AIDA AUSTIN: “Apparently, 21 is the perfect age for childbirth”

MY FRIEND’S daughter is expecting her first baby and talking about childbirth at my kitchen table, in a manner which is best described by the words, “unsuspecting” and “credulous”.

She’s five months shy of her 21st birthday — and due-date. “Apparently, 21 is the perfect age for childbirth,” I say. “Really?” she says, looking at me as if I’m an oracle.

I explain that this is exactly the statement my midwife made to me many years ago, when I was 21 and in labour for the first time. But I don’t reveal the specific context — my sudden, mulish refusal to push in the final hour — in which my midwife made it. Or mention that my midwife then reiterated the statement for greater emphasis, and said, “THEREFORE, you can STOP messing about young lady, and start PUSHING your baby out, RIGHT NOW.”

Nor do I describe the spirit in which I received this order.

“A friend of mine just had a baby,” she says “and she said that it’s not really pain you feel during labour.”

“Oh really?” I say.

“She says it’s more a kind of ‘powerful feeling’.”

Her eyebrows arch — I think in the hope that I might validate her friend’s “powerful feeling” assertion.

The best way I can do this is by saying, “labour pains might be called ‘powerful feelings’, but only in the same way that a hurricane might be called ‘a gentle breeze’. I therefore say nothing.

“She said it was a spiritually uplifting experience.”

‘Spiritually uplifting’ is one way of describing it, although personally I prefer ‘emotional bushfire’. I also think ‘pushing a stiff, unyielding and bulky sofa out’, is an excellent analogy but decide against articulating it.

“Well, it’s definitely spiritually uplifting when it’s all over and you see your baby for the first time,” I say.

“She said the whole thing was spiritually uplifting. She had candles everywhere and music…”

Then she says, “I’m actually quite excited about it.” At this point, it occurs to me that my friend’s daughter might actually have forgotten what birth actually is, ie, it is the protracted, unabating process whereby a baby, which is very BIG, enters life by way of a vagina, which is very SMALL. It seems not to have crossed her mind that as a direct consequence of these anatomical facts, birth is an intrinsically chancy and uncomfortable business, in which, at the very least, the idea of Delicate Feminine Poise will be flung flat on its back and torn asunder.

“My midwife says it really helps if you can think of each contraction as a positive thing…” she says.

“…and she says that if you kind of welcome the contractions, then it makes them more manageable. She says she did positive visualisation exercises with each contraction, and her labour was unbelievably smooth.”

“She said ‘smooth’?” I ask.

“Yes,” she clarifies, “smooth.”

Both the compendious English Dictionary and the Global Language Monitor estimate that there are approximately a million words in the English language. Out of these million words, ‘smooth’ is the last one I’d pick to describe childbirth. When the word ‘smooth’ is associated with childbirth and especially when it’s prefixed by the word ‘unbelievably’, I have to take issue with it.

“What were your labours like?” she asks.

“All normal,” I say, “though I wouldn’t describe any of them as smooth.”

“Oh,” she says, “Why?”

I explain carefully that ‘smooth’ suggests certain things: ice-cream, tarmac, George Clooney or a silky otter slipping off a river bank and gliding into still waters. It also suggests certain actions — that of gently stroking a sleeping cat, for example. But whatever way you look at it, ‘smooth’ does not suggest the action whereby a baby, which is very BIG, enters life by way of a vagina, which is very SMALL.

“Frankly, so small and unstretchy,” I say, “as to not really be fit for purpose.”

She looks as if she’s been pinched hard on the back of the leg. I don’t think she’s ready to be introduced to the word ‘pain’. I think it’s best if I leave that one to her mum.


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