Compulsive childbirth

Why my third time still wasn't the charm

It was the morning of August 19, the day before my due date, and if this kid was anything like the last, I knew he'd be arriving the next day, right on deadline.

I was ready.
A naturally obsessive person, I had been certifiably manic since going on maternity leave just four days earlier. Nesting was in full swing: I was scrubbing baby furniture, cleaning out closets, and laundering armloads of tiny, ruffly, useless things. I had also developed my usual, uncontrollable urge to wander about a Laura Ashley store--a place that, in a normal state of mind, I would have absolutely no use for. After all, who, besides Martha Stewart, needs a frilly floral dress with matching bed pillow and lampshade?

When I'm pregnant, I think I do. My Laura Ashley fetish was so out of control with my first child that I insisted my husband take me there on the way home from the hospital--to pick up the matching lampshade, of course.

All of which is moderate behavior--compared to my second pregnancy. At the end of my ninth month, I woke up bright and early one morning with an insatiable desire to go into the backyard and hack bamboo. Which, of course, I did with great gusto until nightfall. My second daughter arrived eight days later.

This time around, when I wasn't in a closet or at the mall, I was concentrating on the themes of this third--and last--pregnancy: exercise, nutrition, pain control. I was convinced that I could achieve--through sheer will power and extreme physical fitness--the perfect, pain-free, no-fuss, natural childbirth experience that had so far eluded me in life.

Ideally--and I exaggerate only slightly here--I saw myself running around the track at my health club on my due date, flying by slower mortals, munching on one of those energy bars that tastes like ground-up tree bark, and watching the baby just--well, you know--drop out. Then I'd kind of gather things up and head over to the locker room.

Insane? Yes. But there is an explanation--of sorts. When you know you're in the last pregnancy of your life, and you're 36 years old, and you have two other rambunctious children and a full-time job and a traveling husband and no earthly idea how you're going to be able to handle it all, you live in dread of unlikely diversions--like running out of gas--a move that, after all, can absent you for many precious minutes from the productive world. The only sure way to avoid such inefficiency, I figured, was to remain fully in the game: stay focused, never skip a beat--or a morning jog--and simply incorporate the birth into my weekend workout.

Since this had always been the plan--at least since my husband convinced me that a third child was the key to a perfect life--I had engaged an exercise physiologist to help me achieve my goal. Yes, in lay terms, a personal trainer--but this happens to be a very intense one with a master's degree who finds this term inadequate, and, quite frankly, I didn't have the muscle mass (especially then) to quarrel with him.

Though he was already busy with a full slate of clients, John Ledbetter agreed to take on a newly pregnant woman with poor posture and a penchant for swearing because, he said, he enjoyed challenging situations. (He wasn't kidding. The ever-irascible Dallas City Councilman Paul Fielding was a client of Ledbetter for four years--the equivalent of one Dallas mayoral term--though, unlike the past two mayors, Ledbetter actually seems to have enjoyed the association.)

Ledbetter understood my goal: contouring and shaping a scrawny upper body, firming and de-rippling a slightly pear-shaped lower body, gradually--and imperceptibly--gaining 30 pounds during pregnancy, and developing enough stamina, self-discipline, and muscle tone to have a baby and barely notice it.

Hiring Ledbetter was the best thing I could have done. Not only did he never make fun of my idiotic goals, he created a rigorous, but never perilous, exercise program that did keep me looking trim as long as I wasn't standing sideways. I, in turn, stuck to his plan slavishly, even feeling good enough--on those days when the baby wasn't tap-dancing on my bladder--to push the envelope when he wasn't around, euphorically bashing through the outer limits of my recommended maximum 160 heart rate.

Still, on the morning of August 19, when I showed up for our last pregnancy work-out, Ledbetter--tough-guy trainer, lover of challenges, friend to Fielding--looked a bit ashen. "I really didn't think you'd come in today," he said, surveying me with enormous trepidation, as though I might, at any moment, start gushing amniotic fluid all over the Nautilus machines. "Are you sure you don't want to knock off today?"

No way, I said. If we were lucky, labor would start in the middle of our bench-press set, then build slowly through bicep curls and the pec deck. Then I'd hit the track for a few hours of light jogging and contractions. With any luck, I'd never make it to the hospital.

Ledbetter looked queasy. But I was adamant.
After all, I explained to him, the childbirth books say exercise creates stamina. Stamina allows mobility. Mobility means control over the labor experience. Control increases a woman's ability to relax. Relaxation eases pain. Pain could therefore be overcome.

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