Love is a Burning Thing

Unknown 2

Birth: it’s like this, see. Improbable. It’s one of those things that you don’t quite think of at the time that you lock it in. I mean conception, of course. I mean the thoughts before the sex that might lead to it. One thinks, briefly, of the consequences of a pregnancy, maybe. There seems to be less and less thought in it as time goes on. Thoughts re: pregnancy tend to only go so far as that would be good or that would be bad. It’s a general blanket cast over the course of one’s ideal lifetime that is taken into consideration. A sort of, What I am doing for the next eighteen years? Am I busy? The lesser details of the consequences of such are rarely considered, though. For example, no one seems to zoom in on the fact that in the event of a desired pregnancy, even that must end. Somehow, some way, all pregnancies must end.

Birth is one way.

Naturally, my reaction to the question of birth has always been a sort of catapulted, forward lurching as I crossed my legs in horror and covered my nether regions with a protective/defensive clamoring of hands. This of course would be performed in tandem with some sort of guttural noise, something akin to the hnphhh of wind being pushed out by a fist to the gut, or a retching sound, maybe a low and long-drawn squeal. Noise, though. My reaction involved the use of both physical defensive maneuvers and noise.

So then it would follow that I found myself in quite a predicament when I found myself pregnant. Not that I am trying to make this out to be an accident, an oops sort of thing. There were conversations. Smiles. Plans. I keep coming back to this phrase “one day” that we would lob back and forth. It seemed further off. But suddenly it wasn’t—further off—and the difference between offhand conversation in the night and then seeing that second little blue line spread thin across the stick is, shall we say, great. One small step for a man sort of thing. One giant leap for mankind. If mankind is my life.

 

There are two monumental drawbacks to pregnancy, the way I see it. The second one feels like a more lasting problem than the first. Because—you see—birth, too, must end. Somehow, some way. But the effects of pregnancy—the signs, if you will—span the stretch of a few days postpartum to something that will potentially hang around for the remaining portion of one’s natural life. The question is no longer, What am I doing for the next eighteen years? Instead it becomes, What am I doing until I die?

Well, we all know what I do. I do naked stuff.

And quite possibly the most unguaranteed thing in the world is the whole of individual factors that may or may not become realities through the course of procreation. The sheer number of combined genetic possibilities, for one. The shape of her fingernails. Her earlobes. The color of her eyes. Does she freckle or does she tan? And then myself—weight gain. Sag. Stretch marks. Tearing. Tearing at birth. As [insert your favored deity here] is my witness, I have held no greater fear than the fear of tearing for the past eight months.

Eight months prior to the date of her arrival was when I found out she was coming. I was in a Bikram studio, fighting my genetics and my environment to keep everything where I wanted it to be. I’d been at the top of my game in this respect—Bikram—having practiced regularly by then for the past three years and basically given up on all other forms of physical fitness. Granted, the gym routine yielded better results. But the gym controversy had boiled to a point where it yielded no results whatsoever once I loathed it and stopped going. So Bikram. I was strong at Bikram.

That is, until the day pregnancy began what would become one very steep downhill spiral, physically speaking. I’m not even talking about weight gain or stretch marks here. I’m talking about foreign bodies pushing on your diaphragm. Low blood pressure. Exhaustion. General fatigue. Restricted activities on doctor’s/baby daddy’s orders. An increased “gross out” complex. Strange things would suddenly become so mentally unappealing that contact with them in the real world would seem to turn the whole of me inside out. In a word, it made me weak.

That fateful day in the Bikram studio was the start of it. I came in feeling strong, laid my mat front and center to the studio, rolled my eyes at a fellow performer named Keiran Lee who was unrolling his mat like a newbie in the back. I was fully prepared to walk out that day with any number of remarks that would infer that he was a little girl at heart. Bikram is actually not for pussies, regardless of the fact that it has “yoga” in the name. And, too, it seems to be harder on men.

And then three positions in, I was on the floor trying to get my vision back while the rest of the class was still warming up with breathing exercises. I have never not been able to finish a full 90-minute class. Some days I’m stronger than others, but standing up has definitely never been an issue for me. That day it was. I drank two liters of water on the way home while navigating between spotty vision and stewing over the tweets Keiran was sending out thatI was a little girl. At home I stumbled past Manuel, who took it personally that I didn’t stop to kiss him. Instead, I puked two liters of water in the bathroom and sat down sort of shaking and shivering and wondering what went wrong. Why can’t I stand in a Bikram studio, and why, today of all days, did Keiran have to show up?

So that is low blood pressure.

A light-bulb moment hit twenty-four hours later. Two blue lines spread faint across the stick.

The second light bulb clicked on shortly after, only it was less illuminating and more of a danger signal. Like a red light, flashing, with any number of whistles and sirens blowing in the distance. And alarmingly it was not the sagging/weight gain/scarring/stretch mark fears that were unnerving me. I was suddenly so unconcerned with those possibilities that the attitude became something of a shrugging off, an, it will be worth it, the proverbial whatever, happens happens, the easy wisdom of one can’t worry about maybe. Instead, my focus was kicked back to birth. That inevitable end. Birth would now be happening on some set type of schedule.

