Hooked up to an I.V. and crisply beeping monitors, I close my eyes with each contraction so I can focus on panting and blowing. I need to get through the pain as quickly as possible without losing my cool so I can watch Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity flashing across the widescreen in front of me. Even in childbirth, I have certain priorities.
Jose, Maggie, and I are camped out at the Winchester Medical Center where I’ve been admitted to deliver my second child, a boy whom we’ve decided to name Julien. That this is really happening after all the years of infertility, the IVF treatments, and a miscarriage, is astonishing to me. It feels like we’re completing the world’s longest marathon, coming up on a finish line I thought we might never see. I am infinitely grateful.
In some ways, this birth is the culmination of our transition from DC to Front Royal and “God’s country.” It wasn’t the highly qualified specialist right outside of DC who helped us get pregnant but the reproductive endocrinologist in a tiny one-man practice in the Shenandoah Valley who gave us this gift. While the nurse checks the baby’s heart rate, I wonder if maybe we were meant to move out here after all.
In the next moment a terrifying thought occurs to me—what if Julien grows up thinking he needs to drive a monster truck to be a real man or own a collection of rifles because it is his right as an American citizen? What if he starts to believe Jesus favors the U.S. above all other nations and that the south should have won the Civil War? My motherly hackles bristle at the thought. It’s like someone just told me his pre-school teacher will be Sarah Palin.
I look at Jose, who is sitting on a doctor’s stool watching the rally and reading the New Yorker at the same time. No, I sigh with relief, that will never happen. Jose will bombard the poor kid with enough avant garde jazz, outsider music, and obscure foreign cinema to disable the neural pathways necessary for simplemindedness.
I feel another contraction coming on. Just as I close my eyes to Stewart and Colbert, Maggie lightly caresses my arm. She’s an amazing caregiver—I don’t know where she learned how to be so empathetic. Jose, thank god, is not trying to be the in-your-face spouse-coach. Instead, he wields his usual dry humor to keep me on an even keel. I can tell he’s a little tense when neither a doctor or nurse is in the room but he hides his nervousness incredibly well, keeping his cool.
While a giant vice clamps down on my uterus, I imagine taking Julien into DC as we do with Maggie, surrounding him with folks of every color, background, and persuasion as a counterpoint to the lily-white rah rah nationalism that suffuses the Valley. Maybe Julien and Maggie will change Front Royal someday, helping drag it toward a more diverse, tolerant, and worldly place, redefining “country charm.”
Or maybe they’ll run screaming to the metropolis as soon as they hit 18, cursing Jose and me the whole way for raising them in the middle of bleeping nowhere. As the contraction ends, I blow out a long breath and squeeze Maggie’s hand. If I hadn’t been about to give birth, we probably would have been cheering with a bunch of other lefties on the National Mall, waiting to see Stewart and Colbert flip the divisive language of Beck and other right wing wackos inside out, enjoying the kind of crowd we’ll never find near home. It would have been a treat.
As Colbert struts around the stage in his ridiculous puffy red, white, and blue pants, it occurs to me that raising our kids outside the left-leaning big city might be the best way to teach them about tolerance, social justice, human rights, and the dangers of consumer culture. Every Confederate flag hoisted proudly above a local restaurant is a teaching opportunity. Likewise the shop that sells Maggie’s favorite ice cream (cotton candy) but treats her Daddy like he’s an illegal. It makes Maggie mad that we won’t patronize that shop but Jose no longer has any patience for people who fear difference or are outright bigots.
We’ve taken to calling this establishment the “evil ice cream shop” just as we call the right-wing bookstore here the “evil book store.” We might say to one another, “Hey, have you seen that big display for Beck’s book at the evil bookstore?” Or “Let’s go order all of Chris Hedges’ books through the evil bookstore.” Maybe evil is a bit strong but when it comes to life in a small town, it’s pretty easy to tell where your neighbors stand and why.
Jose and I laugh at Colbert as he puts on a look even dumber than his usual dumb guy expression. Maggie has seen his TV show only once but the slapstick and exaggeration, the ridiculousness of Colbert’s character, cracked her up. Right now, 15 hours into this labor, I’m so grateful for his silly humor. I’m also wondering how much longer the pain is going to go on and if we’ll need a c-section to get this kid out into the world. Like any mother, I just want him to be delivered safely. I’ve spent far too many hours in the last nine months worrying about miscarriage and stillbirth, only half-convinced we could have another healthy child. Now we’re down to the wire and I need it to be over.
