Prompted by Sunday Scribblings
The nine months of pregnancy seemed to last forever as I grew huge. I was single and starting a new life in the Rainier Vista housing project in Seattle. It was a colorful, culturally diverse neighborhood. That year, everybody was listening to the O’Jays and Gladys Knight and the Pips. I couldn’t afford a car and had to walk to the Laundromat and the grocery store, and the men would look me over as I passed by. No more wolf whistles for me–they’d shout, “Hey, big mama!”
The night I went into labor, it seemed like every other baby in Seattle had decided to be born that same night, and by the time Jan, my Lamaze coach, and I got to Swedish Medical Center, the maternity ward was full. The nurses had to wheel a bed for me into the supply closet. I was in labor in the middle of a room with rows of buckets, mops, and push brooms leaning against the bare, unfinished walls and shelves stacked with sheets and towels, under a dim light bulb. It didn’t matter; we were so busy timing contractions and trying to do the breathing that the kind of room we were in didn’t make any difference. We could hear other women screaming, but we were staying in control because we had taken the Lamaze class and practiced every day. My mind wasn’t working very well and my memory of the whole thing was a blur afterwards, because all the blood gets pumped down into your uterus to do all that work, and there isn’t enough left even to allow your brain to form a thought. It was a good thing Jan was there; I couldn’t remember a single thing I’d learned in the childbirth class.
Now they have family birth centers in the hospitals with labor rooms made to look like cozy bedrooms with rocking chairs, patchwork quilts on the beds, and paintings on the walls to rest your eyes between contractions. I had given birth in a broom closet, except for the very end when they rushed me into the Delivery Room because the broom closet wasn’t good enough for the doctor, and in the end, I pushed the baby out the same way every other woman did in those days, strapped to the delivery table, legs up in stirrups, the abrupt, impatient doctor waiting at the end of the table to catch the baby. Pushing the baby out was excruciating, like trying to force a giant medicine ball through the narrow opening of my vagina. I’d never seen the doctor before in my life; my own doctor was busy with some other woman who had gotten there first.
I got to hold her for a minute or two before they took her to the nursery, and in that moment, nothing else mattered, not the blood, the strange doctor, or the indignities of the delivery room. There was blood everywhere, even on the ceiling from the spurt of arterial blood when they cut the umbilical cord before it stopped pulsating. I felt like a hero. We gazed at the baby in wonder. When she was born, Eithne had a mop of jet-black baby hair, and her hands and feet looked too big for her tiny body, but then they took her away so they could do the horrid things hospitals do to babies, scrubbing off all the white vernix coating their skin and poking the bottoms of their little feet to get blood for tests.
The hospital ward on the Labor and Delivery floor was like a party. All the new mothers were sitting up in bed, high on pain medication, chatting about labor experiences. It was growing dark when a nurse wheeled our babies in. Eithne was all wrapped up in a pink blanket, with a little pink cotton cap on her head. The nurse checked the name on both our plastic hospital bracelets before giving her to me. “All right,” she said, her voice matter of fact. “We’re going to undress her this one time so you can see that she has all her little fingers and toes. After this, we ask that you not take her clothes off, it only stresses them and disturbs them.”
I stared while the nurse unwrapped the blanket and showed me the baby’s big, oversized hands with their long fingers and her feet with their little toes. She took off the cap, and I marveled at the mop of straight, jet-black hair. The nurse wrapped the baby up again, gave her to me and left us to get acquainted.
I held her, gazing into her little pixy face, and Eithne gazed solemnly back. All the lullabies I remembered from long ago came streaming back into my head, and I longed to rock her gently and sing them to her. “All the pretty little horses,” I hummed so softly that only the two of us could hear. Her presence, there in my arms, felt magical. I could hardly believe she was real, and that finally, after everything that had happened, I was holding my own child.