Poor BiB. I thought that when May arrived, I’d have more time to blog, but it turned out to be the opposite. So here I am playing catch-up as always.
Dr. Awesome and I took a childbirthing class for the last five weeks through Realbirth. Like most such classes, it’s oriented to natural childbirth, but it’s more open to what are called “interventions”—such as epidurals—than other similar groups (like Lamaze or Bradley). While it stresses that women have for millennia given birth without such interventions, it also acknowledges that many women today are going to choose them, and screw what grandma went through back in the village. Because I’ve been on the fence about how I wanted labor to go down, it seemed like a nice compromise.
The class was held at a yoga studio near the Smith-9th St. subway station in Brooklyn. Located beneath the elevated station near a scrap-metal recycling center and next to the toxic Gowanus Canal, the area is about as old-school industrial Brooklyn as you can get. And a yoga studio in this environment is about as gentrified as you can get. Well, maybe you could top it with a Montessori school or vegan café.
Before the first class, we the Knocked Up queue for the loo while our menfolk wander around in their socks looking vulnerable, though they make game attempts to seem at ease. They know they are in a realm where they are, paradoxically, both secondary and essential players. After my turn, as I’m washing up I notice the brand of hand soap. It’s called Nature’s Gate.
As we settle into our floor seats—each a minor ziggurat of mats, pillows and folded blankets—I tell Dr. Awesome about the soap: “I got your nature’s gate right here, buddy!”
At least I refrain from pointing to my crotch.
There are seven couples, and we are quite conventional: all heterosexual, all married. Our instructor, Shara, is also a doula, which is a childbirth coach focused on the mother. Her props include illustrations of the growing womb (which makes me seriously grateful to my horribly squished digestive system for still operating pretty damned well); terrifying yet cartoonish charts laying out the three stages of labor; a Caucasian baby doll whose bald head is more Mediterranean toned from all the handling it’s received; and a soft, plush, anatomically correct model of the female pelvis, which she bends and squeezes like defrosting bread dough to show us the flexibility the pelvic bones have during pregnancy and labor.
What makes me immediately like Shara is what she does with this pelvis when she’s not using it: she casually puts her arm through the birth canal and hangs it from the crook of her elbow.
The first class is devoted to the stages of labor. We learn all sorts of practical facts, and some fun trivia too. A few weeks before labor, the baby’s head drops into the mother’s pelvis in a process called engagement. All I can picture is TNG‘s Jean-Luc Picard: “Engage!” Labor begins when a hormone excreted by the baby’s lungs changes the mother’s hormonal balance. Only 10 percent of births are actually accompanied by the water breaking; most “amniotic membrane rupture” is done by a doctor or midwife with a hooked-end rod. One of the criteria for the Dalai Lama is that his mother’s water must have broken naturally, with the classic movie gush. (Who knew?) Contractions hurt because they pull the cervix up and open, and the pain can range from menstrual-like cramping to a “hula hoop of pain” encircling the body. Oxytocin, the “love hormone,” is produced at only three moments in life: after orgasm, in the mother during breastfeeding, and toward the end of labor, when the baby crowns. Finally, the most awful phrase in all of childbirth—perhaps in all of life—is “mucus plug.” Like a wax seal on a bottle of wine but infinitely less pleasant to break, the mucus plug seals the cervix to prevent infection. It can break at any time up to a few weeks before labor begins, often leaving a quarter-size, pink-tinged, egg yolk-like blob in the toilet.
I don’t know if Shara was an actor in the past, but she’s comfortable role-playing a laboring woman. “Dads, these are some of the behaviors you can expect to see from Mom,” she says. Her first depiction is the first stage of labor, which can last for 4 to 24 hours—or more. But, who knew (again), contractions are usually mild and last only 15-45 seconds, and are followed by up to 20 minutes of rest. She puts her hands on the small of her back and paces slowly around the room. “Okay, I think this is it,” she says. “I think this is really happening. But I’m okay.” She tells us about various coping techniques: walking, leaning against a wall, sitting on a physioball, listening to music, hanging out with a good friend, having something to eat or a glass of wine, getting a massage from Dad.
Okay, I think. That’s not so bad. Food. Friends. Wine. Massage. I can do that. It’s like the perfect Saturday! I can do this!
It’s when she depicts the end of the first stage, when the contractions intensify and come more frequently, that I start to sweat it. Bending over to place her hands on a physioball and swaying back and forth, she says, “This is where you might use other coping techniques like controlled breathing or vocalization.”
