You must do it alone. No one will tell you this. Instead, strangers in shopping malls will place their hands over the hard stem of your belly. Act as if this is normal. Stand in front of the mirror at night and practice leaning back on your heels and smiling like a female Buddha. Tell people that you feel blessed. It’s important that you say this, that you don’t let the ripeness of your body offend them. When relatives give you badly-knitted booties and blankets, hold the soft, greasy wool up to your nose and cry. “It’s her hormones,” everyone will say and for some reason you’ll feel secretly vindicated, the way you felt in fourth grade when you stole a pack of gum and everyone blamed Leroy Simpson.
When a woman at work holds a baby shower, find yourself sitting in a circle in someone’s living room, playing games that remind you of grade school. Sit there, with a little paper plate (printed with blue and pink, smiling lambs) and nibble on sandwiches with the crusts cut off and Jello with fruit cocktail floating around like trapped bugs. When it’s time to open your presents, do it slowly, dramatically. Think of it as a striptease, only in reverse, since no one would want to see you, with your heavy, ponderous breasts and full belly, dancing around in a G-string. Exclaim over the crib sheets and pacifiers and little undershirts with ducks printed over the neckline. Say you’ve never seen anything so precious. Really mean this. When everyone slips off their shoes and talks about their own labor stories, assume a wise, knowing expression. Don’t let them see how left out you feel, the way you felt in high school when you weren’t picked for cheerleading. Ignore the way their eyes glint as they lean forward to tell about long contractions and inept doctors, about not getting their pain medicine and how someone bit her husband’s hand so hard he had to have stitches. Nod your head and pick at your napkin, which also has lambs, though smaller and blurrier, dancing around the edges. Don’t let them see your fear when they mention an Aunt Carol or cousin Sue who was in labor for three hours or days or weeks and almost died from exhaustion. Sit calmly, with your ankles folded neatly and your dress pulled down over your thickening knees, during the story of Betty at the bank who lost so much blood she still has to wear foundation three shades lighter.
Lift your chin proudly and say that you’ve been going to childbirth classes. Say that you know how to breathe and that you’ve got your focal point picked out. Mention that your partner knows how to massage your nipples and pound the small of your back to lessen contractions. Sound breezy and confident, as if you haven’t a care in the world.
When the other women snort and call you “poor dear” in that tone reserved for pets and small children, move your leg out as if to kick the nearest one, but stop at the last minute and dig the soles of your sensible shoes (your knees have been hurting from the extra weight) into the thick, beige carpet. Tell yourself that you’ll never be so dowdy, so boring, so predictable. Tell yourself that you’ll never wear shirts with daisies printed over the front, or forget to shave under your arms. Feel smug and superior, and when you get up to use the bathroom, knock over the vases on the counter. Listen to the crack and shatter of cheap ceramic and understand that you’ve somehow gotten even.
When you are five, maybe six months along, your childbirth instructor, a peppy woman with the heavy hips of middle-age, claps her hands during class and says that you’re in for a real treat. Think longingly of the cupcakes and pastries you used to eat at birthday parties, the hot sun and all that sugar causing your head to ache in a swirling, excited way. Feel your mouth start to water. Think about sneaking an extra few; you are, after all, eating for two. But instead of food, a large television is wheeled out, and you are told, in the same, cheerful, false voice, that you get to watch your first birthing movie. Pretend not to notice your partner’s nervous twist in his chair, or the way the man next to you, bearded and suited and looking far too dignified for all of this, suddenly coughs into his hand. Sit there, in your maternity top with the frayed neckline from where you tore off the little-girl lace that seems attached to everything people give you to wear, and wish you carried a handkerchief in your pocket. Sigh with relief at how normally the movie starts out, following the woman (who is pretty and breezy in that careless way you’ve always envied) through doctor appointments and trips to the pharmacy to pick up vitamins. Stop and wonder for a moment why the narrator is a man; wouldn’t a woman be more appropriate? But his voice is soothing and dull, the same tone from high school history films. Think suddenly of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and those lazy Sundays of your childhood. Smile over the knowledge that you will soon have your own child in your own living room watching the same kind of shows.
