The National Childbirth Trust group I joined for my pre-natal education wasn’t made in heaven. The woman of Amazonian height carrying twins had no sense of humour (and hardly any bump because her babies didn’t need to curl up). The neat and tidy controlling one was disquieting. (She went on to start an inflexible routine as soon as her wee baby was born that meant we all had to listen to plaintive mewing until the clock struck the appropriate hour. Very stressful.) The couple that looked about seventeen, but were in fact thirty, were as unintelligible as The Clangers. The pair who looked like each other were dull, dull, dull. The horse vet and his perky wife we liked! The other two I’ve completely forgotten. (I am self aware enough to know the feelings were probably mutual.)
So, not a great hit rate. It didn’t matter. We were there to tick the box called Learning How To Have A First Baby. Job done. Except I came away less equipped for labour than when I’d started.
There are lots of aspects to fixate on when you’re pregnant. Your vastness. Your poor sleep. Your joy. Your due date. Your birth plan. Your vagina. Your baby. Its gender. Your indigestion. And your labour, of course. How painful is painful? How long will it be? Will you cope? Episiotomy or tear?
But what obsessed me was transition. The hinterland between dilation and pushing. The NCT teacher made the phase sound like an ever-darker tunnel. Like being enveloped by an endless bleakness. It was the door-less cell. It was locked in the basement with the floodwater rising. It was obstetric dystopia.
Thanks to the vividness of her description, I read the chapter on transition in my birthing book again and again to make sure I would recognise when I was in it. In transition you can lose hope, feel like you can’t do it, give up. My imagination filled in the rest. The baby would get stuck . . . I would be paralysed by overwhelming helplessness . . . the baby wouldn’t be all right.
The fear escalated.
I schooled my husband so that if I didn’t realise what was happening, he might. If I became despairing he knew to, parrot-like, tell me that it was a phase. The sign of the positive change from preparing to give birth, to actually doing it. But would he recognise, in the middle of the worst protracted pain ever, that I was lost?
When it came to writing my birth plan, it was simple: to not disappear into the abyss that was transition.
The transition described by the NCT guru didn't materialise. Whether it was the skill of the midwives or the drugs (yes, drugs) or being pre-warned, I didn’t experience a wave of petrifying doubt. I moved on to the next phase, which is essentially trying to poo in public, and was rewarded with a baby.
But . . . walking the dog against the ferocious winds this morning, the much-read chapter reappeared, unbeckoned. Twenty years on. Minds are funny.
I’ve recently finished the nth draft of a novel that has taken twice as long as usual. At the moment some of my friends are reading it because that’s how I work. I like a sense check, and all feedback is useful if only to confirm that I’m sticking to my guns. Knowing there is no point tinkering with the document at this time is lovely.
But lovely didn’t describe my demeanour a few weeks ago, still in the thick of the novel. As I typed the end of the first draft, instead of satisfaction that I could now improve the story, I felt incapable. The screen was a mess of indulgent waffle. The immensity of trying to smooth the journey, unkink the plot, deepen the drama, and give my heroine her freedom was beyond me. So I didn’t even try. I walked the dog, cycled to Portishead, made chocolate brownies à la Nigel Slater. (very good chocolate brownies) There was no point wasting any more time on it. I was not a writer. I should get a job like I used to have, with other people, where there are desks and canteens inside buildings, and PAYE.
Transition can be the most emotionally challenging part of labour, despite being the shortest, when women are at their most vulnerable and susceptible to suggestions of intervention. I was most definitely in the feared transition phase.
Thankfully phases are exactly that. It passed. One day I sat back in front of the computer, less demoralised, and began to chip and shave and bolster and slash. Solutions to awkward conversations piped up, clunky links got oiled, my heroine began to feel herself. Transition was over, it was time to push the manuscript out into the hands of my volunteer editors.
In a few days I’ll have all their feedback and it will be time for the final edit before it goes to my agent. I’m excited, not debilitated. It’s the end of the birthing process, the delivery.
And if I’m ever in transition again, I’ll know that it’s all part of the process. A process which is as individual as giving birth.
In case you’re interested, the NCT group met up regularly that first year, and maybe a couple of times after that. But we didn’t have NCT anniversaries. We didn’t bond over anything outside the common ages of our children. We don’t know any of them now. However, the friends I made at the NHS equivalent, Parentcraft, are still my pals. Just the luck of the draw.