My pregnancy with my first son defied every expectation, beginning with the failed belief that I—like my mother and sister—would have no knowledge of morning sickness, and ending with the assumption that I—like most first-time mothers—would take 12-24 hours to deliver a baby. I was wrong on both (and many other) counts! While my memory of the violent morning sickness has thankfully begun to fade, the story of my son’s arrival to the world remains, at least to me, an astoundingly fast, poignant experience.
I had decided before my son’s birth that I would be induced so that my extended family could be present. The induction was set one week before my due date, the earliest and safest time my OBGYN could perform the procedure. We were told my delivery could last up to two days and that I could not eat after 10 p.m. the previous night. After a lavish meal and thorough packing, my husband, mother, father, mother-in-law, and I drove the 24 miles to the hospital. We checked in, I was feeling no pain, and I generally thought how odd and awesome it was that I could waddle into a hospital, get some medicine, and—boom!—become a mother. And all without those crazy labor experiences I’d seen in the movies where the woman breaks her water on the street and practically has her baby driving to the hospital, all while screaming like a banshee and clawing at the walls. No sir, I thought happily. This would not be me!
After settling into our room, I changed into a hospital gown, had several monitors attached to my preggo belly, and endured the IV placement through the top of my hand. I was contracting regularly, yet felt absolutely nothing. My OBGYN’s partner arrived, did a cervical exam, and announced that I was only 2 cm dilated and 75% effaced. Barely anything! My son was still vertex (face-down) and we were right on schedule for the induction. I was given three pills: one to ripen my cervix for the induction the next morning, and two sleeping pills. My parents and mother-in-law lingered until 10 p.m., when all visitors were asked to leave, and I gaily kissed them goodbye and announced that we would see them the next morning, after everyone had a full night’s rest.
They were not on the road fifteen minutes when I began to feel funny. My belly rippled and then, just as I was asking the nurse how long until the medicine would take effect (answer: 8-10 hours), I felt something drip between my legs. Oh great, I thought. I’m peeing the bed. Way to go, urinary incontinence! But then … it just kept going, like a faucet set to trickle. After about 10 seconds, when I was sure I was turning into Niagara Falls, I raised my hand and said to my husband, “Chris? I think my water just broke.”
We paged the nurse, who was doubtful but obliged us by administering a test, which included the use of a very long Q-tip. “If it changes color,” she explained, “then it’s your amniotic fluid.” When she finished, she stood back, and we all watched it turn bright purple.
“Holy cow,” I said. “So my water just broke?”
“Seems so,” said the nurse.
But I was confused, and asked, “How could the cervical medicine have taken effect so quickly?”
“It didn’t,” she said. “It hasn’t even been twenty minutes. This is completely unmedicated.”
“So even if I hadn’t taken the medicine, or come here, my water still would have broken?”
“You got it,” she said, then left to page my doctor.
I was shocked. Shocked! Like my mother and sister, my water had broken before I had even felt a contraction. This is a rare circumstance, occurring in something less than 10% of pregnancies. Most women have contractions for quite some time, even days, before their water breaks. Yet there I was, sitting upright in a hospital bed, planning an induction, feeling no pain, when—POW!—the dam broke. The nurse returned and checked my cervix: I had dilated to 4 cm. Quite a change in under half an hour.
But I still felt I had time. I mean, my mother’s and sister’s deliveries took forever. All first-time deliveries do. I had hours, maybe even days, before my son would arrive. I didn’t panic. I wasn’t worried. Nothing was going to happen…until…
What was that? A menstrual cramp? I massaged my abdomen, trying to relieve the pressure. But it was snaking through again, stronger, like an enormous hand clenching my organs in an armored fist. I sat up, tried to rearrange myself, to no avail. In the near distance I heard my husband talking on his phone, but I could only listen for what seemed like a minute before the pain returned again. I winced, my breath came short, and I didn’t know where to put my hands, my legs. Where was the relief?
My husband saw my face, looked at the monitor, and said, “You’re having a contraction.”
“I know,” I grunted, then finally began to feel the tension ease. “Holy cow. That was rough. Phew.”
I was fine for another few minutes when, like a train, I heard an internal whistle deep inside, building its momentum, and then it had me in its vice-like grip. I couldn’t speak at all, or make a sound. I sat in bed with a pain that wracked me as my husband declared, again, that it was another contraction.
“What?” I panted. “But it’s barely been three minutes!”
“So was the last one,” he said, appearing concerned.
But I figured they would lengthen out, or taper off, because I had hours—days!—to go yet. It wouldn’t happen so fast. It couldn’t. It never does!
But then after what seemed like five seconds (though in reality it was about two and a half minutes), my husband said in what I will always remember as his doomsday voice, “You’re about to have another contraction, honey.”
“A contraction. You’re about to—”
I gasped before he could finish. It was back, worse than before. I remember thinking it was too fast, this was all happening too fast. And why in the world did my husband have to announce contractions like that? It was cruel and unusual punishment!
