Everything Happened | vol. 208
In which Donovan trolls me and I do not have the baby in a Safeway
Hi to anyone who came to me through Ann Friedman’s My Favorite Newsletters issue or because you read my latest article in The Cut about navigating childcare for the under-5s, which now feels painfully quaint and outdated because omicron opened a trap door under us and literally everyone got covid on Christmas day or the week after or the week after and we’ve all been an illustration in an anti-drowning PSA since then, head hinged back, mouth open, climbing an invisible ladder with our hands.
The following is a multi-thousand word account of the last time I will ever give birth 🧿🧿🧿🧿🧿🧿🧿🧿🧿so help me god, and it’s not the sort of thing I usually send out, obviously. So if a blow-by-blow of my cervical dilation is not your bag, I hope you will not immediately unsubscribe because I am sure I will have plenty more to say now that I am back from email newsletter maternity leave.
Like how my six-year-old has attended maybe six days of school since mid-December due to “weather” and covid outbreaks and how he goes out in the snow with a mixing bowl and brings heaps of the stuff inside to eat with a spoon. And the former environmental health professional in me retches at this but I do not intervene because do I have a better idea? And how he always cranks the baby swing up to 11 and makes the device play a haunting midi version of Canon in D so that the baby is being whipping around as though inside a paint mixer while I feel like I am the bride, bridegroom, and priest for a wedding deep within Satan’s colon.
Also I got my eyebrows tattooed onto my face. But for now: baby.
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“I think November 23rd is the day they shot Kennedy,” I said to Nick from the triage bed on the Labor and Delivery floor, thumbing through my phone and not looking up.
“I think you’re right,” he said.
I was not right.
The day before. My due date. I had made the choice you have to make as a U.S. citizen wrung through the cold press juicer of what passes for family support policy: I decided to start my maternity leave early rather than “work” until I went into labor as I had done for my last two pregnancies. I washed our sheets, and the kids’. I tried to watch an episode of Wellington Paranormal but kept pausing it to go tidy some corner of a room. I swept up beads and bread crumbs from under the kids’ little IKEA table. I turned soft, black bananas into a loaf of banana bread. I remembered my doctor telling me that I should make sure my baby knew I was ready for it to be born. It had been a few days since I had done this. In the kitchen, I put both palms to the hard, round mass of my torso and told my baby “just so you know, you can come out now. I started my leave.”
As I was rinsing banana batter from a mixing bowl in the sink, a warm rush of fluid down my legs. I tried to stop the flow and couldn’t. I slid my wet joggers to the floor and using my foot, mopped the liquid with them. In just a t-shirt then, on my round body, I looked like Winnie the Pooh. Winnie the Pooh considered the miracle there on the kitchen floor of what was surely not pee.
(It was pee.)
But by the time my OB (25 minute drive from home) confirmed this to me, which caused me to lean over the plastic chair in the observation room and scream, the disinformation had spread: Nick had canceled his Monday evening class, my parents, who had been staying with my brother in D.C. awaiting my bat signal, started heading north across the Bay to punch in and care for my children, and I had texted several friends.
The most direct shame I felt was that the OB’s office, meaning my doctor, the medical assistant, and the receptionist, had stayed open a little late for me. They all had yielded me their time, pressed pause on their evenings, delayed picking up their kids or letting their dogs out or getting dinner started or sitting in their parked cars outside their house enjoying the silence, all because I went peepee in my pants.
I left the doctor’s office and did the following things in the car: called Nick and cried, called my parents who told me they were just going to come to town anyway, texted my friends to set them straight, ordered and consumed a McFlurry (#spon)
That night, the kids’ bedtime was so protracted and painful that I had given up on ever having the baby and had transferred my desires to the two-nights-away-from-home part of hospital birth.
I woke up at 2 a.m. in labor. Everything good happens after you give up. A guru, or at least someone with a better attitude than me, would probably call this “releasing expectations.”
I’d spent the previous weeks wondering if I’d even remember what a contraction felt like, analyzing every shifting sensation in my pelvis. Googling “back labor” when my back ached at the end of the day. So when the contractions finally came, of course it was like hearing a commercial jingle from childhood and knowing every word still. The recognition printed out of me effortlessly like arcade tickets. I didn’t have to analyze a thing.
The contractions were mild and I was trying to sleep through them. I couldn’t sleep through them. One of our kids came into the room about an hour later, having wet their bed. I turned the bedside lamp on, shook Nick awake, and said, can you change the sheets and also I’m in labor.
In my experience, it is embarrassing to tell someone you are in labor because then people start looking at you with unbearable softness and expectation. But also an hour is the max amount of time I can keep information to myself.
My parents came from the hotel to take over with the kids and I ate several slabs of banana bread and felt mad at myself for not showering recently. My hair was doing a thing, which I hate. And giving birth is like attending your own coronation after three days of stomach flu. Impossible to look “good” but a nice idea.
