Nina's first baby, Nikita, was born by emergency caesarean. Asya, her second baby, was born at home in 2001 weighing 8lb 6oz.
My mother always says that newborns look like little angels that haven't fully descended to earth yet. Newborns do have a faraway look in their eyes. But if you've given birth, you'd hardly say they come from the sky. There is nothing ethereal about pushing a baby into the world. It is just the opposite, a wholly carnal and earthy experience. Pushing Asya out felt like doing a very large and difficult poo out my vagina.
People keep telling me I had an easy labor. I'm sure it was, relatively speaking. Now that it's over, I'd be ready to do it again next week. But it didn't feel easy. It hurt like anything. Technically, the labor took only five hours - early Thursday morning, from when the first strong contractions began after midnight, until the placenta was born around five a.m. But I'd call it a ten hour labor with a day's break in the middle. I was awake most of Tuesday night with contractions every ten minutes that were strong enough to get me out of bed, but not strong enough to have to shout and holler. I sat up on the couch and breathed hard until about six AM., when they started to ease off.
'I'm in labor!' I announced proudly to my midwife on Wednesday morning. 'I told Sergei he could stay home from work. Was that the right thing to do?'
'You're not in labor, and Sergei's got to go to work,' Ali said firmly. 'You're probably going to have several nights like this before you have a baby.'
Crestfallen, Sergei went off to work, and I went back to bed. I took several long naps during the day, while Irina took Nikita to his playgroup and fed him lunch. My back ached, and I had occasional mild contractions during the day, but nothing more.
'It won't be tonight,' I thought Wednesday evening. But just in case, I put the birth pool together. It was sort of like a blue canvas tent on a five-foot-wide hexagonal frame, turned upside down. It filled to about 2 feet deep through a garden hose attached to a bathroom faucet. The Active Birth Centre rents the pools for £105 (about $160) for two weeks, plus £5.50 a day thereafter.
I went to bed at 10:30. Around midnight I found myself sitting up in bed in the middle of a contraction. I flopped back to sleep again between a few more contractions. Then I felt a trickle of water, as though I'd wet the bed, as my waters broke. I went to the bathroom for a pad, and the contractions suddenly became very strong. For a while I sat on the sofa in our bedroom, huffing and puffing. Sergei kept on snoring. There didn't seem much point in waking him up - what could he do? It was still going to hurt. I went downstairs to try to distract myself.
I guess contractions feel different for different people. I felt a stabbing pain in the small of my back that came in waves. One deep breath in, blow it away, another, another, soon it'll pass. Phew. It's gone. Then a rest before the next one begins. The day after Asya was born I told Chandler, 'It's like running a race,' because my diaphragm felt bruised afterwards from breathing hard. But that's not quite correct. During a road race, the pain is psychological as much as physical. You have to force yourself to keep running, because if you don't, you will simply stop running and quit the race. But in labor, there's no quitting. Don't like it? Tough luck, coz if you don't like it now, just think how much worse it will be worse in another hour. All you can do is to endure.
'I could watch TV,' I thought. I still hadn't looked at the instructional video that came with the birth pool, so I put that on. Some stupid woman holding a baby was telling in great detail how wonderful her water birth was. I switched her off and tried the end of 'Singing in the Rain,' which we'd started watching a few days before. Couples in beautiful clothes waltzed to a brass band. Infuriating gits. The contractions were coming every few minutes. If I was sitting when one arrived, I stayed sitting and swayed back and forth, taking deep breaths and breathing out with a loud ooooh, ahhhhhh. Sitting seemed to lessen the pain along the bottom of my belly. If I was standing, I paced to the end of the room and back singing the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic.' After awhile, it didn't help to walk away from the pain. 'This is no fun,' I said to myself. 'Remind me I said so next time I have the stupid idea that I want a baby. Nothing can possibly make this worthwhile!'
'Call me if you feel like you don't want to be by yourself anymore,' Ali had said. I called her around 1:30. 'I don't like this anymore.' It was such a relief to do something besides pacing up and down the living room that I didn't even notice the next contraction. 'If I can talk through a contraction, does that mean it's not that strong?' I asked.
'Well, usually that's right. But I can come out now if you want me to,' Ali said, polite but unconvinced.
Oh dear. It's going to get much worse than this, I thought. 'No, that's okay. Maybe I can survive awhile longer.'
I survived exactly fifteen more minutes before I called Ali back. This time I was careful to make lots of convincing puffing noises during a contraction.
