I’m a few days late—it’s been a birthday party, mother-in-law visit, Ikea bed fiasco kind of week!—but in honor of my beloved leap year baby’s fifth birthday, here, once again, is my humdinger of a birth story.
A shorter version was published on babble.com a couple of years back. Enjoy!
Aidan’s Birth or How I Learned To Stop Planning My Birth and Let Myself Have a Baby
My water broke on Wednesday morning and I gave birth on Friday night. Let me say that again in case you weren’t paying attention: My water broke on Wednesday morning and I gave birth on Friday night. I know, that’s not how it’s supposed to happen. Or at least it’s not how it happens in the movies, which is where I learned most of what I thought I knew about childbirth.
I know a lot about movies and their comforting, predictable structure. Before moving to LA from New York and diving headlong into the yoga and massage-filled haze of preparing for motherhood, I wrote movies and wrote about movies for magazines, newspapers and websites. My first book is about a movie writer who pretends to look for an apartment as a way to meet men. True story. But in the fictional version I gave it a beautifully shaped narrative arc and a happy ending. It would make one hell of a movie.
I thought I could impose that same kind of narrative structure on childbirth. Most films—those that make it into theaters anyway—follow a classic three-act structure. Climax is followed by resolution. Take Juno. She learns she’s pregnant in Act 1, scene 1. Just in time for Act 3, she looks at her crotch and announces, “Uh, Dad…either I just wet my pants….or thundercats are go!” Five minutes later she’s sweating through delivery.
Katie, my doula, told me, “As you live, so you deliver your baby.” I’m a pretty laid-back person, so I figured my birth would be as breezy as a Kate Hudson romantic comedy and that was the kind of birth I prepared for. Turns out childbirth is life at its messiest, at its least predictable and most resistant to planning. Kind of like David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Judd Apatow all fighting for control of the same movie. The movie version of my baby’s birth would turn out to be a meandering indie, at once comic, moving and seemingly neverending. With no chance whatsoever of getting into Sundance.
It’s Wednesday, February 27, the day before my due date, and I’m headed to Beverly Hills to see my OB, Dr. Crane. I’ve been seeing his midwife partner, Debbie, for most of my pregnancy, but she went on a long-planned vacation so now I’m seeing Dr. Crane. I hop out of the car and feel a gush of liquid between my legs. This might sound alarming, but not for me. The day before, I was lying in bed and felt the same gush. I panicked and thought I was going into labor. Only there wasn’t any pain and the trickle of water didn’t seem big enough to be the real thing. A call to Katie confirmed my suspicion. I had a dream that night that my midwife was in my bathroom. She was counseling a supermodel with no panties on—she told me that, “I don’t have my panties on.” I waited patiently at the door to my own bathroom and finally Debbie turned to me and I said, apologetically, “I just wonder if my water might be breaking,” and she said, “Oh, you’ll know when your water breaks.” I took this to be my subconscious telling me to chill.
So, when this happens the next day, I roll my eyes and think, “Jesus Christ, not again.” Then, just as I trigger the car alarm, cool liquid rushes down my legs, drenching the seams of my pants and trickling around my ankles. This is no ordinary gush. I inch my way to the elevator as fast as a person can while squeezing her thighs together, and call Harlan, my husband, but he is too engrossed in shooting footage of a body builder and a porn star against a green screen to answer his phone. I enter Dr. Crane’s office and announce, “I think my water just broke!”
I was ushered into an office and hooked up to a monitor that revealed I was having contractions every six to seven minutes. Every time I had one, the baby’s heart rate picked up, which Dr. Crane said was a sign of a healthy baby. He checked my cervix—I was dilated one centimeter out of the 10 necessary to deliver the baby. According to the documentary The Business of Being Born and my prenatal yoga teacher, this is the point where most OBs would have pumped me full of antibiotics to stave off infection and Pitocin to augment my contractions, and in grave tones terrified me with tales of distressed, infected babies until I was begging for an emergency C-section. But Dr. Crane, who believes that a body knows how to birth a baby and that it’s best to stay out of its way, assured me that the myth that you have to get the baby out within 24 hours of the water breaking is just that: a myth. The risk of infection is still minuscule and can be avoided by monitoring the baby regularly. He sent me home and told me that labor would probably start spontaneously in the night. He also mentioned, casually, that he had to go to Las Vegas on Friday, but not to fret. It was only Wednesday, remember? I’d have a baby by then.
