My water broke on a Wednesday morning and I gave birth on a Friday night. That’s not how it was supposed to happen, or at least it’s not how it happens in the movies, which is where I had learned most of what I thought I knew about childbirth.
I know a lot about movies and their comforting, predictable structure – I’ve written them and written about them for magazines, newspapers and websites. There’s always a three-act structure and a climax followed by resolution. I thought I could impose that same kind of narrative structure on my childbirth. So when my doula, Katie, warned me: “As you live, so you deliver your baby,” I still figured my birth would be as breezy as a Kate Hudson romantic comedy. That’s the birth I planned for.
Being the laid back person that I am, I didn’t panic when my water broke on my way to the doctor’s office. It was February 27th, the day before my due date, and I had an appointment with my OB, Dr. Crane. As I hopped out of the car, I felt a gush of liquid between my legs, drenching the seams of my pants and trickling around my ankles. I inched my way to the elevator as fast as a person can while squeezing her thighs together and called Harlan, my husband. As I entered Dr. Crane’s, I announced: “I think my water just broke.”
I was ushered into an office and hooked up to a monitor that revealed I was having contractions every six to seven minutes. Every time I had one, the baby’s heart rate picked up, which Dr. Crane said was a sign of a healthy baby. He checked my cervix – I was dilated one centimeter out of the 10 necessary to deliver the baby. According to the documentary The Business of Being Born and my prenatal yoga teacher, this is the point where most OBs would have pumped me full of antibiotics to stave off infection and Pitocin to augment my contractions and in grave tones terrified me with tales of distressed, infected babies until I was begging for an emergency C-section. But Dr. Crane, who believes that a body knows how to birth a baby and that it’s best to stay out of its way, assured me that the myth that you have to get the baby out within 24 hours of the water breaking is just that: a myth. The risk of infection is still minuscule and can be avoided by monitoring the baby regularly. He sent me home and told me that labor would probably start spontaneously in the night. He also mentioned, casually, that he had to go to Las Vegas on Friday, but not to fret – it was only Wednesday, remember? I’d have a baby by then.
Because I wasn’t experiencing any pain, I did what any normal woman whose contractions are only six to seven minutes apart would do: I went shopping. While waiting for the nursing bra expert at the Pump Station, I told the woman next to me, “My water just broke.” “Oh my God, go before me,” she said. At the Right Start, where I went to buy the baby sling I’d been meaning to pick up for the last eight months, a young mom said, “Oh my God, they’re letting you wander around after your water broke?” and backed away, as if I was some reckless, hippy, natural childbirth freak from whose crotch a baby might spill at any moment.
Except no baby was spilling out of me any time soon. In movies, a montage sequence is often used to show the passage of time, cutting together a series of events that in unison represent a single idea. If I had a montage of my labor, the beginning stages would go something like this:
- Me waddling through the streets of Venice, California, with a friend in an attempt to jumpstart my labor.
- Me whacking Harlan awake later to let him know real contractions have begun.
- Me trying to figure out how to time my contractions using contractionmaster.com.
- Me watching Ratatouille with my younger sister who’s trying to feed me a taco salad that made me want to hurl.
- Dr. Crane measuring my cervix and saying it’s still a long way till baby time.
- Me cringing as my husband and doula force me to go all the way back to Venice to labor in the comfort of our home even though Cedars Sinai is a two-minute drive from the doctor’s office.
- Me crouching in the passenger seat, trying in vain to find the part of my hypnobirthing CD on my iPod where a leopard guides me to a fairy tale cottage in a magical forest.
- Me blasting “Just Like Heaven” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” and dancing around my living room.
- Harlan sucking my nipples in the shower to stimulate the release of oxytocin while I stand there, immune to his advances, but loving the way the hot water makes my pain disappear.
- Me walking around my neighborhood at midnight with Harlan and Katie, clinging to them both as a contraction hits and whimpering, “Why is this happening?” as liquid splashes down my legs – again. Katie saying, “This is good, birth is messy, it’s good to get used to it.”
- Me at the hospital, falling asleep between contractions while sitting on the edge of my bed as a nurse watches my baby’s heart rate on a monitor.