 

I have always secretly harbored this strange notion that I am somehow built for baby making. Not that I want to follow my calling. Not that I want more than one, ever, or ever have at any point in my existence. I always knew it would be one and that I would stop there because I play favorites. I play the kind of favorites that, in the event of something like, say, two children, one would wind up a serial killer stemming from mommy issues, and the other would probably set records at Juilliard stemming from tiger mom issues. So, one. But still, secretly, I’ve harbored the notion that I would be quite a prize, in like seventeenth-century New England, for some farmer who needed twelve good strong kids to plow his fields. My reasons are these:

  1. Hips: I have had the hips for baby making since preschool.
  2. Latchable nipples: That is what the midwife called them. I never had a name for them before, but now that’s it. I have highly developed nipples, evolutionarily speaking.
  3. A long cervix:I have one, which I learned only as recently as my first prenatal visit. The doctor made this out to be a really great thing. He said, It means you’ll have a nice long labor. More on that later.
  4. Perceived relative pain tolerance: Again, more on that later.
  5. The right attitude: AKA an extreme willingness to do the things that might lead to pregnancy.

 

The hips are mostly what I’ve rested my laurels on, though. My thought is this: nothing would get stuck, in an exit situation. Skeletally, there is room.

Still, though, the thought of birth has never been one fraught with fears of death in childbirth. While I believe I am built for birthing children, I have never believed that such factors mean I should want to experience it. Tearing is why. I harbor an avid fear of tearing. This became most apparent to me while reading Chad Kultgen’s latest novel, Men, Women, and Children, in which a bored married couple has unappealing obligatory sex in a half-mast celebration of the husband’s birthday, and during which he is completely changed by the realization that their second child left her with an episiotomy scar.

The scar represents the scar in their marriage, the author said later as I giddily interviewed him.

Some other internal alarm sounded then. Never, ever, have a scar. Or worse, a tear. Because wouldn’t that hurt worse, too, somehow? Compounded with being less sightly? I didn’t know, but I drew broad assumptions.

Without any research whatsoever, I held these assumptions and paired them with the extended assumption that I would simply cart myself into a hospital, demand an epidural dosage better suited for a person twice my size, and simply just not push, ever, throughout the labor, hopefully resulting in a pain-free, tear/episiotomy-free birth, in the event of such.

Somewhere around week 20 (a pregnancy, on average, runs 40 weeks) I started showing. It was barely a thing, but still. There was a hard little ball that could not be sucked in. Something about that made the thing more undeniable. Birth felt more and more like a looming thing that would have to be gotten through. I decided then to get online and look up the most cutting-edge drugs for the event. It seems like epidurals would be things constantly under construction, pharmalogically. It was a de facto truth that C-sections were out of the question, absolutely, based on my skin color and my hypersensitive reaction to nerve damage. I am simply too white to hide a scar like that, and I’m still creeped out when a certain triangle-shaped slice under my right breast is touched because of a lingering numbness from that boob job all those years ago. I would not have a C-section, not even if it killed me (which it wouldn’t, because of those hips).

That is the entirety of the assumed knowledge re: birth that I went into pregnancy with.

 

My First Birth-Related Google Search

(and also, terms you’ll need to know)

 

Oxytocin: the natural hormone that one’s body releases to stimulate labor/contractions/breast-feeding/unquestioning-unending-unsurpassable love directed at the small person who has just impaled you from the inside out.

 

Pitocin: western medicine’s answer to oxytocin. Synthetic oxytocin. A stimulating boost designed to speed up contractions once the epidural slows them back down (and it invariably will, to the point that contractions may never become strong enough or close together enough to actually bring an end to the whole ordeal) or once the doctor is tired and ready to get the labor over with so he can make it home in time for dinner. Usually both.

 

My first Google search was centered around finding the options available that would lead to the most pain-free birth. Epidurals seemed to be quite popular on the chat boards, until I read a little further. Things can go wrong there. Deeply wrong, sometimes. A few women talked about developing Bell’s palsy following the drug. Others said it only kicked in on one side or another of their bodies, leaving them to experience the increased pain of labor brought on by Pitocin, because Pitocin makes everything stronger and faster and pushes the body’s pace into overdrive…. Which led me through a maze of searches on tearing, as if I’d fallen down the rabbit hole. Because, remember that long cervix I have, and how the doctor made it sound like a good thing? It is a good thing because it gives the body time to ease into transition, which is a real term used for the part where the baby is actively relocating to the outside world. It turns out one of the big secrets to not tearing is not making things happen any faster than the body wants them to.

Which means it would be best to avoid Pitocin.

Which means no epidural.

And here I found all this out at 20 weeks pregnant.

The reasons became more compelling, too. It went from an issue of vanity and comfort—my issues—to issues relating to this tiny little being whose only entry point into the world was still through me. Because hormones are delicate things, see. And once you throw a dose of the fake stuff into the mix, it can throw off the chain reactions of all of the real ones. It can interfere with bonding and with breastfeeding and those little instinctual things, and beyond that the epidural is a drug that—like anything else during pregnancy—if infused into the mother’s system is also infused into the baby’s. And babies are much slower at processing the drug out. So it could potentially be days before she is as alert and cognizant as she might otherwise have been immediately following birth. This bothered me.

