One night, my water broke while I was watching my husband play Disgaea 5. At the time, he was playing a map that involved killing dozens of versions of the same character, Asagi, in order to level up his units. I don’t know what Ms. Asagi could have possibly done to deserve this, but apparently killing her indefinitely is the best way to level up your characters in Disgaea 5, until they have stats higher than the number of protons in the universe. I can’t be sure, because while I had my own save in D5 as well, I was not yet up to the Asagi-genocide portion.
We do this a lot lately. I sit on the couch and sip tea while Wilson plays through games, and only if I really like them do I bother to do an entire playthrough myself. Maybe this makes me less of a gamer, but it’s a pretty relaxing way to spend the odd weeknight. Besides, this way I get to make snide comments about the game without being distracted by the chore of actually having to play it. Wilson is kind enough to pretend my contributions are witty; this may be why I am currently having his children.
Anyway, the sudden rush of strange fluid down my legs came as a total shock, since I was only 37 weeks pregnant. I knew, academically, that a baby can arrive early, but up to that point I’d had a very normal pregnancy. I just hadn’t thought about the possibility that I would start going into labor weeks ahead of schedule. I have no idea why I went into labor so early, but maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was watching Wilson clear the Asagi level for hours on end; maybe we just bored the baby into submission, until she could no longer stand to be inside of me. Like, “I knew my parents were gamers, but holy shit, have you seen this level of anal stat-maxing bullshit? He must have reincarnated that fucking Sage 87 times.”
My first response to the situation was panic. Somehow, even though I knew this wasn’t true, I had gotten the idea in my head that my baby was breathing amniotic fluid, like a tiny mermaid, and now that it was gone, she was going to suffocate. It took a couple of minutes, when my brain started functioning again, to remember that that’s not how it works. Still, even after remembering “Oh yeah, there’s this nifty thing called the umbilical cord that delivers oxygen and stuff to the baby,” I was nervous and shaking.
I distracted myself in the car to the hospital by reading FAQs for Disgaea 5 on my phone. It was very calming; surely, in a world where we can afford to dedicate copious energy to exponentially raising arbitrary numbers associated with chibi, pink-haired SRPG characters through arcane and ridiculously tedious methods, nothing bad was going to happen. For me, triviality is a kind of inoculation against terror; I wonder if that’s a universal thing.
Now, in case anyone was wondering, when you get to the hospital and announce “Excuse me, I’m giving birth!” in a quavering voice, they subject you to the same long battery of questions about your insurance as everyone else, even if you are literally standing there with amniotic fluid dripping down your pantleg and onto their shiny floor. In addition to the usual joys of trying to manage the Rube Goldberg-esque charms of the US healthcare system, this exchange happened:
Receptionist: Have you ever been to this hospital before?
Me: No, I’ve never been here.
Me: I was born here.
Receptionist: Yes, you were.
They finally stopped with the insurance stuff and got me into a hospital bed, where they tested me to see if my water had indeed broken; I thought the torrent of fluid I had passed through my vagina and onto the couch was kind of a smoking gun there, but apparently they like to be very sure of that sort of thing. Anyway, when a woman’s water breaks, they like you to give birth within 24 hours, but my body was taking its own sweet time; I was informed that it was likely that they were going to have to induce labor if we wanted to see the baby anytime this week.
It’s only natural in this situation to be excited and scared, but I was especially anxious because I didn’t know what form the birth would take. Because of a fairly rare vaginal condition, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to give birth traditionally, and might need a C-section. Apparently, these days they keep you awake for the procedure while they cut you open and take out the baby, which sounds like getting a front-row seat to the worst horror movie ever, starring you. I had a lot of time to stew about it too; even with the inducement, the nurses told me I probably shouldn’t expect to give birth before the following evening.
So passed a long, long night, with my poor husband curled up in what looked like the world’s most uncomfortable chair, as I started to feel the contractions. Early on, they don’t hurt much; it’s just a weird sort of tensing sensation. It wasn’t the pain that was keeping me awake, so much as the bed– birthing beds aren’t made for sleeping, and thanks to all the equipment they had me hooked up to, I couldn’t really lie down on either side. There was a Teen Titans marathon playing on Cartoon Network, which was marginally better than the infomercials playing on all the other channels, so I watched Starfire and Robin and that demon chick with the cloak fight crime while I contracted. I think I’ll probably associate Teen Titans with that sensation for the rest of my life.
