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A semi-colon means there was a pause, you didn’t come to an end

I had always bitten my nails, but in the months leading up to the birth, I made a new friend who told me not to anymore.

“You don’t want your baby to have a Mum with chewed fingernails!”

That statement was enough to make me stop, and I had nicely shaped nails when I went in to give birth. I had photos of my beautiful, naturally grown nails inside the pulse oximeter they’d attached before they induced me. My wrist had reasonably fresh ink, a little crucifix next to a semicolon. It was a reminder that although my life had had some pauses and sad punctuation, there was more to come before there would be a full stop to finish it.

Three days after the birth, I was lying in bed and stroking that very tattoo while I let my brand-new son drain me of my nutrients. That was the day they had finally gotten me out of bed to walk to the shower, but I didn’t shower myself.

The pain of getting out of bed was nothing on labour, but it hurt just the same.

One of my friends told me that first baby labour could often last thirty-six hours and that I was lucky I had only endured around thirteen.

“It could have been so much worse. You could have torn.” She said as she held my baby for the first time. I had initially felt like an absolute goddess for enduring as much labour as I did, but she reminded me I’d only been able to do it only with an epidural.

“Yeah, well, the contractions were unbearable. Remember I was induced.”

This new friend of mine always had a way to make me feel invalidated, but I never called her out on it. She was too busy trying to navigate her own dramas. She was one of those people who seemed to attract others with personality disorders – or was it the opposite way around?

I had spent my days since birth tethered to the wall by three cannulas; one with anti-biotics for my infection, one with hydration, and one for something I can’t even remember. It made for a very cumbersome trip out of the bed for every feed, but I had no problem ringing the buzzer.

I had finally relinquished some of my control in the name of doing the best for my son.

He had taken to the breast like an absolute champ. He had an excellent and natural latch and I adored having him nuzzled into my chest as he guzzled intently. Despite my train-wreck of a birth, this was one thing I held onto as a measure of my motherhood. I never got bored as he spent his time snoozing, sucking, and swallowing.

Although it all appeared to be going well, my milk was yet to come in. Not surprising, considering I’d lost almost half of my blood in the birthing process. He was sucking a whole lot of colostrum and air, which was beginning to not be enough for his growing body.

The next time he stirred, I started to thread myself free from the cannulas to get him for his next feed. I struggled to pull the bed rail down and my abdomen sent pain all throughout my body. Up until that point, a nurse had been bringing him to me for feeds night and day because I was simply unable to after the birth. As I crawled out of the bed, half bent over, I became overwhelmed by my desire to pee. I rang the bell anxiously, worried that I may wet myself. The nurses had only just removed my catheter that day, so I was still getting used to the sensations of knowing when I needed to go.

A minute passed and I could feel my anxiety welling up, so I rang again.

“Ooh, someone’s a little needy.” I heard one of the nurses say in the hall.

After all, I was just one of many new Mums who needed help.

I rang the bell again, and a small amount of urine trickled down my leg.

“Please!” I whispered.

I shook and moved in my half-standing position, utterly helpless. Still chained to the wall, I either had to pee my pants or wait patiently, but time was running out. As I tried to regain my composure, I noticed small, brown streak coming out of my son’s nappy.

Maybe he hadn’t been hungry at all, I thought.

A nurse pulled the curtain aside brusquely and asked me why I had rang the bell so many times.

“I’m sorry but I really need to pee and I’m attached to the wall.”

She narrowed her eyes, silently pulling the drip machine out of the wall.

I moved as quickly as I could, relieved myself, and returned to my dirty, crying baby. I struggled to undo his nappy as my hand was thick with cannulas.

“He’s hungry too, you know. You need to feed him.”

I could feel tears welling up. I wasn’t one to cry, but I felt so hopeless and alone.

“I know. But I really needed to pee.”

The nurse noticed my tears but carried on aggressively.

“Why are you crying? This is your life for the next eighteen years. Buckle up, princess.”

I was indignant, but she was right. I sobbed, trying to wipe the tears from my eyes, but it was hard with a hand full of needles.

“Come on. You just have the baby blues, this is normal at day three. Don’t ring the bell unless you really need us.”

I gently removed my son from his swaddle and took him back to bed with me, sobbing at my complete failure to meet his needs. This was day two, and I was already failing him.

As the night wore on, I continued to feed, feed, feed, but the more I did, the less he was seeming to enjoy it. His wails were matching my exhaustion, hour after hour. As the clock ticked past midnight, he started to bash his head against my chest. I tried to reassure myself that it was all normal and I refrained from ringing the bell, the nurse’s ire fresh in my mind.

Even though I felt alone, you’re never really alone in a hospital and I could hear the nurse’s rubber Crocs grating against the floor, irritating me so. I worried that if they caught me on my phone, they’d think I was even more of a failure than before. As soon as I knew they were occupied in other rooms, I whipped out my phone and started Googling frantically.

Baby + headbutting + autism, Baby + headbutting + poor + attachment.

These were all threads of thought I had come across in my studies and I was worried that it wasn’t normal. He cried and cried in my arms, though I had long stopped, now just desperate for answers.

I was still cradling him when out of sheer exhaustion, I nodded off. It was somewhat peaceful, until I started to dream. In the dream, a man stood with his head fallen, cradling his own baby against a brick wall. He was rocking his baby, perhaps a little too hard, with a bottle teetering on the edge of his thumb. The baby was wailing. I felt compelled to help him.

In the dream, I edged slowly forwards to this mysterious stranger.

“Sir! Sir! You can’t feed him like that! The latch isn’t right. The bottle isn’t in his mouth.”

I felt my body melting into the perfectly groomed lawn around us. My forearm detached, then my hand, and then my legs caved in beneath me.

He looked up and scoffed.

“Why would I take advice from you? You can’t even feed your own baby. He keeps headbutting you.”

I jerked awake, ashamed that not only could I not feed my son, but I had fallen asleep on the job. As I looked around the room, I noticed that there were plumes of smoke emanating from the corner of the curtain.

No. Surely not?

As I grounded myself, the smoke drifted away. I was safe, for now.

At three am, I took a photo of the both of us when he’d finally cried himself into sleep. I figured I’d need a reminder to show myself in the future what I could get through when I tried – and more important, why I needed to get through.

The next day, I texted one of my friends and told her about my night terror.

“There’s a name for that.” She texted back.

“It’s called delusional personality disorder.”

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Of psychiatry and Pinterest

Before I became a parent, everybody was full of advice about how to be a parent. I wish someone had pulled me aside and warned me to be more selective about the company in my life, especially with new friends.

purple and pink plasma ball

Back when I first became a parent, I admittedly invested too much time into toxic friendships. One in particular stands out as this person was what I would call an armchair psychiatrist. Early on in motherhood, I was struggling with certain relationships in my life and so I sought counsel. This friend offered me the view that some people in my life had narcissistic personality disorder and introduced me to Pinterest and Reddit communities that were full of people whose lives were dominated by narcissistic partners, exes, parents, children, colleagues, and dogs.

I became wrapped up in these communities and after awhile, became convinced that the people I was having trouble with were full blown narcissists. This was all egged on by the armchair psychiatrist friend, who had issues with many people in her life. Her children wouldn’t talk to her, her exes had DVOs on her, and her sisters and parents had blocked her on Facebook.

Reading some of the articles, I realised that just about every human tendency could be labelled as narcissistic. Self-centredness, ambitiousness, the desire to speak highly of oneself, or healthy self-esteem. It was all narcissism, apparently.

The deeper I got into Pinterest, the more I started to think that perhaps I was the narcissist. As time went on, the armchair psychiatrist continually posted and sent me articles about narcissism. I started to feel overwhelmed, but I had no idea how to back out of the friendship. In desperation, I sought out the help of a former colleague who had a knack with people. I considered her an empath and a wise counsel. She told me, kindly, to cut and run.

