Once labor has begun, the routine for expecting parents is well established. Grab a bag, call a cab, hop in your car, race to the hospital–you almost hope you’re stopped by a cop. At least that was my fantasy. I wouldn’t wait to be asked for my license–I’d just point to my wife moaning in the seat beside me, shout “She’s going to have a baby,” and direct them to get us to the hospital right away. Rather than stick around and deliver it themselves, the police would escort us in a breakneck motorcade all the way to the emergency room. Following behind with the biggest girl in town, I’d be above the traffic laws. That was one advantage I saw in a hospital birth.
Grace, my wife, thought that might be nice, but preferred to give birth at home in bed. She was healthy, and her doctor said it wouldn’t be risky for her. We’d prepared for a home birth once before, four years ago. We’d taken classes, we’d planned to really clean our bedroom sometime before it happened, but she went into labor six weeks before the baby was due. That shut the door on home birth. Grace’s doctor, Dr. Flood, works out of HomeFirst, a practice with six doctors who specialize in home births. She sent us to Weiss Hospital, where they have plenty of machines, surgeons, and nurses available at any hour. I snatched my opportunity to speed down Ashland at 60–not unusual for some, but pretty badass for me–and didn’t get stopped. It was three in the morning. I didn’t even see a police car.
It was a little disappointing. After all the classes and checklists and buying new sheets and towels, there we were in the maternity ward. I was also relieved. HomeFirst doctors are proselytizers; they claim home birth is safer, more comfortable, and more practical for a healthy woman. They say the poor showing in mortality rates in the United States, 20th out of 20 industrial nations, is due in some measure to hospital procedures. They have a marvelous success rate, partially because they have strict health requirements of the expectant mother, and they bring emergency equipment. But I was skeptical. I was born in a hospital. Everybody I know was born in a hospital. I wasn’t entirely convinced, even after looking through The Home Court Advantage, a book by Dr. Mayer Eisenstein, the doctor who’d started HomeFirst. I thought they were well intentioned but slightly crackpot.
But if everybody I know jumped of the Brooklyn Bridge, would I follow? Depends. With the first kid we’d reached the point where both doctor and midwife were set–Dr. Flood and the midwife, Kay Fury. Flood and Fury would deliver the baby. Instead he was born like Frankenstein’s monster. Strapped to a table, wires and hoses hooked up to various parts of her body, Grace was wheeled to the operating room in the 11th hour of labor for an emergency Caesarean section. After a healthy baby boy was pulled out of her abdomen, she was on the nod for two days from the anaesthetic and hardly noticed the joyful proddings of a succession of hearty nurses.
All went well at the hospital, yet Grace chose to have our second baby at home. She pointed out several advantages: (1) She wouldn’t be strapped down during labor. (2) No travel or parking fees. (3) Less chance of infection (“There’s sick people in the hospital, honey,” she explained). (4) She’d only have to deal with one doctor and one midwife, instead of a succession of nurses and doctors on shift changes. (5) It was more likely that she’d have another C-section in a hospital–the HomeFirst doctors try to avoid surgical intervention to the point of last resort; they won’t even perform an episiotomy unless they have to (“Isn’t this vaginal-birth thing overrated?” I wondered). (6) It’s cheaper to give birth at home (appealing to my practical side). (7) It’s impossible to go home with the wrong baby (this after watching Oprah). (8) We have cable.
She also reminded me that a few months after our first was born, Dr. Flood had made the nightly news and the Star. She’d delivered the largest baby in American history, a girl weighing 15 pounds, 7 ounces–and it was a natural, vaginal home delivery. I remembered the full-page photograph in the tabloid. There was a note next to it that said “actual size.”
What could I say? We skipped the classes this time, but did clean the bedroom, throwing out an old broken refrigerator that had been sitting in the corner for about ten years.
Two weeks ahead of the due date my wife woke up coughing and coughed so hard that her water broke. She called Dr. Flood, who recommended an ultrasound scan. HomeFirst owns one ultrasound machine, and they keep it in an office in Villa Park. Grace called the doctor in charge of that office and wrote down directions. Neither of us had ever been to Villa Park. She made an appointment to see him. She woke me up.
I made arrangements for our son to spend the night elsewhere. I didn’t think that watching his mother’s labor would be a good way to start his relationship with his new sibling. Not breaking any speed limits, we took off for Villa Park. One hour later we pulled into an oasis near the Indiana border to get a map. I was lost, but contractions hadn’t begun yet. I called the doctor’s office and didn’t get an answer. I couldn’t find a map. I did the next best thing and went to the men’s room, where I asked two older guys in Cat trucking caps how to find Villa Park. One said I should turn around and go back north; the other recommended I go south, find some other highway, then go north on that. They left the choice up to me. I thanked them and drove to the next toll, where I paid 40 cents to get directions.
The doctor in Villa Park looked like a kid playing a video game as he twisted knobs, pushed buttons, and watched the screen on the ultrasound. Grace had a contraction. “Good,” he commented. “She’s definitely in labor.” He advised us to leave soon, predicting we’d miss rush-hour traffic and be home in plenty of time to have the baby. “Thanks,” I said. “And if it’s a boy, I’ll name it ‘Ike.'” He wanted to know why. “Because it’s going to be born on the expressway.” He said that was unlikely.
We were bumper to bumper most of the way home. It always amazes me that no matter where you are or what time of day it is, you can always find a traffic jam in Chicago. It was about two in the afternoon. Grace jumped in her seat and gasped, “Oh, there’s another one.” I gripped the wheel tightly, wondering if a state trooper would be as sentimental about babies as a city cop. Probably not, I thought. Grace was placid as we pulled up behind our apartment. Two morticians from the funeral home across the alley waved at us. They were each wheeling an occupied stretcher.
