Friday, January 19, 1990 around 5:00 p.m.
My waters broke and the countdown to baby began. It had been a fairly uneventful pregnancy. There had been one slight scare at about six months; I was in the dressing room at “Pea In The Pod”, a maternity clothing store, when I started cramping and noticed some bleeding on my underwear as I was trying on outfits. “Hmmm, bleeding; that’s not supposed to happen,” was my fairly calm and subdued reaction, as opposed to “Oh my God, call 911!” The saleslady, however, wasn’t about to take any chances. She insisted that I call Phil, who dutifully left work, picked me up, and drove me to the ObGyn’s office.
In the process of performing an ultrasound to make sure I wasn’t going into premature labor, and to insure that the fetus was not in some sort of distress, the technician asked us whether we wanted to know the baby’s gender. We had planned on it being a surprise, but what the hell? A boy. Up until that point, I would have been equally happy with either a boy or girl. Who cared, really, as long as the baby was healthy, right? But I noticed a shift in Phil’s involvement in my pregnancy once he knew he was having a son. He denied it, of course, and who knows, maybe I was imagining things.
We were ready for this baby. We weren’t two immature or ill-prepared kids who had made a mistake; we were two responsible adults making an informed, intentional, mature choice and we had armed ourselves with every baby gizmo on the market. Crib, changing table, rocking chair, stroller, car seat, high chair, play pen, stuffed toys, baby clothes, etc. It had opened up a whole new world of shopping for us. Ostentatious consumerism aside, the baby’s room was prepared by both of us with love and hope for our future together as a family.
Contractions were mild for several hours. The doctor even recommended having a glass of wine to relax. “You and Phil should just stay home and stay calm,” he suggested, “until the contractions aren’t so far apart.” Obviously, the man had never personally experienced labor. “At this stage, there’s really no need to leave the comfort of your home,” he assured us.
I couldn’t wait to get to the hospital though. I was nervous. Wouldn’t it be safer for me and the baby if I were already at the hospital? It was freezing outside. It could snow. It was January in Boston, for Christ’s sake. What if there was a blizzard and the roads didn’t get plowed in time and I was trapped in the supposed comfort of my own home? Forget that!
Now that labor was officially underway, I wanted every conceivable tool and instrument at the ready to keep any of the hundreds of things that could go wrong from going wrong. I didn’t care if women still gave birth in fields; I wanted this to be the highest-tech delivery possible, as long as it guaranteed a positive outcome: a safe, healthy baby. But even more important? I wanted to experience as little pain as possible. Because we were just getting started, and the contractions were already a wee bit over the top.
Being at home with nothing to do but wait was a bad idea, because this gave me time to think. And what I was thinking wasn’t helpful: “I’m scared to death about being a mom. Whose idea was this anyway? Will I be any good? Will you be an easy baby? Is this going to hurt like hell? Can I take it? What if I want to scream? Will your father pass out?” Just the day before, I’d been so confident and felt so well prepared. Now? Not so much.
I finally convinced Phil it was time to leave the house. We arrived at the hospital at about 11 pm. I didn’t want it to get too late. I wanted to be able to sleep (at this point I had no clue that sleep was about to become one of those things of the past), and I didn’t want to have to wake up in the middle of the night at home, only to have my whale-like self loaded into the car in sub-zero temperatures and transported, contractions in full swing, to the hospital. “Just get me there now so we can call it a night and go to bed,” I pleaded with Phil. “I’m not having this baby until tomorrow anyway. We might as well get there and get some rest.”
Being in the hospital, however, did not have the calming effect I’d hoped for. If anything, the high-pitched sounds coming from down the corridor (the other mothers-to-be screaming through their lovely labors) only caused more adrenaline to surge through me. One thing was for sure though: now that I was officially admitted to the hospital, and unpacked in my room, and settled into a bed, our baby could be born.
Apparently, the baby didn’t get the memo.
Saturday, January 20, 1990 around 5:00 p.m.
It had been 24 hours since my waters broke. I was having intense contractions, fairly frequently, but not dilating much. Every disgusting thing my body could possibly do, it had done. They gave me Pitocin, which increased the intensity of the contractions or – as the nurses put it – would allow me to have a more efficient labor. “Yeah, that’s what I want. Efficiency. Let’s get this over with. I’ve been at it for 24 hours already.”
Be careful what you wish for.
Because of the more “efficient” labor, I was now in excruciating pain, with little relief between contractions. What was once a “horrible” contraction, was now hideously painful torture. The epidural finally kicked in and I managed to have a couple of hours of the most blissful labor imaginable. But once the epidural wore off, it was back to the regularity of heinous contractions and an intense non-abating desire to escape this body I had once thought of as mine, but which was now on a mission of its own whether I wanted to play along or not. It’s as if I’d been possessed by the creature inside of me. I was no longer in control.
Sunday, January 21, 1990, 5:05 a.m.
I was already beyond exhausted. I didn’t care what they had to do to me. “Get me off this ride.” I’d been up for almost forty-eight hours, and in labor for thirty-six. Several shifts of nurses had come and gone. And still no baby to show for all my hard work.
