A pregnant person in on a hospital chair getting examined by a health professional. A man is holding their hand.

First Person

Sometimes the Weirdest Advice Is Best

When it came to delivering a baby, the author learned she had to push the crap out of herself.

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I’m in the labor and delivery room, with my husband, Josh, to my left and a very no-nonsense nurse to my right. My doctor has just left to get her splash gear because in a few minutes it will be time for me to push, and that, I am told, will get messy. The nurse leans in close to my face and says, “Did you take birth classes, sweetie? Do you know the right way to push?”

“No, I didn’t take any kind of class.” I say. “Crap! Did I make a huge mistake?”

Between you and me, I didn’t take the damn birthing classes because I didn’t think it was necessary. Why would I invest time and money in learning a skill that I would only need for one day of my life? If there had been a class on how to raise a well-adjusted, anxiety-free, non-annoying child, I would have signed right up, but that is not a thing. So, while many of my friends opted for birth classes with doulas or midwives and had natural home births and turned their placentas into pills so they could eat them to stave off postpartum depression, I didn’t even have a birth plan. I was going to give birth one way or another, and then it would be over, and I’d have a child. Period. But now, in the hospital bed with the epidural in my spine and the moment of truth approaching, I’m beginning to feel negligent. 

The nurse gets even closer to my face. “Forget about the classes. I’m gonna give you ONE PIECE OF ADVICE, and if you do this right, it will be smooth sailing.”

“I love advice!” I say. “I’m very good at taking direction. Hit me.”

“You have to bear down like you’re going to the bathroom. Push as if you’re taking a giant poop.”

Sage advice, indeed. Oddly, this was not the first time I had stumbled upon this directive. 

It was given to me just two years earlier, when I needed to get something else out of the very same hole. 

I was in Josh’s bathroom, with the giant Today Sponge leaflet spread out on the sink. It was early on in the dating part of our relationship, and condoms were no fun, so we had decided to try the sponge. In case you’re not familiar, the Today Sponge is a small, round sponge made from soft, squishy plastic. You wet it, put it deep inside your vagina before sex, and it performs two functions: the sponge both covers your cervix to create a physical barrier, and it contains spermicide to kill the little swimmers and help prevent pregnancy. Sounds simple and efficient, right? Except it wasn’t, because the moment I got it in, I hated it. It made me feel … very FULL, if you know what I mean. Very aware. But the rules say you can’t remove it until six hours after you’ve done the deed or else it won’t work, and I wasn’t yet ready to take that chance. 

I set an alarm for the middle of the night and tiptoed to the bathroom, very anxious to be rid of my intruder. I stuck my fingers in, rooting around for the ribbon that’s supposed to help you pull the thing out, thinking I’d yank it and toss it and be back asleep in no time, but I prodded and I poked and I could not find it. Were my fingers too short? Was my vagina too deep? Was there a secret tunnel that I had somehow missed learning about in anatomy class? There was no way of knowing! I looked back at the pamphlet, desperate for a solution, and these words jumped out at me: “You can bring your cervix down closer to the vaginal opening, and thus make it easier to locate, by bearing down. Take a deep breath and bear down as if you were having a bowel movement.” So, I attempted it. I squatted and pushed and fished, but after SEVERAL minutes of trying and failing and possibly shedding some tears, I was in a full-blown panic. Defeated, I skulked out of the bathroom, walked to Josh’s side of the bed, softly shook him awake and said, “Babe, you have to help me.”

I was mortified and had no idea how he was going to react. This was Josh, who had been my totally platonic friend for 16 years before we drank a bottle of wine one night, decided to play gin (with dares to make it interesting), and ended up furiously making out in my doorway. When sex happens with your best buddy, it’s weird but it’s not weird, because you’re already so comfortable with one another. You’ve already seen each other in all kinds of ways. Maybe not naked ways, but you get over that pretty fast, and then it can be great. But in the excitement of the new fun sex, you don’t ever anticipate having to ask your pal to remove something from inside your body cavity. 

I searched his face for signs of revulsion. It remained stoic yet gentle. He didn’t appear grossed out or freaked out or hesitant. He just said, “Okay. What do I need to do?” 

So here’s Josh with whom I used to binge-watch The Simpsons while eating day-old pizza, and now I’m lying on his bed, naked from the waist down, with my knees up and my vag on display, and I’m BEARING DOWN LIKE I’M POOPING, all the while praying to the gods of gastroenterology that I don’t ACTUALLY poop. I squinted my eyes shut so I could concentrate on locating the correct muscles, and after what seemed like a very long time, he lifted his arm, victorious, looked at his catch, and said, “This was IN you?” (To be clear, after you wet it and insert it, the sponge expands to several times its original size, and once removed it resembles a giant slimy egg. I just want you to be mentally prepared in case you ever decide to try it.)

Anyway, that’s when I knew. This is the guy who can handle birth and baby vomit and midnight trips to the emergency room. This is the guy who can handle me. This is the guy I’ll bear down with forever.

He holds my left hand and the wise, encouraging nurse holds my right, and I bear down as they shout, “Come on, Ellie! You can do it! Push, Ellie! That’s it! You’re doing great! PUSH!” And when the baby comes out, a flood of afterbirth and blood comes out with him, and once again I look into Josh’s eyes, wondering if I will see shock or fear or disgust, but I see none of that. There is only calm, respect, appreciation, and love. 

And now, nine years later, we hold onto that advice I got from both the labor and delivery nurse and the Today Sponge pamphlet. When life presents us with its inevitable difficulties, we clasp hands and we bear down … together. 


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