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The Birth Business 

What if you sleep through your Greatest Moment?

I've always had awful dreams. They're common in my family — we call them "Mossmares." We wake up screaming, yelping, gasping for air, usually because we're missing something — exams, graduations, weddings — due to some convoluted chain of events such as being held at gunpoint while our shoes are cemented to the floor.

On the day my son was born, I closed my eyes to blackness, but the sleep itself became my very worst nightmare.

Even before pregnancy, I was well aware that the instant you hold your newborn, covered in gross goo and quietly cooing, was supposed to be the Greatest Moment of Your Life. Whole books and methods have been devoted to giving women back the power in birth, to that ultimate apex where adrenaline and hormones and emotion rush through your veins when you lock eyes with that little baby, and holy shit, this is it. You're a mother, life has changed forever, and wait, what the hell is that white stuff on its head?

Because Ricki Lake said so. All my life, I've always had what seemed to be reasonable idols, at least by my own definition: Bob Dylan. Lester Bangs. Anyone married to Mick Jagger, or at least anyone with a really good leather jacket. When I became pregnant, Ricki Lake — former queen of the Hefty Hideaway — took over. Her film, the excellent Business of Being Born, made her a messenger for women's birth rights and a vocal advocate of natural delivery. The documentary even featured Giselle. The supermodel. This was serious.

Like most films that involve childbirth — as well as the Facebook pages of most mothers — Lake made me well aware that this moment when my son was born (when I'd pop him out and squeal) was supposed to be defining. It was where our love would form, and time would slow, and I would instinctively slap the kid to my breast, brush my hair back into a disheveled bun and drift off into parental oblivion.

No one told me, however, what exactly you were supposed to do if you weren't even awake to witness this moment.

I'd rather ignorantly planned for a natural childbirth ever since getting pregnant. When I told my doctor my intentions, she gave that distant, "Sure," as if I were asking a chef at an Italian restaurant to prepare my pasta gluten-free — "Oh yeah, right. We can do that. Pepper?" The thing was, a platelet problem I've had most of my life had begun to worsen. I found myself in the care of a high-risk OB and two hematologists, getting biweekly ultrasounds, taking steroids and undergoing a series of IV treatments, spending eight hours a day hooked up to a machine pumping some sort of very expensive, very unproductive treatment into my blood. Pregnancy, really, was a Mossmare.

It seemed worth it, though. Keeping both of us alive was the top goal, naturally, but being able to see my child born became consuming. At 36 weeks, my doctor decided that my only option would be a C-section. With nowhere near the platelet count of 90,000 needed for spinal anesthesia, this would require general anesthesia. In other words, I'd have to be asleep. I cried so uncontrollably that the nurse measured my blood pressure again.

The next week, my husband and I drove to the hospital. My only labor pain occurred when a nurse shoved a catheter in without anesthesia, and when I woke up attached to a morphine drip with no epidural to dull the ache of abdominal surgery. As I blinked open my eyes, I saw an iPhone with a picture of a little baby on it. I zoomed in with two fingers. There he was. We were both alive. Me, a whale. Him, 5 pounds, 14 ounces.

Oh.

This was not the Greatest Moment of My Life. I didn't get to hold my son, in the NICU, until more than 24 hours after his birth. As happy as I was, the dread of not witnessing him coming into this world lingered much longer than the pain of surgery. I made jokes about whether or not he was actually mine. "Well, I didn't see him coming out, so ..."

I stayed inside, attached to a breast pump, after the whole situation had made nursing difficult. I agonized, cried and annoyed the hell out of my husband. Without that Moment, I was constantly trying to prove I was a mother.

As I packed my childbirth books away a few months later, I felt the first pang of nausea I'd experienced since back when I had morning sickness. There was so much emphasis on that Moment, and on the short term, but little beyond. Will you deliver naturally? Will you breastfeed? Will you attach your child to your body with staples, and feed it by spitting food into his mouth? I'd spent so many days agonizing about what I missed — that birth moment, the skin-to-skin contact, the perfect movie scene — that the present was in danger of slipping away. If only the questions could flip from, "How long will you nurse?" or, "How natural is your delivery?" to "What kind of parent will you be?"

Giving birth to my son wasn't the Greatest Moment of My Life — meeting my husband at a bar called Fat Black Pussy Cat and seeing The Rolling Stones are contenders — but it was the best thing I've done, and that's not predicated on whether or not I was awake to witness it. I am still a mother, whether or not we locked eyes instantaneously, whether or not I was smothered in goo. This whole Business of Being Born is a vitally important thing, but the Profession of Being a Parent matters so much more.

For now, when it comes to Ricki Lake films, I think I'll just stick with Hairspray.

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