We celebrated Nicholas’s first birthday on Monday, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what we were doing at this time last year. With that in mind, I decided to write his birth story.
When I was expecting my first son, Theo, I did prenatal yoga twice a week and took eighteen hours of childbirth classes. These classes fostered the comforting delusion that I could actually be prepared for childbirth. I loved hanging out with other pregnant women and doing exercises that would ostensibly help us breeze through labor like the beautiful mother-goddesses we were.
But the thing I loved most about them were the birth stories.
In the yoga class, it was customary for the new moms to email the instructor after their babies were born to let her know how it had all gone down. These women were known as the “graduates.” The instructor would take a few minutes at the beginning of each class to read the latest email to us, and I was captivated.
No matter how many stories I heard, I just could not wrap my mind around the fact that a person who had been here just last week, doing her kegels on the traditional Mexican yoga blanket right next to mine, had gone on to push an actual baby out of her body.
It was very much like when, as a teenager, I was completely obsessed with other girls’ tales of losing their virginity. Like childbirth, it could be painful and bloody, and the idea that it could result in an orgasm for the woman seemed dubious at best.
The couples in our birth class also emailed their birth stories to the group. The dads were the ones who wrote these stories. And interestingly, they were quite different from those I’d heard in the yoga class.
The stories written by the women were largely factual and lacking in drama: “After four hours of pushing, Harper was born. There was some tearing and I ended up with twenty-two stitches.” And the ones written by the men were a lot more… colorful. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist of the first one was something like: “I have never in my life heard a human being make such terrible sounds.”
These stories were scary but motivating, in a Rocky sort of way. After all, I was good at the classes, so I figured I would be “good” at giving birth. I could hold wall squats like a champ, and my husband, Steven, had aced the class in which we learned to use a scarf-like thing called a rebozo to help ease contractions.
I loved poking fun at the Brooklyn bobo self-seriousness of these classes, but secretly I was sure I was going to huff and puff the baby right out with nothing more than a yoga ball and my inner Gaia to help me.
Would it shock you to learn that this is not at all how it went? After sixteen hours of un-medicated labor I asked for an epidural. I cried because I felt like I was failing, and then I stopped crying after I got the shot and the pain immediately disappeared. After sixteen more hours passed with no baby, I ended up with a (gasp!) C-section. And it all turned out fine.
Still, I didn’t email my story to the yoga teacher. This was a selfish move, given how much I loved hearing the stories of others’. I think I hesitated in part because I knew how the C-section would be received by that crowd. I didn’t want others smugly thinking (as I had) that their births wouldn’t end up like that.
The second time around, I was torn between going for a no-muss-no-fuss repeat C-section and trying for a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarian). I knew that I would definitely opt for the sweet, sweet epidural, but I was pretty sure I could push the baby out on my own this time.
So I spent the first six months of my pregnancy reading everything I could about the risks of a VBAC versus a repeat C. I interviewed all of the doctors in my ObGyn practice about their views. One assured me that I was a “great candidate” and regaled me with the story of her own successful VBAC.
Another doctor warned that previous caesarian scars can weaken the uterus and cause it to rupture during labor. He told a story of a VBAC gone horribly wrong, in which a woman’s uterus basically exploded and she nearly died. Afterward, he was so traumatized that his wife begged him to never do another VBAC again.
I wanted to believe the first doctor, and in the image of me as a woman who could give birth the “natural” way. But in the end, I decided that the experience of pushing a baby out of my vagina was not worth the risk of an exploded uterus. I chose the anti-VBAC doctor and we set a date for the C-section.
Let me pause here to address a question that may have occurred to some of you, because I certainly struggled with it at the time: What does it say about me that I put my faith in the male doctor with the cautionary tale over the female doctor with the message of empowerment?
In order to move forward, I had to stop thinking of my decision as a statement about my level of feminism. The research was frustratingly inconclusive. Nothing I read told me plainly and irrefutably whether the C-section or the VBAC was the riskier choice. But the C-section would involve fewer unknowns, and more manageable risk, so that’s the one I chose. (And yes, the doctor was a nice Italian guy, and I knew my mother would approve.)
