During my third trimester, I read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, which is about the logistics of space travel. So when I was recovering from the birth, astronauts were fresh in my mind—it turns out they have a lot in common with new mothers.
Wishing to find out how reduced gravity affected pregnancy, N.A.S.A. sent rats into space for the final two weeks of their pregnancies. Luckily, humans were spared the experience; at 38 weeks, it’s hard enough to get around on Earth.
When the rats came back to deliver, their astro-rodent experience didn’t seem to affect their kit’s gestation. But, even back under normal gravitational circumstances, they had weaker contractions during birth. However you feel about rats, this is bad news for anyone hoping to have a baby in space. Strong contractions cause fetuses to release hormones that make them more resilient outside the womb. Because of this, one key researcher thinks water births are a bad idea since they simulate weightlessness and reduce the strength of contractions.
I agree, albeit for different reasons. I spent part of my labor in a tub; floating in water is known to reduce pain. In my case, it did the opposite tenfold. It was a tub from Saw or some comparable torture porn movie. Accordingly, I side with N.A.S.A. on this front.
That astronaut murder love triangle from the headlines back in 2007 made us aware of the fact—or at least believe—that astronauts use diapers. The allegedly diaper-wearing astronaut/attempted kidnapper denied it, but like the story about kidney thieves leaving you in a vat of ice with a note to call 911, it has stuck in our public imaginations, whether or not it’s true.
New moms sometimes have to be catheterized. I’m not saying this happened to me, but OK, yes, this happened to me.What is 100 percent factual is that space toilets are challenging. The gap is only four inches wide, as opposed to 18 inches on Earth. Before a mission, astronauts practice landing their butts in the right place with the aid of a toilet cam. For this reason alone, I don’t find it hard to believe some might prefer big Pampers.
Obviously babies wear diapers, but nurses also stick them on mothers immediately after childbirth. They make a hole in one side of the diaper, fill the pocket with ice, and unceremoniously put this contraption in your underpants. It’s a makeshift—and thematic—cold pack. Not glamorous, but much like when astronauts don them, you feel better afterward.
Weightlessness can make it hard for astronauts to know when they should go number one. The nerves that signal a need to pee are sensitive to urine building up in the bladder and stretching the sides; without gravity, astronauts’ bodies don’t get the message right away, so they have to remind themselves to go. If they forget, their bladders can fill up to the point where the urethra is pushed shut and they have to be catheterized.
New moms can find themselves in the same boat—or shuttle, as it were. And it generally doesn’t occur to a laboring woman to walk down the hall to visit the toilet—my midwife made me. I went a few steps, dropped on all fours for a contraction, got up and walked a few more steps into the bathroom. Luckily, I managed to finish peeing just before the next contraction started. I wiped, hit the ground, then eagerly washed my hands. This whole process was not something I was anxious to repeat. In general, I don’t enjoy touching the floors of hospital bathrooms. Even if I did, though, labor makes a person monomaniacally focused on only one task, which is getting through each contraction. Add to this that during delivery, there’s so much stretching and pressure on the nerves, they get all weird. Afterward, it’s common to not be able to tell when you have to pee, even if you are willing to try.
One more layer in this classic club sandwich of urination complications is that after the baby comes out, the body drains the fluids it built up during pregnancy. The swelling in a woman’s hands, legs, feet, and face ends up in her bladder. So she probably didn’t pee enough during labor, then she can’t tell if she needs to, then liters of fluids migrate from other parts of her body to her bladder. It can make a girl feel very much like an astronaut. That’s to say that new moms sometimes have to be catheterized as well. I’m not saying this happened to me, but OK, yes, this happened to me.
Training Only Goes So Far
To learn how to ward off motion sickness, before their missions astronauts get rotated super fast in a chair while tilting their heads from side to side. And to prepare for encountering greatly increased gravitational forces, they’re whizzed around in a centrifuge that creates 16 Gs. Still, the real thing is often unlike any training exercise an expert could devise. Fifty to 75 percent of astronauts feel motion sickness. At least one has puked in his space suit helmet. As for big Gs, one astronaut who encountered eight Gs for a minute ultimately recovered well and bravely, but upon landing she was what one flight surgeon called “wasted.” Childbirth education is a good idea and a worthy activity, but practicing breathing exercises can’t entirely prepare a woman for what happens during labor. My teacher suggested that during contractions we adopt a ballroom dancing position. The idea was that it would ease tension and increase oxytocin production, thus helping with pain tolerance and speeding up labor. On the day itself, all I could do was kneel on the floor and scream. My husband tried to rub my back—another technique we learned—but the only place I could handle being touched was my hand. I’m still glad I took the class. Without good training, how would I have coped with that level of pain—or known about the drugs that could stop it? But so much for the waltz.
Blue Marble Phenomenon
This small human being comes out of you and you think, how is it possible that my husband and I made a person? We built him and now he is coming home to live with us? It makes you part of an act of creation that began with The Big Bang and will continue well past one’s own life. Much like an astronaut, you look back and see the world you knew encapsulated as a tiny blue marble. Or you can look the other way and see a vastness you barely comprehend. When astronauts find themselves in this position, some try to jump back in the hatch. Others become overwhelmed with bliss and refuse to return to the shuttle. Space is dark, but full of suns.