In Praise of the Zero Chill Pregnancy

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It was the Age of Zika; the Dawn of Trump; I’d had a lot of kombucha.

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I picked the OB-GYN for my first pregnancy through Zocdoc, which is to say: about as thoughtfully as people order toeless boots off of Zappos. Way before hypnobirthing and VBACs and walking epidurals entered my lexicon, I just needed someone to confirm that I was, indeed, pregnant, before any more pee sticks piled up in the bathroom.

The place I landed on wasn’t an amazing practice, but it was all-female, which I felt I wanted. They were always running late, leaving me sitting pantless in cold examination rooms, and when they found my baby was transverse at 36 weeks (sideways rather than head down), tried to book me for a c-section immediately. (After 100 duck dives in the pool at the Y, my daughter turned by herself). Still, the eventual induction at 41 weeks was, to my mind, mostly sensible. I got a great baby out of it! So when I found myself pregnant again ten months later, it was easy enough to stroll back down to the office—it was already in my phone contacts; there was a cheese shop nearby; I wouldn’t have to dig up my husband’s social security number for new insurance forms. In short, were there better OB-GYNs in town? Do my feet deserve better than this? Maybe, but

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¯_(ツ)_/¯

The second time around, I fancied myself a veteran of pregnancy, an upperclassman unfazed by the quirks of growing a baby or the medical implications of delivery. I wanted to be an easy patient, but from the start, the visits seemed alarmingly brief. Pee in a cup, two seconds with the Doppler monitor—no comments on weight gain or diet or emotional health or hydration—and I was out. Initially, I felt a bit of relief at how unfazed the doctor was, but increasingly, she seemed more and more out of step with the details of my pregnancy, missing or dismissing little flags.

Camping with Scout

Around the time the “quickening” should have begun—those are the fluttery butterfly kicks the fetus gives you to let you know that he or she has turned their little tadpole limbs into legs—I felt nothing. I self-diagnosed myself with an anterior placenta, a condition in which the placenta sits at the front of your belly, cushioning you from the kicks of your baby. You know when Winona Ryder is trying to talk to her son through the wall on Stranger Things? That is exactly what it feels like with an anterior placenta, like you’re there running your hand over your stomach, waving lights around, yelling, I know you’re in there, sweetie! Give me a sign! The placenta becomes this sort of dead space that allows extra preggo doubts to creep in when you should be feeling those reassuring flutters. The doctor waved them away (“every pregnancy is different”), but the ultrasound technician confirmed it at the 20-week scan. This isn’t a huge deal since the placenta can still shift later on, but it caused a meaningful difference in the sensation of baby movement throughout my pregnancy.

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If you’re low risk, as I was, there isn’t a ton to do during the second trimester, beyond the dreaded glucose test, which involves skolling a cup of glucose—sweet, sweeter than Franzia—and having your blood drawn to rule out gestational diabetes. I found out that I had failed this test when a nurse called me to say she would email a referral for a three-hour follow-up test. I didn’t know what my glucose score was, whether I should put down the croissant I was about to eat, or anything else, really—the doctor never spoke to me. I do know that I ate three popsicles for dessert the night before I took the original test, which, forgive me, I like the red+blue rockets. After a long morning in a dingy office having my blood drawn four times while on a fast, I passed the test. It was never mentioned again.

Janet Manley and Scout
TFW your toddler thinks the baby bump is a climbing gym.

I am by no means a medical professional, but I did just have a baby, and this time around my body knowledge just felt absent. The time I spent with my first baby lying on tasseled throw pillows feeling for movement wasn’t available to me for my second baby: I was too busy carrying a one-year-old around, swiping uneaten banana slices into the bin, and rescuing furniture from attacks by crayon to think about the new babe dancing around in my belly. Sometimes he felt like a cat, pawing up and down, sometimes like a like a kangaroo joey folded in awkwardly with two-foot-long legs. Other times, he felt like nothing at all. My daughter, Scout, at this stage, had felt and looked like a puppet fight taking place under a duvet.

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I couldn’t tell you which way up my baby might be, or how he was doing. I hadn’t even seen him since 20 weeks. I know that this is partly just how it is with a second pregnancy, less a miracle than something you forget is even happening for broad stretches of time. And it’s not that I wanted the OB-GYN to crack out her henna and paint a bellymap on me while waving incense around my shakras. But it might have eased my anxiety a little if she had actually touched the belly beyond reeling out a measuring tape. The excitement I had felt around my first child just wasn’t there, I was too worried. It was the Age of Zika; the Dawn of Trump; I’d had a lot of kombucha.

I wonder if I have made a terrible mistake going to the Zappos of obstetric offices.

After seven weeks with a sore throat and bloody noses, I saw an ENT doctor who diagnosed an infection and puts me on antibiotics—four days later I felt reborn. And angry. Angry that the OB had missed it. Worried I had trusted a little life with the wrong people. Worried that in caving to the soft pressure to not take up too much time at the doctor’s office, I had made my first major mistake as a parent. Because even the mother who presents as “low-risk” knows pregnancy is no guarantee: she spends the first trimester waiting to announce that she is expecting; the second trimester counting down to the 20-week anatomy scan, the 23-week viability milestone; and the final weeks wondering if preparing a nursery, naming the baby, or shopping for newborn clothes will jinx things.

