When I think back to the ideas I had about parenting in the years before I had kids, I laugh hysterically. Then I smack myself in the head a couple of times and boot myself in the rear for good measure. What arrogance!
Before I had children, I just knew that my babies would be sweet smelling, laughing little angels with cherubic little faces and innocent smiles. I knew that they would always listen, would love nothing better to sit on my lap and read books with me. I would be the perfect mother. I would provide structure, loving discipline, fresh-baked cookies, an endless supply of crafts and my children, my husband and I would sit down for our yearly family portrait smiling serenely in matching shirts. My children would not have tantrums in the middle of the grocery store or on airplanes. They would amaze their kindergarten teachers by already being able to do advanced algebraic calculations and read Tolstoy. They would graduate college at the age of 13 and be supporting me with their salaries from their jobs as doctors and astronauts. OK, maybe I'm getting a little far-flung. Maybe. But up to a certain point, that's what a lot of parents fantasize about before having children.
The reality of my children is that while they most certainly have angelic smiles, while some of our best times are playing and laughing and cuddling together, that they are CHALLENGING and HARD and sometimes they make me realize things about myself that I don't want to. Sometimes they frighten me because of the intensity with which I love them and because of the occasional piercing recognition that they are the most important thing I will ever do and I DARE NOT SCREW THIS UP. Sometimes they have tantrums. Lots of them. Sometimes in public places. Nowhere in my Mommy Ideology was there a whisper or iota of consideration given to the difficulties of raising children with bipolar, ADHD or anxiety disorder. Not a single moment was spent considering what it might be like parenting special needs kids, or being a single mom, or being so flat broke that sometimes I'd have to decide between buying groceries and paying the electric bill. Nowhere did my fantasies touch on the very real possibility of postpartum depression and the horror of carrying my newborn around wondering how on earth she could be so unlucky as to be born to a horrible mother like me. While almost every wonderful fantasy I had has come true (we're working on the whole "budding genius" track, it may be that we need to tweak some DNA sequencing), so much has been unexpected. And I would still do it all again. But I would change my expectations dramatically.
The same can be said for pregnancy. I even knew exactly how my pregnancy would go. I would be healthy. I would glow. I would exercise every day and limit my weight gain. I would do yoga. I would be a beautiful, magazine-model mommy in white maternity capris, a crisp red cotton top with white polka dots and white sandals on my freshly pedicured feet. I would be amazing. I would look lovely, I would smell lovely, I would be the GenX version of the Madonna, holding her rounded Jesus-full tummy with a little halo and a beatific smile.
I got pregnant with my daughter at the age of 36. I was healthy. I ate right. I exercised. I even GLOWED, dammit For about the first two weeks.
The first awful surprise about pregnancy was how many things I used to love that now made me retch. Even the SMELL of coffee made the bile rise in my throat. Poor J had to wait until he got to work to have his cup of morning joe. Commuting to work together became a Nightmare on Elm Steet version of a Keystone Kops episode. J, falling asleep behind the wheel, then yelling at any driver who got within a thousand feet of HIS PREGNANT WIFE. Me, sitting in the passenger seat, trying not to hurl, screaming at him to CALM THE FUCK DOWN, can't you see you're upsetting the pregnant woman, dammit?
Girl Scout cookies, always a favorite of mine, sat uneaten in the cupboard for months. I couldn't stand them. Dont' worry, there were plenty of other sweets clamoring to take their place in line. Ice cream was my lifeline. And there's nothing as great as a big old third-trimester belly to set your bowl on. Or your hot cocoa. Or your plate. And salty foods - I couldn't get enough. Bacon. Chips. Pork Rinds. Mmmmmm. I gained 60 to 70 pounds during my pregnancy. I was so damned pregnant I was actually pregnant in my ass. Who gets pregnant in their ASS, I ask you? Apparently, moi. Me. The three masted schooner look was really working for me as I waddled into the third trimester. Fred Flinstone had NOTHING on my feet. I had two pairs of shoes I could wear, a pair of slip on canvas fake-Keds two sizes too big, and my birkenstocks.
My hip and shoulder joints relaxed and separated to the point that I couldn't sleep on either side for more than a half hour or so without being in excruciating pain. Edema and joint pain notwithstanding, I was fairly healthy while pregnant. My blood pressure from the very first was always perfect. My daughter measured ahead size-wise the entire pregnancy, which had me a little frightened for her actual birth.
Birth. Oy. Who could have prepared me for that? I'd even been present at a birth - years prior, a very good friend gave birth to and relinquished a baby boy. I was present for her birth, and it was the most amazing, impactful experience I'd ever gone through. And still -- nothing about being present for the birth of someone else's baby prepares you for what it feels like when you go through it yourself.
My birth plan involved a CD player with relaxing, meditative music. My focal point would be a picture of the sunrise taken at the beach on my birthday one Florida winter, the day J proposed to me. I would use the birthing ball. I would use the tub. I would have massage, I would have no drugs. My birth coach would arrive three days before due date and everything would GO AS PLANNED. Yes, you may feel free to laugh hysterically at me now.
