Funny how life changes you, isn’t it? I never did any babysitting as a teenager, firstly because I wasn’t asked and secondly because I would have refused on the grounds of loathing babies, children and vomit.
Early images of small puce-faced people apoplectically thrashing their many limbs about on the floor of Woolworths on a Saturday morning were probably a strong influence. And I remember a visiting small boy – accompanying friends of my parents – being allowed to run amok in our sacrosanct living room, grabbing ornaments and clambering over the back of the sofa to stand on the windowsill. My brother and I retired to our rooms, traumatised and mystified that such behaviour could be tolerated in our ordered, tidy home, where the smallest indiscretion was usually noted. We could scarcely have been more disturbed if we’d discovered dad shooting up heroin before the night shift.
So kids weren’t on the agenda at all until I found myself inexplicably softening towards them and my best pal at work suddenly became pregnant and within a few weeks, so was I. It was all quite exciting, the prospect of another person growing inside me. I got a book which illustrated sproglet’s development week by week in black and white line drawings. I kept Captain Sensible appraised of progress and he dutifully went to fetch barbecued spare ribs from the Chinese five miles away when my cravings demanded it but he only showed proper, genuine interest much later when the bump got active and there was some debate whether a sudden sticky-out bulge was an elbow or a foot.
I wasn’t sick or moany or scared. I blossomed, ate well and drifted around in floral frocks. I thought of myself as one big biology practical. This was a natural experience. I trusted in my hormones and anticipated coping with the unknown pain of childbirth in a quiet, dignified, intelligent, slightly heroic way. I only hoped and prayed that the baby would be fine. It was growing normally; I’d put myself on a healthy eating diet and taken myself off alcohol. There was no reason to worry.
We had no idea that babies and kids are infinitely portable so we behaved slightly as if the birth would signal the end of our known world. We visited places of interest as though we would never again have the opportunity to do so. We went to Paris with two other similarly pregnant friends and their blokes where I fainted off in a restaurant toilet, rowed across the lake at Versailles, watched naked dancers at the Crazy Horse (I only had a very small glass of champagne) almost got robbed in front of Sacre Coeur.
The birth was a bit of a shambles, to be honest. My hormones let me down and refused to kick in. I was ten days overdue when I had to go into hospital with a suitcase on a Sunday morning to be induced. Stirrups, waters broken by a doctor. Ping, ping like someone twanging an elastic band with a crochet hook and then a warm, dribbly release. I felt a bit of a failure. Bloody bodies, you can’t trust em. Labour was still sluggish so I needed heavy-duty doses of oxytocin to get things going. Pains, at last. Did all the breathing correctly, everything going nicely according to the text books again. A sudden “pass the kidney dish” moment marked the transitional phase – just before the serious bit and then the pushing.
At that point, my doctor stepped in and spoiled it all. My blood pressure was raised, which was quite annoying as I felt absolutely fine. At that point, being a bit mentally flaky – transition is the point at which many women apparently rant at their men “You f***ing f***er, you got me into this, you f***ing useless b*****d. I never want to have sex with you EVER AGAIN!” – I felt that it couldn’t be true. That I should be left to see how things go. But I was given pethidine (blood pressure reducer which adversely affects baby, I discovered later) carted off to have an epidural (spinal anaesthetic).
It all went a bit zen after that. I was lying there like a crestfallen walrus, feeling the regular tightenings of labour but without any pain. I must have been slightly drowsy because I kept asking where Capt Sensible was and although they promised to find him, he didn’t appear and I only felt vaguely upset instead of being firm and insistent.
Every now and then, a midwife would arrive in my little room, listen for the baby’s heartbeat, check dilation. Then there was one check where she couldn’t hear a heartbeat. She muttered something about machines never being reliable and went to find another one.
Next thing my bed was whizzed into the delivery suite full of green-gowned people and I was allowed to sit up, get myself comfy and push. I realised that one of the green-gowns was Capt Sensible, who clutched my hand with enormous relief saying “They threw me out and then wouldn’t tell me where you were!” I didn’t mention the lack of foetal heartbeat.
It’s really no different to the old “pushing a football through a drainpipe” description and took more effort without the pain as a spur but, like everyone in the room I realised time was of the essence so I gave it 1,000%. Eventually he arrived. A baby boy. Seven pounds twelve ounces.
I saw them unwrap the umbilical cord from around his neck, one, two, three times and wipe flecks of blood from his face. He was slate-grey with closed eyes. I hadn’t been sure what to expect but it wasn’t this. I thought of all the movements I’d felt and how with each somersault inside me, the cord must have tangled around him and now, during delivery, strangled him.
They took him to the other side of the room and managed to get him breathing before they wrapped him in a blanket, gave me the briefest look at him and rushed him off to the special care unit.
“Try not to worry.You can see him later.” I was told.
“He is ok, is he?” I asked Capt Sensible. He didn’t have any idea either. The question kind of hung between us.
I was taken to a ward full of mothers with babies in cots by their bedsides and given tea. I felt more bereft than I ever have in my life; bereft and terrified that our new baby was elsewhere, in an unknown place, in an unknown state, being cared for my unknown people. I also felt inexplicably desperate to see him and kept asking if someone could take me. Eventually at 6am a nurse fetched me a wheelchair (they don’t allow you to stroll around for some time after an epidural, basically because you can’t feel your legs). She wheeled me into the Special Care Baby Unit past rows of incubators to the one with Baby H on it.
I hardly recognised the infant within. He was half-covered with a little blanket. His eyes were still closed but his skin colour had turned from grey to creamy-pink. I watched his chest to check his breathing. It was light and steady. He wasn’t connected to any machines. He had the right number of fingers and toes. His miraculously tiny perfect nails had grown long, proving that he was properly overdue and needed to be born.
Four hours later, he was brought up to my hospital bed and I gave him his first feed. It wasn’t a huge success because he was still very sleepy from the pethidine but it was a start.
For a few long moments, he opened his eyes and gazed steadily at me. They were a very dark blue. In the crook of my arm, he went back to sleep, comfortable, warm and mine. I wanted to hold him and keep holding him forever. I’ve liked babies ever since.
A lot later…