Leona has just turned 1 and I have been reflecting on all the changes that came with becoming a parent. One of the main things that strikes me is remembering how scared I was before we started this journey. I was scared of giving up so much of my time to parenting, I was scared of the unknown, and I was terrified about what would happen to my body. I think it’s very natural to feel all of those things in the culture that we live in and mostly I am grateful to my friends who started this journey before me. Seeing them engage with their kids has led me to see the benefits of gentle parenting. Hearing them talk about their birth experiences as joyful and empowering helped me let go of the fear around childbirth. Seeing them breastfeed their babies and toddlers normalised that relationship for me and allowed me to see how it benefited them. Watching them hold their babies close and hearing how little they cried allowed me to see the simplicity in caring for a newborn. But I did struggle with the idea that they were somehow different to me, that maybe I didn’t have the patience to stay home with the kids, to be a gentle parent, to give birth without fear. And I still had a lot of questions or sticking points in my mind. I was uncomfortable with the idea of being a stay-at-home Mum because my version of feminism involved trying to be masculine rather than embracing what it means to be feminine. I felt pretty sure I wanted Leona to go to school because I thought I’d want time away from her and I thought that school was good for socialising, for normalising, for learning. I was almost certain that I would continue to do what I wanted to do when she came along – that I wouldn’t be happy to stand around whilst she investigated leaves on the path if I wanted us to get to the play park.
I think it’s fair to say that over the last year and a half I have made gradual shifts in my thinking that have culminated in a radical change to how I see the world, how I see myself and what I value. I’m not saying that those changes would be right for everybody, but I do think that it’s important to be very intentional with our choices instead of simply following the path set out for us by expectation, societal norms, or ingrained habits.
I wanted to share my story of labour, birth and new motherhood – not because I think it’s anything special – quite the opposite. I want to tell it because the horror stories always hog the limelight it was only reading lots of normal stories like mine that made me realise that I didn’t have to be afraid. (For more good birth stories, check out Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and Milli Hill’s Give Birth Like a Feminist.) I recognise that I have a lot of privileges and a sprinkling of luck, and I am not trying to say anything about anyone else’s experience or choices.
Labour and Birth
A year ago I went into labour at about 6am. I was lying in bed peacefully when the first contraction gently tugged at me, and I felt a rush of excitement. ‘It’s happening!’ I whispered to myself gleefully. It was dark and quiet and I just lay in bed for a few hours, tuning in to my body and relaxing whilst Dave slept. I had three contractions over two hours, each one was a gentle wave of warmth and tension and I felt quite peaceful. When Dave woke I shared the excitement with him. We decided to take the time to drive up the mountain for a little wander around the viewpoint to honour our last morning together as a couple. It was a beautiful winter morning. After that, Dave spent the day working from home, handing over and tying up loose ends knowing that he planned to take six months unpaid leave. I spent the day cooking, resting and walking. I remember taking a walk through the village and chatting to the neighbours feeling the occasional contraction and not telling them about it, like this feeling was too beautiful and intimate to share and could be spoiled if they made a fuss over me. After lunch, the contractions were getting stronger, more rhythmical and I started timing them. When they were five minutes apart for an hour, we started getting our stuff together. When they were four minutes apart for an hour we decided to make our way to the car. I had a hot water bottle on my lower back and was feeling the need to move, breathe and sway as the contractions came. I called the on-call midwife and we said we were on our way in.
The hour-long car journey was mildly uncomfortable because I couldn’t move around, so I was relieved to get out and walk up to the maternity ward at about 8pm. Irene met us there, took one look at my smiling face and said that she didn’t want me to get my hopes up because I didn’t look like I was in labour. I thought ‘whatever, I know my body’. She asked if I wanted a cervical check to see how far along I was and was astounded to find that I was already 4cm dilated. Obviously. I didn’t know Irene as well as some of the other midwives so it was nice that we had an hour to chat before things started hotting up. I paced around, bounced on a pilates ball and spent a lot of time just swaying my hips around. It was like my body knew what it needed to do and I was just going with the flow.
I knew what stages of labour I was going through because I had read all about them. I knew my preferences with regard to the birth but I also knew under which circumstances I wanted to deviate from those preferences. I felt confident, focused and content. Dave had taken our stuff to our room, eaten some dinner and come back to be with me. He followed me around holding a hot pack on my back, helped me lean into each contraction in the way that I needed. I took deep, soothing breaths. Irene left us to it, mostly.
I don’t know what it was like to watch, but on the inside I never doubted my ability to birth, never wavered in my decision not to have an epidural. It wasn’t that I was determined to ‘tough it out’, it was that I knew it was going well and that I didn’t need any intervention or assistance.
