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My bags have been packed for a week. Toiletries, change of clothes, coffee, and several home birthing books. The balloons I tied to my gifts are already deflated, but at least I’m ready.
“How interesting,” says the cabdriver, “I knew you couldn’t be partying in Berwyn!” As if on a weekday night, at 11 PM, with luggage in tow, a 36-year-old woman would be headed for a party anywhere. He asks me no questions about the impending birth, but delivers a 40-minute monologue featuring yuppie bashing and Robert De Niro impersonations.
I am relieved to arrive at the Kellys’ home. “Nothing’s happening yet,” Bob says, offering me a root beer. Both Greta and the doctor are upstairs, trying to sleep. Bob promises to wake me if the labor gets serious. I stretch out on the living-room sofa between cool sheets as the stuffed armadillo on the coffee table looks on.
I am an unlikely candidate for this job. At a party three months ago Greta mentioned she would like an extra person to attend the birth, for emotional support, and I immediately volunteered. But I have no special medical knowledge, no children of my own. When I was a girl, I thought childbearing was every woman’s duty, and feared the inevitable day of pain and humiliation. Attempts to assuage my fears were futile.
“Every woman goes through it.”
“You forget the pain.”
“If they don’t cut you, you’ll tear.”
“They have to shave you, for antiseptic purposes.”
“They have to give you an enema, otherwise you’ll embarrass yourself on the delivery table.”
“They have to put you in restraints, you won’t be yourself, you might kick the nurses.”
And finally, “You’ll be in so much pain that none of these things will matter.”
Within the next few hours, I will learn that these are lies.
At half past midnight, the procession down the long staircase begins. First the doctor, on his way to use the downstairs bathroom. A small white-haired man of about 50, he introduces himself as Harry (not Doctor) Schaumway, shakes my hand, and thanks me.*
“We need all the help we can get,” he says.
He seems refreshingly humble.
Next the mother-to-be descends the steps–slowly, like a bride, wearing a knee-length Mickey Mouse T-shirt.
I bolt up, expecting the answer to some great mystery, somewhat shocked that Greta has not changed–that she can walk, can talk, is not experiencing intense trauma. I know better, but this is my gut reaction.
“Did I wake you?” she says.
“No . . . are you OK?”
“I just can’t sleep. Feel like walking around.”
Greta introduces me to the inside of her kitchen cabinets, demonstrates the art of blending protein drinks in the Cuisinart. In the freezer are tiny fruit-juice ice cubes–for energy, Greta tells me, but I know they’ll be better than biting on bullets. I twist the plastic tray with no luck. Greta finds a hammer and starts banging. Hot tap water finally loosens them, and the watery mess pours equally into the bowl and onto the table. A simple procedure has become unexpectedly complex, and the metaphor disturbs me.
The hammering wakes Bob.
“What are you doing up?” he says. “Save your strength for the morning.”
“If I walk around it might come faster.”
“When my friend Mary had her first baby,” I say, “they stayed up and played rummy.”
“Where are the cards, honey?”
“Who needs rummy?” Bob says, “let’s get drunk and snort coke.”
Greta laughs. The Kellys don’t even do coffee.
“I wish I bought balloons,” says Bob, “I wanted to hang them from the clothesline.”
“I brought balloons!” They don’t hear me.
“Why didn’t you buy them at K mart?”
“All they had left was one little bag–I wanted hundreds.”
But Greta isn’t listening. She leans over a chair and takes deep breaths.
“Phew! That was a bad one.”
“It’s gonna get worse.”
“C’mon hunch, let’s go to bed.”
Until I was eight, I thought all babies were cut out of their mothers’ bellies by doctors. We were city folk, I never saw the proverbial birth of a calf. I learned the truth from a summer rerun of Medic. The TV woman was pregnant and screaming. Where was the doctor, the anesthetic? My mother finally told me about our “special opening down there,” and I panicked. I considered the convent.
As an adult I became more enlightened. I knew about choices–both life-style and childbearing options. I’ve heard tales from trusted friends about painless childbirth. Yet I remain ambivalent.
So why do I crave the vicarious experience of Greta’s childbirth? Is it friendship, curiosity, or do I want to open my mind to the possibility of children before it’s too late? I wonder if I deserve to participate, if my motives are pure, if Greta and I are close enough friends. “My only concern,” I told her weeks earlier, “is that I’m really needed. I want to help.”
