What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting

"I have, as yet, never seen a birth that even remotely resembled mine."
Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

I didn't know what to expect while I was expecting, mostly because I didn't expect to ever be expecting. Yet here I was, in my ninth month, just beginning to learn about pain­ relief options (there were options?) and that you could actually have someone other than a doctor deliver your baby.

In order to understand how I ended up this way, we need to reel the story all the way back to when I was nine and inherited an old typewriter from an elder brother. This event allowed me to type up one of my numerous horse stories, three­-hole­-punch it, and sell it to my parents for a nickel. I decided on the spot, a 9-­year-­old in rural Minnesota, that this was what I wanted to do: become a writer, which meant I would 1) move to New York, 2) live in a garret apartment, and 3) have a cat and books for company. Because I’d be so busy pursuing my career, inherent in this list was the proviso: Never have children.

Thus, while my childhood friends played with their Baby Alives, eventually graduating to babysitting actual babies, I kept aloof, aided and abetted by the fact that my parents were Korean War refugees, plunked in the middle of Midwestern nowhere due to circumstance and history. Ergo, we had zero relatives: no cousins, aunts, or uncles, no grandparents, no regular exposure to the cycle of life. I was often dispatched to play the piano for guests, but never to change a diaper or amuse a baby cousin. This made it so much easier to concentrate on pursuing the artist's life, one without any familial responsibility.

A high school English teacher noted my focus, monomaniacal even then, and allowed me to skip her class in favor of writing in the library. My senior year in high school was marked by publishing an essay in Seventeen, as well as by the first of my friends becoming pregnant.

After college I proceeded to New York to make a go of it. I acquired a stray cat, Arthur, both of us supported by my "day job" at Goldman Sachs. This was the age of Yuppies, and soon my Yup­pie friends began having children in broods and packs. I was still partnered with my college boyfriend, Karl, who wanted and planned to have kids. I presumed at some point he’d agree with me on the advantages of the kid-­free life—no college tuitions to save for and, that most precious resource: time. Or, he’d move on to find someone more reproduction-friendly. But big life choices can be pushed to the periphery by the small urgencies of the day­-to­-day and our 20s flew by, my fertility ignored thanks to birth control pills.

By 30, I had the cat, the apartment (nicer than a garret, thanks to Goldman Sachs), and I was finally hitting my stride. I'd also won a fellowship funding a yearlong research trip to Korea for my novel. Then, within the fissure of my leaving New York for Seoul, Karl’s mother became ill with pancreatic cancer.

To make a long story short, the smugness I felt about being a young person, a Fulbright fellow happily writing into my future, was cut short when Karl's mother, only 63, succumbed during one of my visits back home. The closeness I felt with Karl and his family in this time of crisis made me wonder if my usual modus operandi might be one I would grow out of, if being tucked cozily within the cell of a family might actually be something I'd want.

When I softened my stance on children, we married. After I came back from Korea, we stopped using birth control. I became pregnant right away, and we presumed everything else about creating a family would be just as easy. But I miscarried three months later. It was the miscarriage, or maybe the failure it represented, that made me want to try again, with gusto. After all, I'd achieved my childhood dream of becoming a writer despite everyone telling me it couldn't be done. And now that we'd moved to a much more financially sane situation, both returning to teach at our alma mater in a small, livable city, what better conditions could there be for having a child?

I redoubled my efforts, stopped drinking coffee, watched what I ate, and I was pregnant again. Then, seemingly days—and a shocking 40 pounds—later, I was on the cusp of giving birth.

Again, since I'd presumed I'd never have children, I'd observed my friends' pregnancies with the same kind of removed curiosity I have about my brother­-in-law's job as an air-­traffic controller: That is so cool but I can relax, knowing I'll never be called upon to do that.

So when asked about my thoughts on pain relief, I was clueless. To get up to speed, I turned to interviewing my sundry friends and various medical experts. I heard everything from "I felt like I was going to split in two!" to "I had a patient who felt some pressure and thought she was having a bowel movement. She delivered her own kid with no pain."

People espoused breathing techniques, epidurals, the Bradley Method, the narcotic Stadol, doulas, a morphine drip. Each person’s feedback took on the fervency and faith of a Moonie wedding; it was thus hard to know what was "normal." ("You have to get an epidural." "Don't get an epidural; they cause C-sections.")

As my last trimester dwindled, my confusion only grew. I'd switched to a midwife largely because I felt my male OB was inattentive and dismissive. Laura, my midwife, took the time to answer all our questions, no matter how paranoid or basic. When it came to pain relief, she was pretty catholic. The practice's only restriction was that if I should entertain even the slightest possibility of wanting an epidural, I couldn’t use the hospital's cozy Alternative Birthing Center, which resembled a bedroom rather than the tiny dorm-­like hospital labor room.

So in order to have a birth that didn’t use an institutional rubber-­sheeted bed with a zillion beeping monitors, I'd have to have a National Geographic-type natural birth with very little medical equipment beside me—at best, a handheld Doppler device to check the baby’s heartbeat from time to time, and maybe I'd be allowed a shot of narcotics if I became desperate. It was a pretty big either/or.

In my third trimester, I also found myself hanging out with Deepak Chopra. (Who doesn’t like to say that? Actually, we were both just taking part in the same lecture series.) When I broached the topic of labor pain management over dinner, he gave me a long, pitying look. He declared that if I would just not "Westernize" (that is, fear) labor, I wouldn't feel any pain.

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Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a novelist who teaches at Columbia University and writes for Slate, Salon, The New York Times, and The Guardian. Follow her on Facebook.

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