A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Birth Center
So my son was born in the backseat of a vehicle. Before I go into the story I want to first clear something up. As romantic as it sounds, it was not a Yellow Taxi Cab. I know it would be so New York if it was, but this is not one of those “New York” stories. It actually is, if anything, a Brooklyn story. We were in what New Yorkers call a “Gypsy Cab.” Graham said that the more APPROPRIATE term is a Livery Cab. Gypsy Cabs are usually a town car of sorts or some other pedestrian vehicle contracted by a car service company. The one we were in was a minivan and driven by a Hispanic driver named Gladys.
I was a little ATTACHED to the desire to give birth in a non-hospital setting. We did our research and happily signed on with the only remaining freestanding birth center in the New York area, The Brooklyn Birthing Center. Now here is the thing about Brooklyn: It is HUGE. Just because you live in one area doesn’t mean you are ANYWHERE NEAR another area. BBC was on the way other side of Brooklyn from us. On the subway it takes an hour and fifteen minutes to get there. Our visits would last 15 to 20 minutes tops, but our commute was two and a half hours roundtrip. Not exactly convenient and it was something we wondered about when discussing what would happen on THE BIG DAY. So we took a car service to one of our appointments, just to time it, to see what we were really dealing with. It took 45 minutes. Not ideal, but doable. We discussed this with the midwives who said that this was a common thing and they would factor the time in for gauging when it was time to come in.
The car service driver we had for that trial run was named Gladys. Thirtysomething, mellow, agreeable Gladys. I liked her because she was a woman and didn’t drive like a maniac. The problem I have with Livery Cab drivers (actually make that all taxi drivers) is that they drive like maniacs, talking on their cell phones, listening to their radios full blast, and not giving a shit for much. I am almost always white knuckled in the back of the car, sure I am going to die (and still have to tip). When we had friends visiting from California this summer, Gladys had been the driver to help us transport five of them and their luggage to Manhattan. She drove a minivan and seemed calm and pretty friendly. We talked to her on the way to the BBC on our trial run, told her what was happening, and asked her what her hours were. Her English came and went at odd times, but she was very friendly about being our driver and gave us her card so we didn’t have to call through the car service, we could reach her directly. Great. Our transport was secured and now Gladys was part of the plan.
That was two months ago. Two months before I started daily complaints about my due date coming and going like some floating cloud that meant nothing to my body, but everything to my emotional state. I don’t know if you caught on, I mean, I think the majority of you are pretty DARN SHARP (no dull tools in THIS shed), but I was SICK OF BEING PREGNANT. I wanted OUT. I watched with desperate yearning as one by one all the babies that I knew were due a week before mine, came one to two weeks early. Then the ones that were due after mine came early. I was starting to think that birth was an elaborate hoax that I would never get to experience. We tried everything: sex, spleen six pressure points, walking, and eating spicy food. Nothing happened. I went to see the midwives two days after my due date and I was already at 2 cm, but I couldn’t be naturally induced by stripping my membranes because the baby was not effaced enough. So I went back to the waiting, thinking there was NO WAY I would go to the next appointment scheduled, a full TEN DAYS after my due date.
Yeah, I was a little depressed when I showed up the next week. Another way to describe it might be SLIGHTLY INSULTED by the fact that I still hadn’t given birth. I went in BALLOONING with fluid and HIGH HOPES that I was ready for membrane stripping or at least a bit of castor oil. So I got checked and I was at 3cm, but my other physical scores still were a point away from being stripped. I started to cry. The midwife said that she would just jiggle the handle of my cervix (my words, not hers) to see if it couldn’t be cajoled into another point towards inducement. As it happens, my cervix PUTS OUT. I went from 3 to 6 cm immediately. So I got stripped. Wow, did that not feel comfortable. It was like being the midwife’s big giant purse, while she rooted around trying to locate her keys. Graham held my hand while I gritted my teeth and did my best to BREATHE big breaths. I should have realized that this was foreshadowing of what was soon to come: the writhing discomfort, the need to practice big breaths, and that for the next little while my insides would be SEVERAL people’s big purse containing anything from a lost pair of keys, a ringing cell phone, or a cigarette lighter. I will tell every pregnant woman in the world, that when you get to that point, feeling like your health provider might be ELBOW DEEP in your insides, it is time to GET USED TO IT for the time being. There is only MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM.