Fifteen minutes later, Greta is downstairs again, displaying her bare abdomen and exploded belly button.
“It’ll pop back,” she says. “Last time it did.”
Four years ago, Bob and Greta chose to have their first baby at home, despite sincere concern–and thoughtless criticism–by family, friends, and coworkers. The labor was slow and agonizing. Finally it was decided that Greta should be taken to the hospital, where she was given a spinal anesthetic. It was a forceps delivery. Their daughter, Bridgette, is sleeping upstairs.
I ask about the thin vertical stripe running from Greta’s navel to her pubic hair.
“I forget what they call it.”
“Maybe that’s your seam,” I say, explaining how two halves of an embryo close together. I don’t know what I’m talking about, and start to worry about harelips and cleft palates. I change the subject.
The home birth books recommend music to relax the mother-to-be. Bob is back downstairs, fumbling with the radio.
“Nothing too wild,” Greta says; the dial settles on Barry Manilow.
Bob asks if I’ve seen his new paintings. A big cartoon hunchback hunkers behind a rock, surreptitiously peering at distant, grazing buffalo. “That’s funny,” I say. A genuine response, although I don’t know if laughter is proper. Bob never explains his work. He just does things.
And it’s obvious he wants to sleep. Again he begs Greta to come to bed.
I butt in. “She’ll just feel anxious lying awake in the dark.”
“But she needs her energy.”
“You go to bed Bob. No use everyone being tired.”
“All right, but not too late, OK?”
“OK,” we say in unison.
I take the borrowed books out of my bag and place them on the coffee table. Greta adds several more to the stack. With open books between us we review relaxation techniques and phases of labor. We run our fingers over diagrams of babies sliding down the birth canal. I feel like I’m at a pajama party cramming for a high school biology test.
Greta has another contraction. It’s been 15 minutes since the last.
“What’s taking so long!” she says. “They were down to ten!”
“I suppose they’re just irregular,” I say, assuming this is like irregular periods. But what do I know?
“It’s starting to feel like last time,” she says. “I’m afraid it’s gonna be so bad.”
“Of course it feels a little like last time–you’re having another baby!”
It is 4 AM by the time Greta goes upstairs. I can’t sleep, so I read about what can go wrong. Breech births. Baby’s head turned the wrong way. Umbilical cord wrapped around the neck. I fall asleep and dream of Greta in labor. She is lying on an examining table with her legs spread–a round piece of wire mesh at her vaginal opening. Her father introduces himself as the public relations coordinator; he says he is the only one here authorized to dispense information about Greta and her baby. He is too young and looks like Harrison Ford.
In real life I have met Greta’s dad only once–a zestful European who forced me to down a shot of imported liqueur.
Bridgette’s cries wake me up. For a split second I think, “Baby?” It’s 7 AM. I shuffle into the bathroom and brush my teeth with bubble-gum flavored Muppets toothpaste. I unpack my one-cup brewer and make myself a cup of coffee.
Outside the air is laden with a summer snow of cottonwood fuzz–the heaviest I’ve ever seen. The temperature is in the high 70s. A beautiful, sunny day.
The procession begins again. Greta and Bob, both bleary-eyed, come downstairs with Bridgette, who squints at me before burying her face in Bob’s neck.
The doctor asks for directions to the nearest Catholic church. He says he’ll be back in an hour. I ask Bob if he thinks the doctor is going to Mass.
“On a Friday?” he asks. The Kellys are Lutheran. But I’m an apostate Catholic and instinctively know that the doctor will be praying for a safe delivery. I feel ambivalent knowing that God, rather than technology, will be providing an edge of security.
Bridgette’s uneaten Cheerios float to the top of the bowl. Greta tells me to leave it for later. Bob talks of buying bubble-gum cigars for all their friends, but he’s sure the candy store is closed. I wash breakfast dishes and cut my hand on a chipped glass measuring cup. Bob finds me five tiny band-aids and races back to Greta.
“They’re five minutes apart now,” says Greta. “Should we tell the doctor?”
“I suppose,” says Bob.
I volunteer. The doctor has set up a temporary office in Bob’s studio, and is on the phone when I interrupt him.
“The Kellys wanted me to tell you that the contractions are five minutes apart.” I use my most formal voice.
“Is she in labor?”
