The Superwomen´s Club
Megan sat across from me in the doorway of the art room and pressed two fingernails into the palm of my hand. “Say when it hurts.”
I screwed up my seven-year-old face and concentrated.
“Ouch.” I pulled my hand away and rubbed the crescent-shaped indentations.
“Having a baby hurts even more than that,” Megan said.
I considered Megan an expert. Her mum had brought home a baby sister a week before. I’d never thought about the process of having a baby. I knew babies came out through their mother’s private parts and not much else.
Not long after Megan’s revelation I saw the movie Look Who’s Talking with Kirstie Alley, John Travolta and a talking baby. In a supposedly humorous labour scene, Kirstie Alley’s character writhes around in agony and says to John Travolta, “You try pushing something the size of a watermelon out of a hole the size of a lemon.” I started thinking about childbirth a lot more. I asked my mum about it.
“It does hurt. But once you hold your baby you forget the pain.”
I didn’t find that comforting. Forgotten pain was still pain, and pain was something I tried to avoid.
“Don’t worry,” Mum said, “it’ll be a long time before you have a baby.”
But I did worry. It was almost as traumatic as realising that someday I would die. The only consolation I had was that, hopefully, both those events were far far into my future.
* * *
The fear of childbirth faded into the background as I faced puberty, boyfriends, exams and striking out into adult life. Only when I started considering a family of my own did the fear return, boosted by the fact that when it comes to the adventure of motherhood, the only thing women seem universally able to agree about is that labour is difficult and painful.
Yet the urge to procreate is strong in many women. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, women love babies and it begins when they’re little girls. As a young girl I remember begging my mum to have a baby. I thought a baby would be the cutest, most adorable toy possible, even better than a Cabbage Patch Kid. At any gathering little girls clamour to get a turn at holding the baby. Meanwhile the boys are busy sword-fighting with sticks or throwing rocks at animals. I don’t know whether it’s genetic or due to social conditioning, but, evolutionarily speaking, it’s fortunate that girls love babies. Otherwise there would be little incentive to face the evil trinity of pregnancy, childbirth and sleep deprivation.
Despite the female love of babies, I wasn’t the only woman I knew afraid of childbirth.
“I don’t know if I can face it,” a friend told me over one of those uninterrupted, alfresco lunches only possible before the arrival of children.
“What about drugs? Surely you could do it if you had drugs.”
“Nope. Even if you can’t feel it you still have to mangle your bits to get the baby out and they have to put that epidural thing into your spine. I couldn’t handle anyone messing with my spine.”
“But don’t you want children?” I couldn’t imagine a future without children.
“Maybe I can adopt.”
“It can’t be that bad when women go back and do it two or three times,” I offered.
Another woman I knew had suggested surrogacy to her clucky husband, while a colleague had enquired about an elective caesarean section in preference to a normal delivery. For me the urge to have a family was strong enough to throw away my birth-control and start calculating fertile days. Once the little white stick showed two blue lines I squashed down my fear by promising myself the epidural at the first opportunity.
* * *
“What are your plans for coping with labour?” The midwife asked the ten couples in our ante-natal class.
TENS machine, massage, nitrous oxide, bath, shower and various other unconvincing sources of pain relief were listed.
“I’m having the epidural,” I said.
Everyone looked at me in surprise (it was pointed out to me later that the purpose of ante-natal classes is to encourage women to have drug-free natural births). Then, in what I felt was an attempt to shame me, the midwife went through the epidural process in detail: the dangers involved and disadvantages for the baby.
“How did you cope?” A woman, with stretch marks licking up her belly like flames, asked the midwife.
“I haven’t had any children yet,” the midwife said.
Ha, I thought, I wonder how brave she’ll be when she faces the prospect of pushing a baby out.
* * *
My waters broke early one morning. After an examination at the hospital, I was sent home in the hope that labour would establish. I returned to the hospital after twenty-four hours with weak contractions. The induction drip was prescribed, due to the risk of a bacterial infection developing.
