From the time those two little pink lines appeared, my pregnancy had been so surprisingly easy and smooth. In fact, whenever I was asked, at various points throughout the forty-plus weeks of gestation, how pregnancy was treating me, I felt a bit guilty answering honestly, “idyllic.”
It was only when forty-one weeks passed with barely the smallest hiccup of a contraction that I began to fret. Peter and I trust God, and we have a lot of faith in the wondrous design reflected in the human body, the Imago Dei. I believed with all my heart that this sturdy tent, which had steadily plodded to the finish line of not one but two marathons while our firstborn was but a zygote, would have within itself not merely the strength but also the innate wisdom to finish the race that is childbirth. This baby had been conceived quickly and the pregnancy had progressed without incident. My husband and I, therefore, assumed a straightforward labor and delivery would be in the cards. After all, my mother had managed three rounds of unmedicated birth, with #2 and #3 being twins, and one of whom was breech! Surely, I was made to birth this baby.
It was August 4th, a full eleven days past the due date, when our trusty midwife MK finally declared that it was time for me to be induced. The second fetal stress test in eight days revealed that the amniotic sac, the placenta and the fetus were all doing just fine. Baby was entirely too comfortable in utero, she said. The time had come for us to concede that the risks of allowing my little tenant to remain unmoved now outweighed the risks we would run by serving him or her eviction papers.
“Today is Saturday,” MK mused, consulting her desk calendar. “Come in tomorrow night after dinner, and bring your bags. We’ll insert a suppository to get contractions started. The baby will likely be here on Monday.”
My heart sank. “What are my chances of having a natural labor and delivery now?” I asked.
“Oh, very good!” MK said cheerfully, as though the question surprised her. “Go home and get some rest. We’ll see you tomorrow night.”
Peter and I went home that afternoon and we prayed. And we prayed. We sent fervent emails to our nearest and dearest, entreating their intercession on our behalf. At one point during the day I was sure I saw ‘bloody show’ and was momentarily cheered, but still the night and the following day passed without incident.
On Sunday evening, we checked and double-checked our hospital bag to ensure we had not forgotten anything. This seemed unlikely considering we had been packed with our bag sitting forlornly by the door for nearly six weeks. Dear friends came by with steaming homemade soup and sandwiches, to spare us from having to cook and to bless us both with the energy we would need to see this delivery through. No contractions were noted and no water was broken while we made the quiet trip by taxi to the hospital. While en route, I recall thinking to myself that if the suppository were to work and no further interventions were required afterward, I would be satisfied, yet humbled. Satisfied, because of having experienced an unmedicated labor and delivery, and humbled by my God whose ways are not my ways and whose timing is, quite clearly, at odds with my own.
The Chinese midwife on duty greeted us on arrival and showed us to our spacious corner suite. The room was inviting, with sofa space for at least ten people and an adjacent bathroom outfitted with both a standing shower and a hot tub. Other furnishings included a wall-mounted flat screen television and a desktop computer. A bright green birthing ball beckoned from a corner.
It was around 10:30 p.m. when the suppository was inserted. Although we were shown the drug’s packaging prior to insertion, we were unfamiliar with the Chinese name on the label. After a moment’s online research made possible by his iPhone, Pete reassured me that it was prostaglandins only, and not the pitocin I was determined to avoid. Relieved to hear this news, I received the suppository. The midwife, whose name was Mindy, informed me after twenty minutes of fetal monitoring that I was having contractions, although I felt nothing. The shades were drawn, the lights were dimmed, and I was instructed to sleep until the show began.
By noon on Monday, the sixth, I had managed to both eat and sleep some but for the most part I felt as I had up to that point; there was little going on, from what I could tell. Another fetal test was conducted, followed by an examination by a nurse who concluded that I was dilated less than 2cm. Things were not looking up.
Not long afterward, at around 12:30, I was surprised to note that my contractions were beginning to pick up in frequency and intensity. Pete started to time them at roughly four minute intervals, lasting one to one and a half minutes each. It was just the two of us in the large suite, which suited us fine. I paced and squatted and rocked and croaked breathy verses of my favorite hymns in between the contractions, which came more and more steadily over the next several hours. Pete tirelessly fanned me with a cedar wood fan, a fragrant memento from our Hawaiian honeymoon, and insisted I choke down mouthfuls of homemade ‘laborade’ so as to remain hydrated for the task at hand. The temperature in the room seemed to climb steadily.