“Vocalization” sounds so cool and removed, so anthropological. But what she means by vocalization is far more base: the uncontrollable noises emitted by a creature in distress. “Ohhhhhhhh, ahhhhhh, ugghhhhhh,” she moans and groans so realistically that every one of my animal senses go on high alert. These are the sounds of a being in pain, in trouble, in fear, and I am an utter mammal in response. I want to thump my foot like a rabbit signaling the warren, raise up on my haunches like a startled meerkat, screech like a monkey warning the others that an eagle is circling above. I would flee but I’m too paralyzed by the intensity of my reaction. I’m not alone. The room is utterly still. No one, it seems, even breathes.
Shara breaks out of the role-playing easily and says god knows what. My heart is racing. I can’t hear her. Dear lord. If someone else’s fake labor can so purely freak me out, what the hell is my own real labor going to do to me?
Transition is, as the name suggests, the bridge between the first and second stages of labor; it is then that the cervix dilates to 10 cm, the magic number after which pushing can start. On Shara’s chart, the contractions of transition are depicted as angry, red, jagged peaks coming in quick succession, with little time for rest; the cartoon face to the right of the illustration, which is supposed to show you how the average laboring woman feels during this stage, is twisted in pain and misery. Her skin is red and sweaty. It is seriously not helpful.
Transition is often considered the most difficult part of labor. It is also the shortest, which makes sense, because otherwise we as a species may not have made it. I mean, goddamn it! How is any of this practical? Why is does it have to be so painful? Intelligent design, my ass. If your Sky Dad (’cause He sure ain’t mine) thought this was the best way for humans to reproduce, He really isn’t too bright.
The second stage of labor is when a woman actually pushes, and most report that this stage is better by far than transition, because there is a direction (down) a point (baby out) and some control (said pushing). It is then that a woman feels an intense urge to move the kid along.
Shara forgoes the role-playing and leaves it to the birthing video to show us what this looks like. As soon as the film begins, I too feel the urge to move, but I can’t decide whether it’s to be closer to or farther from the screen. I’ve seen labor films before, but can’t remember in what context. Tenth-grade health class? A National Geographic documentary? Some self-punishing PBS night?
We see three births, two natural and one with an epidural. Ohhhh. Now I want to do some moaning myself. Because it’s immediately clear that the baby storms Nature’s Gate like a Vandal sacking Rome. Because when the baby crowns–meaning you can see the crown of its head–the vernix-slimy hairy skull presses against the so so so so so so so so so small opening with an unstoppable persistence, a demand to be born that will not be denied. Such will and force from so small a being stuns me. I want to burst into tears.
“Babies come out. Babies come out,” Shara had told us earlier in class, mantra-like. “All over the world, every day, babies come out.”
Every time the baby comes out, I’m completely overwhelmed. It’s only the presence of the others that keeps me from breaking into howling sobs. It’s not fear, or at least not entirely. It’s not amazement, or at least not entirely. It’s a confusing stew of heightened emotion and sheer physical response that has me around the bend. When each mother pulls her purple, wiggling, crying child to her chest with unadulterated relief and joy, I can barely contain myself. I gulp to try to loosen my tightened throat. I simply can’t stop myself from responding so intensely.
No matter how smart I like to pretend I am, no matter how much I try to be rational and thoughtful, when it comes down to it, I’m a complete fucking mammal. I’m one of Pavlov’s dogs.
The third stage of labor is delivering the placenta, which sounds a lot more genteel than it is. Because the placenta, though a remarkable organ that the female body grows only during pregnancy and which nourishes the fetus, is also a horrific blob of blood, veins and various other unknown (to me) viscera. I appreciate its awesomeness and functionality, but Jesus Christ! It is a foul-looking thing. Note to future producers of birthing videos: LESS PLACENTA, PLEASE.
In the darkness after the video ends, I try to wipe away the tears streaming down my face before anyone can see them. “Watch your eyes,” Shara says before turning the lights on. This gives me an excuse to keep my eyes closed, hoping the tears will be reabsorbed, that no one will be able to tell I kind of became a fucking mess right there. I’m not sure why it’s necessary to hide it, but it is. Dr. Awesome has long described me as a quarter-inch of steel covering pure butter. Maybe that’s why.
After class we go to Jakewalk, a bar on Smith Street that serves some 40 cheeses and meats, along with a huge selection of international beers and wines. At this point 33 weeks old, The Kid isn’t storming Nature’s Gate anytime soon, insh’allah. But just in case he’s getting any funny ideas after all those videos, I have a really expensive glass of red wine with the cheese and meat platter—a makeshift nepenthe for me and The Kid. By morning, we’ll both forget that babies come out, babies come out, that all over the world, every day, babies come out.
Because I, for one, am not ready.