“Can I have an epidural chaser with that?”
Before long I was immobilised on a bed with saline and syntocin going into my arm, the epidural cocktail entering my spine, a catheter draining my bladder and contraction and heart rate monitors attached to my belly. I felt like Frankenstein”s monster, but I was grateful to not feel any pain - especially when the obstetrician stuck her arm in to attach a heart rate monitor to my distressed baby’s scalp. Despite the welcome absence of pain, I felt like a bystander in my son’s birth. When he slid into the world I hadn’t felt a thing. I’d been hitting the epidural self-administration button pretty hard. When the midwife passed my screaming son to me his tiny fist was curled tightly around the wire from the heart rate monitor attached to his head.
* * *
Almost four years later an older, and debatably, wiser me fell pregnant with my second child. I became obsessed with other women’s labour stories, especially those who’d done it drug free. I wanted to avoid all the drugs and medical intervention that had accompanied my son’s birth and let my body do what it was designed for. I hoped it would be easier the second time around. My husband couldn’t understand why I’d decline the readily available pain relief. I recited medical evidence about it being better for the baby. Deep down I realised I felt inferior to mothers who’d managed without drugs. They were an awesome club of superwomen that I’d never be able to join until I went through the excruciating initiation. Also I wanted to be some sort of pioneer. I’d break the cycle of fear and have a positive labour story.
In preparation I purchased an exercise ball from a perplexed sports store clerk who made the mistake of asking me what I’d be using it for. Each evening I exercised along to my Yoga for Pregnancy DVD and even managed some pelvic floor exercises. I toured the hospital and viewed the birthing pools and confirmed that a CD player would be available in the birthing suite. I wrote a detailed birth plan. And I spoke to other women. Most of them shrugged their shoulders when I asked how they’d coped.
“You just get through it,” they said.
A woman in a hemp clothing shop in Byron Bay told me about her home birth.
“Natural birth is such a unique and amazing experience. There’s something exquisite about the pain.”
Exquisite pain? Still not what I wanted to hear. Finally an acquaintance told me Hypnobirthing had helped her stay calm when she might otherwise have panicked.
* * *
“Pain during childbirth is caused by our conditioned fear which leads to the release of chemicals that initiate the fight or flight response.”
The Hypnobirthing instructor drew a helpful diagram, for my husband and me, on a portable whiteboard.
“When the fight or flight response is initiated blood is taken away from the uterus which results in pain.”
According to the Hypnobirthing philosophy pain free labour is possible and natural. The instructor backed this up with examples and anecdotes. I just needed to change my thinking about childbirth. I also needed to practise putting myself into a state of deep relaxation. I found the relaxation easy. Changing the fear I’d held within me for a lifetime proved harder. Especially when confronted with scepticism whenever I explained Hypnobirthing to friends and family. I found myself scoffing along with everyone else just so I wouldn’t seem gullible.
I planned to labour at home as long as possible using my Hypnobirthing skills. Then try for a waterbirth in the hospital birthing pool. As long as my waters didn’t break too early.
* * *
Four-and-a-half years after the birth of my son I awoke again to the sensation of amniotic fluid trickling down my inner thigh. I jumped out of bed and shoved my belly cushion between my legs. The digital clock beside my husband’s motionless shape read 2:11am. I waddled down the dark hallway to the shower. I’d read that membranes rarely ruptured before labour was established. I thought I was just unlucky the first time. Now I wouldn’t be able to use the birthing pool at the hospital due to the perceived risk of infection. My plans for the type of labour I wanted were already in doubt.
If my labour hadn’t established within twenty-four hours the contractions would be induced with a drip. My mobility would be restricted and the contractions would intensify faster than naturally possible. There was no way I could imagine getting through the ordeal with just my Hypnobirthing skills. The fear had already crept in. I decided to buy myself a little more time by telling the hospital my waters had broken at 6am instead of 2am. I went back to bed and prayed for my contractions to start spontaneously so that I could labour at home for as long as possible.
