It took Aubrey and me some time to convince our parents to get us a PlayStation. While we impatiently waited, we played at friends’ houses and pined for the day when we’d inevitably fight over and then grasp our very own gray controller. We’d salivate as the brain cells shot out of our eyes and into my parents’ bedroom television each evening following YMCA after school care. When we actually received our own console some late ’90s Christmas, we were in disbelief. Nancy and Dick had actually succumb. And we played one game: Crash Bandicoot.
During the pandemic, I have considered exploring whatever modern edition of Crash Bandicoot and learning how to import, teleport, transport it to Chas’s PlayStation 11, or whatever number they use now. I’ve resisted my own video game rebirth, but I have endured many hours of what I call “Shoot Shoot Bang Bang” flinging from Chas’s hands as he sticks out his tongue and maneuvers a sexy duck avatar with a screaming gingerbread man in its backpack.
As a team, however, in June, Chas and I found ourselves at the center of our very own live video game. A game many women have played before me. And many will follow after. (Well, if society doesn’t end, that is.) I never thought of it as a video game-like scenario, until I lived it.
The first challenge of our game began at 2 a.m. It was more of a natural disaster really. A flood. From my body and into our bed. I woke up with the sensation of liquid falling out of me, gushing without my control, painless, warm, constant. I shot up from an awkward left-side slumber and yelled at Chas, “I think my water is breaking!”
Earlier that evening we’d eaten his and hers crab cakes from Chesapeake Oyster and then watched Knocked Up on the couch. It only felt a little on the nose when Katherine Heigl’s character gets mad at Seth Rogan’s for “not reading the baby books.” My own stack sat completely unperturbed right next to the couch. We watched the version that ends with what looks like a real live birth–it was no different than anything we’d seen in our birthing class, but still, I remember thinking, “Well, at least I have two more weeks to go.” While watching, I noticed that my left foot had inflated like a bag of steamed vegetables in the microwave. We pointed and we laughed about it, me making fun of myself and Chas joining in.
Just five hours later and we found ourselves pretending to be calm while gathering items we thought we’d have more time to pack. I sat on a towel while I called Hopkins Labor and Delivery and when we climbed in the car, we’d passed Level 1: The Flood.
Level 2: Negative Pressure Room
When we arrived at Hopkins, we walked a long bridge from the garage to the hospital that made the whole thing feel eerily like an early-morning-hours international flight: stale mouth, emotional confusion, mild discomfort, nonsensical outfit, and extreme exhaustion balanced by an uncomfortable adrenaline.
We made it past the first desk simply by donning masks and asking for labor and delivery. The unfazed security guard let me down by not caring that my water had broken and that I was about to meet the baby we’d spent the past two and a half years trying to make–she also didn’t know where L&D was, a little disconcerting, but we suggested what we could remember from the phone call during the flood.
Riding the elevator to Zayed Tower Floor 8, I had the shakes. At desk two, the guard asked, “Can I help you?” And I said, “I’d like to have a baby please.” Laughter points for me. She made a phone call and we were carted off to a Negative Pressure Room. To pass this level, I needed a negative coronavirus test. Nose swab, 30 minutes, and we’d achieved release. While there, the doctors on duty “checked me,” a term I’d come to know well. I was zero centimeters dilated, with ten being the threshold to enter the upper echelon of levels. “We will check you again in two hours,” she said, “And then if you’re not dilated [HAHA], we will start you on Pitocin.” Still, I didn’t have Covid-19, so onto L&D.
Level 3: Oh, That’s a Cute Little Birth Plan
Chas and I had spent six spring Sundays taking a Holistic Birthing class (on Zoom, of course). I found it informative and fascinating and from it, I crafted a natural birth plan that involved the control I enjoy. I drive a stick shift, after all. I wanted no drugs, no induction, no pain meds, just me and my vagina and my baby, all working together. But the universe is hilarious.
My next “check” would be around 5 a.m. and I felt no different from my first at 3:00. So I started to get my power ups, knowing that once I’d taken Pitocin, there’d be no more power ups allowed, outside of water and that good ice they have at hospitals. At 4:30 I downed about 243 Goldfish crackers, slurped a pint of Gatorade, and shoved in two granola bars.
Around 5, much like Crash Bandicoot and his boxes of apples, armed with the snacks Jamie had given me (thank god) at my drive-by baby shower, they came in to tell me what I already knew: I was zero centimeters dilated. The medical team–from here on out known as “they”–explained that once your water is broken, you’re on a clock. The “water” is the fluid that keeps your insides clean and without it, you only have so much time for your body to remain clean and safe for your baby and for you. Basically, it was time for Pitocin. And the birth plan I’d had uploaded into my medical chart for two months would be impossible to follow. They were able to hook me up to a mobile IV which allowed me to walk around the room as my cervix decided what she’d do, and on what timeline.
I spent the day in rounds of: get up to circle the room while carting around my bag of Pitocin, sit down to write a thank you note, get up to pee, and repeat. They added in the birth ball, the peanut, and fun bed configurations which I added into my rounds. By the late morning, I lost the ability to comfortably hold my pen as contractions became less like suggestions and more like demands. I breathed through them, hung over the bed, attempting to make use of my birth class techniques. Chas helped me with each one and we noticed their quickening pace. Pitocin was kicking my…everything…and they kept increasing the dose as my checks’ results continued to be slow and fruitless.
