pregnancy

Mel Hoffman married an NRL player. She didn't expect it to affect how she gave birth.

When Mel fell in love with NRL player Ryan ‘Hoff’ Hoffman, she had no idea what she was getting into. In this edited extract from her new memoir Full Credit to the Boys, Mel reflects on how the rules of the game extend into every part of her life – including giving birth.

‘I think I really would like to try and give birth naturally.’

I was thirty-seven weeks pregnant and our obstetrician had advised me that all indications were pointing to a mega baby. She’d offered an elective caesarean, but I had declined. The alternative was to wait and hope that I went into labour early, before the kid’s head had a chance to get any bigger. The next step would be to schedule an induction.

‘You’re the boss,’ she said, and as we left her office, I wondered why there was no parade in honour of my brave and virtuous start to parenting. 

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Later over dinner, Hoff and I discussed the decision. Something was bugging me.

‘Do you think I made the right call? Not to have a caesarean?’ I asked him.

‘I think you’re the one who has to be comfortable and I’ll support you whatever you decide.’

I rolled my eyes. ‘How is that helpful?’

‘I thought I was saying the right thing!’

‘I don’t want you to say the right thing. I want you to tell me what you really think. It’s your kid too. Probably more so, judging by its massive head.’

Hoff ignored my sledge and paused to consider his position. ‘I don’t see a problem with giving it a go the old-fashioned way. As the doc said, if the baby becomes distressed, you can have an emergency caesarean.’

Hoff was using the exact turn of phrase that our obstetrician had used earlier that day – if the baby becomes distressed. I suddenly realised what had been bothering me. I didn’t want my child to become distressed. Preferably ever, but especially not in the final minutes before it had to become a person in the world. I was desperate to be a good mum, but in that moment, I realised that being a good mum might mean doing something that I didn’t want to do, that scared the pants off me. I had never had an operation before – I had never even broken a bone before (a perk of being risk-averse from a very young age). So a caesarean was not something I approached lightly. I knew that women who have caesareans often have their subsequent babies via ceasarean, so in making the decision for this baby, I was possibly making it for all future babies as well. 

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But the minute Hoff repeated those words, I knew that I had to suck it up and do it. I gave myself a minute to cry and mourn the fact that I might never experience childbirth the way that all those shouty, panting ladies did on telly.

‘I’m never going to know what a contraction feels like,’ I said between sniffs.

‘I know,’ Hoff replied and squeezed me tight in a hug. ‘To be fair though, you’d probably have one contraction and think, “this hurts, why the hell was I so keen to do this?”’

He was right. I did have a terrible threshold for pain. What was I thinking? I stopped feeling sorry for myself and resolved to call the doctor in the morning. 

Later in the week we went back in to schedule the caesarean.

‘I think you made a good call,’ the doctor said, and with that she pulled out her calendar.

I tensed. I was nervous about this bit. I was dreading having to ask her to take Hoff’s schedule into consideration. I thought it might make us look like bad parents. Would she think we were horrible for trying to slot our child’s birth in on a day that was convenient to the NRL draw? 

Years earlier, just after I met Hoff, I was out with the footy girls one night. One of them told us a story about the time she met an obstetrician at a fancy corporate function. Although my friend wasn’t at the stage of having children, the woman had insisted on giving her a business card.

‘I’ve done all the AFL babies,’ she’d assured her. ‘So if you’re ever in need, make sure you give me a call.’

We’d found this raucously funny. Why it would matter that she had a track record specifically with the delivery of football babies? Were football babies a medical specialisation? Did footballers’ partners all have similar vaginas? Did years of sitting on the sidelines tense with the stress of games make your birth canal fundamentally different?

Sitting in my own obstetrician’s office now, though, it seemed less amusing. It dawned on me that her selling point had been that she understood the pressures of having a baby around the commitments of football. That made more sense. 

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Fortunately, our obstetrician seemed to understand as well.

‘Right,’ she began, pointing to her calendar. ‘We can’t deliver the baby before this date, because we can’t be certain of its lung surface until then, but any time after that should be fine. Ryan – what’s your schedule like?’ And with that, we pulled out the draw.

Of course we did. Isn’t this how all people choose the date they’re going to introduce human life? Number one, baby’s ability to breathe; number two, husband’s ability to play football games.

