Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Birthing, sweet!

Birth stories, eh? We love them. Well, there was the one guy who wrote in (under someone else’s name, no less) to say that the last post was my boringest blog ever, but he was vastly outweighed by electronic high-fives of one sort or another. Heaps of them were from men, whose memories of the big event are (almost) as vivid as if it happened yesterday. You guys! You made me cry! Take Robbo, for instance:

Thank you for that WONDERFUL description of the birth of your 2nd child. Our son is 10 years old now so the memories of childbirth (once removed since I'm the Dad), are not as fresh as they once were. But I'm sitting here in my mortgage broking office in Auckland, surrounded by my fellow mortgage brokers and I've got tears streaming down my face!! Like the man says, "shit a brick"!

Brian from Grey Lynn is a home birth junkie, having helped with two:

Loveliest for you and us, though, was the reaction of those already there, esp. our version of Busytot who totally fell in love with his mum and the baby simultaneously.

Benjamin helped out with two very fast births, both under two hours:

After the first one we knew not to leave town for the last month but we're 2 minutes away from the hospital so I don't think there was much chance of an instant home birth! First time (Katja) we were home in the evening and didn't get enough kicks so we went into hospital to get checked and the first contraction hit in the car. Thankfully we had all our bags with us. Then with Linnea I had taken the day off but we went in to work to do something. Again, when Demelza got in the car, she got the first contraction (hmm maybe we should use the car to induce her...) and halfway down the road I was firmly instructed to stop & call the midwife! Dropped Katja off at a friend's, went to hospital. Our midwife barely had time to do all the paperwork before it was all on. Like you, we got to sit in the sunshine and relax for a while which was nice.

And our own David Slack was moved to share this tender reminiscence of his daughter’s arrival:

All I know from the Westerns is rip up sheets and boil water. And keep changing the CDs, which Karren taught me. Our agreement was that I would put on her Cat Stevens CD when she judged that I needed to be suffering as much as she was. That came at around hour six. Glad you didn't have to go through any of that.

Too right, mate. I have such a suggestible brain that I forbade any music at all. I wouldn't have wanted to be followed by a Moonshadow (moonshadow, moonshadow), or to find myself singing "Waters have broken, like the first mo-or-orning." But each to their own.

It wasn't just the sentimental blokes I heard from, of course. Lots of optimistic feedback came in from women about to give birth for the first time. Dear sisters, I don’t want to be accused of false advertising – first births are typically longer than average (although I think a large part of that is when you start counting). But don’t despair, it could happen to you. Especially if it’s already happened to someone in your family. My advice for first-timers: interrogate Mum, Nana and all the aunties about their labours, and pay particular attention to any stories that include the line “there I was in the hospital foyer/bathroom at home/car/changing room at K-Mart...”

First time mothers, if you read one more thing before you head off to birth that first baby, fast or slow, read this. I’ve heard so many stories recently of first births that were trundling along perfectly and then ended up in a C-section. Look, any way that gets the baby out is fine with me, but I do wonder whether this information might help avoid some unnecessary surgeries.

I must admit, with friends and family having had difficult labours recently, I did wonder whether writing up my speedy story would seem impolitic or worse, braggy. On the other hand, as Vibeke, an experienced home birther, wrote from Waiheke:

I always get tears in my eyes around birth stories and fantastic relaxed funny home birth stories make me jump up and down for joy at the same time!
Maybe there should be a collection of perfectly normal joyful homebirth stories. Yes, I know it's not always like that, I KNOW I KNOW but doesn't it help so much more to actually hear the Good ones, then it does to hear only about the ones gone wrong?

I hope so! On that note, I got quite a few mails like this one from Michelle:

We're expecting our first baby in June and it's so nice to hear the positive stories (albeit a bit nervewracking for you!) rather than all the tales of horror that people like to drag out! Childbirth has such a culture of fear surrounding it so it's great to hear stories like yours.

Glad to help contribute to a sense of optimism and power. On the other hand, Deborah, whose brother was born in the car, speaks for all those whose births would likely never have happened smoothly at home:

I'm full of admiration for people who do the whole homebirth thing so well. Mind you, I am seriously grateful for 21st century medicine too - I have had two births, one a twin birth, and in both of them, I had every single intervention bar a c-section. The result - my daughters and I are alive. It could so easily have been so different.

Absolutely. We are so lucky to be able to choose from a range of safe ways to give birth. It’s not like that everywhere (and frankly President Bush, you're not helping with approaches like this. Try being pregnant yourself before making this sort of call, will ya?).

And even with the power to choose, the outcome is not always in our own hands. Sharon wrote:

Brought back memories of my own son's arrival - beautifully planned-for home birth, all that serenity, big cushions, carefully chosen music, warm bath ... which ended up in a screaming rush to National Womens' after 12 hours hanging - literally - from the rafters in the only position that I could cope with. One emergency caesar later I had my beautiful boy and was for the rest of my brief stay known to the nurses as 'the failed home birth'!

I'll let her have the last word on the matter:

Who cares how they get here as long as they're safe and sound.

Amen to that. I guess the bottom line is that one should always expect the unexpected.

Case in point: four weeks into life with the new baby, everything swimming along nicely, he got a little cold. And it got worse, and then in the course of one night he had trouble breathing properly, threw up his midnight feed, and stopped feeding altogether. In the morning we bounced from the pediatrician to the ER and then to the children’s ward.

I guess the boy who had arranged to be born without even a midwife on hand wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and have a personal encounter with the Machine That Goes Ping! And the Machine That Goes Beep-Beep-Beep-Beep BEEEEEEP when the heart rate drops below 30 and the apnoea episodes lasted longer than twenty seconds. We had five long days and four long nights in hospital, a totally unnecessary spinal tap and a hep-lock just in case, lots of suctioning with a sort of industrial nose vacuum cleaner, and supplementary oxygen to get him through the night.

