“It’s like someone’s put mustard on my vagina.”
My husband laughs at me, then texts our extended family my exact quote.
It’s 11 on a Saturday night the day after my 37th birthday, and amniotic fluid has been leaking out of me for 12 hours. I’m lying on a hospital bed waiting for the induction gel to work. I squirm. My lady bits are on fire, but the Braxton-Hicks contractions remain painless. Labor will start soon. Established labor. Painful labor.
I try not to remember.
Covid-19 was supposed to usher in a baby boom, they said. Couples were supposed to spend more time together, loving each other, they said. Just watch. The numbers proved the experts wrong.
Except, of course, in our case. My husband returned home from an eight-month deployment to a world reeling with fear from this unknown virus. Four days after homecoming, our first lockdown in England started. We went from extreme separation to extreme togetherness. But it wasn’t the unexpected time home that prompted us to make another baby. We suffered a miscarriage six months prior during my first trimester; we were trying for our rainbow child.
The barely out-of-school midwife checks on us in the early hours. She’s chipper and bubbly. I want to punch her when she investigates my cervix too vigorously with her gloved fist.
She moves her hand and fluid gushes out.
“There’s no doubt now. Your water has broken!” She’s too chirpy for five in the morning.
When my next contraction starts, I feel the sinister tug of internal pain. Labor.
Lockdown proved stressful in unexpected ways. Caring for an energetic toddler required full-time attention from one of us at all times. I decided, against my husband’s protests, that potty-training would be a productive task since daycares and nurseries were closed. I couldn’t imagine we’d still be working on these basic hygiene skills more than a year later.
Shopping for food became a foray into the wild side of humanity. We’d plan a trip to the store like a military operation, identifying the best times to leave based on the shortest amount of wait time coupled with the largest chance of success at finding the necessities still on the shelves. We also had to dodge all the other shoppers in a socially distanced version of human pinball.
Then there was the science of trying to get pregnant, which is not sexy. Correct timing, ovulation indicators, and performance were paramount. Sex became less about pleasure and more about reproduction. Welcome home, indeed.
I’m flopped over the back of the hospital bed facing the wall, trying to relax.
Breathe. Breathe. Breeeathe.
I tell myself this time will be different, faster. I won’t resort to scream-swearing the f-bomb during contractions. I’ll focus on my breathing. My body’s done this before; it remembers. It has to be easier.
Kat walks into the room. She’s my new midwife. She seems experienced and confident. She connects the drip that will speed up induction.
“Oxytocin,” I say. “The happy hormone.”
She laughs. “I suppose you could call it that.”
As weeks of pandemic lockdown gave way to months, I knew things would change. I had been lucky enough to complete my two weeks of annual Reserve training mid-February 2020. My in-laws watched our toddler, and my husband was still out to sea. Coronavirus was something foreign, some kind of dark joke, something other parts of the world were dealing with. But a nervous whiff of what-if permeated my command.
Two weeks after returning from drilling in Germany, I came down with a severe case of what I thought was the flu. Body aches, shivers, sweats, racing heartbeat. I was lucky my toddler wasn’t sick at the same time. Just as my fever broke, hers started. I didn’t know if it was Covid or influenza. In early March, no one had tests readily available, and I hadn’t been in any of the hot zones. We were miserable for a week and then recovered.
I’ve inhaled gas and air for the past hour and a half, though my husband tells me it’s only been 45 minutes. The single anesthesiologist on duty is stuck in theater with a caesarean patient.
“Epidural team!” I beg.
In the brief clarity between contractions, I wonder what the hell is taking so long. I’m not delivering without drugs.
My next contraction rips through my lungs with a beastly howl. I can’t control my speech; the ugh sound in fuck is the only way I can voice my agony. I sound like an air raid siren. I don’t care.
“Eight centimeters!” Kat shouts over me.
There’s no way I’m getting an epidural now. I’m too far dilated.
As lockdown turned into locked-in, I knew I wouldn’t return to my command until well after this baby was born. I started asking for telework tasks. This sounded ideal to me: establish a routine working from home that could be scheduled around preschool, my antenatal appointments, and, eventually, my newborn’s sleep patterns. All I’d need to do was log my hours and turn them in like a timesheet, cashing in my minutes for a paycheck. I could knock out work in the morning, during school hours, or at night. I could even count administrative work and medical appointments.
My body is shifting. I can feel the baby moving through me. This is new.
“I need to push!” I scream.
Kat has no time to argue. She can’t tell me I’m not ready, that I’m not yet 10 centimeters. She can’t say she’s not ready, that her colleagues aren’t in the room. I’m already pushing.
“Come ouuuuut!” My mantra has changed.
I squeeze my eyes shut and focus on this different pain. I don’t hear the six medical professionals who rush into the room.
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The reality of working from home is Distraction with a capital D. The doorbell rings because it’s a delivery your husband ordered yesterday, or your sister texts about Dad’s birthday present, or the dog desperately needs a walk because you’ve been dealing with a baby and he hasn’t had a chance to run through the fields in three days. You can justify dog walking as a two for one, as you’ll get postpartum-approved exercise, too.
When you come home, you notice the dirty dishes stinking up the sink, and then the bathroom needs cleaning because it’s been too long since that hygienic necessity in a global pandemic happened—oh, and the trash is full and you’ve stuffed too much in there already. Your newborn wakes up, needs a diaper change, then a 45-minute breastfeeding session commences, he projectile vomits all over you and the bedsheets when you’re burping him, and before you know it you need to pick up your toddler from preschool. Teleworking as a parent takes incredible perseverance and dedication.
Nine minutes of pushing has led me to the ring of fire. Crowning. The baby’s head is nearly through. My husband screams at me to hold his hand as I roar through the torture. I’m sure I’m going to tear. Everything is ripping apart.
The head pops through. I go limp. I’ve made it.
Except I haven’t.
I conveniently forgot just how grueling the first six weeks of the newborn stage are. There’s the incredible pain of blistered nipples and engorged boobs while breastfeeding; the newborn banshee wails that don’t stop, even after you’ve exhausted your list of what might be wrong; the bone-shattering exhaustion of weeks of sleep deprivation. Add in a pandemic travel ban that crushes your plan for help that you had meticulously lined up, plus a growing sense of dread that you won’t actually be able to cope, and you have the recipe for a mental breakdown.
Covid variants spread across the globe with alarming speed. The race is no longer to flatten the curve, but to get shots into arms. The vaccine blitzkrieg is designed to keep the elderly and vulnerable alive long enough to achieve immunity. I’m not certain my daughter and I had the virus, but I asked if I could receive a jab while nursing. With all the uncertainty shrouding the future, including how life will change with my second child, I am dead certain I want this protection. Fuck coronavirus.
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“Put your legs up!” my husband shouts. “The baby’s stuck! They have to rotate the shoulders.”
I have no more energy. I feel Kat and my husband throw my legs into the air. I’m cold.
I scream, but the pain’s not as intense as before. The tiny body comes out in a rush of fluid and blood. I sink into the pillows behind me. I want to sleep.
A few minutes later, Kat gives my husband our baby. My husband has tears in his eyes.
“What did we have?” I ask.
“A boy. It’s a boy!”
He hands me our son.
His bluish head is streaked with white vernix. His face is wrinkled like an old man. His eyes are puffy and shut. His left ear is folded down. His fingernails are long. He’s ugly and beautiful.
“Hello, baby Jack.”