On the morning that Lincoln was born, the Ogre and I headed out to Naples at 7:15. We were quiet in the car. He was tired from the long night that we had had the night before. I was tired, too, but running on adrenaline. I was excited, and nervous, but mostly I was trying to focus.
When I had my homebirth with Liam, I discovered something fascinating about me, in labor. Me, in labor, is the polar opposite of me, in life. In life I like sympathy. I like consolation and human interaction. I like hugs, physical displays of love and support, and people trying to shoulder my burden for me (or at least help me shoulder it myself). I like to know I’m not alone. I like to let other people do as much as possible before I do anything myself.
In labor, the Ogre and I were both stunned to find that the opposite is true. Like a cat, I prefer to curl up in a corner by myself. Once labor really gets rocking, I don’t like people talking to me. I don’t want sympathy or support. It breaks my concentration, my focus. Someone touching me is enough to send me into a fury. The pain of labor is mine to bear, mine alone. No one else can help, and all their efforts only distract me from the task at hand.
Armed with this knowledge about myself, I was quiet on the way to the hospital. I didn’t want an epidural because it would slow my recovery, would quadruple our hospital bill, and because I couldn’t stand the idea of someone shoving a needle in my spine when I knew I could handle the pain. I knew this labor would be different, because of the Pitocin, but I had high hopes that I could still handle it.
We stopped at Starbucks, of course, because who wants to go through labor without a pumpkin spice latte beforehand? Not this girl. We finally made it to the hospital, checked in, I changed into one of those totally flattering hospital gowns, the nurse hooked me up to the Pitocin, and the waiting began.
The Ogre put on The Hunger Games for me while we waited. He read while I watched the movie. Right about the time Lenny Kravitz shows up, I had a contraction that felt like The Real Thing. Then about three minutes later, another. I told the Ogre to turn off the movie and put on my Pogues playlist.
After about an hour of contractions, I was beginning to feel relieved. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the contractions still felt like the contractions I had with Liam. I was able to breathe and relax through them. I was starting to think that maybe I would get through this whole induction thing without an epidural after all.
The doctor came in about then and broke my water. After that, the contractions got real. I was still doing pretty well. Every time I felt a contraction building, I closed my eyes and pictured the crucifix at the Oratory while saying a Hail Mary. The Ogre would pause the music during contractions, because he knew that what energized me between them irritated me during them. I got through each contraction by thinking of Christ, focusing on him, his pain, his suffering, instead of my own. This was wholly different than my reaction to contractions with Liam. With Liam, I just breathed slowly and forced my body to relax and not fight the pain. But after the doctor had broken my water, the contractions became different than anything I’ve ever experienced. They were almost suffocating in their intensity. The pain was unbelievable; my mind literally fought against accepting the reality of it. After Liam was born, I described the contractions as “gravity moving”. It was very intense, and the actual “pushing the baby out” part hurt, but I can’t remember a whole lot of pain associated with the contractions in a natural labor. These contractions, however, were accompanied by bone-shattering pain. It was horrific. They were also really long, about two minutes, and I was getting maybe 45 seconds of a break between contractions. I needed something to make the pain make sense, in a way. To make it worth suffering. The image of the crucifix sustained me as the contractions became more and more intense. The nurse came in every half-hour to turn the Pitocin up. After about an hour and half, I started to hate her for pushing those buttons. After two hours, she checked me and said I was at a 6.
I was sure, before she checked me, that I had to at least be at an 8. When I heard that I was only at a 6, I gave up. I was mentally defeated. I knew that I was progressing so slowly because I was tensing up during the contractions. I also knew that it could be really short road from 6 to 10, but in that moment, my strength failed me. When the next contraction hit, I didn’t close my eyes or picture Christ or say a Hail Mary. I just let myself be utterly overcome with the pain. I didn’t force myself to focus on this contraction, only this one, one at a time; instead I thought of all the minutes and maybe hours I had left to endure this agony. Instead of laying quietly with my eyes closed, I spent the duration of the contraction with my eyes darting around rapidly, whimpering, reaching out for the Ogre’s hand, and wishing, wishing, wishing for anything to make it stop.
