"Give me three words to describe childbirth"’ the antenatal course leader says brightly.
"Life-affirming," someone shouts. She writes it on the board. "Emotional!" shouts someone else. She writes this, too. "Terrifying, traumatic and agonising!" I shout – you know, just to balance things out. Is she living in cloud cuckoo land or what? I’ve seen One Born Every Minute. (I watched it obsessively throughout my pregnancy, all the previous series. I don’t watch it once after I’ve given birth.) A major tumbleweed moment. She stares at me. Buzz-kill in row three! "Let’s not write those down just yet," she says, "let’s keep them as 'maybes'."
Huh. This was just a few weeks after I made a cocaine joke at pregnancy yoga (THAT went down like a lead balloon, let me tell you). I won’t even tell you about going on a weaning course when I was hungover. All I will say is: puree and poo are not what you want to ponder at those times. Just call me the queen of baby-group faux pas.
But there was a bigger issue. Bigger than my public embarrassment, even. I was irked by the baby-brainwashing. The PR sheen-y bullshit that painted, from the start, a perfect depiction of motherhood and nicey-niceness that – well, made me personally feel utterly unprepared for childbirth and the aftermath. I’m all for positive thinking. But, you know, laced with a good dose of reality. It’s not gloomy to recognise that a huge thing can comprise bad as well as good, is it? But where babies are involved it’s like we’ve got to slap on a rictus grin and chant Everything’s lovely! Which is dangerous on so many levels. I’ve recently read a number of excellent books and articles (Lucy Jones, Maggie Nelson, Polly Clark, to name a few) that have done great things in terms of broadening the childbirth chat. They acknowledge the joy and the wonder of such a significant experience – but also the terror and trauma, too. Because I think women are often being sold something else, something untenable (and don’t even get me started on breastfeeding. Oh mama).
Anyway – let’s rewind to last November, the 8th to be precise, a day of very good and very bad things. Donald Trump took the Whitehouse, Leonard Cohen had just died, and my son Leonard Fox was born (we were hoping he’d be the reincarnation, but then I read LC had vowed to come back as his sister’s dog). I was in a crazy daze, waiting to be stitched up. Because despite all my best efforts (more on these later), I had torn, quite badly. Here are some words you don’t want to hear when someone is between your legs, holding a needle, aimed at your vagina: ‘Should I put a stitch there or there do you think?’ Woah! Shouldn’t you be practising on, I dunno, a chicken breast or something? But this was how I found myself, an hour after the birth. High on gas and air, trying to patch my psyche together in order to mentally grapple with the fact that midwife attending to me had called in someone more experienced to “guide her through it”. In one way, it was good she was asking the question, and I know everyone has to learn, but there seemed to be no acknowledgment of the fact that this might have been absolutely fucking terrifying for me. And it was, absolutely fucking terrifying. I lay there mute, in stirrups, feeling very much like I was in that film Saw, where you have to do some hideous mutilating challenge to get out of the room.
I felt as though it was a real likelihood that I wouldn’t tear. When in fact, it was the most likely thing to happen. And it did
I’m not writing this as a horror story. I have no desire to frighten anyone. But according to a study in the British Journal of Gynaecology, 85% of women suffer some form of tear during their first vaginal birth. That’s a lot of women getting injured! Not only that, but the number of women suffering severe third and fourth degree tears (from vagina to anus) tripled from 2 per cent to 6 per cent between 2000 and 2012. The rise has been put down to tears being better diagnosed, but also to women having babies later in life, and bigger babies at that. I wasn’t prepared for this. In fact, I felt weirdly pressured to not tear, to not have stitches, because that was so doable, right? I even bought a stupid blue balloon machine to stretch my perineum every day: The “Epino”! As in: Say NO to that episiotomy! (For those blissfully ignorant, an episiotomy is when they cut you open widthways at your vagina so that you don’t split along your entire perineum.) Such contraptions don’t come cheap. My partner found me trawling eBay looking for a bargain. "Are you nuts?" he said. "That’s like buying a second hand dildo." "But there’s one here that has been 'fully sterilised' and it’s only £30 instead of £120!" I cried. In the end, I bought a new one. But just as I was deluded about the hygiene of genital equipment, I was deluded about the potential elasticity of my vajayjay. I felt as though it was a real likelihood that I wouldn’t tear. When in fact, it was the most likely thing to happen. And it did.