There was no three. My preferences did not factor.

Listen to Me After You, where host Laura Byrne walks us through the big post-motherhood moments with stories of wisdom, humour, breakdown, ambition, love, hope and rebirth from a truly diverse range of parents. Post continues below. 

We chose a Wednesday because the game that week was interstate on a Saturday so it would give Hoff a whole three nights with his child before he had to go away for the first time. It also provided a slight buffer before the looming State of Origin selections, which was Hoff’s greatest concern – apart from the birth of our happy, healthy baby. 

On the allocated Wednesday, we took ourselves off to the hospital and Zach was born. We spent three days together in our cramped hospital room, cuddling, feeding, sleeping, eating soft cheese and just being overwhelmed by this beautiful, perfect, little human. Then on the fourth day, Hoff left for Sydney to play a regular season game against the Roosters.

I awoke early that Sunday morning and keenly awaited Hoff’s return. Every time I heard footsteps outside my door I hoped it was him. Mostly it was nurses coming to give me anti-clotting injections in my stomach (boo), occasionally it was food (an acceptable consolation prize). I flicked through the newspaper to distract myself, and came across the sport section where I was confronted with the journalists’ predicted State of Origin teams that year. Hoff’s name was there in black and white. Not for the first time that week, I promptly burst into tears. 

Around lunchtime, Hoff finally returned. He looked exhausted, and there were two Steri-Strips above his right eye that were stained with bright drops of fresh blood, which only served to enhance his battle-weary aesthetic. I clocked the injury and thought idly of my own abdominal wound, which was a good 15 cm longer, and of my own exhaustion – the result of a night-long battle to keep Zach settled and fed. It occurred to me that it was the first time in our relationship that I might be able to compete with Hoff’s post-match fatigue and vast catalogue of injury and gore. Well, not compete so much as leave him in the dust. 

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After kissing me hello, Hoff made a beeline for Zach, who was sleeping in his bassinet. He carefully swooped him up in his arms and lowered himself into a chair in the corner of a room. He pressed his nose gently to Zach’s unstirring head, inhaled deeply and visibly relaxed into the chair. In that moment, he looked so happy, so grateful to be back with us, that it occurred to me that perhaps his weariness was not so much the usual post-game fatigue. Perhaps it was the effects of a difficult day spent away from his family, anxious to return.  ‘I missed you so much, buddy,’ he whispered to our sleeping, oblivious, four-day-old son.

Later that afternoon, Hoff received a phone call that confirmed the prediction of the newspaper – he had been recalled to the NSW side and he was expected in Sydney the following day. It was going to be a big day for our little family – Hoff was going to Sydney to prepare for a State of Origin game, and Zach and I were leaving our cocoon of all-hours access to midwifery wisdom and going home. Where there was no call-button to ask stupid questions, no meals or cups of tea appearing on wheelie carts in my doorway and, evidently, no Hoff either.

Whether Hoff is fielding a call of congratulations for the successful production of offspring or his concurrent NSW State of Origin selection, I don’t remember. I do remember that I actually stood up to take this photo though, which, post-C-section, seemed more worthy of congratulations than either of the above. This marks the moment I realised I would clock some serious solo-parenting time as a result of Hoff’s career – a common feature of WAG life in any code or sport. Image: Supplied.

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Sensing this was not an ideal scenario, Hoff called the then-NSW coach, Laurie Daley, who gave him an extra day to share at home with his newborn son. After which, he would be off.

That last night Hoff had at home before he left was, hands-down, the hardest night of my life. Zach still wasn’t feeding properly, I was exhausted and I was terrified of trying to keep this kid alive on my own. Sometime in the wee hours, I gave up trying to breastfeed and resorted to the emergency formula that the hospital had provided. Zach finally and gratefully drank, while I sat and quietly sobbed, feeling like a monumental failure and wondering how we were both going to survive. 

Meanwhile, Hoff slept. And in my post-natal fog, I let him. In my exhaustion, I didn’t have the presence of mind to recognise the enormity of what I was being asked to do, to understand that if there was ever a time to challenge the status quo and to prioritise my needs – regardless of what was going on in Hoff’s career – this was it. And I missed it.

This is an edited extract from Full Credit to the Boys by Mel Hoffman (Affirm Press), out 28 April.

Image: Supplied.

Feature Image: Supplied.