11:32 a.m. October 5, 2012

Marissa Mayer's Motherhood "Challenge"

On Monday, the Associated Press reported on the birth of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s first child with the headline: "Yahoo CEO adds motherhood to list of challenges".  

It’s a big deal, you see, because not only is Ms. Mayer a female CEO, she is now a mother and CEO.  If she were instead a first time father, like many a CEO before her, this would not be news, but she’s a woman, which makes her domestic business everybody’s business.

The implication in the reporting around Mayer's pregnancy is that somehow motherhood will change a woman in such a way that her ability to do her job will be compromised. Like somehow, the work hemisphere of her brain will be so overcome with BABY! that there will be little room for anything else and she will be just another victim of her own uterus. Can you imagine such condescending speculation regarding the choices of a new father?

Motherhood may soften a woman towards her baby, her family, herself, sure.  But the cultural idea of new mother as weak, as somehow less capable because of her status shift from woman to mother is disgraceful.  

That said, the truth is that motherhood does change a person. How these changes manifest are as unique as the woman, but I will tell you one thing: childbirth is a force of nature in the most literal sense.  Birthing a baby is the most extreme act of humanity and you have to be tough if you’re going to do it.  Really fucking tough.

Not that a woman can’t be strong without experiencing childbirth.  Not that any two birthing experiences are the same.  But in a culture that thinks of a new mother as somehow softer, I feel compelled to tell my story.  So that maybe the next time you read a birth announcement or an unnecessary “news item” on the AP wire you won’t think of pink and blue balloons or squishy maternity wear, but rather the formative hell that woman has survived and what her experience means in the context of her life.

Disclaimer: This one gets kind of graphic.

My labor kicked in hard at 5 a.m. on July 12th, 2012.  I answered by treating my day with as much normalcy as I could muster. I knew there was a chance my labor could stall out, that this pain wasn’t “the” pain and thus did all sorts of mundane shit. Bought cat food. Cleaned under the couch cushions. Ate a weird frozen watermelon milkshake. Tried to convince my partner to have sex with me on the off-chance that orgasms would ease the pain that was beginning to reduce my cognitive powers to lizard brain status.

Around 4 p.m., after trying the whole “relax through your contractions in the bathtub” bit, it became readily apparent that it was time to head over to the birthing center at the hospital.  My wonderful Jerem, who I will soon vomit all over, who will later watch my vulva bruise in real-time, who will ultimately hand me our daughter, was then timing my contractions and petting my hair while I bent over the bed and clawed the sheets with my freakishly strong pregnancy nails. He would have preferred we left sooner but I am a stubborn motherfucker and wanted to labor at home. I grunted and writhed on our bed like I was in some kind of community center modern dance recital while he collected our things.

At the time, I thought the car ride to the hospital was agony, although I will later come to know the extent of endurable agony.  I was dutifully breathing through my contractions (3-5 minutes apart) and bracing for the speed bumps that littered the windy mountain road separating us from the hospital. Let me go on record and state that speed bumps during active labor are like evil little mounds of hell. I braced myself against the hot July window in the backseat of our tiny car and pressed my fists into a pillow.

When we got to the hospital, there was no parking. I kid you not, the lot closest to the giant inpatient entryway did not open for another 15 minutes. Jerem began to panic. After a futile search yielded no legal parking, he parked directly in front of the broad glass doors.

I strode into the hospital with a very determined waddle, characteristically declined a wheelchair, and immediately regretted that decision the moment the elevator doors closed. Per usual, the hospital signage was wildly unhelpful, so we wandered around the maternity floor until someone noticed that I was making horrible faces and pointed us to outpatient Labor & Delivery.

I eased my swollen, angry body into a starchy, carnation pink hospital gown and waited for my progress to be assessed.  Hospital lube is always so damn cold.  The petite blonde nurse affixed two transducers to my enormous belly and I rode out my contractions by focusing on the peaks and valleys scattered across my cardiotocograph. I wasn’t quite as dilated as they would have liked for me to have been, so I was tasked with walking my cervix open.

This time, we took a wheelchair. Jerem and I walked up and down the corridors of the hospital, past black and white photographs of beloved pets, panoramic shots of Prague, and technicolor floral prints, stopping every few minutes to wait out a contraction. He’d grimace as I’d lurch into the bright red chair, I’d smile weakly at the people entering the hospital cafeteria, and the strangers passing by looked in equal measure concerned and weirded out.  I’m sure I looked fucking insane. I should not have smiled at those strangers.

