By Julie Halpern
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 St. Martin's Press LLC.
All rights reserved.
"I don't think I've seen that position before." I'm draped over the top half of an L-shaped hospital bed, kneeling spread-eagle and hugging the pillow for dear life. Every time a contraction ends, I'm so exhausted I could fall asleep. The wave begins again, and I scream to my midwife, "Here comes another one!" She presses my back, tells me to breathe, and counts down until it's over. My husband, Zach, stands beside me and tries to hold my hand for support. The bed feels sturdier than he, and the pain is so unbearable that all I can do is grunt my way through the torment while smacking Zach repeatedly in the shoulder. I can't tell if it helps relieve my agony, but something about inflicting damage to the man standing helplessly next to me while I attempt to squeeze a human life out of my vagina is comforting.
Another contraction, and the baby is still inside of me. "What the fuck is taking him so long?" I can't stop swearing and whining. This is not how I envisioned the bad-ass, warrior-woman, refusing-all-pain-meds birth I chose. It's not that I want an epidural. The thought of someone coming at me with a ginormous needle and sticking it somewhere I can't see terrifies me, as does the complete loss of control. Friends tried to sell me on the idea, claiming they could barely tell they were pushing and their births were like cocktail parties. I can't imagine not knowing what's going on down there, no matter how much pain there might be. And holy fuck is there pain. Take the most intense menstrual cramps you're ever had, multiply by seven thousand, and add in fifteen hundred cans of cabbage to gas up your stomach. Then shove a two-ton poo in there that refuses to come out, and that's essentially how I feel right now.
"I'm going to puke! I don't want to puke!" I shout. The thought of puking in public paralyzes me, and even though I'm buck naked, save for an Olivia Newton-John–style headband in a weak attempt to catch my flop sweat and a monitor belt strapped around my enormous belly, I'll still be mortified if I puke.
"It's okay if you puke. Go ahead and puke," my midwife advises me. I don't know how she stays so calm. I guess it's years of practice combined with the fact that there's no one inside of her hanging on for dear life while she does her damnedest to kick him out.
"Focus on Doogan. Here's his picture." Zach shakily shoves a photo in my face of our cat, Doogan, a sweet and fluffy half Siamese whom I'm supposed to use as a focal point during each contraction. Somehow, someone believes, focusing on Doogan will make me forget the extreme situation attempting to rip apart my body.
"Doogan's soft fur ... Doogan's soft fur," I chant to myself. This purportedly takes away the pain? "It's not working! It still fucking hurts!"
I swore I wouldn't end up in the traditional birthing position, opting for squatting, walking, dangling ... Hell, I spent an hour sitting on a shelf in the hospital shower, letting the warm water wash over me as I tweaked my own nipples in order to stimulate contractions. An hour is a hell of a long time to both endure the pelting of shower water and fondle oneself, so to alleviate the boredom I asked Zach to put on a Pandora station. Alas, the hospital Wi-Fi gave out, and I was stuck giving myself titty twisters to the dulcet tones of a Bob Dylan CD left in Zach's laptop. A hard rain's gonna fall indeed.
Minutes or hours later, time stretches like my belly, and I'm on my back, too tired to hang on to the bed. The midwife and nurse are camping out near my wide-open spaces when another contraction rumbles through me. They've now got me pulling my own knees toward my head while simultaneously pushing out the baby and holding my breath. It's brutal. I feel like I'm drowning. Anyone that tells you you can prepare your body for birth is a royal asshole. Unless there's a woman out there shoving a cantaloupe up her hooha in order to practice preenacting the art of expelling a baby's head, I don't see what I could have done to make this more pleasant.
I weighed all of my birth options the second my pregnancy test glowed positive. Should I go the Bradley route? There were too many classes involved. How about a water birth? I envisioned parts of my body shriveling to a raisinlike consistency and a bathtub never providing solace again. I considered a home birth but nixed the idea when I realized it meant I'd have to clean the house before and after. Plus, my grand old age of thirty-six puts me in the higher-risk birth category. Zach and I chose to go with a midwife at a hospital, as natural a birth as possible while still surrounded by beeping sterility. I diligently typed up a six-page birth plan, and we perfectly timed the pregnancy and birth to give me maximum maternity leave with the baby while not taking extra time off from my job as a middle school English teacher: twelve weeks until the end of the school year plus twelve weeks of summer. And voilà: Here I am, bearing down and pooping out a kid.
"Why isn't he out of me yet?" More whining. I wish someone would just pull the damn thing out. Can't somebody find a pair of barbecue tongs and yank him out by the head? Don't they do that?
Zach rounds the edge of the bed and chants next to my midwife, "We can see the head! You can do it! You're doing great!"
How am I doing great? The baby is still inside me, and now Zach can never unsee the bloody massacre of a vagina he used to covet.
I try shooing him away with my arms, but no one is looking at my top half. All eyes are on ol' Betty Sue (a nickname for my vagina that most certainly will never be used again under any sexual circumstances). Another five rounds of pushing, and I don't think I can muster the energy for another go.
"What the motherfuckin' shit hell is going on?" I groan. "Why isn't he out yet?"
