Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Birth

It was during a particularly excruciating contraction that the thought crossed my mind: “How could any sane woman, knowing the pain of labour, ever deliberately go in for it AGAIN?”

The first day after giving birth, I was physically wretched; so sore with stitches from the episiotomy it hurt to shuffle six steps. When my milk 'came in' my hot, engorged breasts almost burst and every time the baby sucked I braced myself for stabbing pain from blistered nipples and the blinding 'after pains' as my uterus contracted.

Such agonies and indignities remain the secret rites of women who give birth. Outsiders are seldom privy to the gory details especially in the media whose business it is to report horrors of a much grander scale.

But that evening as I tuned into the news, I felt compelled to lift the lid on the profundity of it all. Suddenly world events seemed trivial. I was awestruck with the realisation that women in every culture throughout the world, throughout the centuries, had endured childbirth and continued to do so every second of every day. This was the biggest news story of all time! Overwhelmed with admiration for the mothers of the world, I felt united with womankind.

Over the next few days the answer to that question I had posed to myself during labour began to unfold. The mind plays a trick on us women in the interest of the procreation of the species; you forget the pain oh so quickly. On Day One to recall the labour meant reliving it in every fibre of my body but within three days it had faded to a vague memory for filing in some dark recess of the brain, to be retrieved when comparing notes with other mums over a cuppa.

If the mind is ingenious, so the human body is remarkably resilient. By Day Four I sprang from the hospital bed to stretch and cavort; ecstatic at my body's ability to heal and thrilled at reclaiming my pre-pregnant agility after months of lumping around my clumsy bulk and convinced, as some cruel joke, I would remain pregnant forever!

However the over-riding, all-consuming reason why a woman would ever again contemplate the ordeal of labour is something quite different and wrapped up in a bunny rug. Nobody knows how a heart can love until they have a child! I just can't help myself...I feel an euphoric, wild passion like none I've ever known.

Parental love surpasses any rapture experienced between lovers. I have indeed fallen in love. I gaze besotted at her ineffably beautiful face, go all warm and tingly as her floppy little arms drape around my neck and delight at her cooing noises as she feeds, lost in baby bliss.

To ponder the fact that this miniature human being grew inside me and now continues to thrive on milk produced by my body is a constant source of wonder- a privilege of my gender; both humbling and ennobling.

Feelings toward other people's babies are no indication of how you will feel toward your own. I once vowed I would never have kids. I viewed them nervously as intimidating little aliens. But one's own fragile, dependent baby elicits a fierce devotion and protectiveness. Nature endows the newborn with adorable features to ensure a nurturing response - and it works!

Bonding is Nature's neat trick; an inexplicable phenomenon. If mother and baby are allowed uninterrupted time together from the moment of birth for the first few days of life a magical symbiosis is woven and a mother becomes intimately attuned to her infant's needs.

Adding to the potency of emotion is the immense relief and gratitude in having a normal, healthy baby. Every pregnant woman experiences anxiety about her unborn; will it be stillborn, disabled, diseased, defective? The worry plays relentlessly on the mind until that exquisite moment of caressing the warm, damp creation. Pregnancy is one of the greatest acts of faith I know.

To have the gender one favours is an added blessing that heightens the elation. Having a gorgeous son, I admit my heart was set on a girl. My mind had been obsessed with pink the entire pregnancy. What is it with pink and blue?

And then circumstances play their part. For me, this baby was keenly desired, strategically planned and ridiculously prepared for. I had all the baby gear ready in the first trimester!

We had at last a strong marriage and being a second baby I was over the terror of the unknown yet, with a seven year break, Motherhood Take Two loomed as a fresh novelty (having fully recovered from broken sleep, the nappy regime and walls spluttered with mush from the first time round!)

I concede it is much harder to be ecstatic when the pregnancy is unwanted and you are alone, scared and broke. However in the case of our first, circumstances were far from ideal and yet love for our baby son eventually conquered all.

Something else happens when you hitch on your new status of parenthood. You instantly join a universal club of fellow travellers who share the same dotty passion and you forge an unspoken understanding. A new baby draws out love in other parents, rekindling their own pleasure in their children: something you find beautifully expressed in the multitude of heartfelt cards, gifts and kind wishes.

And suddenly you rediscover your own parents with the realisation: “Did they really love ME this much?” To share with my mum and dad delight in their grandchildren has brought us closer than I could ever imagine.

So this is the main reason we women endure the transitory pain of labour, not to mention the discomforts of pregnancy, disruption to paid employment and a lifetime of fretting and caring: it’s all for the love of a child.

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