Are You Woman Enough to Take It Lying Down?

We were a battalion of weebles accompanied by hovering guards, and we invaded the 11th floor of Roosevelt Hospital not too long ago. “You may hear some weird noises,” our guide said. “There are some women in labor right now.”

Couple by couple we checked out the maternity ward: the modern Labor, Delivery & Recovery (LDR), on one floor, and the Birthing Center, the natural-birth alternative on the 11th. Dr. Awesome and I filed into one after another birthing center room, all of them nearly identical. Each was like a roomy hotel suite with a full-size bed, a small jacuzzi, a few chairs, a TV, natural wood furniture—even a lovely view of the Hudson River.

“Wow, this is really nice,” I said to Dr. Awesome. “Now can we just add drugs?”

Choosing how to give birth is a decision fraught with more complications than you would imagine. For most of history, of course, it wasn’t an issue. You got knocked up, you realized it after a few months, and several months after that you got on with it. A good portion of the time you lived and the baby lived, but frequently enough one or both of you died.

Now—at least for a woman like me, with health insurance, living in NYC—there are lots of options.

What’s interesting is the hand-wringing and moral-wrangling now attached to how one gives birth. Yes, modern human females have been giving birth vaginally, largely without pain relief, for at least 160,000 years. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t tried; various potions and remedies—many of which, like hemlock, are seriously poisonous—have been used by cultures all over the world throughout history to attempt to relieve the pain of labor.

There are lots of other natural events requiring some medical assistance that aren’t yoked by morality. Skulls have been found dating to the Stone Age that show clear evidence of trepanation—the cutting of a hole in the skull to relieve pressure on a swelling brain (or, perhaps, to release malevolent spirits—who knows the motivation, but the effect on the brain was the same). Would anyone today expect you to have a section of your skull cut out without anaesthesia purely because it had been done that way in the past? Or to have a tooth removed without even the minor relief of Novacaine?

Of course, pregnancy is not a disease; in fact, its treatment as a weird malady of the lady parts by male doctors during the past several hundred years, particularly in Europe and America, is one of the main reasons so many women today are reflexively suspicious of the “medicalized” birth. For sheer physics alone, lying on your back in labor—a position that does nothing but give birth attendants a better view—makes no sense: gravity can’t help, and there’s nothing to push against. Rushing the process of labor can lead to (oh god stop my brain from even thinking about it) episiotomies and increased cesarian births. Epidurals can slow down labor and make it difficult for a woman to know when to push.

As recently as the 1950s, laboring women in the U.S. were given general anaesthesia; while they were under, the baby was simply removed like any other excessive growth—like a tumor. Countless women (and their frustrated partners) tell horror stories about feeling helpless as they were shunted around the maternity ward like pieces of howling meat, with little attention paid to their preferences for labor or the level of medical intervention they want. We are all scared shitless by the endless images of laboring women in movies and TV screaming their heads off—while lying down, of course. For years, every time I’ve seen some scene of labor, I’ve crossed my legs and squeeeeezed hard. Because the message is: Labor is trauma. It is pain. It is terror and emergency and the unknown. And only by having the experience tightly controlled by the professionals can you and the baby get through it.

But there is also a romanticizing of childbirth by many natural-birth advocates that is equally not based in reality. First of all, let’s take this concept of “natural.” Here are some perfectly natural elements of the world: Cancer. Cavities. Getting eaten by something faster and stronger than you. Flesh-eating bacteria, macular degeneration, fungus, great white sharks. And, of course, dying in childbirth.

Mother nature has been picking us off during childbirth for forever. It’s a risky proposition for many women and babies around the world even today, from those suffering from malnutrition and disease to girls who give birth too young, before their pelvises have fully developed—often as a result of stunted growth from said malnutrition or disease. There’s a veritable epidemic in Africa of teenage girls who get fistulas during labor. Their bodies literally rip open with holes. Afterward they suffer from constant incontinence and are then shunned by their husbands and communities.

The operation to fix a fistula costs about $450, by the way. You can donate here.

Fistulas used to be common enough in developed countries even in the 19th century, and it was doubtless common across the world for millennia. And that’s one of the better examples of what can go wrong in childbirth, because at least both mother and child live. You want a macho pregnancy? Try undergoing a cesarian birth without anaesthesia, which also has happened throughout history. (Though the story that Julius Caesar himself was delivered by this method is surely apocryphal.)

