Where were we? Ah, yes. Monday afternoon. We were on the subway. Of course. Where the hell else would we be, with me 4 cm dilated, completely effaced, having been contracting regularly for twelve hours or so? Surely not NEAR THE DAMN DOCTOR’S OFFICE WE HAD JUST LEFT, WHICH IS FOUR DAMN BLOCKS FROM THE MOTHERFUCKING HOSPITAL.
To make sure you understand how stupid this was, please note that not only is it 45 minutes to an hour to get home from the doctor (actually a bit faster than driving, which was part of the attraction), but also: we don’t live on that train line. Or the train line we transfer to next. So that’s three trains home, and one of the transfers is up stairs. But I wanted to be at home. I didn’t feel good. I didn’t want to eat any of the food I could think of getting in Midtown, and I certainly didn’t want to walk around there in the cold drizzle. And cabs are expensive and nerve-wracking, and the subway is familiar and cheap. So off we went.
The story would be more exciting if my water had broken on the train, it’s true, but if that had happened even I might have had the sense to get off and hop a cab back uptown. In fact, the ride was okay. I had a few contractions; they didn’t really pick up until we were under the East River, leading me to believe that the Bean just wanted to be born in Brooklyn. And a little while later, I thought he might get his wish.
My sense of time gets pretty shaky from here on out. I think we must get home around 3:30. I am ravenous. I’d tried to eat the bland food they tell you to have in labor in the morning, but my bowl of grits was left to congeal. (Grits are my go-to bland comfort food, which I mentioned in our birthclass brainstorm only to have the teacher say that although oatmeal was a good labor food, grits might be okay in very early labor. Yankees! ) Bland food made me feel gross in the first trimester, and it seems gross now. So I eat the spicy beef leftovers. And they are awesome. And I am glad I was so shameless about asking for them.
Then everything starts to happen at once. Nature, as they say, calls. Insistently and for quite a while. I discover just how very, very, very much I hate having contractions on the toilet. I know some of you were into laboring there or in that position, and I am here to say that you are out of your tiny minds. Once my body has, erm, cleared the decks, the contractions go wild. Sixty to 90 seconds long, every three to four minutes. Instead of counting and groaning, I am counting and yelling and clawing the bed. I bend over the couch, I slow-dance with Sugar; nothing helps. At one point, I accidentally bite Sugar’s leg (which doesn’t help that much either).
Even before the tooth marks can fade, Sugar calls the OB office to say we’d like to go to the hospital. (For me, not her leg. I didn’t even break the skin, okay?) While she’s talking to that dumb bitch of a nurse you remember from the Vasospasm Chronicles, I have a contraction. And Nurse Helpful says, “You have to get her to calm down.” Because you know, being quiet while in bone-crunching pain is really, really important. There goes my Good Girl Gold Star for Laboring Like A Lady, I guess. (Sugar, who is wise beyond comprehension, doesn’t tell me about that comment until much, much later. I PROBABLY wouldn’t have insisted we stop by the office on the way to the hospital and throttle her anyway.) However, the nurse agrees that if I want an epidural, we should head in. So we call a car again.
Only now it’s rush-hour.
While we’re waiting for the elevator, I feel a little excited. Mostly afraid I’ll have another contraction and fall down in the hall, but a little excited. I am in labor! This is happening! Who’d have thought it would happen today? (You know, besides anyone who’d thought rationally about the events of the previous 36 hours.) By the time we get to the stoop, I am back to petrified. I get walloped with more contractions; when the car arrives, Sugar has to run tell it to wait until I can walk again. I curse my decision to deliver at Kips Bay Mega Hospital rather than one in Brooklyn. Sure, I had my reasons, but LICH is so close.
In birth class, there was a lot of talk about how giving birth in real life isn’t at all like giving birth in the movies. In some respects I guess that’s true: my water didn’t burst out all over the stage while I gave a speech for my entire company and Dr. Baby Factory didn’t just happen to poke his head into the room during the pushing so that I could grab him by the neck and scream, YOU DID THIS TO ME!!!! But this part of the story, from when Sugar trundled me into the cab until the epidural was in? This part was exactly like the movies.
