Last week, quite by chance, I walked down a street I almost never take. I was pushing le Petit in the stroller and he'd just nodded off to sleep when I realized where I was: rue Danton, about five blocks from the hospital where I gave birth. I trembled when I realized that the last time I'd taken that street was the day le Petit was born.
I've been meaning for some time to put virtual pen to paper and write about that day, but finding time for writing and reflection is difficult with a newborn in the house. The day seemed so huge, so transforming, that I wasn't yet sure how to approach it in words, anyway. I knew I shouldn't wait too long, however, because the memory was falling farther out of focus with each passing day.
Where to begin? I almost want to back up to the very beginning, to the day I learned le Petit was on the way, or even before that, to the day when I finally felt ready to become a mother. Or I could simply go back to the last weeks of pregnancy, when I waited at home both terrified and impatient. I probably should write about all that eventually, but for now, I'll just start simply on the morning of the day le Petit finally arrived.
I slept in that day, and quite soundly, until 10:30. I wonder if my body knew what was in the works and decided I needed to rest while it was still possible. Not that it's uncommon for me to get a nice, late grasse matinée in any time I can! I woke up, lethargically made coffee, ate a yogurt and two full english muffins smothered with butter, then sat around in my pyjamas feeling a little uncomfortable. I sat down at the loom and tried to weave a little bit of le Petit's baby blanket, but soon gave up, for I had cramps. Nothing serious, I thought, just a dull, nagging abdominal pain I attributed to being a pig at breakfast.
My mother-in-law called to ask if I'd like to get together for lunch, go out for Italian food and eat lots of pasta, labor-inducing home remedy number one hundred and two. We decided to meet at noon, and I headed to the shower to get ready. The hot water made me feel a bit better, but the cramps were more frequent and were getting decidedly worse. After I got out of the shower I spent a few minutes curled up in bed holding my belly, trying to soothe what were now regular waves of pain.
I still had no idea what was happening to me.
The contractions I'd experienced for the last few weeks had been nothing like this, so I decided to blame the coffee.
I got dressed and went to my mother-in-law's house. I described my symptoms, and we decided that instead of going out to lunch we'd drop by the hospital, just in case. I found I'd lost my appetite, anyway.
The hospital was ten minutes away by foot and it was a cool and cloudy but pleasant July day. We decided to walk. I took a route I never take, entirely by accident, and found myself on a street I barely know: rue Danton. The pain was bad enough that I hadn't been paying attention to where we were going. I had to stop and sit for a while on the low wall of a flower bed. As I rested I wondered if I'd gotten us both lost, and if my mother-in-law would consider that I'd failed my first test of motherhood.
After more painful, waddling progress, I saw a cross street I recognized, and we were soon at the hospital. I explained myself at the reception desk. We were instructed to wait in the hallway until someone could come and escort me to the labor ward.
I was still half convinced it was nothing, that we'd be laughed at and sent home.
I explained my symptoms to the nurse who then told me nicely that I'd simply have to repeat it all to a midwife, that she was only there to give me a urine test. When I went to the restroom to take the urine test I found I was covered with blood. Everywhere. I almost felt embarrassed, like I was supposed to be neat and clean and organized, and I was falling apart. This wasn't at all what I had planned: first of all, I thought one always went into labor at night. I expected to be sitting in front of the television with my husband when the contractions started. I'd recognize them, time them, then when they were spaced by the proper interval, I'd calmly take a shower with the prescribed pre-op soap, we'd grab my two pre-packed suitcases and we'd head for the hospital. Calmly. On schedule, and following the script.
I was flustered and timid when the midwife arrived, and my French was faltering.
The midwife was unimpressed. "We'll hook you up to the monitor and time the contractions," she said, businesslike. I was led into Labor Room #2, helped onto a bed, and the monitoring belt was strapped to my belly. The sounds of my uterus were soon piped through the monitor's audio, punctuated by the staccato beating of a tiny heart. It sounded like the bubbling of a fish tank dubbed over the rhythm of a distant train. I'd already spent hours listening to it over the last weeks of my pregnancy, and it was familiar and comforting; it might have lulled me to sleep if it hadn't been for the cramps, now quite painful, that left me curled up in a ball on my side, groaning. As I struggled to find a comfortable position, the monitoring belt started to slide down my back and my contractions were captured irregularly. I didn't care.
When the midwife returned after what felt like a century she looked at the monitor's printout and frowned. "Your contractions are still spaced fairly far apart, so we'll probably have to send you back home to wait. I'll check to see how dilated you are first." As she gave me a pelvic exam, I decided that my contractions were just fine for admission, thank-you-very-much. I couldn't imagine waddling myself back home, or even waiting for my husband to pick me up in the car, only to come back a few hours later.