The idea that if those evil men hadn’t gotten involved in pregnancy (beyond conception), then every birth would be a profound, if difficult, experience bathed in a golden glow of Natural, is doubtful.

And keep in mind that in Judeo-Christian cultures, the idea that women are being continually punished for Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden is a durable thread that persists to this day. If you’re all down with natural womanhood and against the patriarchy, make sure you’re not falling into the trap of thinking that fate of woman is to suffer, and that in fact you must suffer if you’re going to be a good mother—labor being your first test.

My goal has been to find some sort of middle ground between the two extremes—the pregnancy-as-disease mindset, and the strangely macho Mother Earth birth.

I had to make some kind of decision while I was still in the single-digit weeks of pregnancy, when the idea of this person growing inside me, let alone the idea of giving birth to said person, was still utterly surreal. I had no idea how I might feel about labor come the Big Day, but I knew I wanted to leave my options open.

For that reason, I chose an obstetrician who has midwives on staff, and a hospital that has both a natural birthing center and a standard hospital LDR ward. (Incidentally, and hilariously, in the pamphlets Roosevelt Hospital hands out to expectant parents, giving birth in the LDR ward is called having “the traditional birth experience.” So I’ll be squatting in a mud hut while the nurse hooks me up to a fetal monitor, right?)

I knew a few things. First of all, I wanted to give birth in a way that made sense. A strange criterion, maybe, but there it is. No help from gravity and pushing against nothing make no sense. An inability to switch labor positions makes no sense. Neither does it make sense to needlessly suffer from pain just to prove I’m a hard ass. (I know I’m a hard ass. C’mere so I can punch you!)

Secondly, I knew that I like drugs. Drugs are my friend! I’m not a crazy pill popper—I rarely take even cold medicine or Tylenol—but the drugs that I’ve come to know and love I, well, know and love. Give me a Xanax on an intercontinental flight. Let me pop an Ambien when insomnia has me near insane with unsatisfied exhaustion.

Lastly, I wanted to participate in the birth, neither so doped up I can’t feel anything nor so frantic with pain that I’d plead with someone to knock me out with a hammer just to put me out of my misery.

Is there a way to have pain relief and yet some mobility? Is there a way to have an experience couched by a) the safety and security of a modern medical facility and b) patience and assurance from someone who knows that, despite the rocky record, this is indeed a process for which my body is not particularly well designed (thanks, no-master-plan evolution!) but that it mostly can handle?

There may be. Roosevelt gives something called a “walking epidural,” which is essentially a lower dose of anaesthesia; it will provide pain relief but may—the midwife was a bit doubtful—allow me to switch positions in bed; I plan to do my squatting above the floor of the mud hut, thanks. Right now the plan is to deliver in the LDR area, attended by the midwife I’ve been seeing for months (I’ve only seen the obstetrician once). I may enter the ward hollering for drugs, or I may not. Who knows. I do know, though, that I’m going to do whatever feels right at the time.

On April 23, Dr. Awesome and I begin a five-week childbirth education class. Think cring-inducing birth films and breathing techniques. The class I chose offers pain-coping methods, some of which are already going to be familiar to me from yoga and meditation, but it also fully covers pain-relief options, i.e. drugs.

Whatever happens, I’m sure that the experience will turn out to be much as Dr. Awesome predicted after we wrapped up the maternity-ward tour. As we walked back to Columbus Circle to catch the A train, he dragged on his cigarette and said, “Everytime we went into a new room I thought, ‘Is this where I’m going to get my mind fucking blown? Or is this? Or is this?‘”

1 Shot, 2 Kills

Snipers from the Israeli Defense Force like to print up their own T-shirts to commemorate the end of training or of field duty, according to this article from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. And the shirts feature images like this:


image courtesy of Haaretz

In case that’s not clear: the belly of a pregnant woman is in the crosshairs of a target. She’s armed, but I’m not so sure that makes a difference when it comes to the many IDF T-shirts that celebrate killing Palestinian women and children.

According to the article:

Dead babies, mothers weeping on their children’s graves, a gun aimed at a child and bombed-out mosques – these are a few examples of the images Israel Defense Forces soldiers design these days to print on shirts they order to mark the end of training, or of field duty.

The slogans accompanying the drawings are not exactly anemic either: A T-shirt for infantry snipers bears the inscription “Better use Durex,” next to a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, with his weeping mother and a teddy bear beside him. A sharpshooter’s T-shirt from the Givati Brigade’s Shaked battalion shows a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull’s-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, “1 shot, 2 kills.” A “graduation” shirt for those who have completed another snipers course depicts a Palestinian baby, who grows into a combative boy and then an armed adult, with the inscription, “No matter how it begins, we’ll put an end to it.”