At this point, it’s 7 p.m. I’d been in labor for 14 hours.  I’d been in the worst pain I’d ever experienced for four hours, and I say that having experienced the joys of pancreatitis and all manner of horrific dance injuries and car accidents.  They rechecked my cervix and moved me to a room.

My birthing room was your standard hospital room, viewed through a homey filter. There was an impressive bath tub that I eyed longingly but never got in, a wooden crib that doubled as a tray of supplies, and horrible fluorescent lighting. I climbed into the giant mechanical bed, motioned for Jerem to come to my side so I could lean on him through a contraction, and promptly vomited all over the clean new bedsheets, my pristine gown, and my favorite adult.

The puke was somehow orange. I remember thinking this was unexpected and the strangeness of vomiting orangey froth when one has not consumed any orange food was jarring and provided a little respite from the pain. But then a contraction came on hard and Jerem held me while I sprayed vomit towards the opening of a laughably small royal blue emesis bag.  My hair hung lank and wet around my face and we decided that it was in our best mutual interest to continue this party in the shower.

I discarded my puke stained gown and stood in the cramped hospital shower feeling every bit like a circus elephant being sprayed down by her captors. Jerem held me up by my armpits through each contraction and used the handheld showerhead to massage my lower back as I rested between them. We used an entire minibottle of hospital shampoo to wash my near-waist length hair, but skipped the conditioner because, you know, labor. I would later have to tease a thick, ropey dreadlock out of my hair because of this.  I then tried to turn the water off, failed, and wound up shrieking as the water I had now set to scalding burned the shit out of my tired, naked body.  (I never figured out how to turn the water off, actually).

The nurse came in, shut off the shrilly humming shower and listened to the fetal heartbeat as I dripped water all over her.  I tried to be apologetic, but my body felt like I was dying from the inside out and I soaked her anyway.  Jerem made a valiant attempt to dry me with the world’s thinnest towel and I crawled back into bed, desperate to regain some warmth in hopes it would turn the volume down on the pain wracking my body.  It didn’t.

Here’s where things started to get bad.  It was closing in on midnight, I’d been laboring since 5 a.m., and things just weren’t progressing.  The contractions were building, coming faster and harder, I couldn’t stop throwing up, and I was still stuck at seven centimeters dilated. It felt like John Candy was standing on me, on foot on each hipbone, and bouncing gleefully.  I couldn’t keep my juice down.

Now, my pain relief plan was to play it by ear. I had wanted to birth naturally, but I was open to exploring other options if things dragged on. I’d been laboring hard for closing in on 20 hours and I was starting to get scared that when the time came to push, I’d be so drained, I’d fail. I hadn’t caught my breath in hours. But, like so many women, I labored under the stigma that to accept pain relief was akin to weakness, that to ease my suffering would be a failure.

Then my mom showed up, and in her perfectly blunt and to the point way, supported me in whatever pain relief pathways I wanted to explore.

It was fentanyl time.

There’s a horrible sense of dread that comes when a contraction starts to build. You know what’s coming.  You know exactly what is coming, you know that it’s probably going to hurt more than the last one and you know that if you fight it, it’s going to hurt even more.  And the word hurt doesn’t even begin to cover it.  Hurt is something that happens to skinned knees, to headaches, to stubbed toes.  This is a different type of pain. The contractions of labor are a hard pain, something solid and loud, crashing through your insides like a tree trunk smashing through a brittle old roof. Throwing up through them is a relief. It gives your body something to do, something small to push out, something other than suffer through the inescapable truth of what is about to happen. You have to do it. You have to expel this foreign visitor from your body and the pain is going to build until it can’t any more. Then you push.

It was definitely fentanyl time.  This would ultimately prove to be a terrible idea.

But I was still hellbent on escaping the epidural, so I decided to give pharmaceutical heroin a go. Up until that point, I was lucid, suffering through my contractions with logic as my analgesic, clinging to the knowledge that with every contraction comes one fewer left to go until it’s push time.  Fentanyl turned me into a howling lunatic. Whatever pain relief I got from the narcotic was cancelled out by the extent to which it unraveled me.  My brain, fuzzy with opiates, couldn’t process what was happening to my body any more. The pain surged through me and I became wide-eyed and feral, tearing at the sleeves of Jerem’s shirt as he held me through contractions. My resolve slipping away. My body was at war with itself.

