pregnancy

The comment from a sonographer that stunned Tracey Spicer into silence.

There are many perennial stories on television news services. Every year, we bring you yarns about bog snorkelling, tomato throwing or cheese rolling. Perhaps the most popular is the strange places babies are born: in a tree to avoid floodwaters, in a gallery as performance art, or on the floor of a bathroom at McDonald’s.

Well, I’m about to become the story by giving birth on set. An elbow is sticking out of my stomach. Like John Hurt in Alien, it’s going to be messy. And like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, it involves adrenaline. But there’s no need for a shot to the heart because this rush is natural.

The contractions come during an interview with the prime minister in the lead-up to the 2004 poll. For political journos, election campaigns are like footy finals. According to John Howard, this one’s about trust (same as in 1917, 1937, 1943, 1951, 1972, 1977, 1984, 1987 and 1996).

"There’s another word for ‘baby brain’. And that’s BULLSH*T. To quote Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender, it’s ‘neurosexism’." (Image: Instagram)
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‘Who do you better trust to keep living standards high and the economy strong?’ he asks voters. ‘Who do you better trust to keep your interest rates low? Who do you better trust to lead Australia in the fight against the peril of international terrorism? Who do you better trust to keep the budget strong and in surplus so that we can better afford to spend more on health and education and defence?’

It’s a hard row to hoe after he’s accused of lying about the ‘children overboard’ affair. A former government adviser says he told Howard there was no evidence of asylum seekers throwing their kids into the sea, despite these allegations helping the Coalition to victory in 2001. (Tampa, September 11, border protection, you get the drift.)

A political reporter races over with a script. Upon further inspection I’m mistaken. It’s a green salad: the questions are as limp as warm lettuce. I don’t know whether to read it or eat it. The PM will feel like he’s being ‘mauled by a dead sheep’, as Paul Keating once said. ‘Hey, thanks for that,’ I tell the reporter. ‘I don’t want to be rude, but I’ve got my own questions prepared.’

‘Alright,’ he says. ‘Just trying to help in case of baby brain.’ Apparently I have ‘pregnesia’, also known as ‘placenta dementia’.

When one embryo – from our fourth round of IVF – burrowed into the uterus, it caused an equal and opposite reaction: Newton’s third law of physics. (Newton’s fourth law deals with dickheads who look down at their mobile phones while walking along the footpath. It isn’t flattering.) The force of the embryo obviously dislodged part of my cerebrum. As Basil asks Mrs Richards in Fawlty Towers, ‘Is this a piece of your brain?’ picking up an imaginary speck from the floor.

We had three hours of sunshine then it pissed down for three days - ha! Still had a blast with the fam #hamiltonisland

A post shared by Tracey Spicer (@traceyspicer) on

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There’s another word for ‘baby brain’. And that’s BULLSH*T. To quote Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender, it’s ‘neurosexism’. Take a bowl of biased sampling, add a cup of junk science and marinate in ignorance. What do you get? Confirmation bias: we convince ourselves of a mental fog. Some studies suggest pregnancy and childbirth improve brain performance permanently with better threat detection, strategic thinking and efficient decision-making. (Interestingly, no studies are done on the effect of a man’s erections on his cognitive ability. Around 11 times a day, blood is diverted from the big head to the little one.)

But these comments are accepted in the workplace so I forge forward. ‘Mate, we have to ask about children overboard. He’s prosecuting the classic conservative line about the right being superior economic managers. The issue of trust encompasses more than that. I can’t give him Dorothy Dixers.’ He rolls his eyes. ‘Trace, you don’t understand. It’s easy for you, behind the desk. But for us in Canberra, well, we have relationships with politicians. This is the first time we’ve been able to get the PM, live on air, all year. If you go too hard I won’t get any leaks, then I’m up shit creek.’

What he says is true. Rounds reporters need to nurture contacts, but they should also hold the powerful to account. Press freedom, the fourth estate, that kinda thing. Surely someone has to believe in it? Suffice it to say, I storm onto set and ask the original questions. Laurie Oakes rates the interview a thumbs-up in The Bulletin. A Senate Select Committee later finds the government guilty of ‘exploiting voters’ fears of a wave of illegal immigrants by demonising asylum seekers’.

I don’t give birth on set – they’re false contractions – to the relief of the floor crew. ‘We thought we might have to get hot towels for a moment there,’ Hermie says. ‘Or call an ambulance.’ They’re aware of the pregnancy complication. It seems my tummy isn’t a comfy cot. Our obstetrician delivers the bad news when I’m 14 weeks’ pregnant. ‘You have a rare condition called complete placenta praevia,’ Dr Hartman says. ‘It used to be what killed women in childbirth before the advent of caesarian sections.’

‘What is it exactly?’ I ask. ‘The placenta is underneath the uterus,’ he explains, using his hands (in the air, not my uterus). ‘As your baby grows, there’s increased pressure. Towards the end of your pregnancy, you may end up bleeding.’ ‘Does this mean the baby’s at risk?’ Jase asks. ‘In the old days, mother and baby both died. The placenta comes out first, so the woman bleeds to death. Then the baby’s got nothing to feed on.’

