A Star is Born : A Terribly Wonderful Story
If men had babies, the entire world would have an established comfort level about what goes down in the delivery room. Telling your birth story would be a rite of passage. The New York Times would feature a daily column on its front page celebrating each miracle with headlines like: “Local Hero Barry Berkowitz Birthed 10 lbs Baby Girl Without Epidural” or “Stephen Colbert’s Emergency C-section”. Regardless if they were a comedy or tragedy, these stories would be shared and celebrated.
Growing up, my mother never told me much about the act of childbirth itself. She told stories about how my Dad bought a brand new car the day I was born so I could be driven home in air conditioning on a historically hot day in July. She told me how my brother was the biggest baby born in the hospital on record (12 lbs). She never told me what went down in the delivery room and I never asked.
I was one of the last girls to have a baby in my social circle. Hardly any of my friends ever discussed what happened in the delivery room beyond saying “it hurts”. Absolutely no one ever complained. The only person I knew that spoke about the act of childbirth itself was my good friend Ellen. Ellen was my first peer to become a parent. She is a scrappy and sassy native New Yorker with a petite frame (5 ft tall 100 lbs) . She had 2 boys a couple of years apart that each weighed about 9 lbs at birth. Ellen is absolutely immaculately composed in every arena of her life. Only the mention of childbirth could cause her to become unhinged. When the subject would inevitably come up at weddings or baby showers, Ellen was involuntarily compelled to tell us her birth stories. Her body language instantly changed each time she began. Ellen's warm eyes suddenly felt distant and her words came at a steady staccato pace of horrific detail. It was an amazing testimony to witness and you could feel her pain. It reminded me of a Vietnam veteran hanging out in Grand Central Station trying to educate the public on the terrors of war. Everyone in the terminal knew he was telling the truth and somehow they managed to just walk by. Some of our friends would roll their eyes as if she was being over dramatic. The joke was on them because Ellen’s cautionary tale was real and each and every one one of us was about to find out.
When I got married, I had no real expectation of getting pregnant. A 41 year old is really just hoping. I knew the realities of my husband knocking one past the goalie at this stage of life. Thanks to a little science and a trip to Paris, we soon found ourselves totally PG and not in a movie.
I kept my pregnancy a secret as long as I possibly could. I did my own research and settled on having a doula and preparing for my big day with pre-natal yoga and birthing classes.
The minute you are pregnant, the public at large begins asking questions at the speed of bullets leaving a machine gun. What is your birth plan? Have you seen “The Business of Being Born”? What are you going to do with your placenta? Everyone you know has a little nugget of advice for you. My sister-in-law is a doctor and gave me an encyclopedic book about childbirth somewhere in the beginning of my pregnancy. The book talked about hemorrhoids, mourning the end of your marriage as you know it and episiotomies gone wrong. There were detailed medical drawings of the entire birth process. One night of reading and I had to put it away. Just like Ellen’s testimony, I knew the book’s contents were filled with things that happen. However, I didn’t want to make bad things that can happen the cornerstone of my pregnancy and I sure as shit didn’t want to look at cartoon medical drawings of them.
The warnings kept coming. During my birthing class, the nurse/teacher looked at my husband and then looked at me and said, “Look at the size of his head. You should have a c-section.” I was receiving a lot of unsettling information. Around this time, I made a commitment to myself to focus on the poetic side of the situation. One of my favorite comments came from a man, “You are about to understand why your parents love you so much.” Truer words have never been spoken. Even before a baby is born, they bring great joy into your world. Even telling a stranger that you are knocked up can result in a delightful exchange not to mention telling people you actually love. My entire family was over the moon.
As the months started to fly by, I began to organize my support team. My OB, Dr. Erica, was captain. Dr. Erica is too serious, but I loved her anyway. She never referred to me as being of advanced maternal age and was a valuable advisor throughout the ups and downs of my pregnancy. My doula Deborah was co-captain. Doula Debrah oozed liquid positivity with an ethereal earth momma presence. Doula Deborah has assisted bringing over 1,600 babies into the world and mine was going to be 1,601. I knew nothing about having a baby and neither did my husband. Having a doula on the team is like having a birth concierge. They have seen everything and bring serious street cred to the team. My husband Peter was CEO (Chief Enforcement Officer). Peter has a powerful presence and people just do what he says. I’m still not sure if it’s out of fear or they just think he looks really important.