“Uh, no. I mean I don’t know. They just wanted me to tell you . . .” I feel like an idiot. If she’s not in labor, what are we doing here? The doctor checks Greta’s cervix to see how much it is dilated. He will not, however, intrude in their family life. He behaves like a hired servant–seen and not heard. The home birth book compares him to a lifeguard–he will intervene medically only when necessary.
My role is more nebulous. When I volunteered for this duty I wanted Greta to know that she could reject me, no hurt feelings. I even suggested she find an attendant who had already been through childbirth. But Greta said that most women who had children probably wouldn’t be able to get away on short notice. Although neighbors could have cared for Bridgette, Greta wanted her at home to experience the birth of a sibling. With this in mind, I instinctively knew I’d be needed.
I have known Greta casually since 1981, as the wife of a friend of a friend. It wasn’t until we worked on a project together a few years later that I began to know her personally. Greta rarely used makeup and often wore clothes that accentuated her slim, boyish figure–T-shirts and culotte shorts. Her downright sweetness and genuine curiosity were often misread as childish naivete, but I was awestruck. She seemed to possess a spiritual superiority.
A Czechoslovakian immigrant, she came to this country when she was 14, two years after the Prague spring. Yet she remains uninterested in the complicated political history of her homeland. Her strongest memories are of the difficult transition she made as a stranger in a new land, compounded because she was an only child whose parents divorced soon after their arrival.
Bridgette refuses to acknowledge me, even when I remind her I’ve brought her gifts. She pounds and rolls skinny tubes of clay so forcefully that her kiddy stove shakes. I join her, silently, and construct a wobbly yellow dog. I expect her to flatten it, but she adds it to her menagerie of snakes.
Bob comes downstairs and suggests I take Bridgette outside. I’m not sure she’ll go with me. Greta slips on a pair of striped stretch pants and the four of us walk a narrow flagstone path through tall flowering plants. Bob talks incessantly, explaining which plants were there when they moved in, which seeds they sprinkled where. I touch poppies, smell roses. We discover a huge earthworm in a moist mound of dirt.
“Look at the snake!” I say to Bridgette.
“That’s no snake, that’s a worm!”
Our first conversation.
Greta gasps and leans against the garage. Bob rubs her back.
“I wonder what the neighbors are thinking,” he says.
Next door there is a basement sale; down the street a garage sale. Bob encourages me to check them out. At first I think he’s trying to get rid of me; then I realize that he wants to go himself, but can’t. I run next door so Bob can enjoy his vicarious kick.
When I return, I tell them the basement sale is a rip-off.
“Corncob holders–a dollar a set–same thing they cost in the store.”
“Any neat stuff?”
“Dusty old books–authors you never heard of.”
For the next few hours, whenever Bob is nervous, he will glance out the window and say, “Look at all those people going to the basement sale!”
Bridgette crawls on the sofa next to her mother’s belly. Greta cradles her for a while but when a contraction comes she whines:
“No Bridge, please!”
The child rolls off the sofa, dejected. Greta suggests I show her how to feed the goldfish, just purchased yesterday as a deterrent to sibling rivalry. I place a pinch of foul-smelling crumbs in Bridgette’s damp palm, babbling on about the dangers of overfeeding.
The doctor is at the kitchen table, plastic cooler and medical journal laid out before him, eating his bag lunch. Determined to occupy Bridgette, I decide we will prepare more fruit-juice ice cubes. I pour some apple juice from a heavy glass bottle into a small plastic cup, then Bridgette takes over. There must be about 40 depressions in the ice-cube tray; an adult would just slop juice over the whole thing. But Bridgette pours delicately, with intense concentration, cube by cube. The doctor says nothing.
Greta takes me on the grand tour. It has been a long time since I’ve been upstairs, in this more private area of her home. This is where Greta will finally deliver. The doctor’s tools sit on a small, newspaper-covered table, the only touch of sterility in the master bedroom, with its flowered wallpaper, rich oak woodwork, dried flowers, and sunlight streaming through sheer white curtains. In the small adjacent room, Bridgette hides behind her bed.
“Where’s Bridgette?” Greta asks.
I gesture toward the bedroom and whisper “hiding,” then say aloud, “I don’t know.” We pretend to look for her and call her name. Finally she emerges, just as Greta is having another contraction. She leans on the wall and I rub her back. “Where’s Bob?” she asks. This time I don’t know.
“Get your daddy,” I order Bridgette.
