Here’s how I remember it: It was Friday night, and I’d just finished watching “Millennium.” It was a spinoff series, sorta, of “The X-Files.” And as far as I recall, it was one of those Aura shows — there was the sense that Something Large and Evil was lurking just offstage, part of a Huge Conspiracy of Shadowy Forces, and it was all tied to the coming turn of the millennium, which was then, what? A little over three years away.
The credits were rolling, and I felt a contraction.
Damn. False labor.
I was in false labor, I was sure, because I’d just been to the doctor that day. Of course I knew the baby was coming eventually, but the nurse practitioner had checked everything out down there and pronounced my cervix “long and closed,” which meant she was willing to bet money I wouldn’t go before my due date, still five days away.
I was ready. My suitcase was packed, the camera loaded with film, the “Kind of Blue” CD ready in case the room had a player. The crib was set up, the little onesies in the drawer, the mobile of black-and-white shapes — supposedly the only thing a newborn could see — assembled and ready to be gazed upon. It was called the Infant Stim-Mobile. Stim is for “stimulation.” Everything was all about stimulation back then. Of course, the first thing you learn about newborns is, they’re already getting all the stimulation they can handle, and when they can’t handle it anymore, they scream. This was the first lesson of parenthood, and I pass it on to you now: Someone’s always trying to sell you useless crap, and 95 percent of it you don’t need.
I was ready, but there was still work to be done. I had to help Alan clean the gutters, the last onerous outdoor chore of the year, and I had to shop for and prepare a meal for Alan’s 40th birthday, which was Saturday. Once Saturday was over, I’d be all the way ready.
Only now, damn: False labor. I went to bed in the guest room. Alan had a cold, and I didn’t want to catch it with the delivery so close. Tried to sleep, but the false labor continued. Hey, I kept thinking. My cervix is long and closed, and I don’t need to be up all damn night with this false labor. I need my rest. I have to clean gutters and make a semi-elaborate meal. Give me a break, uterus.
I managed to doze a while, but still, all night — contractions. Some were sort of strong. Once I whimpered a little, and Alan said, from the next room, half-asleep: “Try to breathe through it, hon. Zzzzzzzz.” By dawn, I was beginning to think we were going to have to go to the hospital. Not for the baby to be born, mind you, but for the doctor to look at me again — long and closed! — and send me home. This happened to everyone we knew. And here I’d have to make dinner and a cake on a night of interrupted sleep. Damn this false labor; it was ruining my plans.
Second lesson of parenthood: Someone’s always ruining your plans.
I got Alan up, told him we were probably going to have to go to the hospital, and he should walk the dog. I called my parents and told them we were going, but not to get their hopes up, because my cervix was long and closed. The contractions were pretty strong and grueling by now, but honestly, I still thought they were false alarms. This ability to ignore reality when it’s right in front of my face explains a lot about me, including why I stayed in the newspaper business so long.
On the way to the hospital, I noticed the contractions were now three minutes apart, down from five. It began to occur to me that I might, possibly, be having the baby that day.
At the hospital they offered to check me in under an assumed name. Really. Apparently this service is available to certain VIPs, and as a newspaper columnist, I qualified. “I really don’t think that’s necessary,” I said through gritted teeth and another contraction. “I think the photographers are still staking out Madonna’s apartment.” Madonna was my celebrity pregnancy doppelganger and had delivered a month earlier.
We got up to the intake ward, where a jolly nurse checked everything out. “You’re six centimeters dilated, almost seven. You’re in transition.” I told Alan to call his mom and tell her dinner was definitely off.
I had the epidural, which I now regret. The day stretched out to its full length. I was no longer in pain; all activity seemed to be taking place on the other side of a glass wall that passed through my waist. The jolly nurse went home, replaced by a less-jolly but seemingly far more competent one, who ordered a pitocin drip. I pushed and pushed and pushed and nothing happened. They tried the suction-cup thing and it didn’t work. I looked up and saw my ya-ya, illuminated by halogen lights, reflected in six pairs of glasses, which was weird. At one point I blacked out, although I never lost consciousness. There’s just a long gap in my memory, which I’m thankful for, because apparently that’s when the episiotomy happened and the forceps appeared. All I know is I was pushing unsuccessfully and then the doctor said, “The head’s out,” and I thought, cool, I didn’t need an episiotomy. And the next thing I knew, they laid Kate on my stomach, all hair and huge, staring eyes.
I’d like to tell you we all burst into tears like the moms on “E.R.,” but all I remember thinking was: Wow. Get a load of those eyes.
There was a lot of busywork then. A pulmonary tech hoovered out her lungs, because there had been meconium in the amniotic fluid. The nurses rubbed her rather vigorously. The doctor said, “She had a rough trip.” I didn’t know, then, that her one-minute Apgar score was a mere 4. Finally I said, “Is she OK? Can I see her?” And the pulmonary tech turned around and said, “Sure.”
(That’s the competent nurse on the right.) I told Alan, “Happy birthday. Don’t expect me to top this for 41,” and everyone made a big fuss.
I sometimes think back on this comedy of errors and wonder if it set the tone for anything. The denial of the obvious, the convenient blackout at a critical moment — what does this say about my chips-are-down mettle? Nothing, I hope. Third lesson of parenthood: Nothing ever turns out the way you think it will.
Anyway, this was 10 years ago today. Today, little Miss 4-on-the-Apgar woke up and caroled, “I’m in double digits now!” She and her father wished one another a happy birthday. Presents were unwrapped at the breakfast table; it was an electronics theme this year. Ten years of water under the bridge, more than halfway to adulthood (legal adulthood, anyway). I’ve made approximately seven jajillion mistakes but I think, for the most part, they were all non-fatal, and I’ve tried to learn from them.
The latest lesson of parenthood: Birthdays are special. Time to go make some cake. Have a good day.