A stunt remained from when my blood had been drawn the night before. It jabbed annoyingly in my wrist, penetrating deeper and needlessly deeper each time I braced my upright body against the bedside table when riding out the contractions. I had a mind to remove it, and I told Pete so. One of the attending nurses had insisted I keep it in place, “just in case you need an IV later.” I was having a baby, not an operation! I had to lose the needle.
Knowing that Pete wanted me to get help from the medical staff before toying with the stunt, I plopped down on the toilet, ripped out the offending needle and tossed it unceremoniously into the red bin at my feet. I felt powerful exerting control, in a small way, over my body and my physical comfort. While still seated on the toilet, I showed Pete the hole in my wrist.
“What’s this?” he cried.
“I have work to do,” I told him, matter-of-factly. “It was distracting me.”
The afternoon was slipping away. The contractions were picking up, to be sure, but the discomfort remained manageable until dinnertime. By 6:00 p.m., I had force-fed myself a salmon fillet supper and also passed a luxurious thirty minutes in the Jacuzzi. It had become impossible to sit, as I had discovered during my last round of fetal monitoring. I refused the nurse’s request that I lie on the bed to be monitored, and declared that I would straddle the birthing ball instead. The nurse was still affixing the obnoxious belts around my enormous middle when I stood up suddenly, crying out in pain, to see bloody water trickling down from between my legs. I was told that this was the first layer of membranes to rupture, and that there would still be more to come.
At 6:15, MK stopped by. After examining me briefly, she told us she would be going home and to call her when it was time to push. I slid eagerly into the Jacuzzi for the second time.
The warm water brought such relief from the pain, which was gradually becoming more concentrated. My bloated bulk felt blissfully weightless in the warmth of the tub. Peter sat by my side and poured basin after basin of comfort onto my middle. I wanted to hit ‘pause’ and stay there long enough to fall asleep, to regain my strength. I was in this position for thirty minutes when the nurse called me out of the tub again. The time was roughly 7:30, and I was in considerable discomfort now. I remember hearing the nurse project that the baby would probably arrive after midnight.
Pete and I were soon left alone once more. I paced feverishly, noting that the contractions were no longer distinguishable from each other, but had rather blurred into one long, continuous tug-of-war which raged within my uterus. Breathing became difficult. The rectal pressure was tremendous! Why did no one warn me about it? I moaned and swayed, and moaned and swayed. I had spent weeks reading up on the stages of labor and knew to expect that the ‘transition’ phase, the point at which I would dilate from seven centimeters to ten, would be the most intense but also the briefest stage of my labor. I did not realize it in the moment, but I was at the threshold of transition and it was agony.
Urgently, I croaked to Pete to summon the doctor. It was about 8:10 when a middle-aged Chinese man with a kind face appeared. Dr. Ru concluded his examination with the happy pronouncement that I was dilated seven centimeters! Because my water had not yet broken, Dr. Ru suggested that he do it artificially. MK had passed around the long, thin plastic instrument used for just this purpose during our birth class, a preparation I was now immensely thankful for. I was not afraid of being poked, but I dearly wanted to avoid this intervention as well.
Our birth plan sat atop the table behind the doctor. In it we requested that my water not be artificially broken prior to my being five centimeters dilated. I was on the verge of surrendering to Dr. Ru’s suggestion when a sudden gush of crimson liquid exploded out of me. His fingers had apparently done the job.
I don’t remember much of the following fifty minutes it took to get to ten centimeters, except that my moaning became louder, less controlled, and more desperate. Pete stood by my side, fanning me and urging me to breathe with him. “Heeh heeh hoooooooooo, heeh heeh hoooooooooo!” In and out, in and out. All the devices I had prepared myself to lean on in this hour- my years of professional voice training, my blooming flower imagery, Scripture verses long ago committed to an actor’s confident memory- failed me. I could not think about breathing. I could not think about the sweet baby whose swift arrival was now sure. All I knew in those minutes was the blinding pain.