I begged for an epidural. I also apologized to the Ogre, feeling like a failure. He, of course, told me to shut up. He smiled at me, wiped away the sweat that was pouring down my face, and told me how well I was doing and how impressed he was, and that if I needed an epidural of course I should get one.
So the nurse called in the anesthesiologist, who took his sweet time getting the epidural in. I knew I’d have to endure a few contractions after the epidural was in but…the contractions didn’t stop. The nurse said I was at a 7, and still the contractions kept coming. It was as if I had had no epidural at all. The nurse kept promising me it would kick in, and I kept feeling every single excruciating contraction. At that point I just started sobbing. I was no longer even trying to handle the pain. When a contraction hit I was alternately screaming and crying, completely overwhelmed by the force of the pain. I had never agreed with the assessment I heard once, that having a baby is like “being hit by a truck, stabbed by knives, pulled apart by horses and lit on fire, all at the same time,” but this time I did. The Pitocin contractions were completely beyond anything I had experienced during my labor with Liam, or with my girls, and with the promised relief from the epidural failing to materialize, I didn’t know how I was going to live through the rest of labor. Everything became a blur after that. I stopped listening to anyone except the Ogre. I know the nurse tried to help, but all I remember is the sound of his voice, the strength of his hand around mine, and the cool relief of the wet cloth that he kept gently wiping my face with.
Right about then the doctor showed up. Somehow in the haze of tears and pain, I had missed the nurse pronouncing me complete. The doctor began putting on her scrubs and mask, the nurses started putting my legs in stirrups, and I lay there sobbing, utterly convinced that I would not be able to push my son out. I felt no urge to push, just mind-numbing pain, and I remember staring at the little baby station, all ready for Lincoln’s arrival, and thinking, “I’ll never see him getting weighed or measured. I’ll die before I can hold him.”
It sounds completely overly dramatic, and I’ll admit to having a dramatic streak a mile wide, but pain does strange things to a person. Histrionics aside, I genuinely thought I was going to die, that there was no end in sight. I had given up completely. When the doctor told me to push, I didn’t even try. I just shook my head and said, “I can’t.”
And then the epidural kicked in. All at once, I no longer felt pain. But I still didn’t feel an urge to push, either. I felt nothing. I hesitated, unsure, confused and exhausted. The Ogre swept my hair back from my forehead, wrapped his hand around mine, and said, “you can do this.” So I did.
The doctor told me that a contraction was building, and I pushed. It took four pushes to get our little man out. The doctor and the nurses seemed pretty surprised at how quickly I managed to get the baby out. He was totally purple when he came out, and although they laid him on my chest, the nurses went to work right away suctioning his mouth and nose out. They explained that he hadn’t been in the birth canal long enough to squeeze all the stuff out of his lungs, which was why he was so purple and not breathing too well. But once they got him suctioned out he was fine.
After that they did the usual post-birth clean-up stuff, and then they let me hold Lincoln and nurse him for a while before getting us moved to the recovery floor. Once they had us moved to the new room with a much more comfortable bed, the Ogre got Lincoln and I settled and then went outside to make the requisite phone calls to family.
I felt really beaten up after the delivery. Of course there was the usual post-birth adrenaline, and the rush of baby bliss hormones, but I also felt extremely fragile and a little frightened. I couldn’t believe how close I had come to completely giving up. I’m not sure what the doctor would have done if I had just refused to push, but I’m sure it would have involved lots of unnecessary interventions. I’ve never had a childbirth where I’ve thought, “I can’t do this.” I’ve always found the strength to go on. But the Pitocin contractions were so awful, and so unnatural, that was I simply unable to accept the pain and get beyond it. And it scared the hell out of me, more so in retrospect than at the time.
