Its October. I am happily living in a bright and airy one-bed flat in a leafy suburb. The birds sing melodic jazz and dance from branch to branch in the tree in our garden. They startle and scatter as a parrot squawks overhead journeying across the tree-filled valley.
Spring is in the air. My swollen belly kicks and squirms as I lie in the late afternoon sun on a picnic rug. The French windows beside me are flung open, meditation music drifts on the breeze from inside, where I can hear my partner tapping on the laptop. A four year project is close to conclusion, his fingers tap with increasing urgency as he sees my belly grow at an alarming rate. We guess at the sex. A boy, I imagine, who we will name Oscar. And a big one, since these last weeks I have burst into pregnancy from the petite basketball I sported in earlier months.
I have just returned from afternoon tea with my work colleagues, a baby shower of sorts. They are generous, gifting crocheted teddies, handmade rugs and play gyms. They are older than me, their children now grown. They are kind, quick with offers of support and babysitting. I am touched, I smile but I doubt these offers will need to be taken up. I am independent, capable, ready. My baby will come with ease. He will fit into the swing of my life. We will spend maternity in the sun, making the most of the break. Who knows what the future will bring, where we will be. The only certain thing is that the adventure will not end here.
Our freezer now bursts with home cooked food prepared as the books say I should. The loaned bassinet is ready in our room. The nappies and donated newborn clothes are rolled neatly on the changing table. I start to express colostrum, arrange acupuncture, take the cable car to town for yoga classes, drive for nearby beach walks, rest, read, and take afternoon naps. Life is good. I have never, ever in my life felt so content, so at peace. We are excited. We are ready.
It is 2 in the morning. I lie in bed, in no way able to attempt to sleep as the books suggest. It’s been 12 hours since my first contractions started as we picnicked in the sun. The dull ache in my groin increases in intensity with the setting of the sun. There is nothing left to do. I try to eat a little in the evening. I shower, I attach the electric shock pads to my lower back, I play relaxing music, I sway my hips back and forth in figures of eight and I groan. And now it is here, undoubtedly here. This is real labour, when each contraction takes every ounce of concentration in my mind, body and soul as it shudders through my deepest muscles to the very core. Every second takes an hour as the pain surges and eases and I breathe, lay my head and anticipate the next wave. By now I have slipped to kneeling, by the foot of the bed I am in prayer position. My partner is now up. I order cold flannels on foreheads, water. I time contractions on my phone app. They are consistent, almost three in ten. How can I get through this? It’s already too much! They are endless. Each full bodied wave of pain is deeply intense. It must be time. We call our midwife. She listens to my guttural cow moans on the phone, decides to join. Time passes. She arrives. Calmly and quietly she moves the room, mindful of our space whilst doing her checks. It is time.
At twilight the roads are empty. As I contract in the car, he is blinded by panic and goes the longest way. We arrive. I contract in the car park. We make our way up in the lift. I contract again. The non intervention room is miraculously empty at this, the birth ward’s busiest, time of year. As we enter the room I ask for my bikinis and head straight for the birthing pool. As soon as the words leave my mouth, I am throwing clothes off, I am naked and I am in. The warm water blankets my body and buoys my belly. I have no awareness of my surroundings. I am in a different space, time passes differently. I slip back into the room momentarily between contractions as I lean my head on my forearms at the side of the bath. Ice chips, homeopathic tablets under tongue, yoga music, midwife, partner, low lighting, gym ball, towels. I groan. The midwife checks. The cervix is ready, this baby is near, does the dad want to get in the water? I am surprised, excited, proud, this is happening, we are so close, I did it. And then quiet. The contractions wain. The pain eases. Time slows. What is this? Am I now so accustomed to the pain I no longer feel its intensity? Is this a different stage, a transition? But something is not right. I get out of the bath, go to the toilet, nothing. I move the room, nothing. The midwives sense an issue. Doctors are called. Our time in the non-intervention room is up.
The shift in mood is abrupt. Unease, discomfort and contracting surges merge as I am moved to the next room. The door opens. Strip lighting, machines, beds, stirrups, strangers greet my blinking eyes as they get used to this new environment. I feel myself shrink with dread. I suddenly notice my nakedness. I feel exposed, vulnerable, unsure. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Will everything be okay? I am helped onto the bed where I lie uncomfortably as a monitor is strapped to my belly. My cervix is measured. It measures smaller than before, 8cm. How? Was it wrong before?
