It was July 4th, and I was more than ready for my not-so-little Peanut to declare her independence from my uterus.
I, my husband, and our friends had all agreed that she would probably show up before my due date: either on the 1st, 3rd, or 5th. The number had to be a prime number, one of our friends explained. Why? No idea. But it made sense. I thought the 5th was a good bet. Mainly because I couldn’t stand the thought of actually having a baby on the 4th of July.
Eric and I spent the day cleaning, organizing, doing laundry, and putting together furniture - last minute checks on our to do list before she got here. I washed and retwisted my locs, pausing every few minutes to press START and STOP on my contraction timer app, even as I was unsure that what I was feeling were actually contractions. I’d been having Braxton Hicks (false contractions) for weeks now, and that felt like a tightening around my abdomen. Today, though, I was feeling both the tightening and a crampy, gas-like feeling in my gut, along with pretty annoying back pain. They weren’t always necessarily concurrent, and so my timing was pretty sporadic and unreliable. Nonetheless, it was obvious to both of us that things would be happening soon.
Somewhere, a firework exploded. We rolled our eyes in unison.
“Let’s celebrate Juneteenth on July 4th with Eve, since that’s actually our Independence Day."
“Agreed. I’m still going to grill, though."
“You should definitely grill."
Throughout the day, I continued the labor preparation activities I had started weeks ago: downing cups of red raspberry leaf tea, popping pills of evening primrose oil, bouncing on my purple yoga ball, doing squats, taking laps around the apartment. We talked and read and sang to Eve, coaxing her to come out and join us so we could finally see her. We went into her nursery and just gazed around, entranced by the idea of this tiny person who all of these frenzied preparations were for, even as we couldn’t begin to imagine the actual reality of her existence. She was inevitable, yet impossible. An actual person? Three instead of two? We spent hours theorizing about her features, her personality, her quirks, the things that would make her her. I know, intellectually, that reproduction is the most mundane and obvious fact of human existence, but doing it yourself is, as my friend Christy put it, downright magical.
Eric had recently listened to a podcast where the hosts discussed the 1990 movie Misery. It had been years since either of us had seen it, so when we finished our tasks for the day, we decided to put it on. Night was falling, Kathy Bates was terrifying, and my pains were getting stronger and more frequent. Chastened by hours and hours worth of reading birthing stories, I kept repeating to myself that this was just the very beginning, that I could be in labor (if this was indeed labor) for several days. This thought wasn’t exactly comforting. Soon I started rolling around on the yoga ball with each new contraction, breathing deeply. I probably made Eric pause the movie about 15 times so I could waddle gingerly to the bathroom. By the time it ended, we were both thoroughly creeped out, and I was now having to stop in the middle of sentences to focus on breathing through the pain.
Around 9 pm, shit got real. Time was meaningless as I drifted between two states: pain, and the absence of it. Eric was in full doula mode, and he was a rock star. My lower back pain was growing increasingly severe, and he rubbed it through each contraction. He got me water and snacks and continually told me how well I was doing, how proud he was, that we were going to meet our daughter soon, so soon. He drew me a hot bath and we both laughed when I tried to step in and couldn’t.
“It’s too hot!"
“You said during the birth class you would want a really hot bath!” he protested, holding a full kettle of more scalding water.
“I know! I don’t know why I said that!” I wailed, and then clutched the towel rack as I felt another contraction coming on.
He made the water cooler and I got in. It felt heavenly. I wished fervently that I could deliver in water, but alas, my hospital no longer did water births. I was lulled into something akin to comfort as Eric poured the warm water onto my back and shoulders, and was caught completely off guard by the intensity of the next contraction. I didn’t stay in the tub long after that. I texted my mother that she should probably plan to come the following morning - at this point, I still thought we were a day away. Eric suggested that I try and get some rest while I still could, so he helped me limp to the bedroom and rubbed me down with Aquaphor. I was now intimately familiar with the low, warm, sparking feeling of another contraction beginning, and felt so completely out of control and overwhelmed by the frequency of the pain that I broke down sobbing.
“I think we should call the midwife,” Eric fretted. I tried to respond and felt another one starting. The neighbors probably hate me, I thought. I didn’t care. I was loud. He called.
