“Whatever your worst demons are,” said my friend Phila, “They will present themselves while you are in labor.”
Labor. Can’t they call it something else? It sounds so, well, laborious. I am in my twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, and if things go on schedule, I won’t have to worry about labor for another twelve weeks or so, give or take. I shouldn’t be thinking about this now. I should put up my feet and sing “Que Sera Sera,” eat grapes and bon bons and fantasize about the nursery. But instead, for the past couple of weeks, I can’t seem to think about anything other than my birth plan.
Of course, the very term “birth plan” makes seasoned mothers cackle with amusement. “I had a birth plan all right,” said my friend Isabelle. “And I don’t think we or anyone at the hospital took one look at it. Nothing went as expected. And the more I talk to other mothers, the more I think that’s the rule not the exception.”
For those of you new initiates, a birth plan is a woman’s idea on paper of what her labor and deliver experience should be like. Right away, this is a set up. If you want to make God laugh, goes the famous saying, tell Her your plans. And nothing in the labor and delivery contract has any kind of teeth to make it stick. That baby didn’t sign on the dotted line, and neither did the woman’s body.
Also, experience has taught me that expectations are premeditated regrets. Expecting a nice home delivery? Sometimes it works great. If pregnancy is a natural event, which it’s purported to be, why not have your baby in your own comfy bed with your favorite CDs lined up on the changer? Hospitals, schmospitals. On the other hand, my friend Sara had the special birthing tub rented, a midwife on hand and ended up in the hospital with an emergency C section. The really tragic part is that she’s never forgiven herself for being deprived of the joy of witnessing her first child’s birth.
Rarely has a woman told me the story of her labor and delivery without saying at least once, “The one thing I regret is…” Some regrets are bigger than others, but so far I’ve heard few experiences that have been regret-free. And why not? This is an intense physical process. One of the two big ones in life. Why would we expect it to be uniformly glorious? And is it actually something a woman does, or it is something that a woman experiences?
I have dreaded giving birth since I was six years old, watching my own mother’s belly growing bigger and bigger. “How does the baby come out?” I’d asked. “Through your toes?” When I found out where the baby made her exit, and found out the answer to “does it hurt?” I vowed then and there to adopt. Either that or substitute kittens for children.
It doesn’t comfort me much to think I could just have an epidural, either. An epidural (once again, for the uninitiated) is a needle that has to be very carefully threaded into the mother’s spine. I suppose compared to the pain of childbirth, a little shot in the back is nothing, but then again, I’ve had a shot before and I haven’t had childbirth. Besides which, there’s the matter of all the bad-ass young mothers I’ve been hanging out with in my prenatal yoga class. (The class should be called “Spa Pampering for Pregnant Ladies with a Tiny Bit of Movement—But Only If You Feel Like It!” For the first twenty minutes, we lie on an elaborate set up of bolsters and blankets while the yoga teacher swaddles our bare feet to keep us warm. Then we chat about how our pregnancies are going, which takes another 20 minutes. All the women there are due in about a month, which makes me really nervous, because I suffer from abandonment issues and really don’t want them to go away and join the Post Natal class which meets 15 minutes after Pre Natal ends. Also, all the women have incredibly large bellies, which leaves me feeling completely inadequate and like a fraud. I know size doesn’t matter, but…)
“Don’t even TELL them you’ll CONSIDER an epidural!” they shout, practically raising their fists in a power salute. “You’ll give in! Just go in there and HANDLE IT!”
“The pains of childbirth are all in the mind,” says my friend Cindy, nine months pregnant and counting. She and her husband are planning a home birth and working with a hypno-therapist. “Once you recognize the difference between ‘good’ pain and ‘bad’ pain, you really can get through it.”
“But,” I said, “Maybe some women experience pain more intensely than others. And I think I’m probably one of them.”
“That’s a story you’re telling yourself!” says Cindy.
“No one experienced any birth pains before Christianity,” said a second friend, Lucy. “It just a cultural construct. Woman read that because of Eve’s fall we’re all supposed to feel pain, so we do. No one feels pain in non-Christian cultures.”
“But,” I argued. “One in two women used to die in childbirth in the Victorian era.”
“That’s only because of unsanitary hospital conditions,” says Lucy. “Childbirth is a totally natural process! Woman have been having babies in the bush since the beginning of time.”
