CHILDBIRTH

HAVIN’ MY BABY: NO ONE CAN TEACH YOU THE RIGHT DELIVERY

Heather Robertson February 1 1975
CHILDBIRTH

HAVIN’ MY BABY: NO ONE CAN TEACH YOU THE RIGHT DELIVERY

Heather Robertson February 1 1975

HAVIN’ MY BABY: NO ONE CAN TEACH YOU THE RIGHT DELIVERY

CHILDBIRTH

Heather Robertson

I wake up at 3 a.m. in a puddle: lucid, certain, scared. I get up and wander around through the dark house for a while, trying to stay calm, but my head is filled with a brilliant white light and somewhere a loud alarm gong is ringing. The contractions are weak and irregular — 20 minutes, then half an hour, then several stronger ones close together. I have a glass of milk. When I go back to bed I am cold and shaking uncontrollably. I doze off waiting for the pain to start.

At noon I am in the hospital. They put me into a wheelchair; I hold out my arm and they clamp a blue plastic bracelet around my wrist with my name, room and number — 34191. “I feel like a cadaver,” I say, as the orderly wheels me down a corridor where shoals of people part on either side of me like fish. I feel distant, as if I am in a dream.

The labor room is an austere cell: a high, narrow white bed, a sink, a chair. The bed has crib-like metal rails around it. A nurse shaves me and gives me an enema, a procedure so humiliating that, bald and purged, I feel pathetically vulnerable, a religious neophyte initiated into an ancient ritual shrouded in secrecy and taboo. A brash medical student comes in and asks a hundred trivial questions about my medical history. He is practising his bedside manner, which consists of a comedy routine, and expects me to laugh in the middle of a contraction. The nurse explains I am concentrating on my breathing. “Huh?” he says, and maintains a respectful silence. One deep breath, regular even breaths as the contraction builds, another deep breath at the end. The nurse places one hand on my stomach, eyes on her watch. “That was a good one,” she says encouragingly.

The contractions are coming every two or three minutes now and they’re much stronger. It’s an extraordinary feeling, not unpleasant, not the familiar sharp pain of a cut or bruise but more like the slow relentless grip of a vise, a grinding, pulling and stretching of bone and muscle. I am still calm, in control, but getting edgy. It doesn’t help to hear other women moaning and crying in rooms farther down the hall. The time between contractions gets shorter and they’re starting to hurt. About 3 p.m. I ask for a sedative and they give me an injection.

Then everything goes bad. My mind is clouded, confused. The pains are very fast now. They don’t build in a normal wave but hit all at once and never quite fade away before the next wave rolls over me. I lose control of my breathing pattern. The face of the young nurse at the prenatal class floats up in front of me — one deep breath, even breaths building to short pants, another deep breath. I try but the nurse tells me I’m doing it wrong. I should be taking long, deep breaths. Now I’m completely panicky. My head feels full of mud. “Relax,” says the nurse, frowning at me in a stern, no nonsense way. I want to punch her. I sink into a stupor, aware only of voices and the pressure of a hand on my arm, lost in a white fog. The baby’s head beats down like a pile driver. I can hear a woman’s voice groaning, howling, not a human cry but a deep, drawn-out animal bellow.

I know that it’s me and I’m ashamed but I don’t care anymore. The cry seems to come from a long way away. I wonder idly how long this is going to last and whether I will go mad before it’s over.

My doctor arrives. It’s dark outside my window now and someone says it’s nearly 6 p.m. He examines me: I have made no progress since he saw me at 11 a.m. in his office. Six hours of futile agony. Wasted. Do I want to keep going, he asks, or do I want to try an epidural, an injection which will freeze me from the waist down? Keep going! Me? “I’d like the epidural,” I say quickly.

I am flooded with relief, expectation. They wheel me into the delivery room, a large, bare, tacky room with a very small high table under a spotlight in the middle. The anesthetist jabs a needle in my back near the spine. It takes a long time. Slowly the pain dulls, recedes, disappears. I am numb, but my head is clear. The anesthetist is pleased. “It doesn’t always work,” he says cheerfully. Without it, he tells me, I’d be facing up to 30 hours of labor followed probably by a Caesarian. Or death, I say to myself, shocked. A hundred years ago I would have been one of those women who didn’t make it... A “difficult” labor.

Hooked up to my bottle of fluid which is drip dripping into my back I am a happy drug freak, relaxed, elated, guilty. I have failed childbirth. I stand revealed as a physical coward. The no nonsense nurse looks at me contemptuously. Phooey on her. To hell with the boring breathing exercises, the childbirth-without-fear paperbacks that skirt gingerly around the word “pain,” the chirpy advice from hearty midwives and patronizing pronouncements of aged obstetricians. To hell with all the films showing some young woman going through labor with a smile on her face. “Every birth is different,” says my doctor triumphantly at 9 p.m. The crown of the baby’s head , is showing. We’re ready to go.

Flat on the delivery table, my legs, gone wooden, in the stirrups, they tell me to push. I can feel the pressure of the baby’s head. Nothing else. I feel a little sad now, nostalgic, almost reluctant for the baby to be born, for it to be over, for all the anticipation and fear and expectation to be made flesh. I can feel the tension in the others too. We form a little tableau under the light, waiting, the doctors swaddled like spacemen in their green gowns and masks, the no nonsense nurse looking a little kinder, my child’s father sitting by my left shoulder, and me, stretched out like a human

sacrifice in a bloody little drama. For a moment I feel at

the centre of the universe. Suddenly the baby’s head is there, round, black-blue, matted with dark sticky hair. “You have a boy!” cries the doctor as the rest of him emerges, reddish blue, streaked with blood and water and white muck. I bend my head back and look at the clock: 9.45 p.m.

I hold my breath as the doctor sucks the mucus out of

his mouth through a long tube. A sputter, a cry, a frantic

waving of arms and legs and then strong, high, lamblike bleats. It’s the beginning of the world.