And thus began a slow transition of thought, or, better put, a paradigm shift in thought—thoughts—relating to how I planned to get a baby (tracking to be seven pounds and some change, mind you, a full-sized new human being)—a full-sized, full-term human being out of my midsection and into the world. I wanted this all without being cut open in the process, and without the administration of synthetic hormones, painkillers of varying intensities, or drugs of other sorts. Also, ideally, I wanted to live to tell about it.

They call it natural birth.

 

Manuel said no. Well, first I should list the other things he said. He said, Are you crazy, and he said, Why, and he said, I don’t want to be anywhere near that room if you think you’re going to do that. And then he said again, Why? He said, Who does that? He pointed out advents of modern medicine—C-sections and epidurals—and said, But this is America. And then he said, Why? And then he said no.

This because he was sure that if an unmedicated birth happened, I’d never speak to him again. I promised to speak to him, joking that there would at least be the matter of child support to arrange in the event that there was no other further interest in speaking to him. He did not like the joke. Next I promised to speak to him [sic] no matter what, swear, and he begrudgingly pulled his stance back to neutral. But not before promising me I would change my mind when it got down to the grit.

 

My Second Google Search

(and also, don’t watch The Business of Being Born)

 

Once I was steadfastly in the natural birth camp, I began slipping into the “fuck hospitals” camp. Horror stories in the comment sections of any number of baby sites got me started. Pushy doctors. Disease. Hospitals are where sick people go. And where a lot of money is made. We seem to forget that, though the chat boards have not. There is also a sort of forgotten wisdom in the reminder that birth is not a pathology—that it was happing for millennia prior to the dawn of western medicine, that people were for the most part not only living to tell about it but going on to do it again and again, and so on. (On a side note, I’d like to stress how many baby sites there actually are. The Internet is overrun with them. More than porn sites, even, I’d venture to say. People, it seems, when they find themselves personally involved with the prospect of babies, cannot gather enough on the subject. It is rich.)

There is also this latent type of pride I hold for having made it this far without formally being admitted to a hospital. There was my own birth, granted, and once a forced look-over at 18 when a flimsy type of truck rear-ended me on a back road and heavy insurance-type peer pressure forced me to sit on a bed while the doctor applied a band-aid to a very slight scrape where the air bag had slid across an index finger. It was, I found out later, a $900 band-aid. I think that may have been the seed that flowered this shift.

Either way, Manuel said no. I said, Maybe I’ll just go to a birthing center…or something. He said, But what if you die? He said, There will be no doctor there if it turns into an emergency. I tried to explain about my hips.

And then around that time, the number of times people had asked me whether I’d seen The Business of Being Born rose to an alarming nineteen. Nineteen times I’d had to say no. It began to feel like a point of neglect, the fact that I hadn’t taken the time. They asked as if I should know that any responsible person considering birthing options would have watched it by now. I said, Manuel, just watch this with me. He said no. He also said, Ew.

The conversations came back around enough that he agreed to watch the thing on the grounds that we would put it to rest once and for all. By now the conversation had progressed beyond a possible birthing center and straight into the four walls of our home. Home birth is what they call it. It’s this crazy thing where you go into labor, and instead of packing a suitcase you just run a nice bath and wait it out. That’s the way the home-birth camp paints it, anyway. As something pleasant, comfortable. Wholesome. Manuel’s level of panic had risen to an all-time high because now there was not only the near-sure prospect that I would die but also that he would never be able to use the bathtub again. I said, Just watch the documentary. If you still think I’m going to die then I’ll drop it. He said, Fine. And then we put the movie on and he promptly fell asleep, waking only once to a blood-sick scream during the one scene where a woman giving birth is right at the Ring of Fire and the camera is right there, up close and personal.

 

Ring of Fire: Not a Johnny Cash song. It is the point in transition where the kid’s head is coming out into the world. The tearing point, if one is going to tear. Usually a good ninety seconds of intense burning because one’s body—and a highly sensitive part of one’s body, at that—is literally being stretched to the point of breaking. Every baby chat board member, novice and expert alike, seems to know intimately the exact meaning of “Ring of Fire.”

 

In spite of this, I was more set on a home birth than ever. It had only strengthened my resolve, like when the liberal left leaves the theater at the end of a Michael Moore documentary. It just makes you want to do something. And Manuel seemed so set on not having to sit through the documentary again, awake this time, that he finally said, Do what you’re going to do. He seemed tired.

