Comedian Anita Renfroe, known for her performance of the "Mom Song," shares her experiences regarding middle age and motherhood in her new book, "Don't Say I Didn't Warn You: Kids, Carbs, and the Coming Hormonal Apocalypse." In such chapters as "Brother, Can You Spare an Epidural?" Renfroe employs her natural wit and candor as she describes what many women are thinking but not talking about.
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Brother, Can You Spare an Epidural?
Because I travel a lot, I get a lot of frequent flier miles.
This is not to brag, because—with the state of the airline industry being what it is these days, believe me, these miles mean absolutely next to nothing. Not even a better brand of peanuts. But I do get upgraded on flights that are not on Canada regional jets (which is Canadian for "Tiny Cramped Flying Tube with No First Class"), so I get to sit next to other people with lots of flier miles. It's like our own little club of "I'm Never Home Either" people. They are almost always people who represent companies and are über committed to their work and happy to talk about what they do. This works well when I get them to tell me as much as possible about their life before they find out what I do for a living, because once they find out, that pretty much means they are done talking about themselves for fear that something they tell me will end up as material on my next DVD or in a book.
They could not be more right.
There was this guy who sat next to me and told me that he worked in medical technology. This was a nice, general answer, which I found to be of no use to me at all. After I probed a little more, he said that he once worked for a company that made a piece of medical equipment that helped with the birthing process. I was all ears, and what I thought I heard him say was, "It's basically a GPS for the baby while it is in the birth canal."
I cannot begin to tell you how many different directions my brain went at that moment. My head was practically exploding with possible come-backs. Do babies get lost on their way out that often? How did babies make it out of the birth canal for thousands of years without this tech-nology? How small must that screen be, anyway? Is there that much traffic in there that the baby would have to take alternate routes and avoid tollways? If the satellite was unavailable, would the baby take a wrong turn and come out of an ear? If it's triplets or quadruplets, does that qualify as gridlock?
I guess the man could see the wheels spinning and the smoke coming out my ears because he in-terjected something like, "It's a diagnostic tool for the labor and delivery nurses to use so they don't have to perform so many digital checks to see how the cervix is widening during the birth process." I could see how that would be very useful for the L & D nurses who have to pop that glove on fifty times per shift to check the labor's progress.
Apparently, with this technology, some sort of receivers are placed on the mother's abdomen that act as the "satellites" and receive transmissions from the disposable sensors that are attached to two points on the cervix and to the top of the baby's head. So you can actually tell how much the cervix is widening and how far down the baby's head is positioned. If I were an L & D nurse, I would be writing my congressman for this piece of equipment. Because that digital check thingy has to qualify as one of the worst parts of that job.
For those of you who have never experienced this "check" as a patient, imagine that you are going for your yearly Pap smear and someone has decided to compound the usual procedural discom-fort by: (1) allowing you no food or drink for many hours, (2) increasing the circumference of your midsection by 300 percent, and (3) sticking a hot branding iron across your lower back. Now, imagine how you feel as a nurse starts popping a latex glove on her right hand and informing you that she will need to do a "little check to see how you're progressing." This is not only gross, but I would venture to say it is also dangerous for her—like approaching a wild animal in pain. Labor and delivery nurses should receive hazard pay for this part of their job description. I'm sure many have had a foot planted in their face. I know I fantasized about doing it.
I REMEMBER how much I wanted to have a baby when John and I first got married. It was foolish, as we had no insurance and were both still in col-lege at the time. But the combination of youthful optimism and total disregard for the amount of time or money this decision would cost us resulted in a pregnancy that started about the time we had been married five months.
About the only time I ever looked at my middle with admiration was when I was with child. When I found out that I was pregnant, I could not wait to get into maternity clothes. (Little did I know that after child number three, I would never be able to get out of them.) I was pregnant in the 1980s, when we were rocking the navy blue tent dresses with sailor collars and big, red bows, like maybe we were outfitting whales for the navy.
