Twenty years ago tonight I was going into labor with my firstborn son. I was 29 years old and had been married to his dad for four years. We were living in Manhattan, and the plan was to give birth at New York Hospital.
When the labor pains started, around midnight, I felt an odd sense of calm. It was like having some kind of ocean tide within me, pulsing with the ebb and flow of the contractions.
All through the morning they continued, getting very gradually stronger and more painful, until I would gasp when the full cramp bore down on me. My husband left for work; my mother wanted to take me to the hospital right away, but I knew it wasn’t time yet. I asked her to make me the filling for stuffed grape leaves, and I sat, pushed away from the edge of the kitchen table by my huge belly, methodically stuffing and rolling the grape leaves, training my mind and hands on that simple task as the great rolling breakers of contractions surged through my body.
Eventually, my mother and I got into a yellow cab to go to the hospital, and she called my husband to meet us there. I was admitted, but there was apparently a fair amount of dilation yet to go. Despite my plan not to have an epidural, the waves of pain became so great, as I lay there on my back on the gurney, strapped to a fetal monitor, that I quickly accepted one when it was offered. Thereafter, it was quite surreal: I could watch the contractions on the monitor, each one higher and more intense than the last, but I could not feel anything.
For hours, I lay on the gurney in that disassociated, semi-vegetal state. A nurse came and went, giving me a catheter when I could not manage to pee on my own, and coaching me about pushing when the epidural started to wear off and it was time to begin serious labor. “Push like you’re really constipated!” she urged, and soon I was bearing down like a pro, like my life depended on it.
Then all of a sudden the doctor was there telling me to stop pushing, because the baby was coming and the operating room wasn’t ready for me.
Stop pushing? He had to be kidding. My body had taken on a life of its own, quite independent of my rational will. There was no way I could stop pushing.
So there I was, groaning and pushing, as they rolled me down the hall on the gurney to the operating room.
No, this was not 1952. It was 1992. But I had the misfortune to be giving birth at New York Hospital just a year or two before the maternity ward was renovated to allow for modern birthing rooms. I gave birth in a dark, windowless operating room painted a dismal hospital green, without a trace of softness or warmth anywhere.
When my son appeared, they showed him to me and my husband and then quickly whisked him off for tests or treatments. I was left on the operating table waiting for the anesthesiologist, who took his time getting there. The doctor had done an episiotomy (without consulting me; this was something else I did not intend to have done) and now we had to wait for anesthesia so he could sew me up.
The anesthesiologist, a cocky young man, must have given me too much, because afterwards I could not feel my legs at all, and I was not allowed out of the recovery room until I could feel my legs. My son was not allowed to stay with me in the recovery room.
So there I was, sobbing my heart out because I had lost my baby—he was off on another floor somewhere by himself, screaming his head off, with my husband running back and forth between us, distraught.
Finally, after a couple of hours, I began to feel prickles in my legs, and was allowed out of the recovery room. I got into a bed in a communal nursery room, and at last could hold my newborn baby in my arms. He was upset, still crying—it took him hours to calm down, and both of us were so stressed that nursing was difficult.
During the first night, the nurses began to give him a bottle of formula, and as a new mother I got the impression that I would have to supplement with formula; that I did not have enough milk to satisfy him.
So began months of a colicky baby who screamed every night from around 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. There was nothing I could do to stop it—I tried everything I could think of, but in the end all I could do was hold him.
It was hard, that first birth. I learned so much about how important it is, as a mother, to protect oneself and one’s child: to make sure one has a birth plan, a doctor one can really communicate with (my OB-GYN did not show up at the hospital for the birth, she sent her partner instead—a man I had never met and who seemed quite uninterested in me as a human being) and preferably a doula; to investigate the hospital and make sure it has birthing rooms; to stand firm about pain medications and cuts.
My second son was born under entirely different, polar opposite conditions. No meds, gurneys or fetal monitors; a nurse-midwife and a doula in attendance; a birthing room I could walk around in comfortably while in advanced labor; giving birth squatting rather than flat on my back. My second son came into the world very peacefully, nestled in my arms and immediately started to nurse. He never screamed or cried, not until much later, when he was around 11 months old and got pneumonia, and then asthma…but that is another story.
My first child has taught me so much about how to be a mother. I wish I had known more about it before he was born, so that he would not have had to go through some of the hardships caused by my ignorance.
He will forgive me, I know, because that’s what the unconditional reciprocal love between mother and child is all about. It is unshakeable, unbreakable. It is an elemental force that springs from that deep, uterine connection and runs forward, rich with emotion, through a lifetime.