For Mother’s Day this year, why not read about the very beginning of motherhood: birth stories. This essay is one of 30 true birth stories by 30 great women writers told in Labor Day. Share the excerpt and the book with all the moms you know! You can enter for a chance to win Labor Day here through May 11.
What I’m Trying to Say
Contractions started around five on Friday afternoon. They were mild at first, mild enough that I doubted they were real. I could walk. I did walk, around our neighborhood, thinking, Am I having contractions? When Mike got home, we rented a movie and bought a box of brownie mix, and after dinner (what did we eat? I remember only the brownies, my wanting them) I mixed and baked the brownies. Later I would wonder, What was I thinking, making brownies? But for a while then, they still tasted good to me, and I wasn’t in so much pain that I couldn’t enjoy the movie, too—though I don’t remember what it was now, and I don’t think we finished watching it. The contractions got stronger, then stayed the same through the night, somewhere between five to ten minutes apart, varying in length. I couldn’t sleep, and by morning I decided I needed an epidural. I’d been unsure about the epidural question—I thought I would see what it was like, that if I could do it without, I’d rather, but that I wouldn’t go crazy about it. Now I thought, I can’t do it without. I need to sleep. That was my main priority—to rest. Which people had told me the epidural let you do. So we called Dr. Yang, who said she doubted I was in labor but that sure, I could meet her at her office at nine.
A word about Dr. Yang, whom other patients sometimes refer to as “the Yangster,” who my sister-in-law warned me was “a little intense,” and whom I generally just call “my crazy Chinese doctor.” She is temperamentally similar in some ways to the Chinese grocer in our corner bodega, except that instead of yelling at me, “This is DAIKON!” (when I called one night in my seventh month, terrified by the white puffy flesh suddenly bulging from the part of my stomach where I imagined my baby’s head to be) she yelled, “That is your COLON, ANNA! It’s coming through the tissue! It’s just ABDOMINAL SEPARATION! YOU HAVE TO RELAX!”
We made the trip from Brooklyn to TriBeCa, our still-shiny labor ball stowed in the backseat. It was a Saturday, the bridge mercifully empty. At Dr. Yang’s office, we were let in by a group of Chinese construction workers, busy affixing a new door. Dr. Yang, the leader explained, would be back to meet us; she’d had to go to the hardware store for a tool.
Dr. Yang is a solo practitioner, I should explain, which in her case means not only that she delivers every baby of every patient but also oversees every hinge being fitted to her doors.
We went into a room at the back and waited. I got very angry, waiting. I’d been angry at Dr. Yang before, many times, but now I felt angry in the way a laboring woman feels angry. She had abandoned me, I decided. And now? Now? What did this portend about my labor and delivery? Would she leave as the baby was coming out to go buy a box of nails?
Dr. Yang arrived some ten minutes later. Okay, Anna, let’s see, let’s see. Oh, I can see just looking at you, you’re not in labor!
Of course the second she walked in the room, my contractions had diminished.
After her examination, she declared, See! You are only fifty percent effaced, and barely dilated even a centimeter!
I started to cry. But I’m exhausted! I said. I did not say, I want an epidural, because I knew now how stupid and impossible that idea was. I can’t keep going!
My guess is you’ll go into labor in the next day or two.
But this is labor, I told her.
Well, she said. Look. Anna. You have a very strong mind. I know this about you. You can make many things happen with your mind …
You’re saying this is all in my head?
What I’m trying to say … (This was Dr. Yang’s favorite phrase.) Listen. You have a very strong mind. In China, this is a very prized attribute. I? I can lower my blood pressure by ten points just thinking about it. In China, people can move cups just looking at them! What I’m trying to say …
As she spoke, I was vaguely aware—and disappointed, and ashamed—that I wasn’t in as much pain as I’d been earlier.
What I’m trying to say is you’re feeling your pain at a ten, and I want you to feel it at a four.
But I need to sleep! I said, still crying.
Yes. Exactly. You need to rest. Sometimes that brings labor on itself.
But I can’t sleep! I said. It’s too painful! (And I am in labor, I wanted to add, but didn’t.)
Here. Listen. I want you to go home, take an Ambien—I write you out a prescription—take the hottest bath you can stand, drink a glass of wine. Relax.
I thought pregnant women aren’t supposed to take hot baths, I said.
Baloney, Dr. Yang said, as she had about many other myths I’d brought up during our visits. The baby is all there. She not bothered by the heat!
I explained to Dr. Yang that the one time I’d taken Ambien, two nights before my wedding, I’d awakened hours later on the bathroom floor. I hadn’t even made it to the bed.
Then take half! she cried, and ushered us out.
* * *
I felt desperate on the way home. The next day or two?
