I’VE BEEN OFF WORK for just over three weeks, intending to rest but busy cleaning the floor, the cupboards, the windows, the oven. I have blisters on my hands from pruning the wild spring garden. The swelling in my hands, fingers and feet has increased; I have carpel tunnel syndrome and can’t bend my middle or index fingers on my right hand. They tingle all day and all night, a cold burn. My belly is huge, tight and broad. I have purple stretch marks on my stomach; they will turn to silver lines after the birth, visible rites of passage.
Cara, our doctor, greets us warmly – Peter is here too for the first time – and asks after my health. She is petite, youthful and always enthusiastic, even though she’s seen many hundreds of babies born and cared for just as many pregnant women. Cara is alarmed that my blood pressure is again elevated and when she hears of my feelings of nausea and tiredness, she makes her decision quickly. ‘You’re going to hospital,’ she says. ‘Tonight.’ We leave in a daze and drive home to gather the essentials. The bag is already packed in readiness for baby’s arrival. It is slowly sinking in that this birth may not happen as planned. I’ll be in a hospital, when I first feel the contractions, when the waters break, when the labour starts. I haven’t yet heard the term pre-eclampsia.
That night I hardly sleep at all. I toss and try to turn my huge bulk in the narrow, creaky hospital bed. I use the lifting triangle above me for help. In the room on the other side of the shared bathroom, a woman arrives in labour. I hear the toilet flush all night and the automatic exhaust fan keeps me awake. The midwife visits me every four hours to take my blood pressure, pulse and temperature and to distribute the pills to lower my blood pressure. I feel cocooned and safe.
At 6.00am, the morning shift starts and the nurse tells me of the horror events unfolding in New York. Buildings imploding. Planes crashing. Thousands of people dying or dead. Mobile phone calls cut short. Waves of fear and sadness wash over me as the tears wash my face. I sneak a look at the television and am transfixed for several graphic minutes. Life goes on here in the Mount Barker District Hospital. In the next room, a woman screams for hours while giving birth. I hold my breath for long seconds at a time.
That day, September 11, my situation does not improve. I develop a blinding
headache caused by high blood pressure and exacerbated by the medication.
Cara is more concerned and, for the first time, feels inside of me to
determine baby’s position. It has moved, the head is no longer engaged.
The next day I hear that it’s likely I’ll have to be moved to the Women’s & Children’s Hospital in Adelaide. The local hospital can’t cope with these complications and the risk to baby’s life. I am shocked, scared and disappointed. I don’t understand and piece together scraps of information that paint a clearer picture. Cara is in and out like a warm breeze. The midwife catches me crying on the phone to Peter. I am frightened by what could happen in a big public hospital where I might be treated like a number. I won’t know anyone and worst of all, there will be no Cara.
Soon it is decided and I hear Cara on the phone attempting to find me a bed. They won’t take me, too busy. ‘It’s urgent – PE ’ Cara says. They agree to accept me on Thursday morning. My mother has scared rabbit’s eyes when she visits and she hugs me.
Early morning on Thursday we leave the local hospital and drive the fifty minutes down through the Adelaide Hills to town. I am nauseous and anxious. Outside it is cool and fresh. My head throbs. I am armed with a letter from Cara for the new doctors. We’ve been told that they are expecting us and that there’ll be no wait.
In the emergency reception, the television is blaring with images of New York. Tearful testimonials. Devastation. The word terrorism is mentioned. The hospital staff know nothing about me and read Cara’s letter in silence. We wait on plastic seats clutching our bags. I can’t stop the TV noise, but I try to look away. I am feeling sick. Eventually, they ask me to lie on a bed in a brightly-lit room with people wandering in and out. I don’t know what to expect. They do some more tests and I tell my story for the second or third time. I haven’t eaten since breakfast and it’s early-afternoon. I am light-headed and annoyed. I have grown used to the terrible pain in my head, only dulled by paracetamol.
