I always thought I would be one of those women who would enjoy being pregnant. Life! In my belly! I would be round and glowing and bosomy, pulsing in harmony with the rest of the life-giving universe.
Instead, I spent the first four months of my first pregnancy crouched over my toilet discovering the hues of my own bile. I was bestowed with a superpower sense of smell that alerted me to the presence of dog poop within a three-mile radius. One evening, I came downstairs to track down the origin of the scent of death that was coiling up from the kitchen. It was my husband, cooking broccoli. I like broccoli.
After a brief hiatus from my symptoms in the second trimester, sciatica joined the party. My blood pressure plummeted so low that I got dizzy during pre-natal yoga. To top it all off, I was not even visited by the Boob Fairy I’d heard so much about.
In retrospect, I’m not sure why I thought I’d like being pregnant. At a young age, I developed a keen distrust of my body. I was a sensitive kid who absorbed negative messages easily: A babysitter who said, “Don’t drink too much milk, it’s fattening.” The elementary school nurse who became alarmed when I gained nine pounds in a school year. The glossy, svelte blonde bodies on the front of my Seventeen magazines.
I was not a coordinated child, which heightened the distrust of my body. I still break out in a sweat when I recall the rope climbing course in elementary school gym class. I can feel the crimson claw of anxiety in my chest. I remember the chafe of the long, yellow rope on my hands, my feet clawing to clasp the knot at the bottom. Looking up, up, up, but being unable to ascend. I would hop back to the rubbery gym floor, glad to feel the earth, but bubbling with shame as the other kids scurried up the ropes like little mountain goats.
The distrust ran so deep that when I didn’t instantly become pregnant the moment my birth control prescription ran out, I figured I was infertile. And when, finally, many months later, I was pregnant, I figured a miscarriage was around the next corner.
When I entered my third trimester, the baby still growing, I started worrying about the impending birth. To counter my anxiety, I came up with a labor mantra: My body knows just what to do.
In lieu of an uber-detailed birth plan, I had leanings. I thought I’d probably want to be in the Jacuzzi. I hoped to go without pain meds for as long as possible. I planned to breast feed. That was about it. Despite being a highly strung, anxious type, I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, and that birth was messy and unpredictable and I had little control over how things played out.
Before long, I was eight days overdue. After two nights of contractions that intensified in the night but vanished with the morning sun, I visited my midwives. “So, when did you start leaking amniotic fluid?” the midwife asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said, shocked. I’d been examining my soiled toilet paper like a CSI detective for weeks, searching for clues of impending labor. How had I missed this?
My husband and I headed to the hospital, where the midwives broke my water with what was surely meant to be a crochet hook. The gush of fluids looked like split pea soup. “There’s meconium in your fluids,” the midwife said. “Hopefully this will get things moving.”
Wary of unnecessary medical interventions, we wanted to proceed as naturally as possible. But because of the leaking fluids and meconium, we didn’t have a whole lot of time. I showered. I used a breast pump to try and trick my body into releasing oxytocin, a hormone present during labor.
Nothing worked. Maybe, as I deeply feared, my body didn’t know just what to do.
Finally, the next day, I was administered Pitocin. After several hours, labor finally started. It felt like someone was clenching my insides with a wrench. The pain spiraled from deep in my belly to my tailbone. The contractions were long, frequent and clenching. It’d been 72 hours since I’d had a decent night of sleep.
Somewhere around six centimeters, I asked for a shot of Nubain. The narcotic allowed me to close my eyes and float on a gentle drunken wave between the crush of the Pitocin contractions.
“Do you want us to fill up the Jacuzzi?” the midwife, nurses and my husband all asked me. My body rejected even the idea of it—by this point, I was sweaty and pukey, and the idea of hot water was repellant.
I pushed for four hours. Four hours. I heard the words, “I can’t do this!” spill out of my exhausted, purple face over and over.
“You’re the only one who can do this,” my midwife told me.
Through the pain and frustration, the exhaustion and, I’ll just say it—trauma– I heard my midwife. Enough that I stopped what I’d been saying. Instead of my body knows just what to do and instead of I can’t do this, I simply said, “I can do this.” And I pushed.
Finally, my son was born. He was born in a posterior position, and the widest part of his skull had been pushing against my tailbone, explaining the intense back pain and prolonged pushing period.
I held him, took in his little swollen face, and tried to nurse him. But I was so tired I could barely focus on him—this baby I had wished for, had worked so hard to carry and protect.
My daughter’s birth almost three years later was a different experience. The day after my due date, a Sunday morning in early December, menstrual-like cramps began circling from my stomach to my lower back. I was uncomfortable, but still functioning. I managed to eat an eggs benedict brunch at my parents’ house. I figured if I was able to keep spooning down the sunshine-colored hollandaise sauce between the increasingly biting cramps, this probably wasn’t labor.
But it was.
I called my midwives and they suggested we head to the hospital. We paced the hospital corridors, and the contractions kept coming. With each one, I instinctually dropped to my hands and knees, barely feeling the soft scratch of carpet under my fists. The position was somehow soothing, yet each time I got down on the floor, I could feel my daughter’s head bearing like a bowling ball against my cervix. I had a brief, quiet fantasy about getting an epidural, or again requesting the sweet, lazy relief of Nubain.
Instead, I silently repeated the labor mantra I’d come up with this time: You don’t ever have to do this again. You don’t ever have to do this again.
For the next six hours, I dropped to my hands and knees over and over, like I was in prayer. I went deep inside my own body, and the carpet and the midwives and even my husband faded away. I cried and puked and pushed.
And then my little girl was on my chest. We stared and stared at each other. Within minutes, she nursed like she’d been doing it for years.
Her body, already, knew just what to do.
I don’t judge how other people choose to give birth. I can see and comprehend the varying viewpoints: Why should women have to endure such pain when there are reasonably safe methods of pain relief? Or, women’s bodies are born and built to do this, and we don’t need medication. And all the shades in between. My friends have had epidurals, c-sections, home births. To each their own.
For me, the mommy wars exist mostly inside my head, a product of my own perfectionism.
I do worry about women who put too much emphasis on planning a birth, the same way I worry about a bride obsessed with the details of her wedding. It is fine to plan and celebrate, to beautify our rituals, to mark these immense turning points of our lives. But I wonder, when grasping too tightly to a plan, if they’ve considered that after the ritual is when the hard, hard work begins.
Giving birth changed the way I thought about my body. I did something unspeakably hard, and with my daughter’s birth, my body did know just what to do. That deep part of me, the part without words, knew I needed to get on my hands and knees. My daughter and I whispered hormones to each other. Blood and sweat and oxytocin wove us together.
When I think about my daughter’s birth, I feel the same kind of pride I felt when my husband told me he was signing up to run a half marathon. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s pretty amazing.
I probably still can’t scoot up a rope, do a pull-up or more than a few sloppy push-ups. I don’t always gaze at my reflection in the mirror with compassion or love. But for those six hours, my body knew just what to do. For that, I am in awe.