Part of me was irritated that the epidural basically didn’t work, and I still cringe when I think of what this is going to add to our hospital bill, but I’m also certain that I would not have been able to push Lincoln out if it hadn’t kicked in when it did. Usually I look back on times when I gave up and I can pinpoint the moment when I had a choice, when I could have kept going but chose to give in, and I know that I still had strength left, and that I could have gone the other way, dug deep and soldiered on. This time, I’m not sure that I could have gone on. This is truly the first time that I can remember knowing what it is like to be well and truly defeated by something outside myself. I think I understand better now why I give in so easily, why I look to others to do the heavy lifting, and why I let myself be defeated so often. It’s comforting, in a perverse way, to be able to think, “Oh, I could have done it. I could have gone on, but I chose not to.” There’s no honor in it, to be sure, but there’s a certain security-blanket effect that comes with giving up when you know you have it in you to keep going. When you give it your all, though, and it isn’t enough, that is terrifying. And humbling. It forced me to come to grips with the limits of my own strength in a way I’m not used to. Normally I lean on others because I don’t want to stand on my own, because it’s hard and it requires more effort. But this time I found that I couldn’t stand on my own. I needed my husband’s hand around mine more than I ever have before in my life. I needed to hear him say, “you’ve done well, and it’s okay to rest now.” I needed his strength when it was time to push, because I had exhausted my own. I needed to hear him say, “you can do this,” because I was no longer sure I could. I needed the grace that came with the long-awaited pain relief. I know the epidural was from the hands of the anesthesiologist, but the timing was from the hand of God. I would have liked to have had it a little earlier, but the relief came when I absolutely needed it the most.
As if the point hadn’t been driven home enough, when the Ogre came back from making phone calls, I asked for his help getting to the bathroom. It’s always humbling to have to rely on your husband for help using the bathroom the first few times after a baby is born. One of the nice things about Liam’s homebirth was that in the absence of an epidural, I was strong enough to use the bathroom and shower under my own steam right after Liam was born. This time, there was no way. The Ogre laid Lincoln in the bassinet and helped me out of the hospital bed. We slowly took the few steps necessary to get to the bathroom. I had made it onto the tile before I realized something was wrong.
Blood was running down my legs and pooling at my feet. By the time we made it to the toilet, I was standing in a puddle of blood and my legs were streaked with red. This is in spite of the fact that the nurse had just put layers of fresh pads on me to soak up the blood not ten minutes before. They were soaked through.
I’m not the type to faint at the sight of blood, so I was surprised when I found myself dizzy. The Ogre helped me sit down, and I said, “I think you should call the nurse. This doesn’t seem…right…” He pulled the call alarm in the bathroom, and the last thing I remember is the nurse peeking her head in, taking one look at my face and shouting, “we need help in here! Bring smelling salts!”
While the Ogre had been outside, Jumanji had been playing on the TV. I wasn’t really watching, I was mostly staring at Lincoln and trying to process the last few hours, but I guess it made an impression on my subconscious. I was suddenly in a tunnel, overgrown with vines, knowing that there was somewhere important that I should be but unable to remember where that was. I also knew that I should be afraid, but I couldn’t remember why, and I wasn’t able to make myself feel afraid. Then I realized that I wasn’t alone, and that Robin Williams was next to me. He was shouting something at me, frantically making gestures and pulling on my arm, but it was like watching TV on mute. I couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t feel alarmed or afraid or even confused. I just was.
