A Labor Story

“[Watching a baby being born] is a little like watching a wet St. Bernard coming in through the cat door.”

— Jeff Foxworthy

“The old system of having a baby was much better than the new system, the old system being characterized by the fact that the man didn’t have to watch.”

— Dave Barry

I am not about to give a blow-by-blow account of the labor and delivery of my daughter. There are literally billions of labor stories out there, each unique in its own way. In retrospect, our labor story is exceptionally unexceptional. Both mother and child [and father] escaped the ordeal relatively unscathed. And the experience itself is eclipsed by the aftermath of raising a baby. Still, several moments from that day stand out for me, as a soon-to-be-anointed father and a concerned husband. My memory has also been fading of late, and the details are still relatively fresh in my head. Plus, some people requested that I chronicle the event. So I’d like to submit a retraction (of the first sentence of this very paragraph): below is a blow-by-blow account of the labor and delivery of my daughter. Enjoy.

Aside from the actual delivery and the first time I saw my daughter’s face, a few other images repeatedly flash in my mind: trying to enjoy a cold turkey sandwich while someone is screaming in pain, and a medical resident staring at my face in alarm.

One Tuesday, ten days shy of her due date, my wife and I visit her gynecologist for what turns out to be the last time before the birth. At 1-2 cm dilation, the doctor herself is surprised by my wife’s advanced stage of pregnancy. When she asks, “So, when do you want to have this baby?” my heart skips a beat. She whips out her Blackberry and methodically leafs through her upcoming commitments to see when is good for her. “As long as you don’t go into labor on Friday, we’re good,” she informs us. That Friday she happens to be on call at a different hospital. Fridays, it turns out, are also bad for deliveries if you want to donate cord blood, because the handling lab is conveniently closed on weekends. “It’s okay,” I say confidently to the doctor, “she’ll just hold it in.”

That Friday, my wife wakes me up at a cruel 3:30 am and tells me it’s time. She didn’t feel any contractions but the clear discharge means one thing: her water broke. Anticipating that moment beforehand gave me sweaty palms, but when it actually happened, I managed to handle it without panic (that won’t come until the end). As per instructions by both the doctor and the lamaze instructor, we were to make our way to the hospital. Our bags were already packed a few days prior. My wife dons a pair of worn sweatpants and sits in the front seat of the car on a folded towel. A massive downpour earlier that evening left the streets completely wet and flooded, though virtually empty. We make our way to the hospital slowly and gingerly. Along the way, my wife has a downpour of her own. Apparently, the first signs were just a crack in the dam, which has now blown wide open. We ended up trashing both the pants, and the towel, which minimized any stains on the upholstery. Not that it mattered. I thought about that drive to the hospital for months, the last drive as just the two of us, before our lives would inevitably change completely. But we’re not overwhelmed with sentimentality. We’re prepared. We can’t wait to meet our daughter. By 5:30 I’m already filling out forms at the registration desk of the maternity ward while my wife puts on a skimpy and seductive hospital gown and is whisked off for a checkup.

In what reminds me of a post-apocalyptic scene from The Matrix, my wife is hooked up to several monitors and to an IV. The monitor confirms: there are no regular contractions, nor any other signs of labor onset. Only after an intern tells me that the delivery may not happen for another 24 hours am I suddenly crushed by exhaustion from sleep deprivation. I call our immediate families and inform them of the news but urge them not to hurry to come to the hospital. It’s going to be a long day.

At 7 am we’re moved to a private Labor, Delivery, and Recovery (LDR) room, a one-stop obstetric shop. At first, it has a deceivingly tranquil atmosphere. It’s hard to picture this room filled with doctors, nurses, and surgical drapes. And a wailing baby. We decide to turn the TV off, and try to catch a nap here and there, but that proves difficult given the circumstances. Throughout the entire day we are paid a visit by a slew of medical personnel. Over 6 hours after the membrane rupture, there’s still no progress, and the attending physician recommends that my wife be given pitocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin, the hormone that induces labor. After some deliberation, she agrees, and a bag of the substance is added to her IV. For the first hour, the contractions increase ever so slightly and she doesn’t complain about any pain. Yet. During these smaller contractions I use my lamaze expertise and natural coaching abilities to try to guide her breathing, if only for practice. We even whip out some photos from Italy to act as a focal point, and I have the iPod set to play Enya.