Cab driver, I wish I knew your name, because you deserve a medal for patience, fortitude, and grace under fire. You could give a seminar in how to treat a laboring woman, and several of the medical professionals we dealt with ought to be required to attend. You did your job without comment and you did it well. I cannot have been your favorite fare that day, but I trust you at least got a good story out of the deal.
What he didn’t get was much peace and quiet. For the whole ride in — at rush hour, remember — I am doing my level best to cope like they said at birth class. So Sugar and I are counting out my contractions, in eights, the whole way in. And I by God keep up the counting, even though my yelling progresses rapidly to screaming.
About five blocks into the trip, I begin to wonder if I could be in transition. I can’t make any other sense of what was happening. My autonomic nervous system has gone completely haywire; I am roasting to death and convulsed with chills. The contractions get longer and longer and closer and closer together; at times there are no breaks at all. The advantage to counting through contractions is that it gives me a sense of when one might end (at about 14-2-3-4-5-6-7-8); the disadvantage is how terrifying it is to be still counting in the twenties and thirties. (Sugar says she remembers being in the forties at one point, which I have blessedly forgotten.) I am out of my mind with pain. At one point, between contractions, somewhere still deep in Brooklyn, I look up at the brick tower alongside us and it occurs to me that there will be a time in my life when I no longer feel like this. The idea is so strange that it transfixes me for a moment, until I feel a gush and yell out that my water is breaking.
(What an unwelcome thing that must be to hear as a cab driver. Luckily, we have a towel.)
At around this time, I start to feel a strong urge to push. Oh, God, the baby is going to be born in this cab and I’m never going to get my epidural. I stick a hand in my pants, but I don’t feel a head, so I try not to push. Or at least not hard.
At some point, it occurs to me that this back labor thing really is happening. To me. I’ve long ago stopped feeling anything in my belly, nor do I feel anything there for the rest of the labor. What I feel in the car is that someone has decided to replace the bones in my back and my thighs with iron rods. The rods are set on the ends of my bones, and at each contraction, they are slammed into the bones over and over like jam-hammers, reducing me into rubble. Absolutely nothing about this feels “natural” or “productive” or any of those other reassuring things. At one point, alongside the ruined houses of Admiral’s Row, I wonder if I will die.
I know I am given to hyperbole in my writing, but in life, believe it or not, I don’t go in for hysterics. (My preference to be left alone and not bother anyone when I’m sick or in pain is what leads me to do dumb things like this.) Part of why it’s taken me so very long to write this story is that I spent a terrifically long time crippled by shame over how I behaved at the points of labor when the pain was at its worst. I didn’t hurt anyone or endanger the baby or say anything rude (that I regret), it’s just that I didn’t expect to be so out of control. After everything was over, I felt so embarrassed about it (no thanks to some of what was said at the hospital), and I felt that I hadn’t lived up to the example of your stories, that I hadn’t been strong or powerful or amazing but rather weak and overwhelmed and whiny and over-dramatic. When they said in birth class that being in labor meant letting go of your “social self” I thought that meant I would shut down the way I do during the GI/endo bouts, that I would not want to talk or be talked to and that I would do some moaning. I didn’t expect to be screaming — scream-counting, but still — or making these terrible dry-sobbing noises.
But there I am, making them. When I am able to think, I am beset by a series of fears:
- What if the baby is born in this car?
- Or, oh, God, what if the baby isn’t born in this car and I just have to keep doing this?
- What if I get to the hospital and the baby isn’t born yet but they say it’s too late for an epidural (never mind that the “it’s never too early or too late” policy was part of the appeal of Kips Bay) and they make me just keep going even though I’ve made it in?
- Oh, God. They’re going to make me be on an IV for an hour, like the books say, and I’ll have to be in the hospital knowing they could give me an epidural but that they won’t.