I thought she would ask to speak to me, since that’s what she said would do in order to determine if I should actually come in or not, but Eric never handed me the phone. Later he told me that while they were speaking, she heard me in the background and confirmed that it was time.
I was totally useless by this point. I was dimly aware of Eric rushing around getting last minute things while I sat slumped over by the door. I would whimper something like “Toothbrushes?” and he would disappear and then reappear. “Uber?” On their way.
I found out later that two Ubers canceled on us, probably thinking we were drunken 4th of July partiers. When our ride finally came, Eric went outside to start loading up the trunk with our bags and Eve’s carseat while I got on my hands and knees in our apartment lobby and moaned loudly, simultaneously praying no one would come outside and see what all that racket was, and totally not giving a shit if anyone did. I glanced at Eric’s phone and couldn’t believe it was 2:16. Hadn’t it just been, like, 9:30?
The ride to the hospital was 30 minutes and felt like 30 hours. Our driver was a champ. I was really loud, really often by this point and had shed all sense of shame and decorum. Eric was my rock, even as I drifted in and out of awareness of my surroundings.
When we arrived, I was quickly wheeled up to triage and checked. I was five centimeters dilated. I knew that was good, but it wasn’t open enough for my tastes. The nurse had me strip down and gave me an IV and fetal monitor to see how the baby was doing. Having to sit still for twenty minutes was agonizing.
“Carla, what were your plans on pain relief?” she asked me sweetly, and my brain struggled to make sense of her words and then her meaning. Pain relief = yes? No, no. I had planned to do this naturally. I knew I had to say no quickly before I could think about it for too long.
“We wanted to go natural,” Eric helpfully filled in, to which I gratefully added, “Yeah."
“Okay,” she chirped. I wondered dully if I would regret that later. (Spoiler alert: I did.)
They took us to another room, where I continued to labor for about 5 hours. Luckily, my contractions slowed down enough so that I could nap for 3-4 minutes between each one. We were both completely exhausted, so those breaks were critical. As the sun slowly rose and my contractions weren’t getting us anywhere, the midwife suggested breaking my bag of waters. She explained that the baby was trying to move down my cervix, but kept bumping into the bag, which was why I wasn’t progressing. She warned that the contractions would get more intense after that, but it would bring us that much closer to delivery. All I heard was “more intense contractions”, and I guess my face showed it, so Eric asked her to give us some time to consider it. She gave us more time. We considered it. I had a few more contractions and hollered a lot. We said yes.
My water breaking didn’t hurt, which matched up to what I’d always heard. They helped me into the shower, where I was able to bounce on a birthing ball. Despite my pain and exhaustion, I remembered that I had just done my hair, and I’d be damned if all those hours of work was about to be undone because I hadn’t thought to put my shower cap in the hospital bag.
“Do you have a shower cap?” I panted. The looks I received were priceless.
“I don’t…think so?” a nurse replied. “I’ll go get one,” she probably said, as another contraction hit. Some time later I felt Eric doing something with my head that made crinkling sounds. I guess they had found me a shower cap. Eric was the best. He later described what my 'shower cap' actually was: a biological specimen bag that he secured onto my head with one of my headbands, and then twisted the top so as to keep it out of my face. (A part of me really wishes he had taken a picture, but a larger part is eternally grateful that he didn't.)
Another contraction. Each time, I was completely blown away by the force of it, the sheer power that wracked my entire body. I was both out of body and firmly, solidly within it at the same time. I grasped at anything I could, got as loud as I felt, needing these anchors to tether me to earth, to keep me from flying apart. And then, whenever I felt I couldn’t stand another second, the pain would begin to recede and I would float back down again. The relief was instant and wonderful. Eric was still there. I was still whole. This all has a purpose, I would think to myself, lightly touching my belly. At some point, it will be over and our little girl would be here. That point seemed light years away. Especially when another contraction started.
"I need to throw up," I informed Eric.
"Are you sure?" he asked. In response, I threw up.
Finally, I thought wryly. My entire first trimester was an exercise in being the most nauseated I had ever been, and never being able to find relief. Here was the payoff. I wasn’t concerned, as I knew this was just another sign that things were progressing normally. Soon after that, I was back on the bed, the midwife was opening things and moving things around, she was shining a bright light where Eve would emerge, and she was telling me to push when I felt the next contraction.
