfly trapped in a jar. I went to the couch in the living room and tried to slow my breathing. Deep breaths in, slow breaths out, but my heart chugged on, sending delightful tingling sensations all up and down my arms.
That afternoon at my weekly check up my blood pressure was high. I was dilated to a three and 70% effaced, and I was told to "take it easy," and to "come back in on Monday."
And so I took it easy, for a while. But my heart fluttered on, and as the days passed toward Monday I felt like I needed to move.
And so we walked. All through Central Park, up craggy rocks, across bark dust paths and back, to lake views and tree views and teenagers making out views, and up and down stairs. Brandon challenged me to races up grassy hills as horrified tourists watched. My body was finally matching the pace of my heart and it felt so good.
On Monday I waited at my doctors office for over an hour. Unexpected staff meeting, and suddenly I felt the need to be seen immediately. I didn't really know why, I was still feeling slightly off, only now my appetite was gone and my tingly heart flutters felt wrong somehow. I phoned Labor & Delivery. Whether or not the contractions I'd been having for two weeks were strong enough to mean anything, I was coming in.
The nurse looked at me with narrowed eyes.
"Well, you're due in two days," she said. "You're not really Preeclamptic, but your blood pressure is high. You've been having good contractions every four minutes since you got here..."
Then she tapped the blood pressure machine and said, "Well, there's really no point in keeping you pregnant anymore, is there?" And then I said, "That's what I've been saying!"
So I called Brandon ("Really? Really. Today? Are you sure. You're sure?"), who showed up an hour later with my hospital bag and a Vogue. You know, light labor reading.
When you are admitted to Labor and Delivery showing signs of preeclampsia (or as my nurse joked, pre-preeclampsia), they induce your labor with pitocin. I'd heard nasty things about that pitocin garbage: painfully long contractions, too-short breaks between, and the marathon of labor that accompanies. I'd always wanted to try a natural child birth, not because I was some sort of stoic about it, but just to see if I could do it. But also I knew that everyone has their limits, and pitocin seems to be its own sort of limit.
Pitocin equals epidural equals Don't Try To Be A Hero, Natalie. That sort of thing.
But also I knew my body. And I knew the bodies of the women in my family. Once my mom had her water broken during labor, things went real fast. And I knew I wanted the chance to try it on my own. I knew I could do it on my own, if my body would let me do it on my own. I really wanted to give my body that chance, just to see what it would do.
I asked my doctor to just break my water and give me a few hours before starting the pitocin. She agreed, knowing my family history, and at 6:oo that evening I became well acquainted with a hook and the insides of my placenta. I was checked again--dilated to a five and 90% effaced.
And then, we waited.
The contraction monitor clocked my barely noticeable contractions at three- and four-minute intervals while we watched a little naked Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal. Then we channel surfed and found Pocahontas. I love Pocahontas. Labor was kind of fun. And that lemon ice was actually good.
Suddenly it was 9pm and my doctor's shift was ending.
"I am back at 8:30 tomorrow morning," she said. "I'll come check on your progress then, ok?"
"Wait, will I still be here at 8:30 tomorrow morning?" I asked. I felt incredulous. I reminded her of my family history: my mother who practically had my sister in the hospital hallway and my brother in under 45 minutes, my great aunt who had her baby in the car . . . really? 8:30?
"Well, it's your first baby, so, probably," she said. "Maybe things will go that fast with your second." And though it sounded all wrong to me, I thought, But what do I know?
The new doctor came in and introduced himself and already I didn't like him. I hated his body language, the way he folded his arms like he was trying to keep his distance, the way he avoided eye contact with me, and I wanted to ask "Isn't there anybody else?"
But after three hours of ogling expensive shoes and Ryan Reynold's nekkid backside, I was starting to really feel my contractions. Hot and heavy and tight, they'd swoop over me and I'd have to stop talking in order to focus. I looked at Brandon in excitement. Now these are contractions! And they were coming on fast, every two minutes. I breathed through them and felt alive. Brandon turned off the TV and assumed his father-to-be duty of fanning my face during hard contractions.
And then, suddenly, I was there. You know, there. That point where it is too much, too hard, and you are scared and you know you can't do it, and from everything I'd read, I knew I was in transition. Or, I knew I could be in transition. Because, what did I know? Like my doctor said as she left, this was my first baby, and I'd probably be here until Kingdom Come. The new doctor on shift came in and announced that it was time for the pitocin, and I tried to stall. I knew something was happening, but I didn't know that I knew for sure, and ouch ouch ouch, and my brain wasn't working anymore, and fan me harder Brandon!
"Can you check my progress first?" I asked, out of breath.
"You've had your water broken, I don't want to introduce infection," he told me, his arms crossed tight against his body and his eyes glued to the floor.
"But, I . . ." I stammered, and then I lost the courage to insist. After all, what did I know?
He left to get the drugs and in the short moments I had between intense contractions I asked my nurse what she thought, because somewhere in the few hours I had been there I had fallen deadly in love with her.
"Well, this is your first baby," she told me. "You're probably still at a five."
