Breathing Lessons


“And where does this baby fit in your lives?” Our childbirth educator was enthusiastically making her interrogation rounds on the first night of class. We sat on floormats, which Michael had already noted reminded him of yoga, something that filled him with suspicion. I could feel myself slinking back into the pile of bulky pillows as it got closer to our turn to answer our teacher’s questions.

“Keep ours short,” Michael mouthed. We’d wordlessly agreed that I would make our introductions. After all, enrolling in the class had been my – or rather my midwife’s – idea.

When our teacher Bonu’s imploring gaze found its way over to us, I coughed up my first half-truth. “It’s our first,” I said, feeling my cheeks grow hot and wondering if everyone in the room could tell that my pregnancy had been ill planned. To start, we weren’t married yet, just engaged. To make matters more complicated, just six months before our own daughter was conceived, Michael had become a father. His high school girlfriend – with whom he’d had a one-night stand when he and I were taking a break and “figuring out the direction of our relationship” – had gotten pregnant, announcing her news when already in her second trimester.

Now, almost a year later, Michael was supporting her and a baby girl. This meant that I’d gone from childless girlfriend to pregnant stepmother in twelve months flat. It also meant a perpetually self-replenishing stock of drama, from Michael’s impending court date to get more visitation with his kid, to my bitterness over the fact that his ex was a stay-at-home-mom living off him, while I held down a demanding forty-hour-a-week-plus job as a magazine editor and paid my own bills.

Compared to the other people in the class, who all appeared comfortably married (I couldn’t help it; I surreptitiously scanned their hands for wedding bands) and older than us – we’re in our late twenties and most of the people we know, at least in New York, are still stuck in the get drunk, hook-up, go to brunch rut – I felt like we might as well have been marked with a scarlet letter. I didn’t mention my self-consciousness to Michael, because I knew what he’d say: “Why do you care what other people think?” I couldn’t answer that question, but I cared all the same.

So I was probably projecting when I started to feel especially sorry for one woman whose husband didn’t even show up until the third class. It was his only appearance during the entire five-week session and he spent a good deal of it staring at our instructor’s backside as she demonstrated a rocking motion that could help us to get a posterior baby to turn during labor. Maybe that explained why his wife looked like she was on the verge of throwing up. (That far into the third trimester, it probably wasn’t morning sickness.) The next class, she brought her mother instead. I wondered, sadly, who would hold her legs back on the delivery table. Then there was a lady – blond, plump, pretty, sorority sister-ish – who took advantage of her husband’s lateness one evening to complain about him to the whole class, outing him for being freaked out and unsupportive of her natural childbirth plans. This struck me as horrible.

While Michael had confessed some doubts about my ability to handle the pain, he’d assured me from the get-go that he was 100% behind whatever birth plan I wanted, which was no epidural, no drugs and a midwifery model delivery at the Roosevelt Hospital Birth Center. He had my back, he promised, when I got alarmed by yet another story of a woman who was induced and wound up with an emergency C-section.

According to Bonu, the C-section rates in New York hospitals were hovering around thirty or forty percent; that meant, of the ten women in our class, three to four of us would undergo the surgery.

“That’s not going to happen to you,” Michael would tell me, looking deep into my eyes. “I won’t let it. No doctor is going to do anything you don’t want without a very good reason.”

Michael hadn’t been in the delivery room at his first daughter’s birth; in fact, he’d only found out she was born two weeks after the fact, through a friend of a friend. His ex deigned it none of his business. As it happened, we were in Las Vegas on vacation and though it sounded terrible to admit it to anyone but myself, I hadn’t wanted him to be there for his first child’s birth. I knew from the way he was suddenly embracing a doula-like fervor about being my birth advocate – this despite a class schedule that interfered with October baseball – that he must have more than his share of regret. And the fact that he wanted to do right this time around meant a lot to me. I could expect to be at my worst, which would mean I would need Michael to be at his best.

After all, everything we were learning in our class taught us that birth was messy and primitive. I could expect to be at my worst, which would mean I would need Michael to be at his best. I would have to let it all hang out, which meant, in my mind, that Michael would have to really love me; and his commitment to my birth plan suddenly seemed like proof of that love. I realized that, beyond our mutual terror of the videos of Brazilian women pushing cone-head babies right onto delivery tables with no one to catch the baby (really?!), we were actually bonding.

Instead of our usual evenings – me, huffing and puffing my way home from work with a bag of groceries, Michael engrossed in his laptop – we were sitting Indian-style in the corner of a room, our hands grazing as we reached into the bags of chips and candy that were our dinner. We practiced breathing and massage, and I was grateful for Michael’s strong, sure set of hands, which moved unhesitatingly up and down my spine.

I also noticed that we didn’t have the need to make friends with anyone else. While the others behaved like over-anxious college freshmen at a mixer (“Which hospital did you say you were delivering at? We heard the same thing about that doctor!”), we kept to ourselves. We had not only survived an incredibly rough year – my jealousy, Michael’s guilt, the challenges of forging an every-other-weekend relationship with a new baby – but we were about to become parents together against all odds. The fact that we had chosen to stick it out with each other was, like birth itself, miraculous. There was no place for small talk with strangers: we just wanted to be with each other.

I looked forward to the designated weekly bonding time when it was us against the world. This wasn’t to say we didn’t have our share of giggles, mostly at the expense of the other people in the class. Our favorite target of ridicule: the guy who looked like Kiefer Sutherland and never put down his notepad. He constantly interrupted the class with a barrage of statements about everything from blood loss to maxi pads until it was clear that even the instructor found him annoying. His wife slept through the whole thing.

When our course finally came to an end the week before Thanksgiving, we had just over a month until our daughter was due. Just before class ended, Bonu wished us all the best of luck, not just with giving birth, she said, but with parenthood. Well, I thought, we’ve got a good start there. I knew Michael was a good dad. I’d seen him with his daughter, watched him rock her to sleep, warm up bottles of breastmilk and change diapers.

As Michael and I walked out, he looked gleeful. “Thank God that’s over,” he said. “No more Kiefer!”

I laughed. But truthfully, I’d started to look forward to the designated weekly bonding time when it was us against the world – or at least against our more pitiable and annoying classmates.

A month later, on Christmas Eve, we found ourselves in the Roosevelt Birth Center in a room overlooking the gunmetal buildings of midtown Manhattan. My drug-free labor lasted less than six hours, and Michael held my legs back as I triumphantly delivered a 7 lb, 14 oz baby with a full head of hair into my capable midwife’s hands. As Michael, our new daughter and I lay in bed that night, I realized I’d finally figured out the answer to that first question, how this baby would fit into our lives: She was the sister to Michael’s first daughter, and living proof that love defies common sense.