Contractions are like cramps. And cramps, I've always thought, feel like a giant fist wringing my uterus like a sponge. Being swabbed dry with a cotton ball. The dull ache in my lower abdomen starts at 3 a.m. after a night that included a backyard fire, hobo dinner, a few s'mores and a bunch of episodes of "How I Met Your Mother." The pain eases in, it's tidal, and I start the stopwatch on my phone but fall asleep before it ends. This pattern suggests a lack of urgency.
At some point Chuck wakes and I tell him he probably isn't going to work today. It's like someone hit the eject button on the bed. He's upright and wearing pants before his second blink. He's downloading a contractions app. I'm throwing various chargers into a duffel bag.
"We should have gone to bed early," Chuck had said when we crawled in at about 1 a.m. "Since we're going to be going to the hospital at 5 a.m."
Actually it was 6 a.m.
HERE SHE COMES. SHE'S AN ANTEATER
Sometimes I suspect I'm a pussy. That the urinary tract infections and the recent migraines really would be damn near pleasant for the majority of women and that my default setting is jammed in the "ouch" position. Is there really a giant fist wringing my uterus like a sponge, or is it the downiest of feathers giving my uterus a cartoonish tickle. I have to stop a few times during the walk from the parking ramp to the birthing center.
In the latter half of my pregnancy I took on the look of an anteater. It has to do with my posture, my slightly pained expression and the shape of my glasses. No one here pays attention to my walking zoo exhibition. I might be having the most extraordinary experience of my life, but to these hospital employees I'm just another round-shouldered woman mooing into a window ledge.
My fear is that the inner mechanics of my body won't be able to keep up with my level of discomfort. The contractions will pulse, but the crypt won't budge. The professionals will say, "Nice try. Come back when you've got something real to show us." That would be a nightmare. Back in the car, across town, into our living room where I would continue to moan through ebb and flow while Chuck squeezes my hips in comfort. His eyebrows clenched into two points.
VINCENT PRICE AND THE GREGORIAN CHANTS
The common rubber exercise ball is rebranded as a "birthing ball" on this floor of the hospital. And this is my happy place. I spend hours rocking through the contractions. Sometimes they roll in while my own personal nurse is in the middle of a story and I have to say: "I want to hear more about your son's baseball tournament, I do, but I need to drop my head, rock my hips and perform a Gregorian chant for the next 45 seconds." She watches the monitor I'm plugged into and lets me know when the pain is at its apex. She uses a soft, meditative voice to coax me over the hump. This is both awesome and infuriating. It's allows me to follow my pain like a dot on a map, but wish it would hurry its way to Point B.
We have movement in the crypt and the doctors seems surprised. It's opening at an acceptable rate. I imagine a sort of Vincent Price creak and groan. Bats, cobwebs, condensation.
"I really hate this," I say to Chuck or my mom or the nurse. Anyone who happens to be sitting across from me and might be wondering how I'm feeling. "This is like ... being tortured."
CLENCH AND PRICK
There is a new worst-feeling-in-the-world: Having a contraction while getting stuck in the spine with the epidural. I'm knocked breathless. The progressive squeeze in the front, the pinch in the vulnerable part of the back. It's a double assault. The epidural guy yields to the whims of my uterus, then continues his numb job. The only thing standing between me and a huge HOLY FUCK THAT HURTS is the promise that I'll soon go dead legged.
Pregnancy seemed to drag on forever and ever. I'm neither patient, nor do I have much stick-to-it-ness. If it was anything else at all -- growing a plant, writing a novel, learning French -- I'm sure it would have been abandoned. A project lost in storage next to my old easel, a pair of hockey skates and a set of free weights. Still, when the doctor tells me that they are going to break my amniotic sac I get panicky and start to cry. It feels too soon, too fast, too real. Later Chuck tells me that this cloud burst was recorded on my chart, along with the information that "Patient says she has been emotional during pregnancy" -- which makes me feel like I'm in the fast lane toward electro shock therapy.
And then a massive gush leaves my body, a creek after a rainstorm, and the bed is warm and my legs are wet. Every time I laugh or cough or shift I get another burst of flow. It's a new level of gross. A glimpse of life with incontinence.
Chuck is standing next to the bed when the nurse points to something on the sheet.
"That's the mucus plug," she says. "It's been a while since I've seen one that is perfectly intact."
I grimace. This is a bit of science that terrified me from the beginning. I'd never heard the words "mucus plug" before I got pregnant. Truly, it is among the most visual of two-word combos. In my head it would look like a baby rat: pink and wet with a tail. Chuck tells me it looks like something that would come into play during cold-and-flu season.
"I'm sorry you had to see that," I say to him.
My plan had been to keep as much of this gushing, squirting, bleeding, tearing away from him as possible. I'd like for him to be able to look at me after I sneeze without forever thinking of this slug-like thing that oozed out of my body.
"I'm glad she explained what it was," he says. "because that was horrific."