I'm guessing the midwife has heard it all, but I also feel like people who use midwives and have natural births are supposed to be weeping organic tears of joy and proudly shouting womanly affirmations, not slapping together random strings of profanities that pop into her sweat-soaked brain. It's hard to feel empowered when I'm pretty sure I just took a crap on the bed. "Zach! Get away from there!" I yell as my last morsel of mystique lies somewhere on the white sheet.
"You're doing great, Annie!" he cheers, belying the look of panic and attempt at hidden disgust on his face.
"You've got this. Big push now. Come on." The midwife and nurse count me through the moment they call "crowning," which I can only assume describes my overstretched labia making a crown for my baby's massive melon.
It certainly does not make me feel royal.
Finally, that big-ass cantaloupe head busts its way out of my nether regions. Another couple of slightly less grueling pushes, and something wet and floppy slithers out of my body and immediately begins crying. I fall back onto my pillow, the pillow they told me to bring from home that is now covered in hours of sweat and gristle and that I will throw into the hospital biohazard garbage the first chance I get. Moments later, someone plops the baby onto my chest. He squints, not crying but looking extremely rumpled and confused. Bits of viscera stick to his little face. He stares at me with foggy, dark eyes. I stare back at him, wide-eyed and frozen.
"He's okay. He's here," a nurse encourages me. I don't move. "You can hold him while we sew up your tear. It's just a small one." I weakly put my arms around the being who until very recently resided inside my body, and try not to think about the fact that my midwife is sewing a rip in a part of my body that no one should be near with a needle and thread. I concentrate on the baby boy on top of me. The boy who made me nauseated for months, who made my feet look like loaves of bread, and who kept me up night after night with his incessant hiccups that caused my stomach to jump. None of that matters anymore because he is here.
My baby is here.
A human being that my husband and I created just came out of me and is now lying on my chest, really and truly, honest-to-God here, after months of waiting and years of dreaming.
And all I can think is, What the fuck do I do now?
1 Day Old
I met a woman once at a baby shower, not mine but one I was pregnant during, who told me that when she had her second baby the nurses asked where she wanted them to put him within her hospital room. She told them to wheel him back to the nursery and give her a sleeping pill. I wish I had the balls to do that. Instead, here I lie next to a baby in a plastic box who, while he may be sleeping, has already mastered the annoying art of mouth breathing. I've been ordered by everyone from the nurses to our mail lady to sleep when the baby sleeps, and after my recent entry into the vag Olympics, I would have thought I'd be too tired to do anything else. But it's four A.M., and on one side of me dozes my husband in a pleather Barcalounger and on the other side is the new baby I ordered whom we call Sam, and it's all rather terrifying. I can't hold him without the fear of dropping him, change his diaper without panic of breaking off his limbs, or breastfeed him without abject terror due to the horrific amount of pain it's causing me. People like to joke about babies biting boobs, yet this guy has no teeth and my nipples are going to start retracting if he doesn't figure out how to latch correctly.
What am I doing wrong? What happened to breastfeeding being this natural, instinctual ability that I share with my earliest, primitive ancestors? If I were alive thousands of years ago, I'd have to give my baby to a more accomplished Neanderthal while they threw me out of the rock cave to fend for myself. The hospital is pushing the formula angle hard. They sure don't waste any time making me feel like a failure. A lactation specialist is supposed to come to my room later today. Hopefully she'll figure this out. I hope it's a she. Are there male lactation experts? Pervs.
The lactation specialist's advice is to compress my breast into a tasty, sandwichlike shape in order to get the baby to latch. Because babies are born with the innate ability to enjoy sandwiches. Then, when the baby looks good and ready, she shoves the back of his head as hard as she can onto my boob. He managed a good latch and ate a nice meal while the lactation lady was here, and I was feeling like a hooter-certified mom until it was time for him to eat again. Then it was no go on the latch, and Zach had to quell two crying babies.
Now Sam sleeps serenely on Zach's chest. A nurse walks in, sees the diaper commercial visual, and announces, "What a good dad." Bitch said nada about me being a good mom, even though I'm the one who recently excreted the kid out of my body and am now busting a tit trying to, oh, I don't know, sustain his life with nourishment from my very being.
What does a girl have to do around here to feel a little love?
Sam is in his bucket again, and Zach is squeezed in next to me on the hospital bed. I warned him to stay away from the crinkly blue pad underneath me, which may or may not be catching God knows what liquids that are dribbling from my body. I still look about five months pregnant.
"How about this one?" Zach has his laptop out and flips through pictures of me and Sam taken right after I gave birth. We're prepping the obligatory Facebook birth announcement, and I'd like a picture that doesn't say, "I just shat on a table, and all I got was this slime-covered baby."
I veto several shots before Zach suggests, "This one is nice."
"I have a gimpy eye and twelve chins," I note.
"But Sam looks cute."
"This is not about Sam, Zach. Sam is going to look cute no matter what because he is a baby. And even if he doesn't look cute, people will 'like' the picture anyway while reassuring themselves that their babies were way cuter. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that dozens of ex-classmates and three or more ex-boyfriends will be seeing this, and I don't want to look like a hideous, gelatinous troll."