WE HAVE BEEN LEFT in ward room with a huge south-facing window overlooking
a park. The sky is cloudy and grey, the ground damp. I enjoy a late lunch
of cold chicken and salad, then doze for more than an hour. I’ve
been booked into the labour ward for 8.00pm. A friendly student-obstetrician
examines me; baby’s head is still not engaged. I sleep until it’s
time to move rooms. In the labour ward, the midwives are warm and caring
and I don’t mind having to tell my story again. No one seems interested
in reading Cara’s letter. They decide to speed up the process by
using cervical gels.
At 11.00pm, I try to sleep but though the bed is soft and adjustable, the pain in my head and fear in my heart keep me awake. I chat to the night nurse at 2.00am as she gives me the next dose of paracetamol, then suddenly it’s 5.00am and the obstetrician is ready to check inside of me for any changes. My cervix has only opened one centimetre. I am amazed and rather pleased that I felt nothing. It’s not wide enough for them to use the knitting-needle device to puncture my waters. I get more gels and go back to sleep.
Peter arrives at nine that morning and by then, I’m feeling hot and uncomfortable. There’s a strong pressure on my cervix; the weight of baby bearing down. I have mild cramp-like contractions and have been advised to walk about. We slowly wander through the hospital; sometimes I have to hold the handrail or his arm. Outside, it is sunny and warm and the air smells of springtime. I notice a tree in bud next to the balcony.
At midday we arrive back in the labour room as agreed. They examine me again and we’re disappointed by the news that my cervix has not opened any more. I half-lie on the bed and they strap me up to a device to measure baby’s heartbeat. Mild contractions have been flooding through me for some time now, but I don’t feel much pain, except in my lower back. I still have the headache. We watch the flashing lights and jiggling lines on the graph that measures baby’s heart-rate. Technology has taken over. In another room, doctors gather around the machines and discuss baby’s reactions. My room is too hot, with sunlight filling every shadow.
At about 1.45pm, a group of doctors in white coats comes in. I am pacing the room, strapped to my belly are tapes and wires attached to a metal frame on wheels. Everyone watches the machines measuring the baby’s condition. ‘Things aren’t looking good,’ one doctor says to me. ‘Every time you have a contraction, the baby’s heart-rate drops. It’s showing signs of distress. We don’t think you can give birth naturally.’
I agree to a caesarean. I’m even a little relieved that I won’t have to go through labour. Like most women, I dreaded the pain and found it hard to forget the horror-stories. In that split second, I imagine that I’ll have time to gather my belongings, perhaps have a shower and prepare myself psychologically for the most interventionist of birth-experiences. I am wrong. The tension in the room increases and suddenly nurses are stripping my clothes and ear rings. Many hands dress me in a seersucker blue and white hospital gown. Peter is whisked away to be prepared for the operating theatre, where he will be with me. I escape to the bathroom to clean my teeth and wash my face. When I return there are anxious looks and everyone is rushing. On the bed, I am wheeled out of the room and down the corridor. The nurse’s face hovers above me. She is talking to me calmly but I don’t hear anything.
THE OPERATING THEATRE IS LARGE and brightly lit. There are many tables, pieces of medical equipment and people in green gowns. In the centre of the room is the narrow operating table. I sit on the edge, my belly huge over my knees, while the female anaesthetist tries to put in the epidural. It takes effect immediately and as they help me to lie down, a paralysing warmth spreads through my body. The catheter is inserted by the surgeon and one nurse jokes that ‘you lose all personal dignity when you have a baby.’ They test my skin with a sharp pin and I’m surprised that I can’t feel anything below my breasts. My arms also are tingling and have little feeling. They strap them onto fold-out supports. I feel like Christ on the cross. A curtain is quickly erected above my stomach and an oxygen mask slipped over my face.
There is pressure on my belly and I realise that I can see the operation reflected in the chrome light fittings of the large, round light above me. I glimpse scarlet. Fear and nausea build and I twist my head to one side, breathing in fast gasps. I know I’m panicking but I can’t stop. It is primal. I am pinned like a butterfly while they cut me open. I can feel the pressure of the knife and the tugging, pulling, pushing.
