Merry Christmas, my dear, dear blogging friends and silent readers. This is a December 25 we will never forget, and I hope you and your families have a wonderful holiday season and end to 2010. What a year it’s been.
I was drinking a lot of water, and when breakfast arrived, I dutifully ate my Weetbix and drank my juice. It’s worth pausing here a moment just to reflect on the nightmare that is hospital toast. Really, by rights it should be called something else entirely. It has no business at all claiming to be toast. Toast implies toasting, a step overlooked by the good folk in charge of the otherwise pretty high standard catering. But nor is this stuff any longer simply bread. I’d much prefer a slice of bread to this unnameable, unholy thing, served in a white paper sleeve, masquerading as toast. I don’t know how they manage to make it so that it’s both dry and damp, but it’s a neat trick – just not something I ever want to put in my mouth. From memory, Llew scored a breakfast tray too, because I think we were both waxing pretty nostalgic about the Weetbix, as it’s such a childhood cereal. I thoroughly enjoyed mine, and had I known it would be my last meal for a while, I would have eaten the not-toast and thoroughly enjoyed that too.
Here my timeline gets just a little hazy… but the main markers of progress, aside from that excruciating back pain, were the jagged lines on the print out (now there’s a souvenir I would have liked, that sheet of slowly unspooling paper), which grew larger and closer together. I’d felt obscurely fraudulent until now, like someone faking a headache or a fainting spell in order to get out of church, but those crazy lines made me feel less like someone simulating labour, say in a bad daytime soap opera, and more like someone actually undergoing it. It was all so surreal that I needed that print out: tangible proof to prove to myself that I wasn’t bunging it on. Meanwhile Baby J’s heartbeat tapped happily along – the kid was completely unfazed.
I tried to find a comfortable place for myself, but the concentration of pain in my tailbone was just so acute that the only bearable position was upright; nothing else worked, not even remotely. Llew and the midwife who attended the first half of this ordeal, E, raised the bed so I could at least bend over the end of it. The worst hell was being instructed to lie down – how this ever became a birthing position is beyond me. While lying on my back – this so they could measure the cervical dilation and get a feel of the position of the baby’s head – nothing was so clear to me than that these fuckers – my obstetrician, the midwife, her supervisor, my husband – were all in it together, and that they were a pack of complete BARBARIANS. After all, only the most sadistic arseholes in the world would ask me to lie on my back at a time like this, when it was patently obvious that nothing, nothing in the universe, was more painful than complying.
Look, people described contractions to me as like really, really intense period cramps, but I’m afraid I have no choice but to be a voice of dissent on this point. This was nothing like any period cramp I’ve ever had. For a start, period cramps tend to occur in front; my labour was all concentrated back in the business end. I daresay this is all to do with the baby’s position, but make no bones about it: it was wildly painful. I’d throw myself on the toilet seat one second, convinced my entire bottom half was about to blow apart, only to have to launch myself straight off again as the latest pain bomb detonated in my rear. There would be no sitting down. No ball. No squatting. No getting on all fours. No. The only hope, it seemed to me, was to remain standing.
E eventually got me on the gas, which didn’t really do much, but sucking hard on the mouthpiece gave me something to focus on when the contractions hit, and it seemed to take the edge off. I was soon stroking this thing like a beloved pet. The gas was my friend. Suck it up, buttercup. When lunchtime rolled around, they urged me to eat something, so I ate a banana. Later I was sooo glad I did, because I did not get to eat another thing until the following day (I should mention here that my dear husband had already absentmindedly eaten all my Emergency Sugar Hit During Labour Minties while he sat in the birthing suite’s Lazyboy playing with his phone).
I finally put Llew to work, flapping at him to look lively and start massaging my lower back whenever a contraction struck (it’s safe to say that when he piped up later to lament his sore thumbs, no one was giving him much sympathy). Then a knock on the door and a nurse’s head saying, “Um… there’s a relative waiting outside.”
This would be the first of one, two, three visits by one or the other of my in-laws during the labour. Now, they were only there because they care and were trying to help – with fitting the car seat and other things that really did need doing – but each time necessitated Llew’s departure from the birthing suite, and I was left to labour alone. I was livid about it, too. I really didn’t think it needed saying that NOW IS NOT THE TIME. As well meaning as these interruptions were, the truth is, they really weren’t great for me. It wasn’t a drop-by-and-pick-up-the-keys scenario. As far as I was concerned, there was only one priority, and everything and everyone else could wait. Or not, as the case may be…
Somewhere in here was my second vomit, into the hurriedly proffered barf bag and everything. This vomit was deeply sinister. It looked like the sort of toxic sludge that invariably ends up surfacing on the site of a children’s playground in a poor neighbourhood, the kind of black ooze that some big company is always behind. Llew and I both reeled back in horror. For a second there, I felt like Linda Blair, and I would have been quite keen for the power of Christ or just about anyone else to compel me.
Instead, the vomit was discreetly removed, and I went back to abusing Llew’s thumbs for all they were worth. And then, after reaching 8 centimetres dilation in pretty good time, the unthinkable occurred: everything stopped.
It was a long day, the 24th of November. I was one of those women for whom the breakage of waters does not herald the immediate onset of labour. Dr F said it could happen anytime in the next 24 long hours, or – shudder – not at all, in which case I would have to be induced (and speaking of induced, how were N and A going with that? No one could tell us). I could imagine induction looking mighty appealing after a day spent flicking between the Ashes and reality TV hell – an omnibus of Border Security – after that I’d be ready to accept just about anything to make it stop. In fact, given all the drama of life and death – toiling at the coalface of existence, really – it’s remarkable just how fucking boring a day spent in hospital can be. After Llew and I returned from our second escape attempt (a walk around the block; we went looking for a rumoured park, but only found a sad, starved, concreted “garden” overlooking the highway), we resigned ourselves to the long night ahead. Squeezing on to the bed, we sat dumbly watching Location, Location, mindlessly shovelling ever more edible diversions into our faces as the hours slowly ticked over.
Then some searing discomfort struck my lower back region. Concentrated in the area near my tailbone, these were painful spasms that sent me shooting off the bed in fits of agony. I paced the room trying to knead the spot with my balled fists, then the pain would subside and I would climb back onto the bed. It didn’t occur to me that these could possibly be contractions – surely they were in the wrong spot? – it only felt like back pain. Acute back pain, and that was it.
Eventually, a night nurse arrived with sleeping pills for me, and marching orders for Llew. I can’t remember if we even told her about my tailbone torture; part of me thinks not. Not generally a fan of taking pharmaceuticals, I was genuinely excited by the offer of sleeping pills and verily gobbled them down. I’d been awake since 4 am and the thought of being knocked out cold was exquisite. I imagined that dreamless exit of a general anaesthetic, and as far as I was concerned, it couldn’t come fast enough. I practically pushed Llew out the door. Take me, Sandman, I’m yours.
A couple of wide-awake hours later, I was still periodically leaping out of bed in real pain. The sleeping pills had no effect whatsoever. Zero. I didn’t even feel drowsy. Frankly they weren’t enough to muster a yawn. I’ve had glasses of warm milk with far more soporific potency than whatever the hell they gave me in the hospital that night. I was WIDE AWAKE.
And then I was seized by something new, something horrible and entirely unexpected: the certain knowledge that I was about to throw up. I am, as you may recall, one of the least nauseous people around. Not only was I spared morning sickness, I can practically count the number of times I’ve vomited in my life; it’s just not something I do. But there I was, about to be sick. Unfortunately I was, at this precise moment, already sitting on the toilet. When it came, the force of it was great. Vomit is always such an assault, don’t you think? It’s such a violent expulsion. I literally had just enough time to swivel my head toward the sink before it burst forth: the sorry remains of the apple crumble and custard I’d eaten for dessert.
Ugh. Vomit is f-o-u-l – it always feels so poisonous.
It was at this point that I pressed the button for the nurse.
“I’m sorry to trouble you,” I said glumly, “but I thought I’d better let you know I was just sick.”
She made sympathetic noises and briskly cleaned up the travesty in the sink.
“And here I was thinking you were sound asleep,” she said.
“There’s been no sleep. Not a wink.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “I didn’t want to bother you, but I’m getting these back pains. I think that’s why I can’t sleep – they really hurt.”
She looked at me a little more sharply.
