By Susan Buttenwieser
“Excuse me,” a woman approaches as you grip the metal rim of a garbage can on the western edge of Central Park. “Are you in labor?”
“Yes,” you pant, manacles tightening before an all-to-brief break. Your nose is inches from apple cores and plastic baggies filled with dog shit, as you focus on pain management.
The woman looks at you as if you are trespassing through her backyard. She is much more put together than you could ever hope to be. Wearing a business skirt/jacket ensemble with a leather briefcase hanging from her left shoulder, she’s probably the CEO of something.
“Well, I have three children, I’ve given birth three times and I can tell you that the breathing is really important. AND YOU ARE DOING IT ALL WRONG!” Her lips scrunch into an oval of disgust, her pupils black daggers.
You go blank, unable to think of an appropriate response. And then yet another contraction is upon you.
They’ve been coming steadily since early this morning when you first woke up. The thing you’ve been waiting to happen all these months is happening. And it’s happening right now. The baby is a week overdue so you’ve been walking all over the city, as your old-school doctor recommended to help induce labor. It’s one of those crazy beautiful, early fall days and you’ve spent most of the afternoon hauling your heavily pregnant body all over Central Park. A picnic lunch of Italian subs from Lenny’s and potato chips on the Great Lawn. A loop around the reservoir and back down to the lake where you stood looking at the statue of the angel for awhile before going to your doctor’s office.
After confirming that you were indeed definitely in labor, the doctor advised walking as far as you could back to your apartment. You weren’t even close to being ready to deliver, she explained. Stay at home until the pain becomes too much before calling her. Then she’ll meet you at the hospital.
You left her office and headed home, attempting to do the special breathing the way you were instructed in pre-natal birthing class. Inhaling and exhaling at just the right moment. Rhythmically to be able to handle the undulating agony. But you needed something to steady yourself through an extra-painful contraction. You reached for the closet object: a garbage can. That’s when you encountered the woman.
YOU ARE DOING IT ALL WRONG! It’s like the voice from the darkest part of your mind has somehow materialized into the form of this woman on the Upper West Side.
She gives one last sneer before turning on her heels and finally leaving you alone. You keep ambling along Central Park West, breathing in your own inept way. The late afternoon sun filters through fall-foliage tinted leaves. Reds and oranges and yellows spackle the tree-lined streets and avenues in this bucolic neighborhood. Every contraction causes you to buckle over. The pain comes at shorter and shorter intervals, multiplying exponentially, like some sort of sadistic algebra equation as the cervix dilates and the baby drops down into the birth canal.
The baby. A whole, entire, actual, real, live baby is somehow going to come out of an extremely small space in the very near future.
Once you reach your apartment, you remain on the couch, huddled in a ball, breathing and breathing, crazy with the pain. Finally, you can’t take it anymore, phone the doctor and take a taxi to the hospital.
But it turns out that despite your so-called inability to breathe right, you actually can do it just fine. Your daughter is born at three in the morning, healthy and okay. And the most incredible thing you have ever seen in your whole life. You break down when she arrives.
The first day back home, you wake up an hour before she does to stare at her. You walk around your neighborhood carrying her in your arms. “Look at this fucking beautiful baby,” you want to shout at everyone you pass. “She’s mine!”
You forget about worrying if you’re doing it all wrong. The woman’s words seem irrelevant. Being with your tiny, amazing daughter is the only thing that matters now.
Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women.
Photo by Scott Boruchov