Like many parents-to-be, I was well-prepared for the birth of my first child. I don’t mean that the nursery was painted (or even set-up). I don’t mean that I felt confident in my ability to handle a newborn or raise a child. I mean that I’d read at least five books on childbirth, my husband knew labor massage techniques, and I had pain management strategies (I was going to try for natural childbirth). Also, I had a labor playlist on my MP3 player.
My first child is now 19 months old and I have a newborn. On a recent spring-like day, I went out for a walk and listened to that labor playlist for the first time. In the rush to the hospital with my first, I left the player behind. With my second labor, I started the playlist as soon as serious labor pains began. Halfway through the third song, my labor became so hard that the music abruptly turned ugly and I couldn’t bear to listen.
But out on my walk, I loved every song. I recalled that when I made the list, almost two years ago, I had tried to gather songs for all the stages of labor. For the early stage, when labor pains are the easiest, I’d gathered what I’d loosely describe as “one with the universe” songs. Alanis Morrisette’s Utopia and You Owe Me Nothing In Return. I thought I might also listen to these songs in Transition, the hardest part of labor, if I reached “labor land.” Labor land is a state described in books as an endorphine high in which you move past the pain and feel an overwhelming love for your baby and everyone in the room/world. Suffice to say, I never made it to labor land. For both deliveries, I was simultaneously puking and pooping during Transition and the pushing that came after was so painful that I wanted to weep.
The second theme in my playlist was “triumphant.” Among others, I had To Live Is To Fly by the Cowboy Junkees; the overture from Jesus Christ Superstar; Tori Amos’ Talula; and I’ve Got Life from Hair. I think I was going to cycle through these songs when the labor pains reached that intermediate stage between easy and Transition, but my labor pains went from “Hmm, is that a contraction?” to white knuckled agony so quickly that there was no time to focus on lines like “I was born blue and weathered and then I burst just like a supernova.” (Bruce Springsteen).
The last category of songs was “fighting against adversity.” Songs included were Sinead O’Conner’s Troy, Dave Matthew’s Cry Freedom, and Who Am I from Les Miserables. At difficult times in my life, these songs have inspired in me the fortitude to soldier on, but labor is not like coping with loneliness or handling failure.
What helped me the most was the presence of my husband. As soon as the music in my playlist turned from an inspiration to an irritant, I ripped out my ear buds and called to my husband. There was no time for massage. All he could do was hold my hand during the rest of labor and the birth, quietly saying things like “You’re doing great.” But his presence helped stop any panic I might have felt from the pain. While he was next to me, I was connected to my life, my family, and myself.
On my walk, the labor mix was a trip through songs that were touchstones for bitter and sweet memories of the past 20 years. None of them brought back memories of my labor. I can’t even remember what three songs I listened to at the hospital. Some of the songs on the playlist reminded me of what I expected childbirth to be: hard, but predictable. Instead, my labor was harried and excruciating. No song on my list was powerful enough to help me push past the pain. I’d forgotten the pain from my first labor, which was why I thought the playlist would work the second time. I remember thinking that the first labor really hurt, but the pain itself was absent from my recollection, almost like it had been erased. The day after my second child was born, my midwife visited me in my hospital room on her rounds. “I can’t believe how much that hurt,” I told her.
“See if you still remember by your six week visit,” she said.
Six weeks are past and I still remember. My baby’s head was 14 ¾ inches around. Toward the end of the delivery, the midwife had said, “You can keep pushing, or I can pull the lip of your cervix back over the baby’s head. It will hurt, but then the head will be out and your baby will be born. Which do you want to do?”
Forget songs about the universe, strength, or triumph. Find me a song called “Get this %#@! Baby Out Of Me Right Now” and I might have been able to play it, or even sing it, during delivery.