“Right,” she said. “I’m just going to go and talk to them down at Delivery. It might be time to move you down there.”
I can’t remember what time this was – maybe 2 am? At any rate, down to Delivery I went, into another remarkably spacious birthing suite. They hooked me up to the monitor and the lady on duty (midwife, nurse, who knows?) said, “Oh, you haven’t even started having contractions.”
“So what are those pains I’ve been having? They’re pretty bad.”
“Braxton Hicks, maybe.”
Fake contractions. Mild fake contractions. This was a worrying idea, given the intensity of the pain.
She shrugged again.
“Maybe. Let’s see what happens. We will keep monitoring you every hour or so. For now, try to get some sleep – you need to get some rest. You’re going to need all your strength.”
Sleep would not come. The pain in my tail was so much greater than my exhaustion – every time they took me off the monitor I immediately scrambled off the bed and stalked around the room until it subsided for another round. It was miserable, frankly, and it was even worse doing it alone. Eventually my pain started translating into jagged lines on the print out from the monitor. There was the baby’s heart rate on one line, and my contractions – no longer warm-ups but the real McCoy – on the other. One shift ended and another began; staff would pop in, read the monitor and withdraw. One of them said she felt sorry for me because I was all by myself, and I doubt I’ve ever felt lonelier than in the seconds after she too left the room. Llew had been sent home because nothing was happening, but now something was happening, and Llew wasn’t there.
Finally it was a reasonable enough hour to call (I’d figured at least one of us might as well get a decent night’s sleep – it wasn’t as though things were progressing at a cracking pace in the birthing suite). Llew immediately started running through his lengthy To Do list. He thought he’d run several of the more pressing baby-related errands en route to the hospital, but did I have news for him.
“I need you to come straight here,” I said.
“It won’t take long – I’m just going to take the car up to the –”
“No. I need you to come straight here. I need you to come now.”
There are moments in life when only very specific words will do, when there is nothing in the world you need more than the person on the other end of the phone hearing exactly what you are saying, and responding exactly the right way. And on the morning of November 25, Llew said precisely what I so badly needed to hear:
“I’m on my way.”
And then. Precisely. Nothing. Happened.
“Anything?” someone would occasionally pop into the birthing suite to ask.
“Nope,” I’d say. “Not a thing.”
My obstetrician wasn’t due until later in the day, so once it became clear there was no movement at the station, we were relocated to Maternity so someone who was actually, you know, giving birth could use the suite instead. Cooling our heels in Maternity meant amusing ourselves with regularly arriving trays of food, snacks, post-snack snacks, the drinks trolley and more trays, until the tedium was broken by the arrival in our share suite of another couple, A and N. N was being induced at the 41-week mark, so they were playing the waiting game too, just from the opposite side of the ‘due date’ spectrum. The staff thoughtfully drew the curtain between us, but the four of us were soon exchanging snippets of conversation and commiseration. I was fascinated to learn that induction takes hours; I’d always imagined a powerful injection leading to immediate delivery – fire in the hall! – but that wasn’t what happened at all. N’s limbo was exactly like my own – we were just sitting it out for hours and hours and hours, kind of like being trapped on Platform Zero waiting for a perpetually cancelled train.
Then I got Class A Cabin Fever, and I had to get out. First, I thought N and A might appreciate some privacy, but I also thought if I didn’t breathe some fresh air some time soon, I was going to go ape-shit. I found out a few things about myself over the course of this experience, and one is that I really, really, really dislike air-conditioning. I know it’s not exactly fake air, more like reconstituted air, but as with reconstituted juice, I am not a fan. I like my air fresh, the sort that comes of being outside, and even though by this stage I was walking like an unsteady toddler with a full nappy, I just about ran to the lifts as Llew and I made a break for the hospital doors.
Outside, it was a hot, sunny day. The sky was that cloudless, blazing blue that is so distinctly Sydney’s, and the heat swarmed over my skin like something alive. We strolled up to Crows Nest and decided – perhaps this betrays a measure of our delirium – that now might be a good time to purchase something for Baby J to wear home from the hospital. We hadn’t gotten that far beforehand, you see. Llew hadn’t even finished the bassinet, let alone the painting… so a coming home outfit? Not a chance. A muslin wrap? Nary a one in sight. A nappy? Um, no. Baby wipes? I don’t think so. We were caught spectacularly unprepared – even the car seat wasn’t yet fitted. So I squelched along beside Llew while he fielded calls from his increasingly alarmed parents, still feeling nothing but the fluid draining out of me at irregular intervals, keeping my eyes peeled for a baby store.
Eventually we found one, and enlisted the shopgirl’s assistance. We would have bought just about anything she suggested, I realise now, but she missed the sales opportunity of a lifetime, because she didn’t realise we were out of our minds, and it wasn’t until we were at the checkout that she said, “So when are you due?”
I waved my hospital tags at her and said, “Any minute now. We went over the wall.”
Her eyes bugged and her jaw hit the floor. Her colleague stared uneasily at us and then looked meaningfully at the door.
“Yep,” I continued, glancing around appreciatively, “theoretically, I could give birth right here.”
She laughed nervously while I patted my stomach.
“Oh,” she said. “Please don’t do that.”
“My waters broke this morning,” I continued, feeling quite cheerful all of a sudden, “so it’s coming early, ready or not.”
“Here you go.” She pressed our bags on us and practically shooed us away. “Good luck with that.”
“All the best,” smiled her colleague. “You’d best be getting back to the hospital now, I suppose.”
“I feel fine!” I said. “Really! Top o’ the morning!”
They exchanged looks of relief as Llew and I crossed the threshold and started moving away from them and their spotless floor. We wandered into another couple of stores on the return leg, buying Llew a golf magazine to help pass the time, and a nightie for yours truly (another thing I didn’t own until this day arrived) before reluctantly returning to the hospital. N and A were gone – moved to Delivery, no doubt – so when Llew left to make a couple more phone calls and get something else to eat from the surprisingly good café downstairs, I was left alone with my thoughts.
I pulled out what began life as my IVF diary and tried writing down the day’s story so far, but then I recalled something Llew had said as we sat out that hour at home. He had crawled back into bed with me and said quietly “I’m going to miss it being just us.” We held each other tightly as my first tears of the day came, and I whispered back, “Me too.”
It makes me cry every time I think of it. Then as now, the sheer enormity of what we were doing, what we had done in choosing to bring this new life into the world, and its effect on our lives, came on me like that cancelled train suddenly tearing down the line wiping out all comers. Reality bore down on me at warp speed, and in those long seconds alone in the share suite, everything that had been abstract became painfully, instantly actual. After this day, we would no longer be as we were, as we have always been. That time was ending.
Llew and I have been together 14 years. Nearly a decade and a half of just being the two of us, a pair of unsupervised kids linking arms, skipping along, and entirely pleasing ourselves. We are gaining immeasurably by entering this new phase of life – I knew that then and I absolutely know it now – but I couldn’t keep writing at the hospital after that, because I recognised that while we had so much to look forward to, we were undoubtedly embarked upon the loss of something too. The sum of ‘us’ was about to change for all time, and a part of me mourned. Alone in that room down the end of the hall, I wept.
But this was a hospital, after all, a place where there is no howling in private. I had fled into the bathroom, fearing Llew or the return of N and A, but instead it was my obstetrician’s Scottish brogue that came through the door.
“Are you in there, Di?”
A near inaudible croak of assent…
“What’s the matter, Di?”
I stumbled out as what felt like a cast of thousands stumbled in – Dr F was already there waiting by the bathroom door, then Llew returned and K, the trainee midwife, all gathered round as I hurriedly dried my eyes and mumbled something about being caught out. They made a few jokes about Llew leaving me unattended, then Dr F confirmed my waters had broken. He said they would not be sending me home because I was only at 36 weeks, and that they would wait and see what happened next. And then he and K were gone, and Llew and I were left on Platform Zero, waiting if not for the train, then for the next tray of food to arrive.