Greta is lying on her side on the living-room sofa. Bridgette sits at her feet, tugging a limp balloon. Bob grabs the gift away and tears off a ribbon.
“What could this be?” he says, shaking the package.
“Oh Bob, now!”
He rubs Greta’s back.
Bridgette rips apart the paper, oblivious to her mother’s pain.
At the Toys R Us I bought the one doll that charmed me, the perfectly sculpted face, the prettiest ruffled bonnet. I’m almost sad to give it up.
Greta opens the doll’s eyes. “Oh, isn’t she cute!”
I tilt back the doll’s head. It makes a soft whirring sound and crawls across the carpet. I place the doll in its stroller and push its head. She wiggles her arms and legs like she’s fussing. Bridgette starts and stops the action, squirming with delight. I’m afraid the doll will soon be broken.
“Are you gonna give Laurel a big hug?” asks Bob.
Bridgette walks away from me, doll in hand. Bob repeats himself.
“Don’t push it,” says Greta.
Bob looks frightened as he applies a cool washcloth to Greta’s forehead.
“Need anything from downstairs?” I ask.
“Could you make her some lunch?” Greta asks softly. “She’s hardly touched those Cheerios.”
“Sure. What should I fix?”
“Tuna salad,” says Bob.
“No! Peanut butter and jelly’s fine. The bread’s in the freezer, you can toast it. And cut her up an apple, too, in little pieces.”
“C’mon, Bridgette, I’ll make you some lunch and we can eat it in the backyard.”
Surprisingly enough, she follows.
Bridgette and I sit on a picnic bench.
“Are you excited about the baby?”
“Do you want to trade a piece of apple for a piece of my orange?”
Bridgette eats all the apple and one-quarter of her sandwich. I grab a quarter without asking. Cottonwood fuzz gets stuck in my mouth.
“Look at the snow!” I say.
“That’s no snow. That’s from the dandelions.”
I fetch the crawling doll and its stroller.
We sit cross-legged on the sidewalk, undressing and redressing the doll. It crawls across the concrete, heading for the tall grass.
“Oh noooo!” I say in a Mr. Bill squeak, “she’s going to the jungle!”
Bridgette giggles and retrieves the doll. When the paper plate with half-eaten sandwich gets in its path, the doll just pushes it along. This excites Bridgette, and we force the doll to push its own stroller, which it does quite easily.
Bridgette heads for the swing.
“All I need is one big push to get started,” she says.
I go inside and wipe off the table. A few minutes later, Bridgette follows, clutching a handful of wild mushrooms. I tell her they are poison and toss them in the garbage. She tells me about some “friend” who eats mushrooms straight from the yard. I tell her that even experts make mistakes. Unimpressed, she heads back to the swing.
Greta is lying on the low bed in Bridgette’s room, wearing a pink nightgown.
“I feel a little better now,” she says. “I took a shower.” It seems that nature has provided her a welcome rest. Both Bob and the doctor are in the small studio adjacent to Bridgette’s room; Bob is at his drawing board.
“Things are moving along,” he says. “She had her ‘bloody show.'”
“Does that mean her water bag broke?”
“Not exactly,” says the doctor, and returns his gaze to the Catholic newspaper spread over his lap.
I serve mother and daughter blueberry yogurt and the remainder of Bridgette’s uneaten sandwich. Bob goes downstairs to fix himself lunch. Suddenly Greta has several strong contractions in a row. She no longer wants her back rubbed, but needs to clutch and squeeze my arms. She begs me to fetch her husband.
I find Bob in the kitchen, chopping an onion.
“Greta wants you.”
“I’m almost finished.”
“I’ll finish. You go. Want more mayo in this?”
“Just a little onion.”
Only two end pieces of bread remain. I find some frozen minibagels and zap them in the microwave. I bring a half-dozen appetizer sandwiches upstairs.
Bob is prone, trapped behind Greta, looking both scared and hungry.
“Go with it, hunch,” he says, “it’s OK, I’m here.”
“Quiet, please!” she says. Bob reaches for a sandwich but Greta won’t loosen her grip. She seems out of pain but is breathing heavily, recovering. I hold the sandwich to Bob’s mouth. He takes a bite. He wrangles an arm free and eats with one hand. Greta finally opens her eyes.
“Oh, that was a good idea,” she says, “I forgot about those bagels.” I eat a tiny tuna sandwich and notice, on the little girl’s dresser behind me, a pile of wild mushrooms.
