February 1994. I am in a hotel room in Paris. Tony Blair and his New Labour supporters are on TV bopping to "Things Can Only Get Better." I am hungry. Very hungry. Unusually hungry. Hubby and I have walked all over Paris. It is my first visit to the city, and I have fallen in love with it, especially the food. No sooner have I swallowed the croissants and cafe au lait than I'm wondering where and when our next meal will be. During the visit I have grown a bit slack about taking my temperature every day, something I've been doing for six months in an effort to get pregnant. In the back of my mind, because I won't allow myself to fixate on it, is a question: Could I be pregnant?
Back in dreary England, I buy a pregnancy test. It's supposed to turn pink, and when the slightest hint of pink appears I start yelling and crying.
And so began my worries. How could I have a baby in Britain? It's practically a third-world country, my hormone-laden mind reasoned. But I was, and I was going to get a crash course in pregnancy and birth, NHS-style. I knew some Americans who had opted to go privately to have their babies in the UK, but I wasn't going to be one of them. From what I read (and I read voraciously in those days) it didn't make much difference.
I started to see the midwife at my doctor's surgery. I didn't exactly take to her, but when I first heard my baby's heartbeat, I forgave her some of her shortcomings. Mid-pregnancy I saw a registrar (not quite a consultant or fully qualified doctor). This would be the only time I saw a doctor throughout my whole pregnancy. I remember him checking my breasts for lumps through my bra, which I found very strange. But I was finding a lot of pregnancy strange, particularly the changes to my body.
In the beginning the NHS didn't seem all that interested in my pregnancy. I had to wait over an hour for my two appointments at the hospital. I had only one scan during the whole pregnancy. The seeming indifference was at odds with my hormones.
The midwife was professional but not very personable. I later found out that she was living with the father-in-law of a friend of mine. As he was about to become a grandfather for the first time, he wasn't too keen about starting a new family with her. Her unhappiness showed through in her professional life.
I couldn't wait to wear the pregnancy leggings I had bought when I was two months pregnant, and as I was eating for two, it didn't take long before my jeans wouldn't zip up. I became obsessed with all things American. My baby would have to have a pushchair (stroller) and carseat bought in America. On a visit home when I was four months pregnant, we purchased the stroller. My husband bought the carseat on a subsequent business trip. My stepsister was also pregnant with her first child. She lent me "What to Expect When You're Expecting" because, of course, how could I have a baby without reading this book? It wasn't available in the UK yet. I discovered a magazine in the UK called Mother and Baby. This also was required reading. When I don't know about a subject, I read all I can find. And what did I know about birthing babies?
I craved American food -- burgers and fries, pancakes and maple syrup, Budweiser beer (I didn't drink it, just craved it), New York pizza, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Saltine crackers, Oreo cookies.
When I wasn't eating, I fretted that my child would grow up reading different books from what I read as a child. When friends with children would talk about feeding them fish fingers and sausages for "tea," I swore to myself that I would never feed my children such things and I would never call dinner "tea." I wasn't feeling anti-British, just pro-American. I suppose it was insecurity.
An acquaintance told me about the NCT (National Childbirth Trust). This charity is dedicated to helping promote breast feeding and giving antenatal classes and breast feeding counselling. Many areas have weekly coffee mornings for new and not-so-new mothers. I started going to these when I was eight months pregnant as a way to meet people in the area. I also rang up when I was four months pregnant to reserve a spot in the antenatal class. I was told by the ditsy woman to call back in three months. When I did, she said all the classes were fully booked and why did I wait so long.
No matter. I'd become acquainted with another NCT antenatal counsellor and she gave me a private session. I also went to the NHS antenatal classes and discovered I wasn't the oldest mother in Wirral after all. I made some dear friends in that class. There were two young girls in our class, one who had been taught in primary school by one of the other women in the group. The NCT classes concentrated on making up a birth plan. The NHS classes talked about pain relief. Good thing I listened because I went through just about every available kind while I was enduring a very long labour. I tore my birth plan up.
Nobody mentioned what you were supposed to do once you had the baby or how to assemble a pushchair (stroller) while holding a screaming baby. Or how to put the carseat in the car. And nobody said that breast feeding can be as or more painful than labour. Hubby and I went to a Parentcraft evening at the local hospital where they showed us the birthing suites and the midwives proceeded to tell us they never breastfeed and opt for a epidural if offered.
My mother came over a week before I was due. I had laboriously typed up a list of how to work everything in the house, even the front door key. She blithely ignored it and looked at me every time the phone rang as if to say, "Aren't you going to get off your fat ass and answer that?"
The first labour pain came at 2 a.m. on Oct. 12. I got out the TENS machine I'd rented and Hubby hooked me up to it. It did absolutely nothing for the pain. Two hours later I was on all fours in the hallway huffing and puffing. My mother got up to use the toilet, but I was in the way. She gingerly stepped over me. We decided it was time to go to the hospital. Hubby rang ahead and I got into the back seat, still on all fours. The midwife examined me and proclaimed that I was "maybe" two centimeters dilated. She suggested I go home. I tried to get dressed but the pains came again. So I got into the bed (they'd put me in a side room). Hubby tried to comfort me but I didn't want anyone touching me. I stayed in that side room for the whole of the day. That evening they decided to move me to a birthing room. I got hooked up to an oxytocin drip and was given diamorphine for the pain. When I threw up everywhere, the midwife on duty said, "Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you that can happen."
