When you think about giving birth, there’s a certain expectation. You go into labour. It’s going to hurt. At the end, you have a baby.
I’d spent most of my pregnancy not really thinking about the labour part, and trying to focus on the having-a-baby part. It’s my wedding-marriage analogy; labour and a wedding lasts only a few hours, a child and a marriage are for the rest of your life. The enormous amount of attention focused on labour used to irritate me. Focus on the real thing, I always thought. Focus on how you’re going to fit the kid into your life when you bring her home, when it’s you and her for the next eighteen years.
So I went to hospital to have Ellie with an open mind.
Except it clearly wasn’t that open.
I’d been expecting a labour that was primal, painful, but ultimately rewarding. But having Ellie was a frustrating, at times excruciating test of mental endurance that lasted three full days, where I was woefully unprepared for the agony, and made me repeatedly question why on earth I’d done this to myself.
72 hours is a long time to be in pain. And I hold her now and smell her new-baby smell and I love to say I’d do it again in an instant. But honestly, I’m not sure I could.
Due to my medical history, I was booked in for an induction (where labour is begun artificially) on Sunday 12 January at 10.30am. I was up at 7am and it was a clear, crisp morning – the right kind of day to have a baby.
By 9am I’d loaded all the bags into the car and was pacing around the front door like a caged animal. Mr K was still asleep. At 9.15am I woke him up, trying to act calmly, and informed him that we needed to leave in half an hour so I could, you know, give birth.
At 9.45am, still no sign.
At 10am, the dad-to-be came downstairs at a leisurely pace. “Is the computer on?”
“No. It’s time to go. We’ll be late”
“I just need to download the instructions for the camera”
“It’ll take five minutes. They aren’t going to turn you away. Be patient”
Ten minutes later he asked me to stand by the back window for a photograph.
“Can’t we do this in hospital?”
“No. I want the baby to see the view of the garden as it was on the day she was born. Also, look, I figured out how to record a voice clip. So she can hear our voices, how we sounded, just before she was born”.
And that’s how to disarm me.
We made it in time, anyway. As we usually do, on his infuriating last-minute schedules. Pffft.
The drugs sent my system into overdrive. Within a short space of time, I was contracting like a pro. And because in my head, contractions meant labour meant baby, I was absolutely fine with the pain. The contractions themselves were manageable – the frequency wasn’t. They came every 2 minutes and it meant I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t sleep, sit, lie down, think straight. But it was ok. Contractions meant labour meant baby. So I ignored the pain and focused on the end result.
They checked me 24 hours later. No progress.
“Your cervix hasn’t opened at all. It needs to, for the baby to come out”
“Have I just gone through that for nothing?” I wailed. The midwife was very diplomatic. But essentially, yes.
“How do I get my cervix to do its job?”
They then give you 24 hours off the drugs, to give your system a break. Except I never really got a break. Turns out my uterus is a pro contractor. But unless the rest of your bits play ball, there’s nowhere the baby can go. My uterus was Head Girl and conjugating French verbs. My cervix was bunking off double Maths and smoking behind the bike sheds. By the time 48 hours rolled around I was a physical and emotional mess.
More drugs were administered on Tuesday morning, for the final 24 hours. More contractions, more agony, more knowing nothing was happening. I was not a good person to know during that time. I remember being up at 3am on Wednesday morning, crying in the midwife’s arms saying I can’t do this anymore, take the drugs out, forget it, I’ll wait, I’ll have her when she’s ready to come out, and the midwife giving me short shrift. By the time 6am Wednesday morning rolled around, I was so far past exhausted I was incapable of speech. I remember seeing a missed call from my mum and wanting to talk to her more than anything but knowing I couldn’t finish any sentences.
By that point I knew that, for me, contractions do not mean labour do not mean baby and I was in despair. I was checked again. “Your cervix is about as impenetrable as it’s possible to be!” chirped the midwife. I’d have committed violence if I could have raised myself off the bed.
