Well, jeebers. It’s been six months since Abby made her big debut. Time flies when you’re having fun, huh?
I realize that I never told my birth story. I think it’s because it was such a mixed bag. It ended up being a great, fabulous birth, but the experience was marred by a midwife who seemed hell-bent on ruining it. My feelings toward midwives are complex, to put it nicely, so I’ve avoided telling the story online because I know this is an unpopular view.
But maybe it’s time to tell the tale and let the complaints fall where they may.
First, the birth story. I was in my 39th week, which was a miracle in itself because Penelope was born 10 weeks early, as I might have mentioned once or twice. Thanks to the care of my great OB-GYN and UCSF, plus weekly shots of progesterone that was covered by my insurance company (!!), I had made it to term, and could not wait to get that baby out. I was heavy, exhausted, in pain, miserable, and every day I just longed for my endless Braxton-Hicks to organize themselves into real contractions.
It was a Tuesday morning, and I was extremely cranky. My husband was taking Penelope out to the Academy of Science museum so I could get my work done, and I sat down in our home office to work. My best friend called from Colorado, so I chit-chatted with her as I went through my morning email. “You keep saying you’re having Braxton-Hicks, but you’ve had like three since we’ve been on the phone, and it’s only been 20 minutes.”
“Eh, it’s nothing,” I said. “I thought I was in labor yesterday, and all I had was a giant poop.”
“Yeah, maybe you should call your doctor,” she said.
“Fine,” I grumbled, and called the doctor’s office. While I was talking to the nurse, I had a for-real contraction that left me breathless, and then another.
“You should come in right now,” the nurse said.
“I don’t want to be one of those people who comes in with false labor and gets sent home!” I told her.
“I can understand that. But come in. Now.”
I was trying to time my contractions on the iPhone, but I had recently upgraded to the new OS and the app was buggy and crashy. By the time I figured out how to work it, the contractions were five minutes apart, then three.
“Calling doctor,” I texted Randy. Then, 20 minutes later, “3 mins/should I cab it?” Please, please, please, don’t let this be the day AT&T doesn’t deliver the message, I prayed. He called a moment later to say he was on his way.
I called my sister, who had recently had her own second kiddo. “I’m sure this is fake labo-OWWWW!” I said. “I’m at the grocery store. I’m paying now. I’ll be home in ten minutes,” she said. “Just drop her off.”
By the time Randy pulled into the garage 20 minutes later, I had packed both my and Penny’s overnight bag, donned my “I (Heart) Epidurals” T-shirt, and was lugging everything downstairs myself. Randy was fretting about getting to the hospital and wanted to go straight there and have someone pick up Penny, but I was adamant: she was going to have a calm day, not a scary one, and I wanted her to go seamlessly to my sister’s house. We squabbled about the five-minute route, and pulled up just as my sister did. Penny knew something was up, and went easily to Emily, leaning in through the window to kiss me and not kicking up a fuss. She is a trouper.
I was devastated leaving her. It’s common, if my friends are any indication, to worry that your next kid is upsetting the first kid’s apple cart. I hate being away from Penny, we have an intense, loving relationship, and I just wailed when I thought of her without either me or Randy even though she was with family. Argh! That was a horrible feeling.
I remember, as we drove, that we seemed to hit every red light and every mellow California pedestrian, ambling across the street at a tortoise pace as I gripped the handrests and groaned.
We got to the hospital and left the car in the circle-drive, which has short-term white-zone dropoff spaces for just that eventuality. The walk to the elevators is interminable. I remember it well from visiting Penelope at that same ward for six weeks a long, long hallway to a bank of elevators that go up and up and up and up, endlessly, to the top floor. I went: waddle, waddle, waddle, HUUURGH! Waddle, waddle, waddle, URRRRGH!
Finally we got to the elevators. UCSF is a teaching hospital and Tuesday is some kind of busy day impossible to park on Tuesdays and the elevator bank was crowded. I remember there was a little family there, with a girl maybe six years old who was looking at me totally wide-eyed as I panted and groaned. When the elevator finally came, they stayed put, holding her by the shoulders and letting me pass. But everyone else piled in, oblivious, pushing buttons like they were going out of style.
“Uuuuuugh,” I thought I moaned, but really wailed. Nervous eyes darted in my direction, and I swear to you, we stopped on every effing floor, with MORE people getting on as we went up. I just wanted to get there. I just wanted pain relief. I was starting to get scared, tense, panicky.
Let me pause here to explain how I labor: HARD. My contractions are insistent and very impolite. They don’t pause to let me breathe. They are brutally hard and no amount of breathing or meditating makes them easier. I have seen the videos of beautiful home births, and all I can tell you is: Different women have different labors. Mine (well, all the women in our family’s) is like RAAAAARRRRHGHGH!!!