Maggie watches the rally along with us without even asking for Teen Nick or the Disney channel. We’ve explained why the rally is supposed to be an answer to Beck, Limbaugh, and the Tea Party, the bad guys she calls “big stinky poops.” Since our arrival in Front Royal three years ago, the stinky poops and their racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic attitudes have gotten more and more popular. If I had a dollar for every nasty anti-Obama bumper sticker I see here, I’d fall neatly into the top tax bracket (and we thought things would get better after Obama was elected).
As Stewart introduces the musical guests, the contractions start to get worse. It’s taking all of my concentration to get through them. I’m panting and blowing like a carnival sideshow. I’ve made sure the doctor and nurses know I want an epidural because at 43 years of age I’m completely over any notion of natural childbirth. The nurse comes in and tells me that my platelet count is high enough for an epidural and that the angel of anesthesia is coming but has not made it up to this floor yet. I’m ecstatic and can’t wait to meet him.
Until he waltzes into my room, I’ll have to keep breathing and visualizing. To get through the contractions, which are utterly merciless but not very productive, I imagine one of two things—skiing down a long cool snowy slope or watching my cervix unfold like a flower while it emits some kind of powerful magic light. That last one is a bit Deepak Chopra but I don’t really have the time or energy to screen the positive visualizations that pop into my head.
Unfortunately, imagining my cervix opening does not help my cervix open in reality. It’s been stuck at five centimeters for hours. The contractions I’ve been blowing through so carefully are completely useless. All the women I talked to who said second births go quickly were lying and I hate them. Not that I thought for a minute this time around would be easy—I had a feeling Julien would take his time.
Maybe I could speed things along if I visualized European countries opening their arms wide to immigrants rather than growing increasingly anti-immigrant. Or perhaps I should imagine an Arizona where Jose and his family wouldn’t need to carry passports to prove their citizenship. I could meditate on a Democratic party that has some teeth or on a national culture unchained from corporate interests. Maybe I should try really hard to envision world peace.
My mind bumps up against these big ideas but the only image I can really focus on is that goofy light-filled flower—I must have watched too many pre-natal yoga DVDs. I have heard that some women in labor just grit their teeth and hold on for dear life like my Aunt Rose from New Jersey. “Just grab something and squeeze,” she said. But that’s too straightforward for me—I need to create something in my head.
As I am realizing this, Jon Stewart announces the arrival of Yusef Islam, better known as Cat Stevens. I let out a little yelp of glee. I adore his voice. When he starts to sing “Peace Train,” I lose it and start blubbering, although as quietly as possible. I don’t even want Jose to see me. Mr. Islam is weirdly in tune with me and this birth: isn’t peace what every parent wants for his or her child, no matter what country they’re in or what religion they practice? Why is it so hard to attain? What kind of world is Julien entering? How can Mr. Islam’s words seem so profound when I haven’t smoked pot in years?
I’m rescued from further embarrassing myself by the arrival of Ozzy Osbourne on the stage. He is called out by Colbert and a musical battle begins, all very tongue in cheek. “Wow, Ozzy looks great,” I say to Jose. I’m saved a second time when the anesthesiologist arrives with his happy cart. He’s wearing a badge with a photo of three kids on it. He tells me his wife is pregnant with number four. I’m too shy to ask him if she gets epidurals.
In about 15 minutes, those sweet sweet drugs are flowing and I start to relax just in time for the arrival of Jose’s 94 year-old father and two bachelor brothers. They’ve driven from DC to support us and I can’t wait for Lolo (Tagalog for grandfather) to meet his grandson. Lolo was very happy to hear we were having a boy.
When my blood pressure suddenly drops and I start to feel woozy, the nurse has me breathe into an oxygen mask and gives me a shot of ephedrine. Next up, my beautiful and perky ob/gyn, who looks like Ashley Green from the Twilight movies, comes in to break my water—that might help get things moving. She’ll be back in an hour to check on me.
Until then I read the novel I’ve brought—and am hooked on—about a dystopian future where the government grows clones for their organs. The clones are regular human beings but are treated like property and denied any rights. What’s creepy about the scenario is how easily society accepts this arrangement. It makes me think about the poor in this country, people without healthcare, who might actually be willing to sell their organs to make ends meet. The Tea Party would probably back that policy as good old Main Street entrepreneurism.