By nightfall the contractions were coming ten minutes apart. I called Dr. Flood, who said to call back when the contractions were five minutes apart and lasting over a minute. Half an hour later they were. I called an emergency number, got an answering service, and waited for her to call back. I watched the phone while massaging the small of Grace’s back. The contractions were lasting longer and longer, her assorted grunts and wails sounding more and more urgent. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law arrived. I stuck a tape in the VCR and turned up the volume. Two friends stopped by to drop off some film and stayed. No doctor. I picked up the phone. Grace shouted for me, and as I ran into the bedroom the phone rang. Dr. Flood would arrive in about 15 minutes, the nurse-midwife, Maureen, a little later. Dr. Flood said she’d had trouble finding a sitter, and Maureen had to come from the northern suburbs.
They arrived one after the other. Sure enough, I’d overreacted. “She’s about halfway there,” Dr. Flood said after examining her. Moans from my wife. Dr. Flood yawned. “The practice has had nine births in the last 24 hours. I’m beat.” She fell into an easy chair in the living room, said hi to our friends and relatives, and promptly sacked out. She snored lightly. Maureen, tall and calm, asked one of our friends, Anne, to boil water. We’d need it later for compresses. “I thought that was only in the movies,” Anne said.
My muscles ached, and I wanted a cigarette. If we’d been at a hospital, I would have smoked a couple of packs by now. But here, in my own home, I had to sneak smokes piecemeal in the stairwell. Like any other father-to-be I wiped my brow, but it was from laboring, not nerves. It’s work, this home-birth thing. All hands were busy. Everybody fetched water, tea, and juice. They took over massage duties while I smoked. They boiled water. They took phone calls. Checking the horoscopes for the day, my sister-in-law pointed out that mine said “Everybody you know will call you tonight.” “Score one for the psychics,” she said.
Grace never complained. She didn’t even say the word “pain.” She didn’t have time. I could hear her loud and clear in the stairwell, and I was sure they could hear her in the mortuary. Then Dr. Flood called me back to the bedroom. “It helps sometimes for the husband to get behind and help with breathing and pushing,” she said pleasantly. I stubbed out my cigarette and stretched. I wondered if we should have taken classes.
As soon as her cervix was entirely dilated, removing the last barrier to the birth canal, Grace could begin to push. I’d always believed that the idea of the husband helping the wife with breathing and pushing during labor was just some dumb new-age thing that serves about as much real purpose as those sack suits that some men strap to their bodies to give them an idea of what it’s like to be pregnant. I was wrong. Grace fell asleep when she wasn’t contracting, and in the few seconds in between she’d forget what she was supposed to do. So I breathed and pushed with her. Practice might have helped, but I doubt it. “It’s like a dance,” Maureen said encouragingly. Funny, I thought, we hardly ever dance.
I held my breath. Grace held her breath. I pushed. She pushed. The doctor recommended pushing over the toilet. Pushing over the toilet was a nod to the force of gravity. “Have you ever delivered a baby there?” I asked. “Well, it almost never happens,” Dr. Flood said thoughtfully. “But it did just a couple of weeks ago.” I must have looked alarmed, because she slapped my arm and laughed. “I guarantee that it won’t fall in.”
She checked Grace over the toilet. “Oh yes, I can see the head.” “Yeah,” my wife responded weakly. Now it had to clear the last hurdle, the pelvic bone. Grace waddled back to bed like a cowboy after a month in the saddle. I leaned against the wall, and she fell back on my chest. “Look how much hair,” Maureen exclaimed. I couldn’t see down there. “Are you sure that’s the baby?” I asked.
Later Grace said that she’d always thought that when the baby’s head is visible it means that one or two pushes more will get it out. It may work that way sometimes, but we were told that two hours is normal, especially for a woman giving birth vaginally for the first time. The head was visible for hours. During each contraction we pushed three times. When the doctor said “It’s coming!” I thought yeah, right. Maybe sometime next month. But Dr. Flood, deliverer of the largest baby in American history, told Grace to touch the head, we pushed one extra time, and it slid right out–a boy, streaked red and white with blood and vernix that Dr. Flood described as being a little like Noxzema.
He hardly made a sound. A thick rope of umbilical cord pulsed on the bed. Dr. Flood waited to cut it until it fell limp. “It’s giving the baby a transfusion,” she explained. Our friends took pictures, the bulbs flashed. “OK,” said Dr. Flood. “No more pictures. The flash hurts the baby’s eyes.” She has experience dealing with photographers.
The labor had lasted 11 hours, same as Grace’s first time. Our new son looked slightly pissed off, certainly not for the last time. He’d been born at 3:35 in the morning on March 19. He was healthy and weighed eight and a half pounds. The baby and I, my in-laws, and my friends all hung around the living room. We were limp, like a relay team after a marathon. Dr. Flood gave a short lecture on the placenta, which I tossed into a plastic garbage bag along with a sheet and some bloody towels. Grace exuberantly called me into the bedroom and pointed at her stomach. “Look, thin again.”
As dawn broke I took out the trash and helped Dr. Flood carry some equipment to her car. Friends and relatives prepared to go. Maureen stayed. As I tossed the plastic bag into the garbage container, our neighbors pulled up to the funeral home in their hearse. Doctors, midwives, and morticians don’t keep regular hours. I’ve seen boxes labeled “Human Remains” sticking out of the Dumpster behind the mortuary, and the thought crossed my mind that today our remains resembled theirs.
Maureen, with five children waiting at home, was the last to leave. Grace said she felt fine. Our day’s work done, the three of us lay in our bed. At the end we were right where we’d started. We slept.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.