I left feeling hopeful, cramping, and tired with a plan of action. I had an appointment with an acupuncturist to help get labor started, and if neither the stripping or the acupuncture worked by the next morning, I could use castor oil and see what happened from there. If the castor oil didn’t click, I had agreed to be induced on Saturday morning, but my midwife thought this probably would not be an issue.
At about two in the morning those tell tale waves of menstrual cramps woke me up. Since I’d had some labor before, I was determined not to take these too seriously, but Graham started timing them and sure enough, they were like clockwork: Every 25 minutes, lasting 30 seconds. By the time we woke up they were every 20 minutes. I had a doubtful feeling, though. They just weren’t that strong and by a couple of hours after we woke up, smaller erratic contractions had started to punctuate the rhythm and finally, they seemed to slow entirely. So we went for a walk and found the only hill in our neighborhood and walked up and down it until we were so cold and the need to pee was too painful to ignore. The contractions had slowed to every half hour and were pretty weak.
Castor oil it was. And hours later, nothing happened. NOTHING. No runs, no change in contractions, nothing. I was beginning to think this kid had enjoyed his breakfast of pancakes and bacon so much that he was thinking of calling in supplies and staying the rest of the winter. So we called the midwife and she said it was time to help that castor oil out. I am not about to admit on the Internet what she suggested, but let’s just say it sort of rhymed with your aunt EDNA. So me and Aunt EDNA had some quality time. I came out of my quality time with EDNA and within a half hour the contractions rolled in at ten minutes apart and they were getting STRONGER.
Then my water broke and we checked the quality and thought, IS THAT MECONIUM? In case people don’t know, meconium is the baby’s first poop. I know, it sounds like a rare and precious metal or a planet Superman’s family might have summered on, but it’s really just poop. It’s supposed to be THE THING you check for when your water breaks. If it is slightly discolored with it, fine, but if it has dark matter or a pea soup quality, we needed to call the birthing center immediately. So we stood over a maxipad and kept asking ourselves is that it? Is that green or is it brown or is it anything? So we called the midwife and she said, “Well, it’s probably nothing, but just in case, why don’t you head in. I might send you back home if it’s nothing, or if it’s something I’ll send you to the hospital.”
The phrase I keep coming back to is I MIGHT SEND YOU BACK HOME. Remember, we were 45 minutes away. The midwife did not seem very concerned with time. I later found out they thought I had loads of time because I was a first time mom and first time moms don’t usually go very quickly. Well, ladies, welcome to Quickie McGee Pierre.
We called Gladys and this is where I think something in me knew that this was not going to go as hoped or planned. She had no memory of us whatsoever and was unclear as to when she would pick us up. Graham explained I was in labor and she said she guessed she could be there 10-15 minutes. Usually cars come in five. I still clung to the familiarity of her so we said we would wait. 20 minutes, another call to a different car service, and two contractions later, Gladys finally showed up. We hopped in, with me moaning. She asked, “What is going on?” As if it hadn’t already been explained to her. Graham reiterated that I was in labor and she nervously laughed, “Why aren’t you going to the hospital?” She meant the hospital that we were across the street from. “We’re going to the birth center,” Graham explained and then said, “You’ve driven us there before, remember?” Nope. No registry and it became very clear that she didn’t like having us in her van. The entire time she kept trying to dump us. “You should be in an ambulance!” She said, “call an ambulance they can give you a ride to the hospital.” But we weren’t going to the hospital, we kept explaining, and this isn’t an emergency.
Well, that is until we hit the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and it was slammed with traffic.
It is hard for me to even write these words. Even now, my body rings with memory of what it was like to have escalating pain in a small space. I was breathing through very intense contractions that were noticeably quicker. I climbed in the very back seat so I could somehow get more comfortable and to try to calm down. Meanwhile, Gladys was flipping out. She wanted us out of the van. During a stopped moment, she tried to get Graham to get out of the van to flag a private security van down to take us. I bellowed to just KEEP GOING FOR PETES SAKE. It was LABOR, not the end of the world. I hated her in that moment. I hated that I felt I had to fight her and the claustrophobia and the traffic and the contractions. I wanted her to just SUCK IT UP and GET US THERE.
