A little before 9:00 in the morning on March 22, I was in the parking lot on my way into the office for a massage. I felt a big cramp that wrapped around from my lower back and thought to myself, “Huh.” Actually, I think I said that out loud. In my head, I wondered if today was the day.
When I visited the bathroom in preparation of my massage (since I would never make it a full hour without that) I found that I was bleeding bright red. I came back out into the waiting room and called my midwives. They agreed with me that it was probably the bloody show, but that it didn’t mean that anything was necessarily imminent, so I should go ahead with the massage and call them again when I started having contractions. After the massage, I discovered that my mucus plug had also exited the building.
I was staying at my mom’s house because my husband, Jacob, had been out of town until late the night before. Our first child wasn’t born until I was 41.5 weeks along so it seemed reasonable for him to be traveling during my 38th week right up until I was laying in bed, unable to fall asleep because I kept problem-solving what I would do if I went into labor at that moment. “And if she’s turned her phone off, who would I call then? And if he tells me he can’t make it in less than an hour, who would I call?” So, I went to stay with my mom so that I could just go wake her up if I went into labor in the middle of the night.
After my massage, I went back to Mom’s house and hung out with a friend and her daughter for a play date. We have known each other for 15 years and laughed because she and I had been chatting the night she went into labor. During this time, contractions were coming and going in loose waves just below the surface. I was aware of them but they weren’t urgent. I even made us lunch, if not too well. My mom had to soak the pan I made the grilled cheese in.
And although I could not tell you what changed, my sense of urgency turned a corner. I wanted to get on the road into the city NOW. So, I hustled Erika and Erin out the door, kissed my mom and my 21-month-old and headed toward home, where Jacob wa telecommuting. I called him to let him know the situation (I hadn’t wanted to distract him from the post-business trip clean-up work before this) and also texted my best friend when I was stopped at a light. She teaches middle school in a block schedule and sent her kids out for their bathroom break early to call me back. The dialogue is worth recording.
Susan: Murph, I don’t have my Go Bag packed.
Rebecca: Susan! Haven’t you been paying attention to all the Facebook statuses and emails where I’ve mentioned that I’ve been dreaming about going into labor earlier rather than later?
Susan: I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t have my Go Bag packed.
Rebecca: OK. So school’s out in 45 minutes. Go home, pack your Go Bag and get out here.
Susan: All right, but I have to buy a car on my way out.
Susan: I’m supposed to pick it up tomorrow at 9:30! Don’t worry: it’s all detailed and the paperwork is ready to go. I just have to sign for it and drive it off the lot.
Rebecca: Fine. But you be sure to tell them that your best friend is in labor and that you need to be there when the baby is born.
Susan: Got it. I promise you I’ll be there around 7:00.
Rebecca: Well, I guess if this baby comes before 7, then I really didn’t need your help anyway.
Luckily, she laughed, remembering that I credit her with getting my first baby out vaginally because she knew exactly how to coach me.
After notifying my two birth partners and driving for a little while, I realized that I had begun holding my breath while contractions came on because they were starting to hurt. So, I began counting with my fingers on the steering wheel and checking the clock at the start of each one. 7 minutes apart and a minute long for the remaining 30 minutes that it took to get home. This is where my last labor stalled for almost three days without progress but also without a break. I had to take an Ambien to sleep through the pain. But this didn't feel like the beginning of a fugue state. This felt like a train getting started.
I got home, settled in and announced my plan to Jacob. I wanted to pack his Go Bag, download a contraction timing app, go for a walk before the sun went down, fill out the admissions paperwork and something else that I don't now remember. He was game but didn't take me literally. When I walked into our bedroom to find that he had added "fold the laundry" to the list, I flipped out a little, even though normally that would be an efficient use of time since most of his Go Bag was coming out of the dryer.
But we went for our walk, which was briskly cold but sunny at the end of March. Our parents called but I waved off the phone and let Jacob talk to them. I was starting to get tunnel vision, spiritually, and didn't need the outside distraction. When we arrived back to our building, Jacob was still talking to my dad and I was leaning forward with my hands against the bricks, rocking my hips from side to side to get through a contraction. A stoner kid was sitting 20 feet away on the other side of the wrout-iron fence, being stoned. First, he asked if I was ok in a voice straight out of a Harold and Kumar movie. I tersely told him I was fine and went back to my work. Then, he asked a couple more times and the question shifted to asking for permission to sit where he was sitting on the public sidewalk "because I'm just soaking up the sun, man." At that point, I tore him a new asshole about his intrusiveness and idiocy, which probably led Jacob to quickly finish the conversation with my father, unlock the front door and usher me inside.