I went into labor on the evening of my due date right in the middle of watching the Oscars. I started timing what I thought were contractions and headed over to the hospital around 10 pm. I now know that these mini contractions were only a preview of the action movie coming my way. I was admitted straight to a delivery room because I was already 7 cm dilated. As the nurse started her list of questions, she asked me if I was sure I didn’t want to have a c-section. “This is going to be a very big baby” she said.
Doula Deborah met us at the hospital and we spent the next 9 hours going through the drill. I sat on the exercise ball, stood up and walked around the room, did deep squats, got down on all fours and anything else we could think of to progress the next few centimeters. My contractions were getting stronger, but each time the nurse checked under the hood, I was still only measuring 7cm. I needed to get to 10 cm. After 9 hours of childbirth Cirque du Soleil, I was ready to try just about anything.
Dr. Erica wasn’t on call that night and I was assigned another doctor in the practice. Dr. Melissa was petite with California blond beauty and the mother of 3 children. I liked her immediately. She suggested we try a little Pitocin to get things moving. With only a few drops from the drip, my body entered what I call hard core labor. The contractions started coming every 3 minutes and lasted about 45 seconds. A contraction is the polar opposite of an orgasm. For every ounce of pleasure in an orgasm, a contraction is pain. It was like getting hit by a cement truck over and over again. Even though contractions technically don’t make a sound, the impact was deafening. They sneak up on you in a flash and suddenly your entire body seizes. The air is shot from your lungs and you have absolutely no control over anything. You can not hear, talk, breathe, move or think. After about 6 of these, Dr. Melissa came to tell me that we were ready to start pushing. She told me that if I wanted to have this baby naturally, she was with me. She also advised me to rethink the epidural. It was going to be a bumpy ride. If the team captain says it’s going to be a bumpy ride and the captain has given birth 3 times, you believe her. Up until this point, I thought I was going to have a drug free delivery. I changed my mind. Doula Deborah and Peter went quickly to get the anesthesiologist.
While we were waiting, an intern came to visit and asked if I minded him observing my delivery. The intern was disturbingly young. If he had told me he was 18 years old, I would have believed him. Another contraction hit and I couldn’t respond. Peter came back in and I motioned to them both that it would be ok. We added another person to the team. Welcome Sean the intern.
The contractions were relentless. When the anesthesiologist came in, he told me I needed to be really still. I asked him if he could wait until the contraction passed because it was not humanly possible for me to be still during one. We waited and he got me fixed up. My world instantly changed. I had a moment of peace. I told the anesthesiologist I loved him. I meant it.
After about an hour, I made it to 10cm. I was still in pain, but nothing like before. The new sensation was more like the sudden awareness of a bowling ball pushing on your rectum. The baby was heading for the door.
About this time, another person joined the team. Jill Scott entered the room. A Jill Scott (the fabulous singer songwriter) doppelgänger was my delivery nurse. Jill Scott was from Botswana and spoke english with a enchanting African accent. She was super groovy and stunningly beautiful. Jill asked me if I liked the smell of peppermint. When I answered yes, she proceeded to rub essential peppermint oil around the bed. I had learned about using Aromatherapy as a pain management tool in birthing class. It’s like a little trick on the amygdala. This part of the brain can’t inhibit the effects of scent, meaning you feel them instantaneously and the pain would be secondary. I don’t know if the peppermint actually worked, but at least the room smelled good.
Things were starting to happen. Dr. Melissa and Sean the intern returned. It was time to push. Dr. Melissa walked over to the IV drip that was keeping me out of danger and basically turned it off. She could tell by my face that I was horrified. “We have to turn it down so you can feel your legs to push," she said. My husband had been playing classical music the entire night because he read that it would be soothing. Dr. Melissa looked straight at Peter and said, “Labor is a great time for Mozart. Delivery is all about Guns and Roses.” She had her game face on and was ready for kick off. Peter changed the music.
The pain that had been in hibernation reawakened. Each time I had a contraction, my team told me to push. For the first few pushes, I was trying to figure out how exactly one pushes. Jill and Dr. Melissa didn’t approve of my efforts. Jill Scott got right in my face and said, “Laura, you’ve got to poop the baby out!” I was too out of breath to question what this meant. Before the next push, Dr. Melissa commanded Peter to hold up one of my legs and for Sean the intern to hold the other. Please picture this: I am on a delivery table naked from the waist down with both of my legs in the air. One knee was draped over Peter’s arm and one over this 28 year old intern I barely knew. The baby was moving down and the pain was unbearable. I was beginning to scream bloody murder during each contraction. Dr. Melissa had the balls to tell me to stop screaming and to save my energy for pushing. I couldn't have stopped if I tried. I was screaming from pain, I was screaming because I couldn’t believe this was happening to me and I was screaming for all the women that this had happened to before me and for all those after. In that moment, I thought about Ellen. No matter how many times you hear someone explain the pain of childbirth, you can’t know it until you are in it. I was in it.
