The only thing I can ever remember being especially good at is being a woman. Through no particular merit of my own, as soon as I hit puberty the hormones caused my hair became long and wildly curly. I would menstruate on the same day every month. I developed breasts so early it looked comical on my child's frame. The worst part was how fine-tuned I was to every small hormonal change in my body, to the point where as an adult hormonal contraception turned me into a weeping, bleeding psychopath.
I have never feared birth. I assumed it to be part of my womanly repertoire, like arm pit hair. What did frighten me was how uncomfortable I felt in my own body. The shame I felt at the useless, floppy appendages that were my breasts and my hatred towards the boys who coveted them. Didn't they know I was just a little girl? Didn't they know how wrong I felt inside every day? I clothed myself in my sister's oversized jumpers and hid my body in the summer heat.
My upbringing did not help. I felt adrift in an anxious atmosphere of perpetual regret and guilt. I can see my family in Church, my mother and my auntie stood there, both thin and bleak. Bad things can happen to women when they try to express their sexuality. 'Babies are parasites' I was told. I knew that my mother could have been so much more than just a mother.
I'm 22, and we're in love. He took me in when I was 19 and we're going to get married. He looks me deep in the eyes and says he wants a baby and of course I do, I've wanted one since I was 16. It's an urge I can't describe, an emptiness and a compulsion. A pink, soft, fuzzy, incoherent thing to keep and to love.
The day I am due to menstruate, I wake at 6am like I did on Christmas Day as a child. I know the answer before I even look at the test. I've become that hormonal mess again and Luke says I've changed. He knows what to look for now. I wake him up to tell him, we make love and go back to sleep.
I am afraid to tell my mother. I think she will be disappointed, like if I was going to jail. But she is happy. She is mellow and possibly slightly in shock at my sister and I leaving home so young. There's no more Church, my parents are together, they are happy. We are building a family again.
I love being pregnant. I feel like I finally fit in my body. My outside now reflects how I feel inside. Beautiful. I wear oversized, floaty dresses and cycle around the city to my mother's horror. I feel like I know what I am meant to do - I am at peace. The dopey pregnancy hormones have been good to me. I simply sit, eat, marvel and wait.
I want a natural birth. I don't know why, but I do. My husband asks me what I'm trying to prove. I'm not trying to prove anything, except that women are strong. I am strong. I research the Bradley method, I read Birth Without Fear. I take Daisy Birthing classes. I know about breastfeeding, skin to skin, the effects of epidurals on labour progression and birth bonding. My overwhelming feeling is why doesn't everybody know about this? The knowledge is right there at my fingertips. Why are women in denial? We spend more time planning our weddings than births, to our detriment. But knowledge is power. I have always been a researcher, it helps me to feel in control. Now I do. I revise for my son's birth like an exam.
His due date comes, and passes. I bounce on my ball. I fear induction and machine-induced contractions. I fear the labour ward with the blood stains on the floor from my mother's memories. I wake to contractions that stop and start and need to use my breathing exercises. I pace up and down at home for hours. This lasts all Saturday, all Sunday. I don't know it yet, but I should sleep. There's a long way to go yet and I'll need my strength.
Sunday night. I'm watching Weeds, my favourite television show, rotating on my ball. The contractions come with weary predictability. My husband gets back from work at 10pm and times them on his phone. My best friend is also in labour, but further along than I am. We are messaging each other through contractions. My mother comes. I want her there but I am worried for her. The child in me still sees the fragile woman on the edge. I don't know how to feel comfortable.
I want a home birth, but it is not to be. I sob on the phone as the midwives tell me there is nobody available on call and I have to come in. I go. I am examined and dismissed. I'm only 1cm dilated and will progress better at home. I am constantly bleeding. I am probed. I am losing my shame.
We eat pizza. It gets worse. We return. We get locked outside for half an hour. I experience many intense contractions locked out in the cold car park, pacing up and down. I am contracting so hard I can't even speak. Luke is exhausted from work and sleeps on the sofa, but I don't sleep. We have work to do. I lean on the edge of the birth pool and rotate all night. From 11pm to 5am I rotate through my contractions to the Beatles discography, moving my baby down. It's so cold and surreal here. It feels like a place paused in time, separate from the rest of the world. Just my mother and I in space. My labour is a train I've boarded to a strange place where all my thoughts and preconceptions are suspended. The walls between us are dissolving. It occurs to me, as my husband sleeps, that you can only ever rely on other women. My breathing is the most incredible thing. It is keeping my head above the water.
This phase of my labour ends with the change of shift. I am so exhausted I'm sure I can't go on. I bury my face in the bed, my bottom in the air to relieve pressure, desperate for the contractions to stop so I can sleep for an hour. I doze off for a minute or so. The midwives bring a space heater into the chilly room. I splay my legs without being asked. I am bold and unflinching as I submit to their ministrations.
I get in the birth pool and my body gets a second wind. I eat toast, laugh uncontrollably. I feel like the centrepiece of the room, all these people are here because of me. I am the main focus. I think the midwives are bored because there is nothing to do. They tell me I can go home now if I still want my home birth, but that would involve leaving the pool which I am not prepared to do. It is my happy place. I'm cracking jokes and telling stories. I feel a bit wacky. I struggled through that dark, freezing night and I'm still here now. I can do this. My stomach amuses me as he drops lower. My bump started so high and now it's fallen considerably.
Every time I go for a wee I contract in the toilet. I hate weeing into cardboard, it's so degrading. I hate getting out of the pool to be checked internally. I just want to stay in my watery haven, sinking deeper and deeper.