I met with midwives. Midwives are nurses trained to assist in births without the presence of a doctor. Here are the things they tell you that make you feel good about the decision—excited about the experience, even—confident that not only can it be handled but it can be handled with grace and poise:

  1. It’s nothing the body can’t handle
  2. Natural endorphins are nature’s pain relief
  3. Hot water cuts the pain by 60%
  4. We’re made for this
  5. The trick is not to panic
  6. Your body knows best
  7. Home births have a 300% less likelihood of significant tearing
  8. Its such a kind way to bring a baby into the world, as compared to the bright lights and noise and sterility of a hospital
  9. Home births allow you to be in control, to choose the position you want to be in, to not be tethered by an IV, to not be pushed along with forceps, vacuum assistance, and, god forbid, Pitocin…
  10. You’ll be so empowered

 

I think that’s the red flag, that word. Empowered. We tend to throw it around at events that represent relatively uncomfortable deviations from the norm.

By the time the home-birth discussion had been forfeited, I was 36 weeks along. For those following the math, you’ll realize that this meant one month from the due date: January 15. I found a midwife in a hurry. Leading to that, we’d done all of the prenatal appointments together, and it was fun, really. The technology is at the point that I have seen the two hemispheres of her brain and where the blood is flowing. I have seen her teeth still in her gums in the jaw. Midwives don’t do this, though. They have a relatively ageless little device that checks the heartbeat, and they have another little ageless device commonly known as measuring tape, with which they check the number of inches spanning the length between the sternum and the pubic bone, and they have another, even more ageless device, with which they measure weight. That is all. The appointments are boring, and weekly. I told Manuel not to bother coming for that reason.

And also because every wall in the office was pieced like a checkerboard with warped squares, like a mirror funhouse—a little house of horrors. Every wall was lined with snapshots of birth at the crowning.

Crowning would be the better-known synonym to Ring of Fire.

 

Final Thoughts I Had Before the Train Left the Station

 

As many porn fans may remember, I used to have a tattoo that was really not much more than a square inch in size, but even so, it was solid black and crept just below my panty line and to the left until it grazed over the top of my hip bone. It was lame, was all—a Playboy bunny I got with a fake ID at seventeen because I couldn’t think of anything else to do with a fake ID at seventeen. You would not be able to limit counting the number of pornstars who have this identical tattoo to just your fingers and toes. And so I lasered it off. The closest description to the pain of that that I have come up with involves livestock fencing and a kitchen device. Because if any of you have ever spent time around horses, you may recall that large pastures are often contained with a thin strand above the fencing that runs across the t-posts and is charged with an electric current 24 hours out of every day. It is painful, that current. Painful enough to keep a sixteen-hundred-pound animal from challenging it. I am familiar with the pain of it firsthand, because, at about the age where my height brought my forehead to just the place where the hotwire might graze it, I walked headfirst into it in pouring rain. It will throw you backwards, at that size. And that is what happened. I was thrown backwards with the force of that current and came up swinging and screaming wildly at the ghost I assumed had just assaulted me from behind. Pair this with a cheese grater. That is what it feels like to have a tattoo lasered. It feels like dragging a cheese grater hard enough across the skin to actually grate it off, while also running a livestock-quality electrical current through the thing. I went through twelve sessions of laser tattoo removal before I decided things were good enough, and I stopped.

My first thought was that nothing could be worse than this, and I had survived this.

The summer before last, I was riding one of my horses along the trails in Burbank when a semi-truck blew by and for whatever reason decided to lay on its horn. This was not the kindly old mare I was riding. If it had been, there would be no story. Instead, I was riding the stallion that day. He is an Arabian who spent the first half of his life on a farm where he was specifically used for breeding, and the second half of his life negotiating with me over the prospect of maybe settling down into a nice park horse. He may never be all the way there. Either way, I’d grown comfortable with him. I’d stopped using saddles since the day a black widow climbed out of the tree of one while I was riding. So I was bareback. And on that particular day, I was also texting. Maybe tweeting. Let’s just say I was using my phone, and I was sitting bareback on a horse that it is illegal to put minors on, and I had just come out of one tunnel that took me under the freeway that the semi-truck was gliding over and was about to enter a second tunnel that would take me under an overpass when the horn incident happened. Such is the nature of trail riding along Los Angeles interstates. The horse moved forward. Only I shouldn’t say moved, because it does not connote the speed that should necessarily be inferred. Blew forward, is maybe one term. Was shot like a ball through a cannon forward. Lept forward. Bolted is the word. The horse went forward with such a blast that I lost my phone in an instant and in the next instant was inside the tunnel and couldn’t grab the reins and couldn’t regain my seat or see whether there were other horses in the tunnel as well, as it curved slightly, and so decided that the best option would be to throw myself off the back of him. Abort the mission, if you will.

Well, it was a stone tunnel. The first thing that hit was my shoulder, and the second was my head, and then I had to get up and run after that horse and get back on him somehow. I remember standing up and not being sure whether I was up, and I remember seeing two of everything, the image in each eye drifting slightly up or slightly down relative to the other. I remember the sand in my nose and in my eyes and in my throat. My vision and my breathing burned and faltered like this for twenty minutes or better while I chased the horse down at a dying sort of jog and somehow climbed back up on him. And then I sat there for a moment, blinking.

My second thought was that no pain could be worse than this.

Third thought: Home births are great because there’s no room to change your mind if you start to feel weak.

