Inside the Polestar Preschool in Twoson, which doubled as the home of Paula Polestar and her mother, the two were sitting down at the dinner table. Paula had just finished eating and was about to politely excuse herself, when her mother ended up speaking first. Polestar said. Do you have a good book in mind? I'll go through my bookshelf and pick a good one.
There was a full moon and she lay in the hospital bed, the silvery light spilling across her. She communed with me, that is what she says, willing me to come out now, before the induction, while the doctors were out of the room, the nurses were busy elsewhere, while it was just her and me.
Because, sure enough, out I came, quickly, easily, slipping out in the moonlight, and she held me up in delight. I do not know how they explained the turn of events to Doctor when he arrived the next morning, too late to be of any use. My mother does not take the story any further than my birth. In fact, I do not think we have ever talked about what it was like when she first took me or my brothers home as small babies she had to care for.
The story is confined to that moment in hospital, and the point is that we did it ourselves, together. We had a special link, a power.
We beat the system. And how good was I? Capable of hearing, understanding and obeying my mother even before I'd come out of the womb. This secret sense of superiority was only reinforced by the tales of my brothers' births, which went wrong. Jonathon shot out too fast, after an unnecessary episiotomy, and the doctor didn't catch him. Slippery quick, he landed straight on the floor, suffering a haemorrhage in the brain.
Joshua was almost three months premature. My mother was rolling drunk on a pure alcohol drip when she delivered him. He, too, almost didn't survive. But me?
I did it perfectly. And I carried that knowledge around with me, slightly smug with all that I felt it meant. As I grew up, I learnt, as everyone learns, that childbirth is not a matter of a baby just slipping out, but despite this, I still believed that I had somehow managed to arrive in the world with particular ease. As soon as the pregnancy was confirmed, I bought the books recommended by my doctor.
I started reading them on the bus on the way home, almost immediately flipping to the end sections on delivery. I skipped over the parts that dealt with possible complications; this was not what was making me scared.
I had a faith that the birth would be normal; I had no faith in my ability to withstand the pain. This was going to be the first great physical stress I had faced and I became obsessed with confronting the unknown through preparation. It seemed like the only solid handle I could grasp. My anxiety about being a mother which was real and terrifying slipped into the background. I could not even bring myself to contemplate it: I would deal with that after I had the baby; the immediate matter at hand was how to make sure that I coped with the birth.
The first thing I did was book Andrew and myself in for a tour of the hospital.
We had a choice, the birth centre or the labour ward. Most people I knew opted for the birth centre. They wanted drug-free births.
They wanted minimum intervention. I agreed with them in theory, but now that I was the one who had to deliver, I was not so sure. Because I did not believe that I was capable of doing this on my own, despite the fact that so many women had and did, I wanted to know that medical assistance was right there should I need it.
The room was clean, fresh and modern, with pale wood furnishings. There was even a beanbag in a corner, and a shower. Any hospital contraptions were safely hidden away, out of sight, but they were there, revealed to us by the midwife as she opened doors, pulled down levers and slid back fake walls. Yet I still felt embarrassed every time I corrected friends who made the assumption that I would, of course, be going to the birth centre. I hastened to justify my choice, each time emphasising the beanbag and the presence of the midwives, who had assured me of their primary role in delivery.
She was going to be our support person and I wanted to include her in everything.
I had also just assumed that support people came to classes. As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, I could see everyone waiting for an explanation for this arrangement. Three of us, and who was who? How did we interlock?
Ness and the beanstalk
I dreamt up stories, increasingly implausible explanations for our presence. I was a surrogate, carrying their. I had been having an affair with Andrew. I had fallen pregnant.
Virginia would only take him back if he owned up to his mistake, and she was there to see that he did. Virginia and I were having the baby; Andrew had simply supplied the sperm. The permutations multiplied. The truth was infinitely more dull.
Next, we had to talk about how we felt about the pregnancy. I looked at Virginia helplessly, apologetically, but in her spirit of inclusiveness, Carolyn altered the question for her — she could tell the class how she felt about being a support person, and around the room we went again. It seemed that everyone saw this time in their lives as a momentous experience, wonderful, blissful, joyous; the men were perhaps a little less effusive but their response was still primarily positive.
I wished I could say the same. I wanted to lie. But it felt too large, too important to lie about. I needed to speak the truth. I was ambivalent, I said, aware that I wasn't being as honest as I would have liked. I had wanted to be pregnant, but now that it had happened — and I found myself unable to complete the sentence.
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The truth was I feared that it was just my body, my hormones, that had wanted this, and now that this desire had been satisfied, my head could take over again. I was not only afraid, I could not think of a single intellectually satisfying reason why anyone would want to have. I looked at the ground. I didn't dare say how I really felt out loud. It was Andrew's turn next, and I waited for him to fill my lack of joy with something that was Giantess mother story little more akin to the other responses we had heard. For who I was, I suppose. Her eyes met mine and she quickly looked away again.
It was Virginia's turn next. She was excited she told the class, and a little bit afraid, she added. It was inevitable. It had been fine for me to speak the truth, so why hadn't it been fine for him? I had no rational answer. I just wished that one of us had been able to lie, to create the fiction that I wanted to be the reality. As my pregnancy progressed, I visited the hospital more regularly.
I had endless tests and most of the time I was completely unaware of what they were for.
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The check-ups seemed pointless, irrelevant. I was not concerned about the pregnancy itself. It was the birth that worried me and I barely listened to anything the midwife had to say, unless it concerned the end event.
We won't know until you are closer to full-term," she reassured me. When I went home, I cried. I told Andrew, and he was sympathetic. But there was a part of me that welcomed the possible escape from the potential horror of hours of pain. As I told the class my news, she listened sympathetically, then, choosing her words carefully so as not to imply that there was any right or wrong way of giving birth, she talked about the difficulties of caesareans, about the pain that can follow, the problems women face in sitting, driving, breast feeding after the operation.
There was, it seemed, no way out.
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She had a couple of videos for us that night. One showing a birth in a spa tub, the other where "everything went wrong". The first was the water birth. Ambient music played in the background as an entire family gathered around a woman who rocked and sang in the tub. Even her groans sounded relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, I closed my eyes as she actually delivered the baby, only opening them again when she held her child in her arms.