Dear Reader, as my present week has been dominated by death, I thought it might be time for its opposite. Content warning: may contain mention of vaginas and the things that come out of them.
A vigorous easterly wind rustled the overhead canopies, bringing hot weather and sneeze-producing wheat dust from the recent harvest, as John and I trod the deserted footpaths of the co-op in the middle of the night, trying to hasten the contractions that remained stubbornly at a you-don’t-need-to-come-in-yet distance apart. Images of women rushing to hospital to immediately give birth in television shows bore no resemblance to the interminable hours we spent waiting. The child had already shown a reluctance to leave the womb by being ten days overdue: when I’d had a scan to make sure all was in order, the report came back ‘VERY active baby’. The baby’s in-utero kick-boxing and half pikes with twists, however, did not translate to any desire to exit its enclosed comfort. I began to wonder if the child would emerge at all, or whether I was having a very convincing phantom pregnancy.
All the things I had thought I would want at the birth – all my close friends, a masseuse, gentle music playing in the background, to be in water, to endure without pain relief – were the opposite to what I actually wanted when my body started the work required to expel the baby from its watery home and into the world. John eagerly responded to my demands for medicine balls, apple juice, a receptacle to vomit in, but I regarded him balefully, him being responsible for me being in this predicament in the first place, and was relieved each time he went off to nap on the couch. Gwen, in contrast, was completely present and knew exactly what words to say and when for perhaps the only time in my life, only once leaving the room to sob because the sounds I made birthing resembled the sounds Frank had made, dying.
There was no comfort to be had during labour: it was labour spiritual, emotional and physical. I entered the birthing tub only to immediately leave it: contrary to what it said on the tin, the still water intensified the pain of contractions and the warm water added to the already unbearable overheating. I vomited without caring I was vomiting, or where. I could not stop the diarrhoea which was no doubt worsened by the castor oil I’d taken to hasten this very event, so spent most of the second half of the labour alternating between standing in the shower and sitting on the toilet. When the midwife inserted her entire arm up my vagina, like a vet into the rear end of a cow in All Creatures Great and Small, to see how I was progressing, I could not have cared less. When she intoned approvingly ‘roomy pelvis’ upon retracting her limb, I felt re-energised with pride. I was built for doing this. I would never care about anything ever again. All the other activities and concerns of my life – writing, relationships, education, work, endlessly agonising over this thing and that thing – fell away. There was nothing beyond this. All human history and human endeavour, I was convinced, culminated in this act. I understood why men were obsessed with creating their own brain children, ideas of Uber mensch, of domination through violence and war: in the face of this, men were powerless and pointless.
These lofty considerations, as well as certainty and concern for dignity, fell away when the transition to the final stage of labour began and the pain took on an all-encompassing dimension which I had naively believed had already been reached. When I inquired, ‘Is it too late for some pethidine?’ I already knew the answer, and had a brief reflection on all the women before me who had died in childbirth. I understood now the extremity of being required for this ordinary act: these women were heroes. They fought and they lost, but the point was the fighting.
I was sitting on the toilet, resting in between the only thing that now existed in the world – the tense and release of pain – when the midwife suggested now might be a good time to stand up. I was surprised to feel, when I reached an inquiring hand down, a warm cantaloupe-shape protruding from my nether regions. As speedily as the preceding ten months had gone slowly, the baby was caught by the midwife and placed, bloody, purplish and whole, on my lap.
For second the baby was still, and then with a jerk reared back, took air, and yelled.
I stared at this fully formed human I had produced. I looked from the black-haired infant to John and Gwen, who were both crying, united in astonishment.
‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ Gwen asked, when she could.
‘Oh,’ I said. I lifted the chubby knee a little and said, ‘It’s a girl. I think.’
Some time later – after the afterbirth, the stitching, the first suckling – John and I gazed in wonder at the swaddled infant.
‘Ba-ba-ba-ba,’ John crooned, as he had been crooning at my stomach for months.
I tried to tally this curled-up collection of limbs, spine, shoulders with the unknown shapes I had felt under my stretched skin. Outside, I would have to learn the shape of this baby anew. Then I felt the side of her foot, and recognised what I had felt beneath my ribcage. I had massaged this nub of flesh and felt it push back in response. If I closed my eyes and massaged the foot under the swaddling, I found myself reassured by this edge, this relic of familiarity between one state and the next.
‘Baby Annie,’ I said. ‘Welcome.’
As foreshadowed by the ultrasound report, Annie came out a VERY active baby. She was alert, interested in all movement, and ready to be amused.
Baby Annie did not take to sleep, mostly because this interrupted her access to her supply of milk, which she extracted voraciously, and also because it robbed her of the opportunity to be involved in whatever was going on.
I would sit outside in the mornings with her on my lap, under the shade of the eaves, the scribbly gum drooping nearby, the nasturtium leaves a pillow of green. I found myself singing the songs Gwen had sung to me as a child: A You’re Adorable, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Close to You. She would smile and kick her legs, and I felt a comforting continuity with my female bloodline which I had never before experienced. In these mornings, breathing in clean air, staring in wonder at this miracle of flesh, I felt content.
This contentment was short lived.