How New Moms Bond

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So, my new friend — we’ll call her Brooklyn — was telling me about her fourth-degree anal tear. “…and the doctor’s down there for what seems like ever, making these sewing motions. I’m like, Hey, whatcha doing down there? And he says, Oh nothing …. But when the anesthetic wore off, like Oh … my … God! I didn’t think I’d ever want to get pregnant again.”

Did I mention that she was telling me this while hugely pregnant … with her third?!? Hey, guys tell war stories. Women tell birthing stories. It’s how we bond with other new moms. Park a stroller in a food court, at the playground, under a shady tree with your newborn and if there’s another new mom within 50 yards, she’ll parallel park her Bugaboo and after a few pleasantries — How old’s your baby? Is she sleeping through the night yet? will launch into My labor was hor-ri-ble. Let me tell you … And she’s off to recount the kind of extremely graphic details that you’d only be privy to if you were, say, a regular watcher of those reality birthing shows on Discovery Health. Within minutes you’ll know more about your new pal’s vagina than if you’d hooked up with her at Dinah Shore. Some moms even have pictures! Ask my sister. She loves an opportunity to whip out the photos — snapped in the delivery room — of her youngest wearing her uterus “like a turtleneck” during her C-section. My husband told me about it. I couldn’t look.

But even allowing for a lower TMI threshold for family members, mostly I know this because when I was a newbie mom, first going to Mommy & Me, a total stranger plopped down next to me with her infant, introduced herself, then by way of making conversation told me about her entire tortuous birthing experience as our babies sat between us drooling like Saint Bernards. It’s enough to make you wish that they held Mommy & Me at a bar … during happy hour … with two-for-one shots. But I was so desperate to meet other moms with kids my son’s age, I sat and listened. (Still, I gotta say, even that was better than baby sign language class where one mom waxed on about the frugal virtues of rinsing out and — gack! — reusing swim diapers. Seriously, if you’re pinching so many pennies that you reuse disposable diapers, perhaps classes in baby sign language aren’t the best use of your income.)

Anyway, moms swap “war stories” with their comrades in cribs because, short of … I don’t know … the Iron Man or maybe the Iditarod, labor and delivery is the penultimate endurance challenge, a necessary rite of passage that women experience before they’re let into the club, taught the secret handshake and awarded the extra set of eyes that all Moms have in the backs of their heads.

I don’t mind sharing, exactly. I’ve listened with rapt attention to my girlfriend Amanda’s story about how the first, and then the second and even the third epidurals didn’t take so she had to be knocked out cold to deliver her baby. My cousin Rachel shared with me how the delivery nurses practically jumped on her belly after her son was delivered to get the afterbirth out, which apparently, by law, has to come out within 30 minutes or it turns into a pumpkin … or something. “Another minute and she said she’d have to stick her whole arm up there to get it.”

All right, then.

The fact that I’m often speechless hearing these things has nothing to do with the gross-out factor. I’m a fan of the late Bob Flanagan. And if I can watch a grown man drive a nail through his penis and then bleed all over the video camera documenting this “performance art” then a little placenta isn’t going to put me off.

No, I’m often speechless because I usually have nothing to add. Hard to believe, I know. After all, I did have my own baby. But my own story is so lame, I feel like I skipped a crucial part of pregnancy and missed out on being tested on this essential proving ground. I didn’t come through labor battle bruised, but triumphant, with kid in hand. So when other women tell their tales — with some degree of pride now that they’ve gone through childbirth and survived — I can’t really relate. It’s like I trained for the marathon, suited up on race day, and then glided across the finish line in a chauffer-driven Town Car.

But oh was I prepared to go the distance! I was eagle-scout prepared! I showed up to the hospital on D-day with a steamer trunk full of props meant to get me to the point where I could then get an epidural. Yes, I am a total wuss when it comes to pain. I’ll pop a Darvon at the first glimmer of a headache. My girlfriend Stephanie stiff-upper-lipped-it through two natural deliveries because she didn’t trust anyone putting a needle into her spine. While I do understand the fear of a crippling spinal injury, I’m also the one who needs to be sedated to have my teeth cleaned, so there was no way I was getting to 10 centimeters without some high-octane pain killers. I also brought a stack of rock CDs, a birthing ball, back massager, energy bars, juice and one of Stewart’s socks filled with rice that could be warmed up in a microwave and applied to any body part that hurt.

