Labor did not proceed according to the information we’d studied in the Lamaze class. (Neither did anything else that happened that night.) The contractions started two minutes apart. Stewart and I managed the long distance calls to Dr. Eagle’s home and office, and we finally located him at the hospital. “Come on,” he said.

Then Stewart called Sis, our Lamaze instructor, who had asked if our class if she could come observe our deliveries as part of her certification. Sis was overjoyed that she could get a babysitter for her two children and join us at the hospital in Durham. I flew around the house doing silly last-minute things—looking for the belt to the dress I wanted to wear home, arranging things for Stewart’s meals while I would be gone. I took a tedral for asthma as Stewart pushed me out the door.

When we checked in at the hospital, the admitting nurse could not locate Dr. Eagle. Stewart explained that the doctor had been at the hospital earlier when we called. “That young man has a thing or two to learn,” fumed the nurse. I was furious. Who was this nurse to refer to my doctor as if he were an unprepared student? But the nurse’s remark had created a crack in my confidence in my young OB doctor.

The hospital found Dr. Eagle and Sis arrived—all at the same time. And the pace of my contractions slowed down.
Dr. Eagle didn’t exactly seem to be in a hurry, but he didn’t seem to feel like waiting around all night either. After an interval with little progress, he said, “Let’s break your bag.” He reached inside, and I suddenly felt an unbearably large quantity of very warm liquid rush out. Someone came in and changed the bed linen. I felt embarrassed about the mess, as if I had had a childhood accident in the night. And wasn’t this supposed to be a natural delivery with minimum interference? Still, I could hardly object to speeding things up.

Stewart was now wearing a hospital gown and mask. They weren’t the antiseptic white of the doctor shows on TV, but more of a slime green in color. I thought he looked comical. He seemed a bit helpless when I began to hurt, especially in my back. “Back labor,” said Sis, quickly abandoning her role as silent observer and pushing my back with her fists. I could hardly resent the intrusion because Sis’s sharp fists were so good at pummeling the pain.
With Sis working so hard behind and Stewart sponging my forehead and timing my breathing, I could be pretty passive. It was as if I were hiding in some dark corner of my body, while other people kneaded me and brightly gave encouragement. I thought of riding waves at the beach, lying very still and letting the ocean carry me in.

Then Dr. Eagle came in and checked me and said, “You’re almost fully dilated. You can start to push now.” And he left.

“It feels so good when you can begin to push,” Sis had told us in the Lamaze class. “They put you on the table, you have your feet in stirrups to push against, and it’s great finally to be able to do something to help the baby be born.”

It wasn’t like that at all. I wasn’t on the table, I had no urge to push down with my body, and when I did push, the pain was unbelievable. Sis and Stewart and the nurse kept encouraging me: “Oh,that was a good one.” “Just a little more now.”

Stewart was feeling the need to record the experience. In those pre-cellphone days, he was snapping pictures with his camera, and he had turned on the tape recorder. “No more pictures of the pushing part,” I said. Sis thought this was hysterically funny, but for heaven’s sake, this was not some media event. Here I was, hurting in a way I’d never even known was possible, and Stewart was taking photos for the family album. He was physically here in the delivery room, but he was certainly not sharing the experience at all.

Dr. Eagle came in again and said, “You’ll be ready to move to the table in ten more pushes.” Then he disappeared.
At that point, I wanted to call the whole thing off, but of course I couldn’t. What I really wanted to do was scream, but I was too embarrassed to do that with my Lamaze instructor standing there. Sis thought it was odd that I was having these “transition” reactions at this later stage. Perhaps my body wasn’t quite ready for the pushing. Or perhaps I had held the baby all these months and was not ready to let go and empty myself.

I still had faith in Sis’s earlier assertions about the delivery process. Maybe when I got on the table everything would be all right. I summoned all the energy I had left. (In spite of Stewart and Sis’s exclamations of encouragement, I hadn’t been pushing very hard.) I bore down, this time as hard as I could. Then I thought I felt the baby’s head popping out.

“The baby’s head is out,” I shrieked.

“Now, now,” soothed the nurse. She took one look and rushed out to find the doctor. After a few minutes, Sis rushed out to find her. Now, when Stewart and I needed it least of all, we were on our own.

Stewart stood helpless and silent. Where was the doctor? I was sure that the baby must be dead. I lifted my head and shoulders just enough to peer down, and I saw a tiny finger move. I began to whimper as the nurse returned. When the bed rolled at top speed down the hall, it felt like flying.

Dr. Eagle came in, looking a little sheepish, and eased the baby’s feet out. That part of the delivery felt only slippery to me. “You have a fine boy,” he said.

It had all happened too fast. The unexpected pain of pushing, the horrible fear that the baby was dead, guilt about pushing too lightly and then too hard, anger that everyone deserted me when I needed them most, and now joy for a healthy first-born son—all these emotions hit at once, unsorted. My bond to my baby was lost in the crush.
Finally, they lifted me from the bed to the table. I glanced weakly at the mess of blood and liquid on the sheets. What time was it? Just about midnight. How would they even know which date to put on the birth certificate?

“I didn’t have an episiotomy,” I said. (In our childbirth classes, we had been taught to avoid this procedure if possible. Maybe I had done one thing right.) “No,” said Dr. Eagle, “you tore. But we can stitch that up.”

Stewart and I had decided on the name David if the baby turned out to be a boy. While I was being stitched up, the nurse had done what she needed to do, and Stewart was now holding David, tightly wrapped in a blanket. Now Stewart held David to my breast to nurse—the way it happens in the childbirth movies and magazine articles. David was not interested.

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