Published on October 29th, 2020 | by Marie Holmes0
The Only Way Out Is Through
We hadn’t been downtown in months. The kids happily entertained themselves for the whole ride, swinging and climbing the jungle gym of the subway bars. I let them. There was hardly anyone else in the car, and at least they had their masks on. It was raining, but I had brought an umbrella for the two-avenue walk to the LEGO store.
The display windows looked dim, though, as we approached. The kids ran up ahead of me to the front entrance and I found them there, hands cupped against the glass, gazing forlornly at all the intricate LEGO sets we wouldn’t get to buy. How could they be closed? Weren’t we in Phase 2 of re-opening? I called the other LEGO store in Manhattan. And the one in Westchester. No luck.
A trip to the LEGO store was supposed to be a consolation for where we had planned to be on my son’s eleventh birthday: the new LEGO theme park. But our world had been flipped sideways by COVID, unraveling all of our careful plans.
Max had also picked a Minecraft image to screen onto his birthday cake. It was about the only “It’s your special day!” power we could manage to give him.
I turned off my phone and dropped it into my bag, looking up and down a dreary 5th Avenue as though Santa’s sleigh might arrive to rescue us.
“How about Barnes and Noble?” I offered. They sell lots of toys now that Amazon has taken over the book business. My six-year-old daughter was crying because of the rain, but they pretty quickly warmed to the idea. The rain seemed to be tapering off, and I suggested we grab lunch at the Shake Shack down the block. Between the weather and the social distancing, there was hardly even a line.
My pregnancy could not have been more planned. A year—a whole year!—before my partner and I started inseminating, I got to work making absurdly detailed charts of my menstrual cycles. I had a plan for the insemination, and it was about as private and sensual as can be when you’re preparing to copulate with a baby medicine syringe full of semen. Except it didn’t work. Not the first, the second . . . the sixth time.
Then there were doctors, different donors, pills and shots and more vaginal probe ultrasounds than I could possibly count. A year and a half later—a laughably short time, in retrospect, but it felt then like some eternal purgatory—I finally got knocked up. I stumbled out of the doctor’s office high on a sedative after that last embryo transfer, clenching my vagina and holding tight to the little flicker of hope that this would finally be our time. It was our second, and final, round of IVF on a long-defunct New York State grant program that paid medical fees for those of us without fertility coverage. In a Hail Mary move, I agreed to let the doctor insert four live embryos into my uterus. We had gone through eighteen embryos in all, and I had lost all of my optimism and a good portion of my sanity. But I was pregnant.
At some point during our trip downtown, the grocery store where we’d always bought Max’s cakes had left a message. They no longer had the machine that lets you print a photo image onto a cake, so we’d have to settle for personalizing with Happy Birthday, Max! written out in droopy letters.
After ten weeks of harrowing first-trimester bleeding, and a persistently breech presentation that a doctor managed to flip at 37 weeks, you’d think I’d have gotten the message that I wasn’t the one calling the shots. But, no. I was up to my eyeballs in “natural birth” books, busily planning an empowering experience that would vindicate my infertile, uncooperative body. I switched mid-pregnancy to an OB practice with an impossibly low C-section rate that did deliveries in the same hospital the Business of Being Born midwife uses as her backup. (In fact, at one point while I was in labor, my partner saw her roaming the halls in a tank top that read Better than oxytocin. No joke.)
Labor began in the middle of the night, and there was no mistaking the contractions for anything other than real. We arrived at the hospital around 7am that Saturday morning. The awesome midwife who held my hand during the version (when they turned the baby from breech) wasn’t there, as she just worked weekdays, and Dr. Skills who managed to flip the baby wasn’t around, either. We got the other doctor, the awkward one who had all the warmth of a houseplant.
The nurse sighed impatiently when I paused to deal with a grueling contraction instead of answering another dumb question for her intake form.
What was my religious affiliation, she asked.
“Atheist!” I affirmed loudly. It felt reassuring to have a little piece of my identity to hold onto while some brutal force was tearing me in two.
The nurse, however, did not look pleased by this response. My partner silently shook her head. We were already lesbians. Did I have to go and make things worse?
I was three centimeters dilated.
There were only a couple of people ahead of us in line at the Shake Shack, but when I went to place our order I was told that the milkshake machine wasn’t working. Seriously?
I tried to think fast.