And then we labored. It was around 5:30 at this point and from them until 11:00, we watched TV, ate and paused periodically for me to stand, brace myself and rock side to side through contractions, shouting out heir stating and ending if Jacob wasn't in the room, so he could record them on his phone. Honestly, I don't remember much except standing at the dining room table for contractions. Susan arrived around 8:00 to relieve Jacob, which he probably needed because I know I had a sharpness to me.
The reality is that we were going through a textbook labor and I had already transitioned into active labor, but since my first daughter's labor veered so far from normal by taking 3 days, we forgot everything we had studied in the class before her birth. We all thought we were still in early labor. My sharpness came a little from my internal despair that we had so much further to go. Even once it was time to go to the hospital, we would have so much work to do there (I labored for 12 hours in the hospital the first time and then pushed for another 6). Even if this baby came faster, like everyone said she would. Half of 3 days, 12 hours and 6 hours is still a shitload of time to be in as much pain as I was in. I kept thinking about all of the birth stories I read when the heroine had a moment of clarity in which she realize she just needed to reach down into herself and find that extra bit of strength to move things along and I was so depressed that I wasn't having that epiphany. I was just enduring.
Jacob and Susan are the real heroes of Judith's story. I was just doing what my body pushed me to do: stand up, lean forward with my hands on the table, rock from side to side, moan if I needed to and collapse again when the contraction was over. They would put pressure on my lower back to help. Susan was knitting in between contractions and shocked my several times when she touched me. I asked/accused her of working with unnatural fibers and snapped that she could discharge that static electricity before she got close and she knew that already, right? (Her patience is a huge part of why she's a hero.) The next contraction, she shocked me again and she and Jacob both giggled nervously because it turns out that she had sucked Jacob first but it hadn't worked to get rid of all the static. The laughter infuriated me and I shouted that she had to f***ing put that acrylic shit away and that she could take a ball of wool out of my stash if she needed something to do with her hands. There was definitely an subtext of ugly elitism in my directives.
Jacob is a hero because he stopped letting me sit down between contractions and began making me walk the hallways. He walked backwards and I leaned on him as I shuffled. I negotiated breaks because I was so tired but he never let me stop for too long. I wasn't very nice about this either, but I think I was beginning to sound pathetic, too.
Finally, I moved to all fours on the couch but we were stalled at contractions every 3.5 minutes and the midwives had said not to come in until we were 3 minutes apart. Similar to the corner I had turned at my mom's house, I began to feel an urgency to go to the hospital. This did not make me feel more warmly toward my life and love partner who was tracking me with his phone and telling me it wasn't time to go yet. Also, you know how you have amazing ideas right before you fall asleep but all you can remember in the morning is that you had an idea, not the idea itself? This was happening to me in between contractions. I was starting to realize that I was clenching my pelvis at the end of contractions and that this felt inappropriate somehow but the pain would come again and I'd forget.
So, when Jcob left the room for something and Susan whispered conspiratorially that if I wanted to go to the hospital, we could go whenever I was ready, it was like hearing the unthought known. It was time. We called the answering service and when we didn't hear back in 15 minutes, I insisted we call again. A labor and delivery nurse called back immediately and asked to talk we me personally. I was in the middle of a contraction, dropped an f-bomb and apologized at the conclusion. (It's amazing how being in the presence of a woman who sounds like a middle-aged African-American makes me forget all my liberal beliefs about language and remember to be respectful.). She laughed and said that it sounded like I should come in. I asked in a worried voice about waiting until the contractions got to 3 minutes and she told me not to worry about it.
With that, I had a plan. We got loaded into the cars and headed out. 20 minutes later, my husband dropped me at the front door and he and Susan went to park their cars in the lot. At my hospital, you don't go throu the ER but to another door that is unmanned except for a buzzer. As I waited in the darkened foyer for an elevator, a contraction started just as the doors opened and a custodian wheeled his cart out. Poor guy. I shrugged off his offer of help much more kindly than I did the stoner's, though.
