On reflection, I should have been concerned when I saw the blue lights flashing, followed by a young police officer steadily walking to our car. You see, I was in the back seat. It was 4 a.m. And I wasn’t wearing any pants. While a few hours earlier this would have been an important consideration, now it just wasn’t a priority.
It was mid-fall in New Hampshire—October 25, 2010, to be exact. A thick frost coated the pumpkins, still waiting to be carved, on our front stoop as we rushed past, out of our little barn home and into the dark morning. The screen door clapped loudly behind us as we hurried to the car. My breath came out in steamy plumes, and my backside was as bare as most of the trees. However, a wardrobe malfunction was the least of my concerns.
Normally, I’m someone who cares deeply about first impressions. I pay attention to details. Planning and logistics are my thing. Gathering facts. Making lists. Accumulated information lets you command knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power is control. I’m not likely to be caught, well, with my pants down.
When I was pregnant, this Girl Scout tendency led me to choose a birth education course called the Bradley Method, which provides training for pregnant women and their coaches. My husband, Ian, and I participated in a small class for three hours every Wednesday for 12 weeks. By the end, we had three nuanced, bullet-pointed birth plans indicating our preferences, depending on various contingencies. I knew the name and purpose of dozens of commonly used drugs and procedures, their statistical effectiveness, and their long-term outcomes. We studied anatomy and physiology. We had a flow chart of the emotional stages women typically go through during labor:
1. Excitement: That giddy feeling when a pregnant woman realizes, “This is it! The wait is over! I will soon experience the miracle of birth and meet this magical new being whom I will love and cherish for the rest of my life!” At this stage, women often exhibit “nesting” behaviors: cleaning, cooking, etc.
2. Serious Focus: The beginning of the main part of labor, when women dig in and concentrate on the task at hand.
3. Creeping Self-Doubt:“Um, no thank you. I didn’t sign up for this.”
4. Holy Terror: “Get this demon out of me now or I will kill everyone within reach with my bare hands.”
It was four days after the last class. I woke at a little after 1 a.m. with tightening cramps in my belly. From the intensity and duration, I knew this could be either the beginning of labor or a false alarm. I guessed that the contractions were about 20 minutes apart. So I waited an hour and a half before I woke my husband and asked him to start timing.
They were closer together than I thought, about six or seven minutes. But I didn’t panic. After all, we’d been reminded again and again in class that giving birth is a marathon. I had a long road ahead of me. I took out the index card on which I’d neatly hand-printed important phone numbers, and I gave it to Ian. As he made phone calls to our doula, my mom, and the hospital, I strolled, alone, composed, into the living room and dimmed the lights, thinking, So it begins.…
I knew I needed to feel grounded and confident, because statistics showed that the average first birth lasts about 15 hours. Coolly, I took out my phone and pressed play on the 16 hours of music I’d diligently collected for the occasion. My playlist was epic: It covered all genres and included selections that spanned hundreds of years. There were different moods and tempos that Ian could play at my request, depending on which emotional stage I’d hit. He didn’t know it at the time, but I really thought of him as more of a DJ than a coach. I trusted myself. I trusted my body. Ultimately, my genes carried the wisdom of all the wombs that had birthed my ancestors. I breathed deeply and swayed, settling into the soothing bass and lilting, jazzy lullaby of my first track, a beautiful song by Betty Carter, for about … 45 seconds.
Somehow, in that short amount of time I seemed to have bypassed stages one through three and had unceremoniously arrived at Holy Terror.
“IAAAAANNNN, start the shower!” I shouted. I’d read that the heat of the water could help relax muscles and perhaps slow down labor. Stumbling my way back through the dimmed room, I made it to the shower. The steamy comfort poured over me. A moment later, I had to go to the bathroom.
When I made it, soaking wet, to the toilet, I recalled another factoid from class. Since the baby comes out of the same general area where certain other bodily functions occur, the sensation of birth is sometimes akin to that of the elimination process. Having a baby, in other words, feels like pooping. But more like pooping out the Rockettes as they work their way through the middle of their Christmas Spectacular kick-line routine. With a rush of panic, I realized I was pushing. And when I say “I” was pushing, I don’t mean “Grace Aldrich” was doing it. There was no Grace. My identity had been usurped by a verb. I was the Big Bang in reverse. I. WAS. PUSHING.
Still dripping and naked, I lurched out of the bathroom to the edge of the bed and assumed a prayerlike position. “Ian! You’re going to have to get me dressed—fast!”
My coach wanted to call a time-out. “OK. Yes. Wait. What? How are you feeling? We need to go? Should I get the flow chart?” Then he held up my nursing bra in one hand and the flow chart of emotional milestones in the other, a look of complete bewilderment on his face.
Then another wave hit me.
“IAAAAANNNN! I think the baby is coming! I think it’s here. You need to check.”
“Now. Check and see if the baby is here.”