'I'll come right now,' she said.
I can't remember what I did during the next 45 minutes. Knowing that help was on the way made the time fly. When I judged that she was about to arrive, I woke Sergei up. His sleepy sense of decorum dictated that he should be fully dressed for her arrival. I went downstairs again to wait. Finally I heard the creak of the front gate, then a clunk as Ali deposited her midwifery gear on the doorstep. British midwives travel with a number of what look like mini SCUBA tanks containing laughing gas to help the mother through contractions, and oxygen in case a baby needs emergency resuscitation.
Ali kissed me when I opened the door. Another contraction arrived. 'Breathe it out. You're doing great,' she said, pressing her hands hard against the small of my back. My back felt less like it was going to fall off with her hands pressing against it. Sergei came downstairs.
'We haven't filled the pool yet,' I said, 'Do you think we should?'
'I'll fill it,' Sergei offered.
'The hose attachment is in the top drawer in the bathroom, along with the wrench,' I said. 'It attaches to the shower.' I had tried attaching the hose a few times myself to make sure it worked, but it hadn't occurred to me that someone else might need to know how to attach it.
Sergei was up on a stool in the bathtub when I made it upstairs. 'The shower head won't come off,' he said. 'The wrench doesn't fit.'
'It fit when I tried it,' I snapped, then grabbed for my back again as another contraction arrived.
'Shall I have a go?' Ali climbed up on the stool, but couldn't make it work, either.
'Who have I got here? Two idiots?' I grumbled. 'I don't believe this. I'm going to have to do it myself.'
But five minutes later, Sergei and Ali attached the hose. 'You can turn it on now,' Ali called from our bedroom. We could hear the water swishing through the hose. A minute later I heard myself exhale hard at the end of a contraction. I was hugging Sergei. 'That sounds weird,' I thought to myself. 'Am I pushing? I don't feel like I am. Am I supposed to be doing this?'
'That sounded like a pushing noise!' Ali said, running in from the other room.
'I think I have to pee.' I tried to sit on the toilet. 'No, I think I have to poo.'
'It sounds like you're pushing,' Ali said. 'We'd better check how far dilated you are.'
After a few more contractions I made it to our bed, where Ali felt my cervix. 'You're fully dilated! That's good news,' she added, when I didn't look pleased. I was thinking, 'Oh no, now I'm going to have to push the baby out. What if I can't do it?'
'Would you like to get in the pool?' Ali suggested. It was only half full, but the water was rising quickly. The idea of moving or doing anything different sounded impossible, but I said I'd like to because I figured I was supposed to. I stepped out of my pyjama bottoms and into the pool. The instant I felt the warm water over my ankles I felt better. The warm bath was instantly soothing, just as all the water birth brochures promised. It was even better than the firm pressure of someone's hands against my back. It was like being hugged all over.
The next contractions still hurt in the small of my back, but they were completely different. Before pushing begins, it is a matter of passively enduring the pain. But when pushing starts, you feel like you're doing something. It felt sort of like throwing up - or should I say, throwing down, because the involuntary hurling of the stomach muscles went down into my gut, not up into my throat. Pushing was scary, uncontrollable. I didn't know how long I could keep it up before my body ripped apart.
'Just go with it. You're doing great,' Ali said. She was kneeling next to the pool. I held onto the rim and crouched in the water. Before, looking straight into Ali's eyes helped me remember that a contraction would end in another moment. Now I wasn't looking at her anymore. I just held onto the rim of the pool and puked my stomach into my pelvis, then closed my eyes and took deep breaths when a break came. I was making heavy, pig-like exhaling noises. Soon after I got into the pool, Nikita woke up next door. 'Mama!' Sergei went in to sing him back to sleep. 'No, Mama!' he protested.
Through the open door I tried to sing him a song between contractions, but quickly realized that Nikita was just as happy listening to his favorite Papa story about the rabbit and the hedgehog.
I started to feel more pressure in my bowels.
'The baby's head is moving down,' Ali said. 'I can see a lot of dark hair.'
'Really?' I wept.
'Just a few more pushes.'
It sounds strange, but the most pleasurable feeling was the hot sting of the perineum tearing as Asya's head crowned. The feeling of climax. The next push came immediately, and the baby's body squelched out into the water. And then everything stopped. No more pain. Instant peace. Ali reached down and lifted her to the surface. Her face was a purple maroon, with slippery black hair matted down on her head. She looked very big to have just come out of my body. She breathed, then cried.