I attempted to back out of the friendship rather awkwardly and the friend swore, denied there were any problems, and put it all back on me. She appealed to my heart by telling me she was an ‘empath’ and that I had exhausted her with all of my post-birth issues, as if she hadn’t spoken to me at length about her own self-inflicted dramas.

It has been a year since I ended this friendship and I attempted to make sense of it all by discussing it on Reddit, under the narcissism subreddit. The first reply post told me that I was a “victim”, that I had it written on my face, and that it sounded like I had Borderline Personality Disorder. I asked the poster if they were a psychiatrist, because my own psychiatrist had told me I was not BPD.

Since becoming more aware of this subculture of individuals I refer to as armchair psychiatrists, I have noticed it everywhere. I quit Pinterest as a result, as my feed was continually being flooded with narcissist articles and boards as a result of conversations I had with this friend. As a true-crime buff, I noticed that narcissistic personality disorder seemed to be the first diagnosis the armchair psychiatrists would jump to when a person had murdered someone or committed an awful crime.

There are books promoted to audiences that talk about how to deal with narcissists and psychopaths. I see them on my Facebook feed all the time. Realistically, these people only make up a very small portion of the population. They are not people you would meet across multiple contexts in your life, if most of the people you spend time with are average.

The most interesting thing I found about the armchair psychologist subculture is that a lot of the people who claim that everyone is a narcissist have multiple broken relationships in their lives, often with their children. I feel that more could be achieved by working on human relationships and promoting articles about that, rather than marinating in half-truths about narcissism.

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The first coffee after birth

At the very least, I had shed the skin of not wanting to disclose my birthing story by going to the Mum’s group. Before Soren and while we had been saving for IVF and world travels, Natalie and I had been living on a shoestring budget. As an adult, my love for iced takeaway coffee drinks had evolved a full-blown daily caffeine addiction. Because we were saving our pennies, we limited ourselves to two weekend dine-in coffees and one on every Wednesday morning. We often conversed about what our life would be like after having a baby, full of idealism about bringing the babe along for our mid-week dates. We certainly had high expectations.

After spending my teenage life as an outsider, I had become rather deliberate about surrounding our budding family with good and accepting people. We’d set up house in the inner-city and made a lot of equally coffee-addicted friends with whom we’d become quite familiar. Some were friendly acquaintances, baristas, and some we considered our inner-circle. Our coffee people watched my belly grow in anticipation, getting to know us over our coffee orders.

The first coffee morning after the birth, Natalie sent me into our favourite café to get our usual orders. I clammed up in a way that I couldn’t grasp at the time.

“It’s just two lattes. Don’t order yours on skim milk, I don’t want to end up drinking yours.”

“It’s… It’s too much for me to remember, Natalie. You go in.”

Natalie took the hard line with me, which I needed, but hated it at the time.

“Just go in and order it, you look fine, you’ll be fine!”

I wasn’t really afraid of screwing up the order. This was the first time I’d been seen since the birth. What I was really afraid of was being asked how the birth went. I didn’t want to explain it. I didn’t want pity. I just wanted to lick the wound silently with my takeaway coffee cup at home.

But I relented. I ordered the coffees, and nobody asked so I didn’t tell.

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We could have had it all

The sunlight poured onto pallid, blood-deprived face as we left the hospital. Despite losing nearly half of my blood, the doctors had decided against a blood transfusion. The inside of my mouth felt hard and gritty, like sandpaper every time I swallowed.

“Let’s take a photo!” My wife begged.

“You’ll want to remember this!”

I posed next to the pram, tilted on an angle so that the camera didn’t capture my paunch against the inside of my white shirt. CHOOSE LIFE was printed on it in big black letters. Life I had chosen indeed, and I was ready to share my new one with the outside world.

We wheeled our tiny babe into the enclosed carpark, so dark even despite the light of day. He vomited before we got to the car, and we spent about fifteen minutes playing with the seatbelt.

“No, like this! It clips in.” I insisted as my wife fiddled around, growing frustrated.

“It’s been six days! I just want to get out of here!”

“What if the police pull us over? It’s not done up properly!”

We tried and tried, but the seatbelt would not click in.

“Fine, let’s just go.”

I sidled into the backseat and rested my hand on his chest, a futile attempt to contain the impact, should the worst happen. We arrived home without incident, our apartment fresh and clean as it had only had one resident for six days.

“Let’s give him a bath!” Natalie squealed excitedly.

“But you’re not meant to bath them every day, he’s only a newborn. His skin can’t take it.”

I was so obsessed with getting it right, that I forgot my wife was ready to relish in new motherhood. We bathed our baby, under the afternoon light.

“Check! Check! He’s kicking himself! He’s doing the kicks!”

He looked up into the distance, gently kicking against the water with his long, thin legs. I realised that he trusted us so much and we had to protect him at all costs. It may have been a relatively inconsequential moment, but I felt it deeply.

As I was getting used to being a Mum, my parents were getting used to being grandparents, though it was an awkward process for them. For all intents and purposes, my son was the first proper grandchild, since my brother chose not to talk to them.

“Where’s our little president?” My Mum squealed, opening the door to see us the first time since the birth.

“He’s in his bassinet. He’s sleeping.” I replied, coolly, ready to stamp down a boundary in case they tried to be overbearing. I’d read all the horror stories of new grandparents, and I was determined to hold my ground as a new Mum.

“Not in the cot?” She asked.

“No. He needs to be close to us. We need to check his breathing because of SIDS. By the way, please make sure you don’t smoke on the days you come to visit us, it could harm his breathing.”

My Mum wandered into his bedroom.

“Wow, it’s hot in here. Did you ever consider getting air conditioning installed?”

I tried to remain calm, but it was difficult.

“No. I survived just fine in my childhood.”

“But you guys have the money to do it. Do you really want him to suffer?” My Mum asserted, before jumping right to the next thing.

“Does he have a mobile?”

“No, we haven’t got one yet.”

“Please let us buy you one! Please!”

“Mum, it’s fine. He’s a good sleeper. I don’t want to mess it up, he’s doing so well.”

My Mum huffed and moved into the living room.

“Are you going to get family photos done?”

I paused, glad for a break in the demands.

“Yeah, we’re booked in next week if you want to come along.”

“I’d love to!”

I was glad that we’d finally found some common ground, but I left the conversation feeling like even more of a failure parent. Despite having a baby shower and a nursery that had been set up for years, we didn’t even have some of the basics and other people were noticing. My Mum meant well, truly, but she needed to work on her delivery at times. Like me, she had a need for control in most situations and she really did care for her grandson, but it was all like needles in my side.

Eleven days after the birth, we had our first Christmas as family. We picked at barbecue chicken and prawns, with Soren sleeping soundly, wrapped freshly in a pastel rainbow swaddle.

It wasn’t everything I’d built up in my mind as a first-Christmas-with-a-child, but we unwrapped a pile of gifts and listened to music together as a family all the same.

“I’m still feeling sore.” I complained.

“Have you been taking your painkillers?” My Mum asked.

“Yeah. I wish the birth didn’t happen the way it did. I hope you’re not angry that I insisted on the whooping cough vaccines. I don’t think I would’ve handled it if Soren got sick.”

“I understand. I know you wish the birth could have been different but look at your son. He’s perfect. I know it’s bad to say it, and you could have died, but it would have been even worse if you’d both died.”

I felt the pang of post-traumatic stress hit me like an uppercut. I turned away, hiding the tears that were streaming down my face. It was all so sobering to realise the fragility of life with a brand-new infant and I didn’t know what to do, so I kept on pushing my feelings away. 

While I was still unable to drive, I took the 15-minute bus trip to the library for Rhyme Time. Having no access to my best means of transport filled me with dread, but my son didn’t seem to mind. He slept through the whole trip and I was so enthralled by him that I missed my stop. I was now a kilometre from the library. Not willing to be defeated, I trudged the precarious main road, determined to take my baby for a morning of nursery rhymes.

