“How are you?”
I don’t know. I’m in shock. I’m growing an animal inside my stomach. I am thrilled, happy – that much is easy to say – but there is more.
When I try to explain the complex emotions of pregnancy, the words elude me, so I don’t. I move around in a daze, preoccupied and mute. I walk the same streets, sit at the same desk in the library, but I am under water, in another element, my swelling belly before me. I am consumed by fear and desire for the baby. Fear that she will die inside me; hope that she will be alive when she comes out. Hope that I can be a good parent; that my greatest fears about the planet I’m bringing her into won’t materialise. My happiness is anchored to something I cannot control. It is not entirely comfortable. It is not the pastel-hued seventh heaven that pregnancy books speak of. Suddenly, I have so much more to lose.
For many years, having a child was the thing I desired most of all. Unlike other desires, I couldn’t articulate why. It was beyond language. I want to study blah because blah; I want to work at blah because blah. Obvious, easy. Why did I want a child? I just did. My cells did. Like the writer Maggie Nelson says, “the muteness of the desire stood in inverse proportion to its size”. For all my concern about bringing another carbon footprint into the world, I couldn’t hush the yearning. It was my sehnsucht, as the Germans would say, my life-longing, that I put aside until the time was right.
I fall pregnant sometime in December and am immediately sick for five months. From the moment I wake to the moment I sleep, I am nauseous. Every other day, I puke bile the colour of sunflowers. ‘It is the hair’, says a taxi driver. ‘Your baby’s hair is making you sick.' Once the sickness goes, I find being with child – the state I had most yearned for – oddly destabilising. I have fallen pregnant and down an existential rabbit hole.
I cast around for literature, words to find myself – ourselves – in. I need to get my head around the weirdness of sharing my body with another and my changing sense of self. On social media and in magazines, pregnant women glow and grin: blissful and blooming; hands on bumps, white teeth, tendrils of hair blowing in the wind. I can’t relate. Pregnancy books discuss the physical changes, but fall silent on the mental and emotional experience of becoming an ‘us’, no longer a ‘me’.
There is a new, practical language to learn. Episiotomy. Surge. Latch. Tongue-tie. Dilation. D-MER, or, Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex (the sudden decrease in dopamine that occurs as some women begin to breastfeed.) Intervention. Anterior lip. But there are no words for the splitting; the complex metaphysical reality of my desire achieved.
I draw blanks until Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts arrives by post from a friend. I devour it in an afternoon, barely blinking until the final page. “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s “normal” state, and occasions a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?” Nelson writes.
This simple admission that such an ordinary experience can also be peculiar and discombobulating dissolves that afternoon’s tension – it is okay to find it strange.
My husband and I arrive at the hospital. I am bent double, making a sound I’ve never made before. My body has been contracting every four or five minutes for 22 hours. When the muscles of my uterus tighten, the energy surges up through my body and into my throat.
Go for a walk when the contractions start, I was told. Sleep. Bake brownies. Bake brownies? As the first contraction hits, a quake disturbs internal tectonic plates that shift and scrape and shake and ache, crescendoing over 90 seconds before a short break. No time for sleep in between. From the off, I am buckled by their force and cry out involuntarily, falling to my knees. A white-hot, searing rumble, unlike any pain I've experienced. It is not like a period cramp, or a cut, or bruising. It is in the ore of me – and it is odd, mysterious and frightening.
I breathe and moan in the waiting room, waiting for the opening of my cervix, the innermost slit, a taut doughnut of pale pink muscle. I was told to only come to the hospital once I had three contractions in ten minutes, but the sheer length of time convinces me that we must be close. A kind midwife sticks her fingers inside my vagina to measure my cervix but it is only two cm dilated. The size of a fucking Weeto. Not enough to stay in the hospital, nowhere near the ten cm needed for our baby to squeeze through. We are sent home.
Eight hours later, we return. I have been in labour for 30 hours now. I had no idea it could take this long. I have missed two nights’ sleep and barely eaten since Saturday morning. It is Monday. How will I find the energy to birth my baby?