We got into the admitting room, and this is where it becomes difficult to talk about this. The midwife, whom I had never met, examined me. I know we’ve all been in labor here so we don’t need to talk about how unpleasant it is to have someone give you a pelvic exam when you’re in screaming pain, but man. I can’t even remember how she checked to see how dilated I was, but I screamed, and she was so impatient with me. “You’re only one centimeter dilated,” she snapped. “People walk around like this for days. Sometimes we send people home when they’re only one centimeter dilated.”
“Please don’t send me home!” I shrieked. “I need an epidural. Please get me the epidural!”
“If I give you the epidural, you’ll never dilate. You’ll be here for days.”
“I’m begging you, please, give me the epidural!” She wasn’t reading my t-shirt. The pain was outrageous. I was like a wild animal. I just wanted to get out from under the relentless waves of pain wave of pain. I didn’t know when one contraction stopped and the next started; I just needed the pain to stop so I could think.
“You can’t have anything till we process you and get you checked in,” she snapped, stalking out of the room.
It went on like that. I’ll spare you the many times I asked for pain relief, and the many times I was told to walk, to get in the Jacuzzi, to wait. A nurse tried to walk me to the bathroom so I could get into the warm whirlpool, which was supposed to make the pain bearable, but before I could get to the bathroom I shrieked and my husband had to hold me up so I wouldn’t fall.
The nurse left; the midwife came in. “What did you say to that nurse?” she asked, accusingly. “She’s terribly upset. Did you say something rude to her?”
All these years of stereotypical labor in movies, on TV shows, in books all the overwrought hysterics, the angry, sweaty women, the terrified men who didn’t know what to do … I thought that if there was one place I was allowed or expected to lose my marbles, it was in the labor room.
Welp, apparently this midwife didn’t get the memo. Oh, how my Brooklyn longed to express itself. How I wanted to shriek at her, “Get that nurse in here and I’ll give her something to get upset about!” But I’ve been a waitress, and I know that treating the staff badly gets you nothing but a loogie in your Caesar salad.
“I didn’t say anything,” I gasped. “I’m sorry. I’m in pain. Can I please have the epidural.”
Meanwhile, the labor nurse had come in a replacement for the fainting violet who had been so wilted by my shrieks. This woman was no nonsense: she was a dead ringer for Jane Lynch, and I got the feeling labor pains would get scared of her and leave. “Does this help you?” she asked me, firmly pressing a thumb into the middle of my forehead and rubbing in a circular motion.
“Yes,” I sobbed, because it did, and that’s weird.
“Women have been doing this for thousands of years,” the nurse told me, in an apparent effort to cheer me on.
“It was the leading cause of death for most of that time,” I sobbed, and she gave me a startled look. Well, it’s true!
“Look, you’re doing it!” she cheered, as another contraction released its hold on me.
“I’m not doing anything,” I wailed. “This is happening to me. That’s not the same thing.” I felt I didn’t want to say this, it would have just pissed everyone off, but I felt like I was being raped by pain. No, I wasn’t doing anything.
“I can’t help you if I am in this much pain,” I said, trying a different tack.
“But you don’t have to help us!” the nurse soothed. “We’re here to help you!”
“No. I have to focus. I have to push. I have to move. I can’t do any of that when AAAAAUGH!” I was gone again, in the red-hot netherworld where I could neither understand instructions nor explain how I felt. I was without language, and time had no meaning.
When the midwife finally, finally gave me the go-ahead for the epidural all but rolling her eyes as she scolded me for prolonging my labor the labor nurse had everything completely ready to do so the anesthesiologists could do their job. I sat sideways on the bed, bent forward over a tray-table as my husband gripped my hands and I murmured “the pain is not part of me, the pain is outside me, the pain is not me, the pain is outside me” in a sort of rapid-fire chant.
Minutes later, my entire body relaxed. When they tell you that you go numb with an epidural well, I don’t know how other hospitals do it, but at UCSF, you feel everything, it’s just not as bad. And “not as bad” was all I needed. “Okay,” I said, swinging myself back onto the bed. “All right. Let’s do this.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to the woman I married,” my husband announced, relieved to see me.
There followed some business, I can’t quite remember what happened. I had gotten to the hospital around noon, and I think it took about an hour and a half to get that epidural in. It was about an hour later that I asked for a warm blanket. “Sorry,” I said. “I feel really chilly. I feel weird. I can’t stop shaking.”
The midwife was at the foot of my bed, glaring at something menacingly. She looked up at me. “You what?”
“I have this weird feeling like I want to do kegels, but I mean, that’s impossible, right?”
A funny look flickered over her face. “Let me check you,” she said. She pulled back the sheet.
“Oh boy,” my husband said.
“That’s a bloody show,” she admitted. She poked around (I could feel it, but no screaming this time), and her jaw literally dropped.
“You’re completely dilated!” she said.
“How many centimeters?”
“All of them! All the centimeters! You’re completely dilated!”
“I TOLD YOU!” I shouted.