In ancient mythology, my name, ‘Diana,’ means goddess of the hunt and the moon, and while I don’t know where we were in the sky’s calendar when Baby J decided to make his move, we definitely weren’t far off the full wheel of cheese. Talk during the Darklings’ stay had turned to the lunar, both actual and fictional, and I’ll forever associate our stroll along the beachfront on their final night, the moon heavy over the inky Pacific, with the start of things to come. Indeed, they say that maternity and psych wards are especially chaotic places during full moons, and the hospital was certainly jumping when we arrived.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s not where it all started. It started at home, in bed. You know how I predicted Baby J’s witching hour would be 4 am? Well, he did nothing to dispel this idea in the wee hours of November 24, when I awoke with a jolt. Had I wet myself in my sleep…? That would be unusual, I thought. Could it be my waters breaking? Surely not, I thought. So I lay there, quietly wondering, waiting to see what would happen next. I must say, this long moment was hugely lacking in drama – there was no pipe bursting, no popping sound, no dam wall giving way, just – there it was again, that small, silent rush. I went to the bathroom. I returned to bed. It happened again, and that’s when I knew I wasn’t merely incontinent. And that’s when I leaned over and quietly said, ‘Llewie, I think my waters just broke.’
Llew lurched upright like Frankenstein breaking free of the lab. He seemed to be gasping for air, and in seconds he was blindly throwing some of my things into his grandfather’s old port with one hand while calling the hospital with the other. They were unhurried. Call back in an hour, they said. Go back to bed and see if it continues. Make sure.
Uh huh. Okay. We waited an hour, and we were sure. And when we called back, so were they. Come in, they said. Have a shower, eat something, and come in. All this time I felt eerily calm. I showered and the last doubt evaporated – I had no control over this rush of liquid, it had its own inexorable agenda. After my shower, Llew got me some muesli and yoghurt for a 5 am breakfast, and possibly a cup of tea. I ate slowly, little realising it would be the last meal I would eat entirely at my leisure for a good deal of time to come. As I dipped my spoon and continued scooping neat little mouthfuls of cereal from the bowl, I really had no sense whatsoever of what would happen next, and zero anxiety about it. I just knew that it had begun.
In the car, a fit of giggles struck. Llew and I wept with hysteria – really uncontrollable cackling – imagining nurses calling out to each other to come get a look at this girl who wet herself. We imagined arriving only to be told I just couldn’t tell the difference between peeing my pants and having my waters break – at the time, this scenario was the very height of hilarity. I practically gave myself a stitch over it. Llew and I howled with laughter acting out this ritual humiliation, adding layers of ridicule until we were both streaming tears. We must have looked an absolute treat to passing cars. And so it was that we made our way to the hospital, in what was already a surprising amount of traffic. An hour later, and that trip would have taken an hour longer. As it was we arrived at the hospital just after 6 am, weak from laughter. Instantly I felt like apologising for making a fuss. And I really thought they’d turn us around and send us straight back home again. Instead, we were shown into a birthing suite, and I was instructed to deliver up evidence of the fluid that was steadily leaking out of me. I obliged, and all doubt about its nature promptly vanished. This confirmation was shocking in its clarity: suddenly, four weeks ahead of schedule, we were GO for Baby J.
Well, I wasn’t shortlisted in the ABR short story competition, and I wasn’t awarded an ASA mentorship, but I am the new mother of a very impatient, four-week-early little boy of voracious appetite, so I ask you: who cares?! Competitions, awards, prizes – I think I just won the lot.
You’ll be pleased to know there is a cracking birth story to mark Baby J’s early arrival, and I’ll share it just as soon as we have decompressed and found a rhythm I can already just about glimpse. This is Day 6. We came home yesterday and survived that first unsupervised night pretty well unscathed, and every 24 hours has thus far proven to be its own epic adventure. Llew and I love each other, and now we love him too.
Baby J has yet to be named – we’re still catching up to the stunning fact of his existence – but I think he shall stay Baby J on this blog. The little man is entitled to some privacy, after all. He has his own path to carve.
I won’t make any ridiculous, doomed-to-fail promises about when I’ll next post on DoctorDi, but I will do my utmost to check in with you all soon, because I do really, really want to tell you just what happened last week. In the meantime, it’s safe to say my writerly curiosity about different birthing modes was more than… er… satisfied.
Thank you all so much, truly, for sharing the last 8 months of his gestation with me, with us – all the hopes and well wishes have delivered a beautiful little new person who looks very much like an old soul. As one of the nurses noted on Monday, “Oh, he’s been here before.” Lucky us.