The revolving door

Today, I am burdened with the unenviable task of dismantling the decorations. The tree, the balloons, and the banners must all come down. Having a child’s birthday overlap with the last day of Christmas would motivate most people to rid the room of one lot before replacing them with another. Not us. For one day of the year, our house is such a staggeringly awful monument to kitsch, it qualifies us as contenders for a Channel 4 documentary. Better make that Channel 5, or, if the barrel is really being scraped… TV3.

Being middle-aged parents to a young child means we reminisce about the sketchy details of the labour and birth as though it happened fifty years ago and we were both really drunk at the time. Our indulgent game of This Time *insert relevant number here* Years Ago kicks off on the eve of her birthday. “This time three years ago, I was locked in the bathroom trying to shove a suppository up my arse that the midwife had fobbed me off with that morning”.  Ah, nostalgia.

By noon on her birthday, we have already done a recap of Dad helping himself to a lengthy kip, the derision the birthing ball was greeted with, and the offer from the midwife to listen to Norah Jones when the pain was really revving up. The throat-cutting gesture I mimed in response tends to be more aggressive in the re-telling, which is only fair. Norah fucking Jones. The aural equivalent of knocking back half a Disprin with a glass of your own piss. I have vague recollections of the next bit. “This time three years ago, your Mum was doing her best Bernard Black impersonation to the Midwife called Rowena”. Or Roweeeeeeeeena, as I fondly knew her as.

My labour outtakes

“And not long after that, you arrived!” Before one of us quickly added… “And for a few seconds we thought you were a boy!”. At three years, she is already bored of her parents’ nauseating, heavily exclamation-marked story of her birth, so despairingly asks for another cookie. I stare into the middle-distance and think how mad it is that I’ll never get to go through childbirth again, before asking for the bill.

A series of appointments with her public awaited her back at Decorations R Us. Her farthest flung grandparents first since they’ve reached that age when they will only drive in day-light for fear of getting lost and not knowing who they’ll meet on the road. “You’ll never know who you’ll meet on the road”. There’s an oft repeated statement of fact. I began to wonder if it was my Father’s codified way of announcing “I’ve had enough of this child’s woeful attempts to play the harmonica. Let’s get the fuck outta here, Dear”. On second thoughts, he would never say Dear. I embrace the shift system as the new way to do birthday business.

A steady, yet manageable, stream of Aunties, Uncles, cousins, and the other set of Grandparents, dribble in and out till bedtime. Their generosity and thoughtfulness the perfect antidote to the New Year Comedown; the presence of her biggest fans a real reminder of our good fortune.

Forced to take just one breather in the kitchen, I was about to behead Olaf with the bread-knife when a neighbour sidled up to me with an update on her daughter’s brief encounter with a work colleague. If I recall rightly, I was in a similarly compromised position last year when she chose the moment to tell me of her own sexual conquests with a married man. “I hadn’t had sex in twenty years! I can tell you it’s quite something!”, she whisper-shouted before retreating to the living room to discuss the price of furniture in the local charity shop circuit with my Mother-In-Law. I wondered what’ll it be next year. Our girl will be four. Perish the thought of progress.

This time three years ago, I was alone in the midwife unit suite, cradling our newborn in the quiet before the silence was punctured by the swing of the door ushering in the first round of visitors. The tree stayed up for a further two weeks.

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The birthing experience: It is ok for it to be just ok, OK?

Given that it’s coming up on three years since I gave birth, you’d think I’d be well over the topic of pregnancy by now. For reasons I haven’t fully unpicked, I took a retrospective interest in the whole area in the months afterwards.

Maybe it was because I spent the bulk of my pregnancy laid up. Or maybe it was because the more I read, the more I found it hard to square my own experience with the prevailing online narrative adopted in the adjudication of the birthing experience. Was it positive or negative? It was neither. It just was. But if I didn’t stop reading birth stories, I was in danger of re-assessing it to file it away under one or the other. So I stopped.

The plethora of doubts women feel during pregnancy have found a sympathetic and informative collective ear in the web. The camaraderie and mutually beneficial support derived from websites is well-documented and cannot be underestimated. From normalising the reservoir of question marks thrown up by those starting out on the road to conception, through to those feeling around in the dark, literally, striving to nurture their children as best they can. And everything in between.

It’s not difficult to imagine future students of health policy and sociology citing the revolutionary influence of the web in enabling women to seize ownership of the discourse on maternity healthcare, and the right to the fight for informed choices consistent with their preferences and the ethics of bodily integrity. The net frequently creaks under the weight of discussions on the succession of legal cases that test medical and lay assumptions about the distribution of that power and control over it.

With the web at their disposal, women have learned the benefits of non-interventionist birthing options and the disadvantages of over-medicalised maternity care management. Reform moves forward at a glacial speed. Undeterred, women continue to assert their preferences and combat the threat of unnecessary intervention with advance preparation through hypo-birthing and birth plans. The domino effect from experiences shared by women passes confidence on to others coming up behind them towards the delivery suite. Pursuit of the positive birth experience is, understandably, one of the more popular topics on any given parenting website. One that has moved into the realm of a political movement. In the context of church and state control of maternity rights and care, the need for change is acutely felt by Irish women.

That said, I didn’t give much thought to what a positive birthing experience would look like for me. Experiencing birth for the first time while pushing 40 calibrated my thoughts in a way that left me focusing only on getting to 40 weeks. Birth preferences or birth plans didn’t penetrate my leftover energy too much. Apart from reading up on the essentials, I studiously avoided online messageboards and discussions.

Reading these discussions retrospectively, I wonder how I would’ve evaluated my birth experience had I approached it with preferences and expectations, loosely defined or firmed up, in the company of my peers cheerleading me along the way. Not for the first time, have I picked up on the need for women to be fully informed of their choices. It’s the responsible thing to do, right? I’ve had more than one eyebrow raised at my apparent casual attitude. Not for the last time, will I read entire discussions on birth experiences evaluated exclusively in terms of being either negative or positive. It sounds a reasonable way to judge them, right?

Three years on, I’m still happy with my birthing preference. Which was the ancient scientific method of going with the flow. Less wilful ignorance than having faith in myself, and in the system into which I was entrusting us both. I was fortunate to have a shoulder-shrugging birthing experience that is as valid and more common than the extremes of positive or negative analysis can capture. I don’t underestimate my luck in being able to interpret the birth experience that way. But it is another choice among many. And I’m OK with it.