I’m not sure if it was the hideous astringency of the smelling salts or the subconscious shock of a bearded Robin Williams being a feature in my black-out dream, but I came to after that. I was really confused, having never blacked out before, and as I was trying to sort out what was real (the hospital, the smelling salts, my husband) from what wasn’t (a tunnel, vines, Robin Williams), the apathy I had felt melted away all at once and I found myself terrified. “What is happening to me?” I tried to say, but I was still so weak that no words came out. I wondered where the baby was, and if I was dying. There were four nurses huddled around me, waving smelling salts under my nose and calling my name. The Ogre had one of my arms and one of the nurses had my other arm. Another nurse was patting my cheek, trying to wake me up. I couldn’t lift my head and the room was spinning horribly, and then I threw up. Luckily one of the nurses was holding a cold cloth to my face and managed to wipe me off quickly. After about ten minutes, the room stopped spinning and I felt strong enough to let them move me. The Ogre and one of nurses carried me back to the bed. They made me lie flat for a while, checking my blood pressure periodically, and then let me sit up gradually. The nurse explained that I had just lost a lot of blood all at once, and that I should take it easy, only stand when I had to, and move very slowly for a while.
That scared me even worse than labor had. The nurses had moved all the furniture to one side of the room because at one point they thought they would have to call for a gurney. The Ogre said it looked like I was having a seizure. I asked him if he was scared and he said, “Am I ever scared?” But later, when he was outside, the nurse said she was afraid she’d have to bring smelling salts in for him, too, because he turned so white when I passed out.
I asked the nurse why I had passed out when I never had with any of my other kids. She said it was most likely a combination of this being my fourth child (apparently the risk of hemorrhage and other complications goes up the more children you have) and my body being unable to recover swiftly from the intensity of the Pitocin. When she left the room, I asked the Ogre to hand Lincoln to me. The little man had slept through the whole thing, but was awake now and rooting around. I started feeding him and felt overwhelmed, all at once, by the sense of my own mortality.
I know I was never in any real danger, but the whole day was still terrifying. It was a real and tangible reminder of how little control I have over things, and how much I am at the mercy of things I can’t control. I was grateful for my faith in a way that I’ve never experienced before. One day it won’t just be blacking out…one day I really will be in danger, and I really will die, and I know that the only thing that will bring me any comfort is clinging to the knowledge that Christ will never leave me, the way I clung to the Ogre during Lincoln’s birth.
I was also profoundly grateful that Lincoln and I came through labor and delivery healthy. I’ve always taken my healthy children for granted, and felt proud of my body’s ability to handle childbirth. This time, with the scare of hydramnios before he was born and all the ups and downs of the actual labor and delivery, the blessing of health was real to me in a way it hadn’t been before. I had never had to face the possibility that it could be any other way.
But more than anything else, I’m glad for what happened because it broke down my pride in a way I haven’t had to experience before. I realize now that my opposing reactions to difficult situations are really just two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, in every-day life, I tend to let other people handle the hard stuff, or at least reach out for sympathy as much as possible while I grudgingly do what has to be done. On the other hand, in labor, I tend to shoulder it all myself, to not allow anyone near me, not even my husband. And what it all comes down to is pride. I’m so afraid of coming up against something I can’t handle on my own that I try not to handle anything on my own. I’d rather face the devil I know (the shame of never facing anything head-on) than the devil I don’t (the blow to my pride when I realize that I can’t handle it alone). In labor, it’s the opposite. I’ve never really needed help in labor. Between the epidurals with my girls and the homebirth with Liam, I’ve been convinced that I can handle labor, that I’m good at it, that I don’t need help and that my body and my mind will never fail each other. This time, though, I was undone. I found that there are limits to my strength. I needed support, pain relief, and encouragement, instead of just wanting them. I needed the help of others instead of just wanting it. I needed my husband to get through the fear, the uncertainty, the doubt. I needed the image of Christ to sustain me. I found that, in the end, I am not able to face everything on my own.
And that in itself was a great gift. One that I hope to carry with me, so that in the future I can face challenges a little wiser and a lot humbler, knowing that there is indeed much I can accomplish on my own, but that, in the end, I cannot stand alone. Nor should I. As a wife to my husband, I’m no longer my own person. I’m part of a whole, one half of something greater than myself. As a Christian, I’m no longer mine to do with what I will. I’m a child of Christ, and my will must be made to conform with His. With that will come great strength, but the strength won’t be mine. Ultimately it will be a gift, something given to me, like grace. Like life.