Labor Day

(AKA pain worse than this)

 

I went one week late. The discomfort involved in such a thing can really only be experienced rather than described. There is, after all, a full-term human pushing up into one’s ribs and down into the pelvis. The child is as cramped as you are by then. She tries to stretch. I had not leaned forward in so long.

There are any number of signs that women eagerly await, hoping to know when they are nearing labor. Energy bursts are one. By January 22 I’d had so many false alarms in the energy burst department that I was beginning to think I’d simply gotten my groove back. I worked the entire day—sun up to nearing midnight—on little tasks and projects that I’ve had going in an effort to get every last thing out of the way before I was pinned down for 18 years under the needs of a person more important than myself. It’s a big job, that.

At a few minutes to midnight, I fell into bed with that kind of sleep-deprived stupor. And then my water broke.

Contractions started in almost immediately, fast and hard and four and a half minutes apart already. They really need to only get below three before you’re there, past the labor part of it and into transition and then, ta-da, it’s over. I read that somewhere. I felt good. I could manage them. I decided to shave my legs. And other things. This would lend to the grace in my grace and poise.

After a nice leisurely shower, I called the midwife. She said to call back when the contractions were under four minutes. So Manuel went to sleep, and I ran a bath and grabbed a good book and hung out. My mother and her friend were staying with us, waiting for this. They went back to bed, too.

An hour later I called the midwife. She said, Call when they’re at three minutes apart. And she went back to bed, too.

And then the contractions started to sort of hurt. Not that they hadn’t hurt before—they did—but now they’d increased to a hurt that I couldn’t read through. I was still at four minutes. I called the midwife. I said, I think she’s coming quickly. She laughed.

She said, Wait until you can’t speak through it.

And she went back to bed. It was 4:00 am.

By the time the sun came up, I couldn’t read at all. I was just lying in the bath, rolling my head side to side in this slow sort of time-stopped trance. Occasionally I’d take a shot at a game of Candy Crush. They don’t require much thought, those. You mostly just have to move some bright candy-shaped dots around a screen and otherwise chance will take over. I needed things that didn’t suck up much brain power. Occasionally I’d add more heat to the bath. I’d time a contraction. Four minutes. I was hungry. Starving, really, but too exhausted to make the trip downstairs to do anything about it. A contraction is exhausting, not only due directly to the fact that it is the body working a muscle in a powerful way, but also exhausting because of the way the body reacts to the pain of it—and it is undeniable pain at that point. It’s a dull, bone-crunching kind of pain. It’s possible to say where it originates but not where it ends. Sometimes it feels like a pain message originating straight in the brain—like a nerve damage thing, involuntary and severe. By 7:00 am I’d reached the point where the contractions were hard to breathe with, and I was compelled to move through it. Water was not enough. I thought, Any time now. I called the midwife. The people in the house started to wake up. Someone brought me coffee.

The midwife said, I’ll have some coffee too, then I’ll head over.

I figured she’d miss the whole event and so reminded myself that I have the hips for this, that I’d have been good stock for a seventeenth-century farmer. I reminded Manuel too, who was quietly freaking out. He is not a farmer.

Hollywood has done a good enough job of portraying high-stress hospital scenes to have educated us all on how crucial it is that the cervix reaches 10 cm before the baby comes out. I knew this before I knew they came out of vaginas. 10 centimeters. I figured I was at least at 8—maybe worse—by the time the contractions had pulled me out of the bathwater and into a nervous circling/hip-rocking type of motion that I needed to do through each contraction while leaning over a counter or otherwise sturdy surface. I was proud that I was still handling the thing with a fair amount of grace and poise. I wasn’t screaming, for example. That was the image I kept coming back to from the birth documentary—Ricki Lake quietly pushing out her second child in a bathtub, not a peep coming out of her the whole time. That’s the track I was on.

The midwife showed up at 10:00 am. My contractions were around three and half minutes apart, and I was definitely not able to speak through them. I figured we’d all be laughing and eating lunch with a newborn by noon. The midwife set down a bag filled with tools and rags and pulled out one latex rubber glove. She put it on.

She said, Let’s check your dilation.

I was at 2 centimeters.

She left, saying I’d be lucky if I had a baby by 3:00 pm and that she’d be back at 1:00.

I ate some graham crackers, spacing them out one cracker to a break between contractions. It was a lot of energy, eating. I stopped.

My mom started taking pictures. Manuel took a nap.

 

 

 

There are a number of things that the midwife noted from this point forward and that she reluctantly related to me at times she deemed most appropriate (these times being, for the most part, at her follow up visit the next day).

The first tidbit—and for me, the most relevant—was the fact that part of the reason I was experiencing so much pain was that the baby was posterior. There is a term for this. They call it Back Labor. Do not confuse posterior with breached. The baby was head-down, as she was supposed to be, but she was facing the wrong direction. This is called Back Labor because her hardest parts are pushing on your hardest parts (i.e., your back), rendering the whole process that much more unbearable.

For the record, I think the all-natural-birth camp should not equate “It’s not unbearable” with “It probably won’t kill you.” There is a wide gap between bearable and death, as anyone who has done the slightest amount of reading on popular torture methods would know.