There are also plenty of shirts with blatant sexual messages. For example, the Lavi battalion produced a shirt featuring a drawing of a soldier next to a young woman with bruises, and the slogan, “Bet you got raped!”

Other examples, as recalled by a former soldier who once drew such designs:

‘There’s all sorts of black humor stuff, mainly from snipers, such as, “Don’t bother running because you’ll die tired” – with a drawing of a Palestinian boy, not a terrorist. There’s a Golani or Givati shirt of a soldier raping a girl, and underneath it says, “No virgins, no terror attacks.”

Ha ha, isn’t that just so clever? Those harmless cads, they don’t mean anything by it: “Psychologically speaking, this is one of the ways in which soldiers project their anger, frustration and violence,” says a sociologist. And don’t you go overanalyzing it, either: “I don’t see what you’re getting at,” one sharpshooter tells the Haaretz reporter. “I don’t like the way you’re going with this. Don’t take this somewhere you’re not supposed to, as though we hate Arabs.”

What is perhaps even more disturbing about this targeting (whether psychological or actual) of women—especially pregnant women—and children is that it has a deep, rich history across the world, in pretty much every culture, for millennia, and continues to this day. That is, it’s nothing new.

These snipers—who, it must be said, are a small fraction of the IDF—may be twisted, potentially psychotic assholes, but they aren’t creative. To use just two relatively recent examples: in World War II, the bellies of pregnant women in Nanking, China, were bayoneted by Japanese soldiers. Today in the ironically named Democratic Republic of Congo, women and girls—even babies as young as 10 months old—are gang-raped by soldiers from various factions. If they survive, often to live with severe physical problems, they are frequently ostracized by their communities for it.

But this type of violence isn’t exclusively a wartime phenomenon. Right here in the U.S., according to at least three studies, the most recent published in JAMA in 2001, murder was the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s. That same year, a study by the CDC put homicide in second place, behind car accidents.

Wow, progress!

So before you think this behavior is something specific to Israeli forces or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, think again. It’s just good old brutal humanity, doing what it does best: murdering itself.

The Bun at Six Months

For a couple of vain folks, we have been taking surprisingly few photos of the bun. In fact, none—until now.

Presenting Dr. Awesome, pointer extraordinaire, me, rocking the belt way up at the new waistline, and said bun, cozy in the oven.

The bun at six months

Even the Macaques Say, "Shut That Kid Up Already!"

With a shudder, Dr. Awesome recently told me a story about going grocery shopping with his father and two older sisters when he was kid. He couldn’t have been any older than three or four, which would make his sisters under 10 at the time. The girls wanted something Jimbo, as Bartoo the elder is known, was unwilling to buy. A joint temper tantrum ensued. Dr. Awesome recalls with no small amount of awe the fearful sight of their freakout, fists pounding the floor of the supermarket aisle, voices close to shattering the store windows. Jimbo was having none of it. He said something along the lines of, “When you’re done, I’ll be in the dairy aisle,” and rolled the shopping cart off with little Dr. Awesome sitting inside, mouth agape, looking back over his shoulder, unsettled by the whole thing.

He’s still unsettled by it decades later. That’s how much a kid throwing a fit can freak out everyone around it.

And apparently the situation is no different for rhesus macaques. A recent study conducted by a joint U.K.-Puerto Rico team on Cayo Santiago, an island off the coast of P.R., revealed that macaque mothers are far more likely to give in to a tantruming macaque baby if there are other macaques around—particularly aggressive males and dominant females—who might decide they’ve had enough of the noise and are going to take matters into their own hands.

The BBC has a brief article about the research here. To quote heavily from it:

As many human mums will attest – if the infant is ignored, a tantrum can result that can sometimes grate on bystanders….

Stuart Semple, a primatologist from Roehampton University in London who carried out the research, said: “The baby monkeys’ cries are high-pitched, grating and nasty to listen to—not just to their mother but to animals nearby.

“And we found that the way mothers respond to their crying infants is affected by who is around them at the time.”

Further study of the population revealed that although attacks were rare, mothers and infants were more than 30 times more likely to face aggressive behaviour from angry onlookers when a baby was crying than if the baby was content.

Dr Semple explained: “The mothers seem quite reluctant to give in to their infants, but when there are big dominant animals around that pose a threat to either them or their infants, their hand is then forced—they have to give in to their infants’ cries.”