Around noon, a voice announces over the PA system that the food cart is on the floor. My wife, who starts to show a few signs of discomfort, encourages me to get a box lunch. I feel bad, since she can’t eat until after the delivery. But I am a bit hungry, after being up for nearly 10 hours with little sustenance. And I’m not, for one, distracted by pain from contractions. Within 10 minutes I return with a turkey sandwich and some fruit, but put them away for now. I notice a marked change in my wife’s demeanor, as the contractions become more intense. As a new one begins I remind her to take a cleansing breath, and wave my arm up and down slowly like a conductor to set a breathing tempo. The next contraction begins within 5 minutes and she starts making audible yelps while clutching the rails of the gurney. At the end of the contraction, I realize that this is the moment. If I don’t eat my sandwich now, I won’t eat it before my daughter arrives. Which, according to the intern, won’t happen before tomorrow. So I sit down next to my wife and start munching. Within a few minutes starts the most intense contraction yet. With a mouth full of turkey I try to annunciate “cleansing breath.” I put the rest of the sandwich down, a bit disappointed (it was a good sandwich, and I was hungry), and start making the relevant lamaze gestures. As soon as the contraction ends, I pick up the sandwich and hurriedly shove the rest in, just before the next contraction. The succeeding contractions are really bad. The lamaze relaxation techniques don’t help whatsoever, be it the focal point or the breathing or the music. They’re just coming on too fast.

Here’s one bit of advice to mothers in labor, from a concerned husband and seasoned labor coach: if your labor is induced with pitocin, get the epidural right away. Apparently pitocin, even in small doses, brings on intense contractions much more rapidly than oxytocin, and the body has no time to adjust. The pain will become unbearable within an hour or two anyway, and unless you’re planning to ride it naturally through the entire delivery, there’s no need for heroics.

My wife got an epidural after enduring intense contractions for one hour (by the time the anesthesiologist showed up, she was violently convulsing at the peak of the contractions). According to her it was the worst hour of the entire labor. When the anesthesiologist arrives, I am asked to leave for 20 minutes (not entirely sure why) while the epidural is being administered, and by the time I return the room is as serene as when we checked in a few hours earlier. My wife is lying comfortably and relaxing. She’s actually able to nap. Ironically, I had plenty of time then to eat my turkey sandwich.

By 4:30, after a quiet two-hour lull, my wife tells me that she feels a weird sensation, one of immense pressure around her midsection. We call the desk, and a resident comes in for an examination. The resident’s face suddenly lights up and says that she’s almost fully dilated and ready to deliver. Wow. Totally unexpected and about 12 hours ahead of schedule. For the next 30 minutes nurses and residents rush in and out as the room is transformed from a serene refuge into a brightly lit delivery facility.

5 pm happens to be the time at which the obstetric personnel shifts change over. We also found out later that there was an obstetric emergency at another room that was given higher priority. Together, the wing was in a bit of a stir. After all preparations were made for my wife to deliver (including turning on Enya at full blast), it was just her, our primary nurse, and myself, pushing alone for an hour. I do my share by supporting my wife’s very numb left thigh as she pushes through contractions. The nurse says that she’s doing beautifully. After about 30 to 45 minutes, the nurse declares that she sees the baby’s head (known as “crowning”). She invites both of us to touch the exposed pate of our emerging princess, but frankly neither of us is interested.

