By Lydia Netzer
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Lydia Netzer
All rights reserved.
The delivery room is dark inside now, with just one orange light over the bed where I've been laboring for hours. After the rush to the hospital and the initial push to measure and check, we've all settled in and we're waiting for my body to push the baby out. There is a hush in the room, too, punctuated by my grunting and groaning, the creak of the mattress under me, the midwife's deliberate, low instruction.
Then there's my husband, Billy, who likes to get himself through stressful times by talking.
"Let me ask you a question," says Billy to no one in particular. "If a man were in trouble with his wife, and then the wife went into labor, would the man still be in trouble with his wife?"
"He has high anxiety," I explain to the midwife. "Inside his head it's like a thousand squirrels are caught in a bucket."
Billy is tall, with curly hair. And people love him. He's Scottish, which helps, and he looks so innocent, perpetually flummoxed, as if he had just been whacked in the back of the head with a board. Maybe people like a guy who looks like he might walk straight into a wall at any moment. I love him, after all. And I hardly love anyone. In the midst of my labor, the pain and the nerves of it all, I look up at him and he's dearer to me than anything. Maybe Billy's just really great, and that's why people are drawn to him, why they all want to cluster round. Hey, what's wrong with a really charismatic guy?
"The baby's coming! Doesn't this punch the reset button on all possible quarrels?" Billy petitions the assembled company: wife, midwife, the guy by the sink, other strangers in the room.
"He talks his way out of a panic sometimes. Shut up, Billy," I tell him. I have ground my teeth into powder. "I forgive you, you bastard. The baby's actually never coming, and I'm going to grow old and die in labor anyway. So it's all moot."
Does anyone ever stay in perpetual labor? Does anyone reach nine centimeters dilated and then stay right there, walking around with a baby half hanging out, going to the grocery store, the bank, the YMCA? Maybe that will be me. Periodically I'll have to pull the car over to writhe in agony, or I'll have to stop in a crowd and clutch a stranger by the shoulders and scream into his face while I go through another contraction. It feels forever. I just want my baby.
"Oh, honey," says the midwife. "You're doing fine. First babies are always slow to emerge. You'll know when it's time to push."
Pushing: I fantasize about it. The sign on a door handle: "Push." A bright red button that brings about the end of the world: "Push." On TV, the woman's water breaks, they rush to the hospital, you blink and she's in a gown, someone hollers "Push!" and then there's a baby, red and squalling. The TV never shows interminable hours of contractions rolling by like slow waves on a sea of pain while the midwife advises, "Try to get some sleep."
"A baby's a blessing," Billy posits, tilting his head in his charming, young-man-of-Scotland way. His chestnut curls bounce on his head, and I can see the midwife warm to his idea. "A baby heals all hurts, binds all wounds, it —"
"It hurts," I remind him. "Billy, please."
"I'm sorry, darling," he says. "You're doing so well. The best. You're doing the best."
"The baby's not some field medic, come to dress the bleeders in our marriage ..."
"No, no dear, of course not."
A guy by the sink, wreathed in shadows, is holding a paper towel and a garbage bag, waiting to collect the placenta. "Is it time to move to the birthing chair? Is it time?" he says. "It has stirrups and straps. This birthing chair."
Two girls by the scale, one wearing birth control glasses and one in kneesocks and a bright blue scarf, are waiting to find out the weight and length of the baby. One says, "Stay on the bed. We can't see the chair as well."
I don't want to move. "Straps," I tell the midwife. I grab onto one side of the bed and pull myself to the edge. "Sounds terrible. I don't want the birthing chair."
"You do, though," says the midwife. "You said you do. It's what you said. It's what was agreed."
The room is dark because that helps people relax. It's exactly what I signed up for. "This is the yoga version of a delivery room," I was told. So, fine, I checked the box for birthing chair without even knowing what one was. I agreed to the midwife, the guided meditation, the patchouli-infused water in the humidifier, the craniosacral therapy between contractions. I agreed to all of it.
"Once the baby gets here," Billy presses on in an urgent whisper, as if, because he is whispering, it won't count as incongruous babble. "You won't give a fuck about the birthing chair or the midwife or whoever. Or any perceived slight inflicted on you by me, right? It'll all be out with the first diapers."
Only Billy could pull off a swear in a room full of strangers while standing over an emerging baby and have no one blink. It's cultural or something. Once he called his sister a whore at the dinner table, just in a friendly way, and she just giggled. I want to smile at him, to let him know it's alright, all is forgiven, in case I die. But then another contraction comes and I have to just grab him by the bicep, and scream.
"Maybe you should get up and walk," says the midwife. "You'll find a lot of power in gravity."
"You unholy bogbeast!" I cry. "I want an epidural! That's what I want!" I'm not even conscious of telling my mouth to say this. It just comes out, like my body is speaking for itself. My body is sweating, flailing, and horrified by pain.
