How I added my voice to the war cry of millions of women who have given birth before me
In The Last Days of Pregnancy: A Place of In-Between, Jana Studelska writes about the tremulous state of waiting that settles in as you approach your due date. Each twinge announces itself as a possible harbinger of labour. Every false contraction seems sure to usher you closer to the person you’ve been trying to imagine for months. And when these seemingly sure signals sent by your body turn out to be nothing, the hours and days that stretch out behind them feel almost insurmountable.
Studelska borrows a German word for this state: zwischen. It means ‘between’, and she uses it to describe that mystical waiting room that most pregnant women will find themselves stationed in at the very end. I didn’t imagine I’d spend so long in it, but I suppose that’s what happens when you allow set ideas like ‘due dates’ and ‘normal gestation periods’ to dictate your thinking.
Clem Ford. Photo: Supplied
As it was, the hours following my pregnancy’s so-called D-day stretched into days which looked set to stretch into weeks. Routine monitoring turned to talk of induction, with the risk averse obstetricians I’d had no contact with during my pregnancy (having been fortunate enough to be accepted into the hospital’s midwifery care program) suddenly turning up to intone stillbirth at me with sombre faces.
Ten days beyond my estimated due date (when hospital policy calls for an induction) had done nothing to coax my cervix into play – I was told it was posterior, closed and hard. The cervix’ primary job during pregnancy is to hold the line at the front to keep your baby safe from danger. Mine was doing too good a job of this apparently; in medical terms, this classified it as being ‘unfavorable’.
‘Unfavorable cervix’ is just one of the many descriptions applied to women’s pregnant bodies to make them and the women themselves feel defective and unsuited to the task of childbirth. There is also ‘incompetent cervix’, which, on the flipside, is a cervix considered too weak to hold that crucial post of defence. Cervixes that refuse to open in labour (or open and then start to close again) produce mothers whose labours are described as having ‘failed to progress’.
Beyond the medical profession, well meaning people will ask if you had a ‘natural’ labour, which can mean either a vaginal delivery or a drug free one (and frequently means both). The alternative – the ‘unnatural’ delivery of a caeserean is treated either with pity (“Are you disappointed?”), dismissal of the mother’s feelings (“All that matters is a healthy baby!) and very often disdain (as with the horrendous sneer, “Too posh to push” – because major abdominal surgery is such a cakewalk.)
When you are wading through the unfamiliar terrain of zwischen, there are few things more crushing than being told your body – the body you have spent the last nine months negotiating sacrifice for and have given over in so many ways, some of them unwillingly or resentfully – is not good enough or strong enough or skilled enough to navigate this final hurdle.
But what is language when there is protocol to observe? The baby is the goal and the how of it is something women are taught belongs to other people to decide. We begin to feel like maybe this is the first real lesson of motherhood – to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, and express nothing but gratitude for the privilege.
After some thought, I resisted the induction The Doctors kept urging (a strange choice, given how desperately I also wanted the pregnancy to be over). But as I shared that choice with people, I began to hear more and more of women whose own pregnancies had gone naturally beyond the 42 week ‘danger zone’. Friends told me how they and their siblings were born at 43 weeks and beyond. A midwife told me the data around risk for ‘post term’ babies dates back to a small study done in 1958. I thought of my aunt, whose first baby had been born via emergency caesarean because they’d induced her for being post-term. I thought of my sister, whose induction had also gone that way (although had been administered for different reasons – Premature Rupture Of Membranes, just our mother had experienced and I would go on to as well.)
Did you know that fewer than 25 per cent of labours begin with waters breaking? This is a myth created by Hollywood, where most scripts are written by men and seemingly no one has observed a birth before or the long, silent hours that often accompany it. This is a world where it’s normal for a woman to be raced into a hospital suite to give birth on her back, where the lights blare bright and people yell PUSH at her while she yells at her husband for “doing this to her”. This is a world where zwischen doesn’t exist.
And mine was a world where the best laid plans falter.
My waters broke on a Sunday night. With the exception of a few valiant contractions, labour “failed to progress” on its own accord. In the late evening hours, we went to the hospital to monitor the baby’s vital signs. Again, the talk of stillbirth and risk and immediate inductions. The situation was urgent with an old, haggard gestation like mine. “What would happen if I went home to sleep beforehand?” I asked. In that circumstance, they would book me in for the procedure 36 hours later.
No matter what your feelings on children are, childbirth itself is a mystical event… Such a small amount of flesh divides us. Such a massive trek is needed to unite us.
‘Urgency’ is clearly both a matter of perception and an availability of birthing suites.
So I went home. I bounced on my ball, ate yet more spicy food, expressed colostrum and went for long walks around the neighbourhood. And when labour still failed to take hold, I walked into the hospital 36 hours later on my own terms, finally prepared for the induction I hadn’t wanted and had been so sure I wouldn’t need.
Grow up with a body like mine, with its height and girth and wide hips and legs that are genetically coded to trek up mountains, and it seems like childbirth is something you’ll almost snooze through. I had been confident labour was mine to master. It never occurred to me that I might need help.
I won’t bore with the details of the majority of the labour. Suffice it to say, it was long and the first part of it was extremely hard. I know that my partner and I couldn’t have done it without the support of the two incomparable women who formed our birth support team. They were the anchors and the kites, and I feel bound to them forever.
They were there when I screamed for the epidural six hours in, when I was sure the only alternative was death. As the anaesthetist inserted the needle into my back, he remarked on how strong those muscles were. “Strong enough to throw a mini fridge in the back of a car like it’s nothing,” my partner said, recalling an act of neighbourly assistance that had happened on one of our first dates. Strong enough to forge a back up barricade for a cervix committed to fulfilling its only job.
Sometimes, you need help letting go in order to let go.
The hours afterwards bled into one another as we sat in the final pulses of the zwischen. Almost a full pass of the sun after my labour had been artificially induced, I reached into the deepest, most primal parts of myself to bring that baby out into the open. Afterwards, my partner asked how I knew “how to do that”. I had to tell him I didn’t – but in the moment, I knew no other way to get it done. This was a war cry screamed by millions of women before me, all the way back back back to the first slayer. They were there in the room, just as I will be from now on.
No matter what your feelings on children are, childbirth itself is a mystical event. There is a matter of inches if not centimetres separating that life you hold inside you from the outside world. Yet despite that straightforward proximity, it’s as it must be brought forth through a black hole or gravitational pull. Such a small amount of flesh divides us. Such a massive trek is needed to unite us.
Studelska speaks of this in her piece when she writes:
“To give birth, whether at home in a birth tub with candles and family or in a surgical suite with machines and a neonatal team, a woman must go to the place between this world and the next, to that thin membrane between here and there. To the place where life comes from, to the mystery, in order to reach over to bring forth the child that is hers.”
Welcome to the world, child. You are already so, so loved.
Photo: Jesse Booher