Part of pregnancy is finding your motherly feet as a person who has their shit together. No one wants to be the zero-chill pregnant lady who drives the OB-GYN nuts with her questions about unpasteurized cashew cream and DIY birthing tubs. But how crazy are we allowed to feel and act as pregnant people? I don’t believe in the healing power of geodes, yet I can’t help but wonder if the hippy dippy birthing philosophies espoused by the doulas and midwives and Gaby Hoffmanns of the world don’t at the least provide a more favorable, relaxing hormone bath for the developing fetus. I wonder if having a caregiver touch and interact with the belly without the express intention of screening for abnormalities doesn’t help the mother come to terms with the massive physiological changes she is undergoing? I wonder if I have made a terrible mistake going to the Zappos of obstetric offices.

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By the time the bad feelings set in, I’m 32 weeks along—”too early in the pregnancy” to worry about the baby’s position if you are my OB-GYN, but far too late to transfer practices if you are any of the receptionists I call from the courtyard of my workplace in midtown. Many practices won’t take pregnant patients after 20 weeks gestation. Each virtually hangs up on me when I say I am 32 weeks deep, and I start to leak tears in the terrible, leafy courtyard where people in suits dribble baby spinach from their Pret sandwiches onto the brickwork. Obviously, I’m hormonal. Family members and friends tell me I need to convey my complaints to the practice manager, as if I’m a disgruntled diner who deserves a complimentary coconut shrimp appetizer. But the issue isn’t trying to explain why I feel the OBs have done a poor job, it’s that I do not trust them with the little cub I’m hauling around with me.

Communication has hit a wall. And sure, part of the OB’s role is dispelling normal pregnancy anxiety, but even the most rational and body aware of us are in unchartered territory and need a space to ask stupid or crazy questions. Childbirth classes tell us the “body knows what to do,” but the volumes of comment boards occupied by women unsure if they are experiencing “real” contractions suggest it’s simply not that straightforward. You might know your body intimately and still find yourself in the “showing up at the hospital for multiple false-alarm labors” boat.

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Friends tell me I need to convey my complaints to the practice manager, as if I’m a disgruntled diner who deserves a complimentary coconut shrimp appetizer.

I turn to a local parenting group on Facebook for advice: several women relay the names of OBs and midwives who took pity and blessed them with a transfer at 32, 35, 38 weeks. They all suggest begging. I tell my husband he must call and beg on my behalf. It takes a day and $120 to get my records from my OB-GYN, and by then we have two practices willing to consider my case. It takes several more days to hear back, during which I worry over the weak and sporadic stretches my son performs in his womb. In the meantime, multiple good folk on the streets of New York exclaim, “Any day now!”, “Gotta be a boy!”, and “TWIIIINS!” at the ginormous bump. I want to tell them sorry, the pregnancy is on hold until I can figure out who my doctor is and where I will be delivering. By midway through the following week, I speak to a practice manager who says one of their doctors is willing to take me on. My first impression of the office is that it is modern, the staff are lovely, and it has a plant wall(!).

Walking around the neighborhood, having contractions.

The nurse who conducts the initial survey reacts visibly when I tell her where I transferred from: “Oh, I know about *that* practice,” she says. “Looks like a nice office when you first get there though, doesn’t it?”

Eeeeeeeeee, my husband and I say to each other through eye talk.

Dr. Smith—a man—is smart, lovely, knowledgeable, and takes me on an ultrasound tour of my baby, who it turns out is head-down, swimming happily in his little bubble. We see his cheeks, his little hands. I’m 33 weeks along. Having answered every one of my roll-call of questions, the OB-GYN wishes me well and says he will see me again at 35 weeks. Walking out, I text all my girlfriends who have been following the saga with *confetti* emojis. We found a way! We are in!

For each remaining visit, I see the same doctor, who patiently peers around the womb with me, and discusses all my nutcase questions as though they are charming dinner party discourse. At t-minus-one day to the due date, he explains that labor could be close—I’m having painless contractions and the cervix is doing its thing—and if I am as fed up of being pregnant as I say, then a wee dose of castor oil could kick things into gear. At this moment, I think back to the 30-hour induction I had with my first child; the crippling contractions and three-hours of pushing. He was giving me a chance at the natural birth I thought I wanted (the castor oil triggers contractions in the intestines, which can then jumpstart the uterus into a progressive rhythm). He explains exactly how it should play out, and when to call him. “I think this will work for you,” he says sweetly before asking me one more time if I have any more questions. I am so keen to meet my baby, I honestly jog out the door.

I was waiting until the contractions lasted a full minute before calling the doctor. Don’t do this unless you want to give birth in an Uber.

Two days later, my low-key lady-in-labor persona results in a somewhat tardy departure for the hospital in an Uber. By the time we reached the Brooklyn Bridge, I’m screaming at the bumps. Our arrival at the hospital is notable for being zero chill—I am wailing, security guards break into a sprint with the wheelchair, and I go straight past triage, past the labor and delivery check-in to a birthing room where I become paralyzed by a contraction in the bathroom trying to take my pants off. I find out I am at 7 cm. Terrified that I can’t have the drugs I just decided I wanted, my OB arrives in time to prepare me for the final push. My pain level is “peyote vision quest” but he coaxes the baby out in a couple of pushes just 25 minutes after getting out of the Uber (driver review: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️) and I feel something approaching love toward him for freeing me from my own smoking fuselage in the moments when the tractor beam of post-birth oxytocin blasts out.

“Hi!” He says, smiling. “You made it!”

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