Throughout the pregnancy, I’d wondered what labor would feel like, whether I would manage to endure it, how I would hold up. Would I make a fool of myself or prove myself weak? The presence of the anesthesiologist’s equipment was both a comfort and a terror for this reason. This is a test, it said. Are you passing or failing?
When I closed my eyes, I envisioned a red, glowing cup. In my mind, I endeavored not to drop the cup as the heat around it grew. I realize in retrospect that this visualization was likely a result of my sense that I wasn’t ready to deliver this baby. As it turns out, the desire to withhold is precisely the opposite of the desire to release required of the birthing process. By four in the afternoon, I was wavering. I didn’t know if I could maintain the suspension. I knew the IV and epidural were stationed somewhere nearby.
When I announced my ambivalence, the midwife emerged, pronounced me “dilated enough” at nine centimeters, and began preparations for the pushing phase. Having passed the first test, I was eager to get cracking with phase two. I expected instinct to kick in, but instead, I was confounded. I didn’t know what pushing meant or how it was supposed to happen. When I screamed out in pain, the midwife told me to get ahold of myself. Stunned, I settled into a quiet seethe of resentment until she and the nurse began to force back my legs. In my most panicked moment, I tried to kick them both away. I tried to flee labor. The problem was that my mind was corralled inside the idea that we could go back to the purgatory of triage and say this wasn’t real labor after all: Can we please go home and try this another time?
When the nurse suggested I get on my knees and face the back of the hospital bed with my head and arms flung over the top, I made no argument. With my legs stabilized, I realized what pushing meant and resolved to get the baby out—as though I was only conceding to the wishes of the hospital staff. Once my daughter’s head began to emerge, I was repositioned on my back and went through a series of unproductive pushes. This was the ring of fire the oracle of the Internet had warned about, and we were caught inside it. Soon my contractions dissipated, and the nurse and midwife were counting off nonexistent waves. I didn’t bother telling them they were wrong. They were witnessing their own ideas of what was meant to happen. I was in another room altogether.
I suppose we’re always alone in our pain, but we are rarely positioned appropriately to view the isolation accurately. Most of the choices with which we are presented in childbirth are secondary to the one most important in practice: We must be prepared to labor alone, even in the company of others, even with the brilliantly blinding help of loved ones. Perhaps the debates regarding childbirth are so heated because in the end it’s one woman’s experience, not a shared cultural phenomenon. It’s you and your pain; it’s you and it’s your baby.
I don’t know why the push that delivered her was the one that brought her into the world. It didn’t feel different from the others, but there she was. In less than two days, we were wheeled into the sun together. In less than a week, we were headed back from whence we’d come.