But at home, I followed Dr. Yang’s directions—except for the wine, which I thought would make me throw up. After the bath, I got into bed (it was about 11:00 a.m. now) and for the next couple hours I managed to sleep between—though not during—contractions. It was a vague, hazy sleep, the four- and five-minute snatches building on one another. When I woke up and went to the bathroom, I had blood in my underwear. Dr. Yang had said, When you’re in labor, you’ll have blood, you’ll have all sorts of things coming out of you.
It was about two now. From there, the contractions got steadily stronger. I rested my forearms on the ball, my knees on the floor, Mike pushing my hip bones together, as we learned in class. Nothing made it less painful, but at least we were doing something, and I couldn’t not be on my knees. Between contractions, I closed my eyes and rested. That was what I did best, I think, during my labor, really rested between contractions, not fearing the next one, but really sinking into the relief of those moments.
This better be labor! I think I said a few times. And around five, I said, We have to go to the hospital. I don’t care if Dr. Yang laughs and sends us back. We’re going.
Mike called Dr. Yang. Dr. Yang loves Mike, and she said, Well, Mike, if you really think it’s different from this morning, I’ll meet you at the hospital. I have another patient already there.
* * *
The car ride was the worst part, by far. It took us about fifty minutes, across the bridge (which one did Mike take?), through lower Manhattan, up the West Side Highway, which is not a highway at all, but a misnamed series of traffic lights that seemed to be red, every one, the whole way. I was, as Mike told me later, mooing like a cow. I was grabbing at the doors, writhing to the floor. It was awful.
In the lobby, the triage nurse didn’t ask what we were doing there, but sent us up to labor and delivery. Dr. Yang was still with the other patient, so a resident examined me. I remember looking at her face, staring, willing her, thinking, If she tells me I’m only two centimeters dilated, I will die. I will die. I really will, right here. I will die.
But I wasn’t. I was eight centimeters dilated. “Entering transition,” as she put it.
Hooray! I thought. I’m in labor! Then I thought—and shouted—I want an epidural NOW!
* * *
In the delivery room, the nurse told me Dr. Yang would be there soon, and that she had to get an IV in me to deliver fluids so they could do the epidural.
But where’s the epidural? I asked.
Anesthesiology’s been backed up all day, I heard her say. (She couldn’t have said this to me, right? Wouldn’t that have been too cruel?)
It’s okay. Here, said the nurse, trying to get the IV in.
But I was so dehydrated, the first veins she tried disappeared, and then she burst the vein in my left hand, which would be bruised for weeks, and then she couldn’t get it into my right hand. Finally, she got it into my right arm. At some point in all this, I said, I have to pee, I have to go to the bathroom, and she said, You just go now. Just go. And I did. I peed all over myself. It was the first time I’d peed all over myself since I was a kid, I guess. I was just like a damn baby.
I remember hearing her say at some point during this, We have pushing! And I realized I was pushing. She said, I think she’s fully dilated, and I said, Where is Dr. Yang? And soon Dr. Yang was there, in a brightly flowered velour dress, with pink lipstick to match,6 and she said something to me—she actually said this—about how the residents often overestimate how dilated women are. And I thought, Fuck you. Where is my epidural? Am I shitting myself? Oh shit, I might be shitting myself. And the nurse said, She’s fully dilated, I really think so and Dr. Yang checked me out and didn’t confirm or not confirm this, but she said to me, Anna, if it feels better to push, you can push.
I’d already been pushing, but I kept at it. And it did feel better. It felt great. I mean, it hurt like hell, but it was something to do, not just enduring the waves of pain but pushing. I was grunting insanely, making disgusting noises. Mike was holding one leg, Dr. Yang the other, and on her face, I remember, was total, utter joy.
I said, Wait. Am I pushing out the baby? I really thought, until that point, that I was pushing because it felt better.
YES! she cried. Here. You can feel it.
And I felt Sylvie’s head (Oh, I’m going to cry now), a mushy, hairy, slimy thing. And I kept pushing. And when she came out (it was 7:33 now; I’d pushed for about twenty-five minutes; we’d been at the hospital about an hour and a half), it was like a building erupting from me. And once it was out, it was out. Over. Sylvie screamed, they brought her right to me, she had so much hair! There was a little stitching to be done, but I barely noticed. And Sylvie looked at me, found my breast, and started to suck. The next day, the pediatrician put her finger in Sylvie’s mouth and said, That’s the best suck I’ve felt in a while. And it was true, from the beginning: Sylvie taught me how to nurse her.
Anna Solomon’s debut novel, The Little Bride, was a Boston Globe bestseller. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, More,One Story, Ploughshares, and elsewhere, and have twice been awarded the Pushcart Prize. She teaches at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she lives with her husband, daughter, and son.
Copyright © 2014 by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon