There was room in my stomach for butterflies but not for breakfast. The midwife looked disapprovingly at my barely touched tray.
‘You’ll need your strength, love.’
‘I know,’ I said apologetically. ‘But I’ve got snacks.’
‘Let’s get you moving then.’ She piled my case, lunch box and books onto my bed, unhitched a lever and manoeuvred the bed down the corridor. I waddled behind her, cradling my stomach to take some of the weight. The next time I walk down here, I thought, I won’t have this. This great half-egg that has kept you afloat for eight strange and fascinating months. The same egg you’d tried to vacate too early, forcing me to a hospital bed while we coaxed you to stay in utero for a little longer. Now, the risk of infection meant we had to get you out of there.
We walked through the security doors into the lobby-like hall of the birthing suites. ‘You’re in here, love.’ The midwife ushered me in.
‘Make yourself comfortable. The doctor will be here at eight.’
The suite consisted of a large bathroom, a lounge area and a bedroom. The pastel walls and furnishings were as soothing and inoffensive as the muted, pearly lights. It could have been a hotel room except that the bar fridge stocked a gas inhaler and the hat stand held a saline sack. I unwrapped the luxurious toiletries my workmateshad given me as a parting gift and took an uncharacteristically long shower. On this day all my green scruples could be set aside. I lovingly soaped my stomach and wondered if the sight of my long-absent feet would come as a shock.
Wanting to look my best for you, I blow-dried my hair and applied lipstick. I pulled on one of your dad’s big shirts, scrunching up the fabric and inhaling his smell. Supporting myself on the doorframe, I stepped awkwardly into a pair of big, practical knickers. I knew they would take them off me, but hadn’t yet habituated to the immodesty motherhood required.
I tried to temper my excitement. I had a long, hard day ahead and needed a slow burn of energy, not a wildfire. I f licked on the kettle and the radio. The Foo Fighters. It’s times like these you learn to live again. It seemed portentous. I couldn’t help dancing a little – just a little – though walking was already difficult enough. You gave me a swift kick beneath my ribs as if to say ‘Oi, pipe down out there’.
The doctor knocked politely before poking his head around the door. ‘How are we feeling?’ he grinned.
‘Did you sleep?’
‘No, not really.’
‘Well, let’s get this show on the road.’
I walked the few steps from the lounge to the birthing room and heaved myself onto the bed.
Blood pressure units, Syntocin sacks, needles and chords emerged from discreet panels. The midwife rigged up the gas unit, humming along to Triple J. ‘It makes a nice change from whale song,’ she confided.
I’d politely declined the scented oils and aromatherapy candles my girlfriends had suggested. I thought I was far too practical for such things.
When the doctor poked around for a vein, I looked away. He poked once, twice, five times. I repeated the mantra the midwife had taught me: Long soft fingers, rounded shoulders, deep, slow breaths. When I looked again a machine was measuring my efforts to bring you forth.
‘How long will the Syntocin take to work?’
‘It’s different for everybody. Just try and rest. This baby will probably make her appearance later tonight.’ He smiled at me encouragingly.
‘You should be able to move fairly freely despite the monitor.’
I turned from side to side, testing my range of movement. I’d spent months in antenatal classes learning improbable birthing positions. The Squat, Hugging the Wall, the Cradle, the Medicine Ball – I’d practised them all. Your dad had even bought new swimming trunks in case we decided to birth in the hospital’s luxurious bath.
The midwife f lipped out the tray and put my journal and pens on it. ‘You can lean on this, love. More coffee?’
Your dad arrived, calm and happy. We played Scrabble, laying the pieces out on the bed. He kept one eye on the graphs scrolling out of the machine. When the needle jerked upwards I groaned. ‘Breathe, baby. Just breathe,’ he said softly. When the contraction finished we went back to the plastic letters. I thrashed your dad.
‘Well, it’s hardly fair,’ he said. ‘Two against one.’
