The Sunday EssayOctober 22, 2023

The Sunday Essay: The opening


My initiation into parenting was nothing like I planned, and it changed me in ways I didn’t anticipate.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Images by Natasha Vermeulen.

I was the ideal home birth candidate. Fit, healthy, confident, comfortable. Trusted my body. Loved my partner. Read positive birth stories by Ida May Gaskin and none of the pamphlets about inductions, ventouse, or caesareans. Quietly suspected that such interventions were the domain of those less committed, more high-maintenance, less ‘embodied’ than me. 

Labour began on a Friday evening. We lit our special candles, started the birth playlist. Someone suggested sleeping, but there was no way I could doze off with that screaming rock inside me. The contractions got closer and more intense, as we’d been told they would. We got the tiny woolly hat ready and prepared to meet our baby.

Dawn broke. The candles burned to pools of wax and set fire to the basket they sat in. The playlist became unbearable. I ate some scrambled eggs and threw them back up again. The califont broke and my helpers poured boiling water into the birth pool from an electric kettle. The day staggered on as my body alternately arced and slumped, making sweaty handprints on our wooden walls. 

I’m not sure if I should give you the stats – share exactly how long things took, define ‘pre-labour’ versus ‘labour proper’, chart the dilation of my cervix for you. I worry that you might compare that with other stories and find one of them wrong. We should have held out longer, and we should have surrendered sooner. Most of us who have been socialised as women are well-versed in this kind of double bind.

On the second labouring dawn we squeezed into my midwife’s red Honda Civic and hooned to the hospital in Hamilton. The epidural was great, but nothing helped my baby – lined up perfectly, apparently – to descend. When her heart rate had slowed several times, the doctor recommended a C-section and our midwife concurred. My partner and I sobbed, then agreed. It had never occurred to us that this might be our path.  

For something I’d tagged as such a terrible outcome, the actual operation was oddly OK. A kind-eyed anaesthetist, who’d had two C-sections herself, talked me through the strange sensations of weight, stretch, and lightness. After just a few minutes I heard a baby cry.

Soon after, my partner laid our daughter on my chest. She sought out and latched onto my nipple immediately, and I latched onto the easy metaphor this offered in return: a symbolic sort of reassurance that our connection had not been severed in her ‘unnatural’ journey out of the womb.

In quiet moments, though, I still wondered if I’d done something wrong. What if I’d laboured at home for longer? Got more sleep the night before? Done more Spinning Babies exercises? Or, what if I was wrong – what if I wasn’t really meant for this all-encompassing, extremely-full-time job of Being a Mother? Over the following months, scrolling on my phone during interminable breastfeeding sessions, I pored over friends’ stories of smooth home hot-tub births under the stars, and worried about what I might have missed.

Others whispered their own journeys, more similar to mine. Usually, we talked quietly. Two decades on from when Kate Winslet lied about her first child’s birth by C-section (not that she owed any of us her story), there’s still status attached to unmedicated vaginal birth, and shame about getting certain kinds of help to cross that threshold. Like conception and breastfeeding, it feels like one of those hallmarks of what Duke University professor Jennifer Nash, in a 2022 article, calls “maternal completion”: the flawed and dangerous – but still powerful – idea that we can be ‘made a mother’, and perhaps even ‘made whole’, by the experience of our bodies doing what they’re supposed to. 

Winslet only shared the truth of her first birth after she’d ‘redeemed’ herself’ through a VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Caesarean), which she said “laid all the ghosts to rest. It was really triumphant.” Three years after our daughter was born, pregnant with our second child, I nurtured a quiet and semi-unconscious dream to do the same. I joined Facebook groups committed to the cause and prepared to “get my VBAC” and “absolutely rock my birth”, as other members described it.

I understood the political and personal importance of this kind of talk, even as I cringed at it. Our medical systems don’t have great track records of centring women’s agency, and many people feel like they have been pushed into interventions that they didn’t need or want. So it makes sense that some of them would gravitate towards this kind of empowering language, which emphasises personal ownership and control over birthing experiences.  

On the flip side, though, when we frame particular kinds of births – vaginal, unmedicated ones – as things that people can choose and have and own, we put those who end up needing (or wanting) C-sections or other interventions in a tricky spot. Positioning C-sections as “theft” and VBACs as “repair, a joyful healing that produces maternal wholeness”, as Nash puts it, sets up those who don’t ‘achieve’ it for an extra-rough beginning to the relentless, blurry, and all-important early days, weeks, and months of parenting an infant.