As Greta’s pain intensifies, the experience becomes more acute for everyone except Bridgette, who seems bored and tired. Greta stands upright in the bedroom, nightgown open, leaning over, clutching Bob. Her knees are shaking. A long drop of blood dribbles down her leg. The doctor orders me to grab newspapers and we arrange them under her.
Greta has warned me repeatedly about “transition,” the most difficult part of the birthing process. All I understand is that it’s the time before full dilation and “pushing.” The book lists a number of symptoms–shivers, sweats, nausea, and the understandable trauma of the mother-to-be, which is underplayed as “irritability.”
“I don’t know how I’ll be,” Greta warned, “Last time I wanted everybody out of the room.”
This time, however, Greta will take another shower.
“I’m getting in the shower with her!” says Bob. He walks her slowly to the bathroom. I stand by waiting for instructions.
“We’re both getting in the shower,” Bob says again, taking off his shirt. I finally realize he’s hinting for privacy.
Now Greta is on the king-size bed, pillows between her legs. Bob is beside her, still damp from the shower, or perhaps with perspiration. His shirt is off. Bridgette lies next to them, slowly falling asleep. Greta squeezes Bob’s hand with each push. Bob cries “ouch,” and “my wedding ring!” He readjusts her fingers. Greta complains that her back is cold. Her nightgown is twisted and stuck under her, exposing her back. The doctor and Bob try to lift her.
“NO!” she cries.
They tuck a blanket behind her instead. I close the window.
The word “labor” aptly defines what Greta is undergoing now–grueling, intense, physical work. Her cries have become thin, squeaky. She barely recovers from one long push before the urge overcomes her again.
Yet this is not the fearsome scene I witnessed on Medic as a girl. The cottonwood trees outside the crisp curtained window and the angelic dozing four-year-old reassure me. Not for one instant do I feel that anything will go wrong.
But neither is this what I saw last week on a home birth video. There are no grins of joy or happy talk between pushes. The New Age home birth propaganda implies that anyone can have a drug-free, pain-free birth–if only she follows the instructions. I know that some women have enjoyed painless labor. I believe that knowledge empowers, that fear intensifies pain, that relaxation can mitigate it. Yet, as with everything in life, all is not in our control. Luck plays a crucial role.
None of us wear face masks or surgical gowns. The doctor wears a white short-sleeved shirt and brown polyester pants. His only doctorlike attributes are his two pairs of gloves–rubber ones covered by a pair of plastic disposables. He holds hot towels between Greta’s legs to ease the pain and stretch out the external vaginal area, hoping to avoid an episiotomy. He constantly readjusts his chair’s position with his feet and bottom. I run to the bathroom and bring him a stool. He nods happily. With one sweeping motion he lifts his posterior and I replace the chair.
The doctor hands me a pair of plastic gloves. I’m thrilled to be playing midwife, and wonder if the doctor isn’t just patronizing me. I feel like a first-grader who’s been allowed to sit on Daddy’s lap and rest her fingers on the steering wheel–proud to perform so simple a task as handing the doctor a hot towel from the crockpot.
I won’t find out until two weeks later that the nurse who was supposed to be here today was off on vacation. But the doctor doesn’t forget that I am a neophyte.
“Hand me my listening thing.”
“The one with the doojigger on top?”
“No, the other.”
Greta is bearing down hard; the doctor asks me to get toilet paper–bring the whole roll, he says. I do as commanded. The doctor wipes Greta casually. Neither she nor Bob know why–but I do: She’s had no enema. The doctor wraps the paper into a bundle and without a word tosses it into a huge plastic-lined cardboard box; then he changes his rubber gloves.
Greta is lying on her side. The doctor wants her to lie on her back so he can check the position of the baby. Greta fights him, “Nooooo!”
“I have to do this!”
“I’m not supposed to be on my back.”
Bob looks dumbstruck–torn between the doctor and his wife. But he helps him turn Greta over.
“Spread your legs,” the doctor commands her.
The doctor gently pulls apart her knees. He’s kneeling on the bed now, shoes off, revealing mustard-colored socks. Bob gets behind Greta and tries to put a pillow behind her back.
“Don’t do that!” the doctor barks.
Greta sobs, “It says . . . in the book . . . not on the back . . . against gravity.”
The doctor checks her internally. “It doesn’t make any difference, the baby’s already down.”