"No, no, no, now, that's not what you decided," the midwife soothes. "We are here to honor your wishes."
"That's what you decided!"
"And you agreed. Meaning you decided." The midwife's voice is soothing, slow, like she can sedate me with her lack of inflection, her droopy lids, her ruthless insistence on sticking to the stupid plan.
"I didn't know what I was deciding!" I protest. "That person, who had those conversations, is dead —"
The contraction eats my ability to speak, and Billy takes over.
"It's more like your opinions, those old opinions, are dead," he says. "You know, like, your thoughts on natural childbirth, or that I was somehow —"
"I want an epidural!" I repeat to anyone who will listen.
"No," says Billy. "It's more like old you wanted no epidural, but new you, mother you —"
"You can have an epidural if that's what you really want," says the midwife soothingly, "but we know it's not. Don't you want to feel the contractions so you can push?"
"But it's not about what I want, is it?" I say through gritted teeth. "When was the last time it was about what I want?"
"Now Jenna," says the midwife.
"Don't 'Now Jenna' me," I growl.
"The mother you. That sounds like a —," Billy says.
"Don't you say hashtag!" I shriek at him.
"You know, I believe it is time to push," says the midwife, so calmly, so elegantly. "Let's move to the birthing chair. You will see, it's a wonderful way to deliver a baby."
The birthing chair is a piece of furniture that looks like a chaise lounge with the center cut out. Maybe the baby will fall through that part after I let gravity have its power. We migrate over to it, Billy and I and the midwife, the placenta guy, the girls who wait for measurements, so everyone can have a good spot for viewing. Billy helps me up into the chair as best he can, trying to move quickly before another contraction comes on, and the midwife slots my legs into the stirrups, and I can lay my head back against the headrest.
"So, a pregnant woman, a midwife, and a Scot climb into a birthing table," says Billy.
"And me," says the guy by the sink, holding his paper towel. "We think —" the indie girls begin.
"Time to push!" says the midwife.
I'm pushing. And suddenly Billy's face is very close to me. Maybe there's too much blood in my brain, or I'm straining too hard. I am seeing my husband's earnest eyebrows rising in high definition. "What if it's Mother U, like a learning site for new parents!" Billy tells me, his face completely filling my vision. "Learn to be a mother at Mother U."
"Billy," I say, "I'm dying. Good-bye."
"Push!" says the midwife. "Daddy, Mama needs to push now."
The midwife has been calling him Daddy since our first consultation visit. She's sixty, and it's weird. But since I am pushing now, I don't have time to make the grossed-out face I've been making at appointments, so I just keep grimacing. Maybe those two faces look the same.
There's no mirror in the birthing chair.
"Or is it a spa service, a special kind of spa service." Billy now addresses the placenta guy. "When you need a shoulder to cry on, a warm pat on the shoulder, and chicken soup, we'll Mother You! Take a note, placenta guy."
"I just want the placenta," he says. "I'm not doing your clerical work."
"Nope, nope! I know what it is. It's a community portal!" Billy declares.
"He just goes on," I gurgle to the midwife. "It's like a sickness!"
"But isn't it the best, this birthing chair? You can feel your pelvic bones shifting, just here and here," she points out.
Billy says, "Changing identity? Finding your inner parent? Read articles and find support at Mother You, where the woman you are becomes the mother you want to be."
I push so hard, so scared and sick. Billy's huge face looms over me, a big smile wrapped around his jaw, his eyes wide and encouraging. Maybe I push so hard that I pass out, and when I wake up Billy has linked arms with the placenta guy and they're parading around the room, singing URLs, launching the #motheryou hashtag, changing the world for women like me. Maybe I split open on the table and then feel nothing. Or just pain. And then a surge of overwhelming, sweet relief, and the midwife is laughing and Billy's face is covered in tears and it's suddenly beautiful, lovely, and amazing, and then there's a wet, squirming baby on my chest, and my hands go around the baby. I'm so happy, this can't just be the endorphins.
"Billy!" I say. "This is it. Our own baby!"
Billy nods. I'm right. He says nothing. It's magical.
"She'll have wavy hair we'll put in ironic braids, and we'll wear our big black boots and stomp around Europe, and she'll play the viola and speak Italian, and we'll really get each other," I explain. I'm out of breath and covered in tears. "She'll say, 'My mom is my best friend.' And I'll say, 'She's like the me I always wanted to be.' It will be so fantastic."
"Okay," Billy says. "That's right."
"We will cry, together, over the super sad life story of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins!"
Billy laughs. "If that's what you want."
It is what I want. My baby and I will paint each other's nails dark blue. I will sit in waiting room chairs, in stadium seats, in concert halls, and watch as this baby learns, and grows, takes on the world. I will miss nothing. I will witness her whole life. When people say I'm so devoted, I plan to smile and say, in a desultory way, "Well, she enjoys it so much."