While witnessing — and taking part in — the entire process, I’m a bit nervous, but I keep my cool. I’m completely invigorated and thoroughly looking forward to holding my own daughter. Me and my wife exchange smiles and a few kisses. Finally, a little before 6 pm, the incoming attending physician comes in with a resident and another nurse, and introduces herself. I watch her don her scrubs, headwear, booties, and latex gloves. Then she sets up an array of surgical utensils to her right, and positions herself to receive Baby.

Suddenly, and for no specific reason, I start feeling a bit hot and uncomfortable. I look down for a second and feel the room spinning. A nurse notices and encourages me to sit down, or, better yet, to leave the room for a minute or two. I reluctantly step outside, and am barraged by my mom and sister-in-law, who were standing outside the LDR for who-knows-how-long. Only after hugging me, do they notice that I’m sweaty and looking white as a ghost. Another nurse commands me to sit down, right there, on the floor, and place my head between my knees. My mom gets some water from across the hall, but it’s warm and only makes me feel worse. I manage to mumble “ice” and she quickly corrects the problem and returns with cold water. In the meantime, another resident notices how pale I am, and asks me if I’m all right, while calling for help. In a maternity ward. I feel guilty. Fortunately, as soon as I gulp the ice water, I come to, and within 30 seconds, I’m on my feet and ready to head back into battle.

Apparently, the team inside decided to take an intermission in my absence. When I emerge again, everyone seems to forget about my wife and fixates on my nearly passing out. I say I’m fine, and insist that they worry about the other patient.

Back to the delivery. I take up my old station to the left side of my wife, and she pushes really well for two more contractions. And then time slows to a screech. The pale blue head of a baby comes out, followed, almost predictably, by the rest of a baby’s body. For about, oh, an eternity, maybe less, the baby is perfectly still, just an object to exit my wife’s womb. But then this object takes in a big gulp of fresh air through its never-before-used lungs and begins to quiver. My daughter is born. Then time seems to speed up to its normal rate. That moment, when she started moving, is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. I was so fixated on it that the few succeeding moments are a bit of a blur. Her air passages are quickly drained (by whom, I have no idea) and she is placed on my wife’s chest. She is tiny (she ended up weighing 6 lb 5 oz)!

Then someone hands me surgical incisors and tells me to cut some cord, which I do without hesitation. Compared with the thrill of seeing the actual birth of your first child, severing the umbilical doesn’t seem that momentous. Perhaps it’s just ceremonial, a symbolic gesture that the dad is finally stepping in, ending this exclusive mother-child relationship that was allowed to flourish for 9 months, and taking on the responsibility of shared parenthood. Whatever it is, I wasn’t thinking about it at the time.

After a few moments of bonding with our new and now untethered dependent, she is taken to the infant warmer next to the bed (or, as the lamaze instructor affectionately calls it, the french fries warmer). The surgeon takes care of some unfinished business with my wife, while I just stand gawking at my little friend. Although I expected a lot of wailing, all I hear is some grunting which at first worried me. But the nurse said that it’s perfectly normal. In less than 10 minutes I am already able to hold her, while my wife is still preoccupied with the after-party. Holding Baby is strange. It felt amazing to hold a minutes-old baby, but the notion that it is my daughter that I was holding did not register at the time (I’m only now starting to come to terms with it).

I don’t know if the medical staff is trained to say this, but both the physician and the nurse said that the delivery was perfect. Everyone complimented us on the relaxing ambience we created through the music, the photos from Italy, and the lamaze techniques we employed before and during the delivery. Personally, I don’t know what they were talking about. I think that the serenity is all the anesthesiologist’s doing. It took about 15 hours from the moment the water broke to the delivery, not nearly as long as the initial estimates. And aside from about 90 minutes of excruciating pre-epidural pain, and a near-blackout diversion, things couldn’t have gone more smoothly. In retrospect, compared with the reality of having a daughter, perhaps those hours are indeed just details. But they are a rite of passage. For on that fateful night, not only was my daughter delivered. So was her hip dad.