But at least it used to be that when you were pregnant, you had the luxury of wearing tent dresses for a while and not worrying about your body shape for nine months. No more. Due to re-cent advances in medical science (or celebrity workout routines), modern moms now get pregnant only in the very front. No weight distribution to the butt or hips. Maternity clothes are a good deal cuter now than in the olden days because they are designed to show off your "bump." Notice that the term even implies "little"? When I was pregnant, the mass on the front of me was definitely not a "bump"; it was more like a "planet," with its own "moon" around the backside of the planet.
Modern developments aside, when I first learned that I was pregnant, I was very excited and thought this was going to be the most blessed, beautiful, rose-petals-at-my-feet-and-bluebirds-lighting-upon-my-forearm time of my life.
Until I went for my first prenatal visit.
Which starts with a weigh-in.
These weigh-ins don't seem too bad the first couple of visits because the other person you are carrying inside of you is about the size of a pea. Peas don't weigh that much. In fact, for my first few prenatal visits, I weighed a little less than I ever had, from all the retching. I distinctly recall looking around at the eight- or nine-monthers sitting around the waiting room and thinking, I'll never get that big.
I could not have been more wrong. By the time I got to my eighth month, my weight had far sur-passed the magic number my doctor had recommended I gain, so I would dress in the lightest thing I could find, wear two-ounce flip-flops in the freezing weather, and ask to go to the bathroom twice before I went on the scale. However, there was no denying the number of butter beans and Fudgsicles I was downing. The nurse would slide the metal weight on the balance beam farther to the right, farther to the right, farther to the right until I knew that I had reached the edge of I-Won't-Ever-Get-in-Those-Prepregnancy-Jeans-Again Zone and then loudly pronounced that weight as she wrote it on my permanent record.
Once they've elevated your blood pressure by giving you a number higher than you ever im-agined for your weight in your LIFETIME, then they take your blood pressure. I don't know how they expect it to be normal when you have just come to the realization that you are really, really B-I-G, but if you use your Lamaze breathing techniques (more about that later), you can pant and blow yourself down to a medium-range systolic. This is the real reason why you should pay attention in Lamaze class.
Then they asked me to give a sample. Now, when I am discussing a "sample" at the obstetrics office, I am not talking about a trial-size cosmetic. They want something called a "clean catch." It sounds like a term you would hear in circus training school trapeze class—"Great job, Mr. Wallenda! That was a clean catch!"—but this clean catch entails precise stream-to-cup timing, which is difficult when your reach is hampered by the watermelon in your middle by month number eight. Plus they give you the smallest-size Dixie cup known to mankind, and they expect you to stream into that cup in an efficient manner. There are multiple problems here, one being that, if you did excuse yourself twice in preparation for the weigh-in, you are basically in a Number One deficient status. And there is no more pee being made right now, as all available liquids are being marshaled in support of the other little person you are growing. The second problem is that the term "clean catch" will never be an accurate description, as you will need to use multiple antiseptic wipes and paper towels in order to accomplish this (not so clean) catch. It's actually quite un-clean. I don't know if other people did this part better than I did, but the clean catch drama every month left me feeling like there must be a better technique than the one I used. And I really would have had a better chance of hitting that cup if they'd given me a thirty-two-ounce Big Gulp cup from the 7-Eleven.
After you have successfully provided a clean catch (which may have taken you two hours), you meet your "happy" obstetrical phlebotomist. These are usually women who have lurking latent sadistic tendencies, and they have been given the duty of filling a GINORMOUS vial with blood from your little veins to determine if this pregnancy is going swimmingly or if you need more vitamins. They tie off a little rubber tube at the top of your arm and look for a vein. I always looked away and tried to go to my happy place, but I found that there was no admittance to the happy place when there was a needle sticking in THE TENDEREST PART OF MY ARM.
From these blood tests they determine if you are iron deficient, in which case they give you even more iron than is in your normal prenatal horse pill (aka "vitamin"); this way, you can be even more constipated. Why do you need this much iron, really? Do they make you take this much iron in case you happen to be gestating an action hero? Finally, you make it to an exam room, where you are left with a paper gown and the biggest lie in all of health care: "The doctor will be in to see you in just a minute." After this whopper, you are left to amuse yourself: alone, close to naked, on the vinyl table covered with tissue paper. I found that if I got up and rearranged the things on the little cabinet, it distracted me for several minutes and confused the doctor and nurse whenever they finally got around to showing up.