My husband paged the nurse. “Her contractions are three minutes apart,” he told her.
“Three minutes?” She checked the monitor. “Boy, that’s fast.” She turned to me. “Are you still wanting an epidural?”
She grinned and was sympathetic through the next contraction, then told me to run to the bathroom because it would be the last time that I could before the catheter. They helped me up, I made it to the bathroom, and was just washing my hands when—BOOM!—the worst contraction yet. The pain was so intense, radiating down to my toes and up to my fingertips. I wondered why any woman in the world would want to experience such pain naturally. I would have thrown the diaper bag at anyone suggesting an unmedicated childbirth, I wanted the relief of modern medicine so badly.
They helped me into bed just as the anesthesiologist arrived with his little cart of equipment, medicines, and various scary needles. But I didn’t care. Bring. It. On.
He looked tired, as if having just been dragged from bed, and asked quite grouchily, “So. Do you have a birth plan?”
Birth plan. I’d heard these words before, though honestly had never looked them up. “A birth plan?” I repeated.
“Yes,” he said with a bored yawn. “Do you have one?”
“I think so.”
He glared at me. Glared. It was clear that my answer should have been no. “Really. Then what is it?”
I stared at him. “Well. I want to have an epidural and hopefully hold out until my family makes it back.”
Dead silence. “And that’s your birth plan?”
I shrugged. “Do I need anything else?”
“Heck no!” he said with a conspiratorial laugh and nod to the nurse. “No. I just thought you were one of those New Age nuts who wanted aromatherapy candles, a bouncy ball, or to give birth in a bathtub.”
I laughed. “Oh no. I just want the epidural. I figure you guys know what you’re doing.”
He nodded and began to arrange his equipment, and that’s when another contraction seized. My husband held my hand, whispered encouraging things, and vowed to never—ever—announce another contraction.
“You’ll feel better soon,” assured the anesthesiologist as he swabbed iodine on my back and told me to lean forward.
“This is going to burn…”
“But not nearly as bad as the birth would!” said the nurse, trying to be encouraging.
I’ve had lots of needle sticks before. Heck, I had a blood transfusion when I was only hours old. This was the worst of them all. Like someone stoking a fire in the middle of your back and then it snapping down the highways of your arteries and veins. I counted through it, and it lasted exactly six seconds. But a contraction was snapping at the heels of this pain, and I braved through it, with everyone in the room telling me that the next contraction would be better. Then the next one. By the third contraction it was better, then it was so much better. And then…nothing at all. I felt no pain.
It was worth it.
This is when my memory starts to get hazy (thank you, sleeping pills) and I have to rely on the testimonies of my husband, parents, mother-in-law, doctors, and nurses. The nurse came in, performed another pelvic exam, and looked very confused. “You’re at an 8 now,” she said. “And I don’t know…” She squinted in concentration, felt around for something. “I don’t know if that’s his head anymore. It feels like his butt.”
“His butt?” I echoed, my mind swimming.
“Let me get another nurse.” And then there were two of them, checking my cervix, shocked at how quickly I was dilating, shocked still more when it was discovered and confirmed (by a doctor via ultrasound) that my son had flipped sometime in the last hour, and that his body had jackknifed in my pelvis, with his arms and legs severely V-ed, his butt sinking fast.
I have no memory of being told this, or of scrawling my name on a waiver for an emergency C-section. I don’t remember my parents arriving mere minutes before I was wheeled into the operating room, or what I said to them. By all accounts, I was crying and shaking as if in seizure. I’m told this was from my combination of medications, the massive amounts of pumping adrenaline, the fact that my son was sinking rapidly into my pelvis, and my body going haywire. My mother and mother-in-law believe that I was worried for my baby and for myself, about the planned induction turning so quickly to major surgery. I do remember thinking that it was all happening so fast, too fast, that my life was speeding past me and that I couldn’t catch my breath.
My next memory is the lights lining the hallway as I was wheeled on a gurney. Then of the blue sheet stretched in front and above me. My husband in green scrubs on my left side, my father in scrubs on my right. I remember being tugged up and down, then side-to-side, on the table, the distant voices. I remember getting sick, twice, on my father’s side. I remember fading in and out, my husband’s worried face. I remember talking gibberish, losing threads of thought. Then … my son’s little cry, so tiny and beautiful, not a wail or a shriek, but a sonorous note, as if formed by a swan. I remember thinking, “My baby! What a sweet little voice!” But I don’t remember seeing him for the first time, or holding him, though I did. What I remember is my husband’s face staring down at me, his blue eyes radiant over his facemask, and feeling so very tired.
My next memory is several hours later, during what was allegedly my second time breastfeeding. I was alone in the room save for my husband, holding my son’s small body to my own, looking down at his eyes, closed in bliss, marveling at how small his fingers were, and how perfect. My baby. And then he squeaked, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, and then he sighed.
And I fell in love.
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