Before I go on, I also want to say that the midwives in general were brilliant (especially once we got home, and we got a visit every day for a week). I love the NHS. I’m furious at the Tories for dismantling it (and they are, as we speak). But I wanted to tear and share (sorry), because in terms of that initial time period, those injuries were as affecting as meeting my baby. And, once I started talking to people about it, the stories flooded in (birth stories in general seem to do this – women hold back, but the stories are there, waiting, like dammed water).
One friend had her labia accidentally stitched together and had to go back, be cut apart and re-stitched correctly. Another friend had a large knot at the end of her stitches that had to be snipped off before she could sit down in comfort. Things go wrong in medicine because it’s human beings practising the medicine, I understand that. But it strikes me that the injuries and repairs women receive during and after childbirth are talked about even less than childbirth itself. So much so that I didn’t even think about them when I was writing my birth plan. All I could think of was my friend’s mum who, after giving birth in the 70s, was brought a cig and an ashtray and a box of matches on a wheelie trolley. I wanted that kind of afterbirth. Hell, I was so out of it that I forgot to ask to see the placenta (something I HAD been looking forward to). My partner didn’t even take a photo! He was so engrossed in the baby. I’m still pretty pissed off about that. But back to the main event.
I love my baby, but I also love my vagina, and myself. If that makes me a bad mother, so be it
My baby blazed out of me in three hours. This was not a desirably fast birth. This was chaos. The doctors and midwives were overwhelmed. I was stratospheric with pain. It didn’t feel like a birth as much as an evacuation. My body wanted the baby out. My contractions were coming so fast that I didn’t have time to eat a chocolate brazil in between (this was how I measured them – I kept getting halfway and spitting the half-chewed nut out, scared of choking; even more scared of not sucking on the delicious gas and air in time). I dilated five centimetres in half an hour. It was a far cry from the chilled candlelit pool birth I’d envisaged – I’d even made a Spotify playlist, hilariously entitled “Labour Party”. None of this was to be. As soon as the pool was a no-go, I asked for all the drugs. I was in agony! But the epidural failed. I was like a marauding ox, stampeding around, hooked up to god knows how many machines, unable to squat and push. I pulled out cannulas, sprayed blood everywhere. I bellowed so insistently that a registrar came running in off the corridor to ask “why she was making that noise”. (“She” was making that noise because the baby’s head was crowning and her gas and air tank had just run out.) Little wonder, then, that afterwards I had a deep tear on the posterior wall of my vagina and a badly “grazed labia” (new band name, anyone?).
Pregnancy was a time when I shared my body with someone else, but I still felt like a sealed unit. In fact, it blew my mind that my body was growing another body (inside! Like a meaty Russian doll!). During the birth, I felt like a tin can hacked apart by a knife. I’d never even been in hospital before (except for a fractured wrist when I was 12). For weeks after the birth I was convinced I had a womb infection, that something has got in, such was my feeling of wide-open vulnerability. Early in pregnancy, a friend gave me a book called The Orgasmic Birth. Optimistic? Ludicrous! Also: no pressure! I appreciated her intention, though – to remind me that my vagina was more than an escape chute for a tiny human. And I think this is what concerned me most about the stitching. This afterthought, this add-on, this potential botch-job, would determine part of my identity – my sex life, for the rest of my life. If men birthed babies, there would be some kind of Nobel Prize for Penis Repair. But women? Nah. Look at the baby, they say – look at the baby! In a sort of "watch-the-birdy" kind of way. Doesn’t it all just melt into insignificance when you see your beautiful baby? The subtext being that it should, if you are not a selfish creature; if you are worthy of motherhood. Well, I love my baby, but I also love my vagina, and myself. If that makes me a bad mother, so be it. And when I got home and the drugs wore off and I settled into that wildest mix of dread and bliss that would colour the next few months, I found I was angry. Like, livid. Roiling with rage. That there was no trust established. Not enough anaesthetic. That even though I pride myself on being assertive, in those stirrups, I hadn’t spoken up. So I thought I’d write this, because I think we all need to talk more about all of this stuff.