But when you are done with that, you still have fourteen minutes to kill and by your eighth month your back does not want to sit up with no support for more than five of those. So you do what comes naturally; you lie down on that exam table to wait for The Good Doctor. This would be fine if he/she actually showed up "in a minute," but you lie there, and lie there, and lie there, waiting and waiting and waiting. By the time The Good Doctor finally does make it to your room, the combination of the vinyl and the paper and your sweat have created something akin to a papier-mâché that has you good and stuck to that table. And what, pray tell, is the first thing the doctor asks you to do?
"Ms. Renfroe, could you please scoot down to-ward the end of the table?"
Scoot down? Scoot down! I lay there thinking, Hey, Sparky—how's about you take that little stool with the little wheels and how's about you scoot UP, if that's not too big of an inconve-nience for you?
These bizarre prenatal visits seem like enough weirdness, but there is a need for gestation education; in the 1980s, it was called the Lamaze classes. They don't call it that anymore; it's now called childbirth classes. These classes are more for the dads than the moms. Dads don't really want to know anything about what is going to happen. If they could vote on it, most of them would choose to return to the 1950s when they got to stay out in the waiting area and prepare for childbirth by purchasing cigars to give out afterward, pacing back and forth and rubbing their foreheads in a concerned manner. Women, however, want to know all about the birth process. We are the people buying and reading What to Expect When You're Expecting. We are Googling childbirth, talking to friends, stocking up on anecdotal tidbits in case our labor is like any of our friends' experiences. When we are at our own baby showers, we are listening with rapt attention to every detail of the stories about labor and delivery from our friends and family. At the Lamaze classes I went to, they made us watch films. The people who make these childbirth films seemed somehow convinced that if they showed footage of all the details of birth, we would come away enraptured by the miracle of new life. In reality, these films were a weird science hybrid of those you'd see in biology class and the ones they'd make you watch in Driver's Ed—fascinating and disturbing. I think that's the first time most men get a clue about what is going to happen to their woman, and frankly, they really do not want to know. But they also now know they are somehow expected to overcome the urge to flee (inspired by images they have just seen) and fulfill their destiny by become great birthing partners.
This is a relatively new development in civi-lization. For thousands of years women tended to other women during the labor and delivery of ba-bies. Men waited outside. For them childbirth was a womanly mystery, and men liked birthing like that. I believe that one day there was a secret summit of the women of the world, and they concluded, "This is not fair. If we've got to suffer to bring offspring into the world, the very least men can do is be there and watch us do this heroic thing." But men wouldn't be there and watch unless they could be convinced that they were needed there. So women had to think up a job for the man during labor and delivery. Unfortunately, the best they came up with was: Feed us ice chips and distract us with baseball-like chatter, "Breathe, honey. Focus, honey. Breathe, that's right; that was a good one. Good work, honey. Hey, batter, batter."
Lamaze must be French for "give him something to do." My husband, John, did all the approved Lamaze phrases during the birth of our first child. In fact, there was a point where I told him that he might be overachieving in the massaging and talking area; he was so nervous that he practically rubbed a hole in my hand. For the second baby, he decided the talking part might be overrated; he just patted my hand empathetically and got the nurse when I needed her. By the time we got to baby number three, John sat in the room reading the newspaper and watching TV until it was time for me to push. Still, I was glad he was there for all three births, if for no other reason than it was a persuasive argument in favor of the doctor's note, which forbade anything south of the equator for a good six weeks.
During labor, there is a portion called "transition." This is when the baby is moving into the birth canal and stuff starts happening a little faster. In one Lamaze session they warn the men that the mom-to-be might become agitated during this phase and say things to him that are not very nice. This is to be expected, the professionals say, and the mom doesn't really mean the awful things she is saying.
I have come to believe that this phase is actually the culmination of the aggravation from those prenatal visits backing up on the woman; she needs to vent about all that has happened so that she can rid herself of a ton of negativity before her innocent baby comes into this world. That and the fact that she is totally done having a Volkswagen Beetle–size being parked inside of her. "Transition" is the time during which a woman works up enough frustration steam to push the VW Bug outta there.