(Thinking about your hair is a good tell that you are, at most, 3 cm dilated.)
Nick and I pulled out of the driveway into a blue-black night. The country sky was splatter-painted with stars. Donovan’s “There is a Mountain” was on the radio, a song that, and I say this as a fan, sounds like a track from a Raffi concept album about Buddhism. It felt like we were getting away with something, slipping away in the night.
Three years earlier, we’d made a pre-dawn wintery drive from mid-shore down across the Bay Bridge to have Jane. “We’re doing it again!” I said and laughed. I was so relieved.
First there is a mountain
Then there is no mountain
Then there is
The trip from our home to the hospital is about fifty minutes. I began texting my UK friend Zan, certain to be awake at 4 a.m. EST, who gave me exuberant encouragement. I told Nick to stop at a gas station and get a breakfast sandwich for himself and a coffee for me, since he hadn’t eaten at the house and I wasn’t interested in having a sickly, wan birth partner that day. Nick did a hard hesitation, was this a trap? Was this the sort of thing where for years I would say NICK STOPPED AT WAWA FOR A CROISSANT WHILE I WAS IN LABOR and he says but you told me to!! and I say, why would you listen to me??? But it wasn’t a trap.
(Having concerns for your partner’s blood sugar is a good tell that you are, at most, 3 cm dilated.)
This part of the day felt like an eerie reenactment of Jane’s birth three years earlier. Waking up in labor, calling my parents over from the hotel, driving to the hospital in the dark before our kids were even awake, feeling like runaways, the bracing cold air, the heady excitement of how it was finally happening. I was 40 weeks and 1 day pregnant. I had only wasted one day of my paltry American maternity leave on still being pregnant. I was very smart and good at things and soon I would not still be pregnant. You couldn’t tell me shit as we walked into the hospital entrance and the man sitting at reception asked if we needed a wheelchair to get to Labor & Delivery. “No, we’re fine!” I said, barely understanding the question. I wasn’t infirm, I was in labor. Some people don’t recognize greatness when they see it.
(Brightly dismissing the offer of a wheelchair is a good tell that you are, at most, 3 cm dilated.)
From there, I knew to expect my contractions to be monitored for a period of time in triage, and for them to check my cervical dilation. I had the stillness of mind to learn the date, what day had my baby picked for their birthday?
In my paper gown, holding Nick’s hand, finally at the hospital. My contractions got pokey. I watched the little ticker tape spill out of the machine measuring them and felt panicked. I blamed myself. I was too distracted looking up famous November 23rd birthdays, considering what it meant to share a birthday with Miley Cyrus and Snooki! Hubristic that it was a done thing. I don’t remember what my dilation had been when they checked but it was nothing impressive.
Like with Jane, they had me walk the unit to get my contractions going again. This meant pacing the oval-shaped track of the unit in my socks and Chacos over and over for an hour. The unit was decorated for Christmas already, garlands looped over the room entrances and cut-out holly berries and leaves taped to the walls. At the reception area, a demented Bing Crosby doll in a Santa costume stared me down. The doll looked like if Seth Meyers had had the worst day of his life for five years in a row. It stoked an outsized anger in me. People recognized Bing Crosby’s voice, I hissed, not his face. Why would they sell this? Who would buy this? Who was this for?
I was determined to increase my dilation with only the power of my own rage for this consumer item. And some curb walking.
“Curb walking”, for the uninitiated, is sometimes recommended to jumpstart labor; you walk with one foot on the curb and the other on the road. The unevenness is meant to open your pelvis, shift the baby down, efface and dilate the cervix. I didn’t have a curb so I tried to just do a high step with one foot and slam it down as hard as I could, then go right into a high step with the other foot. I held Nick’s arm to steady me; Nick did it with me. We looked like the goddamned Monkees. Nick would try to talk to me, and I would tell him to shut up. Lap after lap, Seth Meyers leered.
I informed Nick that we were not going to get sent home, did he understand that? Did he know that he would be advocating for me to this effect? We were not going to drive back home in defeat, especially not after yesterday’s peepee false alarm. A girl could only take so much humiliation. This was my third baby. Why was I so dumb and so bad at doing things. Nick, who would rather slit his own throat than send back an entree with a roach in it, nodded his comprehension. I was going to need him to be difficult for me.
No one called me back to triage after an hour, so we kept walking. My hairline was darkened with sweat. I was fine for them to forget about me for a bit, as long as it didn’t mean going home.
