My Birth Story: Rachel Sklar
Rachel Sklar is the co-Founder and CEO of TheLi.st, a “visibility platform for awesome women,” which began as an email listserv. She’s written for storied publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Elle.com, InStyle.com, Marie Claire and The Village Voice, among others and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire Stephen Sondheim catalogue. She is also a lyricist in the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. She is the mother of Ruby, who turned just turned five-years-old.
My pregnancy definitely wasn't planned. That's the central tenet of my whole story. I was 41 and had been thinking a lot about what my options were and was really quite sad, privately so. People weren't talking as much then about how limited options were for single women that wanted babies. I was single and didn't have the funds to jump into the whole world of IVF.
I ended up going to my old summer camp after receiving an out-of-the-blue offer to direct some plays there. The summer camp is near my parent's cottage and it's something I've always wanted to do.
At the time, I was feeling very overwhelmed by the onslaught of the whole digital world. There were so many platforms for people to bug me on. I was feeling constantly pinged. I just needed a break. I had been in talks with someone to write on a TV show in L.A., which fell through, and so I thought, "Why not just go to camp!"
I thought of it as putting a hold on the pregnancy clock. "It’s just summer." I was only supposed to do it for four weeks. So, I did it. I went to camp and met somebody there who was also coming to direct a play. It was a man; an age appropriate man, also in his forties. And it doesn't take much from there! You're the only age appropriate people. You both like musical theater.
It kind of wrote itself as a romantic comedy. But the plot changed.
Camp was great. I loved it. I put on Little Shop of Horrors with nine-year olds which I highly recommend if you ever get the opportunity. But when you “take it to the city,” you never know what's going to happen. Turns out, when we took it to the city, some cracks emerged. It was a lovely little romance at camp but didn't have what it took long term.
I didn't really think about the fact that I hadn’t gotten my period, not even when I was at camp and took a nap through some all day program, which I normally never would have done. I just didn't think of it. I didn't notice it. But back home, I started really noticing I hadn't got my period. I didn't take a pregnancy test because I didn't want to definitively know that I wasn't pregnant. It was really nice to be 41, and I’d never, ever had this--I mean, sure, I'd had my share of pregnancy scares as young active women do--but I never had this legitimate thinking I was pregnant. I was just not in a rush to find out I wasn't.
I went to dinner with my best friend and business partner Glynnis MacNicol and told her all of this.
"You need to take a pregnancy test,” she told me.
I really was just not ready to yet and I held out for another few days of not taking the test.
After a different dinner with a different friend a week later, I went to a CVS and we got the tests. We took pictures and it was really fun. It was actually a wonderful situation. Had I not been pregnant, it was very wonderful to be able to share that with friends. Everyone tells you not to tell people and stuff, but it was nice to have people know what was going on.
For some reason, I thought that I should take the test in the morning, as though my pee was at its most concentrated then. I don't know what I was thinking! I went to sleep, woke up at six in the morning, and peed on the stick. I was expecting it to take two minutes like it does in the movies.
But that's when people take it the next day. I had been pregnant for probably four or five weeks by that time. It went positive immediately. My first reaction was joy and hilarity. I thought it was awesome and I thought it was hilarious. "Hilarious" was such a big part of it. “This is how it happens,” I thought. “Really?”
I texted Glynnis: Holy shit. Time to start making grown up plans.
I went back to sleep, woke up, peed again on another stick, just to be sure and called my sister. It was official--I was pregnant! It became clear that I was going to be living in New York as a single mom.
My first trimester, I didn't throw up, but I was nauseous all the time. Eggs and other random foods repulsed me. I loved cream soups, Cheerios and cupcakes.
I loved being pregnant. I had such an easy pregnancy. I was so lucky. I mean, I don't think there's any such thing as an easy pregnancy just because it's literally wreaking such havoc on your body, but for me, it was a really wonderful experience.
Wearing all this bodycon stuff! My adorable belly! What a vacation from a lifetime of covering my stomach in photos! It's always been the area that I was most self-conscious about and now I didn't have to be! The belly was a fabulous accessory.