“Why is Robin even on the team?” I asked, confused. It was about four in the morning. “He doesn’t even have any superpowers. He’s just a guy in a costume.”
I think Wilson said something like “Because he’s the leader,” which was a bullshit answer and unworthy of him, but to be fair, he was not entirely conscious.
In the semi-darkness, as Wilson drifted in and out of a fitful sleep at the foot of my bed, I thought about Disgaea 5 some more, and RPGs in general. How characters in RPGs kind of became my children, and a big part of the appeal of the game is nurturing and spoiling them. Maybe it’s different for other people, but for me, the joy of RPGs (and SRGPs in particular) is to get attached to your characters and trick them out as best as possible, not unlike making sure your child has all the best clothes and toys. I wondered if maybe all those thousands of hours poured into different games was in a weird way anticipating this moment; I’d been raising little imaginary children for years, giving them the best education, in the form of job class training, that I could afford. And when their status screen was filled with all the best Bastard Swords and Minerva’s Plates, I felt like a proud Mama who had just dressed her kid in the newest OshKosh B’gosh overalls.
What was unique about this particular unit, the one who had kicked the plug out from under my uterus, was that I had no idea what her starting stats were. What had the RNG within my body given me? When Wilson and I had swapped DNA, what traits from both had been carried over– and which ones might have been triggered that would be reminiscent of neither one of us? And in Disgaea terms specifically, was this a Genius-level reincarnation? Or, dare I even think it, was I producing a Good-For-Nothing?
Of course, it’s horrible to think that your own child could be anything less than wonderful, but if you accept the fact that your child could be virtually anything, that has to include the negative too, right? I mean, if I think that she could possibly be a great nuclear physicist– or the fearless astronomer who finally welcomes Pluto back into the fold– I have to also consider the possibility that she might just be one of those lazy oafs who thinks that her unsuccessful food blog is a real job. Am I already a terrible parent for even considering that possiblity?
In the morning, they changed my medication to whatever the “Labor: Level 2” drug is called, and then the contractions started to hurt. I was afraid to get an epidural, because of the small chance I’d have an allergic reaction to it, but after a few hours of Level 2 contractions, I caved. Let me put it this way; the pain wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t put up with it for a couple of hours. But I had no way of knowing how much longer this process was going to last, and for all I knew, I could be dealing with the pain for another 18 hours or so, at which point I would probably be clinically insane. So I decided to take the risk and let someone poke me in the spine with a needle.
Unfortunately, before there can be professional poke-you-in-the-spine-with-a-needle people, there have to be amateur poke-you-in-the-spine-with-a-needle people, and the guy who gave me my epidural was apparently in training; I hope he was at least a medical student, and this wasn’t some kind of merit-badge situation or something. I wanted to ask if the really old, really experienced-looking guy instructing him could perform the procedure instead, but apparently I chose this moment to get shy and said nothing. To be fair, the student did a pretty good job; he only poked me in the spine 2-3 times. I was also sure to keep still as a mannequin after the vein-puncturing affair– oh, did I forget to mention that? They somehow punctured a vein when they were giving me an IV, and had to do it again. Apparently this happens because the kind of IV they give you when you’re giving birth is like a monster truck compared to normal IV needles.
After the epidural, I felt a blissful numbness come over my body. The anesthesiologist (the good one, not the trainee) pointed out that according to the monitors, I should have been having epic-level contractions right then, but I couldn’t feel them at all. This was fantastic for about two minutes, until the numbness in my chest started to genuinely freak me out, because it felt like my heart wasn’t beating. The nurses assured me that it was, and not only that, but the readings said I was “100% oxygenated,” which was some kind of accomplishment. Ever since, I’ve been wondering what percent oxygenated people normally are, and if I’m just a tiny bit of a superhero because of my high oxygenation levels– which would, of course, make me more eligible to lead the Teen Titans than certain other people who shall remain nameless.