“How about a Coke?” I offered. “I never let you drink Coke. It’ll be a treat!”
Max nodded half-heartedly in acquiescence. He’s quick to warm to a change in plans when there are toys involved, but the double-whammy of both the LEGO theme park and the LEGO store being shut was too big a disappointment for him to easily set aside.
I labored in the shower. If someone kept the nozzle aimed in just the right spot, I could get through a contraction without losing it. Six hours went by like this, though I couldn’t have told you whether it’d been minutes or days. Time spun around some unknown axis, and I howled through each blinding contraction, wondering in between what I was doing wrong and why this was nothing like any of the videos we’d watched in our childbirth class. Eventually, Dr. Houseplant came around and checked me again. I was still just three centimeters dilated.
She suggested we try Cervadil to speed dilation, and some Stadol (a narcotic) so I could rest.
I asked her if we could maybe just push pause on this whole labor thing and try again tomorrow.
“No,” she said. It was the only time she smiled. “The only way out is through.”
The rain stayed away, and the kids happily slurped their sodas at a table carefully set six feet from all the others. When they started flinging French fries on the ground to attract the birds, I made them stand up and walk the six blocks down to Barnes & Noble. There were heaps of toys, even LEGO sets. They each found items to their liking. My son had remembered that we were close to the comics store Forbidden Planet, and asked if we could go there, too, if it was open—which, happily, it was. For months, the most retail any of us had seen was the inside of our local supermarket, and we easily managed to fill multiple hours just shopping.
I fell asleep as soon as the Stadol reached my bloodstream. It was bliss. Unfortunately, when I woke up, I was eight centimeters dilated and the contractions were unbearable. All I could do was scream. Dr. Houseplant addressed me calmly and rationally, as though I was still capable of coherent thought. Women who were able to do this, she said, found a way to get “a hold” on the contractions. “That’s not happening,” I panted. She countered with an offer. Either she could try to stretch my cervix those last two centimeters, or I could get an epidural. I had my heart—and my ego—set on refusing the epidural, and tried with all my might to hold on to that desire through the mind-bending pain. I told her to stretch me.
If you haven’t heard of a doctor offering this up before, there’s a reason for that. It was so excruciating that I managed to pull a few words together through the mental fog of my agony: “Get your fucking hand out of me!” It was one of the few full sentences I spoke that day.
“Okay then!” she said, still placid, briskly snapping the glove from her hand. “Epidural!”
It was summer Saturday afternoon, but the West Village was eerily empty. As we walked back toward the 1 train with our purchases, it occurred to me that we were close to the hospital where it all went down, eleven years to the day. It’s since closed and been turned into condos none of us will ever be able to afford. I had Max pose in front of the entrance. He hates pictures, and refuses to let me share his image on Facebook, but he decided to humor my nostalgia that afternoon. His expression is something between a smile and a cringe, and I bet if you zoom in you can see the little divot under the corner of his right eye.
I pushed, futilely. “Are you tired?” Dr. Houseplant asked. I knew where this was going. I was, in my haze, still determined to avoid a C-section.
“No,” I said. A one-word challenge. It took all the strength I had just to make the sound.
“Well,” Dr. Houseplant continued, “you’re going to have to push for at least three more hours.”
And with that, my last glimmer of hope went dark. I had failed at giving birth. I couldn’t handle the pain. I couldn’t push out the baby.
In the end, after hours of pushing and a terrifying nurse screaming at me, the doctor gave me one last choice between unwanted options: forceps or a C-section.
I asked for the forceps. Not having a C-section, it seemed, was the only part of my birth plan I would get to hold onto.
The forceps cut us both, me in the expected place and Max beneath his eye. It was partly swollen shut for his first days, and he looked like a little pirate squinting up at us. We had been through battle—together. That was our story.
He knows the tale of his scar, how his head was stuck and the doctor used the forceps. I tell him it’s a reminder of how hard I fought to do what I thought was best for us.
As I told that hospital nurse, I don’t believe in any benign, paternal force at work guiding the events of our lives. As far as I can tell, it’s all a complete crapshoot: conception, birth, viruses. I am grateful to survive any of it. When I do find meaning, it’s in the telling of the story. Max will carry with him the tale of his eleventh, COVID-era birthday, disappointments and all, just as I hold close the story of his birth, because these stories of perseverance and survival make us who we are. With each re-telling, we knit the fabric of our family.