Giving Birth

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.

30 thoughts on “Giving Birth

  1. Should not have read this at the office. Big girls who are supposed to be able to handle unexpected situations do not foster a sense of well-being in the team by crying at work. People tend to imagine the worst. Even after assurances all is well they continue to look at you sideways all day. Through this piece you awakened my own memories of childbirth and motherhood. It was the most touching thing I’ve read by you (whose writing is consistently “golden”).

  2. I’ve often thought that women tell their birthing stories they way men recount their war stories. It is, as you say, an instant bond between women of all ages and cultures.

    Your story is lovely and heartfelt and true, with no sugar coating. It is not all hearts and flowers, this business of mothering. After 16 years, you know that for sure. But it is all wonderfully worth it. After 30 years of being a mother, I can tell you that with certainty.

    Happy day to your son, and to you🙂

  3. I went from bursting out laughing at Mr LL’s All Day Menu to biting my lip and crying at the description of the first moment you touched your son’s head. Gulp! Thank you for sharing this, darling Litlove – particularly now, as I face my own ordeal in a mere five or six weeks, give or take Baby J’s own mysterious timetabling arrangements. I think I’ll be better prepared for having read your candid, hilarious, poignant recollections.

    Happy Birthday to your 16 year old parenting guide.

  4. Happy birthday to your son. What an open description of giving birth and I suspect I’ll hand it off to all my friends when they start producing kids (less scary than those videos of people giving birth, but plenty of realistic information). Is there ever a situation that flummoxes Mr Litlove?

  5. Wow, what a perfectly beautifully written piece about what must be one of the hardest things of all to do justice to – you did. Thank you. This made my day and I will think about it for a long time. Much more touching and memorable than if it were less honest and more sugar-coated.

  6. How beautiful. They do indeed tell us. Thank goodness. Is it wrong that I just wish it was told to me at less than an ear splitting volume? [My son is 2.5 – the drama is impressive and, before having him, I never would have believed some of the stories I could now tell.]

  7. Beautiful Brings back so many memories of my two very different births. Very different from yours as well, though not without the fear with the first one: 53 hours of labor before a terrifying C-section. You’ve inspired me to blog about my births as well, of my now young adult boys.

  8. Thanks for sharing with us a very personal and marvellous experience! I’m amazed that you can remember so many details. Your vivid writing just brings back precious memories of my own child birth experience. My son is now 21, in his last year of college, and is applying to professional schools. How time flies. A Happy Birthday to your son and may you cherish your special day every year!

  9. What a beautiful piece – so honest and funny and human (that’s not the word I want, but is the best I can come up with.) I particularly loved the description of touching your son’s head, ‘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.’

    But oh dear, you still haven’t made me feel any less terrified of childbirth! I’ve always thought it’s outrageous the way the awful pain the woman summarily goes through is just overlooked after the baby is born, as if it never happened. Everyone focuses on the joy, which is considerable admittedly, yet no-one seems to console her after enduring all that agaony and fear, essentially alone. And of course, if a soldier experienced that level of pain and fear in a war situation in the hands of some enemy troop, they’d probably be given months of counselling and post-traumatic stress leave and everyone would talk about their extenuating bravery… Sorry, I’m going off on a tirade. I should probably just say happy birthday to your son and congratulate you again on a great piece of writing.

  10. I was about to tell you I REALLY shouldn’t have read this post, but then I came to your beautiful ending and now I can breathe again. I have not spent a lot of time thinking about laboring only because it’s not like I have much choice in the matter, and it’s going to happen one way or the other. I am actually a bit more concerned about the recovery process. At any rate…happy birthday to your son, and thanks for sharing such an honest account of his birthday.

  11. Belated birthday greetings to your son! As with all of the other mothers who have left comments here, you caused me to relive the birth of my child (I, too, remember touching the top of her head; you describe the experience beautifully). Every detail etched into our circuitry–we look at those tiny creatures in awe. And then, in a blink, they are grown.

    Thank you for this, litlove. Someday your son will, too.

  12. Wonderful writing. I remember reading this before and loving the way you combined humour and all the different emotions and sensations. Happy (belated) birthday to your son. If you’re interested in reading some South African birth stories it’s worth checking out “Just keep breathing”. Yours is so typically you. I almost wish you’d had another so we could have that description too. (Although I’m sure one is quite stressful enough!)

  13. Grad – oh bless you, thank you. That’s all anyone wants to hear, really, after writing about something so personal. I’ll treasure your comment.

    Stefanie, Lilian, Jacob – thank you all so very much! I couldn’t be happier that you liked it.

    Becca – thank you so much, and I agree, it’s not all sugar coating at all (and war stories are a very apt comparison!). But it’s all the more real and vital because of that. Where would we be without our children? They make all the difference, don’t they? Delighted to know that even when grown up, children are still a source of pleasure.