When I got angry and nauseous, I knew I had made it to ‘transition’ (the time between reaching full dilation and starting to push). I let the anger do its thing. At one point I was crawling along the floor because that’s what I needed to do to make it through a contraction. Another one demanded that I grab onto something above me and pull down. Another had me shouting and I hit the wall, exclaiming that I couldn’t do this! But through it all, after every contraction there were a few minutes of peace and I could always collect myself in those moments to get ready for the next one.
As I felt transition give way to a pushing sensation, I knew we were getting towards the end. I needed to squat and hold onto something during contractions. Irene set me and Dave up so that we were stood facing each other and I put my arms around his neck so that I could bear down and hold myself up on him at the same time. Irene started telling me how to push and I told her there was really no need – I wasn’t even consciously doing the pushing. My body was totally in charge; I was just along for the ride. And what a wild ride! My waters broke during the second round of pushing contractions. After the third I could feel the top of the baby’s head with my fingers! It was all going faster than I would have liked but there was no stopping it now, the rollercoaster was in free-fall. On the next big wave of intense effort, my body bore down until she came whooshing out like a slippery seal. Irene caught her and somehow managed to hold her towards me between my legs so that I could take her.
In that moment, when I looked down and saw her, everything just paused for a second. I felt baffled. ‘What do I do with that?’ I wondered. ‘Why does she have hair already?’ I’d been so focused on the birth experience that I hadn’t really thought about what it would be like to meet my baby. I felt quite protective of her and brought her clumsily to my tummy as I perched on the edge of the bed, shaking from the adrenaline, the warm cord still attached. I started laughing. Haha, I just gave birth and here is the baby – wild! I had only arrived at the hospital three and a half hours before.
I lay down and brought Leona to my chest, they must have cut the cord at some point around then. I felt my legs getting squirmy again and then the placenta came out and I felt relieved. After that I really wanted to just curl up in a dark room with Leona. We had an hour of skin to skin before I got a few stitches in a horrible brightly lit room that offended all my senses. Dave went with Leona whilst they weighed her and gave her a vitamin K shot and stuff. Then we got wheeled along to our room to leave us in peace for the night. I had a midnight meal, a shower and snuggled up for the night with Leona. I didn’t sleep a wink, I was so high on adrenaline.
I hate to say this, but breastfeeding was agony. “How can something so natural be so painful?” I cried! But I appreciate now that the world we grew up in is not our natural habitat. It’s like expecting a lion raised in captivity to go out and hunt and kill an antelope on the first try. I knew nothing about breastfeeding a newborn and I’d never seen anyone do it. My boobs had spent their whole lives tucked snugly inside a bra, never feeling so much as the wind or sun on them, and were wholly unprepared for the surprisingly strong mouth of a hungry baby. But the midwives were incredibly supportive and we struggled through it with a combination of technique, equipment and willpower.
Dave and I spent our first three days and nights as parents in that private hospital room. I don’t think I got dressed the whole time. Dave rushed about doing admin and whatnot. All our meals arrived like magic. I had never been so hungry in my life! I ate everything they brought and sent Dave out for more. I felt like I’d run a marathon. My whole body felt bruised and all of my muscles that usually hold so much tension were soft and squishy. My belly went down pretty quickly, my boobs got huge after a few days and I just went along with it all like a little leaf riding downstream, accepting that I would get a little battered along the way.
After we got home I curled up in bed with Leona and just went with it. Dave was running about doing the endless laundry, cooking, tidying and baby bouncing. I cried, I laughed, I chilled, and spent a lot of time breastfeeding and even more time eating. One day Dave came into the bedroom to find me crying. “Oh no, what’s the matter?” he asked. I sobbed back “I think I’ve just fallen in love with her!”
We spent the first month just being together and it was glorious. I think Dave was quite stressed actually, and I found breastfeeding to be a challenge for quite a few months because I had some serious over-supply that made it painful for me, and poor Leona threw up constantly. She didn’t ever breastfeed to sleep until she was three months old and didn’t stop throwing up until five months. She had colic from two weeks to three months, which was tough. Dave used to stay up and carry her around in the sling or bounce her in his arms. She generally slept soundly from about 3am and didn’t like to get up until almost midday. So we slept in a lot too. It really was a whirlwind of emotion and change. I’m so grateful that we didn’t have to do anything except survive and be together in those first weeks and months.
