When I see birth announcements, with the glowing mother holding a scrunchy-faced newborn and smiling tiredly for the ever-present smartphone camera, I cannot relate at all.
18 years ago I had my first baby and there are no photos of that magic moment: the moment where this tiny person had just come into the world and I held him in my arms for the first time. There was no moment like that because birth was like a train wreck for me.
There was also no, ‘Honey, it’s time!’ mad dash to the hospital. 10 days past my due date, I was induced.
I intended to start the day right. So I started with my usual fibre-fuelled bowl full of muesli and fruit. It will become apparent, a little later, why that was not such a good idea.
In the early afternoon, they mainlined me with oxytocin and the contractions started coming. I was transferred to a room in the birthing centre where I had grand plans to give birth peacefully in the bathtub.
It was all going well. After busying himself with some Van Morrison on the portable CD player and then having me shout at him to ‘SHUT THAT SH** OFF!” my hapless husband took up residence at the business end to apply his assistance elsewhere.
I looked down to see him crouched like a baseball league catcher, looking straight up my canal, with his hands ready to catch the baby he imagined was about to come shooting out of me at any moment.
To be fair, I thought the baby was coming too. It turned out to be something else.
One hour in, I had done a total of five plops which the midwife had discreetly whisked aside before anyone could name them. This was about the time I realised that my full fibre breakfast had not been such a great idea.
When things had not progressed beyond about one million painful contractions, where I shouted filthy words I didn’t even know were in my vocabulary, the midwife suggested I get in the bath so she could break my waters and really get this thing happening.
She then produced what looked like a large knitting needle (which was definitely not in the brochure) and broke my waters.
A gush of fluid came out of me into the bath along with something else that made the midwife’s demeanour change from ‘just another day in the birthing suite’ to suddenly on her guard.
A green spew of meconium – otherwise known as ‘baby’s first poo’ – had spurted out of me and was now shimmying around my legs in the bath water.
“You’ll need to get out of the bath now.” She said simply but with a tone of voice that told me not to argue about birth plans and tranquil entries into the world via warm water with whale noises in the background.
“We’re going to have to move you to the labour ward.” She said. “Your baby has just done his first poo, which means he may be in distress.”
The calm before the storm
It’s hard to walk with someone’s head between your legs
By this time, the baby was far enough down the canal that I couldn’t sit down.
This meant, I couldn’t be wheeled around to the labour ward in a dignified Liz-Taylor-in-a-wheelchair way. I had to walk. And when I say “walk” I mean, waddle like a bow-legged chimp because there was a small person halfway down my birth canal.
So I lumbered from the birthing suite around to the ward, pausing every so often to brace against the wall and have a contraction, (as you do): all the fluid and mess that comes with birth just … all over the floor. But what’s a birthing mammal to do?
It was an unfortunate confluence of happenstance that this hallway I was lumbering down, heaving with contractions and spurting stuff all over the floor, was also the same hallway that led to the maternity ward: so as I lumbered and contracted and spurted, there were bemused people walking by with flowers and ‘It’s a boy!” balloons, en route to see their sister/cousin/best friend’s new baby.
I felt like a cow. I mean, literally, I felt like a heifer birthing a calf in a field.
In the labour ward, a doctor was waiting
She put me in the stirrups and I pushed. I pushed and I pushed for long past an hour and nothing came out; notwithstanding the giant bunch of haemorrhoids that I had now conveniently created for my post-birth self.
And all the while, there were contractions; like a Mack truck running me over, rippling through the full length of my body, from head to toe, every single time. The pain was so intense that I wished I could just pass out and make this birth thing someone else’s problem.
There were a lot of monitors in the room, a lot of conferring about what was holding things up. A lot of hurried whispering, checking screens and heartbeats with worried faces. The baby’s heartbeat became fast then slow, strong then faint.
“You’ve been pushing for too long.” The doctor said. “There’s something wrong.”
She examined me with two hands. And by “examined” I mean: she put both hands inside my vagina. Which is a sobering moment for any woman who considers herself to be “tidy” down there.
He was stuck. He was the wrong way around, not breech, but facing up– with his face toward my belly– which meant his chin couldn’t flex through the last bend.
“I’m going to have to give you a little cut” She said simply. “And then we’ll have to use the ventouse (a small thing like a plumber’s plunger) to get him out.”
I was given gas, which really took the edge off. At the midwife’s instruction, I sucked on it like there was no tomorrow. (In fact, I sucked so hard that when it was over, I couldn’t figure out why the doctor was still between my legs. Spoiler alert: she was sewing me up.)
When we talk about birth, we focus on the crowning moment and the diameter of the head, but in truth, it’s all about the shoulders
He crowned and then came the shoulders. After that, “sploop” like a fish. Suddenly he was here.
And then he was gone, because it was an emergency and they needed to wash the meconium off him.
But he was alive.
They wrapped him up and lay him down beside me. He was golden-haired and beautiful.
I didn’t feel like his mother yet. I was still in awe of him: the way he’d suddenly come into being like that.
But I felt bonded to him – not because I was his mother and he’d once been part of me – but because we had both lived through this terrible thing together.
I remember then, feeling the cold wet pool of liquid around my lower abdomen. I looked down and realised I was lying in a pool of my own blood.
This was no Kodak moment. This was just a moment where life and death had faced off and by the grace of modern medicine, life had won.
18 years later, I still feel that way when I look at him.
We survived, you and I. We lived to tell the tale.