I AM FEELING SO SICK that I’m frightened of vomiting. I’ve never felt such nausea or ragged fear. I’m panting and tightly clutching Peter’s hand; I think my fingernails are digging into him. The nurses stroke and try to calm me. At the precise moment when I’ve had enough, there is a heaving behind the curtain and my body flops back from the force. The baby is born. I see it through a myopic fog, partially obscured by green curtain and milling surgeons. He is a blue and silent boy. For one long second, minute, hour, day, week, month, year, decade, lifetime… I fear he is dead.
The room is far away and I am crying now. There really was a baby inside of me, I grew this amazing being inside of me! I am overtaken by shock and sickness. I don’t breathe until I see him move, after his mouth and nose are suctioned. His first breath is a howl, an angry, frightened yell. He is placed onto scales and his vital signs tested. I register the nurses’ excitement and placating words. Peter cuts the umbilical cord; it looks thick, purple and meaty. I am trying to reach out to Harry but I can’t move. He has been inside of my body, part of my blood flow, and now he is across the room surrounded by strangers.
And then Harry is lying, wrapped and wriggling, across my breasts. He stops howling the second his body touches mine and our eyes meet. His are navy blue with purple hues, enormous and with almost no white. His lashes, they are palm fronds against his cheeks. ‘So he’s the one,’ I think. ‘So she’s the one,’ I imagine him thinking. On the outside, I am crying and laughing and trying not to be sick. I can feel the surgeons stitching me up. On the inside, my brain is ticking over, ‘What a funny little face. And look at the hair! It’s thick and black! Does he have my mouth? Are those Peter’s eyes?’
All too soon, he leaves with Peter for his first bath and feed. I joke with the nurses that maybe the surgeons could do some liposuction while they’re down there. ‘You don’t know how many times we’ve heard that,’ they laugh. I am elated as they wheel me out of the operating theatre through a blur of hallways and lifts to the recovery ward.
Within minutes, I am vomiting. The nausea overtakes me in waves of revulsion, racking my body until it is emptied – all over the front of my gown. I am paralysed from the neck down and have never felt so miserable. Nurses work in teams to change me, catch the vomit and calm me. Curtains are drawn around my corner of the room and for a while, I am left alone. I can’t think of anything except the nausea. It is all-consuming. I lapse in and out of consciousness.
Six hours later, I am wheeled into the post-natal ward. The room is pink, with a large window looking out over Melbourne Street. I don’t notice any of this until the next day, because despite two lots of anti-nausea medication, I am still vomiting. Peter leaves at 8.00pm, just after I am given a powerful sleeping draught. We haven’t spoken since Harry’s birth.
I wake at 2.00am from a drug haze, glad to feel almost normal. The morphine has induced a feeling of wellbeing. I remember my baby and anticipate our reunion. I’m so excited I can hardly go back to sleep, but eventually I do. Meanwhile, he sleeps soundly in the baby’s ward next to the nurse’s station.
THE NEXT MORNING I press the call button and wait thirty minutes for
a nurse to help me up and into the bathroom. I am nearly crying with helplessness
and fearful of wetting the bed. I learn from the visiting doctor that
I had an extreme reaction to either the morphine or the epidural during
the operation. My blood pressure has finally lowered but I will still
be monitored four-hourly.
I ask to see Harry and in his plastic crib, he is wheeled down the corridor, past the open doorways and trolleys of flowers, to me, his mother. I can’t think of myself in those terms yet. His name is written in black texta on blue card. The identity band on his ankle says ‘Of Taplin’. I gaze at him sleeping and when he wakes, a midwife helps me learn to breastfeed. There is no milk, only raw pain jolting through me. He draws blood and sucks on that for a few seconds before we realise. After an hour of trying, I beg to try a bottle so he can feed. Peter arrives, hung over, and later Harry’s grandparents visit. Excitement fills the room and the latent morphine suppresses the ache from my wound and makes me light-headed, sweaty and vague. I creep about the room and later collapse on the bed.
