Two weeks ago we were back with my second son in the hospital where my first was born. More hours to think, gazing at our London, which now of course, five years on from my start at mothering, has a great shard across it, cutting up through the skyline.
While there I was mulling. A few weeks ago, another blogger (http://www.the-mule.com/) asked me to write up a birth story for a week of guest posts she has been putting together. I have written about childbirth a great deal, of course, here but also on forums and in emails. I feel quite strange about ‘my’ birth stories, especially given I so easily refer to them as that, ‘mine’, when in fact they really belong to my sons. They are their stories, the beginning and end of our exclusive time together.
I don’t know what I’ve encapsulated writing them out, or indeed editing them to fit the word count for the birth story season. Or that thinking too much about them and writing it out was even helpful or cathartic.
I feel I’ve bored people senseless with snatches from them: gory, funny, outrageous, warm and fuzzy. And yet I also found to my surprise that there wasn’t any especially clear story of either birth which gave the full picture.
I went through my emails and my posts, I looked at the stories I’ve told, the narrative I’ve constructed about both births. It made me think a few things – any sense of narrative, any neatness to either story, was imposed by me. These were meandering, raging, boring, weird times: minutes crawled along majestically paced, hours zoomed, phrases stood out, entire conversations seemed to disappeared even as they happened. Perhaps all labours are like that – and necessarily become flashes of full colour in a sea of sensation.
Even (especially?) my medical notes were not helpful. They were a fragmented skeleton which didn’t help me iron it out either time as they are jotting books, lacking depth of detail, written by multiple authors and occasionally contradictory.
Is it important, to have either story complete? I’m not sure. I wrote them out, every single thing, the first birth so seared to me and so upsetting, the second so fleeting and confusing. Everything I could remember now, the details I recorded then. It took more than 5000 words and neither properly held things together. They missed the real joy: the warm sun on my face the first time and the birdsong we could hear as I hit 10cm, the jokes and hopes and the moment a friend delivered a sandwich to our labour room. There seemed no way to explain the intensity or meaning of my first memory of my second child which is a mixture of:
relief he was alive
recognition (as he looked so like his brother)
shock (as I hadn’t really realised he was about to be born)
confusion (because the similarity I refer to was so acute, they were identical birth weights and length and as I stared at his fat cheeks and little face I couldn’t understand if he was real or imaginary)
Perhaps there are no words for that kind of mirage of light joy and recognition, the old newness of an echoed face, the excitement of familiarity and its surprise.
They did fit a pattern though. The same pattern seen in @caitlinmoran’s How To Be A Woman where she writes out both births: one shocking, leaving her speechless, the second leaving her asking why did no-one say it was so easy.
I could write mine like that – the horrid nasty damaging birth vs. the healing transformative birth. That is one reading, and the easiest to structure my life around. It doesn’t tell all, not least as in my case it ignores the duplicity of birthing which I also find in parenting. I only just avoided calling this post A Tale of Two Births. A nice pun, an apt Dickensian allusion given that when in labour the first time, I felt trapped in a Victorian hospital in the dark, united with all those howling heroines in novels I read but never truly understood. It would have been an apt name for this post mostly though as they were the best of times and the worst of times for sure. Tonight my son asked what the best and worst day of my lives have been. It is hard to give him a truthful answer, not least because those days of delivery do sit there, side by side, but at the top of both lists.
I’ve written before about common phrases and things we hear – like how we should be grateful for a positive ending for birth and a healthy baby. This, of course, is true. A healthy baby is the holy grail and all we should hope for, though I’ve noted my annoyance. Just like descriptions of empowerment and rushes of love, I think it is unhelpful to generalise about childbirth, especially to people whose experience of labour and delivery is not a positive one. I think this sort of expectation of empowerment, for example, can create a terrible expectation of what birth ‘should’ be and suggestion of failure if it turns out to be something else.
As a feminist this makes me concerned – I do not want to scaremonger or upset, or to blemish or affect people’s views of birth, to contribute to any school of thought which disempowers women in any way or encourages them to make choices based on fear rather than anything else. I know my experiences were deeply transformed by a model of birth which was positive, and yet didn’t match mine. My pain, for example, did not feel positive once when I was giving birth the first time. Not once. I know for some it does; for me it didn’t. I’m most empowered personally when I hear others too felt the same. But I also know that my experience throughout labour was not conducive to that model of birth anyway – too much was stressful, unexplained, and frightening, and that there is still much which transformed me for good and ill.
Yet I often feel in need of confirmation that it is okay to feel the visceral intensity of those memories, and their massive distance from me now, their beauty and their heartbreak, their difference from anything I’ve experienced and their drudge, their fear and their wonder. So I tried not to sugar the pill or make it too poisonous. I’m not sure if I succeeded but I will link to the post when it appears.