When I arrived, the community room was filled with radiant Mums. I looked down at my lanky body and my infant, then back into the glass door at these buttery, bouncing women and their babies. The door was closed. I didn’t want to knock and draw attention to myself, so I walked back to the courtyard, sat under a tree and sobbed. I pulled out my phone and texted my wife.

I never made it to Rhyme Time. The door was closed when I got there and it had already started.

So much for all the confidence I’d built up during my years as a teacher

Running on my new-motherhood high, I signed up for a Mummy’s group. I had always been a little apprehensive about stepping foot into the Mum space, because I knew how heternonormative it was likely to be. Because Natalie and I had carved out a neat inner-city life, I made sure to sign up for the inner-city Mummy’s group. I felt that even if I was engaging in unknown territory, the littlest favour I could give myself was some familiarity.

The day it started was my first day of freedom to drive again. Although I was physically feeling a lot better from the major abdominal surgery, it had been doctor’s orders to refrain for the six weeks. I followed prudently. Because I had to work up some courage, I spent the morning at the Powerhouse to do an arts session with Soren. Unfortunately, he had fallen asleep before it started, leaving me free with forty-five minutes to study. I left him in his pram and pulled out my laptop.

Some people say you lose some of your intellectual prowess after birth -that the muddle of baby brain causes people to defer their studies and watch Netflix on the couch between feeds – but I wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

When the session was underway, I schlepped my newly-woken babe up to the runway to do tummy time surrounded by costumes, feathers boas, and fancy hats. Amongst the boisterous crowds of terrible twos, I spent the time enamoured by my baby in an octopus hat, taking selfies of a time I knew I would grow sentimental about in the years to come, when my son would become a withdrawn and smelly teenager. At least, that’s what the seasoned Mums had told me.

By the time I drove to the Mummy’s group, I was ready to show the other Mums that I fit, and was as much Mum as they were, even if I was a bit awkward, a bit intellectual, and married to a woman. 

The nurse running the group ushered me to a seat. The other women seemed friendly, though some seemed a little sleep-deprived, yawning through puffy eyes as they chatted amongst themselves.

I didn’t understand this need for sleep. My short catnaps throughout the night were punctuated with night terrors and feeds, yet I felt unstoppable. It wasn’t even midday and I’d punched out another 500 words.

“All right, ladies, let’s establish some rules for our group.”

A peppy blonde girl called Sarah cut right in.

“Well, I think there should be no judgement, Whatever we share in the group, should stay in the group.”

There were affirmative nods all around.

“And I think we should let everyone share their story. Everyone should have a turn to talk.”

I looked around and noticed that ever other Mum in the group had their baby on their lap. I looked over at my son, in his pram, not seeming to be bothered, but it bothered me.

“He’s really heavy and I had a C-section.” I explained, though nobody had asked and in hindsight, I doubt they’d even noticed.

“That’s okay. Now let’s start by going around the circle and sharing about our birth stories.”

I shifted uncomfortably, not wanting to share at all, but the group rules had been established. It would be weird if I took a pass. 

I was the last in the circle, so I heard everybody’s birthing story before mine.

“I went into labour spontaneously. My waters broke over dinner one night. My husband drove me to the hospital and I laboured for twelve hours.”

“I had a planned C-section. I’m a vet, so I have seen what can go wrong.”

“I had a bad birth with my son, so I had a planned C-section. It was better the second time around.”

“I was in a private hospital. I had to be induced, and I had a little bit of pain relief, but my birth was everything I had planned for and expected. And let me just say, I have high expectations!”

I dropped my eyes to the ground.

“Well… I was induced. My baby and I got an infection. He was delivered by C-section under a general anaesthetic where I nearly bled to death. I still feel like I’m recovering.”

There was so much more I could have said, but I really preferred not to. The birthing stories of the other Mums were pretty standard, and I felt like I’d opened a fear-mongering dialogue.

“Oh my God. That’s like 1% of birthing cases. You must be so glad he was all right.”

I dropped my eyes, feeling an almost-sense-of-shame. These women seemed to have had it all planned – either out of experience or privilege – but it had given them an experience I couldn’t help but be envious of.

 “Are you planning on having any more children?”

“Um, no, I wouldn’t take it off the table, but I think we’re done.”

The nurse, obviously not wanting me to feel ostracised, redirected the conversation to safe sleeping and self-care.

I felt remorse. Before the birth had gone down, Natalie had stressed the importance of our private health insurance.

“You know, birth is so barbaric. We don’t want anything to go wrong. Are you sure you don’t want to give birth in a private hospital?”

But I was stubborn.

“My pregnancy has been uncomplicated so far and I don’t want to be talked into having a C-section. That could cost us $10,000.”

“We’ve got the money.”

I insisted. I had heard so many stories of women who were talked into elective C-sections, only to regret it during the recovery period. Although I considered myself to be fairly logical in my thought processes, the Mum in me had wanted to try my hardest for a natural delivery.

“If the public health system is good enough for anyone else, it’s good enough for me.”

And that was how I closed down every conversation.

If only I had listened. I may not have avoided a C-section delivery but going about it electively would have saved me from the many hours of labour which tired out my uterus, leading to a haemorrhage and poor clotting. It would have shielded me somewhat from the loss of control and the infection. Then, I wouldn’t have been waking every night in cold sweats, in a variety of disturbing death scenarios involving my son and I.

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One step forward, two steps back

A little while after the birth, I decided to take Soren in to see my old co-workers at the job I had grown to miss. I had organised with another co-worker who had been pregnant at the same time as me to visit together.

Despite not having a plan for the birth, I’d attended a birthing class. In it, we’d practised dealing with labour pains by holding ice cubes in our hands. The lady who ran the class was also a pelvic floor physiotherapist who had warned me that if I was to run a temperature after the birth, that I was to go straight to emergency because it could have a recurrence of the infection that prompted our c-section. When she felt inside me, she told me that my pelvic floor was of a gold standard and I was fine to return to running, as long as I didn’t hit it too hard right away.

On the morning of our visit, I could feel myself burning up with pelvic pain, so I cancelled.

I drove straight to emergency, where they felt my belly and asked if it hurt.

“Of course it hurts, that’s why I’m here.”

The doctor came back with bad news.

“It looks as if you’ve got endometritis.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s an infection of the womb.”

I was admitted again.

“Can I still breastfeed?”

“Yeah, and we’ll make sure to get you pumping when he goes home. It’ll keep your supply up.”

I fastened the purple hospital robe around myself and settled into the bed, knowing I was once again in for the long haul. The nurses hooked me up to another cannula full of anti-biotics. The hours passed slowly, except when Natalie would bring Soren up for a feed, then they seemed to pass quickly. When he rested against my chest, he was beginning to smile.

“If you’re just going to sleep, then I may as well go home.”

I was detained for four days in total, but it felt like a lifetime. When Natalie had gone home to get supplies or catch up on work, she recalled that she’d noticed all the little additions I’d made to the home to welcome our new baby. On one of the days I’d been in hospital, she told me that she had gotten angry when the basket I’d filled with bath toys had fallen off the wall.

She wanted me to be home, and I wanted to be home.

After birth, it felt like I was bouncing from one specialist to the next. Because my birth had been such a shitshow I decided to see a psychologist. I had a long-term history of depression and anxiety with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, as well as a genetic predisposition to mental illness. I knew if I didn’t get help now, it would create work for me in the long run because the wheels would eventually come off as the challenges of motherhood set in. I knew that although I wasn’t feeling off now, I had just dealt with a hugely life-changing event that had forced me to face my mortality. If I didn’t address it now, it would come back to bite me later.

May as well deal with it and get it over with now, I had no time for a full-scale breakdown.