- Oh, God! Before they’ll even do that, I’ll have to go to triage. Triage! I cannot handle triage! They’ll make me move from room to room and I will die. Or kill someone.
I interrupt my anxiety spiral to notice that we are SO not on the way to the hospital. Car service drivers tend to have their own opinions about how best to get to the bridges and it doesn’t do to tell them their business, but it has been forever and we are still in fucking Brooklyn. Traffic is heavy, and we really do hit every light. I am bent over sideways in the backseat, looking up at the world as I did on long car trips as a child stretched out across the backseat. At some point, I lift my head up and see that we are at the Navy Yards. Does this guy think we’re going to Queens? What if he’s taking us to the wrong hospital? WHY ARE WE STILL IN BROOKLYN?????
So calmly, so beautifully calmly, he answers, because it is rush hour and I am avoiding the traffic jam downtown approaching the bridge. Cab driver, I mentally send you flowers every time I think of your gentle tone and your impressive withholding of epithets at that moment. God bless you. Later, when I screamed at you that you were driving past the hospital, it was kind of you only to say that the hospital I was seeing was Bellevue and withhold any suggestion that perhaps I belonged there.
I had a few moments of clarity before arriving at the hospital. I remember thinking that because each of our cabs had chosen different bridges, we would be able to tell the baby about going over both the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridge while he was coming. That seemed really cool for some reason. Later, as we crawled up First Avenue (thank you, cabbie, for not taking the FDR), there was this strange break from everything and it seemed perfectly normal to remark to Sugar on the unexpected presence of a European restaurant in the heart of Chinatown. ( “Look, they sell Swedish food.” ) Sugar reports finding that a bit surreal.
Another thing I had imagined was at least kind of being able to walk when we arrives at the hospital. Instead, I only have eyes for the lone wheelchair mercifully abandoned by the entrance and scream until the driver backs up, switches lanes, and brings me to it. Sugar runs around trying to figure out how to push me and deal with the luggage. Some presumed neurologist (bow-tie) leans over and asks if my “erm, companion” has gotten help. This all seems to take forever, but then Sugar is back, rushing me to the elevator. Which is absolutely packed, naturally, so I try to scream quietly while the neurologist and others chat about their weekends.
Our arrival in L&D is also cinematic: I am sprawled across the careering wheelchair, wailing. I hope I wasn’t screaming “give me my damn epidural,” but the possibility exists. However, one fear is instantly assuaged: turns out that if you arrive at Kips Bay L&D having clearly lost your tiny mind, you do not have to go to triage.
In the room, off go my rather soggy corduroys and everything else. As the nurse starts my IV, I whine at her, “Am I going to have to wait a really long time for my epidural?” She says no. “Are you lying to me??”
I am sure she is lying to me. Hell, I would lie to me. But she isn’t. The anesthesiologist comes in right away. He is a short man with comically tall hair and a horrible, sing-song, chipper-camp-counselor voice. He introduces himself and commences cheerfully upbraiding me for yelling.
I know how this works. I know that I will need to sit up, bend over, hold still. I am trying to move between contractions, only there isn’t any “between” anymore, so it’s hard. And his stupid monologue about how I need to stop carrying on is not helping.
This is when Sugar and I learn something about what is and isn’t part of that social self that disappeared on the ride in. Apparently preferring silence while in pain, which I would have bet was pretty deeply part of me, is surface stuff. But the Teacher Voice is primal.
So here I am, screaming, moaning, trying to turn to sit, wishing there weren’t so many people touching me and talking all at once. And then Dr. Jerkwad comes out with his most enraging and unhelpful line thus far, a merrily hostile, “You’ve got to get some self-discipline.”
And, reports Sugar, I go suddenly silent, to everyone’s surprise. And out it comes, low and loud and firm and clear, the Teacher Voice. And it says, heedless of the fact that this is maybe not the brightest remark to make to someone poised to put a needle in my spine,