Yesterday it was my son’s sixteenth birthday. I cannot, cannot believe that so much time has passed. It seems like five minutes since he was born. In a different blog, far, far away I wrote about that event, and here is an updated version.
I remember once reading that giving birth was the great point of contact between all women. No matter what colour, race or creed, no matter what life experiences or education, if two women with babies sat down together at a bus stop, they would instantly have something to talk about. It’s the great dividing experience; between the genders, naturally, but also within a woman’s life, as she gets split off from herself and transformed into that opaque, idealised, conflicted creature, a mother. It was an experience I was not looking forward to.
I woke up at about 3 one black and unpromising November morning with the disquieting sense that my waters were beginning to break. I wandered about the house for an hour or so, feeling some relief that the waiting might be over, which was dwarfed by terror at the immediate future. Eventually I returned to my sleeping husband and shook him. ‘I think I’m going to have this baby,’ I said. ‘Wake me when you’re sure,’ he replied, rolling over in luxurious slumber.
My waters did seem to be breaking, but there was no unmistakable and reassuring event taking place. I rang the hospital and was told I should come in. So, armed with the authority of a midwife I turfed my husband out of bed. By now I could begin to feel the intermittent internal cry of pain. Anticipation is my thing; I am lost without expectations of some kind, but despite having heard a great deal about birth, and most of it unpleasant, I was still facing a vast unknown. A friend of mine had told me that her mother had said a contraction was like indigestion (and I later wondered whatever kind of indigestion she suffered from) but in some ways I could see how the early stages were characterised by that sharp spasm of internal blockage. Another description of labour I’d heard was that it was like trying to pass a rocking horse. You could put these together and consider that if you had been foolish enough to consume a whole rocking horse and were suffering subsequently from indigestion, you might well have a picture of early labour. My husband, considering he had a long day ahead of him, was eating a huge bowl of cereal with deliberation and relish. Wasn’t I going to have any breakfast, he enquired? No thanks, I’ve just eaten a rocking horse. Food was out of the question.
Our small village was a good twenty minutes outside of the city, and although it was only six in morning, my husband was afraid we might get fatally stuck in traffic. A midwife friend of mine had been present at the doors of the hospital when a car drew up containing a husband, a wife, a very newborn baby and the afterbirth. Apparently the man got out of the car and did a little war dance of triumph on the spot. He had just been made redundant and the company car he was driving was going to have to go back. We owned our car and in consequence we did not drive to the maternity hospital, we flew there. I sat on the back seat, wedged in with towels, not knowing where to place myself when a contraction came as we ricocheted through the country lanes, skimming the bumps in the road on a getaway journey in which we tore away from our peaceful, childless state.
We’d never made such good time to the hospital before, and I was doubly glad to see it when I disembarked outside its haven-like entrance doors that glowed with warmth and electric light. My husband went to park the jet and I staggered to those double doors and spent a quiet moment with myself outside in the cold and the dark on my hands and knees, as you do. After a while it occurred to me that the doors had not opened automatically as I’d expected. Hospitals are secure places and at six in the morning a night porter needed to be summoned. By this point I’d had enough of quiet me time and really wanted in. I wanted someone comforting in a uniform to examine me and tell me it would all be over soon, in the next half hour if possible. When I was finally checked it was a case of nurses scoffing at my unreasonable fuss: I was a whole 1cm dilated.
I am a coward, and giving birth never struck me as a moment for heroics. I didn’t feel like an earth mother in touch with the wonderful processes of nature as my baby entered the world, I felt like I was being tortured. My contractions were irregular and it seemed that the baby and I were spine to spine internally. I asked for an epidural and had one; it took a couple of attempts to get it right, but once it was in place, it was sanity saving. Did it mean I then enjoyed the experience of giving birth? Certainly not. I was still completely and mindlessly terrified. I shook, and I couldn’t let go of the midwife’s hand. ‘What are you afraid of, my love?’ she asked, and I didn’t know how to respond to this. What was I afraid of? Dying? (More) intolerable pain? Producing a stillborn or deformed baby? I was afraid of every trauma and terror that has dogged the life-threatening process of giving birth ever since Eve got punished for that wretched apple. So much for the miracle of modern medicine, the numbing drugs had by no means reached my primitive lizard brain. My husband’s lizard brain, by contrast, was sending him messages on how to withstand a long day, and suggested punctuating it with snacks. He had a little something as a late breakfast, and then there were elevenses, and then not long after that he had a bite of lunch. He always offered to fetch me something, but I still couldn’t face food.
The only downside of having the epidural was that I missed out on the fabled ‘transition stage’ which is the fifteen minutes or so before giving birth when you finally lose it and swear and curse and dole out blame for your condition on any innocent bystander, and on your very guilty husband. Having never been the kind of person who tantrums, I’d been looking forward to this, as it seemed the only culturally permitted moment of quite reasonable rage at the female condition. But alas, with my drugs I was doomed to a lifetime of politeness, and as the light began to fade the midwife made the decision for me that it was time to start pushing.
Finally, I stopped shaking. It helped enormously to have something actually to do. Finally, I thought the end was in sight, but everything about birth had taken longer than I expected, and I pushed at that baby for an hour and a half. Just when my lovely midwife was making unpleasant noises about cutting and ventouse cups, so my child decided to put in an appearance. In great excitement the midwife said to me: ‘Give me your hand.’ And she took my hand and placed it on the top of my baby’s head as it was emerging. I have never before or since known such a magnificent moment. I’m not much of a one for miracles, but I can feel beneath my fingertips still that soft, alien skin, the top of a rubbery boned head, the sense of wondrous, unknowable, new life. In two pushes my son was born and I heard him cry. I stared at the wallpaper, whilst my husband, equally squeamish, memorized the pattern of the floor tiles, and we shed tears of triumphant relief as the midwife cut the cord and weighed and washed our son.
Nine months of pregnancy, fifteen hours of labour, and now a lifetime of parenthood. I did not begin it with class. Once it was all over, reaction set in, and impossible as it had seemed, I now felt worse than I had done in labour. I bonded with a blue washcloth and refused to let go, until it was peeled, bone dry and crunchy, out of my agonised grip. My husband sat in the corner of the delivery room, cradling our newborn son in his arms and I was exquisitely grateful for him. I would parent, I would, I would learn how to do this mothering thing, but I just had to have some transition space, a moment to reassemble the edges of myself, and it would take more than a midwife, energetically plying a needle, to stitch me back together. We were wheeled down to the ward, sensation gradually returning to my legs, but my son conked out in his plastic cot, addled with drug-laden exhaustion. I already knew how he felt. ‘That was good timing,’ said my husband, kissing me goodbye. ‘I can watch the news before getting a decent night’s sleep.’ I didn’t sleep that night, tired as I was. I stared at the little creature swaddled tight in his blanket and wondered whatever I was supposed to do now. Fortunately, from that moment on, he began to tell me.