“Are you sure you want to hear this now?” I ask.
All the women declare, yes, they are. So I begin my story.
Once I had arrived at the hospital I wished I had shown more restraint. It was forbidden after six months. Now my misdemeanour had been exposed. The obstetrician rubbed her thumb against her middle finger after the internal examination and knowingly looked at the midwife, then frowned at me. Three and a half weeks early. No wonder. Tut, tut, tut …
My audience chuckles, but not for long.
The midwife administered the routine enema and ordered me to take a bath. “Unfortunately, this time of night the water’s pretty cold.” she said.
Now that I was cleansed inside and out she lead me to Suite 1 and strapped me to a monitor. At the second birthing station next to me a woman squirmed.
“How long have you been here,” I asked her.
“— day and a half,” she panted. “Ah—”
After four long hours I felt a regular tightening of my belly. And finally, a dramatic birth took place three metres to my right. Ommmmm … One last expletive, aimed at her by-hospital-rule-excluded husband, and then her tone changed to show relief and elation.
At 5.30am the midwife decided it was time to rupture my membrane because another woman in Suite 2 was also close. And so the race began. The scissors flashed, the routine episiotomy was performed and my daughter was born not long after …
The ladies gasp. “Just like that? Really?”
“Yes, really. And all this without a word between the midwife and me.”
For a moment it is very quiet in the room. “And then?” someone brakes the silence.
In my room I sank into the saggy mattress and drifted into a two-hour sleep before taking in my surroundings: seven women in striped gowns, my bed in the back corner by the barred window, a cement coloured patch on the wall next to me. I smelled a mixture of disinfectant, cheap four-fruit jam and sweetened medicinal herbal tea. I had missed breakfast. But who would want to eat after this marathon anyway? Then a nurse took me down the hall. She planted herself in front of the half open toilet door and I received my tick on the chart once the evidence was verified …
Laughter for a change, and I continue.
Later I heard wheels squeaking in the corridor. Eventually it stopped at our door and soon seven babies were handed to the mums waiting on a row of wooden chairs. I was allowed to feed in bed that day.
Breastfeeding was complicated. I had already been instructed to put on the obligatory two-sizes-larger nursing bra that would also house a folded nappy to keep my breasts warm. Before opening the bra I had to disinfect my hands under supervision, and after feeding, apply an antiseptic powder to my nipples …
“Oh! Wasn’t that a bit scientific?” someone asks. The ladies shake their heads in disbelief. I nod.
After approximately 45 minutes the baby trolley returned to collect our children. This would happen every four hours. It was the best part of our days — the only times when we would see our babies. NO ENTRY said the sign on the nursery door.
The next day it was my turn to sit on the wooden chair. The correct technique was to have one foot on a footstool and the other leg folded over the first to bring baby up … right hand guided baby to left breast. Tangled like this I was now sitting correctly, with my hippopotamus-like body bearing down on my stitches. We were told if we did not master this technique we would not be discharged …
The ladies wince and I shrug.
But the milking was not finished. We had to empty both breasts to prevent pain, fever and even death. Obediently I extracted almost a whole feeding bottle of milk after every feed. It was so tiring and time-consuming that I wondered how I would manage at home, where I had to shop, clean, cook and wash, and look after my baby as well …
Understanding nods come from all directions.
In addition to the communal sponge bath in the washroom we were ‘rinsed’ twice daily. Personal underwear was banned, so a nurse would remove the safety pins that held the towel-shaped piece of material in place, check our stitches, and then rinse them with a big jug of tepid water over a bed pan. Then a new towel was fitted. No curtain. Next patient …
Someone shrieks and startles me. “Oh, it wasn’t that bad. It was just the way it was.”
On the morning of my release my daughter was handed to me. At home I undressed her, smelled her and touched her naked body — for the first time. She was mine now and I was free …
The ladies all sigh with relief.
How things have changed. My daughter was born in a country where everything was decided centrally and set in stone. I kept the story light-hearted, especially for my daughter and her two pregnant friends. This is, after all, my baby’s baby shower. But enough of that now. It is time for games, gifts and refreshments.
The mood switch is easy, as they have nothing to fear.
“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