A labour

2.00am, Saturday morning: You wake up in the dark. The bed is warm and your husband sleeps soundly next to you. There’s a rhythmic cramp spreading throughout your pelvic area, like a period cramp. But it feels too repetitive for that. You don’t know much about your pelvis except that there’s been a lot going on in that area of late. A person’s head. Their fingernails, nose, feet and elbows. All in there. In that comfy cocoon you built, a baby-sized sleeping bag for your passenger. Your friends tell you you’re a wizard. Your stomach has huge purple welts all over it. The wide, shiny scars began as little squiggles just above your belly button, and then fanned out in a clockwise fashion. Now they encircle your navel and hold it hostage in a messy battleground. Everyone told you to keep putting this oil or that cream on your skin, as though it would render the warfare neutral.

Stretchmarks encircle your navel and hold it hostage in a messy battleground. Everyone told you to keep putting this oil or that cream on your skin, as though it would render the warfare neutral.

It was like this when you put on weight as a teenager. People seemed concerned, maybe even displeased upon witnessing the changes that tore through you like a cyclone and left you with blood dripping from between your legs, often unexpectedly. Your father was alarmed, and said stretch marks are only for pregnant women. You shrugged then, and you shrug now. You stopped believing you could control your body a long time ago, but you’ve been primed to think you can control your labour. Lying supine on the bed; accepting a diagnosis of failure to progress; resorting to over-medicalisation of the natural event that is childbirth: apparently these must be avoided at all costs.

2.30am: You tiptoe into the bathroom and run the taps. After the water pools sufficiently, you step into the warm bath carefully and try not to topple. Your phone app has been tracking contractions, and they’re very consistent; both you and your pelvis already know that the time has come. Time to eject this baby from the mothership. For months you’ve wanted to lever those tiny elbows and feet out of your ribs, where they’ve forced their way in like fish hooks.

Time to eject this baby from the mothership. For months you’ve wanted to lever those tiny elbows and feet out of your ribs, where they’ve forced their way in like fish hooks.

You’re told that you’ll feel lonely with nobody in your balloon of a belly anymore. This is a lie.

4.00am: The cat sits on the bathmat while you drizzle water across your stomach with wrinkled fingertips. Your husband gets out of bed to look for you. You tell him to get some rest while until the contractions get closer. He’s buzzing. Everyone’s told you how quickly people get kicked out of hospital, and that it’s better to start labour in the morning. That way you can scam an extra day of bedrest in the ward. But today is Saturday morning, and you’re not coming home until Wednesday.

6.00am: Your husband calls the hospital to check when you can be admitted. Not yet; labour for longer, they say. Call back when the contractions are closer. It’s time for the TENS machine you hired. Together you and your husband assemble it, using photos as a guide to replicate where the physiotherapist placed the sticky pads on your back. They belong where you used to have hips and a waist. But you’ve become a plump white worm, spaghetti-like, pasty and wide. With purple welts. Now the sticky square pads produce a firm electric buzz throughout your back to distract you from the increasing force of your pulsating womb. It’s like punching yourself in the face to forget about the agony of a freshly broken leg. It works, for a while.

8.00am: The contractions get closer and sharper until the hospital nurse finally invites you to come in. You lug your overnight bag (fat with baby nappies, maternity pads, smelling oils and trail mix) into the car, careful not to tangle your TENS cords. Your husband snarls at the small blue hospital sign on the roadside – it’s too small, we nearly missed it, how is anyone supposed to know that it’s there? After parking you try to remember the right entrance to this hospital under renovations, stomach still high as ever, TENS cords still trailing from your back into your hands where you toggle the dial. You control this pain. For now.

9.00am: You breathe rhythmically like your CalmBirth® instructor trained you to. Two complimentary CalmBirth® CDs played recordings of meditative dialogue each night, while you tried not to suffocate under your baby belly. Your husband slept soundly, lulled into a meditative state to dream about his womb, strong ribbons of muscle folding firmly around the baby inside him, his child safe in its warm pool of love and nutrients.

Your husband slept soundly, lulled into a meditative state to dream about his womb, strong ribbons of muscle folding firmly around the baby inside him, his child safe in its warm pool of love and nutrients.

You developed leg cramps that threw you out of bed in spasms onto the floor. Doctors confirmed you were suffering from carpal tunnel – your body was struggling to pump enough blood around your body. Breathe in, only through your nose. Breathe out, only through your mouth. Repeat. Repeat. Flinch. Repeat.