The midwife was surprised to find that I was already dilated four centimeters and announced the news as if I'd just unexpectedly passed an entrance exam. "Finally, you'll be staying with us," she said, to my relief. "Do you want the epidural right away?"
Before that morning, I'd been convinced I wanted a natural birth. I wanted to live my birth experience completely, I wanted to avoid exposing le Petit and myself to unnecessary pain medication and, most of all, I was just damn curious to know what childbirth was like as almost every generation of women has known it. My curiosity was now fading and my courage failing me with each contraction. But I wasn't ready to renounce my choice just yet. "No," I said timidly, "I think I'll wait..." I almost expected the midwife to try to convince or coerce me, but she just acknowledged my response with a thin smile and left.
I was alone. It was one o'clock in the afternoon, and the next hour passed very slowly. I remember worrying if anyone would find my mother-in-law, who I was certain was still pacing anxiously outside the labor ward's doors. She eventually was brought in to talk to me, and hurriedly left to call my husband, who was at work. I spent an hour gritting my teeth, trying breathing techniques with little success, and wondering how long I'd last before giving in to anesthesia.
When the midwife returned and checked how dilated I was, she told me she'd have to break my water to speed things along. When she asked again about the epidural it was with a pointed pause, and I wearily realized my curiosity about natural childbirth was temporarily satisfied. Yes, bring on the epidural. Bring my husband. Bring help, because I'm not doing so well on my own.
The nurse returned to hook me up to an IV. She pricked me twice, while unsuccessfully trying to find a suitable vein in my left hand, then apologetically switched to the right. I tried to smile between waves of pain, and she watched with practiced compassion. The IV finally installed, she assured me the epidural wouldn't be long. She left, then returned a few minutes later to prepare my back.
A lesser but very real reason for my hesitation had been that the thought of having a needle inserted into my spine frightened me much more than childbirth itself. I was still anxious, and I'd given in relatively early in part for fear of not being able to hold still long enough between contractions. I currently had a few minutes to catch my breath in between, and I hoped it would be enough. I wondered with terror if the nurse who had just floundered my IV would be aiming the needle, even though I knew it couldn't be the case.
My fear overcame my tact and I asked anyway, "You're not going to be giving me...?"
"No, no, the anesthetist will be here shortly," she replied, offended.
My relief was greater than my embarrassment.
My husband arrived just before the anesthetist, and I had just the time to explain to him weakly that the pain was worse than I'd expected before he was chased from the room. As the doctor prepared something that I mercifully couldn't see behind my back, I started steeling myself. I can hold still, I must hold still, I thought. As another contraction started, I announced it calmly, and when the doctor didn't respond, I repeated myself , insisting fearfully.
"It's okay, I heard you the first time," was her curt response. Aren't I allowed to be panicked? I thought. I caught my breath, the contraction passed. I closed my eyes, and felt a small prick in my lower back, then heard something being taped up. It was over. My husband was allowed back in. Slowly, over the next ten minutes, the pain from the contractions subsided, until I could only detect them by watching numbers flash on the monitor.
If it weren't for the wonderful anticipation, it was almost like waiting for a train. We sat together with nothing in particular to do, talked, and held hands. I started to wonder if I'd made the right decision. Was this labor, or was this just a waiting room? I thought back to the hour before the anesthetist arrived and decided that, if this was like waiting for a train, I'd ignore the wait and focus on the marvelous destination.
I'd charged up my iPod with calming music and birth affirmations, but I found that all I wanted to do was smile at my husband, feel his caresses, and talk. Talk about what was happening, about the before and the after that were being created in the hours that were passing by. From time to time we nervously watched the monitor that was recording le Petit's heartbeats, surveying a flashing number that terrified us when it would suddenly drop off. Finally a nurse explained that he was simply moving, and his heartbeat had been temporarily been replaced by my own. The midwife checked in every hour and announced the slow progress of my dilation. The sun behind the frosted window started to disappear. I began to worry that my son would be born on his due date, Friday the 13th, and not the auspicious Thursday the 12th I'd been counting upon.
The midwife that had welcomed me was soon at the end of her shift, and two new midwives came in to introduce themselves. They were warm and reassuring, and I felt immediately more comfortable than with their no-nonsense colleague who'd been on the day shift. I was almost grateful that le Petit was taking his time. The first, Solène, explained that she was a student, and gently asked if I accepted that she attend my birth. I readily agreed. The second, Fanny, explained that she would provide an experienced second.
At ten o'clock, they declared me to be fully dilated, and folded the bed, origami-like, to allow me to sit upright with my back supported. Nothing to do but wait for le Petit to start his way down the birth canal. My husband and I started talking to le Petit, telling him about all the wonderful things that were eventually waiting for him on the outside: foie gras, vacations in Spain, cuddles with Mom and Dad. The epidural was beginning to wear off, and I started to feel the contractions again in the small of my back. Solène and Fanny explained that I could recharge it, but gently suggested letting the sensation slowly return, making it easier to know when to push when the time came. My husband said nothing, but looked at me pointedly, transferring confidence; he knew that my moment had come to be brave.