“I don’t want to be on my back!”
“Go ahead now, it’s OK.” The doctor and Bob attempt to prop her up.
“Stop!” she cries.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” the doctor says.
His authoritarian air is unexpected–and certainly not aligned with New Age philosophy. But it’s been a long labor.
Bob tries to console his wife. “The baby’s already down now. C’mon hunch, push!”
I am the only person in the room not on the bed.
“The baby’s crowning,” says the doctor.
“It’s crowning honey,” repeats Bob.
“Wake Bridgette,” Greta sighs.
Earlier Greta told me that Bridgette wouldn’t forgive her if she didn’t see the baby come out. I shake the little girl gently, “C’mon honey, baby’s coming.”
“Not like that!” the doctor says. He jolts her forcefully, rocking the bed.
I see nothing but a hairy sliver between Greta’s legs. The bleary-eyed Bridgette takes one peek. Confused and unimpressed, she plops her head down and closes her eyes.
“Take a picture!” Bob begs. Holding the camera with wet plastic gloves, I point it at Greta’s external vaginal area, wondering if this narrow crescent of baby head will be visible in the photo.
“Now you only get one chance at this,” the doctor says to Greta. “When the head comes out, it won’t be any easier, you’re gonna keep pushing till we’ve got the shoulders.”
“It’ll be easier when the head is–”
“No!” the doctor shouts, “It won’t get any easier.” He explains again.
When the baby’s head finally emerges, I cannot take a picture, since Greta’s leg is in the way and I am too awestruck to search for a proper view. I feel that one click of the shutter, one false breath, will cause everything to collapse. I am afraid to move. Finally I wake Bridgette, shaking her with more gusto. The girl takes one look at this sexless half-baby caught between her mother’s legs and sinks back into the bed.
“Bridgette, baby’s here!” cries Bob.
“She saw enough,” says the doctor.
The baby is born at 3:30 in the afternoon. No one shouts, “It’s a girl!” Greta, her face red and sweaty, strains her neck to catch a glimpse and closes her eyes in exhaustion. She is still breathing heavily. Bob is smiling.
The baby is an ashen, purply color, covered with a translucent film of powdery white. She makes soft, whimpering noises. The only blood is stuck to her tiny fingernails and toenails, like a sweet, crimson nail polish.
“Now I want everyone to be quiet while I check the baby.”
The doctor gently presses the baby’s chest and belly, listens to her heartbeat, turns her head from side to side and moves her arms and legs in different directions. He asks for a book and places the baby’s still moist bottom on one of Bridgette’s kiddie books, checking her hip alignment. He pokes a rubber-gloved finger into the baby’s rectum and a strange, black mud emerges.
“There’s the meconium,” Bob volunteers.
The doctor grabs Bob’s hand and places it upon the baby’s chest. He props up Greta and pulls her arm toward the infant. Bridgette is half-awake; he grabs her tiny hand, too. An important family moment–three hands resting on the baby. Then the doctor whips off my plastic glove and includes me in this sacred ceremony. I am touching the soft warm flesh of a human being who is still attached to her mother’s placenta.
Bob asks me to take a picture. “No flash!” says the doctor, but the expensive wet camera doesn’t need one.
“I still don’t feel right,” says Greta.
“Oops,” the doctor says, “we almost forgot the afterbirth.”
He places a ceramic bowl between Greta’s legs and tells her to push. What emerges looks like a bloody piece of meat. The doctor holds it over the bowl, explaining that the thick section fed the baby and the thin punctured membrane was the amniotic sac.
Bridgette does not want to help cut the umbilical cord. After some persuasion, she bears down on her father’s fingers as he clips it with sterilized scissors.
The doctor dumps the placenta in the plastic-lined box. He then attends to Greta, pressing down on her abdomen and instructing her to do the same. He is massaging the uterus so it will contract and close off the blood vessels that fed the placenta. It hurts. Moments later, he chides Greta for not applying enough pressure. Greta seems tired and confused, but the doctor doesn’t understand.
“I know you don’t want to do this,” he says, pressing his hand down hard on hers. Later Greta would ask me if I heard him say, “You don’t want to die, do you?” but I don’t remember this.
The doctor and Bob are adjusting Greta’s posture when the baby finally begins to cry. I gape at her, amazed.
“Someone touch her!” says Greta.
I stroke the baby’s now pink flesh, afraid I might hurt her.