Graham called the midwife to say we were still in traffic. She suggested an alternative route, but Gladys had no idea what she was talking about, so we stayed in the clogged river of vehicles. Graham started counting miles to the exit for me, while that horrible trapped feeling started to increase with the contractions. Have you ever seen a tiger or large animal pace a cage anxiously? That is the only way I can describe the feeling. I was an animal being held in a confined space and I had no choice but to start saying over and over, “I want out of this fucking car, I want out of this fucking car, get me out of here, get me out of here, I don’t want to be here anymore.”
The contractions were really rolling in at this point and I kept thinking as a way to get me through them, “After this one is done, I’ll have a break. Just get me to that break.” They were about 3 or 4 minutes apart at this point, but then something happened I’ll never forget. One rolled in, started to subside, and then another slammed me. I started sweating horribly. This was not good.
Finally, we exited and the relief in the van was palpable. “After this, just another ten minutes or so, okay?” Graham said to me. I could taste the relief of being safe for just a moment.
Then we hit another wall of traffic.
It was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen in my life. As far as I could see, a strip of red taillights stopping and going. Somewhere in my mind that small argument began to take place between denial and reality: “Don’t be dramatic and say what you’re about to say,” said one voice. Another voice said, “But I don’t think we are going to make it.” And that’s when another contraction slammed me so hard and a distinct burning sensation ripped through my groin. I have to say that at this moment I was grateful for any and all birthing classes I ever took, because this one sensation, the burning sensation, put to rest any and all arguments of what I was battling out in my head. I knew from every video that we watched that when a burning sensation comes on, the baby is coming. That and an utterly guttural desire to push. That’s when what I hoped I would never have to say, came screaming out of my mouth, which was, “He’s coming! The baby is coming!” I started frantically trying to rip my jeans off. Graham called the midwives, who said to pull over immediately and call 911. So that’s what we did. Gladys got out of the van and Graham was on the phone to 911 explaining what was happening while he ripped off my shoes and tried to help me pull off my jeans.
You might be able to picture the terror and helplessness that Graham experienced in the van, pulling off his wife’s jeans, and trying his best to get help on the phone. I have no memory of this, but at one point he dropped the phone in the darkness of the van and while he frantically looked for it, I calmly handed it back to him. He found the light in the van and switched it on. He examined me to see if the baby was crowning and informed 911 that I wasn’t, but that he could see it coming. I will never forget the look on his face when he said to me, “Baby, listen to me, they don’t want you to push.” That was like telling me not to have skin or to breathe or to yell. I don’t know if I can adequately express to you what the urge to push was like. It wasn’t an URGE at all. It was my body taking over completely and saying, STEP ASIDE, SISTER I GOT IT FROM HERE. I started to panic.
Then the cops came. The BLESSED COPS! All rosy sirens and flashing lights and TRAINED IN AN EMERGENCY COPS. But it was just one cop and he was TWELVE YEARS OLD. He took one look in the van, uttered the word, “Okay,” and then CLOSED THE VAN DOORS and STOOD THERE. Graham, still on the phone with 911, told them what the cop was up to. 911 was not pleased. They wanted to talk to him. So Graham opened the door and handed the phone to him. The boy cop looked at Graham and said, “Who is it?” Um, HELLO IT’S 911! Remember? THIS IS AN EMERGENCY! Thank you, Brooklyn’s FINEST. What was surmised from this exchange was that he wasn’t trained to help in any way at all. If I hadn’t been focusing so deeply on somehow dodging the next contraction my morale wouldn’t have been so hot. I would not have been immediately relieved when the fire department came. I was too busy living every second of that moment in the van, with my dress about my hips, dreading the next contraction because it wouldn’t be just a painful bystander. It would PUSH for me and since I was told directly NOT to push, I sat there feeling like a bomb about to go off. About four firemen peeked inside, asked about my contractions, to which Graham said I was about 3 minutes apart. One of the fireman said, “Oh good, she still has time.”
