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HERE COMES TINY VALENTINE

June 4, 2009

Two years ago on Valentine’s Day I was explaining to a friend that aside from being my cat’s birthday, the day held no real significance for me.

It’s a holiday that you notice most when you are lacking romance, and once you’re not bemoaning a terrible lonely life, you don’t attach so much importance. And as for going out, I’d far prefer not to pay extra, fight crowds, go public with romance.

It was blizzarding that day and M had been to Philadelphia for work. When he got back to Brooklyn it was on the late side, and I surprised him with a dinner of linguini and clam sauce.

After dinner M gave me some fancy chocolates, then we danced to Nina Simone in the living room. When we sat on the couch for a break, he asked me to marry him. No kneeling and the ring came later.

The whole thing was very much in keeping with our life together – cozy, domestic, wonderful.

So now our tradition is – was – linguini with clams and a night at home.

This year on Valentine’s Day, I was 4 days past my due date in my first pregnancy. If I didn’t go into labor before, I would be induced on 2/16. On the morning of 2/14, a Saturday, I walked over to the big, icky drugstore in our neighborhood. I picked out some Prilosec, a Valentine card, and a chocolate fish. The fish was modeled after the kind of fish that is hung on the wall and wiggles and sings, which is modeled on the lodge-aesthetic kind of fish that someone has caught and mounted. This fish was hollow, made of questionable chocolate, and said “YOU’RE A REAL CATCH” on it. It did not wiggle, nor was it real, nor did I expect it to taste that good, but it had a certain charm.

Before I left the store, I took my blood pressure using the dirty, public blood pressure cuff back near the pharmacy. My blood pressure was high – even higher than it had been during our false starts that resulted in visits to the labor and delivery floor. I rushed home. SHOULD I CALL THE OBSTETRICIAN?? I was practically hollering.

Supporting my theory that in any dyad, one person in a froth serves to compose the other, husband had all sorts of calm, slowly delivered reasons as to why my blood pressure might be up. I hadn’t eaten yet that day (you need to take Prilosec ½ hour before breakfast; not to mention that you need to take Prilosec so you don’t accidentally digest your own face with stomach acid). I’d had a glass of wine the night before, when in a desperate plea to put me into labor, we went out and ate a whole lot of eggplant parmesan, supposed to trigger labor at least if you eat it at one place in Georgia. And eggplant parm is also really salty, and saltiness elevates blood pressure, etc. All sorts of reasons.

Meanwhile, I was lumbering around in a panicked circle: dining room living room kitchen dining room living room kitchen. I was almost as terrified to give birth as I was to stay pregnant. “At least have breakfast before you call the obstetrician,” he advised.

I was becoming obsessed with obstetricians. They, and everyone else, kept wishing me a “magical vaginal birth,” which is patently ridiculous and also, annoying. Everyone I talked with had lots of suggestions for induction.

“Intercourse! Have intercourse!,” people would urge, with an impossibly serious look on their face. Please, that clinical tone but also, PLEASE. It had been a month since I could even sit on a chair designed for human beings, and you are asking me to do what?

After eating breakfast, we exchanged Valentines. Matthew gave me a huge, gorgeously orange box of Jacques Torres truffles. I sheepishly gave him the drugstore fish. Then we returned to the store to take my blood pressure. Still up, so I called the doctor, who told me to come in that night so they could begin induction. Because my body hadn ’t yet manifested any signs of being ready, it was likely that induction would be a long, painful, possibly ending-in-surgery process. So, I did everything I could think of to try to induce labor naturally, yes everything, and then we left for the hospital that evening.

I was assigned a crabby nurse with shells woven into her hair. The belly band, blood pressure cuff, the endless questioning. At one point a doctor and a nurse were in the same room with me, each asking the SAME QUESTIONS — please list all surgeries you’ve ever had, are you allergic to any medications, have you had any complications with the pregnancy, do you have gestational diabetes — but not listening to one another, and filling out completely separate forms — one typed, one handwritten. I wondered whether they were even aware that they were asking the same questions, except one was one question later than the other. Then a cervical check, which showed that I was physically no closer to being able to push a baby through my cervix than anyone else in the room, and finally, the insertion of something that would ripen my cervix if we were lucky, so that my water could be broken and the process of labor might start. Husband finally went home to sleep a bit, since we knew we’d likely be up all the next night. We agreed that I could call anytime labor started and he’d return. If labor didn’t start, he’d come back in the morning.