'Now I get to check out if it really is a boy,' I thought. 'The part I missed last time.' I never got to see Nikita as he was pulled out of my belly behind the screen on the operating table. The doctors took him away, suctioned his lungs, wrapped him up and presented him like a Christmas parcel, with nothing but a red, terrified and screaming face sticking out. He might as well have come from a factory. It took months before I was convinced he was my baby.
I lifted the baby's bottom toward the surface. I saw what looked like a scrotum. The rest of the crotch was blocked by the umbilical cord running from the navel, down between the legs and into the water.
'You have a little girl,' said Ali. I took another look. Indeed, that was no penis I was looking at. Because of all the hormones in the mother's body, the baby's genitals come out all swollen. A daughter! I couldn't believe it. I put her to my breast, and she stopped crying. Ali tiptoed to Nikita's door.
'And then Rabbit said to Hedgehog...' Sergei was saying.
'You have a little girl,' Ali said quietly.
Sergei said later that he'd heard the baby crying, but couldn't really believe that it had been born already.
'Our Client isn't going back to sleep,' Sergei reported to me. Nikita appeared in the doorway. 'Ooh!' he said, taking in the blue pool, Ali, and his mother in the water. He padded up to the pool. 'Baby!' he announced, looking at the slippery beet-red person in my arms.
'That's your sister, Nikita,' Sergei said, his voice cracking. A few minutes later, sitting in the pool, I was on the phone to Mom, Brennan and Marina in Washington.
Asya and I sat in the water and nursed for nearly an hour until the cord stopped pulsing. Ali clamped the cord next to the baby's navel, then cut through the tough, horny tube. She pulled on the cord where it came out between my legs, and the placenta slid out like a big jellyfish.
'Is it true that eating a piece of placenta helps the uterus contract?'
'Yes, though I only know two people who've actually tried it.'
'I did last time, but it was probably pointless, because it was after I came back from the hospital. And it must have been filled with epidural drugs and other awful chemicals. I ate a bit of it raw.'
'What did you do with the rest of it? Bury it in the garden?'
'Um, no. I fried it up with onions and ate the whole thing.'
'Oh,' said Ali politely. We examined the placenta to make sure no part had been left in the uterus. Ali pulled off a small, meaty piece. 'This is probably enough to help your uterus contract.' In taste and consistency it was like eating warm, raw liver.
Sergei and Nikita came back from cooking up a pot of porridge. Asya and I climbed out of the pool. We all watched as Ali weighed Asya in a sling. 8 lbs. 6 oz., nearly a pound over Nikita's birthweight. Then Nikita watched with fascination while Ali sewed me up. My perineum had a fairly long but shallow tear from the bottom of the vagina toward the anus, which Ali said looked like it wasn't sitting together tidily and might heal in an uncomfortable way if it wasn't sewn up. She injected a surface anaesthetic, the only drug which appears in my birth notes, then put in four sutures. For several days afterwards, Nikita recalled, 'Ali. Mama. Snip-snip-snip!'
It was nearly seven when we finished our oatmeal. I can't remember now who was holding the baby. All I can remember is how famished I was. I was watching the clock. I couldn't wait until Nikita's nanny Irina arrived, so I could show off my good work. Sergei had paged her, 'Come at 8 a.m.,' an hour earlier than usual. When I heard her key in the lock, I wanted to leap down the stairs with the baby in my arms. 'But she'll tell me to go right back to bed,' I thought. I suddenly realized I was exhausted.
During the day Asya was born, I could still remember exactly what the sickening wave of a contraction felt like. But by the next morning I wasn't sure anymore. Did it really hurt all that much?
Some days I feel weepy and nostalgic. I'd like to be back in the blue plastic pool, pushing my daughter - my daughter! - into the world. Nikita still points to the shower and says in amazement, 'Hose!'
'That's right. The hose filled the pool in our room. And who did you see in the pool?'
Some days I miss being pregnant. How strange from one moment to the next to change from a beautiful, rotund, pregnant woman into a tired, empty-bellied mother. Now that life has gone back to normal, I wish I could be pregnant and special again. I miss the feeling of somebody's feet kicking inside me. But then I reach out my hand to touch Asya's soft, downy head and I remember how I pushed her out into the world. Life won't ever go back to 'normal' - Asya's here for keeps.
Nina's third baby, Sonja, was born in 2006.
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