I got away with another 30 minutes of walking before they set me up to monitor my contractions again. I was faithless, I didn’t feel nearly shitty enough to get admitted. The doctor explained that yeah, I couldn’t stay but I should go get breakfast, or walk at the mall, or I could even check in at the sort of hotel the hospital had for families with sick kids. I felt like a forgotten, half-deflated helium balloon haunting the corner of a room weeks after a party. Nick hesitated, trying to catch my eye. I had just told him to fight for us to stay, but ultimately, I was tired of walking and wanted to sit down. And there was nowhere here to sit down. Maybe we could get a hotel. “Ok,” I said, too exhausted to be angry or disappointed. Nick asked me if I was sure, and I was sure. We left two hours after we had arrived.
Nick took the instruction to get breakfast to heart, and started looking for local options for us. His positive attitude was, at this point, not annoying to me because I stopped thinking about him at all. Something about shifting from the warm, bustling hospital to the parking-garage-chill of our van ratcheted up my discomfort. I held the seatbelt away from my pelvis with my palms as he drove, and experimented with reclining the passenger seat at different angles. Everything felt bad in a different way. I felt like I’d been dropped down a well and all that I could perceive beyond the perimeter of my body was muffled sound.
Nick parked at a cute breakfast spot he’d found in a strip mall near the hospital and I informed him that I was not going to be going into a restaurant, but thank you. I unbuckled my seatbelt and opened the car door to feel the cold, which sort of helped. When a contraction came on, I’d hop out of the car and bend over the seat, cradling my head between my elbows. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt, with my previous labors. Tremors rolled through me like an electrocution. I was so cold and so sweaty. I was faintly aware of the smell of ammonia; I think Nick was cleaning the inside of our disaster breeder minivan, having learned that talking to me didn’t turn out so hot for him.
It’s fruitless to describe the pain of labor, maybe. There is a mountain then there is no mountain then there is. Except there is always a mountain because even between contractions, there is the mental terror of knowing it’s just going to keep coming and coming for you. It’s like being hunted. I found myself trying to get away from my body somehow, jerking around, folding in half, trying to shrink away from it like it was a matrix of lasers in a heist movie. I had never felt worse in any of my labors. And then I had to take a shit.
Nick had stopped existing at the point where I needed to go into the Safeway to poop. Grocery store bathrooms are either by the cash registers or in the back by the meat, and I really hoped they were at the front for my sake. They were not. I made the long, tragic walk through the Safeway. I felt sweat roll into my ear. The bathroom was filthy and this made me feel very sorry for myself. Afraid that if I sat down during a contraction, I’d have a toilet baby, I crossed my legs, bent over the sink and let the contraction absolutely mulch me before lowering myself onto the seat. I did not poop out a baby in the Safeway toilet back by the meat.
On the way to the car, another contraction found me in the baking aisle. I knocked some Domino’s sugar out of the way with my head so I could lean on the shelf. A teenage stockboy gingerly put his hand on my back, called me ma’am, and asked if he could get me anything. “sssok I’m just having a baby but thanks.” I couldn’t see him but I heard his pause.
When I got back to the car, Nick witnessed me folded in half convulsing once before suggesting we go to the hospital. I was so afraid they would dismiss us again. Nick said he didn’t think that would happen.
After we parked, he found a bay of wheelchairs and stashed me in one and started running. “You’re a fall risk now, so you need to tell me if you need to get up,” trotting out his former healthcare worker energy. I did not respond to him because he was a Sim and the only thing that was real was the cold wind lashing at me, providing me a welcome sensation different from what was happening inside me.
By the entrance, a contraction got me and I leapt out of the chair, unable to handle it sitting down. I was an 18th century frog in a lab, skinned and run through with electricity. Nick probably braced me and I probably yelled at him.
We flew past the man at the desk who had previously offered a wheelchair. We got to the third floor and everyone there was a Sim now. They tried to ask me if my address listed was correct and instead I grabbed my knees and started shaking my ass like rent was due. A doctor with glasses stopped and stared. A nurse came and swept me into a bed.
“Oh, honey! You’re scaring me! You look so push-y!”
My involuntary twerking performance meant I tested out of triage.
I had gone from 3 cm to 8.5 cm in a little over an hour. No one seemed quite ready for my quick intake. Even in my dissociated state, I sensed tension between the nurses. They were arguing. The next day I noticed a dry erase board message declaring that 24 babies were born on the floor on November 23rd. That’s so many babies. Staff were very much running between rooms. One of them told me she didn’t think I had time for an epidural. This was the worst fucking news I’d ever heard in my life!
Later I’d learn that it’s dangerous to give an epidural to someone who has not received adequate IV fluids. It can cause low blood pressure in the laboring person which can lead to fetal brain damage and stillbirth. At the time, I would have taken out five mortgages on my house to have them do it anyway.