We finally settle on a decent shot (merely two chins, maybe two and a half) where one can only slightly detect that my hair is crusted onto my forehead.
"What should we write?" Zach poises his fingers above the keyboard.
"How about, 'At one forty-three A.M. we welcomed Samuel Schwartz-Jensen into the world —'"
"Wait," Zach interrupts. "Are we sure about the name? This is forever, you know."
"Yes, but technically it's not forever. He can change it when he's older. But why would he want to? It's a good name. Solid. Normal. Now if you had let me go with Starbuck ..."
"That's a girl's name," argues Zach.
"The original Starbuck was a guy," I offer. Zach and I have had this argument before about naming our son after a character from Battlestar Galactica, but we could never agree on any of the names; the characters' real names were boring, and their Viper pilot call names (Starbuck being one of them) would have tempted ridicule for the rest of our kid's life. Zach and I chose Sam, after the S of his father, who was Stewart. I like to pretend Sam still has its roots in geekery: Samwise Gamgee from The Hobbit, Sam Winchester from the television show Supernatural, and Sam, a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica. Luckily we didn't have the baby during our Harry Potter binge-watching era, or the baby may have been named Severus.
"Type in Sam. We settled on that a month ago," I command.
"You're right. I know. We're sure there aren't any horrible nicknames someone can make up with Sam, right?" Zach was traumatized as a sixth grader when his bus dubbed him "Zach the Sack," and it stuck well into high school.
"Assholes can sniff out a mean nickname no matter what your real name is. That's what they do best. I don't think any testicular words rhyme with Sam, though."
"What about poo words? Or fart words?"
"You tell me. You're the expert on those subjects."
"Looked like you were the expert there in the middle of that one push." Zach chuckles.
"Oh my God. I'm never pooing again."
"Don't worry. I'm sure I would shit everywhere if I was the one giving birth."
"If you were the one giving birth, they would've had to knock you out the second your contractions began, the way you whine."
"What? I whine in a very manly manner."
"Uh-huh. Let's post this picture before it's time for Sam's bar mitzvah. 'Sam no-middle-name Schwartz-Jensen.'" My mom didn't give me a middle name, and her mom didn't give her a middle name, so we're continuing the tradition. "But I don't know," I waffle, "I always wanted a middle name. What if Sam feels neglected because he doesn't have one?"
"We could barely agree on a first name. Let's just stick with this for now. Like you said, he can always change it. We can always change it," Zach decides.
"Fine. Samuel Schwartz-Jensen, six pounds, seven ounces, twenty-one inches. You have to include the stats. People eat that shit up," I encourage him.
"Anything else? How long you were in labor? How many centimeters you were dilated? How many pints you pood?"
"Don't be a butthole."
"I don't know what you people share with your FaceFriends." Zach, while working with computers for a living, wants to keep his digital presence to a minimum, therefore he abstains from Facebook. Plus, he essentially hates everyone from his childhood.
"FaceFriends?" I chide.
"You whippersnappers and your newfangled technologies."
"Can you imagine what the technology will be like when Sam is our age? People will be living on the moon and ordering food from their walls."
"And then the lion in Sam's playroom will eat us," Zach muses, referencing a favorite Ray Bradbury story.
"We can only dream," I concur. "Post it."
2 Days Old
"One hundred fifteen likes. Wow, that's pretty impressive. Even that girl who was a skinhead in high school liked that I had a baby." I'm not ashamed to say I'm obsessively checking my Facebook page for little red alert bubbles every five minutes. Maybe three. Time moves at a different pace in a hospital. Or perhaps I'm just glazed from watching thirteen straight hours of Call of the Wildman, a reality show about a man sorely lacking in teeth but not in the chutzpah department. He helps people catch wild animals that wreak havoc in their homes and businesses with his bare hands. I never watched the show before, but it's benignly entertaining, and the Turtleman, as they call him, is surprisingly clever.
"Why are you friends with an ex-skinhead when you were not actually friends with her in the first place? I would never want those fuckwads from my high school looking at my business." Zach cuddles Sam in his arms. "You're never going to show anyone your business, are you, Sammy? No, you're not," he babbles to Sam.
"I like it. It's like we were all reborn as adults or something. I mean, the ones who survived. Did you know there have already been seven deaths from my high school class? I barely knew any of them."
"And now you'll never have the opportunity to look at pictures of their kids or what meals they eat."
"Speaking of meals, I wonder if Doo is eating." Doogan was once a plump cat whom the vet was always trying to put on a diet, but is now a slim senior who we have to make sure eats.
"Your mom checked on him yesterday and said he ate about half his food. Better than none." Doogan's aging is something I hate to think about. Sometimes in the middle of the night I imagine his death and can't stop myself from crying. If I ever become an actress, this is the mental trick I'll use to help me cry on cue. Not that I want to be an actress. You never hear about middle school English teachers breaking into Hollywood at thirty-six anyway.
"I hope he likes Sam. I'll feel really guilty if he doesn't. We've had seventeen years alone together."
"What am I, chopped liver?" Zach asks. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Maternity Leave by Julie Halpern. Copyright © 2015 St. Martin's Press LLC.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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