I used exactly none of it.

I never once felt a contraction; never got to push. My water never even broke. In fact, the most painful part of the whole experience was when the nurse (who had to have done her training with Dr. Mengele) took four passes to get the IV into my arm. One reason I’d have never made it as a heroin junkie — I hate needles.

But I digress … So why was I even at the hospital with a steamer trunk full of crap and a frickin’ IV in my black-and-blue arm? Well, they say the camera adds 10 pounds. I guess ultrasound makes you look fat too because Fletcher was reading about 8 pounds when my OB took a peek at 40 weeks. “He’s only going to get bigger if we wait another week,” my OB warned. “That’s just going to make things more … uh, fun for you.”

Some days I have trouble expelling tampons. And not even the super-size ones. I couldn’t imagine pushing an eight-pound anything out of my … well, you know where the standard baby exit is. I agreed to be induced. Which is how I ended up in the maternity wing at Celebration Hospital with an IV in my arm, fetal monitor strapped ‘round my belly. Apparently, I contracted like crazy all night long. But I never felt a thing. And never dilated. Not one single centimeter. Zero. Zippo. Zilch. Fletcher obviously inherited the lateness gene. Poor kid … he gets it from both his parents. I’m perpetually 20 minutes late for everything. And Stewart … well, friends from college affectionately refer to the zone he lives in as “Stew time,” which is to say, somewhere behind the international date line.

The next morning my OB offered me a choice: Go home and come back in a week. Or have the baby in an hour by C-section. An operating room was open. We had 15 minutes to decide.

Whoa!!!!! I can’t even tell you how mind-blowing that is. Now, it seems like a no-brainer. But then, it was Morpheus offering Neo the red pill or the blue pill in The Matrix. There was my extreme aversion to having my body cut open to consider. I get queasy if a paper cut bleeds. And the terrifying thought that our lives were really about to change big-time. Even driving to the hospital the night before, it still all seemed unreal. We’d been parents-in-training for what seemed like … ever.. Now, in a few minutes, we could be parents … for real. Were we ready? (A question that maybe we should have asked about 10 months ago.) Are you ever?

We chose the C section. Forty-five minutes later, they laid Fletcher on my chest.

Maybe if I’d left the hospital and come back later, I’d have a more dramatic birthing tale. (Or ended up on our local news: Woman gives birth on I-4. Leather seats ruined. Film at 11.) They say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. With childbirth I suppose it doesn’t matter how you get there, so long as you go home with your baby. Still, I have a theory that being able to conjure your labor/delivery experience is a good hedge against the other barbs of motherhood, a potent reminder that since you’ve already survived the crucible of childbirth, whatever curve balls Life throws your kid later, you’re likely to survive those too. Hopefully just paper cuts. Unlikely though.

Name That Baby!

“No, you’re not. You’re not going to call the baby … that!”

That was my mother’s overexcited, underwhelmed reaction to the news that we were going to name her third grandson …Fletcher.

“Stop kidding around,” she demanded. “What’s his real name going to be?”

Oy. You’d think we’d chosen something like Apple. Or Shiloh. Or Anakin, as, I kid you not, one mom in my Mommy & Me class did. Hey, I love Sex And The City, but I wasn’t naming my kid Big. Though it could have been worse. She could have named the unfortunate tot Vader. Or Darth.

When they’re not ridiculous — and I realize that ridiculousness is clearly in the eye of the beholder — I love unusual names. And really my mom ought to understand that. She was the one who named me “Norine,” not exactly an eyebrow raiser in Ireland, but hardly in everyday use in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood she grew up in in Brooklyn. Then she gave it a twist, spelling it N-O-R-I-N-E. And inadvertently gifted me with the dubious bonus of having to spell it out for just about everyone I encounter. I’ve gotten so used to saying, “No …it’s -i-n-e” when leaving messages, I’m shocked when someone does spell it correctly right off the bat. Even my grandmother couldn’t get it right (though whether that was deliberate or merely forgetful, I could never determine). But she went right on spelling my name the traditional Irish way as N-O-R-E-E-N until she could no longer write out birthday and Chanukah checks herself. I like to joke that the day I married Stewart McDaniel, I morphed, in a 30-minute ceremony, from an Eastern European Jew to an Irish lass.