With a dry mouth full of shame and longing, I asked my nurse hypothetical epidural questions between contractions. How long would it take to get an epidural placed? Did she ever have a patient regret their epidural? If I got one, would I regret it? Does it count as failure?

She gave me supportive non-answers.

I caved. Or rather, I chose. I asked for an epidural.  And once that decision had been made, the little edge I had over my pain slipped through my fingers and I lost the battle with my uterus. Wild-eyed and pleading, with a belly full of hot pokers, I fell apart. Knowing relief was on the way unhinged me, waiting for a respite made each contraction scream that much louder. My delirium sprayed across my face in a mixture of bile and spit. Jerem was wet with my tears, sweat, and saliva as I buried my face in the scent of his cotton shirt to escape the horrors pummeling my insides. I thought long and hard about bashing my head into the metal railing of my bed until I slipped out of consciousness. But at least at this point I was still thinking.  Later I will be a mouthful of noise and primal rage but, for now, I can think.

After what felt like an incomprehensibly long stretch of time, the anesthesiologist strode in the room. God, he looked like he stepped out of an old cowboy movie and into a pair of soft green scrubs.  All big hands and a big smile.  I was instantly skeptical.

I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and did my best to curl my spine around my expanse of belly.  I had to be very still as they threaded relief into the perfect spot on my spine. Five minutes ago, the prospect of stillness seemed a laughable impossibility.  However, with the prospect of pain relief tantalizingly close, the warm reassuring voice of my soon-to-be personal lord and savior told me to hold still, hold still I did.  My face pressed into my breasts, my hot breath bouncing off of my chest back into my panting mouth, I tried not to think about worst case epidural complications. Jerem’s strong welder hands gripped my shoulders, holding me motionless for the stranger.  The pain of the epidural being placed was nothing compared to the contractions I was feeling and all told, provided a welcome distraction from my laboring uterus.  

And then it was finished.  The anesthesiologist beamed as he told me to wait through three more contractions. I protested. But then, silence.  Silence from my body. It was profoundly surreal.  I still felt contractions, there was still pain, but the shrieks coming from my belly had been muffled.  I was simultaneously wracked with guilt and flooded with the most profound sense of relief I will likely ever feel. I wanted to make out with the entire field of anesthesiology.  I think I may have offered to have my anesthesiologist’s children.

Then I slept.  Twenty hours of labor had taken their toll and I took it upon myself to get ready for the end of it.  While my cervix continued to dilate, I slipped into a sleep permeated by modern analgesic tranquility.

Spoiler: it didn’t last.

Approximately twenty-four hours after my labor kicked in, the epidural was finished.  My legs were still numb, but nothing else was.  The nurse who was draining my bladder with a catheter was skeptical of this but I, the woman in labor, feeling a thin tube snake up her urethra, was not.  

From here, things begin to blur.  Attempts were made to get my epidural working again, but you can only put so much lidocaine into a woman’s back, only so many cc’s of fluid into her veins, before it’s time to call it.  Hours were spent trying to get the epidural working properly again.  I was propped with pillows into awkward side-leaning positions.  I was also delirious with pain, screaming and groaning in my own private hell.  My legs were dead weights, heavy and thick and constantly in my way.  At 7 a.m., twenty-six hours from the onset of labor, my thin blonde doctor with her indeterminate accent came in, announced I was “almost fully dilated, just a tiny lip of cervix” and broke my water.  

Two hours later I was trying to manually move my legs out of my damn way when I noticed they they felt like fire.  I’d spiked a fever.  I had a womb infection.

Doctors began pouring antibiotics into my arms.  I began to scream.

Screaming became my only response to the pain, the complete and utter agony that had engulfed my sanity.  I screamed for hours.  I wasn’t supposed to be pushing yet.  I began pushing anyway.  There was nothing left for me to do, nothing left inside my shell of skull save for the capacity to make enormous amounts of noise and push.  I pushed alone, shivering with fever under a thin hospital sheet, for hours.

Early afternoon the anesthesiology team came, pulled out my epidural, then tried for an hour to replace it. I felt the blood pour down my back in hot rivulets as they repeatedly punctured the skin stretched across my spine with telescoping needles.  The nurse anesthesiologist finally positioned the catheter in the proper space, but the location was off and the attempts were all for naught.

I began to vomit again.

At some point that afternoon, a nice doctor slipped his fingers inside me and announced that I was fully dilated.  With that news, my shoulders were pushed back onto the damp sheets, a dead leg handed to my partner and mother each, and we were off. Even though the epidural was providing no pain relief or dulling of sensation in my crotch or abdomen, it was working beautifully on my legs.