The world is new. Suddenly I can breathe so well I feel like I might have an extra lung. I made it. I won. Elation!
Then we drift, and for a few minutes we just lie there together, baby and mother, and the midwife shushes everyone in the room, and even Billy is finally quiet, one hand on the baby's head and one hand on my head. As if to say: MINE.
But I am nobody's baby. My life story is kind of sad, too.
Born to two drunk writers, I was soon abandoned when my mother split town and my father fell into whiskey like it was his religion. That was my first birthday. I've seen pictures of a pink cake. But the following, my grandmother arrived to find me with an empty belly and a full diaper. So she moved in. Thereafter, my father drifted in and out of loving me and liquor, but my mother was gone forever.
My grandmother liked to say, "There are children out there with no arms, no legs, who live in cardboard houses and eat garbage. Are you that sad? So your mother left you. She was a miserable human being, a devil in human form, a communist, an atheist. The best thing that woman ever did was to leave you with me."
I grew up trying hard to be excellent enough to get my father to notice me and my mother to come back. Grandmother was happy to fund my attempted demonstrations of worth: horses, instruments, private schools. She probably shouldn't have said, at horse shows, concerts, awards banquets, "There, that will show that bitch of a mother of yours what she's missing. What she turned her back on, all those years ago." Another sixth place. Another silver medal. Another certificate of participation. She probably shouldn't have gathered the silver trophies, green ribbons, and yellowing certificates together in a room of wonders, as if the light from all that polished lesser metal would draw attention from the parents who left me, like they might come to investigate what glittered on those shelves, as if it were all blue ribbons and gold trophies.
Grandmother definitely shouldn't have then died when I was seventeen, leaving me alone in the struggle to let her light shine.
I have fantasized about my mother's return since I was a little child. Salvation and my mother could arrive in a warm cloud of apologies and all would be forgiven. My mother would return, my father would reform, and life would be magically normal, like all the other kids. But instead what happened was that my father died, too, when I was just out of college, and then I was truly alone. Nobody's baby at all.
A child whose mother does not love her lives forever with a terrible guilt. When I hear the phrase, "A face that only a mother could love," I have to wonder especially what kind of face I must be wearing, if even my mother had to look away. I don't know if this madness can ever end, but I have always believed there is a remedy to treat the symptoms. That remedy is motherhood. All that love, all that absence, can be stuffed into the phantom form of the baby that's coming, someday, to make it all better.
And now she's here.
Like any silence, this one can't last, and the baby is wet and getting cold, so the midwife wraps a towel around her and is rubbing her dry, cleaning her little wrinkly back, her arms, wiping each of those little bitty fingers, and then she nestles the baby down onto my chest, our skin touching, and folds the blanket around us both. I have never been happier in my life. In fact, I think I have never been happy at all until this moment. The sadness of my dead father and the absence of my terrible mother cannot even hurt me right now.
"It's time to cut the cord," the midwife says quietly. "Come on, Daddy, I will help you."
"Are you sure," Billy says. "Did we leave it attached long enough?"
"I'm sure," the midwife smiles, and everyone is smiling, and there are instruments being collected from a small metal table, and she presses a pair of scissors into Billy's hand, and then Billy looks full of chagrin. I feel those scissors as if they are in my own hot hand: cold, hard, final.
A beat passes. The baby sighs and her lips make a little sound that breaks everyone's heart. I love her with a stark totality, and I look desperately to Billy. Does he feel this, too? He pauses, holds those scissors, and looks at the baby. Does he expect me to pull the plug on all our plans? Does he wait, there, for me to tell him to keep waiting? I hope each of us has had the time to experience at least one second thought, before Billy says, "Excuse me for a moment," and rushes out the door.
The midwife looks confused. "Is he sick?" she asks. But then the door is opening again and Johnny Phan is arriving, and when Johnny Phan is in the room, no one can look away.
Johnny Phan is the performance artist who conceived of Major/Minor. Just days after The Daily Beast published the inflammatory "Has the Internet Killed Performance Art?" op-ed, Johnny Phan organized millions of people to sing a single note into their computers. But not just any chord. They could choose to sing a C, an E, an E flat, or a G. Depending on how many people decided to be polarizing agents and choose an E or E flat and how many people decided to provide the safe scaffolding for the chord and sing a C or G, the chord would become major or minor. His app tracked who was singing where and reported percentages by city, by gender, by age. As a stunt, it was brilliant. As an answer to the idea that performance art required a person in a room, knitting a sweater of her own hair or staring at people across a table, it was a shot to the heart. Johnny Phan was instantly famous, and his stunts continue to challenge the idea of performance and participation in a digital age. And now this important person enters the delivery room, in all his edginess and all his glamor. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Everybody's Baby by Lydia Netzer. Copyright © 2014 Lydia Netzer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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