Then, I slept. It would be thematically appropriate if I had a dream about Disgaea, or some other RPG character whom I regretted not leveling up as much as I should have, but the fact is I dreamed about something trivial that I don’t remember. When I woke up, several hours later, I was in for a surprise; apparently, my body– so sluggish about the whole pushing-out-babies concept this whole time– had decided to triple the pace while I was asleep. I was now “fully dilated” and very nearly ready to give birth.
Now I was feeling the contractions again, and they really hurt. They gave me more medicine through the epidural, but either it had stopped working (a theory a later event supports) or, even with the pain reduced, it was still nigh-unbearable. It wasn’t the worst pain I’d ever had in my life; I’ve had ovarian cysts twice, and I will go on record that the pain there is worse than labor, since at least with the contractions, you get breaks. If I was thinking about Disgaea anymore at this point, my thought process was something like “Hmmm maybe I should raise another mage so I’ll have all the elements covered OWWW OWWW OMIGOD OWWWW one of the green-haired ones OWWWW”
A nurse asked me if I felt like pushing, and I didn’t; it seemed like the wrong answer. She suggested that I try pushing a couple of times just as a practice run, which I began to do. I’m not sure if the whole “practice run” thing was a complete and total lie to begin with, or if plans changed, because once I started, there was no more talk of practice and I was pushing for real.
This is going to sound weird, but delivering a baby actually feels a lot like being constipated and trying to poo. Gross I know, but I kind of wish someone had told me that beforehand, because it would have done a lot to demystify the whole process. The pain of pushing actually isn’t that bad, because unlike lying there for contraction after contraction and not being able to do anything about it, at least when you’re pushing you feel like you’re making progress.
In fact, pushing was so great I couldn’t stop doing it. The doctor (who, incidentally, looked and sounded a lot like my old friend Wendy, whom I’ve known since middle school), asked me to stop pushing between contractions, and I tearfully tried to explain that I couldn’t actually stop. The staff seemed kind of surprised by this, which is odd, because based on what I’ve read since, it’s not an uncommon phenomenon. In any case, we then went into full-on birthin’ mode, with a nurse on either side holding each leg. They asked if I wanted Wilson to hold one of my legs, and I hope he wasn’t upset that I said no; I wanted to be surrounded by medical people, the kind inclined to notice very quickly if I started hemorrhaging.
I pushed as hard as I could for about an hour and a half, while the nurses cheered me on. One nurse even yelled “Come on! Get MAD!” while I was pushing, which seemed strangely incongruous; was I supposed to get pissed at the baby for even existing, get a burst of adrenaline, yell “GET OUT!!!” and expel her out of my body with a vengeance? That seemed kind of unfair to everyone involved, frankly. Unfortunately, the head was stuck at the bottom of the birth canal; I could feel the top of her head there, just barely sticking out of me, but try as I might, I just could not push her out. I think I must have spent at least half an hour like that, with her head sticking partially out of my vagina. When I could think at all, I wondered if she was okay like that. It seemed really uncomfortable.
I was starting to get panicked, because if she was stuck, did that mean I’d need a C-Section after all? Wait, how could they possibly do a C-section when the baby was already this far down? That’s impossible, right? How was I going to get her out if pushing with all my might just wasn’t doing it? How long were we all going to be stuck like this? I really was pushing as hard as I could; there was nothing else I could do.
I heard the doctor say (with my friend Wendy’s voice) that she was going to cut something; I don’t remember her exact words, but I think she was saying that she was going to cut my vagina open wider so she could pull the baby out. While I was still processing that idea, a big contraction came and I pushed yet again, for all the good it had done me before. Except this time, I heard a ripping sound, and a weird pulling sensation, and then the baby was out, a blood-soaked little figure on the bed in front of me. I only realized later that I had ripped the skin open between my vagina and anus before Dr. Not-Wendy had a chance to cut it, and that was the ripping sound I’d heard.