I searched desperately within myself to find that ‘urge to push’ that I kept hearing people talk about. Like throwing up in reverse, as one article had charmingly referred to it. I had banked on having this urge to help me through, but my body simply lay there in repose, nary an urge in sight. So I had to just push, on my own, through the contractions, and it was horrible. I was beyond tears. I screamed. I told everyone I couldn’t do it, and couldn’t understand why they kept disagreeing with me. I knew that I had to do it, that this was the only way to get her out, but I just felt such defeat. I felt like I had hit a wall with the amount of pain I could tolerate. But with each new contraction, she told me to push, and Eric told me to push, and so I had to push. The concept of an epidural began to form gently in the back of my mind and I swatted it away before it could fully coalesce. I was in too deep already. I just had to do it.
I could tell I was taking longer than she wanted. A few times I just gave up and stopped, unable to wait until the end of the contraction to get a break. I felt awful, like I was letting them down, like I was letting Eve down, but my willpower, while present, was not as consistently strong as I’d hoped. “She’s so close,” the midwife kept saying, but wouldn’t give me a straight answer when I pressed her: “HOW close? How many more pushes?” At one point she took my hand and maneuvered it inside me: “Do you feel her?”
What was I supposed to be feeling, exactly? Hair? She kept going on about how much hair she had. “I don’t know!” I cried, frustrated. I could sort of appreciate what she was trying to do, but I wasn’t in the mood for games. “Get her out!"
So it continued. The midwife was getting more firm. Soon I was on my side and I could hear a lot more people coming into the room. There were voices I didn’t recognize telling me to push, yes yes yes just like that, even as I was literally crawling up and out of the bed, needing to escape to the ceiling, to Narnia, to outer space, to literally anywhere else but here, and Eric was gripping me tightly and talking in a language I couldn’t understand, and the midwife and nurses were gripping me tightly and yelling in a language I couldn’t understand, and the only word I could hear and could hate was PUSH and I needed this to end and I needed to see my daughter so I just pushed and pushed and there was a oddly round-shaped burning and their yelling changed tone and I kept pushing and I could feel a tiny, slippery body slither out and it was done. I had done it.
Eve was here.
Her heart rate had dropped at the very end, hence the extra people in the room, the yelling, the stress. As soon as she came out it was imperative that they attend to her and get her heart rate where it should be, so the cord clamping and cutting happened very rapidly, and they took her to a corner of the room and did a whole bunch of things I didn’t understand. I can’t quite describe the feeling of seeing a part of yourself finally separated, a totally independent human being, wiggling and whining and so completely a person. When they finally brought her over to me, I still wasn’t quite sure this was real: this was my baby? I was a mother? What did that even mean? She had been a little fussy before, but quieted down as soon as they placed her on my chest, eyes closed and shiny with ointment, mouth puckered and impossibly tiny and perfect. I looked over at Eric, and he looked at me, just as speechless, just as in love. Unbelievable.
I had spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of birth that I wanted. Anyone who knows me knows how obsessed I’ve always been with babies and childbirth and, more recently, becoming a doula myself. And so finding myself in the thick of it, experiencing everything I’d read and learned about from the pregnant perspective, has given me an incredible gift: my sense of self and self-worth has grown exponentially and undeniably. I've never felt more aware of who I am, I've never felt closer to understanding what things like sacrifice and fear and devotion are actually about.
I know what it means to feel truly terrified and uncertain in the prospect of an enormous, lifetime responsibility and commitment. I know what it means to work through that fear both on my own and with the person I pledged to spend my life and be a parent with. I won’t say that I now know what true love is, because that implies that I didn’t before, but I have added another filter, another dimension of love to my knowledge: total, incomprehensible surrender to the absolute wonder and fear of a person who will rely on you for sustenance, for health, for knowledge, for everything. I know the limits of my body are nothing, less than nothing, compared to the boundless possibility of my mind. I know the eternal, spiritual, elemental power of the human body, the beautiful, agonizing inevitability of life and death. I know the strength that I possess, because when I needed it, and wasn’t sure that I had it, it was there. And because of that, because of Eric, because of Eve, I am forever changed.
Liberated, if you will.
Happy Independence Day, Eve Tyler.