‘I don’t think the little one counts yet, babe.’
‘Please,’ he raised an eyebrow. ‘She’s half yours. She’ll come out and want to read the obstetrician’s report.’
I picked up his hand and kissed the palm. ‘Yes, but she’s half yours too. Why spoil a good nap with doing stuff?’
We paused in shared wonder at the idea of a little being spliced from the two of us. Would you have your dad’s perfect pitch and my dodgy knees? My love of Christmas and your dad’s loathing of sport?
‘It’s not just us in the mix. It’s everyone we’ve ever been related to.’ I couldn’t follow this thought to its end because, suddenly, I turned inwards. The tectonic plates of my body shifted as I prepared to become two. My womb rippled and my pelvic bones yawned. Then everything clenched: my hand on your dad’s fingers, my abdomen on your draining sack, my teeth. Your dad frowned and checked the graph. ‘You’re doing good, honey. You’re doing so good. Do you want to play Scrabble again?’
I shook my head. My logic was shearing away. The woman – your mother – who chaired meetings and could arrange ‘sphinx’ on a double-word score was no good to either of us at that point. I rolled inwards again on another wave. I imagined the wave curling through me and inching you downwards. Long soft fingers, rounded shoulders, deep, slow breaths. I was tunnelling into something: a half-remembered atavistic frequency. The world disappeared with each wave. There was just you and I, borne along by the current. For a fleeting moment I understood the need for candles and oils and whale song.
When I came up, your dad’s face hovered and clarified. He dabbed at my brow with a tissue. Then the waves stopped and we puzzled over the graphs. The midwives were soothing.
‘We’re just going to do an exam and find out what’s going on.’ That pain was altogether different. I dug my heels into the mattress, grinding upwards towards the bed head.
‘Use the gas honey, use the gas.’
I sucked and sucked but still the hand was coming through me and grasping for my tonsils.
The midwife sighed. ‘I’m sorry love, but I can’t reach the cervix.’ She held up her monstrous hand. ‘Small fingers you see. I’ll get one of the nurses with longer fingers.’
Your dad’s face had turned green around the temples. I sunk into the pillows, dumb with shock that such pain was possible. Another nurse came and gathered at the end of the bed with the others. Your dad looked stricken.
‘I understand if you need to leave for a while,’ I told him. Perhaps I meant it.
‘I’m sorry, babe. I just … I can’t handle you screaming. I’ll go get some air and come back in a few minutes.’
He backed guiltily out the door. The midwives explained that they were going to make sure my waters had properly broken, acting it out with their hands. One of them scrabbled inside me, straining further as I pulled away. Soon my head was wedged hard against the clipboard. Snap. The nurse peeled off his gloves, shaking his head. ‘I couldn’t reach. The lip is anterior.’ He made hand puppets to show me. ‘You’ve only dilated a centimetre.’
They all gave me encouraging smiles. ‘Not to worry. Angela has really long fingers. Is she on today?’
I tried a joke to convince myself all was normal. ‘When you go get the mail boy, that’s when I draw the line okay?’
They laughed, together and too loud. I inched down the bed. Your dad returned. We examined the graphs again and listened to your galloping heartbeat.
‘We still have time.’ The midwives assured me. It was two o’clock.
‘There’s plenty of time. Let’s increase the Syntocin to 180.’
I willed the liquid to start the swell again, but the waves wouldn’t come. Long before they came to tell me, I knew how it would be.
‘I’m sorry,’ they said, ‘but the important thing is that we get this baby out safely.’
‘I know.’ I was an obliging imitation of my usual, rational self. But inside I was sob-sodden. I’ve always hated hospitals. No amount of antiseptic can erase their grave-hole fester. The moment they wheeled me down that corridor, I would be a patient and you a procedure.
My fear had a deeper register that I could not speak.