I also really appreciated how much women want to help you--tell you things, give you their advice, impart their wisdom. That really was something I noticed. I would get these long emails from women that I wasn't really friends with sharing these very personal spreadsheets. I feltreally supported. Also, it turned out that I had the best possible day job for this. If you're going to be a single mom, you might as well have created a network of women geared toward supporting other women, which is what I did with TheLi.st. All of a sudden, I had this built-in network of people who were invested in things being all right for me.
There were a couple of opportunities that I just had to drop, professionally; things that I could have or should have followed up on that I just didn't have the ability to based on my exhaustion. And that's the story of my life now as a single mom with limited bandwidth and a completely changed landscape of opportunity.
Every single time I lament what I'm not able to do professionally, I remember a time when I did have an unlimited landscape of opportunity and all I could think about was how sad I was that I didn't have a child.
I'm not good at not knowing information, so I of course found out whether I was having a boy or a girl. I wanted a girl. And then I got mad at myself for that. As I sat in my OBGYN's waiting room, I gave myself a stern talking to about how amazing it would be to have a boy in the family, because, as I've written about, I had an older brother who died. I had a kind of emotional moment in the waiting room, just thinking what a blessing a boy is and what a blessing my brother was and how wonderful it would be for everybody if we had a boy again.
Then they told me it was a girl and I had this brief flash of disappointment because I had psyched myself up so much. But I was so excited.
Next, it was time to think of names. I wanted to name her for my brother, but it was hard to find a name that felt right. My brother's name was Robert and I kept on wondering if that meant I had to name her Roberta? I don't like the name Roberta! As soon as I thought of the name Ruby it was so obvious that it was perfect.
Fast forward, Ruby came at 39 weeks, five days before her due date. My family and I planned that my sister and parents would stagger, and that there would be a little bit of overlap around the due date. My sister came early to help get my ridiculously overpacked studio apartment safe for a baby. God bless my sister. Everybody needs a family member who is as amazing and supportive and efficient as my sister.
She was supposed to leave, but I woke up on April 1st at 6:00 a.m. after having a watery dream and discovered my water had broken. It was just a day of being like, "OK, this was the last day! This is the day we're waiting on contractions. Let’s get going."
You've got about 12 hours before you need to go to the hospital for safety once your water breaks and those 12 hours were really fun. Glynnis, my sister and I got foot massages. We stopped at Katz's Deli so I could get fries and a grilled cheese. And then we cabbed up to the hospital.
I did not go into the hospital with a formal birth plan. I had a doula, Glynnis' best friend, Maddie (anyone who's read Glynnis' book will know who I’m talking about). She came and made me feel very protected. My birth plan was to give birth.
I come from a medical family. My dad's a doctor, my mom used to be a nurse and my brother was in medical school. I had faith in medicine and in the many, many women who had told me: "Get the epidural!" I never thought to myself, "I must be a Goddess Warrior and push through the pain."
I wasn't having contractions, so they gave me Pitocin as well as Cytotec to soften my cervix because my cervix had just not been dilating. Even days earlier, when I was going in for my last few doctor's appointments, I used to call it my “Diva Cervix.” “My Diva Cervix will let YOU know when she's ready,” I joked. And Diva Cervix ended up being the thing.
There I am. I'm in labor. Mostly it's fine. The contractions started. They were mostly fine. I enjoyed sending emails through contractions. I found that really centering and funny. If something is funny it really helps me. I would feel a contraction coming and be like, "Alright, who should I email!?" The focus of getting the words out felt helpful. My sister, Maddie the doula, and Glynnis were all in the room with me, as well as a parade of doctors.
I got the epidural late at night. I felt this whole shooting feeling. It wasn't pain, it was just a shooting feeling that went through all the nerves in my leg and I jerked. You're supposed to stay still. I assume that was when there was a puncture, but I’ll get to that more later. Generally, the epidural worked, and we all slept.
The next day was just about waiting. My mom was on the way from Toronto so we were hoping the baby would wait, and she did. My mom arrived around 4ish, just when the pain of contractions started to get real. Two doctors came in around 6:30 or 7, both women (shoutout to Downtown OBGYN!), and explained to me that my cervix was actually closing. Ruby had shifted in the birth canal and her head was bumping against the cervix making it swell. They said it was time to make the call. They thought I should get a C-section. For a split second I started to cry and then I remembered, wait, I'm not invested in vaginal birth. In fact, I have always found it terrifying. Now I don't have to worry about it.
