In a nursing home, an 80-year-old woman with end-stage dementia recalls one memory through the fog: childbirth.
It is a memory she and the staff re-live daily for six months as she pants through mock contractions, which stop when a doll is delivered from under her skirt and into her arms.
This is not the most comforting story to hear over the radio as my own swollen belly presses against the steering wheel. If this woman is re-living birth 60 years later, I know my fear of giving birth for a second time is real and immense.
I remember my sister, white as a clean sheet and doubled over with contractions during her second labour, grabbing my arm. She met my eyes and pleaded: “Help me. I’m scared”.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “you’ve done this before.”
“I know. That’s why I’m scared.” She pushed me away, disappointed in my ridiculous consolation.
I did not intend to be pregnant again but fertility is obviously my forte. “The greatest day of my life,” is how I should describe my son’s birth less than two years ago, but four words resonate: I was ripped off.
Everything about my first child’s birth was controlled by my obstetrician and the midwives he instructed. They delivered my son safely but it was a brutal arrival – an assault.
I was routinely induced 10 days after the estimated date of arrival. I was reluctant, imagining my baby’s birth would be ‘natural’ with medical staff on-hand. My obstetrician was persuasive, quoting research about the risks if I let this go on.
So at 7.00am on the inauspicious date of Friday, 13 December my husband and I went to the hospital to have a baby with help from modern medicine. Every cell in my body was telling me this was not right but I felt hormonally, emotionally incapable of making any other decision, especially as I had not been presented with other options.
My son’s birth kicked off with several applications of a prostaglandin hormone gel to open my cervix, and eventually accelerated by an oxytocin drip to stimulate contractions.
My artificially induced contractions came every 30 seconds for hours and, according to the midwife, were not “efficient”. I just wanted to be left alone, to go inside my pain and breathe.
My desire to internalise is common for labouring women. “The human mother is a mammal,” writes active birth guru Janet Balaskas, “… she needs privacy and seclusion in order to feel safe enough to give birth physiologically.”
But I was plagued with questions, requests to pop up on the bed for examinations and monitoring, and offers of pain relief.
My waters were broken by the obstetrician dressed in white rubber boots befitting a butcher. The contractions were unrelenting. I accepted an epidural.
I had a tube and bag attached to my urethra, wires coming from the foetal monitor on my belly and another tube snaking from my hand to the oxytocin drip. I felt pain-free but dissatisfied as I watched contractions on a monitor.
This is not how I had pictured the rite of passage from womanhood to motherhood.
When it came time to push, I could feel little. The next two hours were spent with a midwife’s finger in my anus saying, “Just push right here.” I felt exhilarated to be participating.
Despite pools of blood and faeces being spilled, no baby emerged. Later my husband, a nurse, described the experience as “a bloodbath.”
The obstetrician was worried and intervened with two unsuccessful vacuum extractions before bringing in the big guns: the Neville Barnes forceps.
When I met my son, I felt instant relief to see him intact. I wept with love, my soul shaken. I sobbed regret at the pain I’d caused him and kissed his damaged little head. My heart was torn like my perineum, which was stitched back together.
He screamed for hours.
Despite my disappointment, I felt strong and heroic to have survived such an assault. Heroics are not encouraged in the labour ward, despite the outcome of birth being life or death. The medical version of this everyday miracle asks ‘why suffer pain?’
Society does not question why athletes suffer pain. It lauds them as heroes who ride waves of suffering and adrenalin to deliver a medal-winning performance.
I am in training for my next baby’s birth –the first step has been to retrain my brain to regard birth not as a battle, but as surrender. I am doing research and plan to use my heart as well as my head in making decisions.
I have elected to go to a public hospital with a team of midwives and low rates of intervention. I have regular massages to relax and stay limber. I practice yoga, which has brought me back in touch with my own intuition. It has made me realise that half the effort in labour is surely in accepting this natural state, to let go, “to open up in sweet surrender to this beautiful baby in my womb,” as my teacher says.
My husband and I take HypnoBirthing classes. This practice of deep relaxation is based on the theory that fear and tension cause pain in childbirth.
I know the birth won’t go as planned: How can you plan the beginning of life? But I am ready and, whatever the outcome, I surrender.
“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