Of course, my superstitious mind pegged this as punishment from the gods for hubristically telling the world about my happy home birth. The scientist in the family reminded me it was a simple case of RSV, which is just a sniffly cold in bigger folk, but causes great trouble for babies, especially those who were premature or are younger than a couple of months old.

It’s a seasonal thing – fully 80% of kids in the ward had the same bug. As far as I know, all of them went home all right, including the little boy we shared a room with for the first few days, a chunky two month old who’d been born two months prematurely, and whose mother visited between checking in on the other kids at home and clocking her own shifts at a nursing home ten miles away. I felt stupidly privileged to be able to stand guard 24/7 on my own little precious one, reading and watching TV, and partaking of the free meals available to breastfeeding mothers. She needed a free meal more than I did, but hadn’t been successful getting the breastfeeding relationship started -- so it was one of those well-meaning policies with a nasty aftertaste.

Other things stick in my mind. How small a baby looks in a hospital crib. The patience of the nurses, who encouraged me to take charge of things by writing down the apnoea episodes and keeping track of improvements. The bright-eyed, friendly young doctor I almost didn’t recognize because I’d last seen him at the tail end of a long shift, grey-faced, swaying slightly, and trying very hard to stay awake.

And the impossibly gentle pediatrician, who, when it came time to check out, took the time to talk about things other than the sick baby, and listened long enough to let me get past the reflexive joking and give voice to my superstitious thoughts. He didn’t chide me at all, but concurred that what we call "magical thinking" is a natural response to a world of unknowns. Then, wisely pushing all my literary buttons, he suggested I make a "leap of faith" and take the baby home.

So we did, just in time for the arrival of my Mum, who stayed for a week and a half and made curtains, dinners, cakes, and everything OK, in the way that Mums do. A month later, the baby is fine, and unrecognizable as the gaunt little leprechaun he was when he came home from the hospital. He now has fat rolls in his armpits, and luncheon sausage thighs, and his vocabulary has expanded from plaintive cries of “lo” and “woe” to smiles, shouts of “wahey!” and Arnold Horshack-like chuckles. Normal magical thinking has been resumed.


A postcolonial postscript...

While keeping watch over the baby in the hospital, I sought solace in the television, keeping it tuned almost exclusively to the cable channels that showed happy birth stories and instant home renovations, a steady stream of Big Brotherly assurance that things can only get better. My other companion was Marianne Williams.

If you haven’t read her letters (edited by her great-great-granddaughter Caroline Fitzgerald), you must, especially if you wrote “Pakeha” on the census form. Marianne is a crucial part of the Pakeha whakapapa. The letters are a riveting account of the earliest years of settlement; written as a record of daily life to be read by many sets of eager eyes, they are like a blog from the past.

She trained as a midwife before heading out to the wilds of early New Zealand, where she delivered children for herself, her fellow Britons, and local Maori. Marianne herself had eleven children -- all of whom reached adulthood and most of whom lived well into very old age -- and seventy-five grandchildren.

When she arrived in New Zealand in 1823 with her husband Henry and three small children, she was thirty years old and heavily pregnant with her fourth child. Talk about leaps of faith. Here is her home-birth story, a real pioneer birth, not like my ersatz one. It takes place in the raupo hut (40 feet long and 15 wide) which the family shared with the Fairburn family and their children:

On the day of [the] birth I drank tea with the family, and with great difficulty washed my children and put them to bed; after which I walked out into the moonlight with [my husband] Henry - and soon retired to my own room. Henry summoned the family to prayers, before the close of which Mr Marsden arrived with Captain Moore in the boat of the latter, and while Henry was getting tea for them and giving grog to the boat crew, and Mrs Fairburn [who had recently given birth herself] at the other end of the hut was putting her children to bed, and attending to her baby, I, left entirely to myself, did perhaps feel more justly my only aid to come from God, and cling more closely to the only source of strength.

As soon as the children had played themselves to sleep, I made my preparations and went to bed. I gladly heard Captain Moore depart! And a short time afterwards Mrs Fairburn arrived to my assistance just as the dear little one began to cry. I never felt so much joy before. Henry wrapped himself in his boat-cloak to watch through the night.

That same night the local chief visited to see why the family had a fire lit in the middle of the night; the next morning, the children demanded to see the baby laid next to Mrs Fairburn’s baby to be sure that it was a real new one. Poor Marianne writes of having a headache, and catching several colds from the wind that came through the rush walls of the house, but she holds up well and is soon plunged back into the bustle of keeping house:

At the end of the week I dressed baby myself, on the eighth day left my room, and at the fortnight Henry having gone to Kerikeri for the day, I received a visit from Mr and Mrs King and 4 of their children, laid the cloth for dinner, etc.

She notes wryly that she was no stranger to this sort of hard work; not long before her own baby arrived, and five days after Mrs Fairburn’s had been born,

I had just finished ironing about teatime: Henry helped me to wash the children; and overcome with fatigue, I did, as I had often done before, threw myself on the bed to refresh myself by a good cry, when a boat was announced and I was aroused anew to exertion, to receive Mr Marsden, Mr Kemp and the celebrated Hongi, to get out blankets, sheets and bedding, etc.

How much is concealed in that brisk “etc”! How heartening to read about Henry wrapping himself in his cloak and keeping watch; rolling up his sleeves and mucking in. And how utterly reassuring to know that even the staunchest pioneer mother knew the value of a jolly good cry.