The day of your birth is now known; you will be a September 22nd baby, a lucky ‘five’ in numerology, a gift to your parents, already a precious second chance for me. I name you as my magical one even before you are born. It is a relief to know when you will be coming into this world, but I am still nervous that you might jump the gun and surprise us all. But, at least the hospital has allocated me a bar code and we have a birth plan.
You will be caesarean number two. I cried when I recounted your brother’s birth to the consultant anaesthetist. It was as though three years hadn’t passed; it was yesterday that I vomited for six hours and lapsed in and out of consciousness, couldn’t even hold or feed him for 24 hours. The doctor listened patiently, writing copious notes in my bulging file and advised me to book in immediately and to see the treating anaesthetist before the operation.
After weeks of waiting for a decision (out of my hands, of course) about the where and the when, I can now plan the details: your brother will stay at my parents’, we will drive down at 8.00am for a 9.00am book-in. The final days of pregnancy are uncomfortable, painful, thrilling and exciting. I recall the dream that shook my firm belief that you would be a girl: me, lying on the operating table as they hold up a baby and announce ‘it’s a boy!’, my flood of disappointment that I wouldn’t get to use my girl’s name, my slow realisation that it didn’t matter because this was Georgie Tom. However strange this dream is, it does not stay in my consciousness and I don’t consider it a portent.
On the morning of your birth day, I wake early after the usual fitful night’s sleep. I am allowed ‘nil by mouth’ after 6.00am, so I eat a light breakfast to keep the chronic heartburn and nausea at bay, followed by medication to do the same. We drive down feeling tense and panicky, although I am willing myself to stay calm and accept my fate. But, however much I say this, I am fearful for a repeat of the last birth and I simply do not want that for you. Anxiety spills out when I talk to the midwife in my room (better than last time). I am teary and talk too much; I get the feeling other women are stoical and cheerful about the prospect of surgery. After explaining what will happen later that morning, she tells me that what I am feeling is normal and reassures me that they will be doing their best. The wait is short and soon your father is changing into his hospital blues and red surgical mask and I am being prepared, then wheeled out on the electric bed through the maze of floors and corridors to the operating theatre.
The tension is building in me as although I’ve spoken to the head anaesthetist earlier in the week, (I’m on their ‘high risk’ list for pre-op discussion), I am waiting for the chance to speak directly to the doctor who will be caring for me during the operation. We meet James in a small room adjoining the theatre. I lie prone on the bed while he talks about my options and the risks. Seemingly for the first time, I hear about the chance of permanent paralysis after the spinal block but I have no choice: you must be born and there is no other way. I like James immediately and I listen while everyone watches me. We decide to avoid the morphine completely and use a patient-controlled pain relief system for the 24 hours following surgery. It is the right choice.
I notice immediately on being wheeled in that the operating theatre is not the same as last time, a good sign. I look around the room, seeing in detail the dozen staff (too many!) and humming machines. I perch on the edge of the bed, swollen and graceless. Stephanie, the theatre nurse, talks reassuringly and inserts a needle into my hand; it hurts and is the beginning of the long line of pain that will follow. The spinal block will not go in and I wince and yelp when sharp nerve pain repeatedly bolts down my left leg. Eventually, I feel the familiar seeping warmth, followed by a mild nausea and overwhelming tiredness. James is concerned when he hears this and as they erect the curtain above my abdomen, he holds my hand and talks to me, gently adjusting the oxygen mask which is contributing to my anxiety and nausea. He holds it above my face so I don’t have to feel its constraining discomfort. They test my skin with ice and I describe the mild tingling along my arms splayed out on supports; at least I can still move them this time.
It’s all happening so quickly and I find myself chanting and breathing until I am in a deep, meditative trance, only dimly aware of your father holding one hand and James holding the other, softly talking into my ear. I don’t feel pain when I am cut open but it remains a profoundly shocking experience to be awake while it is happening. My eyes are closed and time passes in a blur.
I hear a mewling cry and suddenly I am present and alert. Tears stream from my eyes and I start hyperventilating and gripping your father’s hand even more tightly. James tells me to stay calm and I rein in my fear and draw in the breathing rhythm to surround me. Within minutes, I see a red torso and scrotum being held up for my appraisal and your father is shouting “It’s a boy!”. I register his sense of amazement and surprise and instantly recall my dream, my premonition. I feel the same mild disappointment and disbelief but it is instantly tempered by gushing love and wonder.
Soon you are whisked off to the crib, howling loudly. Even without my glasses, I can see you are a healthy child, pink and chubby and brimming with life. Your father leaves my side to watch the procedure of welcoming a new baby into the hospital, and to cut the cord. I retreat to my meditative state, chanting and breathing and barely conscious of anything around me – least of all the tugging and stitching going on below – until you are brought to me, a wrapped bundle cushioned on my breasts.
Your eyes are clamped shut and your brows clenched in a frown. I search your face for recognition, resemblances, familiarity. “He doesn’t look like anyone,” I announce, giggling with joy, swelling with love for you only seconds after your birth. You are taken from me again for another APGAR test (9 and 9: excellent) and a quick paediatric examination. My arms ache for you already, but I watch with patience and confidence. I know that the worst is behind me and I have survived it.
The surgeons stitch me up and assistants wash and dowse me with quick, automatic movements that come from many such operations; although I am only the second that morning, there are likely to be half a dozen more to come. Then I am moved in a smooth ‘one-two-three-lift’ to the electric bed and murmuring heartfelt ‘thankyou’s to James, the nurses and the surgeons as I am wheeled out to the recovery ward.
I am snug in the bed, packed in with crisp white sheets and towels, numb from the arms down (still a high spinal, I discover later, due to my low tolerance for anaesthetics), watching your father rocking you. I drowse for a time but never lose awareness of the loud music and voices and of the nurse checking on me. Soon, I have you cocooned under my arm while a midwife helps me attach you for your first feed. You snuffle like a little piglet. Happiness surges through me as I gaze at your perfect features, content.
A couple of hours pass until I regain some feeling in my legs, which is a sign that I am ready to be moved back to my room. The orderlies are gentle with me, careful not to provoke nausea considering my ‘history’. The move is slow and I am full of wonder, already contemplating your birth. It is 4.00pm already, you have been with me for over three hours. We doze until your father returns from telephoning and texting family and friends. We agree that since everything has gone so well, he should go home rather than stay overnight with nothing but a chair to sleep on.
That night, and the next one, I struggle with re-learning to breast feed, manage my pain and steal a few precious hours of sleep. You cry vigorously and feed hungrily, a tiny warm bundle in my arms. You peep at the world through cautious slits. I relish your smell, your softness and your smallness, loving this unique time, singing soft lullabies to you, holding you against my heart in bed while we sleep.
“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