I spend much of the day with no feeling below the waist. I'm assured that I will still feel contractions, but they will be in the form of a blooming pressure. That will prove true. And that pressure feels like the sort of urgent lower abdominal, slash bowel weight that accompanies a night of binge drinking and terrible dietary decisions followed by one too many cups of black coffee.
I touch my right leg and nothing happens. It's like a slab of dead animal. Something to stuff an apple into and roast over a spit. There is an impulse to see what all I can do to my leg without feeling pain. Pass the fork. Every time I shift positions, I have to physically lift my leg, which has suddenly become the heaviest part of my body -- though I'm not convinced it's even still attached to me.
In my head I refer to her as The Fluffer. There is a new nurse on my case, a woman who has been doing this since the white paper hats were en vogue. She reminds me of my mom, even moreso when the two collapse into lengthy conversations and the nurse later tells me that my mom is such a fashionable dresser.
The Fluffer's role, it seems, is to prime me. Get me close to delivery. Do the dirty work so that the doctors can scoot in, suit up, and dislodge a set of baby-sized shoulders. The Fluffer is holding one leg, poking at me, circling the exit with her finger and directing my pushes through the contractions. They don't tell you that there is nothing vaginal about pushing. This feels closer to constipation.
Meanwhile, one rubber-gloved hand seems clenched around ... something. She makes repeated trips to the garbage can and returns to the bed wearing a new glove. Later Chuck reveals that she was carrying fistfuls of yuck. He is on the other leg and tells me that during these 10 second push intervals I look like a power lifter.
The Fluffer encourages me to think of the baby as a car that is stuck in the snow. With each 10-second push cycle, I'm rocking the baby under the pubic bone and toward freedom. I struggle with this imagery. I think we can all do better. The Fluffer asks if I want to watch TV or listen to music. I hadn't noticed that the room had been media free all day.
I could use the distraction. I rock the snow-stuck car free while watching "Bourne Identity." Only later will I realize that the Powerful Baby Girl was born into a pun.
The Fluffer has done the staging between contractions: Tools here, wardrobe supplies over there. She asks if the sight of the tool table is going to freak me out. No. It's not like there is a power saw visible.
Once there is a visual on the baby's head, the team of doctors are introduced. All the efficient donning and tying and scurrying feels like being backstage at a play. Within minutes I've rocked the baby loose and a few squawks later I've got a little hairless squirrel mewing on my chest. I can barely breathe. She looks exactly like I imagined: Her forehead creased like Yoda, slits for eyes, dark hair wet against her head. Her limbs flail, her back arches and I recognize all of her movements from when she was in utero. That leg kick would have popped out of the right side of my body; The tiny fingers that clawed at the walls of my uterus; That's the familiar round of her back. I'd recognize that bony little tush in a crowd of bony tushes.
Later Pa Pista will watch her squirm and say: "I can't imagine what it was like to have her moving around that much inside you" and I'll feel validated.
THE TRUTH ABOUT CHILD BIRTH
Here is the truth: Giving birth didn't hurt a lick. It wasn't hard to do. At all. It's just pushing and resting and pushing some more. But there, in the back of your mind, is the inkling of knowledge: This doesn't hurt a lick ... now. But tomorrow. Tomorrow it will feel like you made love to an aggressive bowling ball.
THE END OF INNOCENCE
Before I could use the bathroom, the nurse told me, I had to call her. They would need to make sure I was steady on my feet after the epidural. She didn't tell me that I was going to be spilling liquids like an overflowing rain bucket. That I would leave a trail of blood and urine that started on my legs and ran the length of the floor to the bathroom. Adding to the insult: Two nurses holding a size XXXL maxi pad/diaper -- one in front, one in back -- as I walk.
When I'd first held the baby, I'd caught a whiff of pee and assumed it was from her. She had been swimming of a stew of her own for months. But now, on the toilet, with nurses scrubbing my route, I realized it was me. It was me that smelled like pee.
"I could tell your bladder was full when I felt your uterus," one tells me.
I've never been more glad I'm not a nurse.
The Powerful Baby Girls is 11 days old today, in what continues to be the most surreal science experiment of our lives. She looks exactly like Chuck, it's even in her expressions, so when I look at him I see her little face.
We've both succumbed to a new disease called "Where's the Baby." On our second night home, I was frantically searching for her in the blankets on the bed and Chuck woke me to tell me she was in the cradle. I was dreaming. He had "Where's the Baby" the next night. I had it the night after that.
She peed on me during a doctor's appointment and peed on Chuck, her changing table and her rug just a few minutes ago. I've witnessed projectile poop. It shot out as she screamed. I accidentally pinched her chest in her car seat and dropped Fig Newton into her ear. She spent 80 percent of yesterday crying and today I breast fed her in a high traffic area of a public park.
Chuck's convinced that she is freakishly strong. She's becoming exponentially more alert. Sometimes she makes faces that smack of incredulous teen. She smells good and has hilarious feet.
And every single day I wake up happy.