He moved behind me and bent down.
“OK. Yes. Let me check.” There was a two-second pause, and then he stood straight back up. “Nope, we’re good. Let’s go.”
I learned later that, in fact, he had not looked.
* * * * *
Ian managed to get my bra, shirt, and pants on me. Well, sort of. You see, I was wearing maternity pants, a brilliant invention. Mine were a cropped cargo style with a matching khaki elastic tube that could be pulled over a growing belly to the top of the rib cage in lieu of the normal zippered fly and waistband. However, at that moment the idea of pulling up a constricting elasticized sleeve over my middle was unthinkable. Ian hiked the pants up only until the top of the tube hit the top of my knees. I tried to make my way downstairs to the car, halting and groaning at each step.
Now the contractions were coming so hard that even my voice had changed. It, too, seemed to be contracting, deepening and hardening into something unrecognizable and primal. Think Karl Childers from Sling Blade.
“Mmmhmm, get my purse. Yup-mmmmm.…”
“Can I help you down the stairs?”
“Mmmhmm, don’t touch me. Uhnuhnmmmm.…”
By the time I made it to the front door, I was struggling and exhausted. I had no idea how close the contractions were. The prospect of going out into the cold night, getting into the car, and bumping down winding country roads to the Cheshire Medical Center 20 minutes away in Keene seemed impossible. Criminal, even. I shook my head defiantly and said, in my new creepy voice, “Mmmmnnnh, I’m staying here.” That’s when my steady, nurturing husband looked me straight in the face with an aching tenderness and said, “Get. In. The. Car!”
And I did. I crawled into the back seat on my hands and knees. I heard the door shut behind me, and the car peeled out of the driveway at breakneck speed. My pants slipped off my hips, but I kept my head down, my eyes closed, and focused on breathing as best I could.
The trip was an excruciating blur, but before I knew it we were there. I felt the car pull over and stop. I almost wept with relief. It was then that I looked up to see blue lights flashing through the back window.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this story. Two miles from the hospital, pulled over for speeding.
Ian tells me that the officer looked really young. I couldn’t see, because I was in the back seat on my hands and knees, facing in the opposite direction. We definitely hadn’t covered any such scenario in class. And all I wanted to do was finish track one.
As I lamented what remained of my birth vision, Ian yelled out the window in a way that simultaneously conveyed the urgency of the situation and still seemed rational and law-abiding. The officer continued his leisurely approach. Feeling desperate, I called out the only thing I could think of at that time. “MMMMNNMNNN, please, sir, I’m pushing! NNMHMHMHMHMNNNHH.…”
He never made it to the front of the car. I don’t know what he saw through the back window or what unearthly sounds he heard, but whatever it was made him freeze, jump back, and wave us on like a third-base coach. Two minutes later, we pulled up in front of the emergency room. We had beaten both our midwife and the doula. An ER doctor rushed out, came around the back of the car, and opened the back door. For a second I had the urge to pull up my pants and turn around so that I could properly introduce myself, but all I could do was awkwardly wave at him over one shoulder. “She’s crowning!” he exclaimed.
Then I heard shuffling papers behind me. My husband wanted to be sure the doctor understood all the work we’d done to prepare. “Um, this is our birth plan,” he said.
“These are our preferences if poss—”
“Ah, this is happening now!”
“OK, oh, OK. Yes.”
And then the doctor said the magic words: “Grace, push.”
Two, maybe three, pushes later, at 4:33 a.m., right there in the hospital parking lot, I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy 8.9-pound baby boy.
I was still in the back seat, smiling to myself at the thought of holding my son in my arms, when I looked up through the back passenger window and saw a woman walking quickly away from the car and into the hospital, carrying a bundle. My son. “Why are they taking him?!” I was gripped with panic, not realizing that a nurse had taken the baby away into the safety and warmth of the hospital only as a precaution.
I backed out of the car. I saw at least seven people ready to assist me. I looked at Ian, who was clearly torn as to whether he should stay to see if I was all right or follow our son into the hospital.
“Go with the baby!” I urged. And Ian rushed inside ahead of me. Minutes later, as I was reclining comfortably in the maternity ward, Ian, beaming with pride, came in carrying our son and bent down to hand him to me. “He’s perfect,” Ian said. I held my son, and my husband put his arms around both of us. I breathed deeply and relaxed. Everything I needed or wanted was right there with me.
Members of the ER staff popped their heads in to congratulate us. Some of them were in tears. Many had never experienced a birth, and emergency rooms don’t always see such happy endings. The next morning Ian found the abandoned five-page birth plan, flapping gently in the breeze, on the roof of the car.
One thing I had underestimated during this experience was the silent protagonist of the day. The life force who had his own agenda, who had his own timing and his own story to tell. The only story that really mattered. My X factor, the child we named Calvin. Nothing had gone according to my plan. I wasn’t prepared. And it was the perfect primer for parenting.