Now that my third trimester is well underway, more than ever, I'm firmly convinced that pregnancy is not for the faint of heart or for the gullible. As if the reality of labor and delivery weren't daunting enough, horror stories and strange tales abound from all sources that defy belief. With the daily onslaught of stories from the media, newspapers, movies and your so-called friends, it's becoming almost impossible to discern truth from fiction. But my experience has shown me that truth is usually stranger than fiction and the more outrageous and unbelievable a story, the more likely it is to be true. I am baffled as to why women relish sharing their labor stories, the bloodier the better. And even more baffled as to why I can't help but listen in morbid fascination, riveted and reveling in every gruesome detail.
Maybe it's a combination of female sadism and bonding that goes back to childhood. Remember all those slumber parties you went to when you were a little girl? No party was complete unless you stayed up all night scaring the crap out of each other with ghost stories, playing "Bloody Mary", Ouija boards, or playing "Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board." I think sharing gory labor stories is a similar ritual -- part hazing, part initiation by women into the sisterhood of motherhood. My experience up to this point with pregnancy and childbirth has only been anecdotal accounts from acquaintances and from watching too many movies. Yet even the supposedly real-life stories have the ring of fiction. Maybe it's because labor and childbirth is inherently dramatic and encompasses the emotional spectrum. Life and death hangs in the balance, there's fear and elation, incredible anguish and joy all wrapped up in one experience. It's no wonder all labor stories have a mythical, larger-than-life quality usually afforded to war stories. As a result, I never know what to believe and am constantly sifting through the overload of information, looking for that elusive nugget of truth, what I like to call the underbelly of pregnancy stories.
For example, why is it that when a woman goes into labor in the movies, someone inevitably yells, "Quick! Boil some water!" What the hell for? The logical assumption is that the boiling water will be used to sterilize something but what that something is remains a mystery to me. I suspect that if there is a use for the boiling water, its true function is to give the useless man something to do and stay out of the way while nature takes its course.
The one "true" story I read about in the newspaper which definitely belongs in the annals of "Ripley's Believe it or Not" was the story about the woman who didn't know she was pregnant until she gave birth in a train toilet. I can't remember if she flushed the baby onto the tracks or not. But the part of the story that defies belief for me is that this woman did not know she was pregnant. How could she not know she was pregnant? I don't care how fat you are, how can you not know you are pregnant? Besides the weight gain, there are a million other cues that something is different with your body. And this woman didn't even suspect she was even in labor. She just went into the bathroom expecting a colon blowout or something and was surprised to see a nine-pound baby in the toilet instead.
Another fact that I am struggling with is the anecdotal evidence that some women experience the ultimate orgasm during an unmedicated labor. This belongs in the "too damn good to be true" category in my mind. Despite all that I've read about this, I have yet to meet a woman who can swear this happened to her. I first learned about this as a senior in high school during a health class lecture about childbirth. When my teacher offered up this little tidbit of information there was a horrified silence broken by a classmate who cried out, "Ewww, from her own child?" And it's that element of incest that makes me giggle whenever I contemplate the possibility of labor orgasms. I admit that have a woefully sophomoric sense of humor and that I collapse into helpless giggles each and every time somebody falls or farts in public or I hear the word "anus." The skeptic in me also can't help wondering if this isn't just propaganda perpetuated by proponents of natural childbirth. I'm all for natural childbirth, but talk about the hard sell! However, this will be a rare instance where I'd be overjoyed to be proven wrong. So if anybody out there has had this enviable experience, please post me.
And just when I thought that bizarre childbirth stories ended with childbirth, I'm proven wrong. Teddy and I were having dinner with another couple recently when they asked me, "So, are you going to keep the placenta afterwards?" I was taken aback by this question as I imagined coming home with a big mason jar full of afterbirth and displaying it proudly like a trophy on the mantel over the fireplace. Personally, I've never understood people who keep gallstones, teeth or appendixes as souvenirs. There's something creepy and Howard Hughes-ish about keeping physical detritus as mementos of a surgical procedure. I grimaced and replied, "Uh... no. Why would I?" The wife shrugged and said, "Some people like the keepsake. But our friend Richard (not his real name) and his wife took theirs home and ate it."
My mind and stomach reeled as I tried to process this information. The practical part of me immediately wondered what kind of recipe they used. How does one prepare a placenta for consumption? I mean it's not like you can run out to the store and buy a box of Placenta Helper. Shortly afterwards, I ran across an AP news story on the internet about a British cooking show called "TV Dinners" that was condemned by a British Broadcasting watchdog organization for airing an episode preparing a human placenta. The placenta belonged to a female guest who wanted to prepare it for a party celebrating the birth of her new daughter. Together, they fried the afterbirth with shallots and garlic, flamb?ed and pureed it, then served it to 20 family and friends as a pate on focaccia bread. Apparently the father had 17 helpings, while the other guests were noticeably less enthusiastic. I can just imagine the woman planning this dinner party menu and just saying in the tradition of Marie Antoinette, "Let them eat placenta!"
I try to be open-minded, really I do. I know that other animals like dogs and cats eat the placenta. But dogs and cats also eat their own vomit and poop and whatever junk they find on the ground, so that's not a ringing endorsement. And I know other human cultures eat the placenta for spiritual power and milk production. Fine, good, wonderful. Bon Appetit. But when I'm done with childbirth, I think I'll pass on the placenta and eat the wonderful hospital lime Jell-O instead. It may not be as nutritious but I think I deserve a little room service after all the hard work.