I hated being pregnant. So much so that as my due date approached I reminded myself constantly that, on average, a first time white mother goes 8 days over 40 weeks, and so there was no point getting too excited about the magic day of 8th November. I developed a minor obsession with the politics of induction: people we knew around Evanston were being induced 3 or 5 or 7 days after their due dates with no apparent medical indications, and I spent a lot of time rehearsing a speech of resistance before my doctor, Dr G, said she didn’t believe in all that.
I was so unconvinced that I’d give birth early that I hadn’t even finished packing The Hospital Bag, the fetish item of late pregnancy. In the US there is more of an expectation that the hospital provides everything: baby clothes and nappies, a hospital gown for you to wear in labour, and so on and so on, so there is less to pack. Even so, part of me believes that, like lighting a cigarette when waiting for a bus, my packing oversight was what set it all off.
I was surprised to the point of disbelief to wake up at 5am on Thursday 3rd November having contractions every 3 minutes. My first response, naturally (after waking M), was to download a contraction-counting app to my iphone. My second response was to phone the on-call ob-gyn doctor from my practice (rather than the midwife you’d call in Britain, I guess) who was a little grumpy, but told us to go in to the hospital. With drinking yogurt, extra underwear and iphone speakers all added to the bag, we called a cab.
M and I had joked about our transport options: the hospital’s a mile and a half away, and what we really wanted to do was either walk there or catch the free Northwestern shuttle bus, just to bring on more American eye-rolling at crazy British car resistance. In fact the trip’s comedy was supplied by our driver having been the same guy who had driven us to the hospital only the weekend before, when M burned his hand badly on a pan. The only thing relieving his pain was cold water, and for the car journey he had his hand immersed in a glass teapot. The driver spent that whole trip telling us that he had been in the army and since there were no hospitals in the desert, in his opinion it was a waste of our time and money to go to hospital for a burn. Oddly, though, he was not a home birther, and this time offered tips on shallow breathing.
First time round our hospital admission went like this: innumerable nurses greeted us at the Labor and Delivery Ward reception desk, with my charts (the American word for notes) ready since the doctor had called; I signed some papers; they gave me a wristband and showed us into the room with the tub (yay!). Hooked up to the monitors my contractions slowed. On examination I was 1cm dilated, 60% effaced. We were told we could wander the hospital, though the resident doctor warned that she would get itchy fingers and want to interfere and do things if I stayed. Otherwise, we could go home until my contractions were coming regularly every two to three minutes. So we went home, trailing The Bag and the birthing ball in its box, with me delivering a long indecisive monologue about whether we had or had not wasted anybody’s time and seemed foolish. On the L we met a visiting British postgrad we knew, who asked how I was doing. ‘Yeah, fine,’ I said. ‘I’m in labour.’
So, first home early labour activity: a walk to return my interlibrary loan to Northwestern Library. Since we went to the Huntington Library on our honeymoon, going to an academic library while in labour was only fitting. And on we went, to Barnes and Noble: I had decided this was the perfect time to indulge in a glossy magazine and spent a long time settling on Elle. As we walked along the contractions kept coming irregularly – sometimes every couple of minutes, sometimes closer to ten – and I would stop and lean on a lamppost, or we would make animal noises to vocalise the pain as advised by Ina May Gaskin. (Though I am not sure sheep were on her list.) No one seemed to notice.
Back home we had lunch and knocked off a couple of episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix. The contractions were still irregular. We went for a walk to the dog beach just south of the Northwestern campus: it was a wet and windy day and we stood out on the pier over Lake Michigan being blown about. My coat didn’t do up over my bump and I was wearing two scarves to fill the gap. We saw a couple we knew who had a baby due before ours, and avoided them. We came home. We put my singalongalabour playlist on, which was full of uncool songs – Paul McCartney’s ‘Another Day’ featured – and sang and did silly dances for an hour or two: more distraction, more keeping up of spirits, more exercise, more vocalisation. We tried to inflate the cheapo birthing ball we’d been carrying around but couldn’t make it work. The contractions were still all over the place.
At midnight I got cross, was unpleasant to M, spat out that we should go to bed if he couldn’t think of anything better to do, and proceeded to spend about five minutes in bed and the next six hours being miserable around the flat. The contractions were agony if I lay down, so I was sitting on the sofa; standing pushing against the wall to manage the pain of a contraction; sitting; standing. At 6am I was in tears and woke M, demanding that he call the doctor for me. The doctor was still grumpy. (Perhaps 6am was not his favourite time of day.) He said we could go to the hospital again or we could wait and go in to the office when it opened at 9. We called a different cab company to get us to the doctor’s office. My own lovely Dr G said I was 3-4cm dilated, 90% effaced, and sent me back to the hospital with a big hug: she wouldn’t be delivering the baby because she had a college friend visiting and wasn’t working the weekend. ‘Get breakfast somewhere first,’ she said, and we went to the hospital cafeteria, still trailing The Bag (though now we’d ditched the birthing ball).