But it was definitely scary. Maddie came in with me into the operating room. Better to have someone who knew the terrain and wasn't going to get emotional. Neither my mom nor my sister needed to see me be sliced open.
We rolled into the O.R. I loved my doctor and this young doctor who looked young enough have been my camper was also there. We were joking about Hedwig. I don't even know why! Glynnis texted Maddie a picture of like a gif of Maria von Trapp singing, "I Have Confidence" to show me. Literally that was the last thing I saw. I don't recall feeling discomfort or anything. Maddie took a little video after and I sound delirious. All I remember was being so thirsty.
And then there was a kid.
She wasn't put against me for skin to skin or nursing. I guess that has to do with them having to sew me up, but they brought her over to me and we were cheek to cheek. I didn't actually get her for like an hour and a half, which, looking back, I find strange. Ruby really took to breastfeeding and nursed a long time. I always attribute that to the fact that she spent an hour being like, "What the fuck? Where's my food" As soon she found me, she slithered up to my nipple and she was on it.
I enjoyed breastfeeding. You enjoy things when they're easy. I was very, very lucky. I didn't have pain. I had light mastitis one time in one breast. I used a hot compress on it and it mostly was fine.
If anything had not worked, then I would have thought: "Great. What are our other options?" I loved nursing and I was always big on posting breastfeeding selfies and normalizing it, but I've never been an absolutist. I think it's amazing. I think it's magical. I can't even believe what my body did. But the most important thing is for the kid to eat and the mom to not have pain.
Back to the epidural…
I would get the epidural again, but I was one of the 1% who ended up having epidural headaches, which I didn't know until a few days in. In 51% of spinal punctures, there's a puncture to the spinal sac and cerebrospinal fluid leaks, which creates massive headaches. It's really easy to fix, but it is incredibly painful when it's happening and because people don't believe women, like many things, it wasn't paid attention to. For me, it was clumped into general post labor stuff.
The epidural headaches started right away. I gave birth on a Thursday night and remember having the twinge of a headache on Friday night. It just built and built and by Saturday I was weak. I remember there were some breastfeeding class in the hospital and that was when I realized that there was something wrong.
I went laboriously with Ruby. I pushed her in a little bassinet all the way in the hall. It felt like forever. I was like there in my hospital gown, barely done up, my head was pounding. I walked in and there were all these cute moms with cute pajama sets. They all looked good. And they all recovered. I felt like a disaster.
I was in the hospital for six days because of the C-Section and was telling doctors that I had headaches. They sent in all different doctors in to look at me--probably six different doctors over the course of the weekend. They had people in from pain management, and not one person knew what to do.
I was scheduled to get a CAT scan later in the day but earlier in the day I had visitors, including, Maddie my doula who I told about the headaches. She asked me if they went away when I lied down. No one has asked me that yet. And I laid down and they went away! She was like, "Yeah, you have epidural headaches." I couldn’t believe no one had asked me that yet.
The treatment for epidural headaches is...another epidural. They give you another epidural and they take blood and they patch it. The idea is that blood patches over the puncture and clots so that the cerebrospinal fluid doesn't leak anymore. Once I got that second epidural, the headaches went away.
About a day and a half after being home, I felt the pain coming back. I called this direct number the hospital had given me and they put me through to talk to this wonderful doctor who sat on the phone with me for like thirty minutes talking through my options.
He told me I could come back to the hospital and get another blood patch or go out a get some Mountain Dew because it has so much caffeine and it's a vasoconstrictor, which helps. My cousin went out and bought two two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew, which is disgusting, by the way and the headaches went away.
Now, Ruby is almost five. She's into all variations on Elsa—young Elsa, all the dresses. She's into Rapunzel. She's into dinosaurs because we just went to see Jurassic Park Live. She loves her friends, she loves singing, she loves running, she loves building. She has a great relationship with her father, FaceTimes with him regularly, and loves her visits with him.She's such a happy kid. She's really, really jolly and fun. She's very smart. She's very good at pushing my buttons. We're lucky. We are super lucky.
Interviews and stories on hillhousehome.com are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.