If my psyche was game of Ker-Plunk, then resilience and resolve were like a layer of plastic sticks, keeping my marbles together. This arrangement, although thin, was strong enough to get me through regular adversity, which seemed to bear cumulative but tolerable weight. However, when faced with the sudden build-up of the heavy boulders of my own mortality, all of my traumas pushed down. The pile of plastic sticks that had gotten me through comparatively easier stressful days was beginning to buckle.

I thought I was coping just fine. The thrill and joy of my birth – even with its physical trauma – had me riding a swift and hormonal high. This was compounded by the breastfeeding, which was as good for me as it as for him. With every feed, I felt the dizzying drain of my nutrients from me to him. I felt euphoric. Every morning I woke up on a renewed high, ready to tackle life. The only problem was, I’d been told to put my running on hold. Instead, my thoughts raced all day with no outlet, right up until bedtime.

Am I being a good Mum? Is he getting enough milk? Will this single stretch mark go away? What if I lose my mind in these four walls? What if I slip back into the bad habits of my past?

I kept reassuring myself that my son was fine and that I was doing fine, all things considered, but then the doubt would creep back in like a tide going in and out. Like Sylvia Plath, God, I ricocheted between certainties and doubts.

The thoughts would slow down in the evening as I had an extra mind to bounce my ideas off when my wife would crawl into bed with me, feeling the exhaustion for both of us as I continued running on fumes.

I would get a momentary break from the flow of ideas only when my head hit the pillow and I transitioned into early sleep.

That was when the night terrors came back, in the still of the night with nothing to keep me busy. My thoughts had been cooped up long enough and they had nowhere else to go. Like starving birds, they writhed at the confines of their daily cage, wanting to be let out.

The first night it happened, I fell asleep only to wake, desperate for a drink. I slid quietly out of the bed and shuffled out of my blankets to walk towards the bathroom. I scrabbled around for my cup. I thought I must have put it in the bathroom cupboard when I was cleaning the house.

When I pulled it open, my blood ran cold.

Inside the cupboard was a sealed body bag with my hospital number stuck to it. Inside the body bag was my dull and lifeless body, with my dead newborn still attached by his umbilical cord.

I jerked awake, but I was unable to move. Pinned to my bed, I felt cold sweat beading down my forehead.

Was this it?

My heart was beating so hard against the bones inside my chest, that I realised I must actually be alive. It was a dream on steroids, but it felt so real. When I did finally fall back asleep, it was time to feed again.

On these nights, Natalie would pull up a seat on the couch next to me, placating her midnight munchies with peanut butter on rice crackers. I would envy her as she drifted right back into peaceful sleep, clearly able to cope with this birth stuff better than me.

After a week straight of these night terrors, I booked in to see my doctor. I sat across from her and tried to explain, but it all sounded so stupid.

“It’s like a dream but I feel stuck in it. I wake up suddenly thinking I’m dead and then I struggle to get back to sleep because I feel anxious.”

She prescribed me escitalopram and a 10-session mental health plan to “work through my birthing trauma.”

“This is just the baby blues. It goes away in time.”

The very next week, I booked in to see the psychologist who had previously walked me through how to deal with the workplace anxiety that had plagued me years earlier. That particular experience didn’t give me night terrors, but instead caused me to toss and turn all night on high alert, worried that someone might find out I’m gay. I knew all along I could lose my job and that they had done me a favour to hire a gay teacher in a religious school. Back then, I’d lived with daily paranoia of being found out. These feelings had been helped along by the early experiences I’d had of coming out.

It hadn’t been an easy time.

Years earlier, when I came out for the first time, I had been living in Bundaberg. Have you ever been in a place so small that everyone knows one another, but big enough that the connections between them form knotted threads that pull together tightly that you’re always a secret away from hanging yourself? It is a weird purgatory of populace. People always muse about this odd familiarity with small-ish places, they talk about it romantically as if having the whole town’s social network connected by the milkman is a good thing. I am certain that realtors capitalise on such a thing for mid-life crisis folks seeking the simple life, I am certain of it. I can always hear it in my mind:

“Oh, YES, Susan! With a population of 45,000 spread out over a large expanse away from the hustle and bustle, you can be certain that you’ll find a place in THIS community…”

Personally, I find myself amazed at the power people had to find things out. They create twisted narratives that traversed the town quicker than a greased marble rolling down a trap, playing to an audience too afraid to question them, lest they be seen as “outsides”. I realised early on that it was advisable to remain enigmatic if you were to keep your soul in a tight postcode. The only problem I kept running face first into was that everyone thought I was an aloof, anti-social arsehole city slicker and I never fit in. But – I figured I wasn’t going to anyway, what did it matter? I tried to keep a tight persona in that place, to stop the gay within me from spilling out into the city’s rumour mill.  

Rattle. Rattle. Click. Whistle. Whirrrrrrrrr.

“Mornin’!”

My usual barista flashed me a grin as a steady plume of steam emanates from the coffee machine, but she knew my usual wasn’t a hot drink – it was an iced coffee with cream, sprinkles, and most importantly, marshmallows. Hopefully, no less than three and all white ones. There was no point looking at a menu when I knew damn well that I was going to drink the same old thing every time – in keeping with my predictable, city-slicker ways.

“Just the usual, luv?” her chipper face reached me eye to eye and probably a little too close as she placed her hands on the counter, ready to make my drink. Her sweaty, blonde hair was pulled back off her fifty-in-the-shade face and the whole shop smells pleasantly of coffee beans and chocolate sprinkles. Delicious.

“Yup.” I replied, looking forward to the sugar hit. She turned to the ice blender and poured cold drips of coffee into it, whistling merrily as she works on the drink at hand.

There were upsides to life in that small-ish, back-to-front place. All the shop assistants knew my orders and living in a house that was walking distance to a beach had its perks, but you could never avoid people. They talked to any old stranger in the street, and because I was never one for unsolicited conversation, everyone there thought I was anti-social. Perhaps I would have been more social if everything didn’t suck so much. You couldn’t even loiter to deal with the intense boredom, all the shops close at midday on a Saturday and they didn’t open on a Sunday.

 The guts of the city were held together by a messy, yet weirdly specific six degrees of separation. The connections are tight and the run deep. Two girls I go to school with have fathers who have worked together in the sugar cane farming industry since the edge of the 1990s, before the Macarena came out as an A-side cassette, and they were born in the same hospital, on the same day.

Before the womb, baby.

All those kids played for the same hockey team and had the same collection of friends, most of whom had lived in Bundaberg for their entire lives. Their lives were playing out in old Queenslander houses with slightly-peeling-paint, all round the corner from each other. My grade at school was filled with people just like this. Not only were they all best friends, but their younger siblings were similar ages, so they hang out like one big family, calling each other’s parents ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’ There were clusters of cousins here and there, as well as lineage that went way back. It was a perfect and sentimental upbringing and in many ways I found myself jealous of it. Their entrenched, though artificial siblinghood was something I would never have because I just couldn’t stay fixed in a place without fucking it all up.

Imagine trying to keep a secret in such a tightly-woven net of association, or trying to find an in-road to a myopic crowd that had known each other so well, for so long. Although the people of Bundaberg found all of this endearing and grounding, I knew that these links and ties were enough to hang me in the knot of my biggest secret.

“So how’s school, luv? Still at the Christian college?” the barista asked as she poured the cold coffee mix into a plastic vessel of environmental damage.

“Yeah, I am.” I shifted on the spot, guardedly, breaking eye contact. 

I hated talking about that place and am somewhat embarrassed to be associated with it. Unfortunately, my flat response closed off the conversation and I feel kind of rude. What I really want to say is, ‘I hate it and I’m seriously considering killing myself because I think I’m gay but I can’t figure it out for myself because it’s not allowed, and the internet in this town is too slow to load any means of finding out in the comfort of my home’? It just didn’t go well with a cold beverage, nor would it be softened by the marshmallows. Sometimes, a closed one-liner is all the truth a person can handle over a coffee transaction. 