10.00am: You’re ushered into Room One. After your cervix is examined, it is decreed that you have successfully dilated to four centimetres. Nearly halfway; the magic number is ten. Your pregnant midwife says you won’t take long now, and it will probably all be over around lunchtime. You look at your husband with excitement. You peel your clothes off – there’s no point being modest. The bed in the centre of the room doesn’t seem useful in any conceivable way. The ground beneath you is becoming more interesting with its cold and soothing flooring. Be on me, it seems to say. Be on me and push. Push your baby toward me and we can all lie down, conserving our energy for sleeping and feeding, resting and nuzzling each other at all times. Be here. So you be there. You lean forward on the ground with your legs open, as the pressure forces you closer to the centre of the earth.

You lean forward on the ground with your legs open, as the pressure forces you closer to the centre of the earth.

11.00am: This inner sanctum feels too empty; you need a familiar cubby, a place of comfort. The midwife asks if you want a hot shower, and she brings the gas machine there for you. She shows you how to used it to maximise the pain relief. It helps a little, but everything feels wonky. The room transforms into an echo. You can’t feel your face. You command your husband to tell you jokes and act out celebrity impersonations to help you laugh, and relax. He looks at you strangely. There are suddenly two rooms now, one on top of the other – like 3D glasses merging the red layer and the blue layer, except the rooms are refusing to merge. Perhaps the other room, the one you aren’t in, is where the good birth happens. In your room, no birth will happen today.

12.00pm: Your mousy pregnant midwife has gone; her shift has ended, and now you have the director of midwives at the hospital assisting you. She’s the only one on who’s accredit for a water birth, which you’ve watched videos of and hope to achieve. You feel incredibly lucky. She talks to you about her two childbirths, and she tells you how horrible her Caesarean sections were.

2.00pm: You’ve been camped out in the shower for some time now, with hot water spewing out of the tap onto your back. You have to keep spinning around like a ballerina elephant so that the student midwife can hold some clunky device against your stomach. It’s meant to monitor your baby’s heartbeat and make sure it isn’t in distress. It looks like a telephone, an old school one with the dial that clicks around in a circle. You wish you could ring this damn baby up, and ask it to cut you some fucking slack. Ring ring, get out already! you’re thinking to yourself in this haze of gas.

4.00pm: Your mother is here now and she loiters in the background, letting you communicate mainly with your husband. You’re struggling. You ask for the pethidine even though you know it’s frowned upon. But the pain is overwhelming, and you’re calculating in your head how long you can cope for. Maybe you should just have the drugs now. They might wear off by the time you deliver, and then nobody will be mad at you for needing help.

4.30pm: The midwife examines you and your water breaks. It splashes all over your feet, and drips over the edge onto the floor. You’re revulsed. Won’t someone clean your feet? You’re too big and too drugged to reach them.

5.00pm: You’re done with this pain. Unwillingly, the midwife administers pethidine. You recline on the bed and wait for something to happen. Anything. But nothing happens.

9.00pm: The pethidine wears off and while the bath fills with water, you wonder: is this is how diamonds are made – under crushing pressure?

The pethidine wears off and while the bath fills with water, you wonder: is this is how diamonds are made – under crushing pressure?

You’ve tried so many positions to ease the pain and coax the child out. You step into the warm bath and pray to no god in particular that the baby will get the hint: it’s time to get out now. It’s eviction time. The midwife rushes in, concerned you’ll get her in trouble because you’ve gone in slightly early. She doesn’t explain that your child is posterior; that your baby is facing your navel, instead of your spine. And so your two spines rub together in the worst agony of your life, and the child isn’t able to dip its head and engage for the last centimetre of dilation required to exit. A puny centimetre. You look at random small objects every day now in a new light: a coin, a staple. A piece of confetti. Anything little still reminds you of the unmistakeable power in minutiae.

9.15pm: The blood continues to pool around you in the bath. But it’s just you and the water and the blood, and no baby. That head is still firmly wedged in your pelvis, that aching pelvis that is now shuddering and grinding like a mincer, forcing all the other contents of the amniotic sac into the bathwater.

9.20pm: Your mother she stands in the doorway silently, letting your husband support you as planned. You’re probably going to die. You tell him that you want to die. You hope your mother doesn’t feel sad – it’s for the best; if you die, at least the pain will be over.

