I walked past the hospital last week. It’s right on the way to a good friend’s house; I walk past it often. This time, though, I stopped. I stood on the corner of Toronto and Fifteenth and stared at the hospital as though it were Stonehenge or the Burj Khalifa. In that moment, it was just as impressive to me as any historical site or architectural feat. It was, after all, a personal historical site—a symbol of my own great achievement.
My son was in his stroller. I crouched down beside him and pointed at the large building in front of us. “That’s where you were born,” I told him. “That window there was our room for the first few days.” He smiled at me happily, obliviously, and waved his little finger around in the air, mimicking me. It’s so weird, I thought, that already he can’t remember something that happened only a little over a year ago.
(This is, of course, for the best. Of course it is.)
Obviously, my brightest memory of this place is the birth of my son. But the memory that hit me on that day in that moment and made me stop short was a different one.
I was seven months pregnant, a shivery, sweaty mess even though it was a nice-enough day in November, and we were sitting in the waiting area of this hospital with a group of maybe seven or eight other expecting couples. They were part of one of those birthing classes where you go to watch videos of women giving birth so that you can lay awake at night in the months leading up to your own labor and delivery picturing in vivid detail exactly what is going to happen to your body Any Day Now.
All of my friends did this before having their babies. They faithfully trotted off to their classes every week and learned about breathing and episiotomies and emergency C-sections and worst-case scenarios, and they watched those videos, and they came back with wide eyes and white faces. When I asked them why they put themselves through all that, they gave me very rational-sounding reasons like, “I want to be informed.”
I did not wish to be informed. My psyche couldn’t handle it. I hoped the doctors would know what was going on enough for both of us. My ideal birthing situation, controversial though it may be in this day and age, was to go into the hospital, have someone hit me over the head with a rubber mallet, and wake up with a baby in my arms. I did not want to be sentient, I did not want to feel it, and I did not want to be told what was going on down below.
I understand that, to many, childbirth is beautiful and wonderful and amazing. Maybe in the same way that, for many, swimming with great white sharks is beautiful and wonderful and amazing. (Do they make you watch graphic footage of shark attacks before you swim with sharks, I wonder?) For some people, however, these things are just mind-numbingly terrifying. They are what psychologists would call ‘fears’.
Childbirth was my number one fear, had been for as long as I could remember. I didn’t want to think about it, let alone take classes on it. I wanted to be blissfully (blissfully seems like the wrong word here) ignorant.
My husband, on the other hand, had the understanding that these birthing classes were as much a part of having a baby as actually having the baby. Like they wouldn’t let the baby out unless you had some kind of certification saying you’d taken the class and knew exactly what to do.
Or, you know, he worried that we wouldn’t know where to go when the time came, or when, or what to do if something unexpected happened.
These, I supposed, were valid concerns.
So we reached a sort of compromise: we would not do childbirth classes, but we would join a class on their hospital tour. One hour. Just to see where we needed to go and what the procedure was and how far in advance to get there and all that. No scary videos, no breathing exercises, just a stroll through the sterile white halls and a peek into the delivery rooms. Okay.
So there we were, and I thought it was going to be okay. Like going to an aquarium. There would be thick, impenetrable panes of glass between the sharks and me. I felt optimistic, even. Maybe I needed this, so that I could see how normal and everyday this whole process was.
The instructor smiled and welcomed us to the class. She handed out little hospital pamphlets. They had a picture of a happy family on the front and instructions for where in the hospital you should go and when. I flipped through it as she spoke and noted all of the things I already knew. I looked at the picture of the newborn nestled into its mom. I mentally patted myself on the back. This was not so bad. I was doing beautifully. I was going to have a baby. I was going to be an expert baby-haver and impress my husband so much.
But then the instructor made a joke about labor, and I snapped back into reality. Labor. Labor! I’d forgotten about labor. She was speaking so cheerfully, so conversationally, like we were guests at some kind of business conference, not like half of us were about to literally burst open. She started talking about how far into their labor a person should begin to think about coming in, and that was enough. This was real. It was going to happen. To me. There was a baby inside of me, and it had to come out, and I would have to be there for it. I felt all of my hair stand straight up on my head. The blood drained out of my face and pooled in my fat, pregnant feet. My heart began to bang against my rib cage like it was trying to escape. I couldn’t blame it. I felt like I might start doing the same thing against the walls of this building. I glanced around the room at the other couples. Some looked bored, some looked interested. No one looked overly concerned. Was I the only one who was losing my mind right now? I grabbed my husband’s hand and tried to tell him telepathically that I was going to fall over dead if he didn’t take me home.