This is not like childbirth on film: water breaks in neat puddle, woman rushes to hospital, baby pops out an hour or so later. It dawns on me that maybe the movies lied. You never, for example, see ‘The Show’, a large globule of blood and mucus that comes away from the cervix at some point during labour. It’s not screen-friendly, I guess. Nor do you witness the snakes and ladders of decision-making that take place to keep everyone safe.
We wait to be seen. There are two other labouring women in the shadows. I’m surprised by how little I care that others can hear my undignified moos. After an hour or so, I get on the gas and air and it is heaven, for a while. My cervix is examined again. Four cm: enough to be admitted. (As my cervix effaces, so too does my previous self, my identity. As she is readying to be born, part of me is dying. I don’t realise this until later.)
The birthing suite is windowless, so I soon lose all sense of time. It is a large space with a bathtub, double bed and equipment to sit or squat on, or lean over. My birthing cave. I contract for some hours, gripping the pillow I’ve brought from home, gulping Entonox. Another examination. Still four cm, after 33 hours. With her fingers still inside me, the midwife offers to break my waters to speed things up. I agree, she pierces the sac with a small crochet hook and a warm amniotic lake soaks the towels on the wipe-clean bed. A dial is turned up, the contractions intensify, juddering through me, around 350 tidal waves in total. I’d planned not to use pain relief, but I want the opioid pethidine now. Let’s try the water first, they say, because you can’t use the bath after taking a painkiller. I am in the bath, gas and air pipe clamped between my teeth. And then, I trip balls.
A procession of characters that I recognise from preverbal childhood dances in front of me. Objects from the depths of my inner psyche are here to spur me on. A gunky slice of volcanic lava cake, crimson and egg-yolk yellow. With eyes and spindly legs. Three rabbits in woollen shoes, tap dancing. A frog playing a creaking accordion. A hedgehog waltzing. A hare called Mr Tibbins. I realise that everything that has happened in my life has led to this perfect, awful moment of giving birth to my child and it was always meant to be. I am delirious with pain, the gas and air and the psychedelic story that is playing out for me. It gives me succour. I think this is what they call ‘transition’. It is one helluva wormhole.
I’m ready for the final act, but my bladder is blocking the baby. I’m too high to wee, so the midwives insert a catheter. To my dismay, the gas and air is withdrawn and I must push her out without any pain relief.
Naked, sweating, squatting, moaning, breathing, pushing, bucking, gurning. I am at my most feral and primitive. We are 41 hours in. At one point, it appears the baby may tear through my perineum, so I’m swiftly moved into another stance. Over the next couple of hours, I am placed in various positions to harness the force of gravity: all fours, a sort-of chair, kneeling and finally, lying on my side with one leg on a midwife’s shoulder because, by then, I’m too tired to hold myself up.
Pushing a child out of my vagina is the most extraordinary feeling. The pain is unrecognisable. I trust the midwives and my husband, but surely I am dying or at least splitting in half. It burns and stings and my eyes roll back and forward as I suck in and hold the oxygen that allows my body to push. Cut her out, cut her out, cut her out. I am birthing a hurricane. A spiked mace. A heap of barbed wire. A bladed melon. An inflated pufferfish. A prickle of hedgehogs. A Christmas tree.
Her heart rate has dropped and she is in jeopardy. The red emergency button above the bed is pressed. Doctors fill the room in seconds. A man asks permission to use a ventouse to suck her into the world. I can barely speak, so nod. I am an animal now. I am dying. My insides and outsides, vagina and cervix, skin, muscle and soul are roaring with pain. I have never wanted anything more than to get the baby out and for her to be alive and healthy. I pool my last drops of strength into a final push. She breaks through and spurts out. Her dark eyes are humongously wide. Her hands are splayed open. She is placed on my chest. My heart explodes.
For years, my mother told me the pain of childbirth was fine, that my large feet would make it easy. Then she broke rank. She told me it was really bad and questioned my decision to do it without drugs.
And still, it is not finished. Do I want an injection to speed up the placenta’s ejection? After 43 hours, I’m over my wish for an intervention-free birth. It flops out after ten minutes or so. I ask if I can see it before they take it away. (To where? A bin? The sea?). It is surprisingly navy; bulbous, slimy and as big as a beret.