“All right, well that will be four dollars,” she said dryly, ignoring the rewards card I had held out in my hand.

“Tell your Dad I say hi.” There she was, holding me accountable for my bluntness with her familiarity. I nodded back silently and turned on my Converse heel to walk away, guilt heavy in my heart, though that feeling was like a constant ball and chain,

The fixer-upper was to take me to a smaller, quieter place and directly into a fundamentalist Christian school that still caned students with a ‘Jesus loves you’ paddle in the hope that I would straighten out. After all, there is nothing like religious guilt and corporal punishment to keep a rebellious city gal on the straight and narrow.

“It’ll be a lifestyle change!” both of my parents had said.

“A completely fresh start for all of us! Just don’t tell anyone the real reason why we’re moving. It’s a lifestyle change. A lifestyle change.”

Ah. The endless loop of good family cover-ups.

It wasn’t just all about me, of course. My father’s career benefited from the move, too – selling hearing aids to old people – of which there was no shortage in that little, backwards place – was lucrative business. It was a fucked up idea from the very first moment of piling our shit into Two Men and a Truck, and any opposition was promptly drowned out by the roar of our family vehicle travelling 385km north to this unusual, somewhat faraway place.

When we got there, I gathered that in giving my Big Secret any sort of airtime, the smiles would fade, the looks would become suspicious and the curtains would be drawn in my face. There was a friendly vibe, but one that definitely belonged to an ‘in-crowd’, one to which the homosexuals did not fit. For survival’s sake, I figured it would be best if I didn’t say anything– at least, at that point in time. Lacking life experience, part of me also wondered if I even was gay, or if it was “just a phase.” I wondered if this could be fixed, if I had come out of the factory line with defective parts that needed a careful hand – or the right cock, as the I’d overheard boys in my last school saying about girls who weren’t interested in having sex with them.

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A fertile vessel

Beep. Beep. Beep. I could hear heavy, laboured breathing and the sounds of machines working around me. Then I realised it was my own breath, going in and out. My eyes were too heavy to open and I felt disconnected from myself, like a butterfly outside of its chrysalis.

Was I dead?

My whole abdomen pained, like I’d been slashed through the middle. I suddenly needed to cough, and it felt like I was crushing my whole mid-section with each motion. My throat was filled with phlegm so I needed to keep coughing, but it was painful. I opened one eye. I could see the most perfect looking baby on my chest. No blood, no fluid, just a perfect, smooth head and a peaceful little face.

“Why is my throat so phlegmy?” I asked. I couldn’t stop coughing.

“I’m not sure, I think that’s the anaesthetic.” Natalie said, avoiding my gaze.

I was too far gone to be suspicious, but she was definitely keeping uncomfortable truths from me. I wasn’t ready to hear the whole story yet, but she gave it to me in parts.

“Why are you crying?” I was confused.

“It was just a C-section. They do these all the time.” I assured her.

“You don’t get it, Beci. I almost lost you.”

I raised my eyebrows, still under the heavy weight of the anaesthetic.

“You lost two and a half litres of blood. They had to stabilise you. It took a long time. Soren was delivered by forceps and he was fine, but you nearly died.”

“That’s fine, but how was his APGAR score?”

“He was fine. Crying and alert.”

Then it hit me with an overwhelming sense of numbness. I felt like how a person feels when they have had part of their body locally anaesthetised for a procedure. I could see and hear confronting facts being shared around me, but I couldn’t feel it myself. I felt nothing but I knew I was going to feel this later. Part of my numbness was the exhaustion of many hours of labour followed by an anaesthetic, but part of me put defences up, refusing to believe I had just faced my own mortality with a brand-new infant. We didn’t even have a will in place.

The next time I woke up, I was greeted with the ‘it’s-a-boy’ moment I’d been looking forward to, as his nappy was pulled down in my face. Although he was freshly born, the nurse stood him up and he looked like a little president – a name that would stick through his childhood.

Before they took me off to the ward, they wallpapered my insides with fabric to stop the bleeding. I had never felt womanlier in my life, a fertile vessel of blood and guts. Labour had broken me open, but medical science was putting me back together.

The day I discovered my cervix, I truly believed was a mirrored penis, put there by some feat of surgical engineering.  It made sense because I’d always had this unusual red crease on my skin that started just below my belly button and finished right where my vulva started. It was the same colour as my mother’s caesarean section scar, which she received when she gave birth to my brother. I never paid it much mind until my cousin was born, in 1995. My aunty had given birth to three daughters in quick succession like gunshots and she had finally gotten her son in baby #4. His arrival was much-awaited and much-wanted.

The day we visited him in hospital for the first time, I spent time carefully curating the best bouquet of flowers a five-year-old could manage. By the time they were all tied together, some of them were drooping, their different stages of decay succumbing to gravity to form an unusual exhibit of childish home garden floristry. When I finally saw him, his skin had been bald, red and patchy in different places, kind of ugly but endearing in a weird sort of way –like a baby mouse, squinting and wrinkly. When we arrived at the hospital, my mother could not stop gushing about how vital it was that my aunty had finally gotten a son.

“I was so lucky, I had a pigeon pair straight away,” my mother said, almost condescendingly, as if no other combination of genders would ever be as good as getting one of each. “But if she’d been born a boy, that would have been it.” She nodded at me. In that moment, I wondered if I had been born a boy, but hastily swapped with a surgical procedure. Why else would I have the scar? It was perfectly reasonable for me to think that I had been reassigned at birth and this was just something people didn’t talk about it, if they did it. Why else would I, like a boy, have those fluttery butterfly feelings every time I saw a pretty woman? What other possible explanation could there be? Girls just didn’t like women. It just wasn’t how things were.

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I was born a boy.

Funnily enough, I used to think I had been born a boy. Before the birth went down, way back in my childhood, I started to have the first stirrings of my sexuality. I had my first crushes on celebrities and teachers. I also had this slight red crease that ran from just below my bikini line to just above my genitals. I never really thought much of it until one night in the shower.  

I stood with one foot up on the ledge. I knew my short nails would make the perfect speculum for self-exploration. On my way through, I picked up the glossy magazine full of anatomy diagrams that I’d pilfered from my brother’s bedroom. I knew I had felt this lump inside me about a week ago, which had heightened my curiosity about who I thought I was, and I wanted to find out for sure.  

I placed the magazine upon the counter where I could see it with my hands free. I let the glossy finish slide against my bloody fingers as I turned each page over, looking for the naughty section. The joy of all of it was that my mother never, ever censored my reading content, so when I turned to that section, the one that contained a full-length picture of a naked man, with a detailed diagram of a flaccid penis, I wasn’t shocked, but intrigued. I looked closer at the diagram, processing the similarity between the shape of this tipped shaft and something I’d felt inside me, but facing upwards, inverse, like a mirror image curving upwards.   

A few weeks prior, I had slid my fingers inside my child body for the first time ever, until I got to a point where I could go no further. Here, I had felt a bulbous tip and a hole, which didn’t feel quite like it belonged. A few years prior, I had noticed a faint, red scar that extended from below my belly button to just above my vulva, and part of me wondered if I had been reassigned, made from a boy to a girl, from the inside out.

Perhaps my parents, at birth, looked at the wet, bloody baby in front of them with shrieks of, ‘Congratulations! Another boy!’ were so tied up with wanting the ‘pigeon pair’ my mother always spoke about, that they’d reassigned me at the hospital. It would explain many things – like why I had this scar. It would explain this penis tip inside my body. But most of all, it would explain this deep, sinking feeling I’d always had. I knew, even at nine years of age I knew it, that I loved girls. And only boys were attracted to girls. So I had to have been born a boy, or else why would I be attracted to girls? 

