Before I gave birth to my son Henry, my biggest fear was not bonding with him. The so called maternal instinct–that primal, genetically encoded love and sense of protection for her child–seemed–as far as my Virginia-Woolf-Susan-Sontag-Betty-Friedan-loving-university-literature-educated self was concerned–a convenient myth forged by evolution and galvanized over centuries by sexist patriarchal civilizations meant to ensure women stayed at home to bear and raise the next generation.
Or else she risked being branded as unnatural, a freak. A bad mother: a label more terrible than evil because an evil person might just be evil in the eyes of the beholder. Even if he is evil, perhaps he had a terrible childhood. Maybe his dad crushed beer cans on his front fontanelle, his mom didn’t hold him enough, maybe he survived genocide, became a child soldier, or was a victim of relentless bullying, ADD meds, etc. In other words, even evil insists on context and understanding and, thus, makes it a relative term. But an unloving, uninterested mother is viewed as universally, unequivocally Bad.
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Of course, I had to love him . . . because otherwise I would be stuck taking care of a human being I didn’t really care for, a 24/7 responsibility that would become a sentence worse than death, indentured servitude.
But I couldn’t count on love mainly because I had and have doubts about my character, which up until becoming pregnant I accepted as a matter of course.
Let me explain. I think most people aren’t Good. I don’t think I’m a Good person. Well, probably good a little more often than not or rather I’m careful about not letting my jerk out too often. I’m hyper vigilant about not deluding myself onto any moral pedestal and I have to constantly and consciously work to imagine how the other person might feel if I say or do this or that. I am not by nature or habit kind or sweet or thoughtful. My saving grace from social schism is that I’m good at imagining, thank goodness, but Goodness is not by any means second nature to me.
So I became obsessed with maximizing my chances of loving the baby. I watched Ricky Lake’s movie, The Business of Making Babies, and I learned about oxytocin, the hormone that dilates the cervix by contracting the uterus, and, more importantly, the very hormone that ensures mothers and babies bond.
The film suggested, insisted really, that using a synthetic version of this hormone called pitocin might decrease the universe-altering experience of love-flow between mother and child. And since pitocin is often introduced after the administration of the epidural, I came to the conclusion that the key to bonding was to forego the epidural from the get-go. Go natural.
So I signed up Squeezable Companion and I for a Natural Childbirth class through Isis Parenting, a local chain store here in Boston and the surrounding area, offering baby products and parenting classes. We learned different labor positions that looked a lot like kama sutra poses, including the use of exercise ball as seen in Baby Mama starring Tina Fey, and different breathing techniques. SC became a pro at effleurage, which he would practice, exclaiming “Uh huh!” in a French accent for the duration of my pregnancy. I think my favorite part of the class was the instructor’s recommendation of drinking a glass of wine once the labor began. To help mommy relax, she said.
I even made up a birth plan, a sheet of paper outlining my wishes for how I wanted the labor to progress. It included a bullet point about how no one, not even SC, was to ask if I wanted drugs. I could ask, but no one was to ask me. This was a precaution against my own inclination towards drugs.
That is, I made the birth plan as a safety net from fear of my shortcoming, fear of myself. To ensure love out of fear.
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Five days past my due date and I had been in early labor for three days. This first stage of labor let me walk around and go about my day, including a trip to the airport to pick up Mother and Sister who flew in from Toronto on the fifth of October, expecting to see the baby that had yet to make an appearance.
The baby’s timing was eerily and happily impeccable, because he decided that day, the day Mother and Sister arrived, would be the day he would arrive as well.
It was around nine o’clock in the evening and we were just finishing dinner at home when SC and I recorded an hour of five minute contractions. We were ecstatic because the past two nights of sleeplessness due to contractions had left us impatient and exhausted.
As we drove towards the hospital, however, the contractions stretched out. After being monitored for an hour and then being told to take a walk around MGH’s many corridors for another hour, we were sent home, advised somewhat wryly, SC thought, to take a benedryl as a soporific and come back when we were really in labor. The on-call OB explained that the contractions needed to be closer together. “Like this,” she said, punching one fist into an open palm with aggression I felt was meant to pound the message into our overeager, jumpy, first-time laboring selves.
