Nine years ago I gave birth to my eldest child in the local hospital.  Twelve beds lined the walls of a rectangular room, our babies in plastic boxes at the bed side.  There were curtains that could be pulled between each bed, for a sort of sham of privacy, but midwives, in their black shoes, clicked past the beds snapping back the curtains, insisting that the personal be public.  Twelve women, twelve babies, one large room.

It was hot.  Why does it need to be so hot, I asked, sweating into my jammies and dressing gown?  We keep it warm for the babies, they said.  The babies, oh yes, the babies needed warmth in their plastic boxes.  Meanwhile I sat and sweated, staring at my own little black-haired mystery lying in her box.

I needed a drink.  I had just given birth a few hours before.  The ward was full and I was hot and sweating.  I felt like I hadn’t had a drink in weeks.  My mouth was a desert and there was no relief.  I saw a button next to my bed, “Assistance,” it said.  Surely someone would help me find a drink?  I pressed it, it turned orange and soon a nursing assistant came to my bedside, tight-lipped. Yes? she barked.  I just need a drink, I’m so, so thirsty.  Please.  Her lips became thinner and she folded her arms.  That button is only for urgent things.  Please don’t press it again.

Is thirst not urgent?  I have just run the marathon to end all marathons.  I have just fought the hardest fight.  I have given birth to a beautiful, slippery, enigmatic creature and now I need something small and insignificant but essential—a drop of water and a friendly voice.  I get neither.

The mothers in the beds nearby keep to themselves.  The one across from me has just had her fourth child.  It sleeps in the plastic box while she sits in her chair staring at me, watching my incompetence unfold before her like a poorly knitted blanket, all dropped stitches and holes.  I need the toilet, but don’t know what to do.  Do I take the baby with me, wheeling her along like a dessert trolley?  Somehow it seems profane to take her into a bathroom.  I ask the mother in the bed beside me to watch her and I pad my way heavily to the toilet down the corridor.  I sit on the toilet, sweating and corpulent.  I pass a clot—is this what the midwives want to know about?  As I am thinking about it I remember what I had momentarily forgotten—my baby.  Oh my baby, where is she? Who is the stranger I left her with? What if she has awaken and needs me?  I feel the worry, like bile, in my throat.  I walk quickly back towards the ward and I can see in the distance, the furthest plastic box, there she is.  My baby.  She hasn’t moved.

I get closer to check that she is still breathing.  Her tiny chest rises and falls.  She presses her lips together and turns her perfect head to the side, rumpling her mat of black hair.  She is pink and beautiful.  I am filled with an unfamiliar, strange sensation, as yet unrecognisable to me in my new motherhood.  It is that proprietary feeling of connection and the need to protect at all costs, the first swelling of a never-before-experienced love.  What was once a part of me is now separate, but still somehow connected.

Looking back on that mental photograph of myself sitting on the side of the bed I see a tired young woman, messy hair, frumpy old pajamas and crooked glasses.  She looks as though she has just lived through a hurricane.  The baby is still in the plastic box, and the woman looks on, sitting on the side of the bed, leaning forward to observe the baby, not sure what to do.  Nine years later I want to steal to my bedroom and quietly retrieve my scissors from the sewing kit.  I want to go to that mental picture and gently, ever so gently snip around the baby lying in the cot.  I want to pick her up gently and glue her into the arms of the bewildered woman sitting at the bedside.  I want to look myself in the eye, take myself by the shoulders and say, “She is yours.  Hold her, because this moment will soon be gone.”

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A short birth reflection
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5 thoughts on “A short birth reflection

  • 07/11/2011 at 10:15 am

    Lisa, this post could have been written about me. Literally. It has moved me to tears, you have written it so beautifully.
    I really feel that the Midwives on Labour wards have an enormous responsibility to welcome new mothers into the fantastic club that is Motherhood. Unfortunately they SO often disappoint. You hear often that they don’t have time – but you know what, that is no bloody excuse. Our society should be ashamed of the way new mums are treated (and yes I know there are exceptions) in the hospital straight after birth. We need a loving, supportive, caring, safe environment, where we can prepare ourselves for the most exciting journey we’ll ever go on.

    • 07/11/2011 at 10:47 am

      Although I’m sorry to hear that you felt disappointed in the midwifery staff after birth, I am glad that this piece spoke to your experience. I felt very vulnerable writing it, so I am really grateful for your feedback. Iona’s birth was one of the happiest events of my life and these memories certainly don’t spoil that in any way. On the other hand, these experiences are what made me want to have a home birth the next time around. Thanks again for your comments Gemma. Love, Lisa

  • 07/11/2011 at 10:29 pm

    I know how you feel/felt! I, too, am an American living in the UK and had my first child here 11 years ago. It was a shock to my system, to say the least, especially as I had first given birth 9 years earlier in California and had had a wildly different experience. It was so hard to be far from home and from my people and then to be surounded by these grim but efficient midwives….I gave birth late in the evening and my husband was sent away after just an hour and I was terrified! I remember asking one midwife if she would take my son and his plastic box so I could rest totally for just an hour (as was the “rooming in” practice in the States ~ they’d wheel baby back for feeding) and she looked at me like I’d sprouted horns. Luckily my mother~in~law knew the score and had sent me to hospital with a hamper of sandwhiches, energy bars, fruit, juice, a water bottle and yes, a flask of tea. So I was left exhausted but not dehydtrated by the hospital staff. I am so glad my local NHS trust opened a new maternity hospital a few years ago because my exprience last year was very different ~ a private room with my own loo were the best bits. I still wish my community midwife delivered me as I hate the impersonal nature of the NHS system, but we can’t have everything. Lovely post!

    • 08/11/2011 at 12:22 pm

      Hi Katie,
      It’s amazing how one birth can be vastly different from another. My memories of giving birth to Iona are positive, but the ones I shared in this post are the reasons that led me to seek a home birth with my other children. What I wanted to highlight in this post is not only how hard it was to feel utterly alone and unsure in the hospital, but also what regret I feel that I didn’t just pick her up and hold her. I know that many mothers share these feelings, so it was meaningful for me to put them into words.
      I appreciate your comments– thank you for taking the time to write.

  • 09/11/2011 at 1:44 pm

    Goodness this has really moved me to tears. Although my first birth experience was good, I too sat there, looking at my baby in the plastic box, rather than getting him out and cuddling him. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I’m so glad I learned, and had my second at home, where I could get her in my arms straight away and keep her there.

    Absolutely love your blog.

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