Even as I began first stage labour I had not the least inkling of ‘maternal instinct’. Your grandmother had told me of yearning for a child, a physical need that owned her like an addiction. I’d never felt that. Watching you through the static as you transformed from a prawn to a human baby fascinated and excited me. But I didn’t feel like your mother. When I discovered that jelly-like glob in my underwear that told me you were coming I thought: ‘Maybe the pain will connect me. Maybe that’s what the pain is for.’ A massive physical investment that brands the heart and twists the cells in the direction of a tiny, mewling creature. I needed the pain. I was counting on it. What would I do now?
Your dad, too honest to hide his relief, was upbeat. ‘It’s six now. We’ll have our baby by eight.’ He put his lips against my belly and crooned: ‘We’re going to meet you soon bubba, we’re going to meet you soon.’
They shaved me, wiped off my lipstick and nail polish – ‘so we can check your colour’ – and tucked my hair into a waxy shower cap. We wheeled away from the soft pastels along many corridors into a room of pupil-deflating whiteness. Bright glare bounced off the tiles and the machines. People spoke, though generally not to me, as valves and vials were co-ordinated. I was parked and carefully plugged into the technology.
A green-suited lady pulled me into position. ‘Curl your back like a cat and hold very, very still. It is very important that you don’t move.’ I panicked and then I panicked that I was panicking, remembering that the midwife said it would seize my muscles and slow the labour. It doesn’t matter now, I thought bitterly. I shook myself still and was very afraid. I felt the cold, shiny nib shoot the cold, shiny numb into my spine. I turned my head away from your dad so he didn’t see my tears.
I had been vigilant against anger and frustration since your conception. Ever mindful of the symbiosis between us, I wanted my part to be serene and upbeat. For the last shared surge of blood between us to be corroded by fear and disappointment was too much. It’s not fair, I wanted to howl.
Everyone but me was busy. The eyes visible between the hairnets and face masks were intent. A green screen unrolled across my belly and everyone gathered on the other side. ‘You can watch if you want,’ the doctor told your dad.
‘No, I’ll stay here,’ he said, and I chose to believe that was strength of heart not weakness of stomach.
‘Can you feel this?’ the anaesthetist said. ‘How about this?’ Terrified of the slicing, I said I could feel even when I couldn’t.
I locked onto your dad’s eyes. ‘Please tell me a story.’ I needed a hook for the unfurling tendrils of my reason to close around.
‘What kind of story?’
‘Anything. Tell me about something from your childhood.’
He told me about how his parents, aunts and uncles would pile into a boat and they would camp on an island off the coast. How he and his cousins slept in tents and fished and swam. About the esky full of colourful cans of soft drink he wasn’t usually allowed. As he spoke I tried not to feel what I was: inert, open, incidental.
Excitement trilled from the other side of the screen and suddenly you were there, held aloft by the smiling-eyed doctor. A knotted cord connected you to my dull stomach. You held your head up and looked from left to right, as if you’d siphoned the movement from me. Your perfection stunned me.
You were without surprise. Your petrol eyes appraised your dad and me and seemed to find us satisfactory. You practised a cry and, happy with your pitch, settled into the blanket they put around you and went to sleep in your father’s arms. I strained to keep sight of you as one by one my organs were returned. When I was wheeled out of the theatre I couldn’t see you and felt the first grief of my nascent self.
‘Where is my baby?’
‘Baby is with her dad in your room. They’ve gone for some bonding time.’
I had a terrifying Tourette’s of the limbs as the anaesthetic halflifed in my body. I watched the clerk and the midwives chatting behind the desk as my heart beat discordantly with my flailing arms. The anaesthetist gave me a cheery wave as she went off shift. Perhaps she thought I was waving back.
Your mother was twenty-two minutes old. No one seemed to think this particularly noteworthy. The remnants of your little home dredged from me. My re-packed innards unspooled around the hollows you left. It was your name, weight and colour they wrote on the chart. You were elsewhere, contented and utterly yourself. I would not take shape till they brought me to you.