Doctors leaves us alone, the midwives, my partner and I. I am offered an epidural, I scan the face of my midwife. Should I? Can I keep doing this without medication? Are we close? I am reassured. It is my choice. I can do this without if I want. I am capable, I am strong. Contractions come, I am coached. The monitor shows a weakened heartbeat. Have we lost it? The midwives who are sisters quietly bicker by the bed. Better safe than sorry, the emergency button is pressed. Help comes, the strap has come loose. It is readjusted. We breathe and start again. 1,2,3 another wave of pain crashes down on me. From left side to right side to back, the midwives help me move the weight of my middle, I am tired and it is so much heavier now out the water. I am scared but determined. We are close, I can do this. Our baby needs help but he will be here soon. We are close. The waves crash on.
The monitor loses the heartbeat again. Panic this time. What is happening? Nobody seems to know. The baby is distressed, perhaps. Are we losing this precious life so close to the finish line? The emergency button is pressed, a rush of strangers, noise, action, adrenaline. The belly strap is replaced by an internal monitor. Urgency tramples empathy, with a curt warning my legs are parted and I freeze with searing pain as the cold sharp edges of a foreign body is inserted deep inside me and fixed to my baby’s scalp. This is a totally different pain, other worldly, unnatural. This is a pain I am not prepared for. My body knows, this is not safe. I feel the tension and urgency in the room. I start to doubt my refusal of painkillers, but it is too late. My legs are placed in stirrups now, no more “messing around”. Strange, serious faces line up around my exposed groin. I search the room for familiar eyes, where is he? The heartbeat is weaker. The threat looms, I must push and make this happen, or there will be intervention. The clock is ticking, we don’t have long. My body is ungracefully hoisted back and forth now. The heartbeat is weaker when I lie on this side, move. Leg up. Push. Hard. Breathe. There is no time for respect or gentleness. I am but a vessel. Another wave. Push! Breathe! Hard now! Strange faces and hands at my groin, beeping, murmuring. Unfeeling voices from white coats break through the panic stating facts and false questions. We will try with intervention before we prepare you for emergency c-section, I need to tell you about ventouse…..episiotomy….the words blur. Yes, yes, get on with it, my baby, get my baby out! I am irritated at this tick box exercise at such an urgent time. But I need to give you the facts… Please, no more facts, my baby. My baby. Hands enter, more instruments, searing pain. Has she had an epidural?, a medic asks. No, nothing, no painkillers. Too bad, he replies, nonchalantly, like I’m not in the room, with one foot up on the edge of the bed as he prepares. 1,2,3….push! the pain!
This white hot pain sears across my whole being in a way my mind works hard to erase even now. I am lifted outside of myself for protection. Every cell in my body leaves the room, I hover above myself. I’m going to die. I’m going to die! I have nothing left to give. How did it all go so wrong so quickly? My baby is dying and it is written on every face in the room. Again the man braces for brute force. 1,2,3….push! I push and breathe with all my might. The blood surges through my face, foreign body pain mingles with the surging contractions, masking hidden layers of emotional and mental pain, fear, failure, defeat, humiliation, loss. My baby. I can’t get my baby out, I’m not pushing enough. It needs my help or it will die and I can’t get it out.
I can take no more. I have nothing left to give. Stern words, as if they were needed, as if I hear them through my tears and exhaustion and pain. There is nothing empowering about this any more. Pushing, breathing, groaning, screaming, I am cut open. Searing white hot pain targets a body that no longer is my own but a vessel. It’s coming, the head is here, push more, push now! With all my might I push and feel the baby slip through. And then nothing. There is a baby to attend to, the white coats are busy, my knees fall together. My head flops to one side. I am empty in all senses of the word.
The baby is alive. It takes its time to breathe, I’m told afterwards, there’s meconium, exhaustion, but it is strong. It’s a girl. It is put on my chest, a little red, bruised, misshapen alien I don’t recognise as my own. I feel very little, except relief, maybe, that we are both alive. But I have nothing left to give.
Minutes or maybe hours pass. An ovaltine drink, a muesli bar, gas, air, an injection for pain, too little too late, a placenta, stitches. Our midwife is tearful, says I was so strong, so brave. I prise my eyelids open to see my partner with our baby laying on his chest. I’m thankful he is here. I close my eyes.