I had heard about the ring of fire. This is when the baby's head crowns. I would like for the medical industry to consider the following change of term. I recommend “Fire in the Hole” as a replacement. “Fire in the Hole” is the mantra that instantly entered my head and repeated over and over : Fire in the Hole, Fire in the Hole, Fire in the Hole, Fire in the Hole. I am not talking about burning, I am talking about knowing that your hoo-ha has gone up in flames. The baby’s head was crowning.
Dr. Melissa asked me if I wanted her to get a mirror so I could see the baby crowning. I responded with expletives. !$&! No!
At this point, I closed my eyes. This was another trick I had learned in birthing class. It’s called sensory deprivation. With my eyes closed, I could get a little separation from what was happening to me. It made it seem less real. I could barely hear what anyone was saying. Even the hairs on the back of my neck were electrified with pain. You know how doctors ask you to rate your pain on a scale from 1 to 10. F U doctors, childbirth is a 100.
I laid there in disbelief. I was dealing with Fire in the Hole, Jill Scott telling me to poop the baby out and Dr. Melissa shouting about the baby really needing me to push. I was pushing with everything I could muster. The bowling ball had now become an anvil. Suddenly, the burning reached a new level and I will never forget the moment I realized that Dr. Melissa was giving me an episiotomy. Being sliced from Paris to London in an awake state is torture. I thanked God that I had an epidural. If this situation could have been any worse, I didn’t want to know about it.
Meanwhile Sean the intern and Peter are all up in my business trying to keep my legs up. Their efforts were charming and completely sincere. Dr. Melissa was getting nervous. I could hear it in her voice, “Laura, You need to give me one more really good push”. I took a deep breath and pushed one more time. At that moment, I didn’t care if I died. I would have done anything for it to be over. I have heard women say that in the past and dismissed it as drama. You actually want to die at a certain point of delivery and the good thing is, it’s usually right before it’s over. That last push was magic. I felt and heard the snap of my hip bones momentarily separating and the baby popped out or as Jill Scott would say, “pooped out”. The baby literally flew out of my hoo-ha with great force and Dr. Melissa caught her like a football. Touchdown. Stella was born!
And just like that, the misery was gone and joy filled each corner of the room. Every single person there was high with happiness. The joy of a baby being born is inescapable, no one is immune. Dr. Melissa had a smile from ear to ear. My husband was verklempt and following the nurses around taking pictures as they cleaned and weighed Stella. As Dr. Melissa stitched me back together, my anger from delivery passed. I stopped counting when she reached 10 stitches. Everyone was calling Stella “Peter Junior" -- she looked like a newborn baby with Peter’s head on top.
As they handed me Stella, I thought about what my guy friend had told me so many months before. I now knew why my parents loved me so much.
Childbirth is a paradox of horrible and wonderful. The act itself is violent, disgusting, excruciatingly painful and downright dangerous. That’s even when it ends under the best possible circumstances. My birth story is a fairytale. I won the lottery. I was lucky to have even gotten pregnant and my baby was healthy. I was amazed at my body’s ability to just bounce. Only a few moments after Dr. Melissa tied that last stitch, I walked out of that delivery room on my own two feet as if nothing had happened.
I know why so many women never talk about childbirth. Frankly, it’s difficult to tell an unbelievable story. If people have never experienced Oz, they really can’t believe it exists. I waited 5 years to write this. I wanted to see if I could achieve a level of nonchalance that so many women have when asked about childbirth. I will never get there. I am an Ellen. I will always tell an animated and gripping story of this amazing experience out of respect for my body and all those bodies that do it every day.
Just before I walked out of the delivery room, Sean the intern came over to hug and thank me for letting him participate. The room was filled with my entire birth team celebrating. Even a few additional nurses had come by to get a sip of the joy that is a new baby. This young doctor in training had seen all of my lady parts and was an important member of my birth team. I mean, who else was going to hold up that other leg? I found myself feeling endeared to him. “Laura, thanks so much for letting me be here today," he said with total sincereity. I didn’t skip a beat before I responded, “Aren’t you glad you have a penis.” Sean turned beet red and the entire delivery room erupted in laughter.
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