“I know! This whole time, your body was working so hard, and I didn’t believe you.” She paused. “I’m sorry. I should have listened. Now come on, we’re going to push!”
I’d like to say Abby popped out moments later, but actually I had to push for two more hours. The young student doctor (who was so not the boss in that room!) was giddy and excited, but my husband later told me it was discouraging: I would push so hard, and then fall back, and they would tell me “That was several millimeters!” like it was the best thing ever, and from his POV, nothing had happened.
At one point, the machine to my right started beeping alarmingly. “It’s a new machine,” the midwife said. “We don’t really know how it works yet, but the baby might be in distress. Can you flip onto your side?”
I felt like Lisa Simpson in that fantasy sequence where she’s married to Ralph Wiggum and has to use a stick to turn over. They flipped me to the left, they flipped me to the right.
“I’m sorry, this is a bit intense,” the midwife said.
“It’s all right. Whatever she needs,” I told her. Now that I was in control of my faculties, I knew everything would be okay.
The machine turned out to have been giving us a false alarm. We resumed pushing, then I asked for a squatting bar so I could use gravity to my advantage. I think I did two pushes with the bar, then worried I would pass out or barf, so I was back on the bed.
“Maybe if I say her name she’ll feel like it’s safe to come out? Abby, come on, I want to meet you!” I called out.
Finally, finally, the midwife told me, “She’s making it around your pubic bone. I can see her: she has a full head of dark hair. Do you want to see her? I can get a mirror!”
“Hell NO!” I said.
“Do you want to look?” she asked my husband.
“Do NOT look!” I ordered him.
We pushed, we pushed, and we pushed, and she was very nearly there.
“When she comes out, do you want to catch her?” the midwife asked.
“Oh! I forgot! I meant to put that in my birth plan! Yes, yes, I want to catch her,” I shouted.
“Okay. On this next push she’s going to come around your pubic bone and then she’s going to come out. Put your hands down here and we’ll help you catch her.”
This was it. This was it. I pushed. I pushed … and I felt something give, something slick and wet and sudden slipping, slipping out of the center of me, and then I felt hot wetness in my hands and I grabbed and pulled and there she was, there she was! Blinking and calm as a Buddha, Abby was in my arms, and the nurse was cheering and wiping her off, and I wanted to tell her no, don’t wipe off anything, but all I could say was “you’re beautiful, she’s beautiful, she’s here, you’re so beautiful!”
Randy said I yanked her out of me so fast, he thought she would be born with whiplash. “I never saw anything like it,” he said. “It was like you just got sick of waiting and went in to get her.”
“Do you want to cut the cord?” they asked my husband. “No,” he said. “YES!” I ordered. “I want you to. You can do it!” Was there a part of me that wanted him to do something he wasn’t fully on-board for? Maybe! But he did it!
I held Abby, wet and cozy and gorgeous, the whole time they were sewing me up (just a very small tear on the side — the advantage of her slow advance down my birth canal) and for at least a half an hour. Finally I wanted to know how much she weighed, and we all took bets. She looked so small! Six and a half, six and three quarters, most people thought but she was seven pounds seven ounces, solid and muscular like her sister and her dad. She was wrapped and given back to me, and latched on and nursed gently, getting to know me as I’d get to know her.
The nurse’s shift ended, and I thanked her. “You’re really good at what you do,” I told her, because she was. She was a rock for me. “We go through a war together, and then your shift ends,” I joked. It seemed so weird! But off she went.
In the end, everything was fantastic. The midwife, I think, told me again that she was very sorry not to have listened to me, and at the time, I accepted her apology, but now I’m pissed again. I know this is what they call a first-world problem. I know that I received excellent care and that I am more fortunate than most women on the globe. But god dammit, she did not have to make me feel foolish or hysterical or wimpy or afraid to say how much pain I was in and ask for help.
And here’s the thing: She’s not the first midwife to treat me this way. When I was walking around in labor for three days before I had Penelope (ten weeks early), I called and called and was told nothing was wrong by the midwives in that practice. It wasn’t until my water broke that they believed my repeated assertion that something was wrong. There are other things that have happened to me, and the upshot is that my personal experience with midwives has been that doctors listen to me, and midwives tell me I don’t know what I want or am capable of.
Again, this is my experience, nothing more. Are there crappy doctors out there? No doubt. I think it’s a testament to how far we’ve come, at least in the sophisticated urban center I find myself in, that I have the luxury of a doctor who was more attentive than a midwife.
There is a point at which encouraging becomes hectoring and even bullying. There is a line between “you can do this” and “you’re not doing enough,” and that line was crossed during Abby’s birth, and it’s like Wendy Wasserstein said in The Heidi Chronicles: “I though the point was we’re all in this together.”
And that’s why I haven’t told the story before. I want the story to be joyful, and about Abby and her journey home to me. I’m trying to get rid of this nagging bit of anger and upset. But in the end maybe the best way to celebrate Abby’s birth is to ask us all to listen to each other better.