After getting back to the house, I had more or less finally gotten my head around what was happening, and installed myself on the couch to time contractions. We called the clinic to find out when I should come in, and they instructed us to wait until the contractions were five minutes apart for one hour, lasted about a minute, were consistent in intensity.
The hours passed. Mathieu went upstairs to get some sleep to prepare for what was going to undoubtedly be a long night, and Ariana took over doula duties. She began cooking simple things to put in the freezer so I wouldn’t have to cook when I came home (it was impossible for me to eat at this point, although I was horribly insatiably thirsty, which would continue for the rest of the evening) and smells were intense to me.
In between contractions, Ariana would talk to me to keep my mind elsewhere. And when the contractions hit, I would roll over into my knees, face and arms buried in a pillow, while she put pressure on my lower back, which felt incredibly good and lowered the intensity.
Sometimes the contractions came so hard I was screaming and sometimes I was able to get through them by clenching my muscles and breathing through it. (Later, when I finally arrived at the clinic and got my epidural, the shaky exhaustion of my muscles told me how tightly I had been contracting my body for such a long time.) The air hung blue over the couch with cuss words.
It’s a funny thing with pain; in between the contractions I experienced the most incredible peacefulness and lucid euphoria. I felt calm, weightless, relaxed, blissful.
I’ve read a little about this so-called birth euphoria, and it’s a real thing : during a birth, a woman’s levels of endorphins as well as epinephrine or adrenaline are thirty times higher than normal. It helps with the pain, and it is also believed that it helps manage the baby’s pain and discomfort as well. (Contractions produce a drop in oxygen, and apparently during vaginal delivery, the plates of the baby’s skull actually overlap.)
It’s been posited too that high levels of endorphins and epinephrine are also highly linked to the bonding process, and that this the pain and euphoria help prime the body for the hormonal and neurological changes necessary to prepare a woman to care for the baby.
Well, I soaked for eighteen hours in a potent cocktail of happy chemicals. And while I remember the experience through a haze of exhaustion and pain, I remember feeling very very connected and aware of emotion. It was huge having Ariana there to be part of that. I can’t imagine having to go through it alone. Without a calm, loving presence to distract you and ride the wave with you, it seems to take over your entire world.
Eventually, the hour drew near for Ariana to go to the train station to make her return to trip to Barcelona and from there to Seville, finally arriving in Cadiz to rejoin the ship. She left with regret on her face, looking sad that she hadn’t been able to see the whole thing through. But there were lots of “Perfect As Is” moments, and this was one of them…she was there to carry me across the river, and to touch, in her own way, a new human life. I feel really lucky that I got to cross this bridge with her, and remain profoundly touched and grateful.
Mathieu had planned to take her to the train station, but it became clear he couldn’t leave me…so she went with the neighbor, Florence, who volunteered to help us out.
In the end, we wound up following not far behind…the pain wasn’t coming in consistent time intervals, but after eighteen hours in labor, I was completely wrecked. I could barely walk to the car, and supporting myself while Mathieu got the car door open felt insurmountable. The drive was agonizing, as every veering turn and bump in the road amplified the pain. The 250 yards from our parking spot to the clinic entrance might as well have been a mile. And I then almost collapsed at the front desk (letting out a string of swear words in English that I was hoping, unsuccessfully, that no one understood.) I heard the lady frantically calling for a wheelchair. I dropped my purse and remember seeing my glasses on the ground and worried about them for a half second, that someone would step on them, and then the thought vanished.
The rest of the birth narrative is short and mostly, I think, typical. I took an epidural in my spine, blood rushing out of my head as I felt my torso supported by the nurse…and the pain receded to nothing, replaced by the most profound exhaustion. We waited.
There were two incidents where my blood pressure dropped dangerously and I had to get an oxygen mask and some emergency medication…but the thing was, the baby’s heart rate dropped too. And I wasn’t making any more progress with labor…the baby was no longer descending, probably because his head was too big, and when I’d been in labor for twenty four hours, they made the decision to C-section.
I’m not going to lie – I was disappointed. Also, did you know you are COMPLETELY awake and lucid during a C-section? You have a screen in front of your face and can’t feel any pain – though you DO feel the cut, the forceable tugging and pushing as they maneuver the baby through a six inch cut…and I cried, scared, as the poor anesthesiologist tried gamely to distract me in French, asking me questions and trying to get my mind off what was happening.
Blessedly: it takes ten minutes to deliver a baby this way. And in just that time, I heard that beautiful crying, and the screen was pulled down just enough so I could see a beautiful, caterwauling infant, still with his umbilical cord attached. They brought him around to my side if the screen, where now I was REALLY crying, but in joy, and gave me a half second to cover his face in kisses before they took him away and sewed me back up.
When they wheeled me a few minutes later into my room, I saw Mathieu, his shirt off, with the baby wrapped against his bare skin, peau á peau…warming the baby and comforting him. The little creature had already stopped crying, though I hadn’t. Mathieu looked radiant and peaceful, with not a worry on his face. The baby’s head rested against his chest. It was the most beautiful pure thing I’d ever seen.
“Hey baby,” I croaked at Mathieu. “How’d we do?”