I was entirely consumed by my pregnancy. If a book had the word birth in its title, I devoured it. If a magazine's cover featured a model with a baby bump, I flipped through it, wild-eyed. Water birth, bHypnoBirth, The Bradley Method, and Lamaze -- I studied their techniques as if, before being permitted to deliver, I'd have to pass final exam with multiple-choice questions and an extensive true/false section. My husband, Josh, is an actor, so I had optimistically assumed that he would eagerly put in the hours of preparation required to fulfill his role of supportive labor partner. I could not have been more wrong. "Jess, this is a woman's business. What can I really do to help you once we're in a room full of doctors?" Josh asked while accompanying me on a research mission to the bookstore.
"You'll be helpless, just standing there feeling like a failure while I do all of the work!" I insisted, my hands resting on the sides of my inflated belly, as though I were covering the ears of our unborn child. As the cashier rang up the six guides to motherhood I had chosen (for young moms, hot moms, first-time moms, yoga moms ...), I hurried back to the parenting section for reading material my husband could delve into. Wedged between What to Expect When You're Expecting and The Baby Name Wizard, I spotted an 80-page guide to labor and delivery for men. Eighty pages! If Josh read only two pages each week of my pregnancy, he would be the confident, all-knowing labor guru I needed him to be! I added the book to my stack, detecting a slight smirk from the cashier. "Oh, he'll read it," I assured her.
And he did read it. Every single word of the entire ... first chapter. I found the slim volume fallen behind our headboard, page 13 dog-eared. There I stood, nine months pregnant, realizing that the man I had chosen to father my child had absolutely no idea what kind of battle we were about to go into. Poor Josh was woefully ill prepared, and I could burst into labor at any minute. It was as though I had just learned that my triathlon teammate was both aquaphobic and drunk.
Being two weeks overdue was not in my six-page, double-spaced birth plan. It was then that my doctor decided to induce. Josh and I rolled the hospital bag onto the labor and delivery floor just before midnight, a plastic band was wrapped around my wrist, and the induction began. Our nurse carefully read through each bulleted intention on the document I handed her and dolefully shook her head. A look of concern crept over her face.
"Next time," she whispered to me sympathetically, "home birth."
I was promptly hooked up to an IV, and cables and clasps peeked out of my hospital gown. If I needed to use the restroom, I unplugged myself from the monitor and dragged an entourage of screeching wheels behind me. Pitocin raged through the IV into my bloodstream and rocketed relentless contractions. In a cramped, crowded space, I focused on my mother-in-law's eyes as she reminded me to breathe. My mother massaged my back and applied a heating pad. Seventeen hours after we'd begun, my progress was nonexistent. My body had one job to do, yet was failing dramatically.
My husband was far exceeding my performance as he focused on his own chosen tasks: Stay out of the way and refill ice chips. That's right, my knight in shining armor had valiantly come to my rescue with frozen water! Once in a while, he even patted my perspiring forehead with a wet cloth.
Eventually, my cervix was labeled countless degrees of disappointing, my chart status was updated to failure to progress, and it was decided I'd have a C-section. Josh was asked to leave the room as the anesthesiologist walked in. Finally a real knight, bearing a sword full of magical meds, I thought to myself. As I sat on the bed, leaning forward and trying to ignore the strong pinch of the epi against my spine, I looked out the window toward Central Park and saw a familiar outline sprawled on a bench, arms tucked under his head and eyes closed.
"He had better be dead," I said to my doctor as she and the nurses transferred me to the operating table. "Because if he is napping out there, while this" -- I motioned to the jungle of IVs, tubes, and monitor cords tethered to me -- "is happening in here, I am going to kill him."
The drugs made my arms shiver viciously, and they had to strap me to the table. A divider went up to shield me from my own numb body. My eyes were filling with tears of inadequacy and sheer terror -- each salty droplet an embarrassment. I hadn't prepared for anything like this.
I closed my eyes, dearly hoping to disappear from the lights shining down on me. I did not want this to be my introduction to motherhood. I wasn't giving birth. No, this birth was happening to me.
"It is okay to cry, Jess. There is nothing natural about this."
I looked up and saw my husband's soft blue eyes between a green cap and matching face mask.
"Hi, honeybee," he said gently as the surgery began.
He firmly gripped my hand as the pressure on my stomach moved up and then down, left and then right. Then he started whispering into my ear a story about a bear that I had heard a dozen times before, a story that kept me calm.
"It's almost time to find out if it's a boy or girl." My doctor's voice rose over the curtain.
How is that possible? I wondered. I should have been pushing, yelling, at the very least sweating. Instead, I lay on a table, feeling useless, while everyone else did the work. I'm failing, I failed were the words that looped through my mind. Then I felt Josh's hand stroking my hair.
"You're doing an amazing job. I am so proud of you," my husband's rough voice scratched against my ear. Was Josh talking to my doctor? She was the one laboring.
Suddenly the energy in the room pulsed. I felt pushing and pulling as voices grew louder. Then silence. Our baby's first taste of air filled his lungs, and I heard his cry. Still clasping my hand, Josh stood and looked over the curtain, acting as my eyes. "It's a boy, Jess, a huge boy!"
"He looks like my grandfather, but he has your eyes," he said a couple of moments later, as our son, Noah, lay safe in his arms. I was so eager to hold my baby, touch him, smell him, but until I could, knowing that his father was there gave me the comfort I desperately craved.
For the hour following the delivery, Josh rushed back and forth between soothing Noah and kneeling down to give me the reassurance I needed. He wrapped Noah in his arms, answered questions for the nurses, squeezed my hand, and whispered words that reminded me that I had accomplished something amazing.
No amount of hours spent studying or envisioning assorted scenarios could have possibly prepared my husband for that day of our lives. When push literally came to shove, what my guy offered in that room -- comfort, support, distraction, encouragement -- weren't the kind of skills that could be learned, not even in 80 pages.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of American Baby magazine.