The streets were quiet and what passes for deserted in our suburb of Paris. My husband, panicked, parked the car haphazardly next to the hospital entrance, then sprung out leaving the door open and ran around to help me. My father-in-law jumped as quickly out of the back seat. I had my back arched and was otherwise unable to move; we'd driven the five minutes from home with me in that position. My husband, in a brief moment of calm between the screams I belted out during contractions, had noted with tense humor that for once I wasn't worried about buckling my seat belt. I was almost in enough pain to not feel guilty, and the truth was, I couldn't have bent myself into a true sitting position if I'd wanted to. I'd gratefully noticed that my husband had somehow preserved enough presence of mind to drive carefully if quickly to the hospital, stopping at traffic lights, keeping his eyes as much on the road as on me writhing in the passenger seat. He'd even spent a minute studying the map before we left in order to memorize the route through the maze of one-way streets to the hospital, which we'd mostly been to before on foot.
We could have rehearsed this before, I guess, just as we could have had the waiting suitcases fully packed, as opposed to 80% packed. But when le Petit was born, I'd spent over 12 hours in labor at the hospital, epiduralized and on Pitocin and feeling kind of like I was waiting for a train during an SNCF strike. I expected Mademoiselle's arrival to be quicker, but nothing like this. I figured I'd have time to throw together the last items before leaving. I figured... I figured it no longer mattered what I had planned. Childbirth does that.
An hour and a half before our arrival at the hospital I sat -- or the closest I could comfortably come to sitting, which was more like lying down, actually -- on the couch, tired, pregnant, and for the first time very tired of being pregnant. My mother likens being pregnant to being stuck on a runaway train. While I had relatively easy pregnancies and I never felt quite that negative about it, I did feel like I was at times gripped by runaway, irrational anxiety. The train wasn't out of control but it was headed to parts unknown, both times. And while I'll never know just what (undoubtedly tiny) influence the psychological had on the physical, both times I was pregnant I held on mentally as long as I could, wishing and willing my pregnancies to last into the final weeks.
Ever heard "It's so much easier when they're on the inside"? I subscribed to this wholeheartedly.
But on the couch that night, I had finally gotten to the point where I was ready for the baby to arrive. More precisely, I was ready to not be pregnant any more. I was two days from the 41-week mark: the due date, as calculated in France, and also the date at which most French hospitals schedule an induction. I was also four centimeters dilated, as the midwife had cheerfully announced on my last visit, two days previously.
She was the third person at the hospital to suggest a scheduled induction in as many weeks, but I kept declining. I had hopes and half-formed plans of natural birth, and my typically rational brain was awash in uninformed astrological theories. I blame the hormones. I also wanted labor to be as short and, well, sweet as possible, and I figured that ruled out induction. "But at four centimeters, half the work is done already!" the midwife added with insouciant optimism. Yeah. Except from my previous experience, I was pretty sure that the part about pushing out the head was weighted a bit more than the dilation part. I'd been walking around for weeks with painless contractions, and that was just fine with me. So I shook my head and she shrugged, and gave me a piece of paper instructing me to show up again on the morning of my due date.
On the couch that night, I started to whine, about what I can't remember. I was just trying to get my husband's attention, I think, and I felt too discouraged and top-heavy to search a less childish way to do it. He sat down next to me, asked what was wrong, and I vehemently aired some inconsequential grievances, finishing with, "And I feel giant, and pregnant, and I'm tired of being pregnant!" Then I cried. And then I shared some fears that were lurking in the corners of my rattled brain. Then my husband held me and reassured me, and I felt miraculously better. And then, in the space of a pause to catch my breath, the first painful contraction arrived.
"I think this is it."
I was now calm, my husband was suddenly nervous.
"That one was different. That one..." I paused to catch my breath and plan my rehearsed Zen pain-management response, "...hurt."
And I waited, and there was another painful contraction, and as I tried to remember the breathing and self-hypnosis and all that, I went off to take the prescribed shower. During the shower, I fumbled with the bottle of soap and noticed that the contractions were getting much more painful, and quickly. I lathered some, bent over in pain, tried to breathe, tried to use my visualizations, lather, rinse, repeat, and then decided (and said out loud to myself), "Oh, hell, I think I'll get the epidural."
Getting out of the shower was a challenge. Getting dried off and dressed was worse. My husband, meanwhile, was trying to get a hold of his parents on their cell phones. They live five minutes away from our apartment by foot, so they were the obvious first-line babysitters. Naively, we didn't have backup sitters. They were, however, at a wine tasting, in a basement shop where we later discovered cell phone signals don't pass so well. We assumed correctly that my brother-in-law was with them, and luckily his cell phone managed to ring.
Although my in-laws left immediately, and at any rate couldn't go any faster than the Métro would take them, they didn't at first feel like they were in any great hurry. It was twelve hours last time, after all; they figured this time I would be in labor for at least five or six.
"Are they on their way?" I asked from the hallway more or less at the top of my lungs. My husband called back to urge them to hurry, which they couldn't possibly do any more than they were already, but it made us both feel better. My husband then informed me that I'd have to get dressed.
"I can't," I whimpered.
"But you have to." He stated the obvious delicately. Then he went to find clothes, and somehow got me dressed with very little useful intervention on my part, and then my water broke and he had to start all over again. I sobbed and yelled throughout, and le Petit miraculously slept somehow in his room just next door.
