Ever knocked to be admitted into ‘Motherhood County’? Admission is messy. It’s risky. It’s contentious and vulnerable. It is beautiful! It dissects your pain-strewn brain into rivulets of inexplicable joy and pride and fear and hope and a thousand dreams, so that you cannot say why you can be so sore and so happy. It may as well be magical!
There is an emerging trend among young mothers to pen their birthing experiences and share them abroad. These narratives pulsate with energy of varying emotions across a spectrum that paint a gory canvas of bloody messes and the pain of a thousand knives. Some mothers simply want to tell their stories. Other mothers want the readers to know how much they had to bear, and in so doing somewhat elevate their sense of heroism at surviving such a feat. Whatever the motivation, every story is true for the writer. We celebrate with her and champion her gumption.
The process of birth as we know, is so much more about life than anything else. This life is birthed through blood and at the risk of losing life, so that there cannot be one without the other. If we focus more on the blood, we risk missing a fair chunk of the life. This would be a shame because when we go to birth, whether boldly or afraid, we go in for life.
It is true, nothing prepares a woman for labour. Nothing prepares her for the much less talked about but equally important process of post-partum recovery either. Becoming mum is the most unpredictable thing in the world. It can be private, or it can catch you off guard at the shopping center car park. It can shock your body and surprise your brain. Birthing can be simple as it can be chaotic. It can embolden as it can break a woman. It can also be tragic; very tragic. Labour can be tough, but it isn’t always.
The problem arises when we begin to clone our birthing and mothering experiences into a single story. This suggests that every mother views her motherhood experience from the story teller’s perspective, which magnifies the self above the collective force of birthing and motherhood. We need to redeem motherhood and every birth experience, unique to every mother, from sabotage by the elevated personal experiences of those who might share their stories with us, myself included.
This is by no means to diminish individual experiences, but rather dissuade us mothers from the persistent urge to pit our experiences against each other’s in perpetual competition. Perhaps we may broaden our perspectives to embrace a multitude of labour experiences and mothering approaches as seen by others without diminishing their journeys to elevate our own. For our heroism in motherhood is not hinged on how much pain we endured anaesthetised and for so long, to birth our children. After all, it is only the first step into a lifelong journey that is as unpredictable as it is exhilarating. It is true, labour is often hard work. But no woman can choose how her body responds to the experience. As mothers, both in labour and mothering we flow with what hits us, and this might knock us off for a time or bounce off the wall and we get up and keep moving.
We embrace a multitude of birthing experiences and mothering approaches as seen by other mums without diminishing their journeys to elevate our own.
To illustrate, my first labour was not a battle, but more of a severe thrashing. It was as though I’d surrendered my body to a ruthless master as the pain heaved my body up and slumped it back down again. The contractions were so forceful that we lost the baby’s heartbeat twice, filling the birthing suite with panic and a flood of medical personnel. “Is my baby going to die? Will his brain be OK when he comes out?” They’d unplug the Pitocin until the contractions ‘standardised’ enough to pick up the hum of a tiny heart beating, then inject the dynamite drug back into my bloodstream, ushering me back onto the thrashing floor. My husband massaged my back until it was raw and bruised but didn’t notice, just kept going in sync with the intensity the contractions. I didn’t notice either; the pain of strong fingers pressing against bruised flesh is irrelevant to a brain already drenched in pain.
I had watched ‘Night at the Museum’ right before I went knocking at ‘Motherhood County’ and imagined myself as the giant being tied up by the dwarfs; these rivulets of pain that rose into a crescendo of rushing rivers, drowning both strength and willpower. I was a defeated giant laying there for the dwarfs to play sport with my body. We’d see if I could outsmart them and survive, I who had wanted to give birth at home as all the women in my family before me. I was a villager wanting to prove that women have given birth for millennia without medical intervention, ignoring the fact that more women have also lost their lives to childbirth without medical intervention.
In my case birthing at home would have been negligent, for my baby was born in a room full of blues, whispering to themselves tensely or looking out the window or staring pensively at the goings on of where I lay, ready for any eventuality. “Why are there so many of them? Don’t they have other patients to attend to, or are we really in that much trouble?” I would periodically catch my husband staring intently at me with a mixture of anguish and awe on his face. When asked what the trouble was, he said that he couldn’t believe what my body had just gone through, recommending such an experience as a useful military training tool for toughening up trainees, if they could simulate it. I suppose it is more confronting to be a spectator of pain than its victim, but I still swore to never subject myself to those pain ‘dwarfs’ again.
I must have suffered intense amnesia and conceived again. But the second labour was kind; nearly a breeze. An hour after the birth I was rolling in laughter on the floor with my visiting friends. One of my friends said she’d never seen a woman so energised and radiant soon after giving birth, and so decided to enter motherhood; something she’d been putting off. You see, positive birth experiences inspire women as much as the brutally graphic ones help them commiserate. We need space for both.
This illustrates how different labour is, not just for everyone, but for every birth. There’s for instance my sister who was unaware she was in labour when she gave birth at full term. Or my sister in law’s friend Trish who, two hours after birthing her son was in the kitchen baking him a birthday cake! And there is my friend Narae whose labour lasted 10 minutes flat, which was just enough time for the ambulance to get to her house. We dubbed her ‘the girl of drive-through birth’, or rather, one who got express admission into ‘Motherhood County.’
There are also other experiences that perhaps, speak of the fight over life and death. Such as my friend Lora, who after hours of labour and difficult birth lost her ability to ever have more children. She is still grieving. And there is Jo, in a small village in Kenya. Her reward after labour was her lifeless child falling limp at her feet. The women made her swallow copious amounts of frothy laundry soap, “to help expel the placenta” they said. This knocked her out so that she never held or looked her baby over. When she came to, hours later, her baby was in a closed cardboard box at the foot of her bed. She never fully opened that box.
And labour has brought even greater tragedy than that, as is the experience of my childhood friend whose memory is too precious to mention her name here. Twice she birthed, and twice she lost her babies to eclampsia. The second time she lost her symmetry, her speech, and her mobility. She was a mother who had lost her baby, herself, and any means with which to tell her story.
I will not mention by name mothers whose labours resulted in recto-urethral fistulas, robbing them of their dignity and identity, and plunging them into a murky hole of shame, desperation and isolation. Or of the mothers who paid the ultimate price to birth a life they would never nurture. We honour their memory and salute their courage.
Be we natural mothers, step mothers, foster mothers or grand mothers, we have, through different entrances none more special than the other, been admitted into Motherhood County; for LIFE! Let us rally together. Let us make space to support and journey with each other, respectfully acknowledging every experience of birth and mothering in all its beauty or tragedy. C-sectioners or those who had assisted deliveries did not take a wrong turn and missed the prescribed ‘natural’ entrance into motherhood, and now it is too late. Bottle feeders have as much honour as breast feeders as we cheer each mother on to nurture her baby with the resources she has. For we are mothers. We escaped labour with our lives and hopefully the lives of our children. And these different experiences culminating in our shared identity of ‘mother’; these unite us.
So, global mothers, let us celebrate our differences; this pool of varying experiences that make the birth story and the lifelong office of motherhood so dynamic. True, we live in a global village with shared experiences. But even in the village everyone has her own hut. It would be ignorant to claim that since all the huts look similar on the outside, we must have furnished the interiors the same.
Aah Mama! You gave life. You nurture life; a life giver and a trainer of life givers. You are a Mother, and who can define that? The world? I doubt it. But if you look into your children’s eyes….
Have a very happy Mothers’ day!