I’m fascinated (and pleased, of course) when I hear women talk of being empowered by childbirth, of positive pain, of knowing their bodies. That is not my experience, even though my second birth was precipitous and without intervention - 2cm to ‘out’ in under an hour.
I started blogging because I was still unsure why I had a second child when so much birth-related went wrong the first time. Especially as I didn’t know just how great my second child would be! Such a gamble.
My first son’s birth is a damaging story. It was painful, it was scary, it ended in nasty injuries, and it didn’t even end at delivery (three hospital stays, a year of physio). Worse though, it felt uncontrolled. For reasons I’ll never agree with, my husband was sent away. I laboured overnight, in a corridor ward, terrified. My son was stuck, my labour stalling, the pain feeling palpably unproductive. Then it recklessly sped up (presumably after he turned) and I went insane. No-one on the night shift was especially kind.
The experience was primal. Not because I was in touch with my womanhood, drugged up and (literally) on all fours howling at the moon. It was primal because I thought we were dying and the only end in sight was annihilation. I was scared from the minute I was on my own until I felt him appear between my legs, 7 hours later. Until I heard his reedy scream and he landed on a surgical sheet. Our boy, defying intervention threats and monitors, furious with all of us: glossy and tiny and purple and alive (thank the Lord) and OURS.
I coped with the fallout of that night with antidepressants, therapy, crying. I redefined it as a horror story, punctuated with graphic humour and missing the bits which make me feel like an animal. In reality, time expanded and contracted so I fumbled to articulate the explicit, deranged confusion of the story. On better days, I grasped the moments of light: kindness and my husband finally came, a midwife singing happy birthday, the relentlessness of pushing but with sunlight on my face. I haven’t even told my closest friends the worst of it, or my mum. Christ, I haven’t even told my husband some of it. Although I did once shout a lot of details at a therapist before I realised what I was saying.
The next years were a blurry mess, punctuated by the sharp-focused joy of knowing my son. A person I had made, who was all of me, and yet only ever himself.
I got so lucky. That boy tore his way into my happiness when I had disconnected from myself. And in the rusty air of a labour ward on a Saturday morning, he performed two miracles. He changed the world with his brand new, irrevocably true existence, and then locked his black eyes onto mine and forced me to step back into my body and love him.
Three years later, I had my chance for a formative, healing moment. But the possibility of a life-changing, mythical second birth (that anyone with a shitty previous labour or delivery (or both) can only dream of) didn’t help. It became a relentless torment right to the end.
I’d twinged all of my 38th week. I was frenzied with fed-up-ness. The pregnancy was haunted by fear of delivery and by SPD (which escalated until I couldn’t walk). I was huge and scared and mad as hell. I couldn’t fathom how I’d react to labour, but that Friday, I knew the rhythm to the pain before I remembered to be terrified. I keened and moaned, I breathed deep then hard, I swayed. Mostly my husband held me as we faced it all together. I knelt, and stood, and moaned some more. I let it build, the shuddering through my legs and hips, I felt the contractions tear and rip and pull and even though this was the first day in months I was standing without crutches, I was firm. Our doula held me as my eyes went hard and I said I couldn’t do it. I was not alone when the panic started and the pain got hotter and fuller and into my forehead.
I hummed through transition. The hospital said I wasn’t in labour but I couldn’t even show my indignation or walk as far as the door. Within minutes I was the bed, curled into myself, saying ‘if I’m not in labour, you can get a consultant to cut him out’. Five more minutes and I felt myself bend. I said: ‘My waters just broke.’
There was an alarm and meconium sticky and everywhere. And then there were people. Faces round a royal deathbed. I’ve been that woman before. I lay back and shook. I heard my voice, again: ‘What’s happening? I’m sorry. Can someone please sort me out? I can’t stop. I don’t know what I’m doing.’
It took seconds. The room blurred. The midwife turned red (her apron, I later realised), she looked. ‘Just keep doing it,’ she said.
I screamed and someone said across my belly: ‘No-one has told her.’ And then to me: ‘You’re about to meet your baby’.
I looked to the side, confused. The midwife, hands out, started telling me to stop and pant but I couldn’t comply, I couldn’t stop it. And then I saw and felt and heard him all together. Our grey boy. Out. Out and born. And all I could say, all I could think was: ‘I don’t understand what’s happened’ as I stared at the hypnotic, shiny blue cord lasso. And then he was in our arms, turning pink.
I was in a rush to analyse. To know how and why that spinning baby flew out like Superman, wrapped so tight in his long, long cord, when I wasn’t ‘in labour’. But even now I can only feel the speed was us. His need to be out, my need for it to end, our need to stop everything and start it up in one moment. He and I: we needed birth to be what it is, an ending and a beginning.
Did that second childbirth empower me? Fuck no! Did the first? Of course not. And yet was I empowered? Yes. By knowing my son(s), lucky girl. And that is why I did it again.