Glance back up at the screen when the music suddenly picks up. Try not to let anyone see how startled you are to find the same woman lying pale and miserable in a hospital bed.
Wonder why hospital gowns always look like men’s pajamas. Wish you were at one of those horror movies you watched as a teenager, stuffed in the theater between friends, the air smelling of popcorn and bubble gum and the thick, sweet smell of your own underarms. Try not to feel horrified as the woman parts her legs, so easily and unselfconsciously, not caring about the camera. Reassure yourself that it’s nothing to be afraid of, that you have the same swollen, purplish parts between your own legs. When the woman gnashes her teeth like a wild animal, look away for a moment, embarrassed and slightly ashamed. Know that this isn’t going to happen to you, that you’re going to do it in a birthing bed, in a room with country fixtures and the sounds of the ocean and your partner calmly holding your hand. Know that you won’t grunt or make unseemly noises, that you’re going to pant your way through contractions while reciting poetry, each cool, round syllable slipping through your throat with the familiar ease of a Neil Diamond song.
As your due date approaches, find yourself suddenly charged with energy. Clean out the house. Throw away these things without a flicker of doubt: your high school yearbook, the menus and programs from years of old dates, the white leather boots you used to wear with your short red skirt. Fill seven garbage bags, and order your partner to carry them out to the dumpster. He is slightly afraid of you and stays outside longer than necessary. Worry, not for the first time, that he might not be up to this, that he might do something unforgivable: faint or pass cigars out afterward.
Try not to worry when another week passes, and then another. When the midwife begins to talk about pitocin and hospitals, about toxemia and brain damage, don’t let her see that you are afraid. Lie there on that examining table, with your legs parted and your belly so high you can’t see what she’s doing down there, and recite the multiplication tables under your breath. Stumble on the eight’s, which have always seemed rushed and awkward to you. Wonder, idly, how many people have stuck their hands up you since the beginning of your pregnancy.
When you are two weeks overdue, go to the hospital for tests. Prop yourself up in that bed while they attach wires to you. Watch soap operas and try to guess who is sleeping with whom, who is cheating and who is going to soon, very soon, die in an accident that will look natural but will really be caused by a jealous lover. Feel relieved when they tell you that the baby is fine, that he’s big and healthy and normal. Cry relieved, grateful tears when they say that you’re dilated to two centimeters and should start your labor any day. Touch the nurse on the shoulder as you leave. Try not to sob as she squeezes your hand for luck.
Pace yourself through three more days where nothing happens. Concentrate on every motion, every small ebb and swell of your belly. Say, “I think I just felt a contraction.” Say this so many times that your partner stops listening, stops even nodding his head. At night, lie with your hands across your belly as your baby flings his arms and legs with restless abandon. Feel insulted and rejected at his refusal to appear. Worry, as you pace the house with your aching, pressed bladder, that he’s afraid to be born, that he knows, in his fluid-soaked head, that you haven’t the slightest idea how to take care of him.
The night your water finally breaks, hear it, there in your half-sleep, that twangy little “ping” like a balloon popping. Feel the release of that warm water sliding down your legs. Think fondly of wetting your bed as a child. Lie there for a moment, enjoying the peace, the solitude of being the first to know something that everyone else is waiting to hear. Wake up your partner. Say “It’s time,” in a serious, adult voice. Laugh at the way he jumps out of bed, just like in the movies, and puts his pants on backward. Call the midwife and time your contractions, which are mild and still far enough apart that you can go back to bed. Lie there with that pressed feeling of anticipation and think about waiting for Christmas and Easter and those finicky, cool winds of Halloween.
When it’s time to leave for the birthing clinic, concentrate on your stomach, which feels tight and stretched, cramps rippling and vibrating against your spine. Let your partner help you out to the car, and later, up the steps of the birthing center. Know that it’s important that he feels useful, that the magazines all tell you to make sure he doesn’t feel left out. Lie down in that big, homey birthing room, in the bed with the lacy pillowcases and thick comforter, while the midwife examines you. Feel smug and pleased when she says you’re dilated to almost five. Think “this isn’t so bad,” and lie there sucking ice chips while watching rock videos on the television. Wonder what all the fuss has been about.