So let me state in the clearest terms possible that it—labor—is unbearable.

Unless your definition of bearable is also “It might not kill you.”

At 1:00 pm I was at three centimeters.

This was when I first thought the hospital was maybe the way to go. Not only because of the pain, by then, which, predictably, was that much worse—indescribable, now, in fact—but because at 3:00 pm I’d been up since 6:00 am the day prior, and I was so tired that I only had the energy to sort of listlessly rock through the worst of the pain. I was back in the tub. The fear, beyond the pain, was that my body just might shut off before the thing ended. Fuck the hips. The hips would never be the problem. I might just die of exhaustion.

At 3:00 pm I was between five and six centimeters.

The second thing the midwife mentioned when it was all over was that the doctors by now would have quite literally forced Pitocin on me. Not because of epidurals or their personal scheduling agendas, but simply because, in cases like mine—cases where the contractions are not getting any closer together—the body might wear itself down so much that by the time it comes to push, there is no energy to make it through transition. Hospitals are where people who need help go. We forget this.

At 5:00 pm the midwife went into a mode she would later refer to as “drill sergeant.” She would say, Sorry that I went drill sergeant on you. I was curled fetal on the bathroom rug and sort of pathetically reaching one arm up in the direction of the bathtub as if I might just climb in there if I could get the other arm up, and maybe one leg. My mother thought this was all beautiful and was taking artistic pictures against my whispered protests when another contraction hit, as they do, only this one hit in a way that made me scream any number of profanities and rock like one of those little possessed children in the movies. When it had calmed back down, the midwife grabbed my two shoulders and shook me.

She said, You need to have your baby now.

As if that’s just what you do when people say Go.

Then she gave me a pep talk. It wasn’t peppy like they’re supposed to be. It didn’t inspire something like school spirit. She said, You’re at 8 centimeters, but we can work with that. Then she said, If you want to have this baby today, then you start pushing now.

Today. I looked at her. It was 5:00 pm. There were seven hours left in today. I tried to point out that I went into labor yesterday. Granted, it was barely yesterday. It was within minutes of today, but still, I went into labor on the 22nd of January, and it should be a matter of human rights that I be guaranteed to be out of labor before the end of the 23rd. I tried to point this out but instead had another contraction and fell back onto the floor from which she pulled me up by the armpits and wiggled me up against something and yelled, Push.

I tried that. The pushing. She informed me that it was not good enough.

While I have written past the point where I might accurately portray what the pain felt like, I might still be able to sketch a circle around what the exertion felt like. Granted, I have never competed in one of those “World’s Strongest Man” competitions—I wasn’t even invited to the World’s Strongest Pornstar event (congratulations, though, Stoya. Well deserved)—but it feels as if the most accurate comparison I can make would be something like this: Like for hours on end, I’d been performing one feat of strength after the next, and each feat had somehow topped the exertion required for the last. And now here we were, and I was being asked to lift up a fucking car. Only, the problem was I couldn’t lift my own body well enough to drag myself to the car.

Ninety minutes later we were stuck in the same conversation—wherein she would yell push, I would push, and she would say harder. Instances where I inserted sound to convey the horror of what I was experiencing—i.e., screams, profanities, cries to a faceless god—were met with something of a tsk tsk, and then she would remind me that it was a bad idea to waste my energy on noise.

Manuel had taken over the job of lifting me into a more upright position through the contractions and letting me fall back like a ragdoll between them. He was sweet, right then. His pep talks were peppier. He said things like, You can do this, to which I’d try to respond that I quite literally can’t, that I’m all for it at heart but my muscles had atrophied. I missed Bikram yoga. I was convinced that the Bikram-conditioned version of me at the start of this whole thing could maybe have done this, especially with something like a good eight-hour sleep just in front of it. But not this atrophied, exhausted, heavily pregnant version of me. This version was no good. I said none of this, though. Little flashes of thoughts would pop in and out, and then I would go to some sort of happier, safer place. I would think of Candy Crush. Literally there were flashes of the game: little flashes of sunny days, visions of things past. I would fall back and be halfway asleep and wonder in an unemotional way whether this was simply what death was like—little flashes of your life and then you doze off and it’s done. Then another contraction would come, and I would be wide awake again, Manuel lifting me off the floor, the midwife just behind me yelling, Push.

I thought of the hospital again. That thought became unbearable simply because of the work it might require to walk to the car. Someone moved me to the bed.

A thing the midwife decided to tell me: My pubic bone is flat in the front. Most women are round or oval-shaped in the front and back of the bone, but I am flat in the front. This was especially slowing shit down, considering the position of the baby. She said, You have to push hard enough to get her underneath that bone. It was unexpectedly crushing, the realization that I am not good stock for a farmer. What are hips if your pubic bone isn’t right? I was out of my mind enough to legitimately worry that I would be stuck there, on that bed, forever, because I was too tired to get in a car to go to the hospital and too tired to push with the contractions enough to make it end.

The midwife would spend the next hour and a half reminding me that I had to push hard enough to get her under the pubic bone but never actually informing me when I had accomplished such. This would be cruel, in hindsight. Then again, time had lost all meaning anyway.