I was finally cleared to push as hard as I possibly could and push I did.  Howling, screaming, grunting, groaning, screaming, screaming, screaming.  The nurse had two fingers hooked in my vagina, pulling them away and down towards my asshole.  She counted outloud as I pushed, purple in the face, panting, wheezing, struggling to breathe as my lungs crashed into my turgid belly.  My legs were pressed towards my chest, torso curling towards them, the sensation of my abdominal muscles choking me like a python.

I remember most clearly the screaming. I remember Jerem placing an oxygen mask over my mouth, I remember violently shaking it off when it’s usefulness had passed. He will later recall watching the lips of my vulva turning purple with bruise. I hear the nurse declare that they could see the head.  

Something felt wrong.

I pushed, and pushed, and pushed.  I screamed. I felt like my body was being ripped in two, I felt the constriction crushing my organs. I couldn’t breathe. I was panicking.  Deep in my brain stem, alarm bells were ringing. There was something terribly, terribly wrong.

The doctor returned to check my progress and made a grim pause.  He continued to feel around inside me, the pressure of his fingers intensifying the contraction I was grunting to survive.  Removing his glove, he palpated my belly.  The grim face continued. He started talking.

Emergency. Stuck in pelvis. C-section. Stop pushing.

The last shred of reason tethering me to the reality in that hospital room snapped. I snapped. Pushing was the only thing I could do. Millions of years of evolution was culminating in my body’s fight to expel this thing, this massive thing I’d been feeding and caring for and growing.  I will be fucking damned if I can’t push any more.

The pain became too much to take lying down, the news that I was to somehow stop the thundering train of labor too much to bear. I vomited thick green bile. I could feel pressure stuck within my body, an internal force ripping my too small pelvis in two. My screaming became the only thing I could do.  Literally.  The only thing I was capable of in that moment was screaming louder than I’d ever screamed before.  Jerem will later come to think of that moment as the time he was sure he’d lost me.  That I’d be institutionalized, my brain fried by the trauma of 36 hours of hard labor.  At this point, my mother is in the corner, sobbing.

I only made it from the point where they told me to stop pushing to the moment the surgical team arrived by virtue of the passage of time.  Had I had the option of dying, I probably would have taken it.  The pain was too great, the emotional pain of knowing what my pelvis was crushing too heavy a burden to bear.  I began rhythmically chanting “the pain, it hurts”. People were trying to talk to me. I responded by screaming.

I cannot convey to you the nature of this screaming. I feel sick just thinking about it.

After a lifetime of screaming, the surgical team was there, shoving me onto a mobile stretcher, flying me down the hallway through sets of heavy wooden doors.  Still screaming, I held a thin, sturdy nurse and pressed my face into her flat chest while a spinal block was placed.

The surgical team moved alarmingly fast. I was too exhausted to be terrified. I was plopped on the table, iodine poured on my belly, my arms held out to my sides by cool steel.  Jerem was brought into the room in proper O.R. wear. They forgot to put a hairnet on me, my endlessly tangled hair falling around my face, wet from screaming.

I felt the operation begin.  I felt the pressure of the scalpel, the hands of men inside me, pushing, shoving, groping.  I flopped around like a ragdoll.  They never show that in movies, the violence of surgery.  Thirty-six and a half hours of labor and it had come to this.  Blood and steel and the feeling of fingers rending something wedged deep in my pelvis.

And then, there she was.  My daughter.  My beautiful, perfect, daughter.  Held over the green drapes shielding me from my insides, her head cone-shaped and swollen from her time in my pelvis, she was purple and angry and cold and mine. Soon, she was wrapped in standard hospital blanketry and snuggled up in Jerem’s arms.  He laid her on my chest.  I’d made it.  She’d made it.  After going through what will surely be the most intense, formative, terrible, wonderful, painful, and horrifying day and a half of my life, I was now a mother with a daughter.  That’s childbirth.

And so, the next time some hack at a news agency has the balls to insinuate that a powerful woman has compromised her career by becoming a mother, I want you to remember this story.  I want you to remember how strength is forged in fire.  Becoming a mother doesn’t make one somehow less; becoming a mother does nothing if not make you greater than the sum of your previous life.

Two weeks after I got home, I was back to work. My first dispatch after I returned was about Ebola.

Back channel chatter

There is a scribble about this dispatch in the backroom, with four contributors.