(Note: I am participating in a BIRTHFIT postpartum course and my homework was to write out Harper’s birth story. This class has been a great way to hold myself accountable to doing things like asking for help and taking time for myself. I highly recommend it.)
For me, pregnancy felt like spending nine months in the most ill-fitting of clothes, the kind that convince you that your body just must be made wrong. Yes, there was sickness and exhaustion, but the worst part was how utterly incorrect my physical being felt. The second time around exacerbated all the aches and pains and by thirty-nine weeks I was unable to sit for more than ten minutes without feeling like my lower body had turned into stone. Each step when I got up felt like I was trying to break free from some transparent armor meant to render me immobile. At thirty-nine weeks and one day, I embarked upon what would be my final “Penny-Mommy Day”. This was the language that my daughter and I used to describe what made Wednesdays different. I didn’t go to work. She didn’t go the school. But the rest of the world continued to muddle through their weeks. It created this golden opportunity to be completely present and fully with her and even though I had offers from family to take her off my hands so I could rest, all I wanted with every fiber of my being was to spend the time with her one-on-one.
I struggled to push Penny into town in her stroller. At music class, I shifted my shoulders from side to side in the weakest attempt to dance. We lingered at the bookstore, reading stories we already owned. I knew that soon I’d be back on a 2-3 hour boob timer, making lingering anywhere pretty darn near impossible. Penny scoffed at the idea of a nap, which sounded like heaven to me, so we forged ahead to a 6pm bedtime to compensate for missed rest. By the end of the day, my body felt even more obliterated than normal. I fell into bed beside her, desperate for rest.
I had noticed a new pressure in my lower abdomen, but it was hardly more severe or noteworthy than the endless other number of ways I ached. I dismissed it as the result of the inevitable physicality of tending to a three year old all day. I was determined to sleep.
Penny seemed to have other ideas. Though she settled instantly, weary from the day, she woke me during the night at regular intervals, simply to wrap her arms around me. “I love you, Mommy” she’d say, and as weary as I was, I couldn’t feel anger or frustration. I soaked up her love and each time instantly fell back asleep.
When the day announced itself around 5:45 the next morning, I felt like I had barely rested at all. Penny began to assemble a stack of storybooks so we could begin the day in the typical way, but a few pages in, I found I was having trouble breathing.
I asked her if we could read on the floor and assumed an awkward downward dog position. Focusing on the words on the page, it wasn’t until I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror and saw how clearly primal I looked that it dawned on me that I might actually be in labor.
Even if you had asked me in the moment, I would have struggled to describe what a contraction felt like. Now, I know I won’t be able to capture it completely. For me, it began as a sensation similar to cramping, the severe kind that take your breath away. But the ebb and flow is undeniable, as the severity increases, it becomes obvious that your body is operating under some kind of internal timing mechanism.
By 6:15, I felt comfortable enough to say that there was no way that I’d be going into work today. I told my husband to communicate the same to his company. He frantically tried to find someone to watch Penny until daycare opened at 7am, but I was able to wrap my head around waiting that long. Even though I knew my labor would most likely progress quickly, I thought I could make it until then. I felt better about dropping my daughter into the hands of the capable caretakers she is with every work day. I didn’t want to shock her with an avoidable frenzy.
So we got her dressed and packed her lunch and made sure to move the hospital bags over from my car to my husband’s. We arrived at daycare at 6:50, pulling in alongside the most punctual of staff members. I bolted from the car, eager to pace around the parking lot, and every woman who saw me didn’t need to ask why we were technically dropping her off too early. As I endured each contraction, new verbiage came to me to describe what was happening. I found myself repeating the same phrase to myself each time the contraction mounted. This. Is. Necessary. Work.
The car ride was hell, as I knew it would be. Some part of me longed to go into labor at work simply because it was twenty minutes closer to the hospital. We were on the road the exact same time of day that I was every day, heading the exact same way. But this time, I was headed to have a baby.
Like I tend to do in any intense physical experience, I focused on the numbers. 10 more miles. Now 9. With contractions coming every minute that meant I only had to grin and bear it roughly a dozen more times. I repeated this mental calculation a hundred times before the hospital was in sight. I bolted from the car and marched through the entrance, unquestioned, my girth and my stride making my purpose clear.
In the intake room, I calmly articulated my history of precipitous labor, which made them spring to action. I only had to hand over my driver’s license and insurance card before I was shepherded out the door. We had called the OB from the car, and they assured me that she was on her way. I was already at 7cm, and nobody seemed to doubt me this time that baby was coming. I declined the epidural, mainly because that was what I had done last time, a brain and body trending towards what was known in a time of immense duress.
Last time, I banished my husband to a chair in the corner. This time, I wanted to squeeze the crap out of his hand. When they mentioned the addition of a Starbucks downstairs and he joked that he was going to get a coffee, my eyes shot daggers. Our nurse was a weeks from retirement, reassuring comfortable with even a natural delivery, chatty enough to provide a distraction and forthcoming with all the details I most craved. Yes, the water had broken. Dilation was progressing. Soon it would be time to push.
I felt completely out of control the entire time. I gave into the impulse to yell whenever the deliberate breathing felt insufficient. I was terrified and so much of me wanted to pause, to freeze, to try and make sense of the myriad of physical sensations. But much like falling off a cliff, there was a gravitational pull to evict baby from my body and, hopefully, place her in my arms. And when the moment came, it felt both sudden and like I had been waiting for far too long. Her cry was uninterrupted and fierce. I held her, still coated in the detritus of birth and somehow so sweet smelling all the same.
Her cries continued, which oddly enough is the best possible outcome. The half dozen medical personal who had been there moments before vanished. I was left to guide her to the breast and stroke her dewy head of dark hair. She looked so much like her sister that I felt time travel may indeed be possible. I looked at the clock. It was not yet 10 in the morning. I felt amazed, once again, and how little time it takes to make your entire life different, and supremely grateful that the dividing line this time was purely celebratory. Yesterday, there had been fear and uncertainty, and now she was here. She was healthy. She was beginning. She was ours, and I was already healing in ways I weren’t sure were even possible. Yes, my body still felt broken, but my own heartbeat felt stronger, more sturdy even, than it had in a long, long time.