- Katie hanging Christmas lights in our dark room for ambiance.
- Me seeing my family and friends in the waiting room as I walk the long, fluorescent-lit hallways in a hideous green gown and telling them to go home and come back the next day.
- Harlan rubbing my feet as I recline on my hospital bed, clutching my massive belly.
I was determined to have a natural childbirth, but that changed on the morning of Friday, February 29. Dr. Crane measured my cervix – it had only dilated to six centimeters. By this time, I’d been in labor for 36 hours. He said it was time to put me on Pitocin. Katie put her arm around me and said she had to agree. Exhausted and sick of the pain, I told Dr. Crane if I was getting Pitocin, I wanted an epidural, too.
And with the flick of a switch, my birth went from warm, fuzzy and feminine to something that Stanley Kubrick might have directed, had Dr. Strangelove featured a woman giving birth: there were two strange men in the room, the anesthesiologist and his assistant, their maleness and unfamiliarity surreal under the bright lights they turned on as they entered my room. As a needle violated my back, I leaned onto soft pillows, afraid of what I had done. I could still feel my contractions and I feared for the future of my spinal column and how the drug might affect my baby.
But then things improved. I realized I hadn’t felt a contraction in a while. I smiled, laughed even. On the monitor, I saw them coming, harder now, closer together, thanks to the Pitocin. Dr. Crane visited me for the last time and apologized for having to leave; he had to go to Vegas. My cervix was at 8 cm, he said, we were on our way. I closed my eyes and slept for three hours.
I woke up to meet Dr. Crane’ s partner Dr. Chin, who was going to deliver my baby. He measured me yet again and said my cervix was not at 8 centimeters at all; it was closer to 6. Either Dr. Crane had been going on wishful thinking or I’d actually regressed. In any case, he said we should increase the dosage of the Pitocin and reconvene in an hour and a half. If I hadn’t progressed substantially, he would have to recommend a C-section.
This is that part of the movie where the protagonist hits rock bottom and has to summon inner resources she didn’t know she had. Everyone left the room except Harlan. He sat down next to the bed. “Who the hell is he to waltz in here after all this time and tell us you need a C-section?” he said. “He’s just being honest with us,” I said, with uncharacteristic calm and resignation. “The most important thing is that we have a healthy baby. It doesn’t really matter how.” I closed my eyes and visualized flowers opening, my cervix dilating easily, white roses bursting into bloom – and once again, I fell asleep.
Upon waking, I heard Susan, a nurse, erupt: “Sweet baby, you are at nine-and-a-half centimeters! We’re going to deliver this baby!” I started to laugh, convinced it was thanks to my blooming-flower visualization.
With Susan crouched between my legs, Harlan and Katie on either side and a third nurse, who had just come on duty, by my right shoulder, we waited for the next contraction and bam! Susan said, “Now!” Two days and seven hours after my water broke, we finally found ourselves in a big-budget, Hollywood-blockbuster birthing scene. On that very first push, Harlan said, “Oh my God, I can see the head!” Dr. Chin showed up, moved into position and started massaging my perineum. He pushed and pulled my tight, tender skin, getting his whole hand in there and kneading and stretching me like dough, rubbing full force as if he were scrubbing rust off the inside of a hubcap. (And it worked; I made it through delivery without a tear or an episiotomy.)
“Reach down here, Andrea,” Dr. Chin said, “and take your baby.” I reached between my legs and put my hands around what turned out to be a tiny squirming torso and pulled the rest of my baby out from between my legs. I held him up and saw my baby, still connected to me by the umbilical cord. He was squished and covered in blood and screaming. The room erupted in laughter and cheers. Harlan cut the cord and ran down the hall to alert my family and friends, and they all streamed into the room, beaming, spilling congratulations, pointing cameras at us. My uncle Jack even handed Harlan a cigar.
Katie was right – as I live, so I delivered my baby. Turns out childbirth is life at its messiest, at its least predictable and most resistant to planning. Only when I’d abandoned my plan and nearly given up hope did my body – and my baby – cooperate. Aidan Wolf Bosmajian is the happy ending we’d been waiting for.