If you are the woman in labor, you morph into an amateur contortionist. The labor and delivery nurse tells you, "Now, Ms. Renfroe, on this next contraction we want you to put your knees up next to your ears and push!" Any other time in my life, I would have told her to please lay down the crack pipe, but I was always so ready to have the child by that point that I would literally try any ridiculous thing the nurse suggested.
"And push," she'd say. "And just one more push. That was a really good one. Let's have one more push. And another one. Good. Just one more." This is a lie that can go on for hours, this "one more" deception. I have no idea why they think you actually believe them when they've been saying the same phrases over and over unless epidurals affect your short-term memory. You try to block out the nurse and the doctor and birthing coach (whoever it may be) "just one more-ing." Then, suddenly, it's out! It's yours! It's crying! And the relief you feel at hearing that child cry is indescribable. Unfortunately, this is probably the last time you will feel relief when you hear that wail.
For one moment, though, you feel pure joy.
At least that's how childbirth happened for me. I know some women have Cesarean sections, some have peaceful epidurals with a couple of pushes, and some adopt and skip the whole thing (they pant, blow, and push their way through mountains of paperwork instead). But for me, getting three little Renfroes into the world was an effort of epic proportions. And that was just to get them up to sunlight.
By the way, babies don't really look like those Gerber ads for the first couple of days, but if you think of where they came from and how they got out, it's amazing they look as good as they do. People are generally kind and refrain from saying things like "What a pointy head!" or "Do you think his little ears will eventually even out?" And right after the baby has made its appearance in the world, you get a small window of respite wherein he sleeps a lot for about the same amount of time as your HMO will let you stay in the hospital. I have no idea how the ba-bies know how long that is, but they generally start waking up and creating inordinate amounts of decibels about the time you take them home. This is usually the first time a new mother sus-pects that she may have been sent home from the hospital with the wrong baby.
With my first baby I asked the lactation nurse, "How will I know when my milk has come in?" She just nodded and smiled and said, "Oh, honey, you'll know." I kept thinking, How? How will I know? This is my first?.?.?.?surely there's some better answer than "You'll know." She said that my milk will "come in"—does that mean it is somewhere on back order? Is it on the truck ready for a schedule delivery? If I fall asleep, will I miss the visit from the Lactation Fairy? But she was right. On the second day after I gave birth, I was awakened by the vague knowledge that there were Dolly Parton–worthy boulders sitting where my Mary Lou Retton breasts had been. This was a stunning and painful development: I had enough milk to feed my newborn and (obviously) several others. It was also helpful to have these gargantuan boulders to offset the complete loss of a waistline. It almost balanced things out.
Any woman who has breast-fed can tell you that your body has something called your "let-down reflex." This is why lactating females must have some sort of shield or padding in their bras at all times. For the first week or so I used the shields that they tell you are made for your lactating needs. They're round, they're soft, they cost money, and they have to be washed. Plus they also hold less than an ounce of milk before they start leaking. I was an overachieving lactator. I produced an ounce in the first nanosecond that my milk let down. Fortunately, I discovered Viva paper towels (soft, strong, absorbent, affordable, disposable!). If you fold two of them into quarters, you can absorb half the Ohio River if need be. These squares folded and inserted into your bra look really silly under normal cloth-ing, but at this time of your life you don't have a wardrobe for this no-man's-land. You are not wearing maternity but you're nowhere near anything prepregnancy. I was rocking the husband's shirts (which unbutton nicely for breast-feeding) and hospital scrub pants (drawstrings). This was fine, since my social calendar wasn't really hoppin' at the time. I can remember getting stir-crazy about Day Four and going to the grocery store while baby was napping with The Dad Unit—and hearing someone else's baby cry over on Aisle Seven. It did not matter that this was not my child. This was A Child That I Was Capable of Feeding. My brain told my breasts that this was a DefCon 4 situation, and even before I could try to divert my mind with other thoughts (What are the state capitals? What is my mother's Social Security number? What is the square root of pi?), I began to soak through my trusty Viva square. This was yet another clue that I was no longer in total control of my life. Something beyond my reason was driving this train. In retrospect, I see that this is the message from the moment the EPT stick shows a plus sign: responsibility without control. Welcome to motherhood.