Every movie and TV show I’ve ever seen portrays birth as a mad rush, so that’s how I’d envisioned mine would be: My water would break with a whoosh, contractions would come on fast and strong, my husband and I would dash out the door, fear we’d have to pull over and give birth roadside, but make it to the hospital just in the nick of time for our baby’s arrival. Phew!
To me, this scenario had always sounded so stressful — and besides, I’m the punctual type. I prefer to arrive at an airport not just one, but two hours before my flight takes off. And this wasn’t about the departure of a plane, but the arrival of a baby — far more important, right? So it stands to reason that I’d arrive way earlier than the “nick of time” to deliver a child.
Big, big mistake.
Here’s the problem: Hospitals aren’t like airports. They don’t want you arriving two hours early. And babies aren’t like planes. Or, rather, they’re like planes hijacked by terrorists — incommunicado about their plans until it’s too late.
Another confusing factor was that unlike the mad dash in movies, my labor started gradually: Rather than striking like lightening or with a gush of water, I woke up in the morning feeling regular twinges from my uterus.
“I think I’m in labor,” I told my husband. So we called the hospital where we’d planned to give birth, then drove there, nervous but by no means in a panic. Which I thought would be a good thing. Alas, no such luck. Instead, our punctuality had the opposite effect: The hospital staff treated us like idiots.
“You think you’re in labor?” the receptionist replied with a raised eyebrow. “If you were really in labor, you’d know it.”
Feeling sheepish, my husband and I were told to wait for a medical exam. As soon as I’d hoisted my legs in the stirrups, the nurse frowned.
“You’re barely dilated. You’re too early. Go home.”
It was the ultimate walk of shame — tail between legs, pregnant belly protruding in front of me. Worse yet, in spite of my peppering them with questions, the nurse didn’t give me a firm idea of when I should return.
“You’ll know,” she assured me.
Problem is, I did not. So I hunkered down at home as my contractions got worse and worse, waiting for this mythic revelation to strike. But even once my contractions were painful and frequent enough to have me bellowing like a cow at slaughter every few minutes, I felt a subtle pressure to stay put. After all, the last thing I wanted was to arrive early at the hospital twice.
By noon, the pain had become unbearable, so I told my husband it was time to go.
“Are you sure?” my husband asked. “The nurses said to be sure…”
“$%&* WE’RE GOING NOW!!!”
Back we went — only this time, rather than with nervous anticipation, I was howling and vomiting in a plastic bag. By the time my husband hauled me into the delivery room, the receptionist’s jaw dropped. Seeing her expression I felt vindicated, finally worthy of entering their doors. Then she said something that, had I not been in labor, made me want to climb over the desk separating us and strangle her.
“What took you so long?” she asked.
In the end, everything turned out fine, and my husband and I now chuckle about how we arrived too early, then almost too late, for my daughter’s birth. And in hindsight, of course, it makes sense: Hospital beds are precious commodities not to be monopolized by nervous early birds like me who took all those birth scenes they saw in the movies literally.
So when, then, should a mom in labor head to the hospital? Even now, in hindsight, I don’t have a good answer for that. It depends on how frequent your contractions are, how close you live to where you’ll give birth, how dilated you were at your last visit, and other factors. But I will say this: arriving early doesn’t hurt anything but your pride. And yeah, if your hospital staff was jerky like mine, it can sting. But screw them! Head in early five times if that’s what feels right. Think about it: Giving birth is akin to embarking on the biggest trip of your life. Erring on the early side is understandable. This is one plane you definitely don’t want to miss.