‘What can I do? Is there anything that helps?’ ‘Bed rest in the third trimester is recommended. Unless the placenta migrates up the side, which is a possibility.’ Makes my placenta sound like a plover, preparing to go north after winter. But the only fluttering is in my stomach.

At 20 weeks I undergo an ultrasound. The sonographer is in for a chat. ‘First baby?’ he asks. ‘Yes,’ I reply, ‘after years of fertility treatment.’ ‘You going to try for a natural birth or caesarian?’ he queries, smearing gel across my belly. ‘Caesarian,’ I say. ‘Ah, taking the easy way out, are we?’ he says with a barely concealed sneer.

Apparently, I have to be in AGONISING PAIN or LOSE MY BABY to be a REAL WOMAN. ‘When was the last time you pushed a watermelon out of the eye of your penis?’ I feel like yelling. ‘How about I cut you from scrotum to arsehole? It’s not going to tickle.’ Or, ‘Would you risk killing your wife and child over an ideology?’ I wish I’d ‘torn him a new one’. But I’m stunned into silence. Such judgement doesn’t dignify a response.

"Apparently, I have to be in agonising pain or lose my baby to be a real woman." (Image: Instagram)

There’s a turgid history of women forced to suffer during childbirth, back to Biblical times. ‘To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.”’ (The Lord is a jealous and vengeful God. You eat one apple …) In the early twentieth century, women fought to use pain relief in labour, but the 1940s brought a backlash. ‘Critics decried the impersonality, isolation and passivity that now characterised childbirth,’ according to Katherine Beckett in her book, Choosing Cesarean: Feminism and the politics of childbirth in the United States.

I welcome medical intervention. GIVE ME ALL THE DRUGS YOU’VE GOT, NOW. The videos of women in developing countries squatting in a field? They don’t show the statistics on infant mortality. Remember this at the birthing class when you inquire about epidurals: you might as well be asking for a crack pipe. Giving birth is not an extreme sport. You’re not a failure for having a caesarian. And a live baby is better than a dead one. ‘What a wuss, getting general anaesthetic for a kidney transplant,’ said no one, ever.

I relate this story to my friend Richard, from 3AW days. ‘You’re kidding me? He said that to your face? What a fool,’ he says, as we sip tea at a Carlton hotel. ‘Anyway, I’m almost six months down the track and there’s no bleeding so far, which is promising,’ I say. ‘Now, we’ve flown to Melbourne for a reason. Would you like to be Taj’s godfather?’ ‘Does it pay well?’ he asks. ‘Seriously, I would be honoured. Congratulations on having the courage to put me in any position to offer guidance to a child, when you are both aware of my ability to lead people astray. I would see it as my role to be silly, to introduce Taj to the arts, and be someone he could rely on whenever he needed.’ It’s a soliloquy worthy of Shakespeare.

But that night I wake in fright. I’m Carrie, from the book by Steven King, covered in blood. ‘I think we’re near a hospital,’ Jase says. ‘I’ll call a taxi.’ Five minutes on we’re at the Royal Women’s. I’m hoisted onto a trolley and wheeled into emergency. ‘You may be having this baby now,’ the doctor says. ‘But that’s way too early,’ I blurt. ‘Twenty-five-and-a-half weeks. Is there any way of keeping him in?’ ‘It’s an unknown,’ he says. ‘If you remain horizontal, maybe. Depends on whether you keep bleeding.’ ‘I can’t lose this baby after all we’ve been through.’
‘Okay, stay still. We should be able to get you a bed for the week. We’ll know more then.’

I’m flat on my back, frightened to move. Every toilet trip is an exercise in trepidation. It’s a living Lichtenstein – a cartoon character scared of standing up lest a foetus falls to the floor. ‘Try not to worry,’ well-meaning friends say. ‘It is what it is.’ WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? Clearly, I’m hysterical. Please, come by with cake, but hold the advice. Ghosts of the future haunt the night: birthing a dead baby; futile attempts at IVF; and drowning in a pool of blood.

Listen: Anne-Marie Slaughter says 12 months of Maternity leave is too long, that it will damage women's careers irreparably. Do you agree? (post continues after audio...)

For six days I lie in wait. On the seventh there’s a miracle. ‘Your baby’s safe for now,’ Dr Hartman says over the phone. ‘You can head home to Sydney next week. But if you bleed again, you’ll spend the rest of the pregnancy on the lounge.’ I book an appointment with the head of news and current affairs. ‘This is unorthodox,’ I begin, ‘but I’d like, no, I need to, take five months’ maternity leave. You see, I have a rare pregnancy complication. I could take three months off at the end of my pregnancy then two months after the baby’s born. Hubby has long service leave so he can take over from there.’

