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The Ride of Your Life

You know how you're supposed to feel when you give birth. The emotional side of brand-new motherhood is as well-scripted as the birth itself. The typical scenario goes like this:

As the labor pains mount, you feel overwhelmed, frightened, even angry at your husband or an insensitive nurse. These negative feelings are tempered, of course, by your excitement that your child is nearly here. Once the baby is born, bliss takes over. You lie on the delivery table, bloody and drenched in sweat, your newborn in your arms, feeling exhausted, yes, but also relieved, gratified, ecstatic.

And, of course, shell-shocked.

Wait a minute -- shell-shocked? That was my overriding emotion when my first child was born. Labor had lasted a good 36 hours, I'd reacted badly to the Pitocin used to stimulate my contractions, my baby weighed in at an unanticipated nine-and-a-half pounds -- and she was a girl, when my maternal vibes had flashed "boy."

In retrospect, it was probably good that I quickly discovered a cardinal truth about motherhood: The whole thing was beyond my control and full of surprises. But that realization packed its own emotional wallop.

And it kept on walloping, as my feelings took unexpected turns, often at dizzying speed and with switchback intensity. Nursing my daughter, Rory, I was filled with a sense of awe so profound it was tantamount to a mystical experience. Calling my parents to tell them about the birth, I burst into tears, so moved was I at the shift in generations. And dancing desperately across the living room with my husband and our squalling newborn, I felt a not altogether comfortable sense of dependence on him.

Then there were those emotions that I'd literally never known before. Lying down with Rory as we both drifted off to sleep, I felt a oneness with her I hadn't imagined was possible. When she grew colicky, I felt helpless in a way that reached horror-movie depths. Gazing into her eyes for hours at a time, I experienced a peacefulness worthy of the Dalai Lama.

Pamela Redmond Satran is the author of the novel Babes in Captivity.

Take Two

Overdue with my second child, I was waiting to be buffeted by the same crazy ups and downs. Yet after enduring another difficult labor, and delivering an even larger baby, I felt completely euphoric and peaceful. Gazing across the delivery room at my newborn son, Joe -- ten pounds and fully formed as a three-month-old, with a shock of bright red hair -- I began laughing uncontrollably. I was filled with a sense of accomplishment and triumph as heady as if I'd just planted my flag atop Mount Everest.

"Next time we do this... " I began to say to the doctor, who was stitching up my episiotomy.

"Next time!" gasped my poor husband, still reeling from the pain of my fingernails digging into his hands for the past 15 hours. It was only then that I realized he looked as if he'd been the one who'd just given birth to a child with a head the size of a honeydew melon.

And why was I so chipper? At the time, I credited experience for my ebullience; I was prepared for the joy that would proceed from the pain. I've got this down now, I thought as I rocked my calm week-old son in a restaurant, as I sat nursing while reading Jane Austen, and as I tucked Joe into his crib promptly at 9 p.m. each night. What a pro I was!

One more time

My third labor began right on schedule and I delivered my baby in three hours flat. I was sure at that point that I had new motherhood under control, but it quickly became clear that something was wrong. The baby, a boy we named Owen, seemed lethargic. He didn't want to nurse. Then his circumcision -- and our ride home -- was delayed for several hours because he wouldn't pee.

The doctor, hospital staff, and my husband tried to reassure me that everything was all right, and I wanted to believe them -- in ten years of parenthood, hadn't I seen and handled it all? But in the days that followed, my discomfort turned to panic as my baby's nursing problems grew worse, he developed trouble breathing, and then started losing weight.

In the middle of the darkest night, I sat in my bed on the phone with a stranger from La Leche League. Cradling the phone and holding my baby in the crook of my arm with his mouth positioned near my nipple, I used an eyedropper to drip breast milk into his mouth, hoping the sweet taste would encourage him to begin sucking. Deranged from sleep deprivation and worry, I cracked. All I could do was sit there in the blackness, hugging my newborn and weeping.

Long after Owen's feeding and health problems improved, the emotional fallout from those difficult days lingered. It was months before I could work, and a year before I trusted that my baby was really all right.

Even with the distance of time, that juncture seems so terrifying that I shudder when I remember it. But the giddiness after my second baby's birth seems just as vivid, and I can still summon that miraculous sense of oneness I first experienced when I held my oldest child next to my heart.

In fact, their very unscripted, individual qualities are what make these memories so precious and so powerful. And who can ever be prepared for the most amazing feeling of all: looking into your own beautiful child's face for the very first time, meeting one of the people you'll love most for the rest of your life.