We shouldn't put too much stock in due dates. After all, only 5 percent of women give birth on the magic day determined by their doctor's calculation. "It's really around the Fourth of July," I'd say, so nobody would be disappointed if the baby didn't arrive by June 30th. But when July 1st rolled around, I was bummed to find myself as pregnant as ever.
My doctor said she'd only let me go an extra week before she'd induce -- the baby was already estimated to be over 8 pounds. "Do whatever you'd normally do," she advised. So I worked through July 3rd, threw a picnic on the 4th, and heaved my hugely pregnant self to the pool on the 5th. My husband and I had been invited to a wedding on the 6th -- a day before the scheduled induction. I decided that if I bothered to dress up and put on makeup on a 95-degree day, and drag myself to a park where not only childhood friends but an ex-boyfriend would see me 40 pounds bigger than ever, maybe I'd go into labor. And I did.
At noon, as the bride and groom were saying their vows, I felt the first contraction that, in retrospect, was "real." I squeezed Byron's hand. Another one came, maybe 15 minutes later, and I squeezed again. "I might be going into labor!" I whispered. Byron looked a little unsure -- in June, we'd had several false alarms.
During the reception I asked Byron to track when the contractions were coming. Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. He suggested we go home. "We can't leave before the cake," I insisted. I wasn't in pain and was enjoying the diversion -- and the air conditioning. Once outside, though, we dialed the doctor. "I think I'm in labor," I told her. "I've been getting steady contractions for five hours, but they're still light." She suggested I go home, drink one glass of wine to relax, and call her again.
Next I called my mother, who lives five hours away, and told her that labor seemed to be starting. "Come tomorrow," I told her. "The baby will never arrive before morning." But as I hung up, I knew instinctively that Mom was already on her way.
My cousin, Sibel, was waiting on our front steps -- my mom had alerted her. I smiled and waved as we pulled up, but just then, six hours after that first contraction, a big one hit. The kind that you have to pause and breathe through. The surprise must have shown on my face, because Sibel rushed to the car to help me out.
The next six hours were blurry. I was determined to stay home as long as possible, using the coping techniques we'd learned in childbirth class. The contractions weren't the sharp pains I had feared. They really were like the waves described by Lamaze teachers. But the waves didn't fall into an orderly pattern -- they'd be eight minutes apart, then five minutes, then 10 minutes. At the beginning of one I'd second-guess whether it were actually happening. As it intensified, I'd say "I'm having one," and lean on the wall, or grab Byron, or bounce on my yoga ball, or lie on the bed, clutching a pillow -- whatever seemed right. At the peak, I had to think hard about breathing. Then it would pass and I'd wait for the next. We called the doctor and agreed to meet her at the hospital at midnight, and I labored on.
At 11:30, my mom walked through the door, introducing a degree of panic. "You can't let her have this baby at home!" I told her that we were still hours away from the birth, but she ignored me. "Get her to the hospital!"
The 20-minute car ride was miserable -- I couldn't lie down, couldn't lean my body into anything. The contractions took my breath away. Worry crept over me: Why hadn't my water broken? Could I keep this up? Although I dreaded medical interventions, I was eager for monitoring so I'd know where I stood.
Finally I was in a hospital gown and positioned on all fours on a bed, with a heavy and awkward monitor strapped around my middle. I was in active labor and about four centimeters dilated. The baby was fine. The doctor watched me breathe. "You need to relax at the top of the contractions. Breathe like you're jogging," she instructed. I laughed wearily. I was as likely to relax at the top of a contraction as I was to stick my hand into a flame. But I wanted to give it a try. I remembered my mother-in-law's suggestion to use visualization, and I put all my energy into remembering a day on the beach in Maui. I kept picturing that water, that beach, that sun...
"You're probably about six hours away," the doctor told me, and my heart sank. That beach was helping, but six hours was a long time to play mental games with myself. "If you get an epidural it'll be much faster. Really, you're a perfect candidate," she said. "No needle!" I replied. Sibel and Byron sprayed me down with a water mister, and I kept rocking, breathing, and visualizing.
A little over an hour after I checked in, my water broke with a loud pop. The fluid gushed out and splashed on the floor. It was animalistic, intense. I knew from Byron's silence and the doctor's "Wow" that all was not perfect. There was meconium -- baby poop -- in the fluid. The doctor explained what I already knew: "This might mean the baby is in distress. I want to hurry this up."
I'm afraid of needles, especially the long ones they use for epidurals. But I let the doctor go through the sales pitch: How good the anesthesiologist was. How quickly delivery would come if I got an epidural, because I would relax. How I'd still be able to push. I thought about my baby being scared and needing me to comfort her. And I said okay.
Byron and Sibel joined my mother, brother-in-law, and aunt in a waiting room. I sat on the edge of the bed and a nurse crouched in front of me. I hung on her shoulders while the anesthesiologist gave me the shot -- I was nervous, but the nurse was reassuring and there was no pain, barely even a pinch. The doctor helped me lie on my back, gave me an oxygen mask to help my breathing, and suggested a nap.
I stared at the ceiling, afraid to sleep. The contractions were still there, but they didn't hurt anymore. I clutched at the oxygen mask -- an unlikely comfort object. I blinked and stared, blinked and stared, wanting to send good thoughts to the baby. But my mind kept blanking out.
"Oh my, you're ready!" the doctor suddenly exclaimed. Surely an hour hadn't passed? "No, it's only been fifteen minutes, but..." She turned away and began to yell for a nurse. But there were only two nurses on the floor, and three women giving birth: Me, a woman being prepped for a c-section, and a woman who had just been given Pitocin. The others needed the nurses more.
The doctor pulled Byron into the room. "Jessica!" she barked like a drill sergeant. "Listen to me! When I say push, I need you to bear down like you're having a big bowel movement and don't let up. Do you understand?" I nodded. Byron held one of my legs to my chest and I tried to hold the other, but I didn't have the strength. "Hold your leg!" the doctor begged. I just couldn't. So she grabbed one of those busy nurses to hold my leg for me, and I began to push.
I was a champion pusher -- the doctor and nurse were looking at each other with big smiles, remarking on how well I was doing. But they directed tougher love at me. "Harder!" they screamed. "Come on!" I began to moan and cry with frustration. I was putting every bit of energy I had into every push!
The baby crowned after only about 20 minutes, but I didn't feel much relief. I was focused on getting her all the way out. A few more pushes and her head came. We paused while the doctor cleared the mouth and nose. Then suddenly there she was, such a wiggly, alien creature lying on my tummy that I was afraid to touch her. "Gracie's here, my love!" Byron cried. I nodded, disoriented. They took her away to be looked over and tidied up, and I prayed for her to be healthy, hardly noticing my doctor sewing up a small tear I'd suffered.
And then Grace was in our arms. An amazing, healthy, 8 pound, 7 ounce baby -- alert, staring at me. Could this little person have been inside me not half an hour before? Relatives filed in and we passed Grace around. Suddenly I felt the adrenaline kick in. As tiring as labor had been, I'd never felt better!
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