Second time round the tub room was full. We checked in around 11.30 and the nurses passed the word around that I wanted ‘to try to do it naturally’, without my ever quite saying so. Our nurse, S, immediately got the measure of me and understood that I might not want to be hooked up to a movement-restricting IV and would only want intermittent monitoring. I got the feeling that this was regarded as a little eccentric, but certainly tolerated. S suggested a walk around the hospital to try to speed up the contractions. I was wearing the regulation two hospital gowns (having decided the IV and the tub were better places to focus my attention than insisting on wearing my own clothes as I’d thought I wanted), one back-to-front to protect my decency. I put on my favourite hiking socks in place of slippers. We went and hung out in the swish lobby with fire and grand piano; we browsed the gift shop; we revisited the site of our birth classes and poked around back stairs; we went back to the room.
Contractions still irregular. But – yay! – the tub room was free, and we switched into it.
On the next walk we met a doctor who suggested nice corners of the hospital to visit: the 5th floor panoramic window, the bridge across Central Avenue. People we met in the lifts were curious and encouraging. It was a ramped up version of the kind smiles my bump had been attracting for weeks, and one of the nicest things about my experience of late pregnancy.
I was getting tired by now; we did more dancing around the room (highlights: Eddie Grant, ‘Gimme Hope Johanna’ and Sister Sledge, ‘Frankie’). When a contraction came I sat on the hospital birthing ball and rolled around. S tucked a hot-pack into the hospital belly band that I was wearing under my gown, to soothe the pain in the left side of my back. At 7 we turned on the in-room TV to watch Nikita. I was only dilated 4 1/2 cm, and the contractions weren’t improving, so around 7.40 the resident doctor broke my waters with an implement resembling a crochet hook – M says so, anyway. I didn’t look.
Come 9 o’clock S was running the bath. You can’t really see the scale here, but it was enormous and took about half an hour to fill. I got in and loved it for the first ten minutes; then the contractions intensified and I went into a very weird spacey state where I wasn’t sure what was left or right, up or down. To start with the pain was more bearable with the weird positions I was doing. Then it was not. At 10.30 I got desperate for pain relief and told M, and then S, that I had to have an epidural. The half hour it took from request to execution, with a check on my platelet count and a consent form and a switch back out of the tub room (though I could have monopolised it if I’d wanted), was excruciating. I was in a wild state, legs shaking. But S was fantastic, asking me gently if I was sure I wanted the epidural, and how it fitted with my plans beforehand. ‘I didn’t want to get it before 5cm: I must be 5cm by now?’ She nodded. The insertion of the epidural itself, which had really frightened me, was weird but not horrible, and I couldn’t feel the catheter insertion, which had frightened me too. S went off duty and we got a new nurse, G. After I was numb from the waist down, I went to sleep.
And so there followed a few hours where I slept, and M slept in a recliner in the corner, and I was periodically rolled backwards and forwards on the bed to try to improve the contractions, and to alleviate foetal distress, which was starting to be an issue, and to try to get the baby to move. Because this turned out to be the problem: she’d been the wrong way round all along, wasn’t pressing on the cervix enough, and so the contractions weren’t progressing as they should. At 5am I was 6cm dilated and they started Pitocin to help the contractions along; I had my first ever two-stick grape popsicle from the well stocked Labor Ward fridge (full of juice and jello and sandwich packs for fathers-to-be); the nurses worried about the amount of blood I was losing; and I met the wonderful Dr J, who would be delivering the baby. It was a race against time to see if I could progress enough to avoid a Caesarean.
By 9.30am I was no longer numb – I was in quite a lot of pain with each contraction – but this turned out to mean I was fully dilated and it was nearly time to push. Baby A was still a quarter turn away from where she should have been, and Dr J was going to try to turn her as I pushed. I had to adopt a weird frog-legged position where, from lying on my back, I pulled my knees back into my armpits, curled my spine up, and pushed. The third shift nurse, D, fetched me a fancy full-length tilting mirror to see the baby’s head and direct my efforts, and M was a huge help supporting me into the right position, but my pushing wasn’t quite cutting it until baby A finally turned – and after only half an hour they were calling the baby nurse and I was being told to slow down this bit, to minimise the now inevitable perineal tear.
At 11.03am central time on the 5th of November baby A was born, 6lb 13oz and crying at top volume. I had a quiet cry too. In Britain it was Bonfire Night, the birthday M and I had secretly hoped for.
I haven’t written much expatty stuff here, but, dear readers, in this time of post-birth sleep deprivation, when it has taken me several days of snatched minutes to put the post together, I’m hoping you can contribute a comparative perspective in the comments and – essentially – do my job for me. Now I think I’ll have another sleep.