Because I wasn’t experiencing any pain, I did what any normal woman whose contractions are only six to seven minutes apart would do: I went shopping. While waiting for the nursing bra expert at the Pump Station, I told the woman next to me, “My water just broke.” “Oh my God, go before me,” she said. At the Right Start, where I went to buy the baby sling I’d been meaning to pick up for the last eight months, a young mom said, “Oh my God, they’re letting you wander around after your water broke?” and backed away, as if I was some reckless, hippy natural childbirth freak from whose crotch a baby might spill at any moment.
In movies, a montage sequence is often used to show the passage of time, cutting together a series of events that in unison represent a single idea. Like 1995-2005, the period I dated the wrong men: a sampling of the most embarrassing drunken hook-ups and most brutal break-ups. While I’d love to tell you every detail of my birth story, you’d probably walk out of the theater. So, I offer instead this montage of my impossibly slow labor:
Me waddling through the streets of Venice with a friend in an attempt to jumpstart my labor; watching American Idol while waiting for Harlan to get home; whacking him awake later to let him know real contractions have begun. Trying to figure out how to time my contractions using contractionmaster.com. Watching Ratatouille with my younger sister who’s trying to feed me a taco salad that makes me want to hurl. Dr. Crane measuring my cervix and saying it’s still a long way till baby time. Me cringing as my husband and doula force me to go all the way back to Venice to labor in the comfort of our home even though Cedars Sinai is a two-minute drive from the doctor’s office. Crouching in the passenger seat, trying in vain to find the part of my hypnobirthing CD on my iPod where a leopard guides me to a fairy tale cottage in a magical forest. Blasting “Just Like Heaven” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” and dancing around my living room. Harlan sucking my nipples in the shower to stimulate the release of oxytocin while I stand there, immune to his advances, but loving the way the hot water makes my pain disappear. Walking around my neighborhood at midnight with Harlan and Katie. Clinging to them both as a contraction hits. Whimpering, “Why is this happening?” as liquid splashes down my legs—again. Katie saying, “This is good, birth is messy, it’s good to get used to it.” At the hospital, falling asleep between contractions while sitting on the edge of my bed as a nurse watches my baby’s heart rate on a monitor. Katie hanging Christmas lights in our dark room for ambiance. Seeing my family and friends in the waiting room as I walk the long, fluorescent-lit hallways in a hideous green gown and telling them to go home and come back the next day. Harlan rubbing my feet as I recline on my hospital bed, clutching my massive belly.
I was determined to have a natural childbirth. I had gone into the pregnancy not knowing much about anything, assuming I’d have an epidural since I’m not big on pain. But once I started looking for a doctor, I realized that I’m crunchier—and warier of the medical establishment—than I’d thought. Two doctors in a row rolled their eyes and said “natural” childbirth, making quotation marks with their fingers. I was offended and started doing research and began to think that certain measures that supposedly make birth easier for mothers are really about making birth easier—and more profitable—for doctors, and for insurance and pharmaceutical companies. I watched the Russian water birth video about these women giving birth in the Black Sea and was moved to tears. I read Birthing from Within about finding ways to cope with the discomfort of labor so that drugs can be avoided. I learned that epidurals can slow down labor, often necessitating Pitocin, and Pitocin hampers the hormones that the body produces naturally to ease childbirth. And from there it’s often a slippery slope that leads straight to C-section.
That’s how I found myself doing squats in the hallways of Cedars Sinai 38 hours after my water broke. And opening wide as Katie put homeopathic pills under my tongue and fed me castor oil in orange juice. It made me poop green stringy goop that smelled like steamed asparagus. I told everyone in the room my poop smelled like steamed asparagus. Katie made Harlan and me take another shower together, right there in the hospital. When we returned to the delivery room wrapped in towels, Dr. Crane was there, unfazed by our nakedness.
