I was really scared about giving birth again. I was really scared about giving birth again. That first time, as for so many of the parents I spoke to in the intervening years in quiet questions about blood and death, played in my memory like a comic body-horror film, images continuing to flash up unprompted years later.
This one was a complicated pregnancy, peppered with neurological frights, and as my due date approached I spoke to a counsellor to prepare for the birth. I wanted first to unpick the events of the first one, that odd dawn in July, hold each minute up against a lightbox and study it. I wanted to separate the poetry of certain moments from the shocks that came later, and see how each was connected, by threads or chain. I wanted to see if there was anything I could have done differently.
My first session was in a low-slung building near the hospital, where the counsellor invited me to sit on the armchair. I looked around the room. I saw no armchair. Was this a test? I’d never had therapy before, and was prepared to be Rorschached. “Would you call… this the armchair?” I asked, of the second office chair, the one with a cushion on it. The hour continued in a similar fashion, until I realised that she was not trying to trick a truth out of me, she was simply offering help. Imagine your mind as a filing cabinet, she said, where traumatic memories have been stuffed in, upside down, in the wrong folders, prone to unfold and pop out when you’re least expecting it. We will try, she said, to help you feel more prepared. Just before my second appointment, and two weeks before my due date, the first lockdown began.
The pandemic radically changed experiences of birth. In November, the charity Pregnant Then Screwed reported 97% of pregnant women said hospital restrictions, where partners weren’t allowed in until active labour, had increased their anxiety around childbirth. “The long-term impact of these restrictions for new mothers and their family could be catastrophic,” the charity wrote in a letter to the NHS. “No one should have to hear that their baby’s heart has stopped beating without their partner’s hand to hold. No one should be induced while their partner sleeps in a bike shed in the car park for days on end.”
It was only last month that the NHS changed its guidance to say pregnant women should be allowed to have their partner present “at all times”. Perhaps I was naive to think I could prepare for something as bananas as childbirth, but I at least thought I’d be able to plan whose hand I’d bite. I was weeks overdue. We sat in the garden and tried to access our gratefulness. I attended midwife appointments and scans alone, and called the hospital daily for updates on whether my boyfriend would be allowed to be there for the birth. The not knowing was difficult. Late at night I Googled stories about women who walked into the woods alone, emerging with their new bloody pup. Then, the morning I was booked in to be induced (a procedure which the guidelines said my partner could not be there for) my waters broke. Things I remember across the subsequent hours include nurses struggling with PPE, their gowns only available in men’s sizes, and one magnificent midwife pulling me close and asking, through her mask, if a previous traumatic birth was stopping me from giving birth. My son arrived minutes later. We went home that evening, a complicated handover of car and child and baby and sanitiser, and I felt as though this good birth had healed the last. The gratefulness came that night, finally, like rain; we had avoided the experiences that I continue to read about, as Britain’s third lockdown bleeds out in the bath. The bad scans, the solo labouring, the bereavements, the loneliness…
For me, most of the horrors of lockdown with a newborn have been balanced by small reliefs. The lack of in-person checks after the baby’s birth meant belated hospital visits for oxygen and jaundice, but the closure of workplaces meant my partner and I shared his care in those early months to a utopian degree. I was the opposite of lonely which, well, is both horror and relief in one. I’m yet to find a balance for the sour sadness that comes with our parents not being able to hold their first grandson, or even the irritation of having no shops to idle through, no galleries to visit, no friends to laugh at on these dazy, sleepless afternoons, but even those pains have given me pause. Am I more present for this baby? Maybe.
There was no way to prepare for a birth like this, with makeshift morgues parked outside hospitals, newborns opening their eyes to see masked parents, everyday news bleached with its own dystopia, but the thing that helped me bring a life into a deathly time was the preparation attempt itself. There were no tricks, no spells – by asking for help those short months earlier I had taken control, and examined my limits. And then I pushed like hell.