By the time I am eight months pregnant, I am already too smart for my own good. I’ve spent the first two trimesters preparing the only way I know how: by reading every book there is and all of the internet. I have watched approximately 1,000 perineums stretch beyond their limits on YouTube. I have become a pedant for childbirth.
In fact, on the way home from my very first childbirth class, I complained that we didn’t learn a single new thing. “Isn’t it nice, though,” Dustin argued, “to learn that we’ve already learned everything?” Dustin is my “birth partner” and fellow victim to the vagaries of the pull-out method.
At this point we know everything there is to know except the one thing I’m afraid to find out: what it will be like. That I can’t know all of it or understand it — the miracle of childbirth! — until it happens to me, that I don’t really know what I’m getting into, that I can’t read or plan my way out of it, seems totally unfair. And terrifying.
At one recent class, we did a couple rounds of an experiment. Our teacher passed around little cups of ice to each of us and then sat in front of the room. She told us we'd practice pain management by holding a piece of ice in our hands — squeezing it — for 60 seconds, or about the length of a contraction.
We had to close our eyes, which may have made it worse. We were alone with our pain. It would have been better if we could have laughed, or screamed, I think, but no one else did. Oh shit, I thought. I wanted to drop the ice, or throw it. Cheating, I moved it to different parts of my hand.
After our 60 seconds were up the teacher asked us how it went. Awful, I thought. "Did it feel longer than 60 seconds?" "YES," I said, like she had asked me alone, and like I knew the answer. But as I shouted yes to what seemed like a leading question, the people around me, liars all, shook their heads, shrugged, and said, "Not really." I felt betrayed. The teacher asked for more feedback and one of the dads raised his hand sheepishly, the way the men do. She gestured toward him to speak.
"Well, it was like I was aware of the pain but it didn't bother me. I acknowledged it and just sat with it. Time went by quickly."
Fuck you, I thought.
Another guy raised his hand. "I did this thing where I listened to the ticking of the clock without counting the seconds. I just embraced the passage of time. It felt really fast."
"Wow," our teacher said, "very nice."
I laughed out loud; I couldn't help it. I searched the room for someone to make eye contact with, someone to give me permission to shout, LOOKS LIKE WE HAVE A ZEN MASTER HERE, EH, LADIES?
But the women, of course, were all quiet. We were already moving inward, already slipping. This was only a small peek into the task that lay ahead of us. I have spent the past eight months trying to think about pain, searching my memory for something to compare it to and coming up short. Menstrual cramps are a popular analog but to me they seem defined by their dullness. I’ve never had surgery, can’t remember the last time I skinned my knee. I can’t remember the last time something really, really hurt. In my grasping, I can’t even imagine it.
The ice, though: It does the job.
Back at the very beginning of our first class, the teacher had asked us to say our names, our due dates, where we would give birth, and what we were most afraid of. I’d panicked, trying to think of something funny to say, and made a joke about my mother coming to stay with us. Everyone laughed but what I was thinking about were the bones of the baby's head being squeezed together, the way I’d seen it in the YouTube videos. I imagined the plates of his skull overlapping, forming into a cone. I thought about my body tearing open to accommodate this, in ways I wouldn't be able to see and would only feel in the vaguest way, only feel as radiating pain. You can tell me again and again that this is how it’s supposed to be, that this is how Mother Nature intended it. My reaction, though, will still be the same: That ain’t right.
So instead of thinking about that I think about all the things I need to be doing, as if they will stave it off: I need to do Hypnobabies. I need to meditate. More yoga. Raspberry red leaf tea. Kegels. Squats. I need to do all these tenuously helpful things to PREPARE. Or else I don't at all. I suspect that the real benefit of these things is to make you feel like you are doing something, wresting some control over a thing you have no real control over. I want to do kegels so I can feel good about doing kegels.
In that spirit, we proceeded to hold the ice while deep breathing. And then while listening to teacher-directed relaxation techniques. And then while our enlightened birth partners took a break from Zen mastery to rub our shoulders. Dustin did this softly — petting me, actually, while the ice stung my hand. He breathed deeply, which I knew was as an attempt to inspire me. Rather than grateful, in my state, I felt condescended to. YOU THINK I DON'T KNOW HOW TO BREATHE? I thought. I KNOW HOW TO FUCKING BREATHE. The seconds kept passing, but not quickly enough. Perhaps I was not listening to the clock in the correct way.
"Was that better?" the teacher asked, after telling us to stop. For a brief moment I hoped that this had been a trick, that she would now reveal that in fact massage as pain relief was just a widely held myth. I looked around, though, and saw the other women nodding vigorously. "Much better!" they said, smiling at their partners.
"Good," the teacher said, validated. "That's what everyone says."
We then broke into small groups to discuss the reading, which I had to admit I didn't remember at all. Because I read it a week ago, when it was first assigned. Because this shit is all I read. Because it all runs together and I know all of it already. Is there a birthing class for the gifted? Some kind of advanced licensing program? There seems to have been a mistake, sir. This woman to my left doesn't even know how to pronounce Ina May.
The thing of it is, of course, that I know nothing at all, and I hate that so much.
"We can read everything there is to read and still have no idea how it will feel in the moment," I confessed to my small group. "I have no idea how I will react, and no amount of preparation can tell me." The eyes of the woman to my right lit up. I decided I liked her. She nodded, and asked if anyone was thinking they were going to use an epidural and had their mind changed by the readings. I said I would like to forgo an epidural but I was reserving the right to get one if I wanted. I had never "reserved the right" to something out loud before. "And if I get one," I say, full of false bravado, "I don't want him to judge me." I looked at Dustin without really looking at him and laughed and everyone mumbled, "Of course, of course."
That night, in bed, Dustin put down his book and pressed mine down into my chest and promised me he didn't care what I did, he only wanted what I wanted. Tears immediately streamed down my face and I turned into a puddle of fear. This awful thing was coming for me, and at the end of it, a baby. “You’ll be so great at it, I just know,” he says to comfort me. I laugh. How can he know? I am unsure how one could fail at childbirth, but I imagine I will fail spectacularly. And I want to be allowed to, to imagine that. My fear is on a deadline, and I will find my way out it eventually, but I'm not quite ready to yet. I want to pretend, for a few more weeks, that none of it will happen. I want to forward gruesome articles about postpartum recovery to my friends and I want us all to talk about how we almost passed out reading it.
And then, when the time comes, I’ll tell myself that I’ll be great. What else can I believe? My body was made for this. My child’s skull will be as smooth as an egg; my taint superior, unflappable.
Must have been the kegels.