It’s two in the morning, and I’m 38 weeks pregnant. I wake to use the bathroom and my stomach is upset.
I wander downstairs, one hand on the railing and the other on my lower back. Maybe moving around will do the trick. I’ve been having Braxton Hicks for months now, so the quickening in my belly might be nothing. I look outside the living room window into the night. I notice a deer nudging its gentle nose in between my kale plants, still growing in this warm, rainy Bay Area November. I resist the urge to bang on the window and shout “Step away from my future child’s greens, you overgrown rat!” Better to let Jack and Simon sleep.
My back is starting to hurt. I head upstairs and sit on the top step, lowering myself slowly. From here I can listen to both Jack and Simon’s rhythmic breathing. My family.
It had been over two years since I had begun treating my postpartum depression. Jack and I had done everything we could to keep our family together and usher a new baby into a secure and happy place. I was still on antidepressants, a pregnancy-safe dose. We had gone to couples counseling to process feelings that might come up around having another child.
I had a wonderful group of friends. The writing group I had joined founded the website Literary Mama. I was writing my way through my bout with postpartum depression and my column was developing a following. I knew what “better” felt like. I had even made peace with who my father was, who he could never become. As hard as being pregnant and taking care of a preschooler was, I wasn’t depressed. In fact, I was happier than I could ever remember.
The dull pain in my lower back won’t go away. Might as well go downstairs and wash last night’s dishes. I haul myself up and start down the steps. Halfway down, my water breaks. Wow. The baby and I are the only two on earth who know it is time.
I put my arm around my belly. Thank God. Little baby Gus and I have made a deal. As soon as he’s ready, he’s coming out. I call my doula, Nina, to ask her if I should wake the family. I know from experience to let Jack sleep as long as possible. She answers her cell after one ring with “How far apart are the contractions?”
I answer, “they’re kind of irregular. One was five minutes apart, the other 15. I thought they were Braxton Hicks. I know it’s a bit early, but Dr. Washington said he’s perfectly healthy, ready to be born. Okay, I’m rambling. I’ll stop. Oh, but my water broke!”
Nina’s all business: “I’m on my way. It’s November 25th, your baby’s birthday!”
Now everything moves fast. Nina arrives and we drive to the hospital, dropping Simon off at a friend’s.
I’m riding waves of contractions. Nothing else exists. Simon’s labor was 36 hours of intense, slow pain so despite the fact that right now it hurts like a motherfucker, I’m shocked that things are moving so fast and I’m doing so well. We get to admitting. In the dim, beige lobby I’m down on all fours having contractions with Jack applying counter-pressure to my lower back like Nina has taught us.
“Fuck! Can’t they see I’m having a fucking baby here?” A red mist of pain swirling around me, I can’t afford to be pithy or polite. A pregnant couple, obviously not in active labor, look at me like an alien has materialized. A nurse comes out to assess me. Contractions are faster now, and I’m screaming for my epidural. The couple gets up to protest that they were here first.
My doula looks them up and down “The ‘fuck lady’ here is in active labor.” Next, she meets my gaze and says “No worries, we’re almost there.” Somehow I’m in a Labor and Delivery room. When the “epidural man” arrives and does his thing, there’s barely time for it to kick in and I’m 9 centimeters. Just another half an hour of pushing. Jack looks at me, his voice cracks, “You are amazing.”
Dr. Washington, my OB who has been here through the postpartum depression and helped me through this pregnancy arrives just as Nina has the nurse put a “labor bar” above my head and twist a sheet around it. Nina has me put my legs up on the bar and pull the rope while I’m pushing. With one long, roaring grunt I push the baby out. My eyes are blurry from the tears and I hear Jack say “You did it babe! You did it!”
There was buzzing inside my head. I felt euphoric. We had been through so much, worked so hard. And here was Gus at last.
But I don’t hear a cry. The nurse brings my baby to me and holds him out as if to put him in my arms. I reach out and my lips graze his cheek. I see a sweet little stork bite over his eye, a red patch that will fade away as he grows. Suddenly the nurse is backing away, I can’t get a grip on him. Jack follows her to the other side of the room. Are they bathing him? He’s still not crying.
Nina holds my hand and I focus on passing the afterbirth. Dr. Washington is proud of how I’ve held up. We got through without an episiotomy, I won’t need any stitches. I look over and realize there are more people standing by the baby. “What’s going on, why isn’t he crying yet? Can you bring him back? I want to tell him his name!” Nina says it’s ok. Dr. Washington’s face appears before me, and suddenly Jack is back by my side.
Dr. Washington looks at me: “The baby is okay for now, but his breathing isn’t what we’d like it to be. We want the pediatric surgeons to check on him. Sometimes the valve in a newborn’s heart takes a little time to close, and the baby has difficulty breathing. It has nothing to do with any of the medication you have been taking. It just seems to happen sometimes, especially with Caucasian males. Everything may be fine, but they are going to take him to intensive care for a bit to make sure his breathing is ok. Jack can go with them.”
No no no no. I wasn’t going to let this be a setback. Gus had to be fine. I closed my eyes and tried to remember his face. I needed to be strong. For Jack, for Gus and Simon. I felt a veil come down, separating two parts of my consciousness. Time slowed down, my body caught in a familiar movie-like slow motion. But it was different from Simon’s accident. Part of me was closing in on my self with fear. But another part of me, someone I hadn’t been in a long time, was there, too. It was as if I could see myself sitting there, stunned. But I had an inner voice. She wasn’t calling me names. She wasn’t stupid, or a shrew. She was calm. She had faith. She was me.
I am strong. I am needed. I can do this.
I squeeze Jack’s hand, still reeling. “Go, go! Nina will stay here with me. I’ll be fine.”