She coached me up to a point where when she said Push, I could do it with enough force that I thought my lips might burst and I could see my belly button invert. It became a point of fixation, I remember. Fascination. That one could push anything hard enough to move a belly button. It had been a source of pride that my belly button was still concave—shallow, but concave—at 41 weeks and one day. Then it became fascinating that this was all still one day. And I realized pushing felt better than rocking helplessly through the sort of contractions I’d had before. And I realized that I was no longer pushing on my own, that the contractions were helping me. And I wondered, briefly, how many vital organs I was damaging with the force of the pushing waves I was riding and whether lips could actually burst or if maybe eyes could, because it felt like that too, and just then the midwife announced that she could see black hair.

My mom’s camera flashed.

Someone tried to hand me a mirror.

The midwife said, Here, if you reach down you’ll be able to feel her hair.

No, I said.

No thanks.

No thanks for the same reason I close my eyes right before the drop of a roller coaster I’m not quite sure I’d like to be on. I don’t need any more of my senses doing any more work to verify it is real. The picture is complete enough.

And also, I was too tired to use my abs to lean forward.

And also, my mother with her camera. I could see that bright flash going off right as I leaned forward and pushed my fingers up against the hair just inside. I could see my mother deciding that that picture—that picture of all pictures—would be the one she would proudly display at luncheons and gatherings, beaming, saying, Look, I’m a grandma now, my forever-captured form hunched over with my hand up my cunt.

Someone went to move the mirror away, and I caught a glimpse.

I became deeply afraid of whatever may come next. Then any number of reactions rippled through the room when the midwife said, Calm down, you’re still another hour from done.

She said, Push harder.

I slumped back in defeat, and then a contraction hit.

They really are like waves, the contractions. Especially at this point. They are like waves, and it feels like one’s effort mirrors that of a surfer: like you feel it coming and then hold out and shove every fiber of your being into catching it at the right point and pushing down and riding it out, and then there is another wave, or two, three maybe, and then that particular round of that particular contraction is over, and there are a few sacred minutes of reprieve. With this effort, the baby’s body is pushed forward that faint bit towards the light, and when the effort subsides it withdraws back a bit, so that each round feels like two steps forward and one step back. It seemed like each contraction was just one wave shy of making real progress.

The midwife started coating me with olive oil.

Shit suddenly felt real. More real than the previous 20.5 hours of rolling, unrelenting pain. That pain was dreamlike, questionable. But here the midwife was lubing me. A moment of clarity showed that this really might end. But to end I had to get through the Ring of Fire. Clearly she expected such a thing. She was lubing me.

And then another contraction hit, and I was told to push harder, and here’s the thing: Do you remember that movie Saw? Where the guy has to, like, cut off his foot with a hacksaw to save himself? That’s the Ring of Fire. That’s the saw and your foot. And that contraction right then was enough to convince me that I wanted to live, that I would do whatever it took to make this current situation go away—the situation of these contractions—and by god if it meant pushing through the Ring of Fire to the point that my eyeballs burst and the little strands of each muscle snapped loose and my veins gave in under the pressure of the blood shoved up against them and I was torn open at the seams by this little black-haired head, then I’d fucking do it. Fine. And I pushed harder than I’d ever pushed before. It made the previous pushes look like warm-up rounds. Child’s play. And I got her right to the Ring of Fire. And then I changed my mind and screamed stop.

Stop.

I changed my mind. The hospital sounded nice. I could get into that car, I decided. I could hobble down there and bear the ride and sit in traffic and rock and cry through it all and hold her in until I was safely hooked up to a bed and a needle. Just stop.

The midwife chuckled.

The baby receded back in slightly because I’d stopped pushing, and I had to do it all over again.

The Ring of Fire is not aptly named. It is maybe too softened by Johnny Cash, or too common-sounding to be considered in a real way—like clichéd sayings, where you’ve heard them so many times that you’ve neglected to actually break them down and really extract the meaning. I think there is some type of volcanic formation known as the Ring of Fire, too, no? So the term has been spread too thin. It evokes nothing. It needs to be better put, because there are people like me who want to do this no-pain-med thing, and it sounds wholesome and like the only rather unpleasant thing is maybe that ninety seconds in the Ring of Fire, and you think, that’s not so bad. I fell off my horse once backwards. I had a pittingly tiny tattoo removed. Surely I can handle ninety seconds of this. Because women have been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years, no? Because we’re made for this? Because, endorphins are nature’s pain relief.

Fuck everybody everywhere who has ever softened the actuality of this.

The Ring of Fire feels like a fucking shark attack.

On round two of pushing her to the Ring of Fire, I screamed and I pushed like I’d never pushed before—harder than the last time, even—and when it got to that point where light was popping and flashing behind my eyeballs and it felt like shark teeth were tearing and gnashing and ripping and it was burning—yes, like fucking fire it was burning—and I thought I could feel the individual little places where my flesh was separating from my other flesh I screamed but I didn’t scream stop and just when the widest part of her head was at the threshold I took one last deep breath to push her through and that contraction stopped.

