Alone and Adrift in a Birthing Tub by Elizabeth Savage

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A person holding a newborn crying baby

The warm water lapped at my enormous belly as I leaned back and attempted to float. The tub, located in the corner of my hospital room, was just a smidge too small to fit my pregnant body fully reclined. Still, it alleviated some of the pull of gravity. I readjusted so my ears dipped below the waterline. I didn’t want to hear what my husband was saying.

But even under the water, I could feel the vibrations of his loud voice. He was angry with me again. It was always something. I neglected to pick up his dry cleaning. He didn’t like the dinner I made. The two-year-old needed discipline. I spent too much on groceries. The car had another suspicious dent.

Why can’t you do anything right? he said to me. Or I said to myself.

With my ears underwater, I watched my husband’s mouth as he formed his words. He looked like he was spitting. Or chewing something distasteful. His eyebrows moved up and down as he spoke like two dark caterpillars trying to decide which direction to go. His tongue darted in and out of his mouth. Spittle formed at the edges. He licked it back in. He stared at me with eyes that boiled in their sockets.

Another contraction began to build across my middle. I gripped the edge of the tub and braced myself to ride it like a wave. A low, guttural moan from deep inside my body escaped my lips. I hung my head between my knees. I stared into the water. A distorted version of me, shadowy and distant, stared back. I breathed through the contraction, in and out. Again and again until, with a gasp, I was on the other side of the wave. I closed my eyes and slipped underwater.

My husband worked long hours at a Very Important Job. People say I’m being groomed for CEO, he confided. He told me it was a job he didn’t want, but I didn’t believe him. Anyone could see he enjoyed the spotlight. I chose to believe his success belonged to both of us.

While he was at work, I cared for our little girl. I bought her clothes from Baby Gap and dressed her in white T-shirts with Peter Pan collars. Tiny denim overalls. Ribbons in her hair. I clapped as she ran circles around the other babies in our playgroup. Her joy was contagious.

My husband said he didn’t want more children.

She’s perfect. Why do we need another?

We need two, I explained, so they’ll have each other. If something happens to us, they won’t be alone.

What if something goes wrong? He frowned and stared at his computer screen.

We’ll handle it, I said, with more confidence than I felt. It would be my fault if anything went wrong, but it was a risk I was willing to take. Eventually, he agreed we could try again. Soon I was pregnant with our second child.

Hours earlier, when we arrived at the hospital, a nurse checked me and shook her head. Too soon, she said. Come back when the contractions are closer together.

What do you want to do? my husband asked. Drive home?

No. I want a chocolate milkshake.

He raised his eyebrows in surprise. Okay, if that’s what you want.

We drove to the nearest diner and settled into a booth. When the waitress arrived, my husband announced, I’ll take a Fudge Monster with extra whipped cream.

The waitress looked at me and tapped her pad. Me, too, I said.

We dipped into our enormous frozen treats. It felt like we were getting away with something. I sucked on my straw and smiled at my husband. He grinned back. He loved a sweet treat.

Nurses came in and out of my room all day. They hooked me to a monitor, took a reading, and then freed me of the cords so I could labor unencumbered. I marched up and down hallways, bounced on birthing balls, squatted at the end of the bed, and sucked on ice chips.

My husband tried to be helpful by reminding me to breathe through the contractions. Hee, hee, hee, who, who, who, he whispered into my ear. He cracked jokes, making the nurses laugh. Sometimes, he walked the halls with me, rubbed my back, or talked to me while I bounced. Other times, he sat on the bed, stared at his phone, and wondered what he was missing at work. Eventually, his patience with the whole thing grew thin. Neither of us had slept much the night before. He was not a person who did well without a solid eight hours.

Please calm down, I said. Please be reasonable. Please have some water or coffee or one of the snacks I packed. In between contractions, I apologized for whatever he thought I had done. But nothing worked. Soon, he was utterly lost in his rage. Even so, I was surprised when he turned away from me, opened the door, and walked out.

Time began to stretch like taffy pulled at one of those old-fashioned candy shops my family visited on Cape Cod in the summer. I tried to call his name in just the right tone to reverse what was happening. My voice sounded high-pitched and needy. I tried again, but I was too late. The door sucked itself closed with a quiet hush.

I was alone.