We’re left to wonder: did it count? Will it matter? Have we failed at parenting before we even really began?

In the end, my second birth happened in a similar sequence to the first one: smooth start, slow progress, brutal contractions, little dilation, and a dropping fetal heart rate. It ended in an even-more-emergency C-section, involving a scene like the ones you see in hospital dramas: a red-faced woman roars on a gurney that’s hurtling through the guts of the maternity ward, propelled by sprinting nurses.

In those moments, with my baby’s health and life in question, all thoughts about how they might emerge seemed laughably irrelevant. In theatre, someone flung a mask on my face and held my gaze until I disappeared into the weird night of anaesthesia. When I woke up, our second child was sleeping beside me on my partner’s chest.

My kids are at school and kindy now. As I go about my days in a sea of snack boxes, dress-ups, and dried-up felt-tips, I feel like a ‘real’ parent most of the time, and the story of how they got here feels less and less important. I still feel FOMO sometimes, imagining the satisfaction that might have come from a vaginal birth – the sensation of release after all those months of heaviness and built-up tension, the rush of achievement, the magic of witnessing my child’s first moments outside of my body. 

But I can’t be sure. It seems there are scars for almost everyone who crosses this threshold. I’ve heard just as many rugged and gory stories about vaginal births and their aftermaths: the prolapses, the incontinence, the pre- and post-natal depressions, the wrecked relationships and chronic sleep deprivation. The ambivalence, the self-judgment, the mourning and letting-go of who we were before the kids came along. The struggles of trying to do things in the world while tending small beings that need so much.  

I’d thought I would emerge from these births clutching, alongside my babies, the kinds of lessons that are nice to learn: inspirational-quote type things, like that if I believe and trust and try hard enough, anything is possible and my body will oblige. Instead, I learned tougher truths: that I can’t do it all, that a positive attitude isn’t a magic potion, that things will go wrong and I’ll need other people to help.

My births were not stories of strength. They were ultimately about surrender. Not in a gentle, soft-lit way, but a jagged, scary one: trusting strangers to take my consciousness, cut my body, and pull out my child.

Nash says that instead of framing the vagina as the passage through which not only to squeeze a child, but to truly ‘become a mother’, we might instead consider “that vulnerability, permeability, and even the violability of the body might be the cornerstones of feminist political subjectivity.”

What if the real rite of passage here is the one where we learn to tend and embrace our broken bits and soft spots? Where we get help when we need it, and don’t try to manage everything alone?

“When I think about healing in the abstract, I imagine a closing-up, or a lifting-up,” says American writer Melissa Febos in her essay collection Girlhood. “In my fantasies, healing comes like a plane to pull me out of the water. Real healing is the opposite of that. It is an opening. It is a dropping down into the lost parts of yourself to reclaim them.” 

The VBAC plane didn’t come to rescue me like I’d hoped. Instead, my kids are helping me with the reclaiming. “That white one is mine, that pink one is Bubba’s,” says my eldest, teasing out the two braided scalpel lines, still numb in some places, that now track the critical ten centimetres between my hipbones.

She convinces me to look up a caesarean on YouTube, and we watch together as someone’s uterus is pulled almost entirely outside of their body, rimmed by yellow globs of fat that look like bits of scrambled egg.

As my scars merge and fade, the journey of becoming a parent continues: slow, strange, and threaded with surprising milestones. One day, I trip over with a child in my arms and notice my instinctive curl to protect them, in place of whipping an arm out to break my own fall. Another day, I wake up from a child-free dream and am surprising to see a toddler sleeping beside me.  

These births taught me something I think every parent comes to know in different ways: that as hard as our deepest instincts implore us to create the perfect environment, the best and safest burrow for our children to thrive in, there will always be ways that we will fail. We will drop balls; we will focus on the wrong things; we will watch things happen that we can’t control. 

And we will get things right, too. We will crack up with our kids in the car, and cuddle each other on the couch. We will marvel at what has come through us. We will look ahead and learn from others who are parenting teenagers, and reach back to ready the ground for the ones that are just beginning the journey. And here, in this messy, imperfect place, we will make a home. 

Keep going!