The other theory I had was that every woman had these feelings ebbing away inside them, but from a social point of view, every functional marriage needed gender roles; that is, a man and a woman. For quite some time, I entertained the idea that every woman had innate same-sex attractions, but they fulfilled their social need to make a family and raise children with a man. You know, so there was someone to mow the lawn, lift heavy boxes, and bring in the pay cheques. In the mid-to-late 1990s, when I was beginning to have an awareness of the wide world outside of my reasonably functional home life, I noticed that so many men in the media were painted as useless buffoons who couldn’t even fry an egg or change a nappy, let alone fulfil the romantic, tender loving role that a lifelong spouse should. Interesting that even in the face of having a competent, sensitive father, these messages still burrowed deep in my attempt to explain how I felt.

I went back to steadying myself on the edge of the bath with one leg up and one on the tiled floor. I spread myself wide because although I had no nails to cut my insides, the opening just wasn’t that big, even for small fingers. One pointed finger slid in with ease, if I thrust my hips forward, but I couldn’t get in far enough. Seeing the purple moisturiser bottle in my periphery, I slid my finger out of myself and squeezed a liberal amount of the white lubricant to help things along. Turning at an angle, my finger nudged up against the bump once more. Navigating my internal organs carefully, I twisted my flat, lithe torso close enough to the bench so that I could see the picture in the magazine.

The freshly-painted wooden door bashed against its frame and I just about tore myself from the inside out with a single finger when my brother yelled through the door frame.

“Get out, I need to use the shower!”

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ECT – a miracle cure or a controversy?

No photo description available.

In June last year, I was failing to deal with my birthing trauma. I was up at 3 o’clock every morning, running 30 kilometres a week, breastfeeding, and dealing with a brand new infant. When I would go for a run, it felt like the shadows were falling around beside me.

One night, I was Googling furiously when my partner asked me what was wrong.

“I think I need to be hospitalised. I think I’m having a psychosis.”

“No. What if they take Soren from us?”

It was a sobering thought but I was too far gone to realise it would never happen.

I was up most nights chatting to a friend who had me convinced I was narcissistic, that my disorder was malignant, and I would never connect with my son. I started believing that I was passing mental illness to him through my breastmilk.

Scared, I saw my GP. I asked for a referral to a psychiatrist.

“No, you can see your psychologist. You just need to deal with your birthing trauma.”

I went to the doctor down the road for a second opinion. He told me to kick the cat when I felt traumatised and to see my psychologist.

I went home, defeated. Later that afternoon, I formed the belief that the police were after me, there was a conspiracy, drugs had been planted in my house, and I was going to jail. I deactivated my Facebook account and begged my wife to hospitalise me.

She did.

That was when I ended up in Belmont’s Postnatal Clinic. Fortunately, I got the best psychiatrist, Dr. Lyndall White, who stabilised my medication, gave me sleeping tablets, and suggested Electroconvulsive Therapy.

I swallowed.

“Are you sure? Isn’t that shock treatment, like the old days?”

“Yes, but it’s come a long way. It’s nothing like it used to be. It is performed under general anaesthetic, so you won’t be awake for it. It’s highly effective and considering your graphic night terrors and suicidal thoughts, it is likely to be very helpful.”

I agreed to six treatments and the next day, I was wheeled into theatre.

In the treatment, they put electrodes on my head, and gave me a needle to put me to sleep.

I woke up about ten minutes later, groggy, but okay. Because I was an inpatient and Soren was in the hospital with me, I was able to rest until the afternoon.

Since treatment, I have had no night terrors and I feel generally well. Although this is a treatment shrouded in controversy, it has certainly worked for me.

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How do you plan a birth?

In the lead up to the birth, everyone – friends, my massage therapist, my parents, co-workers, the baker even – would ask me about my birthing plan. I found it absurd to plan something that was so completely and utterly primal.

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Plan what, exactly?

I knew that once my waters had broken and the labour pains were in motion, there was little I could do to change the trajectory. The baby had to come out. To me, it was like planning how exactly how you were going to go down a water slide.

It was an odd quirk, because I normally exercised a lot of control in everything I did. But I suppose, in some small way, refusing to think about a plan was one way that I exercised control because quite frankly, birth freaked me out.

If I could’ve had it any way, I would have liked to have given birth in water, managing the pain along the way using any of the relief they could offer me. I imagined being a full Earth mama, with my long hair framing my baby bump, as I grimaced and groaned, breathing my baby gently into the world, as my wife whispered encouragement into my ear.

I knew that there was a chance the bath at the hospital may not be available when I went into labour, so I accepted that this may not be my truth. I remained open minded to a standard vaginal birth, or even a caesarean section, if it was needed to bring my child into the world safely. After all, you still got to see the baby immediately and have it on your chest. I looked forward with anticipation to whichever birthing experience would give me the child I so longed for.

When I got to four days past my due date, though, I was all out of patience.

“This baby needs to come out now.” I spoke assertively down the phone, expecting that the hospital would just fit me in because I was done being pregnant. It was December the 11th – a day past my due date – and I had been having daily and nightly panic attacks.

“No, no. You’ll be fine. Just rest up and come in on the 20th, dear.”

“But this baby is kicking me in the ribs and I’m panicking.” I knocked my ankles together on the couch, nervously.

“We’ll see you on the 20th.”

Click.

The very next day, I spoke to my general doctor and demanded that she change their mind. She picked up the phone and told them that I had a history of mental health issues, I was anxious, the baby was getting larger, and my anxiety was not abating.

“Sure. We can see her on the 13th of December.”

The sliding doors at the Royal Brisbane hospital welcomed us. We sauntered down the corridor with giddy excitement, then went up the elevator to the midwife’s consulting area.

The whole place looked like Santa Clause had screwed up his entire village, loaded it into a bazooka and shot it at the walls. Christmas posters and ornaments were slathered all over every conceivable space, and then some. We were welcomed into one of the consulting rooms, where I lay flat on my back, wondering when they would suggest an induction. I had desperately wanted to go into labour spontaneously, but nothing had worked – vigorous sex, running, time in the bath.

The midwife poked and prodded my belly as the baby writhed and kicked in anticipation. She furrowed her brow and avoided my eyes.

“The baby’s head is displaced, and I think he’s quite big. Had they told you that during the ultrasounds?”

I moved uncomfortably.

“Yeah. They said he’s measuring ahead.”

“How would you feel about being induced now?”

I paused, swallowed and gathered my apprehension.

“I guess?”

I looked over at my wife, who had raised her eyebrows.

“We don’t even have our bag packed.”

“That’s okay, we can send your wife home to prepare everything. We can take you up to the ward shortly.”

The nurse explained the various methods of induction. After quiet consideration, we decided upon a balloon catheter, which would be inserted either side of my cervix and then filled with water to induce dilation.

So much for a birthing plan.

“It’s uncomfortable, but sometimes it can bring on labour all by itself.”

I didn’t particularly like my chances.

They took me into a room that was so brightly lit, it nearly burned my retinas. I started to feel anxiety welling up inside me. Not because I was scared of the labour, but because I could feel control was slowly slipping away. I didn’t want my labour to be one artificial intervention after another.

“Now, I see you’ve expressed a desire for a water birth. Because we’re inducing you, that option will no longer be available.”

The doctor came in and propped me up on the stirrups, spread legged like a loose woman. He shone a blinding light inside my vagina, and I thought if he leaned a little closer, he might be able to shake my baby’s hand.

After the balloon catheter had been inserted and filled, I lay on the ward, relaxing as my cervix opened – not like a flower, but like the stiffened top of a Milo tin that had lay untouched for months, with a teaspoon being used as a slow but hardy lever. I inhaled and exhaled as my inner self stretched, preparing for the joy of birth.

“So do you know what you’re having?” The midwife asked as she inspected my cervix.

“No idea. Hopefully a baby.” I smiled.

