The moment my baby finally came out, I held my breath while he gasped his first. His cries elicited tears of relief. He was here. I was alive. We made it.
Still, I hesitate to say that I gave birth.
Technically, my role was more passive. He emerged from a deep incision made by a doctor — my body numb from the armpits down, arms splayed and connected to multiple IVs. My muscles did not contract to push him out. I did not make guttural sounds as his head crowned.
Was the birth less real in the absence of these things?
I used to think so.
When I was around 8 years old, I studied Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson's in utero images on the pages of LIFE. One in particular — of an 18-week-old fetus suspended in a silken sack — led to my fascination with pregnancy, and soon after, childbirth. As I got older, I came to believe childbirth should be "natural," unmedicated, allowing the woman to be in touch with her primal self, to feel the swell and pull of her contractions, her body doing exactly what it's equipped to do.
Having my child taken from my numb body was definitely not in my birth plan.
When I was around six weeks pregnant, I walked giddily into a doctor's appointment that ended in tears. I learned that, along with a fetus the size of a lentil, fibroids were growing in my womb. The benign tumors made for a tumultuous pregnancy and, looking back, an invaluable lesson in parenting: Make great plans — and be ready to revise.
Despite the unanticipated worry the fibroids caused, my pregnancy was a grand experiment. I was thrilled with the new connection I felt to my mother and all the childbearing women who came before her.
Yet even as I was in awe of what my body could do, I was shocked by the biology of it all. As I played music for the little sprout, read to it and rubbed lotion on my growing belly, I also came to realize all of the things that were beyond my control. Theoretically, you could hook my body up to life support and this fetus would still grow, even thrive, inside me.
I was 40 weeks, 6 days pregnant when I was told that a cesarean section was the safest path for delivery. After detecting a blip on the heart monitor, my doctor talked to me at length about the situation — and delivery options. Mild contractions were causing the baby's heart rate to drop dramatically; he'd likely be in great distress during the giant ones. She wasn't comfortable attempting a vaginal birth.
I had moments of panic that I was getting sucked into the vortex of medicalized childbirth. I had visions of running — well, waddling — away and delivering him myself. This is when I asked myself: Do I need to have a vaginal birth for my baby, or for me?
I employed the relaxation techniques I had learned in hypno-birthing class. But as someone who likes to know details, I wished there had been more material on what to expect during a C-section.
Then again, who is actually ready for the birth of a child — especially her first? No one could have prepared me for every detail: my numb body rocking from side to side as my baby was forced through an incision just large enough for his skull; his head emerging with the umbilical cord wound three times around his neck; my uncontrollable shivering from anesthesia; analyzing each of my baby's first cries as I was sewn back up.
I couldn't have imagined the sight of my partner, with his face so warm and alive, his arms filled with that wild creature I'd been dreaming about. That the baby's face would be so perfectly formed, his lips sucking vigilantly on his little blue hand. Or that my son would be placed right on my chest and would blink and blink, and I would speak to him just like when he was on the inside.
I didn't know that being in the hospital would be a relief — a place where I was allowed to focus on my baby while someone else focused on me. A place where the incision in my soft belly would begin to heal, the layers binding into a darkened seam.
And that it would all be very, unpredictably, real.