On the morning of Friday, February 29, Susan, a new nurse came on duty. “Hello, my friend, how do you feel?” I grimaced and told her my poop smelled like steamed asparagus. Dr. Crane measured my cervix: it had only dilated to six centimeters. By this time I’d been in labor for 36 hours. He said it was time to put me on Pitocin. Katie put her arm around me and said she had to agree. What felt like days ago, I had sent a text message to probably 75 friends telling them to light the candles my mom had handed out at my baby shower and say a prayer for a safe, easy childbirth and happy, healthy baby. From New York to San Diego to Seattle, candles had been lit for us by friends who expected a predictable “It’s a boy!” text eight hours later. Exhausted and sick of the pain, I told Dr. Crane if I was getting Pitocin, I wanted an epidural, too. Nice fucking commitment to natural childbirth.
And with the flick of a switch, my birth went from warm, fuzzy and feminine to something that Stanley Kubrick might have directed, had Dr. Strangelove featured a woman giving birth: there were two strange men in the room, the anesthesiologist and his assistant, their maleness and unfamiliarity surreal under the bright lights they turned on as they entered my room. They had me sit on the edge of the bed facing the pictures I’d brought from home: my sister and parents, my grandparents, a wedding photo of Harlan and me. Katie grabbed one—my cats, Jack and Maggie, as kittens—and placed it into my hands. “Look at them,” she said. “Think about how much you love Jack and Maggie.” I stared as hard as I could, thought as hard as I could, loved as hard as I could, as a needle violated my back. I leaned onto the soft pillows, afraid of what I had done, and caught Harlan’s eyes. I could still feel my contractions and I feared for the future of my spinal column and how the drug might affect my baby.
But then things improved. If this were a movie, this would be the part where the protagonist awakens from a terrible nightmare and flings the shutters open to find that colors are still bright and birds still singing. I realized I hadn’t felt a contraction in a while. I smiled. Laughed even. On the monitor, I saw them coming, harder now, closer together, thanks to the Pitocin. They were mountains, Everest to the earlier rolling hills, and I couldn’t feel a thing. The absence of pain allowed me to focus on other things. “Hey Harlan, can you get online? Find out who got kicked off American Idol.” Dr. Crane visited me for the last time and apologized for having to leave; he had to go to Vegas to see his son starring in Spamalot. My cervix was at 8 cm, he said, we were on our way. I closed my eyes and slept for three hours.
I woke up to meet Debbie and Dr. Crane’s other partner, Dr. Chin, who was going to deliver my baby. He measured me yet again and said my cervix was not at 8 centimeters at all; it was closer to 6. Either Dr. Crane had been going on wishful thinking or I’d actually regressed. In any case, we had to classify my labor as dysfunctional. He said we should increase the dosage of the Pitocin and reconvene in an hour and a half. If I hadn’t progressed substantially, he would have to recommend a C-section. After all the work I had done, my uterus was not contracting with the frequency or force necessary to propel this baby out of my body and my cervix was not opening wide enough to insure safe passage. My body couldn’t do it. Not even with the help of a chemical battering ram.
This is that part of the movie where the protagonist hits rock bottom and has to summon inner resources she didn’t know she had. Everyone left the room except Harlan. He sat down next to the bed. “Who the hell is he to waltz in here after all this time and tell us you need a C-section?” he said. “He’s just being honest with us,” I said with uncharacteristic calm and resignation. “He’s a good doctor and we have to take his advice. The most important thing is that we have a healthy baby. It doesn’t really matter how.” Harlan buried his face in my chest and cried. I closed my eyes and visualized flowers opening, my cervix dilating easy and sweet, white roses bursting into bloom—and once again, I fell asleep.
“How you feeling, my friend?” was the first thing I heard upon waking. “Okay, I guess? Ready to have a baby?” Harlan stood by the side of the bed holding my hand, holding his breath, as Susan settled between my legs to measure me. The room was completely silent. Then Susan erupted, “Sweet baby, you are at nine and a half centimeters! We’re going to deliver this baby!” I started to laugh, convinced it was thanks to my blooming flower visualization.
