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Extreme Birth

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Left: Weighing Kelly DiVico's baby shortly after birth. Right: Muhlhahn's patient Monica Eleazar with her son Liam.  

Very quickly, our plot unfurled much like the nightmare scenarios in BOBB. Since Robin’s water had broken, the clock was ticking, so the nurse gave her pitocin to get things moving. Soon, the contractions were so intense that Robin was screaming for the anesthesiologist. The epidural brought instant pain relief, but the V shapes on the monitor continued with each contraction.

Some time later, a resident burst into the room. “We’re concerned about your baby,” he said. “He’s been recovering well from the decelerations up to this point, but we don’t know how long that will last. We want to get him out.” And then he gave us a meaningful look. “I know you didn’t want it to go this way,” he said, “but the good news is if you decide to have another baby, you’ll be a great candidate for a vaginal birth.” Just like that, we were handed a rain check for the birth we had hoped for.

Henry was born at 2:30 a.m., ten hours after Robin had gone into labor. In retrospect, I have no idea whether he was ever in real danger. Maybe she could have pushed him out. Maybe if we’d never seen those fetal-monitor strips, we would have assumed he was all right, and in all likelihood he would have been. But in Robin’s telling of the story, Henry was in real danger. There wasn’t even a question of what to do.

What I do know is that in the moment that resident hoisted the little boy over the curtain protecting me and Robin from the sight of her exposed viscera, everything changed about that place. The nursing staff was warm, competent, and quick to respond. Contrary to everything I’d heard, the hospital never tried to separate us from our baby. (One of the ways the influence of midwives has made hospital births a more humane experience.) Robin was in pain, but happier than I’d ever seen her. I began to wonder if “labor amnesia”—the idea that evolution has made sure mothers don’t remember much of the pain of childbirth—might apply to C-sections as well. When women meet their healthy babies, they are so overcome with joy that they forget about the horror and construct a memory of something far more beautiful.

The McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho can barely contain the crowd that comes out to celebrate the publication of Muhlhahn’s memoir, Labor of Love. There are not enough folding chairs to accommodate all the women who’ve shown up. Store owner Sarah McNally is lugging around Jasper, the 5-month-old product of a twelve-hour birth with Muhlhahn, and laughing about the doula who had tried to hydrate her with ginger ale. (“I don’t mean to be rude,” McNally had told her, “but I don’t drink high-fructose corn syrup.”) Novelist and The Believer editor Heidi Julavits arrives with 2-week-old Solomon tucked into a Moby wrap; she’d used Muhlhahn’s colleague Miriam Schwarzchild. There is much talk of empowering feats of strength and hormone highs. “I felt like a superhero,” says Daphne Beal, the author of the Vogue article about home birth. “I envisioned myself climbing up a building Spiderman style.”

“I had a birth this morning, so I’m sleep-deprived, as usual. I did seven births in eleven days!” Muhlhahn says, seemingly astounded by her own stamina. Thanks to BOBB, the last 24 months have been the busiest in the dozen years since she first set up a solo practice in the bedroom of her Stuy Town apartment. Recently, she has more than tripled the number of births she takes on, to ten a month.

Before signing books, Muhlhahn sits on a panel and answers questions. “Have you observed a difference in home-birth versus hospital babies?” asks one menopausal woman in a beret. “Are they calmer?” Muhlhahn responds that no scholarship on such a thing exists, but says, “The baby born this morning was just so calm … Even though that might not be measurable data, these outcomes are extremely important to the human race.” The woman nods, satisfied. “It’s a great place to start,” she enthuses.

The panel’s star, however, might be Jessica Robinson, who receives gasps from the impressed crowd for revealing a thumbnail of her experience: 76 hours of labor, which included a 30-block walk on her third day and an episode in which Muhlhahn had to coax her out of the bathroom of a Brooklyn acupuncturist’s office. The adventure eventually yielded a ten-pound, twelve-ounce boy, the heaviest baby Muhlhahn had ever delivered to a primip. “It just seemed,” Muhlhahn says, savoring the victory, “like a completely normal delivery.”


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