The researchers added that while there had been no directly comparable studies carried out on humans, some anecdotal reports suggested that human mothers were more likely to acquiesce to a screaming child if faced with irritated onlookers.

Jimbo didn’t. And the protoparent in me says this is the right tactic—not to give in, because that’s pretty good reinforcement for the behavior to happen again. But the fellow supermarket shopper in me can imagine the annoyance and dismay I might feel watching him walk away from that screaming snarl of tantruming girls, as if he had spilled corn oil all over the floor but was going to let someone else clean it up. That’s your mess, man. I mean, how many times have you been near a child having a tantrum and felt three seconds away from snarling, “Shut that kid up already!”?

Oy. I simply can’t wait to be on the Decider side of this interaction: yield or resist? I swear my womb reflexively contracts every time I pass a monster-like child who has clearly—and hopefully temporarily—crossed over to the Dark Side. What was I thinking, wanting to do this parenting thing?

Looks like neither we nor the macaques seem to have a sure-fire method for handling a screaming child.

What's the Freaking Hold-Up?

Sunday night I decided to clean my desk. I’ve been avoiding it for months, working instead at the kitchen table, on the couch, even on the floor. Bleh, a tedious job. To distract myself, I powered up my laptop (the other creature I’m umbilically connected to) and called up Recently Hulu added the first season of Angel; for you Jossheads out there, most of the episodes are post-Doyle. I choose “Expecting,” in which Cordelia spends the night with a new guy and wakes up the next morning eight and a half months pregnant.

As you Buffy, Angel, and Firefly fans well know (Dollhouse is still eh so far, so I’m leaving it off the list for now), Joss is one of the most openly feminist writer-directors out there. So it’s interesting to see how Cordelia reacts to finding herself with a belly full of baby (actually, as it turns out, a belly full of seven demon babies).

Considering this is smart but inch-deep Cordelia, she of the short skirt and bitchy comeback, I expected the scene to be played comically, with her waddling into Angel’s office and demanding that he get rid of the thing inside her. Instead, it unfolds with an almost 19th-century sense of womanly tragedy; even the lacy white robe she’s wears hints at a Victorian aesthetic. Angel and Wesley find Cordelia lying in bed with a thousand-yard stare. She is cowed and humiliated, bespoiled, and the evidence is there for all to see. She is a fallen woman, and she’s so, so sorry about it. She never meant to let you down.

While the surprising way the scene was played cemented my love for Joss once again, it’s not even why I’m bringing it up. What struck me was the idea of waking up 90 percent through the pregnancy process. Hmmm. If I could, would I?

See, I have a bit of a patience problem. Though I’m six months along now, I feel like I’ve been pregnant for-freaking-ever. This is not because it’s been a torturous process; when I speak to other women who’ve had children, and read the books and websites that outline the various symptoms most women have, I’m having a pretty damned easy pregnancy. Morever, my impatience predates The Kid’s conception by, oh, 35 years or so.

It’s not just that I want things to happen stat. It’s also that I want so much of them. Not material things: I can skip most of those. Instead, I am an experience glutton, a curiosity slut, an obsessive for newness and knowledge and change and the unknown. When I’m in the midst of all that—most intensely while traveling—time takes on an expansive quality, because every moment is stuffed to the gills with sensory input. This glut is what I want. Now. In the daily grind it’s so easy to slip into the unexamined life, and this is what I fear most. Because then I’m going to miss something.

I’m not sure where this comes from, but I have a theory: impatience in an adult is what we call a temper tantrum in a child. Me me me mine mine mine want want want now now now!

Oh Christ. I just realized that I am pretty much Veruca Salt: I want the world/ I want the whole world/ I want to lock it all up on my pocket/ It’s my bar of chocolate/ Give it to me/ Now!

See Veruca upturning baskets of ribbons and kicking over stacks of shiny boxes? That’s kind of what I want to do when the F train (the F stands for fucking finally) takes forever to arrive.

Early on I predicted to Dr. Awesome that for me, pregnancy was going to be a lesson in patience. And I was right. Too soon I wanted to be through the nausea and exhaustion (in my defense, who wouldn’t?). Too soon I wanted to be sporting a bump. Too soon I monitored my belly for signs of movement, even though I had little idea what that might actually feel like. (Tumbleweeds. Bumblebees. Like my belly was a fish tank full of finned swimmers blowing bubbles.)