She receded back in.

Round three, though. I could think of nothing in my life I’d ever wanted more than to not have to go any further than round three. Birth: it’s like this, see. Unavoidable. Round three was unavoidable and so too would be rounds four or five or six if I didn’t make it through. Tomorrow would be as unavoidable as today if I let the labor go that long. So round three. It was coming. Immediately around me was a steely midwife doing another pass with her olive oil and her rags. Her lips were one thin hard line and she had a way of covering all of her fingers with the oil and applying it with two hands, methodically, the left hand mirroring the actions of the right. Her assistant held the bowl with the oil. She lobbed a few lines of encouragement just then. She said, You’re almost done, if you can just push through this round. Vague feelings in the direction of a sarcastic response to the tune of duh rippled through me, but didn’t make it quite so far as my mouth. My mouth was a long way from my brain. I breathed instead. Breathing took work. My mother sat near my feet, phone angled just so as to pretend she wasn’t filming. Manuel squeezed my hand. He said a few loving words that I took as a speech meant either to absolve him in the event that I did live, or give him closure in the event that I died. Then he padded it with an economical pep talk. Just do it. There is a lot of sport influence in his thinking. Also, it’s a little unfair that Nike has monopolized such a universal statement. Many things felt universal right then, though I couldn’t see beyond the immediate sphere of people surrounding my vulva. My vulva stung. It was the sting of a thousand paper cuts. I could feel the outline of my vulva by way of pain signals spinning off wildly and building a sort of topographical map straight in my brain. I could read my vulva like braille. And then the contraction came. I took the sort of breath that nearly blew out my lungs so I would get the long tail of the force of that exhale, and I willed all the fibers of my self to focus on the whole of this task. I held off the push. The burning was in my head now. My blood was hot. My blood was hot and the heat and the force were behind my eyes from the pressure of my brain and behind my teeth from the pressure of my tongue and the burning was hot and dry in my throat where it was scratched from screaming and the burning was in my navel and in my spine and in my thighs and curled in my toes. The heat turned to pressure with the wave of what was gathering and rushed from extremity to center as one great uprising below the skin, and I pushed, and as I pushed the air out through my teeth I pushed the force of that wave right in on itself, and the tearing felt like sharks and like scissors and like rips and like violent death and I pushed harder into it and it felt like hell and I pushed for it and kept pushing. I exhaled. There was no sound or light or sense other than that raging tear at my flesh separating again from my other flesh. I was still exhaling, clamping my gut and my teeth and my fingers down, any moment near pushing my blood through all the pores of my skin and I wanted nothing more than that burning relief so I rushed for it, pushing on harder through teeth and the tearing and the gnashing and then I was there, right at the height of it and at the thick of her head, and I wasn’t sure if I’d been screaming up to then but I was out of air by then so I drew another breath and I pushed with all of my force and then I screamed.

Round three: You’d have thought I’d found religion on round three.

And now her head was out. Just her head. I could see it. I could see that dark hair beneath the light. The baby’s eyes were closed, and she was just hanging out there calmly, halfway in the world, her ongoing nap completely undeterred by cramped space or heathen screaming. She was fascinating. Never before or since have I so been fascinated by a human being.

A unanimous sort of weary cheer rose up among the crowd. My mother filmed. The midwife dropped her drill sergeant mode and became the sweet lady I’d remembered choosing for such a special experience.

She said, Okay, now after the next contraction I want you to reach down and grab your baby.

You know what’s scarier than the Ring of Fire?

Being told to grab your baby.

I realized I didn’t know how to do that. Or how to lean forward enough to reach her, for that matter. Or how to manage the rest of my life from that point.

And then the next contraction hit and I was out of time. With barely any effort at all, her slight bit of body was out in the world. I reached down and I grabbed my baby.

It was 8:56 pm, and I had a child. I was holding her. She looked straight at me. I looked back. My body was in shock and my fingers were stiff. Manuel tried to high-five me. My mother turned the camera around to film her own reaction, and then her friend jumped in frame and waved to the camera, too. The midwife’s assistant became excitable. I held my baby’s hand on my thumb and studied her fingers. Her nails were like mine. Then Manuel spoke and she looked to him like she’d known him all her life. I guess she had.

I knew right then that I’d do it again. Not again, as in, have a second child. I’ve mentioned why. But in a Groundhog Day sort of way. I would hope, in a Groundhog Day scenario, that she might not be posterior that time around, or maybe that things would start bright and early off a well-rested morning. Or maybe that storks and baskets would be more involved. But I would do it again.

It is not unbearable, as they say.

The midwife was still perched between my knees. She had a warm rag and a light. She looked up.

She said, Well. You didn’t tear.

The baby was nursing by then. She came at me voraciously, single-mindedly, shark-like. There were no problems with nursing. I have latchable nipples. I am good stock for a farmer. My pubic bone may be flat, but I don’t even tear when I tear. A farmer would see the good in me, were he to need twelve good strong kids to plow a field.

After all, birth is improbable, see.

But one way or another it must end.

 

 

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