My in-laws called to say they had arrived at the Métro station and were running to get to our place. My husband and I decided that he would take me down to the entrance hallway of our building where I'd wait for his parents while he went down to the parking garage to bring the car around to the front. He helped me to the mirrored marble alcove that serves as a bench, then ran back to the elevator. I sat, waited a minute; a contraction arrived and I confusedly decided I'd be better off kneeling on the floor, leaning on the bench with my forearms. I kneeling, moaning to myself when a neighbor walked in and took one started and terrified look at me.
"Ca va, madame?"
"Ca va. Just the beginning of labor," I assured her, trying to sound unworried and cheerful. She hurried off past the front door. My in-laws arrived a second later; my mother-in-law ran upstairs to stay with the (still sleeping) le Petit, and my father-in-law helped me to my feet. My husband arrived with the car, and the two of them picked me up and carried me to the front seat. Once we arrived at the hospital, they picked me up and carried me again.
The hospital where I'd given birth to le Petit and would shortly give birth to Mademoiselle is small, a neighborhood hospital, really, and quite sleepy at 9:30 at night. There was no wheelchair at the door, and the man seated at the reception desk looked unimpressed by a screaming pregnant lady being carried in and at any rate unmoved to get up and help. A bystander -- a father whose poor wife had been in labor for over 24 hours, we later learned -- sprung up from his seat and offered to help, both supporting my weight and directing my husband and father-in-law to the door of the labor ward. Beyond the double doors, two nurses and a midwife attended to me immediately, and in seconds I found myself on a waiting gurney.
"Her water broke," my husband explained, feeling, I'm sure, like he needed to explain something.
"That's no reason to cry, madame!" one of the nurses insisted kindly, though I barely heard her.
"She's pushing!" noticed the midwife, alarmed, "Madame, don't push yet!" Pushing, I realized dazedly, so that's what I'd been doing since before we left the house. She confirmed what I already guiltily realized: that pushing had probably not been such a good idea. But my body was commanding by then, and my brain was just along for the ride. In less than a minute they had me wheeled into a delivery room, transfered to a bed, dressed in a gown and hooked up to an IV. They also determined how far things had progressed.
"...and an epidural?" I asked weakly.
"I think, madame, it's too late," all answered in chorus (and slightly amused, perhaps).
"Now you can push," the midwife instructed. She'd repositioned Mademoiselle, who apparently hadn't been lined up properly, and much of the excruciating pain was alleviated. The on-duty OB arrived immediately, too, and it just happened to be the OB who had been following my pregnancy, the same OB who had delivered le Petit. This was coincidence, perhaps just resulting from the happy fact that both of my children were born on Thursdays, but in the moment it felt like a miracle.
"C'est Dr. M! C'est mon ange guardian!" My guardian angel, I repeated dumbly, "He was here when my son was born!" I was vaguely aware how cheesy this sounded, but communicating my gratitude and relief felt as primordial as screaming, in English, with each contraction. This confused the midwife and the nurse, who tried to talk to me in their approximate English while the OB explained that I understood French perfectly well. He explained that I would have to push effectively in the next seconds, that this would be very important for the baby. And I did the best I could, several times. In the end, the ventouse (yeah, I don't know what it's called in English) was used to help her out more quickly, since, he later explained, the amniotic fluid was tinted and they didn't have enough monitoring information to know how she was doing. My husband calculated that Mademoiselle was born twelve minutes after we'd pushed open the hospital door.
Mademoiselle rested on my tummy quietly, not crying until after they cut the cord. Wanting to welcome her as I did le Petit, I told her how happy I was that she was here. The nurse dimmed the lights, and calm swept in as quickly as the chaos. Mademoiselle was weighed, diapered, and given back to me to nurse. I started to shiver, and a nurse wrapped us both in a big, garish comforter.
Two hours later she was dressed, bundled up in onesie, thick pajamas, a sleeping bag, and a hat, and we were wheeled upstairs together. Later I nibbled on my tray of food, looking with wonder and more than a little anxiety at the tiny bundle in the Plexiglas tub crib next to me. I remembered feeling lost when I was left with tiny le Petit, so alone and so puzzled and exhausted by his needs even as I was overwhelmed with love. This time I knew what to do -- theoretically at least -- so I didn't admit to the knot in my stomach when I bid my husband good night and he left us in the wee hours of the morning.
Mademoiselle slept. I couldn't. I was too joyful. Too scared. Too vigilant. Too much adrenaline still running in my veins. I didn't close the shutters, because the muted light from the street lights reassured me. She eventually woke up and started to cry, and I picked her up and put her to my breast like the old pro I felt I should be. She drifted off in my arms, and instead of worrying how and if I'd lift her back into her own bed without waking her, I held her tightly next to me and just watched her sleep. "I'm so glad you're here," I willed her to know, and at some point I slept, without moving my body or my arms an inch, I'm pretty sure. "Need me as much as you need to, little one," I thought, "I understand this time."
The next day, of course, I thought I'd been a bit silly, and I was terrified that Mademoiselle would fall out of my high hospital bed. I also knew, from le Petit, that as a parent you're always fundamentally making it up as you go along. I wondered, though, if holding Mademoiselle for those hours that first night had reassured her as much as it had me.
"I'm so glad you're here."