Her eyes were squeezed tightly shut. She was clutching her stomach, doubled over in pain as the wave of the contraction peaked at full force, groaning as it subsided. Another gone. Another contraction, closer to Grace meeting her baby for the first time.
Cold flannels were applied hastily to Grace’s forehead by her mother. A slow sip of water on dry lips. The pain relief given earlier was some help but now it was obvious the baby was ready to arrive.
Seeing her daughter in pain was difficult. Donna had to step in to replace Grace’s ex-boyfriend, who had left Grace some time at the beginning of second trimester of pregnancy. Such a young boy, not really ready to become a parent. Life had other plans for both of them.
“How much longer? I just want it to be over.” Grace groaned.
“Not too much longer now, just hang in there-you are doing so well” I replied, keeping an eye on the wall clock for when the next dose of pain relief was due.
The contractions were returning, Grace yelled out as the pain took over her body, forcing her to bear down and push with each surge. A natural urge that her body had no control over. Her tanned skin glowed with sweat. Her hair was tangled in a mess, pushed away from her big brown eyes with the single flick of a finger.
A soothing voice of calm took over the atmosphere, providing a degree of comfort and reassurance that only someone who had been in a similar situation could share.
“You are safe. You are doing so well. Just wait for the contraction to leave your body. Take a deep breathe and relax, take a break before the next contraction.”
The baby came out with the slightest push, landing softly on the bed. Yet, the lifeless body of the infant was an all-too familiar reminder of the cruelty of nature.
Grace had known the baby was stillborn for a week now, but had kept putting off the inevitable. She was not sure she could have coped with seeing her dead baby in her arms. What would it look like? Why did she have to go through labour anyway?
Grace did not share what had happened that day, the day she knew the baby wasn’t kicking anymore. But she knew that her boyfriend would not be coming back when he walked out the door that day for the last time.
Donna was taking photos of the baby in the crib, wrapped up in the white muslin sheets, so tiny, so peaceful. Grace looked into the white basket, meeting her child for the first time. Tears silently rolled down her cheek. Grace curled up in the bed, wrapping the worn hospital blanket around her shoulders. Shivering from adrenaline leaving her body. Grace faced the crib, but closed her eyes, pretending to sleep. Pretending it wasn’t happening. I grabbed another blanket from the warmer and draped it over Grace.
A distant look of denial and calm washed over her. Her teenaged face had changed in an instant. She had aged in a matter of minutes.
Grace gave me a quick glance out of the corner of her eye as I moved towards her. “Thank you for what you did,” she mumbled.
“You did all the work, I just tried to support you,” I answered feebly. Nothing I could say or do would bring back her child.
I looked towards Donna and gestured towards the bell for them to ring if they needed me. Donna curled up even smaller in the hospital bed. I knew she just wanted to forget, to wish this day away.
Grace lay staring at a spot on the wall, above where her stillborn baby was positioned in the basket. I wished that I didn’t have to leave, but I knew that I could do no more to help Grace.
And that is where I left her.
The hospital shift change provided me with a selfish reason to leave the room. It felt horrible, handing over to another midwife, but it had taken the whole shift for the labour to progress. In my car on the drive home, I cried with relief that my own babies were delivered safely to me.
I cried at how unfair it was that a teenage girl had to deliver her own stillborn baby. I prayed that somehow she would stay safe within her community, that she would meet a man who would treat her well, who would give her another chance to raise a child.
Being a midwife can be a privilege as well as a heartbreaking way to support women. This profession brings you so close to mortality and keeps reminding you of what is important in life. Yet, I still have faith that being a midwife is about the connection between the midwife and the laboring woman.
This is one connection I will never forget.
“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