When it hits you, it is sudden and unexpected, a large wave, no, an avalanche slamming and tearing your gut. Feel bewildered and betrayed. Have no idea what is happening, only that you feel pain, worse that you ever though imaginable. Stuff the edge of the comforter into your mouth to keep from screaming. Sigh when it eases up. Say, “I’m okay now,” in a shaky, grateful voice. Believe it, in that nice, short space when your body cooperates, and you are yourself again. Stare at the television and wonder why colors always looks so much brighter on someone else’s set. Be totally unprepared for the next contraction when it hits. And the next. Wonder what you’ve done to deserve such a punishment.
Hate the midwife when she tells you, in a cheerful voice that makes you want to scream, that you’re dilated to seven. Turn your head away and wonder how you could have chosen a woman with such an awful voice to deliver your child. Feel a long, terrible contraction coming. Try to breathe but gasp instead. Forget about the sweat dripping down your face and the sweet, salty taste of your own blood from where you bit your tongue. Concentrate only on your breaths. When your partner begins to breathe along with you, tell him to shut up. Say this in a hard, angry voice that loses its punch as another contraction rips into you. Ignore the way he squints down at your face, as if unable to recognize who you’ve become. Hate him. Realize that you’ve always hated him, that you’ve always known, in the back of your mind, that he would turn out to be the kind of man who would try to pant his way through your labor. Decide that you want him to leave. Decide you never want to see him again.
Open your mouth and start to tell him to get the fuck out of your life. Forget all about this as another pain hits, so hard and deep you become lost, tumbling down and down. Rip off your nightgown, raise up on your hands and knees and bray like a hurt animal. Cry at how good this feels. Don’t give a damn that you’re naked and wet, your hands clawing the once neat comforter. Forget about the baby, that there’s even going to be a baby; forget about everything but the pain.
When you’re stuck in the worst of it, contractions coming so close there’s no time to recover from one before the next one buckles down, have a revelation. Know suddenly why women worshiped the earth and smeared blood on their faces and danced all night in the light of the moon. Understand dark magic and the rhythms of the wind and the strange, silent voices of plants. Feel this knowledge opening up inside of you, a twisting, searing connection to your mother and grandmother and great-grandmother, all those women who came before you, all of you connected by this pain, this awful, jolting lifeline. Sob at the beauty of this realization.
When it’s finally time to push, lean on your partner as he helps you to the birthing chair. Stumble and for one horrible moment think of Jesus carrying the cross. Tell yourself that you should pray, but abandon the idea. You are too tired; you can’t remember the words. Instead, hold your breath and scream out long, hard pushes. Push until the floor around you is wet from your sweat. Be convinced that the baby will never come out, that you are caught in some type of purgatory where you will push and push through a wobbling, pain-filled eternity.
Try to protest when the midwife suddenly orders you to stop pushing. Use that feeble, small voice from childhood when you knew you were right but knew no one would listen. Feel the baby there inside you. Know that he’s almost there; that he’s so close. You want to push, oh, you need to push; you’re holding on by a thin, red line that threatens to shatter and break until you can finally push again, one hard, horrible push where you give it everything you have left. That’s when it happens, a hot, ripping pain between your legs so intense it’s almost sexual. It hurts but oh, it feels good. It feels so good you cry in aching, exhausted relief.
“The head is out,” you hear someone say, but your own head is roaring, and you’re gathering yourself up for another, and you push and scream and feel him sliding out of you, a fluid, liquid smoothness, like water, only hotter and meaner and better.
For a moment, lie there feeling empty and cold and alone. Then feel your arms, those very same arms that were shaky just a few seconds before, raise up as the midwife hands you your son. Laugh, cry. Stare into his puckered, fierce face and slowly lick the blood from his throat.