I first visited the hospital a few weeks before my daughter was born. I’ve returned several times since, while awake and asleep. And while I’d like to think this whole situation might have been avoided, I’m now convinced the hospital was always waiting for me.
Grace’s waters broke sometime around 3am. There was no sudden gush, more of a trickle that started in the small hours and continued well into the following day. Much like the weather. I was asleep in another room when it happened. But I’ll never forget Grace shaking me awake with the words. “It’s happening.”
The journey to the hospital was quieter than the shrieking, white-knuckle ride we had imagined. Drizzle caressed the windscreen. There was hardly any need for the wiper blades. But I put them on anyway.
Grace sprawled on the back seat. Her breath hissed between her teeth. Our little Peugeot sluiced through puddles dotting sleeping residential streets. I turned on to the main road and she winced, as her contraction rose to a peak.
Grace had asked me not to speak unless spoken to, and definitely not to ask her any questions, that weren’t absolutely necessary, during labour. She said, “no questions” to begin with. But I managed to get her to concede that I might have to ask her the odd question. It would be difficult to communicate otherwise. We had debated this with all the rationality of not actually having to deal with the situation at that moment, and written it into our birth plan.
So I had to rein in the instinct to keep asking her if she was alright. Instead I concentrated on the road and tried to recall every feature the newspaper I edit had printed in the last week. It’s something I do to keep calm. A thin semblance of control.
I was incredibly grateful for the smoothness of the tarmac and the lack of traffic. The phrase ‘there are some good things about the middle of the night’ circled round and round my head, along with the typo I’d spotted in Barry McCribe’s piece about the scout hut that had been torched.
I also thought about how nice it would be to have two weeks off work. No, at least two weeks, as it looked like our daughter would be born on a Bank Holiday weekend. The clock on the car dashboard read 3:57. My eyes flicked to the petrol gage every few seconds despite the fact I knew I had filled the tank up the day before yesterday and barely used the car since.
I glanced nervously at Grace in the rear view mirror. She sat very upright in the back seat with her eyes closed. Her face was relaxed. She was breathing deeply and probably counting, as her yoga teacher had taught her. I guessed she must be resting between contractions. They come and go in waves, Jane had told us. Jane was the latest midwife we’d met, who’d placed her hands on my wife’s swollen lower abdomen a few days earlier and said, “The head’s engaged. That’s wonderful. She’s coming any day now.”
Everyone had a different theory about when our daughter would be born. My colleagues stuck to the line that first babies were always late. Our friends with birthdays in August mostly joked that our daughter would be very welcome to share their special day. And our family members just picked random dates and threw them into the ring, often recollecting them and suggesting a new birthday, maintaining that it didn’t really matter as long as the baby was healthy.
We passed the Three Kings pub, the marker I had laid down mentally as two minutes to the hospital. The dashboard clock read 3:59. My wife’s breathing was getting faster and shallower again. “At least three in ten,” she said in a strained whisper. “Oh shit.”
I knew better than to reply. The numerology of labour was complex, and something I’d decided it was better not to get too involved in, especially when I discovered it was an unending war between different sects of the scientific and mystical communities. Experts and lay people alike had bombarded us with predictions, signs and omens that signalled the start of True Labour.
True Labour was not as I first imagined those who were loyal to Jeremy Corbyn, who also just so happened to know a lot about childbirth. No, True Labour was the Promised Land of the birthing process, when things really started to happen. It was legitimate to seek help at a hospital, or get to your birthing centre at this point we were told. You didn’t go in before True Labour. Or Established Labour as some acolytes from the temple of birth prediction called it. You would be turned away, banished back to the land of birth balls, late night TV and wondering when the waters would break.
The early bit didn’t count. So two days of intensifying pain stopping and starting at random was just the warm up act. It wasn’t True Labour and so Grace just had to sit there, or stand there, or crouch there, or try to be as comfortable as possible, breathing deeply, having showers, walking around, counting, counting counting, waiting for the chosen numbers.
True Labour had believers of many different creeds. For most it was the numbers that mattered. Some maintained that 1, 3 and 10 were the chosen numbers: three contractions every ten minutes lasting around a minute each. Another set of devout believers assured us that when a woman loses the power of speech, this heralds the onset of True Labour. I don’t know about other women, but Grace has never and will never lose the power of speech until her vocal chords stop working. I don’t say this as a throwaway misogynistic comment. Her ability to talk her way in to and out of any situation when I am rendered dumb with anger, astonishment or confusion is a source of wonder to me. Other birth mystics in the employ of the NHS had advised us sagely that we would just know when True Labour begins.
But my wife’s waters had broken. We had a trump card. She had to be seen now. For the NHS deemed it unsafe for labour to continue more than 24 hours after the waters broke, for fear that some nasty infection would sneak its way into the womb through my wife’s broken membranes, knowing that after 24 hours she was fair game. We knew this. We’d read all the literature. I’d even picked it apart for grammatical errors and unsubstantiated claims presented as facts. It’s an occupational hazard, I’m afraid. I come down hard on any of our reporters who don’t do their research, or fail to back up a story with some form of evidence. And if I am a bit particular about what gets printed in The Herald, my approach is positively lackadaisical compared to the rigour with which Grace checks her pupil’s homework.
Having dissected the bumper pack of leaflets we’d gathered from various prenatal appointments over the last six months, we fully expected our baby daughter to be screaming for milk before 3am the next morning. If so, she’d be born on a Sunday. Bonny and blithe and good and gay, according to the rhyme. That probably meant happy as opposed to homosexual back in the day, but she could be both as far as we were concerned. All we asked for was a healthy girl. Please, just give us a healthy girl.
The entrance to the hospital drive seemed to glide into sight through the blue grey light. “Thank fuck,” groaned my wife. I turned in to the drive. We’d done a dummy run a few days earlier, and had our drop-off strategy all figured out. I was going to drive right up to the entrance to the maternity wing, drop my wife, help her out the car if necessary, park and meet her on the chairs inside the automatic front doors. But in the first of many deviations from the plan, this wasn’t to be.