An enormous nipple bobbled slightly on the TV screen in front of me. Beside it was a set of tiny heart-shaped lips belonging to a newborn, pecking birdlike around the nipple's circumference. The lips failed to find their prey. This poor child's first grand failure in the world is, I was told, the unfortunate result of a mother on drugs. "Damn crackheads," I thought.
But the drugs in this case, said our placid wide-mouthed instructor, were your regular old garden-variety epidural. "Damn epidural-heads," I thought, then I realized I was in all likelihood referring to myself.
The next scene showed a similar bull's-eye teat, a similar heart-shaped mouth, only this time the lips hit upon the nipple almost immediately. A few of us students offered up a quiet Hooray! to the tiny nonverbal hero. It was as if we'd been given a glimpse into this child's blessed future … an alternative Montessori-style education where he would excel at dodge ball and four square, followed by a stint in high school as class president and homecoming king, valedictorian at Harvard (perhaps Cambridge), after which he would land a six-figure-a-year job right out of B-school. Eventually, his golden journey would culminate at his deathbed, where he would be surrounded by children and grandchildren, cooing back all the powerful lessons of morality and ethics he taught them. And all because his brave mother grimaced through labor sans epidural.
A small crowd of couples, including my husband and me, watched the video. We were sitting in an arctic room just off the women's health center of Samitivej Hospital—that's "Sa-mitt-i-vay"—in Bangkok, Thailand. Only tropical cultures can make air conditioning this cold. (Citizens of Hong Kong routinely come down with colds from the frigid subways and office buildings.) I am American, and my husband is British. There was also a Belgian couple, two Australian couples, one Japanese-American couple, two couples from India, and the rest a combination of gorgeous Thai women with unremarkable Western men. Generally speaking, we were not the medical tourists one hears about so often these days; we were, more accurately, medical expatriates (except the Thai women, of course). Most of the women were a month or so from their due dates and were taking this class as one in a series of prenatal preparation courses offered by the hospital. Other classes covered topics like breast-feeding, exercise, hormones, newborn care, and discipline. Only one woman was 24 hours away from her due date.