(Oh, ha ha. Maybe my midwife will check me and SEND ME HOME AGAIN TOO!)
A paramedic showed up—a nice bald paramedic, who laid out pads and paper on the seat and checked me. He had this great idea he was going to move me onto the stretcher and into the ambulance. That’s when a lady paramedic showed up, climbed in the back, took one look at me and said, “We are not moving her. This baby is going to be born now.”
That’s when the last two contractions hit and I screamed so hard it rang in my ears. What they say is true about the pain. A week ago, I could remember the pain and the screaming it created. Now, I only remember the screaming and that’s how I associate the pain. I’ve never screamed like that in my life. I felt that if I screamed loud enough my skin would rip off my entire body, like some popped balloon and that would be a pleasure. My eyes were closed deep into the screaming, but I remember distinctly the pop of his head coming and then another pop which told me he was out. I opened my eyes and there he was on the seat, pink faced, gurgling, looking wet and amphibious. I kept waiting fro the big cry, but he wasn’t crying, just gurgling. So I said, “Is he okay?” And that’s when the lady paramedic said something I will never forget as long as I live. She said, “Mama, he is BEAUTIFUL.”
I didn’t cry then because I was in shock, but since then I have thought of this moment over and over again and wept and wept out of relief and gratitude not only for the health of my son, but for the most perfect four words that could have been spoken to me in that moment of shock and confusion. He was more than alive. He was beautiful.
I remember looking up through the back window at Graham who was pressed up against it looking in on me just saying over and over again that he loved me and then back at my pink faced son, who looked a little stunned to be flat on his back on a car seat.
They clamped and cut Gus’ umbilical cord and then put him in my arms with one of those metallic “blankets” you see athletes donning after a marathon. I was still wearing my jacket and down vest, so I covered him up as best I could. He was warm and whimpered up against me. I couldn’t do anything but say, “Hi there, hi there, baby.”
Now is as good as any to tell all you people that I had one small fear about giving birth and that was pooping in front of my husband. I know it was a little neurotic shred of vanity that I held on to. What would he think? OH MY GOLLY, MY WIFE HAD A BABY OUT OF HER LADY PARTS AND DID A POOP! I remember Maggie Mason saying to trust her, you won’t care when it happens. Man, was she right. I did not care so much so that it also didn’t matter that there were about ten firemen, a policeman, Gladys, and about 20 onlookers seeing me SPREAD EAGLE in the back of an illuminated minivan doing MANY bodily things, including I am sure (but not positive) a little pooping. And maybe that’s why I can admit this to you, ye PUBLIC INTERNET, I just didn’t/don’t care. A friend asked me now that I’ve given birth in a car, do I feel like I can do anything? No. If anything, I feel even more vulnerable in some ways. In this other way, the shame, bodily way I feel FREE AS A BIRD.
They put Gus and me on a stretcher and carted us into the ambulance. When Graham was following us into the vehicle, Gladys apparently stopped him and asked if he could find out how her phone could take pictures. She wanted a picture. She apparently got WAY INTO being part of such an event once we stopped. He said no and got in the vehicle with us and we sped off to the hospital.
So I got my unmedicated birth free of interventions, I just did not get the sense of safety or the Jacuzzi tub I had planned on. And what have we learned through all this? Plans really ARE for suckers. Someday this will be a great story we tell over dinner to Gus’ true love. As it is now the trauma of it still has some lingering affect. For days afterwords Graham and I cried off and on having memories of it. Not the blissed out kind of memories, but the broken flashbacks of something very terrifying, chaotic, and miraculously okay. For me, I was in deep shock at the time of his birth, and it’s been an emotional process as my body tries to knit the memories to feelings. I remember what Shara, our birthing class teacher, told us about quick births. Sure, you have LESS time in labor (aka less pain), but some part of the process goes missing. I am still feeling as if I am looking for those pieces that got lost in the cracks of that backseat.
Then again, I am also reminded of something else Shara said: Women have babies. Not doctors or midwives or anybody else. THIS woman had her baby, dammit. I had my baby in the back of a mother loving vehicle while a ton of people stood by. Am I proud of myself? Yes, I am. But next time I am staying home.