I am not ashamed to admit that I cried in that bed for an hour. Still contracting, and they were getting worse. I hadn’t slept, I was so far beyond my pain threshold that I was out of my mind. All I wanted to do was get off the bed and walk around, anything to get away from the monitor with its stupid beeps and stupid needle and stupid stuff strapped to me with its record of my pain and my failings. Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard the beeps getting stronger, louder, more irregular. I called the midwife.
[hanging off the side of bed] “Take me off the monitor, I can’t do this anymore”
“You’re in active labour, Anna, and the baby’s in distress”
“No I’m not. I have a useless cervix”
She ignored me.
Then it was like sliding down the side of a mountain, the speed with which everything happened. Three doctors came in, talking to me about the baby’s heartbeat dropping to 50%, and how they couldn’t see what was wrong with her, and that they were going to have to get her out by c-section. I didn’t care how she came out, as long as she was safe.
They wheeled me to theatre, and they gave me a spinal block. I cannot accurately portray how it feels, to feel nothing, after three days of pain. It’s like someone flipped a switch inside me, and I was capable of coherent thought, and of hope. They lifted my baby out. I heard her cry.
I cried like I have never cried before.
It’s funny to think I left work over six weeks ago. When I walked out of the building for the last time, I sat in a coffee shop across the road and felt like a huge chunk of my arm had been ripped off. I was scared I’d feel purposeless at home. The one thing I’m really good at was now gone, and I was about to jump off a cliff into a world of doing nothing, and then baby – the former at which I’m rubbish, the latter at which I am in no way qualified to do.
When you work, you don’t really have time to think. Once those 12 hours a day are given back to you…that’s a lot of time to ponder. And plan. And worry. And worry I did. I worried more in that last four weeks of pregnancy than I had in the whole prior nine months, because I had the time to do so. I read baby books, I fretted about routines, I thought of all the things that could go wrong.
And when she came, of course, she didn’t fit a routine, and she didn’t fit a newborn baby template. She just did whatever she wanted to do, in her own time, in her own way.
I forgot about the books, and the blogs, and just did what I thought was right. It’s not easy, trusting your instincts and someone who’s a few hours old, when you like being in control.
Instinct is a funny thing. You’re relying on reserves of knowledge and feeling you didn’t know you had. And along with the instinct, comes the fun. The sheer joy of it. The one thing the books and the blogs and the worrying didn’t prepare me for was how much pleasure it would be. How I could quite easily kill an hour just staring at her, like a complete sap. How someone who is operating purely on instinct and quite frankly doesn’t have a clue who I am could take control of my reason, my faculties, and make me laugh. How she could cry at 4am and I’d get up to feed her, bleary-eyed and unable to walk straight and I’d pick her up and look at her face and think gah, Ellie, I’d do this five, ten, one hundred times over, for you. Because I’m not going to get these days again. These days where I’m not leading a team and making decisions and crafting the perfect phrase and thinking about what Ministers want. These days where instead, I’m doing a job I didn’t know I knew how to do, one that relies on my body and my mind and untapped reserves of love for something that weighs 8lbs.
And I feel like I can do it, like I always could have done it.
The love. The love I feel isn’t what I expected. Yes, I want to protect her, care for her, give her the best life she can possibly have, and all the opportunities she could ever want. That’s the type of love I anticipated.
What I didn’t expect was the mess I would feel inside. It’s not clean, this love. It’s like someone dropped dynamite inside me when she was handed to me that day in January, and behind all the rubble, all the rubble of expectation and what went before, are tunnels and rooms and yawning caverns of the heart, all unexplored, some dangerous, some dark, some filled with light. They are never ending and cannot be mapped. And we go from room to room, Ellie and I, through tunnels and pathways and looking through doorways, in each room a different love, a different experience, a different mistake, a different story. The map of these chambers of the heart is designed to last a lifetime. It’s adventure and confusion and a journey, and it’s life, a life together.
It’s history, Ellie, history of the heart, for you and I to make.