I was still standing, leaning with my chest resting on the bed and my hands spread out in front of me when a nurse asked whether I would like to begin pushing? I requested that MK be called promptly, and prepared, finally, to push.
Climbing with great difficulty onto the bed, I shimmied awkwardly into a modified hands and knees position, my hands finding handles behind the headboard and taking fast hold. I was in this position and just beginning to push when MK rushed through the door.
“Your baby has a lot of hair!” MK declared excitedly from behind me after donning her scrubs. This pronouncement motivated me to push on all fours for some minutes until I was directed to the toilet. Pete and MK accompanied me into the bathroom, where I sat and obediently recommenced pushing. My arms laced around Pete’s middle, my hands finding each other around his back as he stood in front of me. MK squatted beside him and peered upward as she directed my efforts. After a quarter hour of this, MK ushered me back to the bed for what would be the final round of pushing.
Back on the bed, I sat as instructed, with my heels pulled up to my buttocks and my hands gripping my knees for dear life. Pete continued to spout encouragements and prayers as hymns played on in the background. The lights in the room were very dim now. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a tiny cot being prepared by a flurry of midwives and nurses on the far side of the suite. I recall thinking, in my ignorance, that such preparations were surely premature. Did they all really think that a baby would materialize any moment now? Dr. Ru stood in front the bed and assisted MK, who continued to do all the talking. I remember that at one point I asked whether the angle of the bed might be adjusted to comfort. “No,” answered both MK and Dr. Ru in unison. This angle, they assured me, was optimal for pushing. I shut my mouth and focused on opening my womb to allow the baby to slide out at last.
I am told that I pushed for just under one hour in total. Near the close of that time, MK asked me to lean forward and feel the head crowing. This was something I was never certain that I wanted to do, but in the moment I simply did as I was told. What I felt was not reassuring. My tired fingers brushed only fleshy softness, not the recognizable bony surface of a tiny skull. A few more desperate pushes. I heard the blessed high-pitched cries and then, something I never conceived of preparing for happened.
“Lisa,” said my trusty midwife, “reach down, and pull your baby out.”
My baby. My baby? I slid my shaking hands beneath the teeny, slippery armpits and lifted them up, up and out of myself into separateness, into autonomy, the little feet swinging wildly in the air. Liberated, the babe was wailing now. It was 9:56 p.m.
I did not see this happen, but Peter tells me MK then flipped the little one around, bottom up to face him, so that he could clearly see the gender of our baby. The final and very long-awaited surprise.
“It’s Zoë,” I heard him say. “It’s Zoë!” I struggled to process what this meant.
“It’s a girl? Are you sure?”
“Yes, of course! It’s a little girl!”
I did not feel the placenta leave me, probably because I was so focused on the considerable discomfort the nurse brought on as she depressed my still very bloated middle to expedite the process. This, too, I had not known to expect. The placenta was taken away for safekeeping; we had signed a form requesting to bring it home, and I would later consume it in full over the course of four meals as a pie-like bake which was lovingly prepared by my mother, with bay leaves and saltine crackers and a medley of fresh vegetables. The stitching began just as Pete finished cutting the cord. Dr. Ru’s hands were sure with the needle but even so, I felt the final stitch weave in and then out of my tired flesh. Zoë’s initial wipe-down was completed and her measurements taken by this time; she weighed in at 3.47kg (7lb 10oz) and measured 50cm (20in) in length. Peter hovered protectively over our daughter throughout these procedures, and, when they were complete, inquired about her Apgar score. “Nine to ten,” came the response from the attending nurse.
My daughter’s delicate body was then laid on my chest. Her eyes were open; she was in a state of quiet alertness, as I had been informed to expect. I grinned with pleasure to see her already rooting so eagerly at my breast. She gripped my forefinger tightly as she began to suck with vigor. She was here at last, and she was perfect.
The medical team was gracious to give us another hour in the suite before we were relocated to our recovery room down the hall. After the grandparents were notified of the news, we settled into our private room and began to soak it all in. Pete placed his hand on our baby girl’s tiny, misshapen head and blessed her as we gave thanks to God for our little gift in the dim light of our recovery room in the dead of night. Euphoria gave way to helpless exhaustion, and our three weary bodies surrendered to sweet sleep as outside, the hard rains of a typhoon began to fall.