Every day I expect something new, something changed, something unknown. Because I’m on high alert, trying to pay close attention to every aspect of this process—can’t miss anything!—time has taken on that expansive quality once again. So here I am, impatient to get through pregnancy not because it’s bad but just because what’s the freaking hold-up? Yet I’m slowing down my subjective experience of it through my very focus on it.

Hey, it’s my own kind of special relativity! Einstein would be—well, I’d like to say proud, but it’s more likely he would be deeply unimpressed.

Anyway, it makes a lot of evolutionary sense to have pregnancy unfold over time. First of all, of course, because nothing in nature, at least on a nonquantum scale, happens in an instant; every event unfolds over time. But the relatively long gestation period common to the mammals with the highest intelligence—including our primate relatives, elephants, dolphins and whales—also encourages a slow, subtle bonding process between mother and fetus (at least in humans; I can’t say I know how a whale mom “feels”). And that’s pretty crucial, considering that the offspring of highly intelligent mammals aren’t prepared to be independent for years and years. That’s a lot of time to invest in caring for the young.

Before you think I’m saying “Nature” planned it this way, let me just say: “Nature” didn’t plan anything any way. But it’s certainly an advantage for the propagation of the human race for we pregnant hairless apes to begin feeling all soft and fuzzy toward the youngin while it’s still in the womb, rather than view it as an unknowable Other or, worse, an invader. (Which does happen frequently enough, by the way. Not all women want children, or want them at the time they get them.)

And for all my impatience, this is what’s happening to me. I’m, um, starting to get to “know” this protoperson inside me—when he wakes, when he sleeps, how he reacts when I eat spicy food or drink cold water or gorge on a jelly donut. (Mmmm. Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?) And I’m increasingly feeling the soft and fuzzy toward him.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve started, um, talking to The Kid. Not carrying on conversations—I’m not exactly soliciting his opinion on the economic stimulus package—but I do find myself verbally responding to his movements. An impressive series of what seems like Cirque de Soleil acrobatics will have me laughing and asking, “What are you doing in there?” (“Building a bird house,” Dr. Awesome mystifyingly suggested the other night.) The comforting little thumps I feel first thing in the morning while still in bed, when I roll over and he rolls over and, I like to imagine, we both yawn, makes me murmur, “Good morning, belly kitten,” and give the bump a rub. (What can I say, we have three cats. We see things in terms of kittens.) When I haven’t felt him move in a while, sometimes I drum the hard, round volleyball that is my abdomen and urge, “C’mon kid, do something! Perform for me!”

Which is kind of rude, I guess.

Many people have asked, “Are you excited?” Well, no. I haven’t been excited. That’s a feeling I get before a long-awaited vacation or dinner with a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, or when a favorite band walks out on stage and I know they’re going to to rock my face. This growing-a-person thing—it’s an entirely different matter.

Others have urged me, “Enjoy every minute of it!” I’m sorry, but what the hell does that mean? This comment was particularly galling to receive in the early months, when vomiting was a 24-7 possibility and I constantly felt only a single nap away from a coma. Even later on, when most women feel better, I don’t see how—or why—one would “enjoy every moment” of pregnancy. I mean, it’s not a waterpark, for chrissakes. I’m not on a log flume. I’m growing a person inside me. And anyway, is nonstop fun the end-all be-all of existence?

Mostly I’ve been fascinated. Pregnancy is providing some of the new and changing and unknown that I crave. A lot of this has been physiological: I’m fascinated, for instance, with the purple network of blood-dense veins now visible beneath the skin on my chest, which, ancient-treasure-map-like, all point to the tips of my breasts. I’m fascinated with how firm and hard and strong my belly is; it’s like a freaking bomb shelter. But much of it is emotional, too, as with the growing familiarity with The Kid, or the unexpected humor and peace there is in watching Dr. Awesome put headphones on my belly and blast Yo La Tengo. (“The Kid likes phat beats,” he says.) And I can feel myself acclimating to the idea of being a parent, of looking out for someone all the time until he can look after himself a bit.

So, just like Cordelia, I don’t think I’d want to wake up 90 percent into a pregnancy. I wouldn’t have time to adjust. Maybe this is a strange admission coming from someone who wants today and wants tomorrow and doesn’t care how but just wants it now, but there it is.

I really need to learn how to be patient if I expect to be any kind of decent parent. Yet for the moment I’m tempted to thank my impatience for keeping me alert. If I weren’t so wired to want something to happen all the time, if would I be paying attention so closely?