I have just finished telling my five-year-old granddaughter her bedtime birth story. She knows that I was there, and that I saw her on the ultra sound squirming and kicking, in her impatience to take on the world, just a few days before she was born.
“Tell me Mummy’s story,” she demands.
“Maybe tomorrow night, I’ll have to think about it,” I say. For in 1971, I was shy, not sassy like my darling first granddaughter.
I walk into the hospital’s X-ray department. The receptionist reviews the doctor’s referral. “We need to do two X-rays to measure baby’s head and your pelvis. Doctor is concerned that the baby’s head is not engaged. That should be the case by now. Go into the change-room, strip off and put on the gown that you will find there, opening to the back.”
I wish that I had my husband or friend to keep me company. That was just not done in ‘71. Still unaware of what was to follow, I step out of the change-room.
A smiling radiographer comes in carrying a thick stainless steel ruler with holes punched in it at regular intervals.
“Now just hold this between the cheeks of your bottom. It will put a scale on the X-ray so that accurate measurements can be made.”
“But what about my baby?”
“Don’t fuss, we do this all the time!”
The gown flaps as he places the cold, heavy ruler and I imagine holding onto explosive diarrhoea as I clench as I had never clenched before.
“Just hold your breath and don’t move.”
Well, I don’t want to do this twice.
“A battle ship could fit through there,” says the doctor.
I blush and say nothing.
The baby’s head still does not engage and baby is overdue.
Next night, my father arrives. “Humph, thought I’d see how you are going. You look about ready to drop the calf. Might stay a few days.”
In the morning there is mucus in my undies. This must be the ‘show’. I blush to myself. I chase my husband off to work, assuring him that all the classes taught that labour lasts hours or days. After a frenzied three hours of housework, which is most unlike me, I tell my father to get my husband. No mobile phones. Not invented. No phone. Too expensive for us.
Dad goes to the bowling club, phones. They said my husband can’t come home. Too many staff away with midwinter flu, Dad reports. “I said: Listen you bastards, my daughter’s having a baby. Get him home now!” I blush.
As if on command, my husband walks through the door. We go to the hospital.
“You’ll be hours yet,” states the midwife and neglects to kick my husband out. We talk quietly. He gentles me along. No one checks but the tea lady. We drink tea together. It feels illicit, and is, in 1971. Time passes.
I ask my husband to ring the bell. I’ve no idea what’s happening but I feel an urge to push.
A senior midwife comes into the room and evicts my husband in no uncertain terms.
“I’ll check the car and come back in,” he says as he blows me a kiss. But of course, they don’t let him.
The midwife huffily checks me. “Oh my God,” she exclaims and pushes some other button. I hear the sound of running feet and the room is full of about 20 trainees. “You don’t mind dear? They have to learn.”
I blush and say nothing. Then I hear clanking metal as the lower end of the bed is adjusted and grey metallic stirrups are fitted into place. My legs are unceremoniously hoisted into them. I remember when I was a little girl and I played a game with my placid cat. I would hold him under one arm with his head looking backwards. Then I would go up to a handy adult. ‘Say cheese!’ I’d shout as I lifted the cat’s tail to expose its sphincter lens. Now I know how the cat felt.
“I don’t want stirrups,” I quaver.
“Nonsense dear. Everybody has them.”
I push as best I can. I am young and strong; I know that a battleship could go through there. Before long I hear a baby crying. My baby crying. My baby girl. She has been no trouble to me. Just the cause of a lot of blushing indignation. Nothing like the horror stories that I have been told. Not even any stitches. She is cleaned up and to my surprise, my husband is allowed back in. My husband notes the date. Nine calendar months after my twenty-first birthday.
I reach into the crib. “Come to Den. No, that’s wrong – Come to Mummy.” Love surges.
When alone, I shower and cry. My eyes are waterfalls of sorrow. I cry for my own mum. She can’t be here. She can’t see her granddaughter. Ever. She died seven weeks ago. She finished making a crocheted shawl three weeks before she died.
Days later, I wrap my daughter in the shawl as we take her to visit her paternal grandparents. We grab the mail as we get into the car. One letter is from my husband’s employer. He has been docked half a day’s pay for staying at the hospital.
I smooth that shawl over my sleeping granddaughter’s bed and cry for my Mum. Love surges.
“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