‘YOU’VE OVER-DONE IT YESTERDAY,’ says the midwife.
I woke shaking, crying and hyperventilating from the stabbing pain in
my stomach, the sheet soaked from night sweats. My blood pressure and
temperature have risen. I imagine my bowel twisted or disconnected. I
learn that during the operation part of it would have been lifted out
and replaced after Harry was removed from my womb. A succession of doctors
examines me, searching for an explanation. ‘A possible infection
inside of you,’ I’m told. I begin a course of three types
of super-antibiotics, both orally and via a drip inserted into my right
hand. I’m hooked up to the IV machine every four hours.
Harry is quiet and stares at me with large eyes. His father arrives and bathes Harry for the first time in my room. I take photos and hover, clutching my stomach. We hold him lovingly. His smell is intoxicating. The nurses compliment his spiky tufts of hair.
AFTER LESS THAN FOUR HOURS’ SLEEP AGAIN, I wake in agony. I am slippery and hot, then shivering cold. My teeth chatter wildly. I cry and shake for some time before calling the nurses. Two midwives come in and one sits with me for an hour, murmuring gentle words of reassurance, until I am calm. My temperature peaks at 40.5 degrees.
Harry sleeps most of the time. We’re still feeding him from a bottle because I have no milk and my nipples are so sore. I am more swollen now than before his birth; my hands and ankles ache. I feel like elephant woman. The midwives are frustrated that my milk hasn’t come. One hooks me up to a milking machine, which leaves me feeling bruised and useless. I ask a nurse about my blood pressure reading. ‘Why do you want to know?’ she snaps.
HARRY IS THREE DAYS OLD and already the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. I’ve never felt skin so soft, so new. His fingernails are no bigger than pin-heads. I change his nappy for the first time, hunched over his crib and fretting because he is crying and it hurts and I can’t stand properly. My fingers are clumsy and inexperienced. He quietens when nestled against my shoulder or rocked in my arms. I realise now that I would do anything for him.
My blood pressure and temperature stabilise, but I still have the IV hook-up every four hours. ‘You’ll have to start breast feeding or pay for the formula,’ a midwife tells me. Later that day, my milk comes in and we have our first successful feed (albeit through my clenched teeth). Harry gets wind from the transition between formula and breast milk and cries for hours. After trying every comfort trick in my small repertoire of baby knowledge, I call the midwife for assistance.
I AM FEELING BETTER and starting to move about the room. Taking small steps, I wheel Harry in his crib down the corridor to see the baby nursery where, in the early hours, he’s spent so much time. Already, I know he has a happy temperament and calm disposition. The only problem we have is feeding; even with guidance from a midwife, it is still piercingly painful. The day passes slowly and when Peter arrives, I doze. I greet visitors reluctantly but when they are gone, I admire the flowers and gifts.
At 11.45pm, my distress climaxes when I try to feed Harry. My breasts are still tender and throbbing from the forty-five minutes-per-side hammering they received at the 6.00pm feed. I break down and push him away, unable to stand his clamping mouth near me. He howls in frustration. The midwife whisks him away and leaves me to sob alone. I realise that I am a failure unless I can feed him unaided. I decide to stay another day in the hospital. At 1.00am, the midwife forces me to express milk for two hours. ‘You don’t know how lucky you are to have a healthy baby,’ she says to me. ‘There are a dozen women here right now who’d change places with you any day.’
PETER AND I dress Harry in pastel blue stretch pants and matching top, with hand-knitted mauve and yellow booties. We tuck him into the car capsule and carefully drive home. The day is bright and sunny but everything jars. My nerves are on fire. I sense danger everywhere and clutch at him protectively.
I see our familiar road and garden and house with fresh eyes. Inside, I bustle about, cleaning, unpacking and overdoing it. I’ve been told that I won’t be able to drive for six weeks. Peter holds Harry and we close the door on the world outside. Now there are three of us. A new start. I cry when I notice the flowers Peter’s bought me.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem