Childbirth is a beautiful thing, apparently.
I can’t quite see it myself. First time around the baby was upside down. Or right way up, in other words. Matilda was born feet-first via Caesarean section a fortnight early and before the sucking reflex had kicked in, so she was tube-fed. I spent the first twenty-four hours of her life staring at my newborn in euphoric disbelief, self-administering morphine and wondering if I’d ever get feeling back in my legs.
The second time the baby was the right way around, but took a wrong turn on the way out. This may sound implausible, but I was in labour with Ellie for five days. Yes. Pregnant women often ask me which was worse – the Caesarean or the natural birth. I tell them one way you can’t stand up, the other way you can’t sit down. It’s as simple as that. Or as difficult…
I started having contractions precisely 103 hours before Ellie was born. I know what you’re thinking – Braxton Hicks. This is an obstetric euphemism for ‘false’ contractions, named after the guy who discovered them. Only a man would claim to discover contractions and then downgrade their severity. Hicks notwithstanding, they registered seventy-five on the Richter scale and were strong enough to wake me with relentless monotony every five minutes for four days straight.
Then, on the fourth day, they stopped dead. Had I delivered the baby and not noticed? I sat on the lounge – a large, dormant volcano – reading articles on how to induce your own labour. Acting on the advice contained therein, I consumed vast quantities of raspberry tea and waddled back and forth to the toilet.
Mum stayed with me during this phase and to this day we talk about it as some kind of shared spiritual experience: the calm before the storm. It was a day of stalling off the inevitable, and of long walks, which, together with the raspberry tea, were supposed to do the trick.
At five in the afternoon on the fourth day, I was back on the boil. But it was worse this time. Like, painful.
I was more OK with the pain than a fourth consecutive sleepless night, so I decided to have the baby that evening. Accordingly, I announced to Mark and Auntie Rachel (my sister, who I’d lined up to video the entire thing) that we were getting this show on the road, once and for all. Mum and Dad were summoned to babysit two-year-old Matilda and we piled into the car.
Twenty minutes later, Mark lugged into the hospital the bag I’d packed full of items like Tales of the Wind acoustic relaxation music, massage oil and a tennis ball, which is indispensable for bringing babies into the world (according to parenting magazines). Rachel trotted in after us, video camera at the ready.
‘Hello,’ I said brightly to the receptionist on the front desk. ‘I’d like to have a baby please.’
Forty-five minutes later my request was denied: ‘You’re not in labour. You’re having strong Braxton Hicks contractions. Go home and take two sleeping tablets.’
There was nothing in the magazines about sleeping tablets. By the time we got home the contractions were three minutes apart and much more intense.
‘I’m serious this time,’ I announced. ‘I’m in labour. I think we need to go back.’
I rang the hospital. ‘Hello, it’s me again. The contractions are three minutes apart. I’m just wondering…’
‘Whether or not to take the sleeping tablets? Yes, take them. We’ll see you later on.’
Brushed off? Well! So be it. I took the tablets hoping I wouldn’t sleep through the whole performance and got in the shower.
I’d never taken sedatives before. I can report that you shouldn’t get in the shower after you’ve had two – especially when you’re in labour. The drug tends to hit with the unstoppable force of an avalanche. I grasped the taps, reeled out of the cubicle, partially dried myself and staggered two metres onto Mark’s side of the bed, where I fell into what felt like a coma.
Two minutes later I woke in gripping agony. What new hell was this? Straight after the contraction, I regressed into my drug-induced sleep. Two minutes later I was shattered awake again by pain – a pattern that was to occupy the rest of the evening.
I vaguely recall demanding the microwavable wheat pillow and a rocking chair. My husband, God bless him, carried the latter down the corridor from the family room and, with some difficulty, ensconced me in it. There I sat in what I was sure would be a bearable position. And it was, for approximately half a contraction, during which I seized Mark by the scruff of the neck and bit out: ‘Take me to the hospital. NOW! I want PAIN RELIEF?’
This whole ‘natural labour’ malarky was definitely not my thing. For the third time that week (I forgot to mention an earlier ‘false alarm’ on the Tuesday at about midnight), we dragged my parents from their slumber with a piercing phone call and headed for the hospital.
‘Oh! You poor dear!’ the receptionist sympathised upon my pathetic arrival at the desk – swooning one second, wincing the next.
FINALLY! Someone believed me! I was having a baby and this time I would not take ‘no’ for an answer. All I remember was being levered onto a bed atop a hot water bottle, which seemed to me to be the sweetest thing…
‘Do you feel something nice and warm?’ the midwife gently asked.
What was I? A six-year-old with a sub-normal intelligence quotient? ‘Get me pethidine!’ I gasped, ungratefully.
‘Yes, all right then. Roll over!’ she commanded.
Ah-ha! So this was her game. Little did she know I’d been involved in power struggles before. When I was a weekend sales assistant at the local bakery I had to fight the full-time staff for supremacy over the cash register.
‘I can’t roll over,’ I whispered.
‘Well, dear, you’ll have to have the pethidine in two shots – one in each arm!’
Was this meant as some kind of threat? I was in labour for heaven’s sake! I wanted to implode. I could hardly speak. The woman could take to me with a set of steak knives and it would barely register.
The pethidine went nowhere fast.
‘I want an epidural!’ I insisted, desperately.
‘Sorry, dear. You’re not dilating. You might still need a Caesarean and we can’t risk it.’
WHAT? Not dilating! But that’s impossible!
‘Can you have another look?’ I begged.
Hours passed. At one point Mark came near me armed with the massage oil, but I couldn’t bear the thought of it. Or him. Woe betide anyone who came near the black hole on the bed. No one could get near me. I was like a deranged psychopath holding hostages at gunpoint – everyone trying to negotiate with me through a loud-hailer – and not one of them bowing to my demands (like letting me go home, for one thing).
By dawn I wanted to be euthanased. The hospital staff met me half-way with the promise of an epidural. Apparently the old cervix had come to the party at long last and was dilating nicely. Better late than never, I suppose. I found this progress empowering and started asserting myself.
First, I sent Mark to the nurses’ station. I was convinced they were gossiping, instead of rousing the anaesthetist from the dead of sleep with the required level of urgency. Twenty minutes later the anaesthetist walked nonchalantly into the delivery suite. I flashed back to the day I fell head over heels in love with the lead trumpet player in the school orchestra. The doctor was tall. Strong. And, better than that, he was equipped with the little black bag containing the solution to all my problems.
‘Roll over,’ he commanded. And I did.
Within two contractions I was completely pain-free and he was my knight in shining armour. ‘I love you!’ I proclaimed sincerely. ‘Really, I love you!’
I’m sure he thought I was charming – beached on the delivery bed in my blue backless hospital gown and completely delusional after a week without sleep. He explained politely that he’d be a very rich man if he had a gold coin for all the times he’d received amorous advances from women in labour. Nevertheless, I was intent on marrying him, should an opportunity arise.
Finally, we got down to the business end of proceedings: pushing. And I worked out why they call it labour. The midwife was like the Phys. Ed teacher in school who used to holler at us out of the fog from the sidelines of the netball courts. ‘C’mon girl! Use the contraction! Use it!’ she urged. ‘You can do it! PUSH! You won’t come asunder…’ (Rash words, in hindsight.)
After about an hour and a half, with very little to show for my efforts, I decided that no, actually, I couldn’t do it.
‘I can’t!’ I cried. ‘I just can’t’
This seemed a reasonable enough deduction. I’d put in a big effort. Couldn’t I pass the baton to someone else now? Rotate onto the reserve bench for some frozen oranges? Wouldn’t someone rescue me?
And that’s when it hit me. I was entirely on my own. No one else could get me out of this. I had never felt so lonely and overwhelmed. And, as most mothers will testify, that’s when you get your second wind. You demand things of yourself that seemed impossible only a moment before. For the rest of your life that resilience – when you were able to dredge strength out of nowhere – stays with you and works for you in other challenges.
At the eleventh (or, strictly speaking, the sixteenth) hour, the obstetrician sauntered in and perched himself on a front-row seat, poked around a bit, broke the waters and settled back. He folded his arms across his chest and waited with a critical expression plastered to his face while I finished the job and earned him a thousand dollars. I will concede that he very kindly sliced me in half at one point after I’d ripped in several directions anyway.
Ellie entered the world with her hand in the air, shoulder wedged beside her head, cord wrapped around her neck, and desperate for oxygen. She was alarmingly blue – head squashed, eyelids swollen – and generally traumatised-looking. In other words, she was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my entire life … at least since the day two years earlier when her sister was born.
I was a trifle the worse for wear in comparison and was sewn back together, speechless with relief and accomplishment and reworking my definition of ‘exhaustion’. I was as ecstatic as it’s possible to be when you have nothing left to feel.
By the time the milk and the third-day blues set in, I was too miserable to get upset. I lay on the bed feeling the way I’m sure a corpse must feel, laid out in the morgue. Everything hurt. I knew if I cried I’d only feel worse. So I didn’t bother.
If only the same could be said for my precious baby daughter, who developed an ovarian cyst and gastric reflux and quite understandably screamed for three months, without drawing breath…
“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