This week I was watching a programme on the BBC about childbirth. It wasn’t One Born Every Minute, which I’m still addicted to in its fifth series (my husband not so much: ‘they all end the same way.’) and which focuses on the joy of birth rather than the weirdness of people, but some documentary about women who had chosen to give birth in unusual ways. Or to eat the placenta. Or to keep the baby attached to the placenta afterwards until it detached by itself. (there were some baffling scenes of a cute baby all curled up in its snowy white, first-trip-home babygro, with the placenta – wrapped in a towel, thankfully – squatting by its head. But , you know, whatever. People are odd) And while I was texting my friends – ‘what the HELL is free birth? What does she MEAN, she’s going to give birth without a doctor or a midwife? Yes, I know animals gives birth like this, but some of them DIE.’ – I was also wondering why I’m still, five years after the birth of my son and four after the birth of my daughter, so intrigued by birth, and by women giving birth. It’s one of the most commonplace events in life, and yet it holds so much wonder.
Like pretty much all mothers in my experience, I’m fascinated by it. I’d listen to anyone’s birth story: a friend, a colleague, someone on the street, and not only that, I’d be genuinely interested. Equally, I’d bore as many people as would listen and not fall asleep with mine. Both of them. I can’t remember all the details, but I can remember enough to fill a few hours or so. When friends become pregnant, I’m delighted for them not just because they’ll get a brand new baby, but also because they’ll get to experience birth, in its all terrifying, wonderful, life-affirming glory. After the baby’s born, I can’t wait to see them and have them rehash, in great and tremendous detail, every moment. I’m the ideal post-birth visitor – no detail is too minor as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been known to say, ‘but hold on a second, you skipped a whole hour! Let’s go back….you were 2cm…’ On the baby’s first birthday, I’ll happily go through it all again, and indeed at any time in between. (husbands are useless at this I’ve found – they just want to focus on the fact that the baby got here. It got here, and they were there; going through it all again is entirely unnecessary. One of the best things about actually being at the birth of my niece – I know! So amazing!- was that afterwards my sister and I could go over the detail of it any time we liked.) Birth is one of those great equalisers and levellers, and I feel a tremendous kinship with all mothers who have experienced it, no matter what way they have.
It’s not easy to explain this fascination with birth: after all, it’s the most pain you will ever encounter (first timers: don’t listen to those women who tell you that contractions are just like bad period pains. They’re not. They’re lying, or the pain was so awful they’ve had to remember it in this rosy-hued way, or they had an epidural at 3cm.) Birth is painful, bewilderingly so. It’s also full of indignities, incredible frustration (‘but HOW can I be only 4cm? HOW?’) and the greatest loss of control you’ll ever know. For a control freak like me, this was hard to bear. Suddenly, I wasn’t in charge. The baby, or more accurately, my body, was. It got to decide when things happened (slowly) how they happened (entirely normally; I was kind of proud of the text book nature of both births) and at what speed it was all going to progress. (snail’s pace for the first; really quite rapidly for the second) I decided nothing. Of course for the first I attempted to retain some level of control (huh; I could almost feel nature laughing hysterically over my one page sheet of notes while hurling another contraction in my direction and listening to me scream) with my birth plan. It was a nicely typed sheet of paper and everything, but the first time the midwife glanced at it was afterwards and said, ‘oh look, it happened just as you wanted it to.’ I looked up from the baby in my arms, high on europhia – or gas and air -, beamed exhaustedly and agreed, forgetting that two hours earlier she’d taken half an hour to come back with the pethidine that was glaringly absent from my birth plan, and it had been too late. Pethidine-less, I’d pushed as instructed but I’d also wanted to kill her, slowly and painfully. For my second birth, I ditched the birth plan altogether and let my body get on with it. It hadn’t wanted or needed my help the first time; I wasn’t going to offer it a second.
So it isn’t easy to work out why we’re so fascinated by birth, with all its pain, fear, and heightened emotion, but perhaps the answer lies exactly there. Birth is the most fundamentally life changing experience. It was within birth that both my body and my mind were tested as never before, that I had to reach deep within myself to find reserves of strength that I previously had never had, that I had to summon a depth of selflessness that I had never needed before. It was where I found my lowest ebb, and then found the strength to pull myself back from it. And it was birth that brought me everything now that means anything to me.
And there it is: the fascination lies right there. Birth is painful. It’s messy. It’s downright terrifying at times. But it’s also glorious, and life-changing, and life-affirming. Its brought me the greatest joy I’ve ever known. And if I had to give birth and go through labour every single day for the rest of my life to get my children, I’d do it every single day, and never question it. They are worth every hour of pain, and they’d be worth a million hours more. In the end, birth is nothing to be frightened of; because it brings you everything. No matter how you do it. And for everyone who hasn’t been through it yet and still has it to come, I’m kind of envious. It was the greatest (not the most fun, not the happiest, not the most wonderful, but the greatest) experience I’ll ever know.