I look around and, well, my cave resembles a crime scene. Quickly and briskly, the blood and mess is cleaned up and I am sewn back together in the middle of the room, sucking on gas and air with my eyes resting on my daughter, naked on her father’s bare chest, as they will rest on her forever. I don’t care that they get the stitches wrong and have to do it again. My baby is in the corner and I, relatively recently sober, am enjoying the high of licit drugs.
My mind often returns to those hours. To be closer to death than I ever have been is not something that I can shake off. I want to remember the midwives and the room. I Google the head midwife to see her face. I write to say thank you, thank you for birthing my baby safely. I am so grateful to the NHS. And, just like they say, I start to forget the feeling. But I don’t want to. I want to hold it close, this most transformative experience of my life and stop the sleepless nights that follow from chewing it away. There is an ecstasy in the memory of the agony. I think of it as a life-giving pain and I am proud.
Apart from the obvious – that it is painful – I have found society strangely silent on the realities of childbirth. Perhaps they are not spoken about in great detail to protect those about to do it from anxiety that may slow the process. Certainly, I edit and dilute my story for pregnant friends, or those that might be soon. To quell my fears during pregnancy, my friends kept their gory details away from me. I’m not sure if it’s better to know or not, or if you can ever really be prepared.
Scenes of childbirth, or the internal processing of the experience, are also scant in literature – the place many go to better understand life. The births in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are the only ones I can recall in fiction. Caitlin Moran’s birth stories in How To Be A Woman were the first, real accounts I’d ever read, just a few years ago. Maggie Nelson decided to write of hers in The Argonauts yet more recently (2015) after seeing that the sole account of childbirth in a “Best American Non-Fiction” anthology was written by a man.
Perhaps it’s just not very interesting to those who haven’t experienced it. Perhaps it’s because most writers have historically been male. Perhaps there is collusion around the graphic details to keep the species going. Perhaps it is simply because the patriarchy doesn’t want to hear about tearing vaginas. As Pamela Erens wrote in a piece for Slate on the taboo of childbirth in literary fiction, “The reason surely is, in part, that childbirth has to do not just with blood and suffering but with blood and suffering down there. You know, the vagina.” Maybe it is too much, subconsciously, to consider what our own mothers went through.
I am warned about the ‘baby blues’ that can arrive five days into motherhood. I think the birth is the hardest thing I will ever do, so it will be fine. And then I experience the riptide of postpartum sleep deprivation. The nights are anarchic and I am bruised by fatigue. As the sun sets, I enter a boxing ring and in the morning it hurts to walk from one room to the other, to open my eyes, to speak. I am violently tired. I’m breastfeeding 18 times a day, for an hour each time. “That’s wonderful,” I’m told, as I slip into nervous exhaustion.
But something is wrong. The baby is not putting on weight. “Just feed, feed, feed, feed, feed”, says the midwife. “Feed on demand,” says the literature. “You can’t overfeed a baby.” I don’t understand why she isn’t putting weight on when I am feeding incessantly. I am distraught that I’m unable to nourish my baby well enough. The booklet the hospital midwife sends me home with paints formula as poisonous to babies. I continue to feed and her jaundice remains as my sanity ebbs away. I feel chastised by everything I read, as I wonder if breastfeeding isn’t working for us. At a breastfeeding clinic, a depressed-looking, expressionless woman with bleeding nipples sits opposite. “Just take a painkiller before the feed,” she is advised. Her face remains blank.
Eventually, a kind, old, Irish midwife hears madness in my voice and gives me the permission I need to buy formula. The baby starts to grow and her jaundice recedes.
In those feverish weeks, I often sleepwalk into the living room cradling an imaginary baby. “She’s here, I have her” says my husband, gently. Confused, I come to. Even when we are not in the same room, I think she is with me. I notice she has her own smell and I am surprised it is not the same as mine. When I close my eyes, I see her. I hallucinate her face in the wooden blinds, in the faces of the Queen, Dominic Cooper, Vince Vaughn, Yoda.