Three weeks prior to my due date, I awoke in the middle of the night, feeling as if I'd wet the bed. I wouldn't have been surprised at that point, since my daughter seemed to have a compulsion for tap dancing on my bladder. If she wasnt thumping on it with her elbow, she was planting her skull on it and pushing against my rigbs with her toes, STREEEETTTCCCHING as tall as she could go. This, of course, typically resulted in uncontrollable, involuntary urination on my part. So waking to wet maternity underwear wasn't really a shock, it was just surprising that I didn't feel like I had to pee. Usually when my bladder is full I'll dream about how full it is while I lay in bed and try to avoid having to get up in the middle of the night and traverse the spiders under the bed to go to the bathroom.
When I went to the bathroom, though, it was clearly not pee. Being a compliant patient (and also gleefully hopeful about the possibility of not having to be hugely pregnant ONE MORE DAY), I immediately called my OB's office and was told to head to the hospital to be checked out.
Long story short, we came home three or four days later with a baby. Short story long, the following two days were among the longest and MOST painful of my entire life. The hospital visit began with a nurse examining me and saying she could find no evidence of amniotic fluid. We argued for a couple of hourse, eventually she sent me down for an ultrasound. Apparenlty the hole in the amniotic sac was being blocked by my daughter's head, because the moment I sat down in the wheelchair to go downstairs, GUSH. "What does THAT look like to you?" I asked the nurse in my snarkiest Preggo Lady voice. Lesson number one: Be nice to your nurses. You will need them later when you're sucking on ice chips and trying to see what's happening through your sweat-soaked bangs and you need someoneto rub your back while your husband is sleeping in the chair.
Ultrasound showed that our daughter was doing fine and that amniotic fluid was lower than desired, but still in tolerable levels. It was decided that we would not leave the hospital at that point until she was born. I was started on an IV and given some stuff to start my labor.
The next 29 hours were hazy. We'd called my sister Vicki, and at some point that afternoon she arrived having broken all existing speed limits between Virginia and New Jersey. My chosen birth coach was in Seattle and could not make it on short notice. Once labor did begin, it was indescribable. My daughter had decided to go posterior, and the resulting back labor was a nightmare of pain beyond my wildest dreams. I have always prided myself on having a high pain threshold. Ask anyone who knows me -- I've walked on torn ligaments to make sure my horses got fed before calling for someone to take me to the ER. I've driven myself to emergency care with acute appendicitis. But this pain was something I'd never experienced before, and hope to never experience again. I tried sitting on the ball. No good. The bathtub was not an option since it posed a risk of infection with a ruptured amniotic sac. Backrubs didn't help. A shot of stadol didnt' touch it. Kneeling, standing, stretching, bending - nothing. Finally, disgusted with myself for feeling like I needed help, I begged for an epidural.
As much as I had planned a drug-free birth, in retrospect I'm glad I made the choice I did. I couldn't have known that I would be laboring until nearly 9 am the following morning. I would not have had the strength to push my daughter out without having gotten some sleep that night, although I am sure the three hours of pushing was partially a result of the block.
The only parts I remember after the epidural and the flashes of sleep I got overnight are the transition from labor to active pushing, bits and pieces of the OB yelling at me that I needed to get things going or I was going to end up with a section (lovely to be threatened with surgery when you're trying to push a watermelon out of your crotch) and the scray looking vacuum apparatus they used to deliver my daughter. After that, I clearly remember the unbelievable sense of physical relief when her shoulders slipped free and everything just LET GO. SWEET GOD IN HEAVEN, it was over. And there she was. MY BABY. Red, screaming her lungs out. J cut the cord, and they put her on my bare chest immediately. While she latched on for the first time, the doctor berated me for my lateral tear and how could I have needed 8 stitches for a 7.7 pound baby? None of it mattered, beyond my baby nursing at my breast, and the endless counting of fingers and toes and staring in amazement at the sheer perfection of her.
Someday I'll tell you about the aftermath of the stitches and the whole labioplasty drama. Suffice it to say that when your partner jokes to the doctor about taking an extra stitch to make you "good as new?" Hit him in the head with a sledgehammer because I GUARANFUCKINGTEE YOU it is the stupidest thing that has ever come out of his mouth. And later when you run into the OB who surgically fixed what the OTHER OB did to you in the local Hallmark store, you will be mortified when he doesn't recognize you by sight. Because he never really looked at your FACE. Um. Yeah.
So that's the story of the first arrival. The thing that changed everything that came after.
This Sunday night it was just her and I. We grilled chicken and made salad for dinner. We sat at the table and used our good placemats. We toasted each other, her with her apple juice and I with my Cabernet, and I looked at her amazing, beautiful face, and I knew then, as I know this moment, that I would go through that whole experience a thousand times over so long as it meant I could have her in my life. My daughter.