We were both convinced the baby was a girl. We’d taken to calling it a ‘she’ whenever we rubbed the belly. Prior to finishing work, I had spent the last few months on a teaching contract in learning support. I had been working on-on-one with a student on the Autism spectrum who required intensive modifications to his learning program. He only attended school two hours a day, after which time I was to do paperwork. I found the paperwork easy, and so I had a lot of time to look busy.

On one such day, I had pulled up my ultrasound video. Pausing on one still, I saw a set of testicles. I took a screen shot and showed all of my friends, convinced that maybe I was wrong.

“Nah, that’s three lines. That’s a labia. I think it’s a girl.” My friend offered me her view, because she’d had two babies before me, so she knew. I hung onto that, still believing that our baby was a girl.

The midwife kept popping in and out.

“If labour still hasn’t started by three AM, we’re going to break your waters and give you a hormone drip.”

I lay in a ball, awaiting the next step. I changed positions occasionally and the sensation felt like period cramps, with an added knotting and twisting feeling. Any time my stomach hardened with Braxton Hicks, I became excited that it was finally happening.

“Nope, not yet. Sorry, love.” The midwife shuffled in and out, checking on me, then going to do her rounds.

The Earth inched towards evening as the sky lit up an intense orange. As the darkness of night crept in. I lost a little more control as I became aware labour was not going to start on its own.

My body had let me down.

At that stage, I was still hopeful of a vaginal birth, even though the interventions were starting to pile up. As the night wore on, the midwife changed over. A freckled woman called Janine walked into the room. She felt my belly and noticed the baby was kicking quite vigorously.

“Wow! You’ve got an all night rager in there!” she exclaimed.

As excited as the baby was, it still wasn’t three am. I held feebly onto the hope that labour might kick in, but it never did.

“All right, it’s time to break your waters.”

She leaned towards me and tilted the bed back gently.

“Okay, put your legs up girl. I’m going to get the doctor.”

I took my position and waited. The deep scars on my thighs glinted under the hospital light.

“I hope you don’t do that anymore?” Janine inquired.

“No. I had a troubled childhood.” I replied, not really wanting to think about it.

“Well, you’re about to have a baby. Lots to be happy about!”

She handed me a breathing apparatus.

“All right. You know those cannisters that all the kids are breathing in at the festivals? This is basically the same thing as that. It will enable us to break your waters with minimal discomfort. Don’t think about what we’re doing – just lay back and think of nangs.”

I giggled, assured that I was in good hands.

“Okay, breathe deep!”

I breathed in the cold but pleasant air and it was like breathing in the universe. It hit me instantly and I threw my head back, in fits of laughter.

“No way! She’s a one-pot-screamer!” Janine couldn’t believe what a lightweight I was.

While I was in fits of euphoric laughter, the doctor guided the plastic stick inside of me and I suddenly came back to Earth, with a sobering wash of warm water around my ankles.

“Hooray, you did it!”

I looked at everyone in the room through slitted eyes, still slightly giddy from the gas.

The next step was to give me hormones through an intravenous drip. Within a short while, I was contracting.

“That was a good one. Your littler rager thinks so, too.”

I crinkled my nose and grinned, proud of myself for how well I was handling the contractions.

I laboured on for hours, with the cervix dilating on schedule. As I started to become tired from a lack of sleep, the contractions intensified. It was a consequence of the induction hormones and it became unbearable very quickly. Nonetheless, I stayed strong.

“Hold onto me.” Natalie said, as I stood in the birthing suite, leaning forwards every time I contracted.

“Is it too late for an epidural?” I asked.

“No, I can organise that right away.” Janine replied.

Within a half hour, my spine was being sized up for the injection. It was a painful ordeal, but as soon as the block was injected, the labour became a lot more bearable. I lay back on my bed and peacefully drifted in and out of sweet sleep, being occasionally woken so that my cervix could be checked.

“Well, that’s me done for the day. Such a shame that I didn’t see the baby born. That’s why I do this job.”

I waved Janine off as Jenny the midwife quickly introduced herself, then wasting no time in checking my cervix.

“It’s 8cm. You’ll be pushing soon, and you’ll have a baby in about two hours.”

I beamed! It was finally coming together. Despite the interventions, I felt in control. This could end well after all.

I continued to feel the tightening of my body with each contraction as they became more frequent. Soon, I felt a sharp, choking feeling around my middle. It knocked the breath out of me.

“Hey, I can feel this now. Is this normal?”

“Just turn up the epidural. Here, like this.”

Jenny showed me how to dial up the machine that was controlling my epidural.

“It’s not working.”

I became slightly anxious at the excruciating contractions I was feeling, which were apparently far beyond the intensity of what I would’ve felt in a spontaneous labour.

“Here, keep dialling it up.”

I pressed the button rapidly.

“It’s seriously not working.”

The epidural specialist came in and tried to fix the problem, but nothing was working. Jenny asked me to spread my legs so she could check my cervix once more.

“You should be 10cm. These contractions are stretching you out for birth. I know it’s hard but hang in there.”

She looked inside me, then paused. I knew enough to know that the pause was not good.

“Your dilation has regressed to 7cm…” she trailed off and walked out the door to get another midwife.

“Hi, I’m Cheryl.” Another midwife walked in, speaking in her thick New Zealand accent, accidentally brushing my forehead with her fingers as she turned around.

“Holy smokes, you’re hot!” she exclaimed. She swiftly pulled the thermometer out of its device and took my temperature.

“Forty degrees!”

All the nurses in the room shuffled around and then left the room, leaving me anxious about what was going on.

About five minutes later, a doctor stepped into the room.

“You have an infection, which is why you have a fever and regressed dilation. Your baby’s head is still displaced. We need to call time on this labour for everybody’s safety.”

The idea of a natural birth slid completely out of my reach.

“Just sign this consent form and we will take you off to the theatre.”

I signed very quickly and a midwife came to remove my hormone drip.

“Your contractions should stop now. Don’t worry about the epidural.”

As soon as she said that, my contractions seemed to intensify. They went from lasting around thirty seconds, to being a continuous sensation that wasn’t going away. I rolled over and curled up in a ball, unable to straighten my body out.

“Ahhhh!!! It won’t stop!” I screamed.

They started to wheel me down to the theatre, ready to prepare me for a caesarean section. When we got there, the doctor started to explain the spinal block.

“We’re going to insert some fluid between the spaces in your spine. Then we’ll put some water on your belly to see if you feel it. Then we’re going to cut just below your bikini line to deliver the baby. Do you want your wife to say if it’s a boy or a girl?”

“Oh my God, stop talking and just insert the epidural!” I writhed in excruciating pain. The contraction that started when they took out the hormone drip hadn’t stopped.

“Okay, I’m sorry.”

The doctor stabbed my spine and I remained curled into a ball with an oxygen mask on.

“Oh my God, I’m going to vomit!”

I leaned towards Natalie and the doctor leaned into her ear.

“You have to stay strong, for her.”

My forehead was sweating and I couldn’t move.

“Can you straighten out, please?”

I tried my hardest but I couldn’t move my back at all. The doctor rolled me onto my back and patted just below my bikini line. The nurse poured a few drops of water on the area.

“Oh my God, I still feel the water! Don’t operate!” I yelled.

“Okay, we’re going to have to do a general.”

The anaesthesiologist leaned in and inserted a needle, which I couldn’t feel above the contractions. Even on my back, I was still curled up. As I started to lose consciousness, I felt myself losing all control. I had to let go. I inhaled sharply and expressed my only wish.

“Don’t tell her the sex of the baby before I wake up!”

That was the last thing I remember as the curtain of unconsciousness fell down around me.

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Even cows can do AI.

Way back when, my parents had decided that sending me to a Pentecostal Christian school was a good idea. It was all because I’d been kicked out of school in Brisbane, as a fresh-faced year eight student. It was all under the guise of building my father’s hearing aid business in a small place where there was lots of old people and retirees, who had lots of hearing problems.  