I made peace with my decision. This vision of childbirth was pretty much the exact opposite of the one I’d had with my first baby, but I convinced myself that it would be beautiful in its own way. My hospital stay would be almost like a mini-vacation! I would check into the hospital rested, showered and coiffed, and I’d glide into and out of the operating room with nary an abdominal twinge. There was no mystery here; I knew exactly how this birth was going to go.
My C-section had been scheduled for November 26, the day before Thanksgiving. What better way to celebrate the holiday? Steven’s mom and aunt came to stay with us in early November to help out during the last weeks of my pregnancy. They entertained our two-year-old and drove him back and forth to daycare. They went to the grocery store and cooked all of our meals and brought me tea in bed.
The week before I was scheduled to deliver, my sister-in-law and her husband traveled from California to spend a couple of days with us. It was to be a last, pre-second baby hurrah. But I got sick. Really sick. I had the worst headache I’d ever had in my life; it felt like my brain had come loose and was clanging around in my skull. Because I was pregnant I could only take Tylenol, which is slightly less effective than Pez.
Along with the headache came a fever and chills. I would whimper pathetically every time I had to get out from under my covers, which I did only to use the bathroom. While the family hung out downstairs, I was upstairs in my bedroom, shivering uncontrollably and having a major panic attack. What was wrong with me? Was the baby in danger?
My mother-in-law drove me to the hospital on a Friday afternoon. The nurse gave me a paper bag to breathe into and told me that if I didn’t calm down I’d make myself really sick. Then she left me alone in the exam room for an eternity. Eventually I was sent home.
The following night I felt even worse, so Steven took me back to the hospital. I didn’t have a bag packed; I don’t even know when I’d last showered. I pulled a blanket off the couch and wrapped it around myself, and Steven tucked me into the car.
This time, the doctors kept me overnight in the ER. They planned to do a CAT scan first thing in the morning. My bed was in a curtained-off section of a common area, and I lay awake all night listening to an elderly woman moan that they should just let her die.
I alternated between worrying about the old lady and wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Did I have a brain tumor? Was I experiencing head labor?
But the CAT scan revealed nothing amiss. The doctors said it was “probably viral” and decided to keep me in the hospital until the scheduled C-section, which at that point was still three days away. The thought of staying in the hospital until then, in pain and unable to sleep, was unbearable. I begged the doctors to either let me go home, to my own bed, or get the baby out NOW. My body, sensing the emergency, came to the rescue: my water broke.
They decided to give me a pelvic exam, just to be sure, even as the sheets on my bed became drenched. This did not feel good at all. I don’t remember exactly what I yelled at the poor resident who conducted the exam, but I know it was not nice.
After that, everything moved in fast-forward: Contractions came on strong and fast, one on top of the next. I remembered then why I had loved the epidural so much.
It was a Sunday, and not only was my doctor not on call that day, none of the doctors from my practice was available. So someone I had never met would be performing the C-section. I endured more contractions—it felt like hours, but it was probably more like thirty or forty minutes before the anesthesiologist slid the delicious, numbing needle into my back.
And then the OB arrived, smelling of wood smoke. I imagined her getting called away from a cozy living room to come to the hospital. I liked her immediately. (I liked her so much that I switched to her practice after the baby was born. At my postpartum visit, when she examined me for the first time, the first thing she said was: “You never would have been able to push a baby out of here! You have a very small vagina.” Well, who knew? It would have been nice if someone had mentioned this to me much, much earlier.)
The doctor was assisted by an incredibly enthusiastic resident who had been caring for me on and off throughout my stay in the ER. “I told you I was going to deliver this baby!” he said, and put up his hand for a high-five.
My husband appeared at my side, disguised in scrubs and a mask, and the rest is a blur. I remember the doctor holding up Nicholas, squalling and bloody, for us to see. I remember crying with relief. I remember that they played Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” as they stitched me up.
Nicholas was whisked away. I couldn’t hold him or nurse him. Because of my fever and mystery illness, he was going to have to spend a few days in the NICU for observation.