Fluorescent lights don’t quite lend themselves to romance, but anticipating our first child was sort of the perfect way to spend at least some of the 2 year anniversary of deciding to make our life together.

The next morning I was in agony — no no, not from labor, but from the fact that I’d been doomed to a night in a plastic foam hospital bed. I am not exaggerating the pain. I’d been told that I could get up and walk around, but instead I’d been in the same position, except for the occasional bathroom trip, since the night before. The crabby shell-bedecked nurse had forgotten to tell me when I could move, and I’d missed the window. When sleeping at home those days, I’d wake up and desperately need my crampy legs massaged. And this was with a fortress of pillows and my nice bed. The hospital bed, where I had one pillow and lots of things strapped to me so I couldn’t turn over, nearly did me in. I needed to stretch my hamstrings, but the baby inside me kept me from bending over. On top of that, I hadn’t dilated at all. So after “manually dilating” to 1 cm by jamming a finger into my cervix and wiggling it around, the doctor broke my water and started a Pitocin drip.

Pitocin is synthetic oxytocin. Now, oxytocin is the hormone released during orgasm, and breastfeeding, is also necessary for contractions that allow birth to happen. My husband and I were at the hospital alone, after hearing that the best way to generate enough oxytocin for birth to happen naturally is to be as alone as possible.

But Pitocin, oxytocin’s unpopular, if not evil, cousin, is supposed to kickstart labor with none of the warm fuzzy feelings – just a fast ramp up of contractions, and it frequently leads to a mom needing an immediate epidural. However, I seemed immune even to the Pitocin. They dripped in bag after bag until I had contractions 2 minutes apart, but not ones strong enough to open my Fort Knox-style cervix. I had no problems asking for an epidural, but I wanted to wait until my contractions were productive enough that it wouldn’t slow down my natural progression. And according to my cervical checks, this wasn’t happening. I wasn’t comfortable, by any means, but I didn’t NEED an epidural. This was in contrast to a woman in the room next door who sounded like she was being declawed. We’d recently seen ROOTS on Netflix, with Kunta Kinte’s gallantly lovely mother holding onto a pole and giving birth in a comparatively elegant manner. She was acting, of course, but I wanted very badly to preserve the Mandinka image and what I was overhearing was not helping me do that.

Every time the dr. would come in I’d say — no, I don’t need an epidural right now, except, I DO NOT WANT TO BECOME LIKE THAT WOMAN, so do not let the epidural administrators go too far. The obstetrician assured me that I did not seem to be on that trajectory.

I was not on that trajectory because, of course, I was notprogressing.

Waiting around in the hospital forever is boring. So I just sat on my friend the yoga ball, and waited, listening to podcasts, reading George Saunders essays aloud to my husband, playing cards, grimacing at the build in what midwives call “sensation,” but what is actually called pain. Still, it wasn’t bad.

After 9 or so hours of strong Pitocin, and no food but a couple of illicit slurps of unsolidified Jello I’d brought in a Poland Springs bottle, we had a meeting with my obstetrician. I was back in the bed and horribly, horribly uncomfortable due to the cheap foam mattress. I was at 2.5 or 3 cm – again, this was from doctors reaching inside me and stretching manually, rather than any movement of my cervix. I was not yet in active labor, and they couldn’t give me any more pitocin without possibly putting stress on the baby. I was tired, hungry, far from comfortable, and not appreciably closer to my goal. My goal was multi-tiered — have the baby before the mean nurse came back on the night shift, and get something to eat. So after 26 hours of trying to get induced, they asked whether I wanted a c-section. What I really wanted was a plan, and that sounded like a fine one. The baby did not seem to want to come out, but needed to come out, so they would take him out. Fine.