“Such a waste of money on these uniforms!” my mother had cried – actually cried with real tears and everything – as we packed the dull brown skirts and white blouses into a box for the five-houses-down neighbour’s daughter to use in a years’ time when she started there.

“What am I going to tell everyone in the family about why you don’t go there anymore? This was our dream for you, Rebecca!” My mother’s green Glaswegian eyes flashed read as she slammed the box shut, unfulfilled bourgeoisie expectations breathing their last when the lid shut on those blouses and dresses. So sad.  

My Mum had grown up in less than ideal circumstances, only to come back swinging through the other side to marry a very decent and equally committed man – my father. They both wanted the absolute best for me, which was often just an echo of the status quo, – private schooling, expensive belongings, whatever it took to make us look like a nice, normal family, which hers hadn’t been.

“I just want more for you than I had. When I was your age, I was the only girl at school who didn’t have JAG jeans and I’ve never forgotten how bad it felt. You have no idea how lucky are,” she would always say, across the range of a pointed finger.

 After using the school’s network to unlock restricted content and create my own indexed website with pages like The Dickhead List, Ozzy Osbourne on the Toilet, and Why my Teachers Suck, the door hit my arse faster than you could say ‘amazing grace.’ The rude pages punctuated with repeated swear words just didn’t go down a treat in an $8,000 a year religiously-themed sausage factory. And I’d wasted a significant chunk of bandwidth to do it, as well. That was a lesser offence, all things considered, but also against the rules. 

 “This is the most discghushting breach of the Internet Policy that this school has ever seen!” the dean of students had said, each consonant sliding out through the brown plaque in her teeth in a cloud of elderly, mothballed speech. 

“You know we could call the police on what you’ve just done? There will be serious consequences.”

The empty threat of police (who no doubt didn’t give a shit about the online shenanigans of a thirteen-year-old) was enough to make me cry and I remember shaking in my brown leather shoes, until I realised it was a scare tactic. I knew what I had done was naughty and there was no legitimate excuse for my behaviour, but I thought the response was heavy-handed, considering how young and stupid I was. Because it was 2003 – well before the Web 2.0 age – it was the school’s very first internet offence, and they had to come down on me hard to make an example. Perhaps slightly unjust, but just too bad.

By the time we got to Bundaberg, I was living the farm life with all the other country kids. One particular day, I was introduced to the idea of assisted reproduction.

It was middle session in the school day and the flies were clinging to beads of sweat and teenaged body odour, as well as patches of reddish-brown dirt that were adorning everybody’s loose ripped jeans. Despite the strictness of the Christian college, we were allowed to change into “old clothes” during agricultural lessons, though some girls would always try to get away with wearing Roxy jumpers for style. There we were in week 3, and working our school days in a real rhythm. The smell of cow shit hung thick in the air and by that time, I had acclimatised. 

 “All right, everybody into the shed!” Mr Hibbard projected his voice in every direction and nodded towards Nevie, the farm’s caretaker to join us all.

I’d wanted to continue learning drama at the Christian college. Creative activities were my natural inclination and I had even joined the local theatre, as well as dance after school. As it turned out, the Christian college had no arts program whatsoever, mostly due to its size. To team with the ‘change of city, change of attitude’ approach, I decided to take the elective of Agricultural Science. I had no business with cows and chickens, but it made my parents happy to see me getting into it. They’d really adopted this move and I could see they wanted to try and fit in, even though we all stood out like a pair of testicles on any given animal.

“Wow, Hoof and Hook! You could lead cattle instead of doing interschool sport!” my mother had exclaimed.

Leading a fat, stubborn cow around a course instead of playing soccer, which I’d done since Under 10s. I really, really didn’t want to, but my mother’s words rang out like a dull, guilty thump in my ears. 

“We uprooted our whole lives to bring you here.”

CIMG2192

An actual cow from school.

 That particular day on the farm had been anticipated by all of us. Even though no permission notes had been sent home about it, the whole class knew it would be happening when the timing was right. My teacher, Mr Hibbard, told us he was going to be extracting semen from a bull in order to impregnate a cow that was failing to fall pregnant through the natural course. It was like the in-vitro fertilisation my friend’s Mum had used to create her, back in the 1990s, though I had never heard of it being used on cattle. 

“What we’re going to do,” he said, rubbing the silver, phallic implement with a sense of sickly anticipation – “Is we’re going to move the bull into this squeeze chute so he can’t move.” 

He ushered the bull into the squeeze chute, and the bull complied, moving forward one step.

“C’mon, stud,” he persisted, as the bull had stopped momentarily, stamping its foot on the concrete, dusty ground beneath him.  

As the gate shut behind him, his hoof scraped the concrete below, exhaling with a stubborn grunt. He started to shift his weight around, his hips and thighs brushing the metal gates on either side. With careful precision, Mr Hibbard slid the implement inside, penetrating at a slight angle. The bull heaved and shuffled, but he was constrained, unable to move.

“Whoo! Whoo!” he pushed harder and the bull continued writhing against his false, manly comfort. 

As the device sent its invisible rays of artificial pleasure pulsing through the animal, he moaned with a rising intonation, the mechanical orgasm tightening his underside. The specimen dropped through the funnel held between his legs by Nevie the farmhand, his crow’s feet grimacing as he aimed the funnel and cup in just the right place. For all the effort, a few drops of potential life fell into the clear cup, quickly sealed to prevent leakage. Solitary globs of rich, thick fluid; it didn’t seem like much at all, but that very cup contained millions of opportunities for the beginning of life. It also contained the potential for profit, depending on how much meat was made from each resulting calf.  

“And this is how you extract sperm,” he said, with a cavalier, unusually satisfied half smile.

How unromantic. I was sure that this teacher, who had just raped an animal with an electrical, metal dildo so he could artificially inseminate another cow, was completely unaware of his cognitive dissonance, as I’m sure it was interpreted in the conservative scripture somewhere to not artificially create life inside of an animal, probably weaved through all the same verses in Leviticus that forbade gay relationships. I wondered if anyone else was thinking what I was thinking. Probably not. When I’d looked around, I was surrounded by completely uniform blank stares, the same as when we were praying, only with eyes wide open, except for Seini, the girl with the earthly eyes. She was looking across through the gate at me, though she looked away quickly when our eyes connected.

“Now… who wants to look under the microscope?” Mr Hibbard had the sealed cup of sperm sitting inside his shirt pocket.

I raised my hand, slowly, unsure if it was a loaded question or not. I didn’t want to be the first to raise my hand, just in case. 

         “Could I have a look?”

         Chelsea exchanged facial expressions with me. A-ha! I could tell by the look on her face that she was also thinking, “What the actual fuck?”

         “I’ll look, too.” She said, following me to the microscope.

Looking through the microscope, I saw the miniscule particles of life, swimming back and forth under the glass. I wasn’t the least bit disgusted, but suddenly, a thought hit me, a real game-changer. One fear I had started to have at fourteen was that my homosexuality may keep me from having children of my own one day and (without any knowledge or people to ask), I had always naively accepted that I would effectively need to choose between being my authentic, gay self and faking it with a guy, having occasional painful sex so I could have a couple of kids.

If this heifer could be made a mother without sexual intercourse by donor sperm, couldn’t a gay woman do the exact same thing? This thought offered me hope in the moment and a half-smile crept up my cheek as I reflected on it, but I kept it to myself. It would be like shooting myself in the foot to ask more questions or find out more information, I just shelved the thought that science could make this ideal possible – for later.

Like the sperm under the microscope, I was wrestling with things myself. It was tangled up in all sorts of ideological, religious and social doctrines, none of which I was entirely sure I belonged to anymore, or if I ever had. Like, was I still a Christian? My parents weren’t really. What does it mean if you’ve been baptised and you kind of believe, but you don’t go to church anymore? In between everything else, I still thought that there must be a God – why else would we suffer, if for no glory or salvation?