    Di – aww that’s a lovely comment. You’ll be just fine, my friend. I was, and I am the biggest wuss ever. I do remember though going from laughter to tears almost from one moment to the next when my son was little. It’s an emotional ride, all right, but such a wonderful one.

    Jodie – good question: two situations. Show him Marks and Spencers in the Christmas rush and I’ll show you the whites of his eyes. He dislikes shopping and absolutely loathes it when it’s hectic. And he has to have something to distract him when waiting. A couple of years ago I ended up in casualty but the only real emergency was when Mister Litlove ran out of articles to read in his Economist magazine. That was touch and go.🙂

    Jean – what a wonderful comment! Thank you and hugs to you. It makes all the difference, having a receptive audience for stories like these.

    Kimberly – lol!! I don’t think there is anything wrong in wishing that the volume control could be lowered a little. I wish I could say that at 16, my son had found his voice modulation switch, but alas…. Two and a half is a very cute age, though. It’s the toddlers that make me broody, rather than babies.

    Lu – thank you for your lovely words! I like remembering it just as it was.

    Grad – oh thank you! I will pass that on.

    Squirrel – it is lovely to have you visit. I will drop by and see if you have posted about your births. As Becca says, it IS like swapping war stories, and I am so up for that.

  14. Kathleen – yes, I seem to remember us saying we had sons about the same age. If only we could hold time back just a little!

    Dorothy – oh thank you, that’s so nice. And so glad Mister Litlove makes you laugh – I think he’s hilarious!

    Arti – that’s such a lovely comment, thank you. I didn’t know you had a grown up son! And almost through college with his life all ahead of him – that must be very exciting to watch. Where DOES the time go??

    Baker’s daughter – you know, I always think that women are heroines when it comes to their children. I don’t know what it would have been like without the drugs (although I do assure you that with them I felt absolutely nothing whatsoever – completely painless), but there is a bit of a badge of honor given to those who can do without them. Me, I’m there to give hope to the cowards. What is tough is the switch that happens overnight between being just yourself and being suddenly responsible for one tiny person. That is incredibly hard. But somehow, you get used to it and thankfully babies train you up by only requiring feeding and changing for several months at first, before more complex operations kick in. I agree with you that it’s a huge, huge event and mothers should get an awful lot more recognition for what they do, and a great deal more sympathy for going through labour! But oddly enough, you do forget afterwards. I remember sitting up in the hospital bed thinking sheepishly I’d made rather a fuss. Actually, I think that was a hormonal haze; I wrote this because I wanted to remember it exactly as it was. Okay, gone on too long, lost the point! But things do sort of unfold eventually, and it is surprising how you do come away from it all whole and functioning.

    Courtney – really do not worry about the recovery – the hormones kick in and they are powerful. The second night, I slept a full, sweet six hours and by morning I was like, bring me that baby, I am ready for him now! And I am a complete wimp. So really, you will be just fine.

    Niranjana – now that is a beautiful comment, thank you. Very special.

    ds – you always manage to move me with your comments, thank you. If only I hadn’t blinked – do you think I could go back a few years and have them over? (oh and I quite understood what you meant!)

    Jenny – thank you! I will pass your kind wishes on.🙂

    Pete – have we really been friends more than three years? My, how time has flown there, too, although to equally good effect.🙂 Your turn now, or at least, L’s, and so much to look forward to in the parenting arena. I’ll check out the South African stories, and somehow I am wildly pleased that you think this one is very me. That tickles me.

    Smithereens – oh thank you for that lovely comment! All my son knows is that he caused me no pain – he likes that thought and I like that he likes it. Maybe if the day ever comes when he is going to be a father, I’ll give his wife a few more details. Maybe.🙂

  15. What Pete said, that this account is ‘very you’, is what makes it so good of course: a completely personal, unique account of what countless millions of women experience. I think this is a hugely difficult thing to achieve when describing any experience that so many, many have written about, and achieving it is the mark of a considerably talent – that rare combination of skill, practice and the wild willingness to go deep.

  16. Jean – I am SO touched by your comment. I’m stuck at the moment, not knowing what to write next and really frustrated by it. Your lovely words are like a beacon of hope to me – thank you, my friend.

  17. What a beautiful post! And great birthday tribute to your son. I seriously love this. I love hearing the stories of other mothers because it really does create this bond. You are right about the two women at the bus stop.

    I had a one hour drive to the hospital. I too pushed my son for for ever (two hours). Unlike you, I didn’t have an epidural (it was too late). I didn’t get mad at my husband, though. I just kept saying, “I give up. I’m going to die, okay? I give up.” Somehow, though, I never could give up. And then I held that blue and squirmy, opened eyed little boy and thought, “that wasn’t so bad.” (apparently, I have a bad short term memory.

    Love this sentence, I can really relate: “I am a coward, and giving birth never struck me as a moment for heroics.”

  18. Thanks for the description . i am working on a novel and the central character is about to deliver. so i was googling to find out how it is done and it helped me . thanks again

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