With Susan crouched between my legs, Harlan and Katie on either side and a third nurse, who had just come on duty, by my right shoulder, we waited for the next contraction and bam! Susan said, “Now!” The new nurse said, “Push, push, push, push, push!” in a football coach tone. And three days and seven hours after my water broke, we finally found ourselves in a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster birthing scene. I tightened everything I could think to tighten and push push push push pushed! And on that very first push, Harlan said, “Oh my God, I can see the head!” Dr. Chin showed up, cranky that Susan hadn’t paged him sooner. He moved into position and started massaging my perineum. In our attempts to keep our birth as natural as possible, Harlan and I had practiced perineal massage at home. He would put calendula oil on his fingers and gently rub the skin down there, supposedly making it more supple so it wouldn’t tear during childbirth. But it hurt and I hated it so we only practiced maybe three times. But Dr. Chin started pushing and pulling my tight, tender skin, getting his whole hand in there and kneading and stretching me like dough, rubbing full force as if he were scrubbing rust off the inside of a hubcap. And it worked: I made it through delivery without a tear or an episiotomy. The OBs I interviewed before settling on my doctors, the ones who put “natural childbirth” in quotes, had assured me that no first-time mom makes it through with her perineum intact. So this was a victory.
With every contraction, I pushed, not feeling a thing. Blown away, Harlan exclaimed things like, “Oh my God, I see the baby!” And plain “oh my God! Oh my God!” I had my iPod going, on an endless playlist I’d named Happy Birthday. George Harrison was crooning My Sweet Lord when my baby’s head emerged—and one hand, since he came out fist forward like Superman. “Reach down here, Andrea,” Dr. Chin said. “and take your baby.” I reached between my legs and put my hands around what turned out to be a tiny squirming torso, and pulled the rest of my baby out from between my legs. I held him up and saw my baby, still connected to me by the umbilical cord. He was squished and covered in blood and screaming. And he was in my hands. The room erupted in laughter and cheers. Harlan cut the cord and ran down the hall to alert my parents, my sister, my uncle, aunt and cousins who had come down from Santa Barbara, and my friends Mae and Melissa, and they all streamed into the room, beaming, spilling congratulations, pointing cameras at us. My uncle Jack even handed Harlan a cigar.
“As you live your life, so you deliver your baby.”
I may be laid back, but I’m also a damn fine procrastinator. I usually wait until the day a story is due to start organizing useless, random thoughts into a coherent piece of writing. I clear out my closet, old emails, the refrigerator of everything sweet, then fling myself dramatically on my bed and proclaim, “I can’t do it!” And then five minutes before deadline, I find hidden strength and wisdom. I ask for a 24-hour extension and wrap it up triumphantly. As I live, so I delivered my baby. Only when I’d abandoned my plan and nearly given up hope did my body—and my baby—cooperate.
This is where the writer and critic in me tell me that my story should end. But I feel compelled to say one last thing, even if it does completely screw up the narrative structure. I need to tell you about my beautiful baby, Aidan Wolf Bosmajian, the happy ending we’ve been waiting for.
When Harlan and I pledged our lifelong love to each other, I thought I had experienced all that love had to offer, and offered all I had of love. But that was before the birth of my baby. This is life’s greatest secret. And it’s only revealed to those reckless enough to have a child. After all those hours— okay make that days—of pain, this little guy came out from between my legs, with a gush of blood, screaming, and instantly, I knew I would lift a car with my hands, take a bullet, put my thumbs through the eyeballs of a stranger to protect him. No matter how many movies I had seen or how many young mothers I had talked to with the same rapturous look in their eyes—nothing could have prepared me for those feelings. The 38 hours of labor could wind up on the cutting room floor for all I cared. All that mattered was Aidan.
After the shock and awe of that new little body in my hands, after thinking, “Wow, balls. It’s a boy.” And “nice conehead.” And “he looks kind of Mexican, doesn’t he?” After all that, I thought, my God, it is you. It’s you, you who started out as that tiny cluster of cells in a picture back in a fertility doctor’s office; you, my miracle baby who fought hardest to be the embryo that became the fetus that became my son; you who has been using the inside of my womb for kickboxing practice for ten months; you whom I’ve talked to and sung to every night; you who made me throw up at the smell of cat food and weep at Mastercard commercials; you who spent the last three days defying my birth plan and clinging stubbornly to that safe, dark place you’ve been calling home all these months. Welcome to the world, baby. It’s so nice to meet you.