The hospital is all about waiting, but suddenly once the c-section was inevitable, a team crawled out of the woodwork and bustled into action, scrubbing in and bringing consent forms and giving me a tiny cup of antacid and explaining the spinal.

Less than an hour after we’d decided, I was on an operating table in a pretty periwinkle room, behind a blue tarp strategically placed so I couldn’t see my insides coming out and piling up on my belly. I’d had a little crisis of confidence as we started. I’d been well assured that the baby looked wonderful and strong through all of the contractions. He’d been monitored for hours. But the spinal is somewhat harrowing, so they’d asked my husband to wait in the hall. I thought they’d forgotten him. So did he. We later figured out that it’s a precautionary measure to keep partners calm. But I remembered how much I hated the feeling of total lack of control that anaesthesia brings. I couldn’t flex my legs and kept worrying and then also thinking about how terrible life must be for my sister, how claustrophobic she must be losing control over her whole body. Then I needed to throw up and I didn’t feel like anyone was paying attention to me so I got a little panicky. They attributed nausea to my blood pressure dropping and administered some sort of medicine to raise it, and gave me a tiny kidney shaped bowl to vomit into. Why does anyone think those are good for vomiting?

They finally brought my husband in and started the process. A c-section doesn’t take long — about 10 minutes of actual surgery and then getting sewn up takes much longer. One of the most notable parts of it — aside from astounding, incomparable miracle that a baby comes out of you — is that you are required to have your arms spread to the side. Wide open, in a position that feels quite vulnerable, which is not what you’re interested in with a full awareness that your bladder et al are on the outside.

Additionally, the medicine they give you makes you shiver uncontrollably, so your arms are nearly flapping. This would have been extremely disturbing if I hadn’t heard it from a friend, but as it was, it didn’t surprise me.

But what I did not expect was the extreme force required to remove Baby Henry from my belly. The story about caesarian surgery goes that you can feel pressure, but not pain. Well, someone was leaning down on my ribs as hard as possible while someone else was pulling up on the baby to remove him, thuckkkkkk, from my uterus. It was like a cartoon of being at the dentist where the dentist has to use a wrench and put his boot up on the arm of your chair to get the baby out. I mean, the tooth. That baby, he did not want to come out, and in the days afterwards when the hospital staff would check on my incision, I consistently asked them whether my aching back could be from broken ribs.

The biggest surprise, of course, was the arrival of the baby. We hadn’t found out the gender but various details — lots of morning sickness, the way I was carrying, and the fact that I couldn’t picture having a boy — made us both think we would have a daughter.

“It’s a boy,” someone yelled, then since he had just been through surgery he was bundled over to some pediatricians for assessment, siphoning, weighing, and footprinting before he was bundled over to me. He was two ounces shy of nine pounds, and the operating room staff were marveling at his loud, insistent, nonstop cry before he was brought over to me. This, I admit, made me nervous — having a baby whose cry surprised the staff at a hospital. I heard his Agpar scores of 9 before I ever saw his dear, dear, swollen face. Henry, our tiny valentine, you’re here!

In the recovery room, the first person to try to help me breastfeed was a gay Philipinno male nurse who grabbed my breast first then backtracked to ask if it was alright. Yeah, it’s alright. The pregnancy adventure was over — but parenthood, and its attendant adventures, were just beginning.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2009 1:29 am

    it's great to read this all these months later…when we spoke just after his birth you were still on meds, and were a bit groggy. Birth, whether "magically vaginal" or "cesarian-thhwuuuukkkkkk," is an amazing feat, no?

  2. June 7, 2009 1:41 am

    Congratulations on your beautiful birth! And beautiful story. Oh, and I think I was the woman in the room next door who sounded like she was being declawed. Sorry about that.

  3. June 7, 2009 2:24 am

    Hooray for tiny valentine! and Hooray For you! I haven't had a c-section but I have had other things and your description is fully evocative of the experience of being in the hospital, for sure. Let's both stay out of them for a while, no?

  4. June 7, 2009 9:45 pm

    Birth is a trip, isn't it? Everything is so vivid and weird.I think it's sort-of a shame that I'm not having any more, because I really feel that I hit my stride with the third one!

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