My point is that it shouldn’t have come as a great surprise to anyone that when it was our turn to choose a name for our “speck” (what we initially dubbed the baby because a black speck was all we saw on our very first ultrasound — ecstatically taped to our fridge — that proved we were pregnant), well, we wanted something that was unlikely to be found on a personalized toothbrush or door plate. And I, in the way that many Jews idolize WASP culture (see Allen, Woody) wanted a strong, distinctive name that reflected Stewart’s British Isles heritage. Just so long as it didn’t have too many consonants. See, we’re both fans of The Mother Tongue: English And How It Got That Way, Bill Bryson’s hilarious history of the English language (and the first gift Stewart ever gave me). That book introduced us to the Welshmen’s deep love of consonants and their penchant for arranging them in a way that, to steal a bit from Bryson, looks like Scrabble leftovers after a major play. Indeed, one of my favorite Bryson examples is the Welsh word for beer — cwrw — with nary a vowel in it, and improbably pronounced “koo-roo.” But a string of consonants like that is just going to drive the preschool teacher nuts. She’s not going to think it’s cute or cultural. She’s going to curse the day Lil’ Cwrw showed up on her class roster.

And so I wandered over to ScottishBabyNames.com where there’s a much better ratio of consonants to vowels … though cool-looking handles like Cearr, Seaghdha and Caimbeul still seemed to defy easy pronunciation. Much as I wanted an exotic name, I couldn’t give my only child some “It’s spelled l-u-x-u-r-y y-a-c-h-t , but pronounced throat-warbler mangrove” name that would be forever tripped over by everyone from his nursery school teacher forward.

Ergh! Why do soon-to-be parents go through such hair-pulling angst to find the perfect gem of a name? One that reflects their cultural background, worldview, coolness quotient, social position they hope to attain, etc.? Because names have incredible power to shape character and personality and could possibly give the wee one a leg up in the playground pecking order. Don’t think so? Consider the last Sidney you met who wasn’t an accountant with a bad comb-over. Or the last Wayne who wasn’t a complete asshole. Think about Billy Crystal waxing on in When Harry Met Sally about how “Sheldon” was the guy to take care of your taxes or do your root canal, but hardly the lothario who’ll curl your toes in bed. “It’s the name,” he tells Meg Ryan. “Do it to me, Shel-don. You’re an animal, Shel-don. Ride me Big Shel-don. It just doesn’t work.”

Meanwhile, the kids in my class named Harper and Dwyer, Hadley and Logan exuded infinite cool — and that was just in elementary school.

Still, while Stewart and I certainly felt entitled to play around, trying on names, then casting them off like bargain hunters at a Filene’s sale — that’s one of the perks that come with supplying the egg and the sperm and then schlepping around the aftermath for 10 months — it’s amazing who all else feels that they have buy-in on your baby name. And that would be basically everybody you’re foolish enough to share your choice with. It practically becomes a parlor game — Name That Baby! Unbidden, folks will freely weigh right in with a two thumbs up… or unload about how you’re making a terrible choice because that’s the name of that snobby girl who was mean to them in first grade.

My pal Amy, soon due with her first is considering the name Arax, which, even though I wasn’t consulted, certainly has my vote for Awesome Baby Name. That’s because it reflects Amy’s background (Armenian), there’s a family connection (it was her grandmother’s) and unlike the legions of Marys, Lisas, Staceys and Jennifers, there ain’t no one else in her class who’s gonna be called Arax. In my totally unsolicited, humble opinion, that makes Arax a baby name trifecta. And then one of Amy’s sisters pooped on her parade. “You can’t name the baby Arax … everyone will call her Ajax.” See what I mean?