He massaged my back for the next hour, held my hands, and encouraged me as the pain got worse. Le Petit's progress was slow, and an eternity passed before Fanny announced that I could start to push. The bed was refolded so I could sit with my back slightly inclined, my legs spread, and my knees bent. As a contraction began I was to take a deep breath, hold it, and push.
I breathed, I pushed, I held my breath as long as I could, and each time it wasn't enough. Fanny and Solène encouraged me in French with each attempt and the phrase they kept repeating, "Voilà! C'est très bien ce que vous faites!" is one of the clearest memories I have of le Petit's birth. I held on to their calm words, trying to convince myself that things were working. My husband both cheered me on and begged me to keep pushing, to keep holding my breath, and it became clear that he was starting to panic.
I held onto the stupidest of worries: would le Petit arrive on the 13th? I kept looking at the clock. It was half past eleven, and I had only a half an hour to go. Preoccupying myself with superstition felt safer than worrying about something real, I suppose. The pushing wasn't working. Would I have a C-section? Forceps? Oddly, I never managed to worry whether le Petit would end up okay. I was blindly certain of that.
A third midwife briefly checked in on us. I missed her worried expression when she looked at the monitor, but my husband did not. Shortly after, the obstetrician hurriedly arrived. A handsome, middle-aged man, he introduced himself with exquisite French politesse, and said he was there to help. I don't know what I said -- I probably simply whimpered -- but I thought I don't care who you are, just help me.
Most of what happened next is a blur. Everyone, the doctor, the three midwives, and my husband, all continued to exhort me to push. The midwives invited my husband, by now quite pale, to sit down, but he was frozen at my side. The doctor ordered him with a forceful, "Monsieur, sit down!," half in English, half in French.
I heard a snip, snip, snip and realized I had an episiotomy. I was barely aware, or perhaps I didn't realize until it was explained to me afterward, that le Petit was guided out with the help of plastic, spoon-like forceps. All I remember was repeating over and over, as I used the last strength I thought I possessed to push, "Help me, help me, somebody help me!" I was no longer trying to speak in French; I was no longer trying to be coherent; I was just trying to communicate my distress any way I could.
Then, suddenly, he was there: le Petit was placed on my tummy, where all of him seemed like a giant head of damp, thin hair, with tiny legs and arms. I held him close for a second and started sobbing in English, "I'm so glad you're here!" My husband started yelling, in French, "He's not crying, he's not crying!" And he was pulled away, shuffled from one midwife to the next, his throat cleared of liquid, and he finally started to cry. I looked at the clock. It was ten minutes before midnight.
I have only the vaguest memories of what happened next, and they all seem disorganized, disordered. My husband accompanied le Petit through the Apgar test and his weigh-in. He was diapered, a tiny cotton hat was placed on his head, and something orange was smeared in his eyes. He was wrapped up and taken out in the hallway to meet my mother- and father-in-law, who'd been waiting anxiously for news for hours. I was sewn up, dressed in a large t-shirt, and le Petit was brought back for his first meal. The midwives helped me place him at the breast.
I felt shivery, happy, anxious, yet not at all in pain. I could hardly believe that the tiny being that had been kicking inside me for so long was now outside, all 8 lbs, 7 oz, in my arms and sucking at my breast as if -- and rightly so -- his life depended on it.
The calm of afterwards felt almost bizarre. We were left alone, just the three of us, to settle in and get to know one another. My husband took pictures. I nervously held le Petit close, unsure that this strange new title of mother I had suddenly acquired actually gave me any qualifications at all. Eventually, a nurse appeared and told us it was time to dress le Petit. Trying to follow her instructions, my husband searched in vain in the two huge suitcases we'd brought for the clothing we needed. The first pyjamas he found were too small, the first hat he unearthed fell on the floor, and it turned out we hadn't brought enough warm items. The nurse shook her head sadly as if to say, these two parents, they're off to a very slow start.
Le Petit was finally bundled up like a small blue and white football. We were placed together on the same stretcher and wheeled up to our room, where I was transferred to a bed and he to a Plexiglas bassinet. My husband lingered for a while before wishing us both a good night, and the midwives and nurses passed to say goodbye, then it was just me and le Petit, all alone in the near darkness of the maternity ward.
So the adventure begins, I thought to myself. I prayed in thanks for le Petit's safe arrival, for what was quickly becoming the most beautiful moment of my life. I then prayed fervently for help. The easy part is over, I thought to myself. Please, God, help me figure out what comes next.