It was too late to do a Caesarian; the baby was too far down the birth canal. Or something like that. I was so frazzled I was beginning to have trouble making sense of what the doctors were reporting and advising. No surprise there.
I wondered why women would endure this and then rationally choose to do a repeat performance, or – heaven forbid – several repeat performances. I was beginning to question why all children weren’t only children. Earlier in my pregnancy, when I shared with my mother how nervous I was about the pain of childbirth, she simply offered, “Oh, you’ll just forget how painful it was.” (It turns out she was wrong; I never forgot.)
During a short pause in the contractions, I wondered whether my child-to-be was having cold feet. I imagined he liked it where he was and wanted to stay there. Who could blame him? I promised to keep him safe. I let him know about all the people who were looking forward to his debut who were going to love him. I asked him to please allow nature take its course. “You can’t go back,” I whispered, “You’re ready for this life and this life is ready for you.” What did I know?
Finally, I heard the doctor say something that was music to my ears: “We’re going to deliver your baby using vacuum extraction.” I had no idea what that was, but a vacuum sounded promising. Somehow I managed to make a joke about calling the baby “Hoover” or “Eureka”. Honestly, they could use any household appliance they wanted. If a toaster would facilitate this birth, I was all for it.
I grunted as they delivered all seven pounds and eight ounces of gooey, bloody, cottage-cheesy baby onto my belly. Years later, I would still remember this singular moment quite vividly: I did not blather, “Oh isn’t he just the most precious, sweetest, most adorable, little thing you ever did see?” It was not love at first sight. No. The first words out of my mouth as a mother were, “Uh, could someone please take him from me?”
Thank God for Phil, who somehow still had the energy to go completely goo-goo, ga-ga over his baby boy. “Ten fingers. Ten toes. His head’s kind of pointy though,” he reported.
I marveled to myself, “Your head would be kind of pointy too if you’d been hanging out with a soft skull in my vagina for over twenty-four hours.” The truth was, I really didn’t care what my baby looked like. As long as he was breathing, I needed no additional information.
I was completely bereft of energy. One might think this would have prevented me from feeling anything. But no. During those minutes after they whisked the baby away, when no one was paying much attention to me, when I was no longer being asked to push or not to push or breathe or sit up or lie down or squat, during these few precious minutes of silence and peace, my bliss was shattered as every cell of my body registered a heightened state of sensitivity. Every nerve ending was fully operational.
More than anything, even more than wanting to hold my newborn infant, I wanted a respite from this sensory overload. “Party’s over; someone turn off the stereo and the lights on their way out; everyone go home; leave me alone.” I was, in a word: spent. I’d never, ever, ever been this drained. I wanted immediate, deep and long-lasting sleep.
I somehow managed about an hour. When I woke up it felt as if I had just shut my eyes. There was no feeling of recovery whatsoever. My hard-earned peace, quiet and stillness didn’t last anywhere near as long as I needed it to. A nurse was standing by my bed, waiting for me to sit up and position myself. She handed me my infant son, who was crying and hungry. For a moment, I was tempted to hand him back and tell the nurse, “No way. I’m too tired. You do it.” But I had chosen to breastfeed, and unlike the good ol’ days of wet nurses, it was time to officially begin my duties as a mom.
January 26, 1990
Julian’s jaundice entitled us to five extra days in the hospital. The jaundice was most likely a side effect of the Pitocin they had administered in order to make my labor progress. Eager Phil kept asking the hospital staff when he could take his family home. Reluctant Celenia kept asking them whether we could possibly stay another day.
I was secretly grateful for the additional days of assistance from the nurses. “Most new mommies are being escorted out the hospital door ASAP. You and I got a little extra TLC from the nurses. Aren’t we lucky, Julian?” I knew that once we got home, I was going to be on my own. This baby of mine…he was so tiny, so helpless, so vulnerable. I was going to make a mistake. I was going to break him. I couldn’t do this. How could I do this? What had ever made me believe I could do this? How did anyone do this?
It was finally time to take our son home, a supposedly joyous day. Except that I was terrified, practically to the point of paralysis. Everywhere I looked there were threats to my baby’s safety. “Couldn’t we just beam you home à la ‘Star Trek’? Wouldn’t that be less risky?” Before I could come up with a good reason to convince the hospital to allow us to stay another day, I was escorted to a wheelchair. I was a bundle of nerves, holding Julian, my little bundle of joy, in my lap as we exited the warm protection of the hospital into a bright, sunny, extraordinarily frigid January day.
I sat with Julian in the back seat, Phil driving. I was silently panic-stricken. In my imagination, an out-of-control trailer truck with a toxic and combustible cargo was hurtling towards us, resulting in our tragic deaths before we ever had a chance to call ourselves a family. It was less than a 15-minute drive, but I closed my eyes, held my breath (and my baby’s tiny fist) the whole way home. Even though I had lured him into the world by telling him I would keep him safe, I was already wondering how the hell I was going to fulfill that promise.