Looking back, I know I was in labor for 14 hours and dilated to about 5 centimeters -- pretty good numbers, actually -- when my doctor convinced me to get the epidural that speeded me into the pushing stage. Grace Isaacs was born vaginally (if not drug-free) less than 15 hours after my first contraction. But if you'd asked me how long I'd been in labor, I wouldn't have been able to do the math.
That blur continues after the birth, let me tell you. When I was pregnant and imagining what meeting my child would be like, my visions were straight from Hollywood: Final push. A cry. "It's a girl!" A perfect 6-month-old Gerber baby in a tidy blanket is thrust into the mother's arms. The music swells. Cut to commercial. So what's it really like? I was still hooked up to the blood pressure monitor and oxygen mask when the doctor put squirming, wet Grace on my naked belly. I felt as if I were supposed to scoop her up in my arms, but I was so weighed down by equipment and so freaked out that a person had just come out of me that I just stared at her.
A nurse whisked Grace away for her Apgar scores, cleanup, and eyedrops while I was delivering the placenta. It's worth noting that contractions continue while you pass this "afterbirth." I was surprised by the size of the organ the doctor laid on a tray. It looked like a big liver.
Fifteen minutes later we got our family-bonding moment. Grace was returned to us bundled in a blanket, and I hugged her tight. She was so alert! She stared at Byron and me with those old-soul eyes that so many babies have, and we cried for joy.
While I was kissing Grace's bald little head for the first time, the doctor was repairing a small tear I'd suffered. During the pushing stage my doctor had given me a perineal massage, rubbing the muscles between the vagina and anus, which helped me avoid an episiotomy. But I tore a bit anyway, which is common. Because I'd had an epidural I didn't feel the stitches. It was strange to look down and see her sewing away. If you're not on painkillers -- and sometimes even if you are -- the doctor delivers a local anesthetic before stitching.
Finally I was all sewn up, and my mom, aunt, brother, brother-in-law, and cousin all crowded into the room to pass Grace around and take pictures. In the pictures, I'm sweaty, exhausted, and half-naked in the hospital gown, but grinning like an idiot. It's something to put in the baby book, but I don't show to anyone outside the family!
A nurse helped me hold Grace to my breast for her first nursing. It was more awkward than I had imagined. But there was no pressure -- it was just a test run! (It takes a few days for milk to come in; meanwhile, you're giving your baby colostrum, an antibody-rich liquid that's sometimes called "early milk."). Just as the experts promised, Grace had an instinctive latch-on while she was still so fresh from the womb. We joked about what a natural she was while I fumbled to hold her.
The doctor and my family left, except for Byron. Two hours had gone by it was time for the rite of passage: a trip to the bathroom. So much had come out of me already that the idea of passing anything else seemed ridiculous. While I used the toilet, two nurses huddled nearby, warning me that "there'll be a lot of blood -- it's normal." I decided not to look, because I could feel the flow and that was enough. Then they handed me two great gifts: a peri bottle and a self-cooling sanitary napkin.
"Peri bottle" is short for perineum bottle. It looks like a ketchup or mustard squirter. You fill it with warm water and you spray a stream of water onto your perineum while you use the toilet. The water washes away lochia -- the medical name for blood and tissue left over from the pregnancy -- and keeps your stitches clean if you have any. I used the peri bottle every time I visited the bathroom, not just in the hospital but during my first week at home.
The sanitary pads were fabulous: I'd twist one, and within a minute it would feel cool. The soothing temperature lasted three to six hours, and the pads were long and absorbent. This didn't keep me from trashing several pairs of panties and a nightgown, though. (Bring clothes that you don't care about!)
It's currently in vogue to keep moms in just one room for the duration of their stay. My hospital, however, had laboring women in a different wing from recovering moms and babies, so the next step was moving me. A nurse pushed me in a wheelchair while Byron pushed Grace in her bassinet-on-wheels. Newborns couldn't be carried in someone's arms outside of their room -- in the hallway, they had to be in a bassinet.
I gave birth at night, so our next order of business was to sleep, with me in the hospital bed, Grace in the bassinet, and Byron on a couch. I slept for a couple hours, then woke on the biggest adrenaline high of my life. I began calling friends with the news.
My energy high lasted most of the first day. An aide brought breakfast, and I ate everything on the tray. A nurse came by and asked, "What level of discomfort are you feeling, on a scale of 1 to 10?" I told her I was a zero, which was the truth. Had I needed it, though, she had acetaminophen for aches and pains. Eight hours after giving birth I got up and took a shower. I had brought bath wash, shampoo, and thick towels from home, and was grateful for all of it. I came out feeling refreshed and ecstatic. I was a mom!
Another nurse came to help me breastfeed. I made all the typical mistakes -- leaning over to the baby instead of lifting her to me, for instance. Grace's stellar latch-on was gone; she seemed skeptical of the whole thing now. When I tried to nurse her, she'd often just cry harder, which left me feeling defeated. Nevertheless, every few hours I'd ring the nurse-call button and insist that someone help me. Each nurse had her own tip or two, and when I combined all of their advice, I began to get the hang of it.
A resident came by to prick Grace's heel to check for jaundice and so they could determine her blood type. Grace cried bloody murder, and I winced. Then a nurse came in to give us a lesson on sponge bathing and diapering our baby. Most baby care is common sense, but it's natural to be nervous when you're handling a newborn, and we appreciated her guidance, especially on cleaning the umbilical cord stump (a nasty-looking thing). Grace, meanwhile, napped a lot that first day.
By the afternoon I began to feel muscle aches. All I can compare it to is the way I feel after a day of skiing -- because I tensed my muscles throughout so much of the previous day, I was paying for it. I kept switching positions in bed to get comfortable. A nurse offered acetaminophen again, but I didn't take any. I was paranoid about using medicine while nursing, even though I knew that what they were giving was safe.
Byron ran out to get film developed and to buy me bottled water and Gatorade. Recovery and the beginning of milk production made me tremendously thirsty. Guests brought me chocolate, my favorite treat. Lunch and dinner at the hospital tasted good but it was still fun to get outside food. It was a very happy time as we excitedly showed off our perfect, sleepy little baby.
By evening I was still feeling pretty good -- tired, but happy. We settled down to sleep again, Byron on the couch again, and Grace swaddled in her bassinet. But I was in for a shock: Grace, having napped all day, was in no mood to sleep at night. She also entered the normal nursing-every-two-hours newborn groove. I had expected to muddle through sleepless nights, but this felt more like a struggle for survival. Grace cried, and I drank Gatorade after Gatorade and ate chocolate bars to keep awake -- not something I'd recommend, and not something I continued at home!
I have pictures of that night, with Byron sleeping while Grace, propped up in a nursing pillow, exercised her lungs. I nursed her, changed her, carried her around the room, and cursed myself for not having napped earlier. I tried to wake Byron, but he was dead asleep. And to make things worse, my bottom was starting to feel sore where the stitches were, making both walking and sitting uncomfortable.
The night nurses came by to offer encouraging words. Before breakfast, a woman from the nursery took Grace for a routine checkup, and I slept the hour that she was gone. By the time she returned I was awake, though in a sleep-deprived stupor. That stupor lasted the next several weeks.
My doctor stopped by to see how I felt, checked my nursing progress, and asked me to come for a postpartum visit in six weeks. The hospital pediatrician also came by, a joking fellow whose good mood made me smile. I took another shower, and felt grateful that the blood flow was slowing and that my muscles felt relaxed under the warm water. Then I put on a clean nightgown and got ready to spend another day nursing, eating, and this time, napping.