Level 4: Fuck Your Cute Little Birth Plan
Around 4 p.m., I knew what was happening to me was outside of my abilities, forget the drugless birth I’d imagined, I was in tears with each contraction and seemingly no closer to meeting our baby. And with this realization, I asked for a new kind of power up. The ultimate. The epidural.
At this time I had a sweet nurse who was totally into my natural birth plan. She supported me in every way possible, helping me change positions, adding in props, telling me I’d be okay, welcoming suggestions, rubbing my back. And when I told her I just couldn’t do it anymore, I felt really bad. But, she supported that too and went to get the pain-relieving-they. If heaven exists, there is a special place in it for labor and delivery nurses.
The anesthesiologists teamed up and came in to drill a hole in my back and grant me relief so I could continue my hero’s journey. You know what’s hard? Breathing through the chemically-induced tensing of your uterus while two men nestle a giant needle in your back. Challenge met, I waited to feel less like I was dying. What natural birth plan?
Level 5: Night
As we crept toward 24 hours since my water had broken they continued to increase the Pitocin. I was worried about this level both because I wasn’t sure I was capable of sleep and because my checks were still letting the team down. My ally remained curled in a horrible vinyl chair in front of a fantastic view of downtown Baltimore. Sprinkly lights and movement hovered behind his contorted frame as he, too, attempted sleep. This was one of those levels that was painted gorgeous as consolation for being so difficult.
The night hours wore on with all types of masked intruders–all part of “they”–coming in to look and monitor and peek and use a gloved hand. Again, we were gifted with a fairy angel of a nurse who kept me watered and reasonably comfortable. As I worked my way through the late and early hours I could push a button to add more relief and put at bay the complete destruction of my insides.
I sailed past midnight and with it, the possibility of having a baby on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. And I floated past 2 a.m., the 24-hour mark, with my mostly closed cervix, napping here and there, hopping through contractions like Crash leaps over so many wooden boxes. And from that 8th floor room, our night sky backdrop cradled us in beauty, if not in peace.
Level 6: Dawn and Day
Morning brought a sense of relief, partially because it meant I didn’t feel pressure to try to force myself to sleep, and partially because I knew, no matter what, they wouldn’t let me go too much longer before meeting my baby.
Around 10 a.m., my cervix had finally received the memo that it had been pumped full of Pitocin and it was time to squeeze out a human. The doctor who said it was time to push looked mostly convinced. Though in retrospect, I think I may have caught a look of skepticism pass from him to other members of his team. He was small and kind and gentle and I think, optimistic.
So I pushed.
We had two nurses one who counted and watched and the other who helped with my right leg while Chas held the left. I did rounds on my back and rounds on all fours. And I pushed and breathed and counted to 10. I beared down and I let up and I cried and squeezed. I ate that good ice and sipped cold water from styrofoam cups and I tried. For three hours and some change, I pushed. There were no cheat codes or special passageways to serve as shortcuts.
But by the tones of the nurses, I knew I was getting no where. All this effort and struggle, using what I’d learned in birth class, this baby wasn’t showing up. When enough time had passed and I’d garnered the right amount of pity, I assume, they brought Dr. Optimist back in to tell me what I wish I’d known 35 hours earlier. My pelvis was too small for this kid’s head and it was time to get prepped for the OR and inevitable Cesarean Section.
Level 7: The Sunroof
The OR felt like a nightclub compared to the COVID-life I’d led the previous three months. There were maybe 14 people in there, all bustling about holding shiny things and wearing ridiculous suits of papery, Easter-colored armor.
If my birth plan was destroyed before, it was being exhumed, tortured, and re-buried now. They whim-bam-boomed my meds, leg covers, blankets, and whatever else they did to the body I’d now lost track of. Chas sat up by my head and a sheet shielded our view of the creation of my new sunroof.
Although I had no concept of time, temperature, I could feel. The room was about 37 degrees Fahrenheit as they sliced into my belly. What I felt…was pressure. I breathed through the prepping, the surgery, the vacuuming, and at some point in that breathing, a 15th person entered the room. They held up the baby for Chas to tell the room what he saw.
“It’s a boy!” he yelled. I think I smiled. And then I commenced violently shaking and shivering as they cleaned Arlo off and counted his toes. I could barely enjoy when they placed him on my chest because my shivering was so intense and if it was 37 degrees in there before, it had to have dropped to 15. They continued playing around inside my abdomen as Chas smiled at our new baby and I just tried to hold still so that they wouldn’t vacuum up my lower intestines.
It had been 36 hours and 12 minutes since my water had broken. “Arlo” (Charles Arthur Eby V) had entered the game through the sunroof, all goopy, and loud, and tiny, and so perfect.
I assumed we’d beaten the game. A couple of lazy days and a few hospital meals and we’d be out of there with my healing stitches and our new playmate in tow. I just didn’t realize this was the bonus edition, and there were several levels left to beat…