They say… ‘Shitting a football’ or ‘Squeezing a watermelon through a bagel’… but it wouldn't be surprising to me if those humorous descriptions were once formulated by men (football and food respectively?).
These words give no indication of the fear, trauma and humiliation that I went through to deliver a baby. Neither is there any expression around to describe labour, the horrifying, vomit-inducing, crippling, debilitating pain of being pulled apart from the inside out. Because as many women who have experienced it know, there are no words.
There's a thing called post traumatic stress disorder. We use it to talk about returning veterans. War is unimaginable. And yet for some women the humiliation, loss of control, horrendous pain, fear for the baby's safety and lack of decent post natal care can spin them into extreme psychological distress. Yes, there's a thing called Post Natal Birth Trauma.
Of course for me, going to the GUM clinic was already fairly traumatic. Cervical smears and routine – albeit probing – checks which made me talk incessantly about the weather whilst my legs were up in stirrups, as if I was absolutely oblivious to the gaping crater that my vagina had become, distended as it was by foreign stainless steel. But birth, that was another thing altogether.
In the early months of pregnancy, we’d intimately discussed our birthing plan. It was to be as natural as possible, in dim lighting so as not to hurt the baby’s newly opened eyes, with hushed voices and soft music. I’d watched youtube videos of a Japanese woman giving birth. Mute, she was and lost in her own fabulous business of creation. I said to my boyfriend
‘That’s going to be me.’
I had huge expectations of how great it was going to be. Those horrible labour stories, they weren’t for me. I would be earth goddess. It sounded zen and amazing. And there was definitely no poo.
‘In my day they gave you an enema’ said my mother, making a little ‘mou’ shape with her mouth at the thought. ‘Flushed it all out beforehand. No decent woman would feel comfortable pooing.’ ‘They don’t do that anymore.’ I said ‘So what, you’re going to do it right there on the bed?’
It wasn’t only that I thought it revolting. It was the shame of doing something like that in public.
Timidly I put my hand up at the birth preparation class.
‘We’re planning a water birth.’ I said. ‘What happens if you poo in the bath?’
‘Oh don’t worry.’ said the leader. ‘They have a special little net. They just scoop it out. It floats.'
'How can you stop it?' I said
‘You can’t. If there are any faeces in your lower intestine, the baby’s head pushes it out first. There’s just no room for it.’ she said. 'Any other questions?'
Calling faeces doesn’t make it sound any better, I thought.
Whether I pooed in public or not, in the grand scheme of things didn't matter to them. Why should it? Because there was no privacy. No discretion. No modesty… just a whole lot of pain. Enough pain to make you forget who you were and why the hell you had wanted this in the first place. I had no appropriate clothes (a nightie doesn't cut it) and they had none to give me so I ended up naked. Me, who covers her boobs in front of her boyfriend.
And then the whole blood and waters business. No pads could cope with the gush of amniotic fluid. As a flood of back waters poured out of me like the red sea, literally splashing some poor midwife in the face, I was screaming and crying in pain and humiliation...
‘Sorry, I'm so Sorry’.
Giving birth is primal. Feral. Utterly scary, out of your control and horrendously painful. It is a baptism of fire. It doesn’t belong in a pristine, sterile, metal clad room. Nevertheless in our effort to ‘control’ the whole procedure, in western society that’s what we’ve done.
Whilst we've created drugs to take away this pain, we also shame women into not taking them because the 'best mothers' have a natural birth. And then the hospitals, who have a glut of Pethidine – an opioid and drug of choice in UK state hospitals – push you into taking it anyway. After some hours I could no longer resist the pressure, because the pain was simply too much.
Pethidine locked me away in my own pain prison far away from the delivery room. I rocked myself moaning quietly in the foetal position whilst blue shadows flitted across the room ignoring me, now I was ‘manageable’ and in an altered state of reality. Pethidine can cause breathing difficulties for the baby after birth due to its depressive effect on the respiratory centre. These effects are at the worse if the baby is born one to three hours after an injection of pethidine has been given. And yet it's apparently well known that Pethidine can act as a muscle relaxant and speed up the birth.
In my case, it meant that my baby arrived far sooner. Not breathing.
‘I think she’s coming.’ I said after 2 hours.
‘No.’ said the midwife. ‘It’s not time yet. You can’t be having her because you only dilate approximately 1/2 a centimetre an hour. You need to get to ten, and you were only three.’
‘I’m telling you. I’m having a baby.’
After some persuasion and further insistence on my boyfriend’s part that they check, the midwife said (in a disagreeably shocked voice) whilst reaching up the birth canal.
‘Well I never, there’s the head.’
‘Quick’ said my boyfriend,’ Fill up the bath.’
‘Oh no’ she said, ‘Your girlfriend’s had pethidine it's too dangerous. and besides, the bath takes 45 minutes to fill and this baby will be here in less than that.’
Five seconds ticked past as we looked at her disbelievingly. Our careful birth plan of all natural, water filled zen-ness had crumbled to the ground.
My daughter came out blue, with the cord wrapped four times round her neck. And as the doctors tried to revive her, I was frozen in fear hearing nothing but the thumping of my own agitated heart. It was the worst 20 seconds of my life.
After birth I was sectioned in a room on my own, unable to walk, unable to sit because of the pain of the stitches, unable to cope with a screaming baby and my boyfriend was turfed out of the hospital because it wasn’t ‘visiting hours’. I had had no food, I was high, gurning on pethidine and as tired as hell. I lay, bleeding into my bed, numb and stunned with my daughter screaming on my chest. I called him after two hours of it and said.
‘Come and get me out as soon as you can.’
I’ve slowly forgotten the pain (luckily the mind can’t hold onto it very long). But I am changed. Birth has changed me. It’s a scarred knowledge. It means I know, deeply know, pain. It’s like a hugely cruel joke that Mother Nature has played on us. How has it been devised to be so painful? Surely there’s a fault somewhere in all that. Surely this can’t be meant. Surely this can't be natural. But it is.
Maybe if we were free of the shame of pain, of poo, of blood and of birth, and grounded better in nature it would be easier. If we had a birthing experience with women who cared, instead of women who are themselves treated like shit by the system, overstretched and understaffed, it would be emotionally better. If we were taught better how to manage pain within ourselves instead of reaching for the pill bottle, we would be more physically ready. (And maybe some medical marijuana wouldn’t go amiss). But no, the healthcare system thinks it’s better to put us in a narrow, white-sheeted bed. White. With readily available low grade drugs which are known to harm your baby, put your feet up in stirrups, the worst possible position for giving birth and afterwards leave the mother alone for 5 hours because she inconveniently gave birth in the middle of the night when visitors were not allowed.
Some time later, my neighbour also had a baby. She lost so much blood, her heart stopped and she nearly died in the delivery room. She stayed at home for months afterwards and I rarely saw her even though we'd been coffee regulars. The day before she went in she had asked me,
‘Does it hurt?’ I looked at her. I didn’t want to scare her so I tried to make it sound better.
‘Yes. Yes it does. It’ll be the worst thing you go through, but then afterwards, you have a baby. And that’s the best thing.’
When she got home, I visited her. Her face had changed. A brush with death is not what we're led to believe happens nowadays. Birth is a joy, not a trauma, isn't it? She looked at me still in shock, ragged, her eyes strangely lit with the aftermath of terror and just shook her head.
‘There are no words.’ she said.
The Vagina Voyage
I've been on quite a journey to try and love my vagina. Many of the people I grew up with are appalled. Others I've got to know, love me for trying to love myself. And I think that's quite a beautiful thing.