This is true. But according to the Saving Women’s Lives website (http://www.savingwomenslives.org/Countdownmaternal.htm), one in sixteen of those women (in sub-Saharan Africa, anyway) still die in childbirth, whereas the statistic in western Europe is one in four thousand. I shut up though. I like these bad-assed women and I want them to have their home births and not be thinking about fearful things like something going wrong. We all have enough to worry about. They have delightful visions of grand epiphanies during labor, of mystical experiences, or possibly, as Alice Walker suggests in Possessing the Secret of Joy, orgasmic ones. At any rate, they are loyal to the sisterhood, and I love them for that, even as I feel somewhat out of that particular club at times.
Even though I’m scared of shots, I am more scared of pain, and most of all I am perplexed by the thought that this roiling little baby who is currently behaving like a pinball inside my uterus will someday come out of me. Honestly, I don’t care how it comes out. If I need a C section, that’s just fine, though I would prefer to be awake for it. If I have it the good old pre-Caesar way, I hope its exit from my nether parts will not cause too much hard feeling between the two of us over the years. Either way, I have come out of my denial of the facts, and am now ready to consider alternatives. So. An epidural it was going to be. Plenty of wonderful women I know had epidurals and had managed to stay bad-assed. It was settled. I would take the advice of my sister-in-law who said she marched into the hospital to register and said, between contractions, “My name is Mary Epidural McNamara.”
But then, one day last week, as I was practicing my prenatal yoga, I found myself in the classic squatting position. “This,” said the instructor. “Is the famous birthing position known the world over.”
And suddenly I saw myself, in the middle of labor (well, actually towards the very end of it) in this glorious posture, feeling like an Amazonian goddess, dancing on my tiptoes and giving birth to my beloved baby, joining a sisterhood the world over. “I think I’d like to try this,” I thought. And—word to the uninitiated—the epidural is not just one of those shots they stick you with and you’re done, like a shot of heroin. Epidurals are connected to an IV. Also, your legs go numb. No squatting for the pain-free.
For the first time I got bitten by the expectation bug. I got why so many of my friends want to have their babies at home, or at least in a birthing center like the one at our hospital, complete with horizontal poles to hang from while in the squatting position, birth pools to relax those weary laboring muscles in, giant balls to roll around on, or toss back and forth with your husband.
Furthermore, I read about how from 1850-1950 mothers used to be routinely anesthetized—totally knocked out—to have their kids. This isn’t done so much anymore because first off, moms tend to like to be present if not pain-free to witness the birth; and second, the drugs aren’t good for the baby. But what this fact of medical history made me realize is that when the mothers were knocked out, even though their minds were asleep, their bodies weren’t. Their bodies knew exactly what to do: they had contractions, and they pushed, and the baby came out. Therefore it’s the mind that gets in the way—epidural or no epidural. If I could truly see the birth process as one where my body is active but my mind is passive (present, but passive) I might be able to see the whole experience differently. I could see that it had nothing to do with my labor technique or mastery over my fear. I could just keep reminding myself that the ongoing commentary in my head was not really required. So maybe I could postpone the epidural. But maybe they could give me a little Advil to dull the pain?
I called my friend Phila, who had had her baby girl at home, and whom I’d been avoiding as a “Home Birth Nazi” for the past few months. I told her I thought I might have changed my mind. “I could have natural childbirth,” I said. “I want to squat. I want to really go for it. But the thing I really want to avoid is this idea that it’s about me and my achievements. If the birth is easy, it’s easy. If it’s hard, it’s hard. It won’t be about me and how well I planned or how pure I was or how much yoga I did or how Zen I got or how bad-assed I am. I just don’t want to feel like a failure if the pain is too much and I have to ask for an epidural.”
“You know,” said Phila after a moment. “I felt like a failure after the birth of my baby.”
“You?” I said incredulously. “Why? You had a home birth! You squatted! You let the baby tear you! You totally did what you set out to do! You were the queen of bad-ass!”
“Yeah, but I fell apart completely afterwards. I was terrified and an emotional wreck while it was going on. I saw my fear and I couldn’t stand up to it.”
We were silent for a few moments, together on the phone. She sighed. “I’m a perfectionist. And that was the demon I met in the middle of labor.”
“And I’m competitive,” I said. “I’m going to want to turn this into how tough I am, how well I did this. And it’s not about that. It’s about two people having an experience with each other. And we all know how unpredictable that can be.”
I went for a walk later that afternoon. I was listening to my iPod; to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Bob Marley and Michelle Shocked. Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” popped on (as my friend, Sheila says, “I love it when God plays DJ!”). That’s the song he wrote for his baby girl right before she was born. It’s the song that my sister was listening to as her first baby came into the world. “Music will get me through labor,” I whispered to myself as I circled the park. “Bob and Bob, John, Paul, George and Ringo; Michelle and Stevie. They’ll be my birth coaches.”
And believe me, if that’s not enough, I’ll be singing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” For an epidural, that is.