Sometime inside the early hours, in the cool, still blackness of expectant bedroom walls, it was there. As if in a dream, unable to pin down the start, an ache was rolling about inside my belly, lurching onwards and reversing in waves. Not knowing how long since the moonlit paint had materialised from the inside of my eyelids, I was now undeniably awake, daring to examine this feeling amid Clifford Z’s, which bobbed like debris between the surf. As the day’s glow leisurely curled and licked the curtain edges, Clifford snoozed on, blissfully unaware…
Sometime in the morning he blinked – “I think this might be it…” – and bolted vertical… “Or maybe it’s Braxton Hicks,” I added, to defuse the abrupt look of panic, always happier to play it down… “Oh right, cool,” he replied in relief, rolled over and went straight back to sleep.
A couple of hours later he woke up properly. “This is it,” I announced, realigning my confidence, feeling remarkably calm. I’d been rehearsing my hypnobirthing breathing with every ripple and surge so far, my only focus was on the moment we were in.
Clifford sprang up in enthusiasm, “Right, come downstairs and I’ll make you a cup of tea,” ever English, ever the practical anchor he led me to the sofa, subtly monitoring each time my inhalation was slow and measured, recording the time of each and the time in between. They were never far apart, these waves, even from the beginning, twenty minutes at the very most but sometimes as short as three. Each required me to concentrate inwards, breathe and count, inhale and exhale, repeat my mantra;
(inhale for 5) I am calm and relaxed, (exhale for 5) Nugget is calm and relaxed,
(inhale for 5) I am healthy and well, (exhale for 5) Nugget is healthy and well,
(inhale for 5) I am happy and strong, (exhale for 5) Nugget is happy and strong.
I crinkled myself up, swaddled securely inside my cotton wool blanket, letting the familiar jokes from Friends wash over me. Friends is grounding, reassuring and constant. Friends will always be there. I spoke to the midwife, shredded apart a microwave lasagne, had a bath, listened to my relaxation mp3s, watched ‘Spirited Away’, swallowed a couple of paracetamols. All the while these period type pains increased and intensified, while I continued to focus only on each individual one as they crawled into view, peaked and passed.
About 9pm I was in the kitchen, fingers printing patterns in the plastic countertop, almost doubled over but breathing through it. The spaces in between these surges had been all over the place to start but were now consistent and close together, three or four minutes apart.
Lewisham hospital is a four-minute drive from ours but with speed bumps all the way… I am calm and relaxed… Clifford apologised for every tiny incline as the car trundled across the dark South London tarmac.
“Can I offer you any pain relief?” our midwife Becky asked, once we had settled inside the birthing suite, a big private room (nicer than many hotel rooms I’ve stayed in), with a double bed, en-suite bathroom, desk and birthing pool. “All I can really offer you at this point is codeine.”
I wasn’t able to use the pool to give birth due to Covid-19, which had been my plan, but I didn’t lose any energy worrying about it. Becky explained she’d be back in six hours to see how I was getting on…I am healthy and well… I rigged up the TENS machine (pads that send little electric shocks, a distraction more than pain relief) and swallowed the codeine, while Clifford dimed the lights and like a new-aged zen master in trackies started placing flickering battery candles about the room to create little aurora pockets which danced around on the ceiling. He put on one of my liquid dnb mixes and lined up all the juice boxes, while I focused inwards and pretty much ignored him.
…I am happy and strong… Nugget is happy and strong…
Time twisted up in that room, like on a trip it lost all meaning and I stopped relying on it as a reliable measure for what was happening. I was aware of Clifford’s presence but had no idea how he was filling those hours. At some point I requested the gas and air, Clifford had a go. I asked him to read to me but have no recollection of anything he said. He later told me he read me facts about Studio Ghibli while we listened to a score of classical music composed by him.
Six hours passed and at around 4am Becky was back to examine me again. I was still taking each wave as it came, rolling them over me like a gigantic tide… I am calm and relaxed, Nugget is calm and relaxed…
“Not much has changed, I’m afraid, ” Becky informed us.
Wait, what? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME???
I wanted to ask her to check again, like an entitled woman in the pandemic refusing to believe a supermarket could be out of eggs. Well you are clearly mistaken. I’ve done everything hypnobirthing tells you to do, I am very fucking calm and very fucking relaxed so where is my FUCKING BABY? It didn’t feel like nothing had changed, the intensity had ramped up something fierce. This was now the twenty-four-hour mark, from when the contractions had begun in the early hours of yesterday morning… I’d had over two hundred contractions by that point…!
Becky told me about a woman she’d seen who, over the course of quite a few days, kept coming back to the hospital and kept being turned away because she was in labour but nothing much was moving, “so, you know, it could be worse!”
This didn’t make me feel any better though. I had a vision of being eternally trapped inside that room, stuck in some horrific time loop where every six hours Becky would enter, joyfully tell me that not much had changed and the whole thing would circle and twist back on itself, repeating the cycle again and again and again for all infinity…
“AHH, it’s not working,” I moaned at Clifford helplessly, after Becky had given me a pethidine injection which temporarily relieves the pain, so I could rest. I looked at the clock and saw that it now said five thirty. We’d jumped an hour and a half forward and I hadn’t even felt my eyes close, no rest just a temporary skip in time. Pethidine is meant to last between two and six hours… I’d been completely shafted and royally robbed…Can I have another one please?
If she offers me AN EPIDURAL I’m gonna take it.
I can’t do six more hours of THIS SHIT!
If Clifford falls back asleep I’m gonna KILL HIM.
As the time warp continued, the morning snuck in behind the frosted glass and the room changed and morphed again… My waters broke in an explosion and still we were there…. somehow, I was still going…
Around 10am I felt powerful. An innate strength dragged up from some animalistic depth, with a profound realisation of who I was and where I was. Clarity, like in an out of body experience. A connection to all women giving birth with me at that moment, a connection to all mothers and to Mother Earth herself, a connection to the Universe… It sounds fully nuts and I appreciate that it also sounds inflated. But I felt it in my soul. I was ready.
The hardest part of labour, the pushing stage, is also the shortest part for a reason. Nugget wasn’t in the best position, with one hand up next to his face like a boxer. We were on a time limit, they allow you two hours maximum for this stage of labour, the average time being around twenty minutes. I had three midwifes with me, one monitoring Nugget between the contractions who, due to the pethidine, was a little hopped-up on the sleepy drug and extremely chilled. This was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and I took it right up to the line… But all I kept thinking was, I just have to do it. There was no question of whether or not I could.
In the final minutes, another midwife popped her head around the door waving a laminated hospital menu, “Are you staying for lunch? What would you like?” as if taking our order in a resturant. Clifford ordered a tuna jacket potato and fish & chips. To be fair, he must have been really, really hungry.
And a minute later, Nugget was born. Two days before his due date. Thirty-five hours after it had begun, with no intervention and nothing more than gas and air, they lifted him onto my chest, his little hand up framing his face like he was ready to take on the world. All I could think was, “What the actual fuck just happened? I can’t believe I did that.”