Nicholas and I were in the hospital for the next four days. We spent most of it apart, me still fighting the mystery illness and him lying in a Plexiglass box. Occasionally I would hoist myself out of bed and into a wheelchair, and someone would wheel me over to visit him. He was only six-and-a-half pounds but he dwarfed the other babies, many of whom had been born weeks prematurely and were unbelievably tiny.
Then Steven came down with the mystery illness, and he had to go home. Part of me was irrationally angry with him for getting sick. For a while I was alone, and I lay in my hospital room, high on painkillers, staring out the window at the gray and snow and drizzle. I occasionally forgot about the baby entirely. I would say to myself: “You just had a baby,” and it didn’t seem real.
My mom came to take Steven’s place. She stayed with me in the hospital and slept in my room on the uncomfortable reclining chair-bed. The doctors had finally hit on a medication that helped my headache. Things were looking up.
On Thanksgiving morning, after another sleepless night, I turned on the television to watch the parade preparations. I was scheduled to go home that day. I shuffled into the bathroom and showered, shivering the whole time but happy to finally be clean.
And then, at last, we went home.
Things felt different than they had when we took our first baby home. For one thing, I was convinced that having this baby had been a terrible mistake. There was no way I was going to be able to care for him and my toddler. Also, in less than three years it seemed I had completely forgotten what it was like to have a newborn. I was terrified of him. He screamed whenever his diaper was changed, and his little bottom and penis and umbilical stump were so red and raw that I could hardly bring myself to look at them.
“His butt looks like chop meat!” my husband said.
I avoided changing him, leaving the task to the other adults in the house.
I had trouble nursing him. I had thought it would be easy, since I’d been so good at it the first time around. (But again, I’d forgotten that it hadn’t been so easy at first.) I fretted that the baby’s time in the NICU had ruined our chances of breastfeeding. A lactation consultant came to the house, and eventually we got the hang of it. But it was not, at first, the lovely, relaxing bonding experience I remembered; it was awkward and painful.
All of that aside, the timing of Nicholas’s birth was pretty perfect. We were in the midst of the holidays, which meant time off for Steven and lots of family around.
But then it was all over.
One of the saddest, scariest moments of my life was watching my parents back their car out of my driveway and drive off, leaving me alone with my newborn and toddler for the first time. I stood by the window and watched their red Volvo disappear down the street. When I couldn’t see it anymore, I started to cry.
It was a few days after Christmas, and Steven had gone back to work. It had been weeks since I’d so much as taken a plate out of a cabinet; I was still sore from my C-section and woozy from lack of sleep. It seemed as though I would never feel normal again.
It was a double whammy: my usual post-holiday gloom was compounded by our sudden aloneness. The long winter stretched before us. Soon, I would be tasked with getting Theo to daycare in the morning and picking him up in the afternoon, all with the baby in tow. I would have to start grocery shopping again, and cooking, taking care of a toddler, and doing all the same things I was doing before, except this time with a newborn.
“How did the pioneer women do it?” I asked my best friend, half-joking.
“They weren’t alone,” she said. “Their mothers and sisters and aunts and everybody helped take care of the kids.”
She had a point. A pioneer woman’s life hadn’t seemed so great to me before—what with all the physical labor and dying young and everything—but I suddenly felt a little envious of them.
Things were hard for a while. There were a lot of tears, mostly mine. But then, gradually, we all got the hang of it. Nicholas eased into our family, and he filled a space we hadn’t known was there. His butt, mercifully, no longer looks like chop meat.
Nicholas’s first birthday fell on a Monday. Theo was in school and Steven was at work, so it was just the two of us. We spent the day visiting a friend and hanging out together. That evening, in lieu of a party, he and his brother shared a cupcake. Theo ate the frosting, and Nicholas gobbled up the spongy cake. We will have another little party for him tomorrow, on Thanksgiving, when my parents are here.
This year there are so many things to be thankful for: for our sweet, happy little Nicholas, and for Theo, who delights us every day with his intelligence and humor. I am thankful that Steven and I survived another child’s first year—and that we still like each other. I am thankful that I will get to watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade from the comfort of my own couch this year, surrounded by my three excellent boys.