This essay was originally published in Drafthorse.
A monitor beeped and I heard my midwife Robin say “C-section” again before it registered. There would be no pushing, no birthing tub or mix tape, no aromatherapy candle. “I’ll be right back,” she said. When she came in the next time she had Dr. Clarke, my OB/GYN, by her side. He was already in his scrubs. It wasn’t even 9 a.m., and already I was a bad mother.
Dr. Clarke was a barrel-chested bald man, standing about six-foot-three, with a left-side comb-over. His handlebar mustache was waxed up into a smile. His scrub mask was nestled under his chin.
Robin patted my forearm. “Everything will be fine.”
But I wasn’t fine. I hadn’t slept well the night before and had spent it staring at the ceiling making a mental list of the things I didn’t have ready yet for this baby: Onesies, stamina, cloth diapers, motherly tendencies, blankets, surplus love to share, warm sleepers, unselfishness, a job. I had been expecting for more than nine months; surely by now I should have known what to expect.
My husband Jeff and I skipped the last Lamaze class altogether. “I can’t believe they’re ending class on the C-section,” I said to Jeff. “It seems so negative. Besides, look at me,” I said making palm parentheses on each side of my ample hips and shrugging my shoulders, “this baby is going to squirt out like it did for that Catholic woman doing dishes at the sink in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.”
I had planned to give birth with no pain medication and in the new birthing tub that had just been installed at Albany Medical Center. My first-born would come out swimming like a tadpole, and I would be blissed out in the warm water, forgetting any pain or bloody afterbirth floating around like ship wreckage. In the week after my last OB/GYN appointment, I made Jeff drive me over bumpy backcountry roads to induce labor on my own terms. I swallowed capsules of evening primrose oil and drank raspberry herbal tea, and we had sex. Twice. My cervix didn’t dilate a centimeter.
We had talked about giving birth at home. At the time, Jeff and I were living in what my sisters called “the abandoned farmhouse” in Eagle Bridge, New York. It was Grandma Moses country. She lived, painted and was discovered a half-mile away. We were so remote and rural that a friend standing on our front porch said, “Well, it’s not in the middle of nowhere, but you can certainly see it from your house.”
The three-story white clapboard farmhouse, replete with widow’s peak and a ghost, peered over the abandoned Eagle Bridge passenger railroad station. Cargo and freight trains ran through twice a day, and when they stopped and idled for hours in the middle of the night, the engines shook every pane of glass. I could feel the vibration of the idling train as I lay in bed or sat on the couch watching TV. Once I got used to the sound, it actually helped me sleep. It also masked the skittering of squirrels, mice and pigeons in the uninhabited upstairs.
Jeff and I loved that farmhouse. Its floors sloped and buckled, and in the winter you could sit on the couch and watch mice run laps around the living room or peer directly into the dirt basement when the wide-pine floorboards shrunk their seams a quarter-inch in the 30-below winter.
“Are you going to bring a baby into that cold house?” my mother asked.
“What are we going to do Mom, leave it at the hospital?” I said.
My mom called every day after my due date to check up on me. It was years before cell phones. At the time I was hauling home salvageable furniture from local tag sales and repurposing it for the baby’s room, which meant a lot of sitting on the floor and painting. When the phone rang, I had to heave myself to my knees first, grab a chair and pull myself up to a full stand before waddling to the kitchen where the phone was attached to the wall.
“How’s progress?” Mom would ask.
“Get this kid out of me!” I said. “I go to the doctor this week for another checkup. The midwife said they wouldn’t let me go beyond ten days. I just don’t want that Pitocin.”
“Ok, but I worry about a baby in that cold house.”
“I know, Ma, I know.”
The closer I got to my due date, the more conversations with my middle sister went like this: “Did you fluff up the hay in the barn today?” Jenni said. “You probably should call the vet instead of the doctor.”
I began doubting my due date and my midwife. Had she miscalculated? I began to doubt that this baby was ever coming out. Even the train arrived and left on somewhat of a schedule.
“Don’t move,” said the anesthesiologist. I tried yoga breathing—in through the nose, out through the mouth—as I hunched over on the operating table holding Robin’s hand. I remember her hands being warm and strong. She wore a ring on her left hand; an oval sapphire surrounded by tiny diamonds. She was petite and had a sturdy jaw that dared me not to trust her. Her eyes were kind and as blue as that sapphire. I know that from concentrating on them when she was giving me instructions.
My hands were shaking. I could smell antiseptic and iodine. These were not the smells I had hoped would accompany my first child into the world. I felt so cold. “The operating rooms are kept cold,” Robin was telling me, but I didn’t listen to the reason why. I was trying to take my mind off what was going on behind me. I was anticipating the anticipation of pain. I was anticipating being a paraplegic or bleeding to death on the operating table or the baby strangling on the umbilical cord. I thought I was prepared. I felt pressure, I felt a little sting, and then I felt warmth flood in from the epidural.
Robin’s hand was between my shoulder blades, and she helped me lie down. I realized I couldn’t use my stomach muscles. My entire torso was now shaking. She covered my chest and arms with a warm, thin flannel blanket. I relaxed a little while the epidural slowly paralyzed me from my armpits to my toes. The outline of the narrow surgical table faded away.