He didn’t get the message.
So we followed the tour group into the depths of the hospital. They showed us everything.
Here’s the room where we put you to check your progress. And here’s the room where you change into this little piece of paper pretending to be a hospital gown. And here’s a machine to monitor this, and here’s a machine to monitor that. And here’s where you’ll go if you need a C-section, and here’s the delivery room. Here is The Table, and here are The Scissors, and here is The Needle, and here is a vacuum, and here is a horrifying assortment of sharp, crazy-looking metal things that we’ll only use if we absolutely have to.
I began to unthinkingly pinch my husband in the arm every time I saw something I didn’t like. I felt like I needed to throw up. My feet were in the shark tank. The water was pitch black.
My baby began to kick my stomach from the inside. I usually loved the feeling, but now it was like he was reminding me how big he was and how much he was growing every day. The other couples looked unfazed. I was frantic.
What a strange thing, to know that your biggest fear is going to happen to you soon and that there is nothing you can do to stop it. To be barreling toward it with all speed and growing momentum. To be standing in a hospital room with one hand on your belly and the other making little crescent moon shapes in the arm of the person who got you here.
By the time we left the hospital that night, I was completely deflated. I could not do this, under any circumstances. Also: I had no choice but to do this. Instead of feeling excited and thankful, like all of the other pregnant women in the world, I was just feeling stuck and afraid. Cue massive guilt. Cue feelings of inadequacy and failure.
I wish now, as people often do, that phone lines could stretch back through time so that I could make a quick call to myself, circa November 2013.
I’d say, first of all, that all this fear is okay. The unknown is scary, and probably a lot of the other couples in that group felt some level of fear that they weren’t showing. I’d tell myself that since that night, I’ve talked to a lot of other people who felt just as scared as I did. Being deathly afraid to give birth doesn’t mean that you’re not thankful for the ability to experience it. Those are two separate feelings. It’s silly to think they can’t coexist.
“So,” I’d tell myself, “stop it with the guilt. Just stop it.”
And then I’d say, “Let me tell you a beautiful story."
“One night, in two months, you’re going to wake up at 12:35. You’re going to be in labor. You’ll know it’s time to go to the hospital because you’ll text your sister-in-law, and she’ll tell you it’s time. 'Wild Country' by Wake Owl will be playing on the radio, and your husband will be grinning from ear to ear as he drives you to the hospital. It will be 32 below, and you’ll forget your mittens at home. You’ll arrive at the right entrance, and you’ll park, and you’ll pick your way across the ice, all lit up from the street lights, holding hands and speaking in reverent whispers as though you’re walking through a cathedral instead of a parking lot.
Every second and every step and every word will feel strange because you’ll know that Something Big is about to happen, and you’ll know that it will change everything and that you’ll look back on all of these seconds and steps and words as Before.
You’ll catch your breath in the stairwell. You’ll forget, for a second, how to breathe it out again. You’ll be scared, but you’ll smile. And the night will melt away as though it’s made of ice cubes and snow instead of minutes and hours. Other things will happen, but those things are not the things that you need to worry about now, because they are not things that matter. The thing that will matter is the moment you realize there is only one heart beating in your body, because the other one is in front of you. It’ll be amazing. And I know you can do it because, obviously, you have.”
But you can’t send messages back into the past. You just have to live your life and find these things out for yourself.
Do you know what’s weird? Childbirth is still a fear of mine. The thought of doing this all again is terrifying because I know the high stakes, and I know that my next experience could be, probably will be, an entirely different one altogether for better or for worse. The only thing that is different now is that the curtain has been lifted, and I’ve seen behind it. The water is not black. My birth story is not a promise that my next experience with childbirth will be magical and beautiful and successful. But it is a reminder to me that my body can do this, that it’s not an impossible feat accomplished by only a select few. And it’s comforting in that I know now that I don’t remember the pain (I remember that I was in pain but not actually what it felt like) or what kinds of machines or tools the doctors used that night: I mostly just remember that Moment.
And last week in front of the hospital, of course I thought about that night—but I also thought about the preceding hospital tour. I thought about my fear, and I smiled because you can’t not smile when you realize that you’ve done the thing you’ve always been the most afraid of doing.