Eventually, he leans in. ‘Trace, I’m really sorry for what you’re going through. Sounds awful,’ he says, screwing up his face. ‘But five months off? You’ve got a strong following. I’m worried people will forget you. And you don’t want to lose a connection with your audience.’ The ‘good girl’ is seething. But she swallows her anger, like a lump of coal.

Taking a deep breath, I say, ‘Sorry, but I don’t want to lose a connection with my baby. If I bleed again I’ll get a letter from my obstetrician. Then I can take sick leave.’ ‘Fair enough, Trace,’ he says. ‘But try to see it from our point of view. Presenters can’t be off air for that long.’ At work I tread on eggshells. Each step might be manslaughter. Inevitably, the cervix thins and I begin to bleed.

On the lounge at home, I finish War and Peace (Hey, when will I have time to read Tolstoy once the baby’s born?), rediscover the art of letter writing and watch dozens of documentaries. Once a fortnight Moira McLean – a presenter on Good Morning Australia – comes over with her Scrabble club. If this game was in the Olympics, Moira and Co. would win gold. They’ve memorised every short word containing q, z, j and x. (Who knew ‘muzjiks’ were Russian peasants?) I cherish their company.

My friend and protégé, Natarsha Belling, also drops by. Ten’s Morning News has been extended to an hour after the axing of Neighbours. We’re the new Izzy and Summer, sharing hostings of a weekday. She’s still stifled by ‘good girl’ syndrome, so I often go into bat on her behalf. ‘Hey, I don’t know if you heard through the grapevine,’ she starts, ‘but Deb’s contract is up in Los Angeles. She’s been assured of a news-reading gig back here. The bosses thought they could sideline Sandra, but she’s signed another contract.’ ‘I’m not too concerned,’ I say. ‘Plenty of positions for everyone. It’s not the eighties anymore.’ ‘But they’ve got themselves in a bind. There’s a clause in her contract about working as a correspondent, then being promoted to a news-reading role.’ ‘Gawd, they couldn’t organise a lamington drive, those blokes. Don’t worry, love. I’m sure you’ll be fine. In any case, I can’t get stressed about work politics. Gotta hold this baby inside.’

As Christmas approaches, these conversations develop a sense of urgency. A senior producer calls. ‘Aw, Trace, you’re getting a bit long in the tooth. Probably time you moved behind the scenes. We could do with your experience on the production desk.’ Perhaps I should have read The Art of War instead of War and Peace. I adopt a conciliatory tone. ‘You guys do a brilliant job, but producing’s not for me. I’m not organised enough. It’s a different skill set.’ ‘I guess you’ll be looking after a premmie baby in a couple of weeks,’ he says. ‘You’ll probably decide to stay at home. Most women do.’

This producer knows Jason. Yet it doesn’t cross his feeble mind that a father can care for a child. Jase can’t strap on a set of boobs, but he sure as hell can hold a bottle. The idea that mothers are instinctively better at parenting? Pop that in the bin with men-are-in-charge-at-work and women-are-in-charge-at-home. Blokes aren’t as hands-on with children because of culture and tradition; women are restricted from returning to work for the same reasons. It’s no coincidence that most of the managers at Network Ten have stay-at-home wives.

On the sixth of December my Carrie premonition comes to pass. We race to the Mater Hospital to have the baby four weeks early. ‘I’m not ready, Jase,’ I say. ‘It’s a bit late now,’ he replies, as laconic as ever. Music’s supposed to be soothing, but the radio’s playing Missy Higgins’s ‘Scar’. (How can a song be so appropriate and inappropriate, simultaneously?) I squeeze hubby’s hand as a needle’s shoved in my spine. ‘I’ll bet you’re popular with the ladies,’ I say to the anaesthetist. ‘Yes, I’m a hit at parties,’ he says, as numbness spreads like a blanket. Listening to the medicos, it’s another day at the office. ‘Are you going to that conference?’ one asks. ‘Adelaide? Yep, three days,’ his colleague replies.

I am mother meat. But I don’t care. All that matters is the baby. A sheet covers my stomach. Occasionally it slips. I’m reminded of the Sards Wonder Soap ad about, ‘blood and guts and grease’. ‘Here he is,’ the obstetrician announces. The lights create a halo around our boy. There’s a surge of love – white hot and pure – like nothing else. I would die for this creature. His face is scrunched, like an eighty-year-old smoker. And he’s fragile, the weight of a 28-weeker. But he’s breathing. I smile so wide my cheeks could break.

Barely 36 hours later the grin is gone.

This is an (edited) extract from The Good Girl Stripped Bare by Tracey Spicer, published by ABC Books. You can grab your copy here.

Tracey Spicer is an iconoclast whose TEDx Talk ‘The Lady Stripped Bare’ has been seen by nearly 1.5 million people. Tracey has anchored national news, current affairs and lifestyle programs for several TV networks, and has brought her sassy style to talkback radio. Her ‘full-frontal’ columns appear weekly in metropolitan newspapers and on opinion websites. The 49-year-old is the co-founder and national convenor of Women in Media.

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