By the time I fronted at the hospital for the routine check - after which I intended to continue my labour at home - my contractions were barely noticeable. After assuring the midwife that I hadn’t just wet myself, she palpated my belly and said, “Hmmm. The baby’s head still seems quite high. I’ll just get the doctor to come and feel.”
Half-an-hour later, a doctor confirmed the midwife’s suspicion.
“We’ll have to keep you in for observation.”
“There could be a cord prolapse.”
“What does that mean?” My husband pressed down on my shoulders (a Hypnobirthing relaxation cue).
“It’s when the umbilical cord falls through the cervix and the weight of the baby cuts off the blood supply. The baby is then deprived of oxygen and brain damage can occur within seven to nine minutes.”
A nurse escorted me to the ante-natal room of the maternity ward. Two other mothers, with full term bellies also under observation, were my cellmates. In the adjacent rooms and corridors mothers who had crossed to the other side were holding their babies and sporting rapidly deflating tummies. We were separated from these women by a painful ordeal that was already fading from their minds and growing ever more fearsome in ours. There were no flowers or jubilant visitors cooing at unconscious red-faced bundles in our room. Just three women staring at the walls and squinting against the flickering fluorescent light in the bathroom.
“When will I move back to the birthing suite?” I asked the nurse who came to measure my blood pressure and pulse rate.
“When your contractions become too painful.”
Too painful, I wanted to scream, a stubbed toe would be too painful to endure in this room. Pain wasn’t even supposed to be part of my child’s birth.
The conversation in the ante-natal room drifted from bitching about our detention to past experiences of childbirth and our hopes for this one. One mother told of the violence of the induction drip which, just like comparing notes after an exam, made my anxiety even greater. The other mother blatantly admitted to epidurals for her first two children and planned to have one this time too. I admired her self-assurance and wondered why I was so ashamed at the idea. I knew I wasn’t alone in this feeling. A friend of mine had a drug-free second birth but still felt guilty because she’d begged for the epidural at a point when it was too late to be administered.
After a couple of hours of waiting for my contractions to start I decided that my body had gone into some sort of stage fright and my labour wouldn’t progress in the ante-natal room. I insisted on being assessed again. The doctor confirmed that the baby’s head had moved further down into the pelvis. We only lived five minutes from the hospital so I discharged myself with the hope of kick-starting my labour in a more conducive environment.
My contractions were still unimpressive the next morning. Overwhelmed with fear, I resigned myself to the idea of induction. The only way I could face the drip was with the epidural. I presented to the hospital and wouldn’t allow anyone to touch me until the numbing drugs were radiating through my lower body. I was again flat on my back with drips and monitors attached while doctors and midwives treated my body like an interactive museum exhibit. I used my Hypnobirthing skills to keep myself calm and I controlled the epidural dosage enough to be able to feel the peak of the contractions and the urge to push. My daughter’s heart rate stayed stable throughout the labour and the midwife described her as “cool as a cucumber”.
“So much for my birth plan,” I said to the midwife as we waited for my next contraction, “I really wanted to do it naturally this time.”
“No. Don’t be silly. As long as you and the baby are healthy it doesn’t matter how you get there.”
I supposed she was right. The only person who was disappointed in me was me. What would I have been doing it for? To have an impressive story to tell other women? To know I’d taken a stand against the medicalisation of childbirth? To inhabit some moral high-ground? It’s unlikely that those few hours can have a greater impact on my daughter than the thousands of hugs and encouraging words I’ll give her over the course of her life.
After seven hours of peaceful, pain-free labour, to the sounds of Sigur Rós and Bjork on the stereo, I delivered a roly-poly baby girl. My daughter regarded me calmly as she was brought toward me for the first time. I may not have gained Superwomen’s Club entry, but I got the same prize as all of them.