Learn & Grow
You hear people say that the children in their lives teach them things. I don’t think I really understood what that was about, except that they could come home from school with facts about the Egyptians that you’d forgotten all about. I didn’t realise that a new born baby could lead you to question everything you had stored as accepted fact about society, parenting, feminism and responsibility. This little person comes into your life with no expectations about how things should be; all they know is that they need you to help them meet every single one of their needs. And they are capable of communicating their pleasure and displeasure very effectively.
The first thing Leona taught me was surrender, and she managed to do that before I ever met her. I was so afraid that my body would go ‘wrong’ – that I would be infertile, that I’d have a miscarriage, a stillbirth, a disabled child. Maybe I worried about that so much because I thought that my body’s failure to produce the ‘perfect’ baby would reflect badly on me, that it would mean I had failed as a parent, as a woman. It took me a good few months to accept that I had no control over the outcome of the pregnancy. Sure, I could reduce risks by eating and exercising well, and reducing stress. (Although in reality I was nibbling on toast and cream cheese, doing lots of physical labour and feeling a whole lot of stress.) Once I accepted that I had to surrender to whatever life threw at me, I also realised that I might even be allowed to enjoy it. I had been so worried it wouldn’t work out that I hadn’t allowed myself to connect with the life growing inside me in case it got extinguished. One day I realised that even once she was born I wouldn’t be able to guarantee her safety. I remember asking Dave, “when are we going to admit to ourselves that we love her?” And we agreed to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to pain and open our hearts to love.
Since having Leona in our lives, I thoroughly enjoy getting to know her and helping her make her way through life’s struggles and pleasures. It has been a delightful challenge learning to let go of my assumptions and work out how to forge the path I want to travel. Of course parenting would be a whole lot easier if we lived in an integrated society and knew all of this stuff before we had our own baby to look after. I saw a video of a photographer working with newborns and watched with my jaw on the floor at how she held, rocked and soothed the babies. The babies were so peaceful they looked like they were smiling! I was like – oh, this is what we should all be able to do! We are missing out on so much joy. We are taking the hard road, learning and stumbling as we go, each new parent struggling to figure it all out on our own. I’ve read about indigenous women who can soothe ‘even the most colicky baby in minutes’ and thought about how much suffering could be avoided. All of us stressed out parents, all our crying babies, all suffering for what? So that we can go out and earn the money we need to live in this world. And that’s to say nothing of the suffering of all of those who actually don’t have enough money to live. So much is asked of modern parents – we have to be everything to our children because all of us are closed away in our little households away from everyone else. Humans are meant to live in a community where there are other people to rock, soothe, play and learn with, where advice and assistance are always at hand. Anyway, I digress. If you want to read more on that, check out this article.
Something I have learned about myself on the road through new motherhood is how to love my body. Like many modern girls, I went on a long journey from childhood ambivalence to adolescent denial, through confusion, distain, flaunting, all the way to acceptance, but it’s only now that I’m getting towards love and nurture. We ask so much of our bodies and get annoyed when they complain with aches, pains and dysfunction. Now my body has grown a whole other body, birthed her, fed her and comforted her as she grows. I think my body deserves a little tender loving care.
Another thing I’m learning is trust. To trust myself, yes, but not just that. I set out looking for the best way to navigate a pregnancy, the best way to birth, the best way to parent, the best way to mother. Because if you can just find that best way, you’ve got a template to follow, you don’t have to worry about being inadequate or imperfect and if anything goes wrong then it wasn’t your fault. But of course there is no best way to do anything. In every moment you have a choice between a whole load of different options. Your choices are limited by circumstance, by your resources and your ingrained habits. There are no absolutes. For example we can’t truthfully say that ‘breast is best’. We can say that breast milk is the most nourishing food for a baby. We can say that WHO recommends that children are breastfeeding for at least two years whenever possible. We can say that many women enjoy the breastfeeding relationship once they have it established. But we can’t say that breastfeeding is the best choice for every family, or even a choice at all for some, because each family has limitations and needs beyond those of the baby.
I used to be so judgemental. Not intellectually – I knew that everyone was entitled to make their own decisions. But I lacked compassion for those who made choices I didn’t agree with. Now that I can see that my own decisions come with reasons that don’t necessarily apply to others, I can appreciate that other people’s decisions are borne of reasons that I may not understand. So next time I feel myself judging someone, I just think to myself “I don’t know their story.” I still think it is important to discuss issues, particularly when we disagree. But if we enter a discussion with judgement instead of compassion, all we will achieve is to cement each other in our existing points of view and alienate one other. Everybody, especially parents, needs compassion and support rather than judgement. We already judge ourselves harshly enough. We all want our stories to be heard and understood, so the best thing we can do for each other is to listen.