Impulsively, I stood in the tub. Goosebumps broke out across my skin as the water poured off my body. I shivered. My stomach was too heavy. I gave up and sank into the water. Beneath my skin, the baby moved in an undulating motion, positioning himself to come out. But I wasn’t ready.

Where had all the nurses gone? Earlier in the day, they came in swarms, annoying me with their clucking tongues at my lack of progress. Have you been walking? Bouncing? Squatting? They suggested I get in the water. I was skeptical but willing to try anything. And now, I was naked and alone. I couldn’t even get out of the tub by myself.

The wave started up again.

Please stop, I begged my stomach. Please stop, little baby. Stay in there. Please! But my body wouldn’t listen. The tightness began. I laid my hands across my belly as it grew harder. Strangely, I could picture my grandfather talking about his days in the Navy when he made his bed so tight, he could bounce a quarter off the sheets. I wondered if a quarter could bounce off my stomach—what a stupid thought. I almost laughed. No. Stop. I needed to concentrate.

I supported myself against the tub and breathed through the surging pain. Hee, hee, hee, who, who, who. I pursed my lips and blew. In and out. For a split second, I looked up and remembered I was alone. No. I must stay in my body. Stay with my body. I let the wave take me, riding the crest to the top top top until the pain ebbed away, and I was back on shore.

While I rested, my mind wandered back to my little girl. In her nightly bath, she was a floating Buddha. Round belly rising above warm water. She would splash and laugh as I rubbed a soapy washcloth over her body. Tip your head back, I’d say. She’d squirm and protest but agree. Okay, Mama. With her eyes squeezed shut, I’d wash out the baby shampoo. She’d kick her feet, making waves in the tub.

I stared at the hospital door, willing it to open. Come back, I whispered. Instead, the door shrank away from my gaze, growing smaller and smaller until it was a door from Alice in Wonderland. My toes curled under the water as my body tightened. Hee, hee, hee, who, who, who. Over and over until my voice was hoarse. I rode the waves as they came, and in between, I tried not to cry.

At last, the door snapped back to full size. I watched as it opened, and the nurses walked through. Trailing behind was my husband. He glanced in my direction and then looked away.

The nurses took charge. They scuttled about, helped me out of the tub, wrapped my body in a warm towel, and decided I had labored long enough. They positioned me on the bed as water dripped down my back, soaking the sheets. A nurse called for the doctor. I panted through the next contraction. Hee, hee, hee, who, who, who. The doctor arrived, gloved and ready. He positioned himself by my feet and asked, Where’s Dad? My husband stepped forward and waved awkwardly as though he’d been there all along. Excellent, the doctor said. Let’s go!

I gathered what strength I had left, rode to the top of the swell, and pushed with everything I had. The nurses strained to hold me steady. I pushed and moaned and moaned and pushed. The baby began to make his way out. Nearly there, the doctor said. I gave one more forceful push, and my son was born in a gush of water and fluids and relief.

The nurses moved the baby to a warming table, where he was weighed, measured, and cleaned. Ten fingers and ten toes, my husband announced to the room. The nurses wrapped the baby in a blue swaddle and tucked him into my arms. He had a tiny, scrunched face. He felt lighter outside my body than he did on the inside. I breathed in his smell, a scent both familiar and sweet.

My brother arrived at the hospital, my daughter in tow. She clung to his shoulder and glanced at me with a shy smile.

Come see, I said, indicating the bundle in my arms.

She crawled onto the bed and peered into her little brother’s face. Hi baby, she said. She touched his cheek.

Beyond the window of my hospital room, across the evergreen dotted landscape, our home sat high above Lake Washington. Blue water shimmered through every window, and I was drowning. In the future, I would find the strength to rescue myself and leave. But that day, as my daughter leaned against me and my newborn son curled his fingers around mine, we became an island of three. Safe together on my hospital bed.

The light in the room faded at the close of a long day. I gathered the children and hugged them close. Over their heads, I watched my husband as he stood alone. A smile flickered across his face. The day had gone as planned, he thought. A healthy baby. A happy family. But in the end, he failed to see the ocean growing vast between us.

Meet the Contributor

Elizabeth SavageElizabeth Savage has an MFA in fiction from New York University, an MA in teaching from Seattle University, and a BA from Brown University. Her writing has earned her spots in workshops at Tin House and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Before she decided to devote herself to writing full-time, she taught English and history to some very clever fifth graders at a public school in Seattle. She now lives in Rhode Island where she is at work finishing her first novel.

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