The waters start breaking and it's the end of my peaceful labour. Contractions pile on top of each other and I am struggling to cope. I start to cry with the overwhelming emotion. My mother speaks affirmations to me. She knows, she has been where I am now. Transition. She speaks the eternal wisdom of women, words I cannot recall. She is the only one in the room who has had a baby and only she deserves to be heard. She knows where my soul resides. I squeeze and bite my husband's hands, clinging to him like an anchor. I realise now that I have always been an animal, I was just pretending to be human. Like everybody else. That has been the source of my anguish all these years. I utter animal cries.
He is ready to be born. The signs are all there, but still they insist on checking. I weep profusely, harrowingly, as I edge out of the pool and towards the bed. Every step is agony and I put my hands between my legs as if to hold his head in. I am sure he will fall out. I see my mother is crying. I was so happy in the water, why did I have to get out? This is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, these few steps. They confirm what I already know - I am fully dilated and ready.
I immerse myself back in my own blood, water and urine and it's like heaven. I have forgotten what is now needed of me. I need to find reserves of energy - from where? I have nothing left to give. I can do labour; I'm good at marathons, at perseverance. With labour you just need to cope with what is happening to you. Now I am afraid that pushing the baby out will reveal that I am actually useless. I don't even know how to push him out. They are telling me to push but everything I know is opposite. I don't feel the urge to push like I thought I would. I just feel pressure. I am so frightened that I scream. Somebody more senior appears and tells me straight - I am on a deadline. My terror at going 'upstairs' spurs me into action and I forget about tears and haemorrhoids because I do not want anything done to me. I reach for the gas and air to escape, to help detach me from my strong misgivings. I push for one hour and ten minutes, but they discount the ten minutes out of kindness, apparently.
People are shouting in my face. His head comes out. Then shoulders. Then oh, sweet relief. He swims out like a salmon and my knees buckle. I nearly squash him but now I'm holding him and I am in complete awe.
I know that he was always going to be like this, like an old friend I was seeing again. Why is he crying? Doesn't he know I'm his mother? I thank the midwives profusely, desperate to hear praise in return. I get nothing. I put him to the breast straight away, because I remember I read it somewhere. I have to get out to deliver the placenta but his cord is so short I can barely move. Luke cuts it.
The loneliest feeling in the world is being stitched up as two people you love get to cuddle the person you love the most. I drift in and our of conversation and the jealousy I feel is as intense as hatred. I want my baby. I'm so immobile, so exposed, begrudging them every minute, every remark. The student midwife is taking forever. Where is my baby? Where is Judah? The midwives make jokes about giving me a 'designer vagina'. It just sounds so crass in this sacred space I have cultivated. I begin to feel violated. I want to go home, not spread here like a slab of meat.
After an eternity, he is back in my arms, suckling. The lady who brings the food thinks I don't speak English because of my name but really I'm just too dazed to answer her. Dazed and confused and unsteady. I breastfeed and my mother feeds me chips. We go to the room where we are supposed to sleep and Luke dresses Judah. I don't know what to do with a baby. When my dad visits I stand up and blood goes everywhere, all over the floor. My mother cleans me up in the bathroom and it occurs to me that she does not find this task distasteful, she is my mother. The love she feels for me does not change. I try to imagine myself in utero, suckling at the breast and I try to compare this with the sad, strained woman of my childhood and I become lost. I reconcile it. It is finished.
We go home and go to bed. I sleep on an old beach towel and feel grateful for my husband's unconditional love. I still look pregnant, am bleeding and leaking, pale and sagging. In contrast, Judah is perfection. He smells so incredibly good and I memorise his scent like a dog. He has a little hat and mittens and it seems laughable that everything for babies is so kitsch when their coming is so primitive and gory. A few hours ago he was smeared in blood and I was hollering. Now he looks like he dropped from a cloud. But we know the truth, he and I. It is our little secret, for now.
But even lying here, my soul housed in this unappealing body, at least now I know what my body is for. I don't have that revulsion for myself, or that empty longing I cannot explain. My body was designed to work hard, harder than any man ever has. My breasts were designed not for page 3 or teenage ogling but for nourishing life. As my son gains weight the pride I feel in those once-hated breasts astonishes me. They don't feel alien to me anymore, they ARE me. My body is serving a purpose, it is lived-in and happy.
My confidence soars. I miss the dreamy days of pregnancy but I have become a hard woman, which is infinitely more valuable. I don't have any of the same old fears. I have been tested, purified. I stand up for myself, I pay attention to politics, I get really angry for the world my son now lives in. My heart aches for women I know who have had traumatic births or face daily injustices. I become proactive.
I truly believe giving birth was as close to a spiritual experience as I could have. I felt so in touch with my base nature and connected to the earth, the Divine.
NB: Written in September 2014. As an antenatal teacher, were I to relive my son's birth I would refuse the vaginal examinations that caused me pain and insisted on a spontaneous second stage rather than directed pushing. Both those things caused me a lot of distress. I would also insist on skin to skin with my son and not allow him to be removed from me at this point. Overall people would say I had a good labour, especially for a first-time mum, which I believe is due to the preparation I put in. I feel I was not adequately supported at transition and having more people come into the room made me panic and push too hard, thus the second-degree tearing. I would say it was a positive experience but there are many things I would still change, with even more knowledge and hindsight. Judah's heart rate stayed brilliant all through my labour which I attribute to the Daisy breathing techniques and really there was no rush for him to be born.
Love and light