Honestly, awful as it sounds, the ripping didn’t hurt. It would hurt for weeks later, months even, but at the time all I could feel was relief. I saw Dr. Not-Wendy whip the umbilical cord out from around Gwen’s neck quickly, then hand her off to the nurses, who were fussing over her energetically in the corner of the room. I felt dizzy, giddy; I had seriously begun to wonder if I was going to be stuck with the baby only 5% out of me for all eternity, and now she was out, completely out. They delivered the placenta, which came out effortlessly, and before I knew it, I was staring into my baby’s eyes.
I had imagined a newborn infant to be a squalling, red-faced blob with wide, innocent blue eyes. Gwen’s eyes were large and dark blue, but not innocent. In fact, there seemed to be an aloof intelligence there, like she was completely aware of everything that was going on and wasn’t particularly impressed one way or the other. There was something almost incredulous about her expression, like “So you’re my mother. Well, I suppose I could have done worse, but the jury’s still out on that.” If she ever cried after being born, I never saw it.
They put her on my chest, and relief made me overflow with babbling. “Hi Gwendolyn, welcome to the world. I’m your mother, Karen, and ummm– OWWWW!– I’m not normally screaming like this, I promise y-OOOOOWou.”
This confused Dr. Not-Wendy, who was in the process of stitching up my birthin’ battle scars. “Aren’t you numb down there?” she asked. I was not. Apparently, I shouldn’t have been able to feel her stitching me up because of the epidural, but I could feel everything.
“Hmm. I guess you must just be very sensitive down there,” she mused, and continued to stitch me up with, in effect, no anesthesia. “Just focus on the baby.” Thanks for nothing, Not-Wendy.
I alternated between whispering sweet nothings to Gwen and howling in pain, all the while she continued to look at me with those too-dark eyes, those enigmatic eyes that baffled me. She was assessing me, so calmly, as though she saw through all of my ambitions for her and found it all mildly amusing. “You think I’m going to pick the job class you want for me? I will learn stuff if and when I feel like it, emphasis on the “if,” and you will have nothing to do with it, crazy screaming lady. By the way, I don’t know what you thought you were accomplishing by eating all those green beans for the past eight months. That was disgusting.”
Then they took her away; she was under five pounds, and even though she was healthy, policy dictated that she needed to spend the night being monitored in the newborn ICU. Then I fell asleep again, and this time, I dreamed of nothing. Just a pure absence of cognition, like I had nothing left in me at all.
I didn’t get to hold her again until later the next day, when I noticed something else: her smile wasn’t innocent either. In fact, it was the opposite of innocent. Though a tiny baby, she had a wide, full mouth– still does, in fact– and when she smiled in her sleep, it looked like she was thinking of something naughty. So often, a slow smile would spread across her entire sleeping face, and it was like she was thinking about all of those things a baby shouldn’t know the first thing about. How knowing was this tiny little baby of mine, and what was I going to do with her? Or was it more apt to wonder what she was going to do with me?
As I write this, she’s sleeping in the baby swing next to me. I have learned in the last three months that she does indeed know how to cry, like a champ in fact, and the rigors of learning how to be alive seem to have restored some of the innocence to her eyes that was so lacking at first. She doesn’t really coo so much as make screeching noises, which my husband and I have dubbed “Baby Velociraptor” sounds; our theory is that she’s trying to summon the rest of the pack to eat us whenever we try to bathe her. If she were a Disgaea unit, she would definitely be one of the monsters, and her Overload would be “Soiling Attack,” which makes every other unit on the board skip at least ten turns to catch up with their goddamned laundry. And yes, that would be an extremely broken ability, because my baby is just that awesome; she is rather OP. I mean, I know it’s too early to call it officially, but I think we are talking at least Distinguished-level here.
Though neither my husband nor I have touched Disgaea since Gwen’s birth (I think we’re both a little afraid that playing the game will cause me to go into labor again, because that’s where babies come from), I’ve been playing RPGs on my Vita quite a bit; it gives me something to do in the wee-hours, when I’ve just fed and changed her and can’t fall back to sleep just yet. I would like to be able to say that now that I have a REAL child, I no longer give a crap about my little imaginary kids in dumb fantasy games, but that would be a lie; If anything, I care more. But out of the corner of my eye I can see her little chest rising and falling in her sleep, and just for now, everything else seems to fade around the edges.