9.30pm: You get out of the bath and totter towards the bathroom door. You’ve got to get out of here. You’re standing in front of the midwife now, stark naked and braying like a horse. It gets you nowhere.

10.00pm: Finally her shift is over. The new midwife on duty, an unknown angel of mercy, is pulling you back out of hell. You’re on the bed ready to be wheeled over to the higher intervention ward. Everyone’s packing your clothes and bags into a strange hospital trolley. It looks more like trailer made of metal grids.

10.05pm: Suddenly the old midwife is back; she’s off the clock but determined to haunt you. She’s trying to coax you into staying here in hell, that you’re going to have your baby within an hour, to keep trying. You hold your hand up to the side of your face to hide her from view. And you gaze directly at your husband, and grit your teeth and growl with the waves of contractions so no words can fill your mouth like blood and pour out, and stain the room in big smears that can’t be cleaned away. Finally she’s gone again. You don’t know how or why. You don’t care. The angel returns and you’re on your way.

10.10pm: There’s a lot of light in the hallway on the way to Room Two. You’re in limbo, morphing into one of those mothers who need an epidural to have their babies, babies who are born slow and sluggish and dopey, with lower APGAR test scores. And you couldn’t be happier.

You’re in limbo, morphing into one of those mothers who need an epidural to have their babies, babies who are born slow and sluggish and dopey, with lower APGAR test scores. And you couldn’t be happier.

Room Two is a smaller room, filled with beeping machines and a smaller bed, a small fold-out couch and a small table, and a small toilet through a small door. This small room is perfect, you think, for my small cervix, my small heart that feels shrunken and cold with fear, my small hope of making it out of here alive.

11.00pm: It takes no less than six attempts to squeeze the epidural needle between the discs in your spinal cord. You listen to the doctor on the telephone, admitting defeat, and asking his superior to please come and help. It’s easy to have this needle; all you have to do is sit perfectly still with your back arched forward, and not breathe. Otherwise you might end up paralysed. It’s not that hard. Honestly, it’s not. The knowledge that you aren’t going to die of pain is incredibly soothing. And so the sticker on your back and the orange paint; the cords between your legs attached to your baby’s head; the needles in your arm; the vomit across your face and bed and clothes: they’re all fine. You lie back while the new doctor administers the epidural, and then dabs random parts of your body with ice cubes until you can’t feel them anymore. Perfect bliss.

12.00am: Your wonderful new nurse regularly asks if she can check on the cords streaming out from between your legs. They’re helping to monitor how the baby is feeling, if it has reached distress levels yet. A machine next to you records the contractions in scribbles. The squiggly lines are making a huge mess of the white paper. Someone may as well have shown you a Jackson Pollock, with a cacophony of ink splattered around. Your body is completely out of control. It’s locked in permanent fits; it’s choking to death. But it’s blissfully painless; the epidural has made sure of that.

1.00am, Sunday morning: Another doctor arrives – a woman. She has long, dark hair and black-rimmed glasses. She looks oddly familiar, and you have to ask. Do I know you? She shakes her head, smiles, and says: Your baby is staring up at you. Your baby is a stargazer. Wave hello to your baby. Your baby won’t come out like this; it’s stuck. We might have to discuss a caesarean section. And you laugh inside, because everyone said it would be fine. They didn’t know your baby.

2.00am: You stare at the ceiling as the orderlies wheel you down the hall, trying not to hit corners and failing. The jarring isn’t that bad though because you’re on your way to Room Three. Room Three is quite big. It has to be, because it has a million people in it. Not really – there’s probably at least 8 people in Room Three, to be more honest about it. You feel guilty that you can’t sit up and move yourself into a new bed. The staff reassure you they can lift you up. You still feel like a nuisance. Like your inefficient skin and bones must be annoying to all these needles and scissors and thread, who are all so very efficient.

 You still feel like a nuisance. Like your inefficient skin and bones must be annoying to all these needles and scissors and thread, who are all so very efficient.

2.07am: Someone tells you that there will be some pressure on your chest. There is. And then there’s a baby boy in your face, red and loud, impossibly red and impossibly loud. And very swollen. Someone places him on your chest, but your arms are shaking and jelly-like. You can’t hold him so your husband takes him while you lay back on the pillow. You can hear the nurses putting you back together and talking about your organs, your placenta boggy after all the work your body has done. Your failed labour. Your victorious failure. You’re a mother.