We’ve come a long way from talking about childbirth in terms of a delivery from the stork.
Nothing’s taboo anymore, and it’s brilliant. We talk about the probability of pooing during labour. We view c-sections and vaginal births as equal. We share photos of what a post-partum belly looks like. We acknowledge that formula-feeding an infant doesn’t make you a bad mum. And of course, we discuss postnatal depression more openly than ever before.
And thank f*ck for all of that.
There is nothing shameful, nothing that should be secretive, about childbirth.
Which is why I was so grateful when I saw model and actress Brooke Shields talk to my beloved Oprah on her show, a couple of years before I gave birth. Shields was one of the first celebrities to get real about childbirth, and I remember being in awe.
She talked about postnatal depression, and struggling to feel an immediate bond with her child.
“I was terrified to be alone with her,” she told Oprah.
“I didn’t have the desire to hurt her, but I didn’t have the desire to help her, either. I had the desire to hurt myself.”
Wow – the admission was revolutionary at the time.
Oprah was so impressed with Shield’s candour, and told her she was brave. Women in the audience cried as they heard her story, because it was sad, and real, and relatable to many of them.
What Shields said that day in 2005 was pivotal in the discussion of childbirth for millions of women around the world. But, as it turned out, it was something else that Shields talked about that would help me in the most significant way.
In that conversation on Oprah, Shields described the emergency caesarian that she endured. I remember her saying that she could sense she was being cut open. She could feel the pulling and the tugging.
And then, in that operating theatre, she could smell “burnt toast.” She told Oprah:
“I thought, ‘who is cooking toast in here?!’ But then I realised, it wasn’t toast – I was being cauterized.”
That’s right, girlfriends – Shields was smelling her own skin burning as her c-section wound was being cauterized to control bleeding.
Shields also described how painful that wound was in the following months. It was obviously very traumatic for her. And I must admit, TERRIFYING for me to hear, as a young woman going through IVF, desperately wanting a child, but also wondering if there was any way I could get out of delivering it? Ha, apparently that’s not how it works.
Soon after that episode, a friend told me about a friend of hers who, after a twenty-four hour labour, was told that she needed an emergency c-section, and freaked out about it so much that they had to give her a general anaesthetic – meaning that she was asleep as she delivered her baby.
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No judgement AT ALL on her, she was scared by the unexpected news – so at the very least, I could learn from her experience, because that terrified me even more. I didn’t want to miss out on the birth if I could avoid it.
So, a couple of years later, when I went into labour at 30.5 weeks and was told that I had suspected listeria-poisoning and the baby needed to come out immediately, I was unprepared emotionally for having a baby so pre-term. But at least I knew what could happen if I didn’t show the doctors that I could keep my shit together.
So I externally kept it together during the ambulance ride from one hospital, to another hospital equipped to take such a young baby. (Although, I did say to the midwife who was with me, “I’m only up to chapter six of ‘What to Expect’!”)
I externally kept it together when my sister told me she couldn’t reach my husband on the phone at home, even though it was the middle of the night. (He did eventually make it on time.)
I channeled everything I had, and I kept still during the epidural like a good girl, and concentrated instead on bickering with my (soon-to-be-ex) husband as he whined about some crap I can’t even remember; and I let the professionals do what needed to be done to get my baby out safely.
Much to my surprise, and utter relief, I didn’t feel the pulling and tugging that Brooke Shields had. I didn’t smell any burning skin. But I was so glad I had known it was a possibility, because there’s comfort in knowing what can happen.
But I didn’t know anything about premmie babies.
My beautiful son was immediately whisked away to the Special Care Baby Unit, because he couldn’t breathe on his own. He weighed one kilogram – pretty decent for a baby so premature. But I was still confused and upset and scared.
He stayed in there for a week, then moved on to the Neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU) for another three weeks. While he was there, I realised how lucky we were. He grew and grew and grew. And I got to recover from my c-section – sleeping in an armchair for the first week I went home because it was too painful to lie down. I cried every night of the next month as my boy was either on a different floor to me in the hospital, or still in the ward while I was back home.
Those long weeks felt like months. But then, at what would’ve been about 36 weeks gestation – my baby finally came home.
I recently told this story to a pregnant colleague, and someone walked in on it and was horrified that I would fill her head with such scary thoughts.
But the colleague had actually been sharing a concern with me, and the point of my story was to tell her, “Look, shit can and probably will happen. It will be hard and you’ll be exhausted and terrified. But doctors can perform miracles these days, and babies are goddamn amazing tiny badasses, and there’s a very good chance that it will be ok in the end.”
Fast forward almost exactly eleven years, I’ve got a kid who talks too much, never wants to go to bed, never wants to get out of the shower, but who has no residual health issues from being born so early.
Yesterday, the cheeky little man even gave me a new nickname: TsuNAMi – because I’m a larger-than-life, powerful woman, according to him. #bless
It’s wonderful that we can now be open enough about childbirth to share our experiences and educate and prepare other women – but hope is so important, so we need to share the happy endings, too.