The anesthesiologist showed up at some point, a smarmy white guy like they always are. They were going to try I guess. The nurse told him I hadn’t had enough fluid. She pointed to the bag, plumped with clear liquid and in no hurry to empty itself into me. The anesthesiologist wordlessly picked the bag up and held it to the ceiling to make it flow faster. I hated this guy, who was dismissive of the nurse who was trying to keep my baby and me alive, this guy who was trying to beer-bong saline into my veins. But still, he was my plug and I needed my fix. So I guess I was ultimately going to side with him, not that it was up to me.
I got my fix. The epidural rolled down to my feet, robing me in its warmth. I felt a holiness, a connection to all living things. They call this being high. I texted my friends. Nick sent people this picture:
Thirty minutes later and it was time to push. Nick had materialized as a person and not a Sim, bathed in heavenly light and the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. I was folded up into myself, somehow doing this freaky mammal party trick for the third time. I wish there was a graphic that showed you how much the baby was moving during each push, like the map on flights that shows you where the plane is. Maybe then it wouldn’t just feel like I was blasting all my bodily energy out through my asshole, into which a group of people stared intently like they were reading tea leaves.
It might just be me, and the fact that I’ve never known the sex of the baby in advance, and thus have never had a name that I called the baby etc etc etc, but the baby is always extremely abstract to me in pregnancy. And labor is such an intense sensory assault that it’s easy to forget that there is someone else in the chat. Eventually, someone asks you if you want to get the person out and see what their deal is and you are so relieved. Oh my god, yes, the best part!
This was an unplanned pregnancy, something I previously thought only happened to teenagers, TV protagonists in the season finale, and extremely lucky bitches who wanted parenthood for themselves anyway. When I recovered from the shock of it, I became so curious about who this person was going to be. Who was this baby who had taken an axe to the fabric of space and time like Jack Torrance in the Shining, this baby who had mashed their face through the splintered door to consciousness and announced themselves to me last March. I was going to get to find out, like, really soon.
I thought of something that I think Nicole Cliffe once said which was that when it’s time to push you feel like you have to poop a microwave. The sensation of something being stuck inside me was overwhelming, and while I was glad to have not done this into a Safeway toilet, I didn’t want to wait until the next contraction to push. I asked the midwife, is it ok to go now? And out the baby came, in an arc of her own slick newborn poop, battering both of us in shit, vernix, and sweat. I held her big messy body to my chest. I couldn’t even cry because I was so shocked. I had only been at the hospital an hour or so and I was still catching up to myself.
“It’s just life, baby,” I repeated to her as she bleated, the same thing I told my other two after they fell into the cold outside world because what else can you say to them? You’ve ruined their life and their life just started!
She was a girl, I looked twice because I was so dazed the first time I looked that it didn’t register. We were both glazed in various butterscotch-colored fluids and Nick and I fussed over her whole body, smaller than Jane, bigger than Desi, was that dark hair? One nurse peeled my socks off (covered in poop) and asked if she could throw them away. The other nurse talked me out of throwing away my sports bra (covered in poop) because “it’s hard to find a good sports bra.” I was grateful for that. We called her Polly, a name imbued with great meaning to us such as: we thought it sounded cool.
Two weeks later, Nick finally bullied me into getting a Pfizer covid booster by going ahead and signing me up for one. I didn’t want to get one in the last weeks of pregnancy because I was worried about getting sick from it and then going into labor at half-strength and rolling all of that into six months of sleep deprivation.
I had an appointment but things were going slow at the public health department and I wasn’t sure what my next move should be. The waiting area was small and filled with old men and I didn’t want to whip a boob out there, more because of their presumed discomfort than mine, as my huge dark salami nipples feel about as private as an earlobe to me at this point. It was too cold to feed her outside on a bench and I worried if I took Polly out to the car to feed her, they would move on without me. The building was from the ‘40s and everything was a little small, boxed in. I was sure if I explored, there would be no shortage of weird, small rooms I could take over but again, I didn’t want to go AWOL from my appointment.
I approached the administrative person running the vaccine clinic and explained my situation. She took me back into just the warren of rooms I had imagined and set me up in a space scarcely bigger than some suburban closets, with one of those upholstered bloodletting thrones and stacks of seemingly every pamphlet printed going back 30 years. It was perfect.
Polly latched on with a snort of relief and I sat back and felt well taken care of by the series of women in scrubs who had been consulted to find the right room for me. They squinted at me, masks obscuring a smile that I knew was there.
I was still feeding Polly when a nurse cracked the door and told me she could just do the injection now while I was feeing the baby if that was okay with me. Perfect.
She rolled up my sleeve for me, and swabbed me with an icy square of rubbing alcohol.
“Is it your first baby?” she asked, distracting me from the needle into my flesh thing.
“It’s my third, actually,” I said, something I am not used to saying and a little sheepish about because it sounds insane. Does it sound insane?
“Oh, I always wanted a third,” she said as she pushed the dose into me. It felt fiery and lingered a few seconds longer than a flu shot would.
Me too, I thought.