No one came to meet me at the door to the delivery ward so I buzzed again and walked an interminable distance down a hall alone, stopping twice for contractions and recorded on Jacob's phone, which I had been clutching since we left the house. I had another as I checked in at the nurse's station. They put us straight into a room, bypassing triage. It seemed quiet on the floor, in general. However, the midwife on call was in another room assisting a delivery, so it was just the three of us settling in with the nurse that I had talked with on the phone. Once I had changed into my own nightgown, she asked if I felt the need to push and I told her I didn't know what that felt like since I had a major epidural the first time. Her description of the the biggest, most painful bowel movement of my life didn't resonate, so I said no. They wanted me up on the bed to do a 20 minute fetal monitoring as part of the routine check-in and as she set up the equipment and tried to get the straps around me, Jacob was setting up my iPad and the speakers according to me instructions. He asked how to set it on shuffle during one of my contractions and I growled that Apple was famous for intuitive user experience, couldn't he figure that out himself? Like I said, I just did what my basest instincts led me to do. Jacob and Susan conscientiously chose grace and forgiveness. They are the heroes. He also complained that I wanted the music too loud and couldn't he turns it down, which tarnishes his armor a little, but I'm willing to let that slide upon reflection.
The was trying to find the baby's heartbeat up near my belly button and getting nothing but silence. It took me a little while to register that this should worry me so I asked Susan if I should be worried. The nurse answered with reassurance. It turns out that the heartbeat was all the way down by my mons and she had to painfully hold the monitor there amidst my bucking and rolling with the pain, which seemed to be slamming me. I was clutching the rails of the bed, pushing my forehead into the grooves of the built-in TV speakers. They wanted me to roll over to help them get a better angle on the monitoring and that was brutal but I made it and clutched the other side like someone who can't swim clutching the other side of a short flailing across the kiddie pool. At this point, the nurse did a manual exam and things escalated quickly at that point. I guess that baby was crowning and Jacob and Susan could see her head. No one told me this, or I didn't hear them, and I was still profoundly sad because I knew we still had a lot of work ahead of us because we had only just gotten to the hospital. Susan worked really hard at this point to pull me out of the pit of despair by saying things like, "This is happening now. Look at how quickly they are setting out the instruments." In my first delivery, I had pleaded with Susan to tell me how much longer I would have to push, knowing that she didn't know but needed an answer anyway. We laugh remembering that when she said, "Seven more pushes," I shouted dramatically, "You lie!"
The only part of that story I remembered in my pain, with my eyes closed, was the lying. So, even when she said, "Listen! Do you hear them shouting down the hallway for the midwife? This baby is coming now," I didn't believe her. I was sure we had hours of pain ahead of us.
Finally, the urge to push liberated my clutchy pelvis and my water broke. On the next contraction, I yelled, "I'm either pooping or pushing!" In a crescendo and they all ran to my side. I still didn't quite believe as Susan told me she could see the baby's ear, but it did let some light begin to shine on my terrified soul and when she told me she could see the baby's face after the next push tore out of me, I asked in a tiny voice, "It's face?" This confirmed my realization that my vagina had created a visual image of a literal partial ring of fire behind my eyelids that time and I was finally able to take on some agency in this whole birth experience and agreed to actually push one more time to get the rest of the baby out.
And there she was.
My little Judith.
Less than a half hour after we had arrived, they were putting my baby on my chest and I was looking into my husband's eyes and laughing in bewilderment. "It's still Friday," I said. It had been 11:27 pm to be exact. I got to push aside the umbilical cord and see that it was a girl. Jacob hadn't gotten to catch her like he had her sister but this time he cut the cord once it was done pulsing and he managed not to accidentally nick her foot in the process. I delivered the placenta in all of this with one more somewhat painful push, which was also a novel experience for me. And then they left us alone.
It was probably only a couple of minutes but they had moved Esther to the warming table at this point in her delivery so I was stunned to just be sitting in my bed, holding my daughter and crying with my husband and best friend a little. Jacob asked me if her name was Judith and I agreed, asking in return if her middle name was Ruby, after my great-grandmother. I nuzzled her head and played with the word amniotical? ammoniacal? to describe the perfect, fecund smell of her.
They came in eventually to do the things they do with new babies. She was 7 pounds and 3 ounces and had already successfully latched on both sides by that time. I assume everyone else held her before they gave her back to me and the room emptied out again except for the four of us. I have such a sense of peace about that time while we were waiting to be transferred to a recovery room. My favorite music was playing on shuffle, my favorite people were with me, my baby was a sweet, warm weight in my chest and I had accomplished something amazing almost as a surprise. How awe-inspiring to have it proved that I was capable on that kind of work.
Again, it contrasted so starkly to the denouement of Esther's birth in the middle of the afternoon, with the sunlight streaming in and most of my family in the waiting room, ready to storm the castle with cheer and congratulations as soon as anyone would let them. This time was contentment and gently radiating love and music. Both perfect for their respective experiences.
Just like my girls.