Even my Dad, who managed to keep (most of) his opinions to himself as each grandchild was named, no doubt because he figures it’s a losing battle — “None of my friends like the names their children gave their grandchildren” he says — even he jumped into the fray when we were working on the middle name. We were considering …no, had actually started telling people that we had picked Emory, to honor some relative on Stewart’s side. Then I heard through the grapevine (and by that I mean my sister) that the family was pissed that we weren’t naming after at least one of my grandparents who’d recently passed away. That’s a Jewish thing, like not eating pork, having lox and real bagels for brunch (not those blueberry and jalapeno imposters) and eating Chinese food on Sunday nights. Okay, that last may just apply to New York Jews, but I always considered it the 11th commandment — Thou Shalt Eat Chinese food on Sundays.

My sister impressed upon me how unforgivable a gaffe not naming after one of my father’s parents would be. It’s bad enough that I haven’t been to High Holiday services since, oh …college, go out of my way to eat heartily on Yom Kippur, the most holy fast day, and that there are zero plans for Hebrew school or a Bar Mitzvah for the baby. But not having a J or H name … well, that would land me on my Mom’s grudge list for life. And trust me, she’s still ticked off about the time I shaved off my eyebrows and nearly burned her kitchen down so I’m on thin ice anyway.

So we dutifully sifted through ScottishBabyNames.com, again, for a suitable J name (after my Grandpa Joe) or an H name (after my Grandma Helen.). After much back and forth and forth and back and stressing and stewing some more — and with a firm veto on my part re Hamish (do I even need to explain why?) — we finally settled on Jonathan. And lucky us, instead of being in the doghouse, we actually earned some bonus points because not only does Jonathan have a “J” for my grandfather, but a “John” for Stewart’s grandfather. We scored the proverbial two birds with one stone, since gentiles like to name kids after the living! What a riot!

But at least after a lot of No ways and As ifs and Over my cold, dead bodys, Stewart and I finally agreed. Which isn’t always the case. I once knew a gal who had two first names and not in the Betty Jo or Mary Margaret sense either. Two separate first names. I met her as “Beth” but her family called her “Heidi.” Why? Her mom and dad couldn’t agree on what to call her, so she grew up with her dad calling her one name and her mom another. Talk about being a wee bit passive aggressive. Decades later, she sorted it out by using one name in business, the other for friends and family. And if that’s not confusing enough, now there’s a whole vogue for renaming the kid after he’s been around a few years. It’s like what? You know … you really don’t look like a Jason, we’re gonna call you Jared instead? And after the little tyke has gone through all that trouble to learn his name. Geez, just hand the kid a personality disorder, why dontcha? That’s gotta be worth years of couch time with a Park Avenue therapist. But who knows, maybe Jason/Jared on’t need braces, and it’ll all balance out. Though I wouldn’t count on it.

But here’s the thing. No matter what name you choose — and hopefully your choice doesn’t alienate your entire family or become the stuff of YouTube parody — the most important thing about your chosen name is to write it down and bring that bit of paper to the hospital when you deliver. This is absolutely key. Because, sweetie, after you push a baby the size of a watermelon out through a space that heretofore has accommodated nothing bigger than maybe the John Holmes replica dildo, you are going to be too doped up on pain meds to remember how to spell “Bob” on the form for the birth certificate. And that’s how my sister’s eldest ended up with “Eliajah” with an extra “A.” And how we got “Johnathan” with an extra “H.”

Well, actually the H was my husband, pinch-hitting for me in my drug-addled state. One school of thought on that is that Stewart simply can’t spell. But I like to think he snuck in an extra H as homage to my Grandma Helen. Then again, maybe it was for Hamish.

My (Brief) Life As Chowzilla

My mother was horrified. Horr-i-fied. She’d just watched me chew through a Carnegie Deli-size sandwich like it was a canapé and then dig into a pile of supersized potato pancakes.

“What are you doing?” she demanded. “You’ve eating like you’ve never seen food before. Look how much weight you’ve gained!”
Now, my mother measures calories with the precision of a diamond cutter, and tracks weight gains and losses the way day traders track the mercurial ups and downs of the stock market. Only in an Alice in Wonderland sort of way — down is good; up is bad; very very bad.