Time folds and unfolds like a concertina. We are knitted together, even though we are not combined physically anymore. My attention is never fully held by anything else, for everything is seen through the gauze of her needs. Some days I feel obliterated by the loss of agency. I am melting into her, and she into me. Hours morph into one another. The walls and days are porous and interchangeable.
I am mad about her, but the squall of birth and early motherhood comes as a shock so, again, I cast around for things to read. I feel let down by the canon, the classics that are supposed to help us understand who we are. I think back to the works on the English literature syllabus at university. Did any of them include childbirth and early motherhood, or was I just uninterested?
Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work is a balm. “Birth… divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed,” she wrote. It is this dividing that is at the heart of my experience. There is no chapter on it in the traditional books. It is not discussed on mum forums. It feels taboo, even shameful, to admit to any feelings that aren’t 100% positive outside the confines of a GP’s surgery or a private conversation with a friend. (Indeed, Cusk was vilified for her honest, funny, tender account of early motherhood. And while a number of similar books have appeared recently and cultural representations of the complexities of motherhood are given more airtime – as in Sharon Horgan’s and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe, for example – there is still a way to go.)
As I write this piece, my daughter is with her father in the room next door. Invisible spider threads pulse through the wall between us and I can hardly concentrate. I hover and follow them around the house and must tear myself away to work. Her whelps and squeals are siren calls, drawing me back. Will I ever feel un-split again? I love my child, but I love my work, too. I’m vexed by the tension. I am surprised by the subliminal, contradictory messages I seem to have internalised, that a) modern motherhood is low-status drudgery which plucks a woman out of the ‘real world’ and consigns her, voiceless, to the side lines and b) mothers are selfish to go back to work (the ‘real world’) because it will harm the child (whether they can afford not to remains beside the point.). I reject these facile, rubbish notions, but still wonder where they came from.
Physically, I am changed, too. I wince at myself in the mirror. I am someone else. My stomach is an empty cocoon, doughy and spent. My breasts are misshapen and scrawled with angry stretch marks. I have cut my hair short to save time washing it. My body smells earthier than normal because I don't have time to bathe every day. And it is buttered with a layer of fat that waxes around my hips and thighs. I have thickened. ‘Matronly’ might be the word for it. I resolve to buy scales instead of bagels.
What are you up to this week, asks a friend. Um, I falter, Going to John Lewis? (We have relinquished the capital for a more affordable town near family and the department store serves free coffee.) I don’t know how to describe mothering. The micro-decisions and negotiations that persuade my daughter to trust me. The “ordinary devotion” of motherhood, as paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott puts it.
Later, I find a quote from Zadie Smith. I drink it up; it sustains me a while. “Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognise as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.”
Yes, there is terror. My mind is awash with images of dropping her on a stone floor and her skull cracking. Or tripping down the stairs with her. Or a car crashing into the pram, flinging her into the air. I hold her so tight.
Then there is the fear of raising a child during a time of concurrent global crises. The news of Trump and his galling, wilful ignorance unfolds around the same time I read a new report warning that the world will lose two-thirds of its wild animals by 2020. She will then be four.
Death looms, a bogeyman, an obsession for the first time. The death of my husband, my death, her death. I fear pain for our family. I watch a nature documentary and remember we are just mammals and this fear is hardwired, normal. I breathe.
I spend the night in the spare room to get some sleep. She cries out around midnight and before I register the sound aurally, it shoots a current into my bowels and up my spine. Zapped through the walls by my electric eel; a frequency only I can discern, a bespoke ultrasound. It jolts my body awake before my mind. My cells are alert to only her. She is the queen of me. She runs me. I am no longer top dog.
Three months in, forged by the fourth trimester, I am learning to live with higher stakes, to bear the reality that she is vulnerable and nothing is certain. I am learning to enjoy the frightening enormity of this new love. Autumn is turning to winter; the world shrinks and brittles. More changes and evolutions will surely come but, for now, the waters feel calmer. We call her Evelyn. It means ‘longed-for child’.
Photograph by Lucy Jones