I saw lots of midwives during that labour, which lasted about three shifts. Eventually, I got an epidural. I hated the epidural. I lost all feeling below the waist, which didn't help with the pushing. When the big moment arrived, there was lots of activity in the room, and several doctors appeared. Apparently, my baby was in distress. They wanted to use forceps, but I said no. The doctor said she'd try the ventouse (suction) but if that didn't work, it would have to be a caesarean.
After about an eternity, my beautiful baby girl popped out at 10:23 a.m. on Oct. 13 with her eyes wide open. Others would comment on her pointy head, the temporary result of the ventouse, but she was my gorgeous girl, and still is.
A midwife came along and said she would bathe my baby and I was taken to a ward to await a private room. I needed to wee and was placed on a bedpan because I still couldn't feel my legs. And I was left on the bedpan for a very long time. I couldn't move myself off it. When I asked for the bedpan to be taken away, I was met with a very stroppy attitude. Eventually, the private room became available and we moved my things in there. I cleaned the sink first thing. The room might have been empty, but it was filthy. Now, where was my baby? They still hadn't bathed her. I requested that she be moved to my room. Hubby and I eventually bathed her at 9 p.m. that night. Staff shortage? I think so.
I became a bit more familiar with the workings of the hospital during my prolonged stay there. They wouldn't let me go home, or else they forgot I was there. I had trouble establishing breast feeding, and each member of staff had a different idea or method. In fact the breast feeding wasn't established till my daughter was five weeks old and I contacted the local NCT breast feeding counsellor. The community midwife wasn't much help, and would comment if she arrived in the morning and I wasn't dressed yet. I relaxed once I started seeing the health visitor instead of the midwife. The health visitor was a wise, calm woman.
Twenty months later I was back in the same hospital in labour again. But what a different experience. I'd had a scan when I was nine weeks pregnant, then another one when I was 22 weeks along. I didn't go to the antenatal classes (no time with a toddler at home). No doctor tried to feel my breasts through my bra. I had the same community midwife but she was a changed woman. She was in a happy relationship and soon would be pregnant herself.
I started losing amniotic fluid at about 38 weeks. I had bronchitis, and the cough was making me pee -- or so I thought. A friend suggested I go to the hospital just to be sure. I'd had the odd pain but took some paracetamol (Tylenol). I did NOT want to have my baby yet. My mother hadn't arrived (though she wasn't much help the first time), hubby had an ear infection, and I had no one to help me. But this baby had to come out, they said. They hooked me up to an oxytocin drip again. I was by myself because hubby was at home putting Gorgeous Girl to bed. I started to cry. A passing midwife tried to reassure me. Hubby appeared eventually, but nearly passed out because of the earache (excuse me? He did NOT know what pain was). I had gas and air, then pethidine at the end for pain relief. Still, it hurt. A lot.
Sonny Boy had the cord wrapped round his neck. The midwife fixed this quickly and efficiently. Then after I'd been torn in half delivering him, she syringed his mouth and nose. A quick check revealed a heart murmur. We had to stay the night to see if it resolved itself. I got a private room again. A couple hours after I'd settled in, I heard a commotion next door. A woman was losing her baby. The pregnancy was advanced, and she had to give birth. She cried; her husband cried; her whole family cried. I know this because it was hot in my room. The windows wouldn't open so I had to leave the door open. The midwives kindly offered to take my boy off my hands. I think they wanted to spare the woman next door from hearing any babies crying. But I wondered why she was on a maternity ward anyway.
Breakfast time came. I asked for a piece of toast. The midwife said I could get up and get it myself. I explained I'd been pushing hard for five hours and was a bit unsteady on my feet. She got me the piece of toast. A doctor from India came and checked Sonny Boy's heart. The murmur was gone. We could go home. Yippee!
Except at home I had a sick husband, toddler with conjunctivitis, collapsed drains (so no running water or toilet) and no one to help me. Somehow I survived. My mother arrived a few days later. She helped with Gorgeous Girl. My mother-in-law called to find out how the baby was, the toddler, my husband. She didn't ask about me, not once.
The friends I'd made from my first pregnancy came round. Some offered to take Gorgeous Girl off my hands. I welcomed the break because Gorgeous Girl had decided it would be fun to wake up in the night. I would stagger from one room to another. Hubby snored on.
Sonny Boy was the perfect, sleeping baby for two weeks. Then he met my mother-in-law and woke up. He didn't sleep through the night till he was 2 years old. Any guess as to why I have only two children?
I found support through my NCT coffee group, my other friends, my GP, and my health visitor. They helped me through the difficult days of early motherhood. My own mother or even my mother-in-law could have done more for me, but they didn't reach out or were out of reach. Still, we survived, and I gained a perspective on my new country previously unknown to me.