Birth matters to women, and I know this to be truer than many people can believe. Let me tell you the story of how I learnt that birth matters. It’s a story that begins eighteen years ago with the birth of my first child.
My first child is about to turn eighteen. Legally speaking, she will be an adult. Somehow or other I’ve raised someone to voting age, someone who is learning to drive, and heading off to university. I suppose you could say it’s a lifetime of happy memories, and extraordinary challenges like only another mother could understand. But when I look back on that time, I have no memories of her first hours, and that hurts.
I have no memories of those hours because I was in a hospital bed, going in and out of consciousness, covered in my own vomit and blood. Being cared for by nurses who laughed at me when I asked where my daughter was because clearly, I was in no state to be mothering. My daughter was with strangers. They were better at caring for her than I was.
I think our society, hospitals and care providers, often assume that because you take the baby home, those first hours are nothing important. The moment of birth matters hardly at all in that context. What is a couple of hours compared to a lifetime? Well it depends which hours we’re talking about. If we’re talking about the hours after the moment she turns 18, not hugely important, but if we’re talking about the hours after she was born? Those hours are a big deal.
Mothers spend months imagining the first glimpse they will get of their babies, maybe even years. I have eighteen years of memories, first word (quack), first teeth (she was 8 months old), first steps (actually my mother witnessed those, and she’s no longer alive, so it’s nice to think about how that worked out) the first book she read (The Worst Witch), her first boyfriend (he was a nice guy!) I remember all those things. But I want to remember when I first met her.
I do remember it vaguely. Here’s what I remember. I was drugged to the eyeballs, I was angry about the hours of mistreatment and coercion I’d just endured, and I was hugely traumatised. Someone waved an upside down baby in my face for a few seconds before whisking her away to safety. They needed to do “very important things” to her and I was no longer needed. My work, to lay myself bare to their scalpel, was complete. I lay there as they stapled me back together and thought about how much I’d just been through, all for a baby I didn’t even get to see.
If you don’t think that the moment of birth matters, try imagining this.
You spend 5 years at university, studying hard. You complete your studies, and prepare for your graduation ceremony, but the night before you slip and break your ankle. When all your fellow students are graduating you’re in an operating theatre having your ankle reset.
Does it matter that you did the studying? Does it matter that you passed and you officially graduate? Definitely! But it matters that you missed the ceremony too. You’re not in any of the photos, you never got to throw your silly hat in the air and cheer, you got to take drugs, and eat hospital food.
That’s like birth is for mothers. Sure they get the pregnancy, they get the official certificate of motherhood, but they don’t get the graduation ceremony. They get drugs and hospital food.
It’s a tribute to our social blindness that people think that those first moments shouldn’t matter, that people believe that what hospitals need to do for their paperwork, is more important than it is for a mother and a baby to meet one another. If everyone has a pulse, and they do after the majority of births, then the priority must be introductions, not weighing, measuring, vaccinating, cord clamping, wiping, wrapping, hatting, or observation in a nursery. What matters is that the mother and baby get to look at one another and feel loved.
Let’s take another common social situation and break it apart in comparison to birth, so we can see this for what it is.
It’s your wedding day. You get all gorgeous, you walk down the aisle, you say your vows. Then the celebrant says “you may kiss ………… no, let’s get this paperwork signed first. Then you can go and hop in separate cars and head to the reception venue. The kissing can wait til you get there.” Sure you’ve probably kissed a few times already, what does it matter now? You’ve got a life time to be kissing now that the paperwork is signed and you’re officially married.
It matters, doesn’t it. Moments matter! People understand when things don’t go to plan at a wedding, they know it’s upsetting. Practicality aside, it is actually possible to organise another wedding if you don’t like how things go at the first one. After the missed graduation, people can totally understand why you’d be bummed out, and although you can’t redo it, people empathise. So why is it that people totally dismiss how a woman might feel when she has no memory of meeting her baby? There’s no opportunity to redo birth, and no empathy. Birth is not a moment that our society values. Why not? Why don’t we think birth matters?
Why do we expect women to endure all that is done to their bodies in the name of birth, and yet not be rewarded with a moment to remember. All I ever wanted was to be able to tell my daughter how much I loved her in that instant. How I had waited so long to meet her, and that meeting was magical. How I knew in that instant, without a shadow of doubt, that I would give my life for hers. I had the pregnancy, I had a lifetime ahead of me, but of that moment? Nothing more than blood, vomit, and pain. Strangers can tell me more about how they met my daughter, than I can tell her.
Birth is one moment in time, followed by a lifetime of memories for most of us. But the lifetime afterwards, can’t replace the moment. My daughter was one year old for a whole year, she’ll be an adult for many years, but she was only first born for a very very short time, and I missed it all. I didn’t see what colour her eyes were, I had to ask someone else. I didn’t get to count her little fingers and see how perfect all ten of them were, someone else volunteered that information – in the form of a joke. I wanted that moment in time, not because I was selfish, or because I had unrealistic expectations of birth. I wanted that moment because until it came upon us, the journey had been a private one between us. The moment of birth matters. It is where the mother and child begin sharing their journey with the world, and in that moment, they should be together.
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