“Isn’t she beautiful,” says Greta, “Our little Eva.”
The doctor weighs Eva in a fish scale, enveloping her body in plastic mesh and holding her high in the air. He asks Bob to read the increments.
“Well, what is it?” The doctor sounds impatient.
Bob squints at the worn metal plate.
“It’s hard to see. Uh, eight and a half–no, nine–gee, more like–”
“Eight and three-quarters!” announces the doctor, and rests the infant back on the bed.
Bob carries Eva around the bedroom while Bridgette clings to his leg. The doctor and I change sheets and reposition Greta, placing a large bed pad under her still bleeding body. The doctor cleans her and helps her place an incontinence shield between her legs.
“You’ll need your underpants to keep that on,” he says.
“I bought the wrong kind of Depends,” Greta explains, pointing to a pair of Bob’s boxer shorts that she wore earlier. I pick them up and start to poke her limbs through the leg holes.
“Don’t waste your efforts, that won’t hold it!” barks the doctor.
“What about a pair of briefs?”
“Second drawer on the right,” says Greta.
Bob looks helplessly on as the doctor and I put Greta into a pair of his tattered jockey shorts.
“And a blouse!” commands the doctor.
Greta gives up. “Just get anything,” she says. I find the Mickey Mouse T-shirt hanging in the bathroom.
“I put the sheets in the tub,” says the doctor. “Just soak them in cold water and a little peroxide–they can be washed later.”
Finally the scene has been created. Mother and new baby, lying on fresh sheets. Eva takes the breast and begins nursing. Father, sister, doctor, and friend gaze on. Just like in the movies–a film about a 19th-century birth.
Bob asks me to read a prayer he just wrote. He says he’ll get choked up if he does it.
“Dear Jesus,” I read, “thank you for the safe delivery of our beautiful baby girl, Eva.”
I am an agnostic, and somehow feel this is not my place, but like everything else I’ve done today that is not my place, I manage fine.
“And thank you for Dr. Schaumway, and for our wonderful friend, Laurel . . .”
After the amens everyone agrees it is time for celebration. I go to the fridge to fetch the birthday cake that Greta baked days ago; Bob brings up a six-pack of root beer. The cake has a big numeral one candle, surrounded by a dozen smaller. Bob lights the wicks, we take turns blowing out the flames. The doctor sits on the floor with his shoes off, slugging down a soda. Bob hands him the first piece of cake.
I ask Greta if she’d like anything from downstairs.
“Oh, thanks. Maybe some juice–papaya, if there’s some left.”
Bridgette is propped up in bed beside her, arms folded, gazing at me with a royal stare.
“And I’d like some orange juice, please,” she says, “Not papaya, but orange,” dragging out her words as if I were mentally impaired. I run downstairs and oblige them both.
Today I feel that I have experienced the truth. Neither the lies the old-fashioned medical establishment has dogmatized (it must be this way, trust us), nor the propaganda of the New Agers (you have the power to make everything painlessly perfect). The success of this event has not deceived me–I know that Greta and Bob took an additional risk by having their baby at home. Yet home birth was an informed decision that they made after both searching their hearts and consulting with physicians. Participating in the birth of Eva has strengthened my feelings about freedom of reproductive choice–home birth/hospital birth, children/childlessness, adoption/abortion. My respect and empathy for women who give up children they cannot care for has been magnified, as has my contempt for childless couples willing to exploit a surrogate mother to reproduce their own DNA.
But has my surrogate midwifery changed my attitudes about childbearing? Yes. Although my mother’s friends told me many an old wives’ tale, they occasionally provided some profundities.
“Having the babies is easy–it’s raising them for the next 20 years that’s the task.”
Although this wisdom was often contradicted by childbirth horror stories, I realize today that the statement is accurate.
Another quote I heard endlessly was, “Having babies is natural!”
Although the women who told me this cheerfully endured general anesthesia and unnecessary C-sections, and though the sentiment always seemed to be accompanied by an overwhelming scorn for breast-feeding, I’ve come to understand that it’s true.
I go into the Kellys’ kitchen to get Bridgette her orange juice. In the sink, on top of the dirty tuna dishes, sits the unwashed ceramic placenta bowl, a few drops of blood resting in the bottom. Although this would gross out the squeamish aesthetes of the world, it doesn’t bother me. It’s natural.
*Names have been changed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.