Even though the room was spacious, the four of us were huddled near the far wall. I was literally backed into a corner. From there, it was tough to get the shots I needed; and if I missed them, I would not get a second opportunity. Of all the photography jobs I’d ever had, this was, by far, the most challenging. It was the first time I’d ever been asked to make a photo-journal of a woman’s labor and delivery.
Hey fellas, where ya goin?!! C’mon men, just because the subject of this post is childbirth, that’s no reason to bail out. If you’ll promise to man-up, I will promise not to bring you to your knees with gory details. Agreed? Great. Let’s continue…
Penny* and her husband, Dave, were expecting their second child.
When she approached me about taking pictures, Penny told me she hoped to have a water labor, and possibly a water delivery. She wanted me to photograph all of it.
I thought, Hoo boy! What is with these young mothers and their wacky new-age ideas? Instead, I said, “Sounds great!”
Yes. I admit it. I was judging. And the truth is, I had absolutely no right to (beyond the obvious reasons). You see, I had some wacky ideas of my own. When we had our first child, Hubby and I did the Bradley Method.
If you’re unfamiliar with Bradley, allow me to share my personal experience: the class was full of tall, graceful “dancers” (yes, every woman in the class claimed to be a dancer – it seems there is no shortage of ballerinas in New York City). I was short, clumsy and could no longer see my feet. They all planned to give birth at home. I was worried about getting to the hospital in time. All of them were seeing midwives. I was the only one being seen by a medical doctor. They thought my notions about childbirth were quaint. I thought theirs were crazy.
Still, I went along with the classes. It was something Hubby felt strongly about. With the Bradley Method, the father serves as the coach and “leads” the delivery; thereby making him a key player. I appreciated Hubby’s eagerness to participate, but let’s get real here for a minute. Unless a man is a doctor, he probably don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies. Also, the Bradley Method discourages medication for pain management. No, you’re supposed to envision your happy place and breathe into that sensation of passing a watermelon through the eye of a needle. No drugs. Let me repeat: No drugs! In my opinion, the Bradley Method is like Lamaze in army boots…hardcore. No drugs, no doctors, no hospitals. What was I thinking?
My Bradley instructor, a mother of three (all of whom she delivered in her apartment, armed with only a bowl of hot water, cellophane tape and a paper towel), told us to put a birthing plan together and to discuss it with our caregiver. So, I typed up my plan, my ideal birth, and gave it to my doctor. Here are just a few of the requirements that I thought would make my experience light and breezy:
The lights in the room must be kept dim.
Talking is to be done only when necessary and only in whispers.
Soft music will be played.
No pain medication is to be offered. If I want it, I’ll ask for it.
When I handed it to my obstetrician, she smiled the kind of gentle, knowing smile of a woman who has been in the trenches. “I’ll do my best to fulfill your wishes,” she promised, “but I want you to understand that sometimes the baby’s birth plan doesn’t quite jive with its mommy’s.”
Fast forward to delivery day. After I had been in labor for 18 hours, my doctor finally said to me, “We’re not giving out trophies today. Please consider taking an epidural.”
Her tone was more forthright than ever before. She knew something about me that I hadn’t been able to admit to my husband or myself: I felt peer pressure to do this the new old-fashioned way. Natural childbirth. Nearly everyone else in my class had already delivered. While all of them had successful outcomes (healthy babies), several of the women had to be rushed to hospitals or needed some sort of medical intervention. Our instructor reported those births to us with a quality of regret in her voice, as if needing help to have a baby was some sort of failure.
I looked into my doctor’s eyes and thought about the atmosphere of disappointment connected to the women in my class whose plans fell through. I wondered if I would be disappointed in myself. And then I decided that the only thing I really cared about was holding my baby in my arms. I knew I didn’t really give a rat’s ass what anyone else thought. I whispered, “F*ck it. Give me the epidural.”
In the end, I needed an emergency C-section anyway. Indeed, my baby had a very different birth plan.
With my second child, it was an entirely different ballgame. For various and necessary reasons, my doctor wanted to induce me. We were sitting in her office when she gave me the news. Then she asked, “What day is good for you this weekend?”
“I don’t have much going on. What about you?
“Well,” she said, “I’m supposed to go to a dinner party Saturday night.”
“OK, then. Let’s do it on Saturday morning. And please have the anesthesiologist ready when I get to the hospital,” I said. That’s how Child Number 2 came into this world. Nice and easy. Civilized. No drama. No pain. No shame. Was it natural childbirth? Well yes, because when you think about it, all births are natural unless you’ve cloned something in a fish tank.
Now, back to Penny and Dave. I arrived at the hospital, as Penny’s contractions were getting intense. A whirlpool bath was prepared for her and as she eased herself into it, its soothing warmth wash the tension from her body. Her sister, Carole, started dabbing Penny with lavender oil to relax her while Penny’s mother “lit” some flameless candles. There was gauzy music playing softly in the background. Any minute now, I thought, a masseuse is going to tiptoe in and offer up some cucumber water and organic almonds. But the spa atmosphere was actually working. Penny’s contractions became much more manageable and far less painful. I will be a naysayer of water labor no more.
About half an hour later, Penny got out of the tub and had a quiet conversation with one of the nurses. She had changed her mind about giving birth in water and decided to take an epidural instead. Her contractions were picking up steam. At one point, in the throes of a whopper, she turned to me and groaned, “Make me laugh. Tell me a joke to distract me.”
Seriously? I wanted to say, “Look lady. I’m just here to take pictures. If you’re looking for comedy, you should have asked Jerry Seinfeld to be your photographer.” Instead, it was the panicked look on my face that gave her the giggles.
Within minutes, the most popular man in the maternity ward walked in. He was very tall, very handsome, and delightfully cheerful. But he is best-loved because he is the anesthesiologist. After he gave Penny the goods, we turned down the lights and all of us settled in for a nap.
Four hours later, the midwife examined Penny’s progress. She announced that the main event was about to start, then left to get the nurse. Penny sat up, turned the lights on over her bed and switched the music from sultry spa favorites to her “pushing” playlist of pulsating party tunes. Dave, Carole, Penny’s mother and I all stood up and started stretching to shake off our sleep. Then we started dancing. Yes, that’s right. We were dancing to pump up the energy in the room (and who’s kidding whom? We were suddenly filled with an overabundance of nervous energy).
In came the midwife and the nurse. They saw us getting down and getting funky, so they briefly joined in. This was not what I expected the experience to be like. It was way better!
With our heads cleared and our mom-to-be ready for action, it was time to get down to business. I grabbed my camera and moved to the head of the bed, Penny’s mother beside me. On the other side of the bed stood Dave and Carole.
Penny took a deep breath and became as focused as a laser beam. We all fell silent while she took her first push. The midwife and the nurse did the cheerleading. The rest of us intuitively knew to keep our mouths shut. During the resting phases between pushes, Penny became relaxed and chatty. We were all giddy and smiling. There was laughter and conversation. But when it was time to push again, a hush fell over the room and Penny immediately became the laser beam once more. It was the most fascinating display of maternal instinct, as Penny worked to bring her beautiful healthy boy into the world.
I’ll give no further details because the rest was so exquisite and amazing, that it feels too sacred to share. And, also, I don’t want to make any of my more squeamish readers pass out. Suffice it to say, I got the shots I needed even though the lighting was problematic, the angles I had to shoot from were not optimal and focusing was a near impossibility with all those joy tears in my eyes.
*All names have been changed.