The nurses strapped my chest and torso down with Velcro belts and splayed my arms out on their own little tables, fastening them with Velcro as well. I felt like Jesus on the cross, except with tubes and needles and a blood pressure cuff squeezing my right bicep and making my hand numb.
My husband shuffled in the operating room in blue disposable surgical cover-alls. “Stylish,” I said. “Do you get to keep those?” He had on the same puffy scrub cap and booties to match everyone in the room. The nurse clipped a sheet to the steel frame at my torso so I couldn’t see the procedure. Then she reached up and flicked on the overhead surgical light, pulling the red handle into place for the doctor. It was rimmed with a mirror-like umbrella that focused the light beam on the procedure. To my horrified curiosity, I realized that I could watch the action in its reflection. I felt disembodied, like I was dead and alive at the same time and watching the entire procedure from above. “This is what it must be like to be awake during your own autopsy,” I said.
Someone was talking to me, but I couldn’t make out who it was behind all the blue masks. I couldn’t see anyone’s mouth moving.
“This is a teaching hospital and students learn by watching these procedures,” said a doctor. “Do we have your permission to allow medical students studying OB/GYN to observe your procedure?”
“Seriously?” I remember thinking. “Seriously? You strap me down, nearly paralyze me, dress my husband in crazy pants, and now you’re going to ask me if people can watch?”
“Whatever,” I said.
“Are you right-handed or left-handed?” the nurse asked.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” I said.
The nurse held a clipboard with a form in front of my face.
“Right,” I said. She put a pen in my right hand and held the clipboard in front of my strapped-down arm. “Any way you can take that blood pressure thingy off my finger?”
About 15 med students shuffled into the O.R. and formed a semi-circle around my feet and behind the doctor.
Dr. Clarke asked, “Can you feel this?”
“Feel what?” I said.
“Ok, we’re ready to begin.”
In my head I was yelling “Wait, hold on, I’m not ready.” I didn’t think this would all happen so fast, me getting pregnant within the same year we got married. I wasn’t completely sure I wanted kids just yet. I didn’t understand what it meant to have them or not. I was still processing that I even had a choice in the matter.
I held Jeff’s big, rough hand. It was the hand of a dairy farmer and the man I loved: The father of my baby, a good father to his nine-year-old daughter—my stepdaughter. His hand was warm when mine was cold, steady when mine was shaking. I looked at him, breathed, and relinquished what has always been hardest for me to give up: control.
I could sense the doctor rooting around, and I could hear everything he said. “Prep the area. Iodine. Scalpel. Now I’m going to make a series of incisions, first through the layer of subcutaneous fat. Do you see that?” Was he saying this for my sake or for the medical interns who were standing around my feet? “Now I cut through the fascia and you’ll see the abdominal muscles. Scissors. Be careful not to cut the bowel or the bladder …”
I was making wisecracks: “While you’re in there can you do a tummy tuck?” and, “Dr. Clark, have I ever told you that you remind me of my High School Latin teacher? I feel like I should be singing some Gregorian chant right now.”
By now he was pushing his gloved hands inside me and I could see my lower body moving back and forth on the table as though he was loosening the baby’s grip from my ribs.
“He’s really going at it,” I said to Robin. “Am I going to fall off the table?”
I kept glancing up into that mirrored light. If I concentrated on the outermost rim I could look right down on the action. My skin was white and curled back in wrinkles at the sliced edges. It was pulled open by stainless steel clamps. I could see my fat, yellow and bubbly, and my blood was bright red in some spots and brownish yellow in others. I looked away. I looked at my husband. “I’m cold,” I said.
“The baby is coming,” Dr. Clark said to my husband. “If you’d like to watch you can stand up and look now, but only if you have a strong stomach.”
“It’s ok,” said Jeff, “I’ve seen this done with cows hundreds of times.”
I gave him a look. “Thanks a lot,” I said.
“You know what I mean,” he said.
In the time it took to look away from the overhead lamp and see my husband rise to look over the blue sheet, I heard the tiny cry.
“It’s a boy,” said Dr. Clarke using a bulb to suck the juice out of the baby’s lungs and nose. “A healthy boy. He’s beautiful.” He cradled Jesse for me to see. The umbilical cord, like a grey extension cord, was still attached. In Dr. Clark’s enormous blue-gloved hands Jesse looked like a large red kidney bean with his toothless mouth fashioned into a bawling ‘o’. His eyes were squinted because of the bright light. I worried he was cold. The nurses wrapped him in flannel and went about their job of weighing and APGAR testing. I kept saying “Bring him over here. Bring him here. Untie my arms.” I kept my eyes on those nurses: they weren’t switching my baby at birth. And then he was safely in my husband’s arms. His hands, reddish-pink, smooth, warm and new, were minute replicas of my own. His fingernails were translucent as waxed paper and his diminutive knuckles un-puckered and pulled tight as he grabbed my finger and wrapped his tiny hand around it.
I didn’t care what the Doctor was doing to me now even though I could sense him plying the afterbirth out of me with his backhoe hands. The gawking med students disappeared even though they were still there. I felt warm. My son was holding my finger.