See, weight has always been an issue — the issue — in my family. Not that I was ever heavy. But my mom was . . . well, let’s say she wasn’t a thin child. Some moms fear their kids will end up on milk cartons. Mine worried I’d be so fat I’d never get a date. I was 12 when I went on my first diet to lose 5 pounds. The Just In Case Diet. Of course, to truly get how utterly ridiculous that was, you have to understand that except for the time when I was 16 when I became addicted to Cadbury-style chocolate bars — I ate two a day for a whole summer — for the vast majority of my adult life, I have rarely ever weighed more than 100 pounds. Now you’d hardly call that a candidate for Corti-Slim.

My secret? Being vegetarian. And a pretty strict one at that. For years, I not only eschewed all meat, fish and fowl, but eggs and dairy too. Going out to dinner was an exercise in what I couldn’t/wouldn’t eat.

And then I got pregnant.

For my husband Stewart, a diehard carnivore who still talks wistfully about the $25 cheeseburger stuffed with foie gras that he devoured on one of our trips to New York, that was like Christmas, his birthday and our wedding night/honeymoon all rolled into one. He gleefully soaked up tales about friends’ vegetarian wives who’d turned into insatiable meat-eaters once they got knocked up. He immediately made reservations at his favorite steak joint. Just in case I had a sudden urge for Kobe beef.

Initially, I’d meant to stay the vegetarian course. After all, I’d been eating vegetarian for nearly 10 years. And old habits die hard. But the baby clearly had other gastronomic plans. And apparently they involved a smorgasboard. Lots of pregnant women complain that they miss their sushi and brie, they want their coffee and martinis. Not I. Sure I was off those things too, but a whole new world of gustatory delights beckoned. Suddenly it wasn’t what couldn’t I eat, but what wouldn’t I eat?

Turns out, not a whole helluva lot. First there were the buttermilk pancakes that I absolutely had to have at 2 AM. Days later at a diner it was a tuna sandwich, which got woofed down in three bites and was promptly followed by another. I polished off Buca di Beppo’s “small” spaghetti marinara, which normally can feed several hungry frat boys, as a single serving. I dove into eggplant parmagiana, bagels with cream cheese or whitefish salad, French toast, shrimp cocktail, turkey clubs and cheesy omelets. Even junk food like Big Macs and Egg McMuffins, which disgusted me even before Morgan Spurlock, became must-have menu items. I rediscoverd the joys of full-fat mayonnaise. And thousand island dressing. But when I cut across four lanes of traffic to pull into Tony Roma’s, ordered a full rack of ribs, then picked every last bone clean and sucked out the marrow, I knew I was definitely off the wagon. When they asked me what I wanted for dessert, only decorum kept me from ordering a whole other slab.

I’ve never been so food obsessed. I was eating like a had a Delta force division in my belly — not a baby, barely 2 centimeters long. Halfway through my blueberry pancakes, I’d be thinking ahead to what I’d want for lunch and dinner. It seemed our unborn child had pumped my appetite full of steroids. But I was getting a little self-conscious about my piggy appetite even before my mother pulled me aside to warn me about the 80 pounds she gained when pregnant. “Don’t let it happen to you,” she cautioned as I stuffed my face with reheated Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Yeah, I knew the more I put on, the harder it would be to take off later. And that excessive weight gain could bring on all kinds of pregnancy complications, like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, a very dangerous condition, involving high blood pressure and excess protein in the urine, that could endanger me and my baby. Yet, I couldn’t seem to stop myself.

An old college pal Rich, who works as a producer at Comedy Central, gently helped me off the hook. “The first trimester,” he explained with the authority of someone who watched his own wife morph into Chowzilla when she was expecting, “is so critical to the baby’s development you need to consume about as many calories as climbers require to get to Mount Everest’s base camp one.” That did make me feel like scarfing down Reubens slathered in Russian dressing ultimately served some higher purpose beyond giving me some extra cushion in the seat.

Strangely, though, once I hit my second trimester, those weird-ass cravings vanished like freeloaders when the check comes. I lost my taste for BBQ ribs. And that double quarter-pounder with cheese once again went from seeming incredibly appetizing to incredibly disgusting. It was like I suddenly got sober after a meat-eating bender.

But for one brief shining moment I ate whatever I wanted.

And I loved every bite.

(A version of this essay was originally published in Las Vegas Life)