If I had hours to go, and pitocin was on its way, I knew I needed an epidural, because these contractions were making my teeth hurt, and I couldn't imagine what it would feel like if they got worse. But even as I thought the words in my head I knew they were wrong, and I knew this was it, and I knew I'd regret not trusting my instincts. I struggled to think logically as the contractions tore through me. Pitocin equals epidural equals Don't Be A Hero, Natalie, I reminded myself, while my body screamed at me that I was doing it and that it was almost over. But I didn't know who to trust, and I started to feel panicky. I was sweating and worried and I was thinking horribly irrational thoughts, like maybe I was about to die. Maybe the baby might never come out!
"Fine!" I agreed. And then another contraction hit and I couldn't sit still anymore. I needed to writhe. I scooted my bum around on the bed and swayed my knees in the air and even in the middle of the ridiculous pain I started laughing at how silly I looked.
"Are you giving the hospital bed a lap dance?" Brandon asked as I laughed, and I said back, "Do I look like a squid? Because I feel like a squid."
The nurse dutifully sent the first dose of Pitocin through my IV. "We can give you as many as 20 of these," she told me. "This first one won't really do anything, we'll go slow."
And then the anesthesiologist came in to stick the giant needle up my spine and my Holbsfanner was sent out of the room and I needed my Holbsfanner! By this point I literally could not sit still, there was no way in all the heavens and earths to hold my body in one place, and I was aware of a startling pressure that I couldn't quite describe. "If you can't stop squirming this isn't going to work!" the anesthesiologist told me sternly, and I decided I hated him, and then, just as the needle went in, I realized that I needed to push.
"I think I need to push!" I said suddenly and the anesthesiologist pulled the needle out in bit of a huff. Here I had just been stabbed for no reason, and the nurse, sensing that something was up, paged the doctor who finally came to check me.
"I need to push," I informed him as he fished around.
"Go for it," he told me.
"Well, what am I at?" I asked in frustration. I was starting to get incredibly demandy about things and it all struck me as quite funny.
He stared at the carpet. "You're at a ten."
"The pitocin won't even kick in for another half hour!" the nurse said in surprise.
I looked at the clock. It had been four hours since my water broke.
Suddenly my room was teeming with people. A giant spotlight had come out of the ceiling, it felt sort of like an alien abduction on the X-Files. Everyone introduced themselves one at a time (like I was going to be able to remember any of their names?), and I was thinking about how hysterically okay I was with the fact that all these strangers were face-first in my lady parts, until a young-looking intern with dark curly hair introduced himself as my personal cheerleader. And he was just so sweet, and so innocent looking, and I felt so weird having such a sweet face seeing all that carnage, and without thinking I introduced myself back, "I'm Natalie, this is my vagina, and I'm really sorry about this."
My labor went blindingly fast, but delivery, well delivery kind of took a while. I pushed for three hours. Huck was crowning for a full forty-five minutes. And every cliche that I said I'd never do--shouting bossy orders at my husband (fan me! ice chips! squeeze harder!), begging the doctor to just pull him out, even screaming--I did it all, and I relished it.
I felt every last shred of it. I especially liked the part where I tore in the front. Did you know that could happen? Doctors and nurses were shouting all kinds of directions at me. Relax this! Tighten that! Hold your breath! Now breathe! Now relax! Now turn this way! None of it made any sense but I did what I was told. Finally, while silently pleading with God to let the next push be my last, I realized that I was the one who should be issuing orders. Only I could bring this child into the world, and only I knew how that needed to happen. This was my body and my body and I knew what we were doing. So I gritted my teeth, tuned out the voices in the room, and breathed through a glorious, empowering push.
"Natalie, open your eyes!" the nurse said.
When I married Brandon seven years ago, I knew I wanted to have his babies. All of the babies in his family are blond, blue-eyed Holbrook clones, and I had grown to cherish the idea of my own mini-Holbs, but always, always the babies I rocked and nursed in my dreams were mine. Dark-haired, dark-skinned, with a rosebud mouth and that impossible Lovin nose. And then we struggled to even get pregnant at all, and I had to reconcile the fact that those babies probably wouldn't ever be mine. It was a mini-Holbs or nothing. I hardly even missed them, those babies of my dreams. I was so ready for my blonde skinny baby. I would have given anything for that blonde skinny baby.
But that night I locked eyes on a dark-haired, dark-skinned little lover. Complete with a perfect rosebud mouth and that crazy Lovin nose. And I was floored. It was more than I could even comprehend. He was mine. Mine in a way nothing had ever been mine before. He was mine, and I'd made him. God let me make him! I have never felt a more powerful, more tangible emotion in all of my life. I probably never will.
I like to think of those three hours of pushing as the final, exhausting, very literal physical manifestation of my three years of laboring to bring this child into the world. My struggle to trust my body's ability to labor mirrored my struggle to trust my body's ability to conceive. In the end, I didn't really do it all on my own; nobody ever does. But I felt it all, like I always do. And my stubborn body rejected all of my efforts to assist it, like it always does.
In the end, it all fell between me and my God. And we made it work.
And what we made was glorious.