We returned home, dejected, at around midnight. I got into bed at one in the morning. At quarter past one my water broke. It was a gusher. I felt a dull but tense pop like a tympanic membrane being struck by a boxing glove and then a rush of warm fluid gurgling out. Just kidding; no gurgle.
A word of advice to expectant mothers, once labor begins, lay down an absorbent bed mat over your mattress and another one for the car seat. They’re inexpensive and you can order them online through Amazon. Even once the water breaks and gushes out, the fluid will keep flowing as contractions progress. The passenger side seat of our Corolla for instance was pretty damp by the time I stepped out of it at the hospital. And no, it doesn’t smell like anything.
And that was the last time I left my house as a childless woman. I couldn’t wait to finally get the baby out of me and see what he looked like and glad as hell that he didn’t come later and force my hand towards induction.
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But going natural is fucking tough. The expletive is applied with due justice. Really. Really fucking tough. There were a few contractions between two to four in the morning where I thought I would die from the pain. And I don’t use that word, die, hyperbolically. Rather than die, however, I passed out a few times after a tough set of contractiona, only to awaken from the next thundering herd of them.
And that’s how they came for me, like herds, cluster contractions, if you like. I hardly had time to think about whether or not I could endure the next stampede before the next one was there.
At this point, I’d like to fess up a pre-partum ignorance that some of you may rightly find offensive. Before actually giving birth–beyond the fear of not bonding with him, the quicker postpartum recovery, the reduced risk of tearing due to numbness as reasons for rejecting the epidural–I wanted to go au naturel because I thought women who asked for drugs were, well, wimps. A little less brave, a little less strong, not enough WOAH-man than those who did it drug free. They just didn’t have enough guts, I thought. I thought, centuries of women have given birth naturally and seen their babies through their introduction to the world without drugs, the back door of what should be a front entrance experience. If those women could do it, so could I.
But after about an hour when the anaesthesiologist came in to talk to me and SC about drugs, I was all ears. Even though he had to wait numerous times for me to get through yet another contraction, I was listening and thinking seriously about asking for the needle. The pain is beyond what language can convey, not to mention the fatigue that overwhelms reason, pride, and good intentions.
I got schooled. There is nothing, NOTHING, easy about labor, even with an epidural. Motherhood is in and of itself such an act of courage, an act that goes on for the rest of one’s life, that the way in which she begins that act has no bearing on her strength or strength of character.
I will add, however, and this is on a purely personal note, that going through my labor pains gave me an immense respect for my capacity to endure. It’s what helped me be my son’s mother during those tough first few weeks, the memory of me being strong enough.
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But I get ahead of myself.
There was a nurse–a nurse whose name sadly has eluded me since I came home with the baby–who gave me the best two minutes labor coaching I could have asked for. Forget the birthing classes, the websites, What To Expect When You’re Expecting.
She told me going natural is a mind matter. She said, your body can do it, but you have to think your way through it because your mind will keep trying to tell you you can’t. She said to keep my shoulders and back relaxed, to take deep breaths during the crescendo and decrescendo of a contraction, and short, shallow breaths at the height of the contraction.
The most important direction she gave me was this: own the contractions. Embrace and experience it rather than try to fight or ignore it. If you do, you’ll tense up and when tensing fails to fight it off, you’ll start to panic and tense up some more. Own it.
Sounds like labor in Nikes, but it worked.
It took two hours to dilate to ten centimeters, SC effleuraging like a mother fucker, and another hour to push the baby out. The ring of fire is real and the need to push is as urgent and unbridled as they say. They put the baby on my chest the moment he was born and flushed my system with pitocin, a highly effective vasoconstrictor as well as a uterine contractor, to stop any bleeding and push out the placenta. The OB stitched up the minor vaginal tearing with the help of a medical student as I lay there holding onto my baby with a dopey oxytocin laden smile.
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Henry Kwon Hayden was born seven pounds, five ounces, 20 inches long, on the sixth of October, 2012, at five o’ five AM. He has been a gift the likes of which I could never have imagined. My fears of not bonding with him was time and energy wasted on the highest end of the silly stick, because nothing could feel more natural than to love him. This love, a mother’s love for her child, ubiquitous to the point of being pedestrian, is the most significant, singular experience of my life. He almost–and I say this knowing how corny and dramatic and possibly offensive this may sound–makes me believe in God.