We had a baby in a car. We think it happened around 5 a.m. The only real time we have is the time of the 911 call, 4:48 a.m. We were unable to get a copy. I really wanted that call, to hear her, or myself, in the background, to have some outside picture of the event.
Until the moment that she was born, I never once thought I’d have the baby in the car. I didn’t even think, in the car, I am having this baby. I thought, “I’ve got this,” because it was our second. But it was still labor; the labor was consuming. There was no time to look ahead.
When we left the house, I somehow thought I would get in the car and labor would slow down. Of course we would make it. We knew my water had broken. I wouldn’t have been certain until my husband said, “I think your water just broke.” I was standing outside the bathroom in shock. It was the middle of the night, dark, difficult to find clothes. It was time to go, yet time had gotten away. The contractions rose like quakes. My husband tossed me a pair of his boxer shorts, and we hurried outside.
So we got in the car, leaving our 3-year-old asleep in the house, and drove toward the hospital. It was raining hard. We passed the ER in our neighborhood and entered the highway, because we were going to make it. But the contractions were so gripping I could not breathe. I couldn’t not push. I tried to focus on the boxer shorts, blue, printed with little gingerbread men, something I remembered my older daughter choosing for Matt’s stocking one Christmas. I wore my own tank top and sat on a towel.
The evening had been hot and unbearably humid. I was 39 weeks pregnant. I had a few contractions at bedtime, and then the storm hit, a huge, loud Summer thunderstorm. Around 2 a.m., one hour into labor, each large contraction made the heat intolerable. I rotated between the room with the air conditioner and the bathroom in a state like blindness, vomiting, while my husband tried to text friends to come stay with our 3-year-old. The labor still seemed much like my first, until it wasn’t, until she arrived so quickly.
My first lasted 24 hours, if I counted early labor, active labor and pushing. Pushing alone was two hours. This baby took four total. I had refused to believe all those mothers who kept telling me stories of fast labors, babies born so soon after the first contractions, in showers, and, on our street, in someone’s living room. All second babies. That would never happen to me, I’d think, trying not to laugh at them.
Now the roads were covered in water, and the dark was terrifying. “Slow down,” I said, but we couldn’t. We drove along the Niagara River, passing Canada. I saw the usual landmarks. This time, they were marked by the baby’s descent. I saw the Peace Bridge, Buffalo’s bridge to Canada, lined with semis by day — now blue-lit, tranquil, and dreamy. Its calm was pervasive. When we passed the bridge, I said, “She’s crowning.” (My husband later remarked that he thought we were fine). The baby’s face slipped out as we approached downtown. I might have shouted, “The head is out!” I said we had to get off. Several times. On the exit ramp, we heard her voice, a wet cry, curious, like a garbled statement. My husband called 911 and stopped the car and tried to find a street sign.
Even when it happens, and the baby is born, slippery, crying, barely visible, there is no time to panic. You try to see her. She is looking. She calms. She raises her hands and touches her mouth with curling fingers. She opens her mouth. We sit and wait, and there is only this present, unmitigated joy. We said, “You’re here.” We repeated ourselves, we laughed. We had no idea where we were. It was our first year in this city. “Buffalo!” outsiders exclaimed, “Buffalo!” — as if no one has ever lived here. But it is one of the few moments I have known, being there with him, with her, in which reality slowed to a bright stop: fragmented, perfect, full.
I held the baby, while my husband stood watching for the ambulance. He texted a picture to my parents in Wisconsin. My parents received it and thought that the hospitals were lax these days, dispensing with gowns. Then they noticed how dark it was.
We had parked against a one-way by the baseball stadium, the fireman said. Behind left field. It was still raining. The firemen peered in through the windows, and shook the father’s hand. They asked if it was a boy, because of the stadium. I held the girl. She had dark hair, matted in curls. She looked at me with a bewildered, newborn gaze, steady but opaque.
When the ambulance arrived, we got onto the gurney with the help of three paramedics and a sheet. I remember feeling a giant sense of relief that I would not have to deliver in the hospital. I hadn’t pushed at all. I didn’t feel like I’d delivered a baby. I had heard of such births, I’d practiced Hypnobabies (natural childbirth hypnosis), but I had not really thought this could happen.
In the ambulance, the female paramedic wanted to cut the cord. She could not find any scissors and kept asking, “Where are the scissors?” She was determined. She clamped the cord and sawed through it with something like a Swiss army knife. They asked me questions, unfazed. I held the baby, who was quiet, blinking at the lights, and I wanted that moment in the car back.
This is how we tell the story. It is fun and embarrassing. We were not the sort to skip the hospital. We knew what childbirth was like: it was endless. One pushed, and pushed, and pushed. Assistance was required. Exhaustion was complete. Recovery long.
When you do have a baby in the car, there are things everyone asks. The first is “Who delivered her?” Herself. Then “Weren’t you freaking out?” And “How did this happen?” Some inquire about the car. “Thank god for the shorts,” we tell them. The questions, at first, seemed so absurd, as if we had planned this route. They may reflect our culture of childbirth, in which babies are dangerous and everyone requires assistance. It is hard to imagine a birth that occurs rapidly, without complication. It happened, I answer. The shock was unforgettable.
The gingerbread-men boxers hang in the baby’s closet. I don’t know what to do with them. Will she want them? Will the story become one she wishes we would just stop telling? I struggle to connect the baby she was in that moment with who she is now; the surprise has not worn off. Her arrival bound us in the most usual of ways, childbirth, and yet I am still thrown by its beauty, how we were two and, suddenly, three.