After an hour, my cervix is still not dilating so my ob/gyn puts me on pitocin. I’ve heard so many horror stories about this drug. The only time through all of her eight deliveries that my mother screamed was during the one that involved pitocin. I cross my fingers and hope that the epidural will buffer any unwelcome sensations.
The Rally is over and we’re back to iCarly, which I have to admit I kind of enjoy. Maggie’s starting to look a little bored now that she is over the fright of seeing my face covered by an oxygen mask. Jose’s brothers and Dad leave to go have dinner. I sleep on and off until a nasty ache in the right side of my behind drags me into full consciousness. Hmm. Interesting. I’ve read about epidurals wearing off on one side or another and this has got to be what is happening to me.
I try to relieve the intense pressure by adjusting my position, but it hurts to move. As soon as the nurse comes in, I tell her what’s going on and she explains that I can boost the epidural every 15 minutes by pushing a little button. I’m on that thing with dedication, watching the clock like a fanatic.
A few hours later, around 8 pm, just as I am wondering if I will need a c-section, the doc says my cervix is finally starting to open. Jose’s relatives have gone back to our house and the sky is dark. Maggie lies curled up on the pull out bed. I’m still pushing my button but now am also gripping the bed rail. Jose touches my arm every now and then. He does this very carefully in case I react badly and try to punch him. So far he’s avoided any bruises—he’s a brave and wise man.
I can feel the contractions as they roll through me like sentient waves bent on bringing new life into the room. I’m so glad for them but the pressure of the baby’s head moving down the birth canal is tremendous, like a bulldozer—I can’t imagine what it would feel like without an epidural.
This time my coping mechanism is a rap song—“Peace Train” ain’t cuttin’ it. The song is one I’ve made up and repeat in my head, chanting as the pressure increases. The words are simple but the rhythm gives me something to hold onto—it goes, “I’m gonna push, push, push you out. I’m gonna pushpushpush you out.” It’s definitely not a Grammy winner but works for me. In my mind I’m also doing a little hip-hop dance with each chorus.
When I finally get to nine centimeters just after midnight, I tell Jose to wake up Maggie so she doesn’t miss anything. I know she wants to see her little brother arrive. I can feel a boulder right down there amidst the private parts and the plumbing—and it really really needs to come out now. As soon as Ashley Green/my doc pops into the room, I tell her as politely as I can, “I think I need to push.”
She checks and before I know it she and the nurses have my legs up in the leg rests. Maneuvering is incredibly difficult and I don’t know how I manage to assume the position. I understand all that stuff about the advantages of being vertical and squatting in a field somewhere to give birth but it’s too late for that. I’m just thrilled that this is really happening and Julien is ready for his debut.
I’m a little worried about how long I may need to push but everything is moving so quickly now, I don’t have time to be anxious. I realize I’m making some sort of half-squeal/half-whine as I push—it really helps to be loud. In fact, as I open my legs wider and push and squeeze with everything I’ve got, I feel completely open to the world, like I can take on anything and Julien can too. The doc says I’m pushing great and just need one more. I bear down as hard as I can and see his body slide out into the doc’s hands—he has beautiful, thick dark hair. Jose is there at my side and Maggie is watching from a safe distance. I’m aware of them but totally focused on the baby, feeling the adrenaline and an amazing, electric euphoria.
They whisk Julien away to suction out the meconium and get him checked—his cries sound like perfect music. I can’t wait to hold him and for Jose and Maggie to hold him. This new child belongs to all of us. He is the most sane thing we could have done in crazy times—I can see that now.
I’m so grateful to the fantastic doctors and nurses who have helped us, so grateful that Jose and I have jobs and healthcare. I wish that for everyone. I also want to write a thank you note to Stewart and Colbert for the rockin’ labor entertainment and their message.
For the moment, I’m not worried about this world and where it’s going, about the ugly Fox News pundits, the greedy corporate leaders, the blood-thirsty hawks, the small-minded small town bigots. The left may not be as vocal or as visible as it should be but it is out there, using reason, seeking equilibrium and fairness, and it has just grown by one. Somehow, together, we’ll find a path away from fear.