We hadn’t been in the country that long, having moved out of the city the previous winter, a brutal introduction to rural living. Out beyond the natural windbreak formed by the Macedon Ranges, city temperatures drop ten degrees. Daydreaming from the comfort of Melbourne about the lives we might make, a countryside miner’s cottage seemed the perfect place for two introspective writers: quiet, peaceful, cheap. The house had felt romantic in its dereliction back in autumn when we bought it for a steal. But within the first week, we discovered that old properties are their own creative projects, requiring constant revision. Weekends, precious writing time, quickly disappeared. To-do lists grew longer the more we worked. As winter descended like influenza, we were studious in our efforts not to give voice to our fears.
That unspoken question, What have we done?
I was pregnant when we moved. A nauseous month or two early on gave way to the kind of rude health I hadn’t enjoyed since adolescence. But that too soon passed. As the due date approached it grew hot, dry. The landscape crackled. I finished my PhD, a novel, and took maternity leave. I spent time carting water in buckets trying to keep the garden alive. Though hand watering left me temporarily crippled, I felt beholden to the place we had, in buying, taken custodianship of. The rashness of our purchase now felt dangerous. We seemed too young to be burdened by responsibility of such magnitude. How flawed we would reveal ourselves to be, I thought, if we allowed these plants to perish.
I planned to have the baby naturally at our local hospital, a place so small that medical intervention – beyond the provision of gas and air – wasn’t possible; they just didn’t have the staff. I felt safe in the knowledge that I was putting myself in a position where, no matter how bad the pain got, my potential for cowardice could not be exposed.
My December due date came and went. Hot days passed tensely. Nothing. I began to suspect that there was no baby. I dreaded having to explain to everyone that I had got it all wrong. Horribly tired, I felt that my writing life was probably done. I would become a mother; it seemed hard to imagine possessing the energy for anything else. My ambivalence toward my work, the readiness with which I was prepared to give it all away, shocks me now.
Then it finally happened: a slight twinge, a stirring. Less painful than a cramp, it was an unfamiliar feeling. But there was no mistaking it.
‘I think something’s happening,’ I said to my husband Dan as we drove home from a Thai meal. Every emotion, roaring like static. I can’t remember what Dan said.
We prepared for bed. Dan went to sleep. As night lapped at the house, I slept lightly, surfacing through consciousness when a contraction hit, then plunging back down into sleep. I stroked through the dark like that, until the contractions, gaining strength, could no longer be managed lying down. I told Dan to stay in bed, to rest as long as possible, and got up to pace the house, ghostly, stopping intermittently to lean on the kitchen bench, breathing. I was aware of the absolute stillness of a sleeping house. The world beyond my walls: quiet, dark. Somehow the night washed by, but it seemed to take forever. I was both bored and entirely consumed by what was happening. My lungs filled like sails, holding with each contraction, slackening.
By five or six am, dawn was breaking and I couldn’t take the isolation, the uncertainty, any longer. I had no frame of reference for what I was feeling. I didn’t want to arrive at the hospital too early, but panic like fever was beginning to take hold. Dan got up. We carried bags stuffed with the things we had been told to pack: camera, snacks, drinks. We felt armoured by preparation, our carefully folded clothes.
The labour progressed slowly, and it was fine for a while. I was told later that the baby had turned, the bones of its skull grinding my spine.
My synapses, slow to grasp that everything in my life had irrevocably changed, that my new requirements were of a new base, physical kind, were still wired for writing work. Trying to process the onslaught of sensation, they fired frantically, like I was dying.
Make a metaphor for the pain, or you’ll forget, I thought – a ridiculous, but comfortable, response. An image came, whole and harsh. Something for me to cling to.
An enormous, jagged piston presses down into my pelvis, a cradle of raw nerve endings, grinding them like a pestle.
It was the last bit of writing I would do for months. I had no pen, but the words tattooed on my brain. The agony of labour is unbearably real, I felt it, but pain becomes immediately abstract once it has passed – possible to recall, impossible to re-feel. The metaphor brings it back to me, but only the way that a negative recalls a photograph of a key moment in time.
Hours passed while I hunkered in the birthing-room bath, but my cervix remained tightly furled. The midwife checked me; let me go on. My muscles, like an inching caterpillar, contracted and released. The baby remained safely cocooned in waters that would not break. The hospital couldn’t interfere, but there were policies about time and progress. A decision was made. An ambulance summoned. I could hear the doctor on the phone, trying to organise a transfer to a city hospital. I felt calm, already changed in my core by events. Two jolly paramedics rattled in with a trolley. Since my midwife would ride with me, I said goodbye to Dan.
Beached on a gurney in the back of the van, I hurtled towards Melbourne. Flat on my back, I grew quiet. The way a cat will creep beneath a house to die, I recoiled into myself. My eyes sealed shut. The protective membrane between madness and I, previously so dependably thick, had thinned under pressure from the pain. I worked hard to keep it intact by disengaging, understanding that the slightest unnecessary movement would rip it away altogether. Though I could hear the paramedics discussing the traffic in the cab, calling back to my midwife intermittently to check on my condition, I did not engage. My consciousness coiled in the dark, wearing my body like a shell.
When we hit road works on the outskirts of Melbourne, the ambulance jammed in a zipper of cars. The paramedics asked whether they should pull into the emergency lane with siren blaring in order to get me there more quickly.
‘How ya coping?’ one of them called back.
Years before, as a child, I almost drowned at a Sydney surf beach. A strong rip pulled me into deep water where wave after wave broke brutally, sucking me down. It took all my energy to find and break the surface, barely snatching a ragged breath before being dunked again. I could feel myself getting weak. The waves were unrelenting.
‘Need help?’ a surfer called as I gasped for air. I don’t know if it was pride or shyness, but I had time to tell him I was fine, before I went under again.
I’ve told that story many times, always squirming with horror. Even so, in that ambulance, I smiled weakly.
‘I’m okay,’ I said, gasping. But I’d been contracting hard on my back every few minutes, for an hour.
At the big city hospital, my midwife left me in a stark room and hitched a ride back to the country with the ambos. A succession of nurses came and went, professional and efficient, rarely meeting my eye. Procedures were done. Pale and tense, Dan arrived, not knowing what he would find. Trapped in traffic, he had watched my ambulance race away screaming.
When my waters were pierced so much fluid poured out that I abandoned my clothes. Contractions intensified. I sucked gas. Time distorted. Hospital policy required four-hourly checks, but metered out in one-minute increments, brief lulls of reprieve, each block stretched forever. Dan worked with me to survive each contraction, tenderly guiding me through. Every part of me felt tightly clenched, eyes squeezed shut, toes and fists balled, a cage against the pain. The contractions were another kind of clenching. Dan’s voice forced a fissure through them, reminding me to breathe. He told me later that his mind, attuned to sums, would calculate the number of contractions left until the next check. It was all he could do not to feel defeated by the figure: the hundreds more painful instances he would, helplessly, watch me endure. Machines were wheeled in and attached to hidden places inside my body. The child’s heartbeat: turned into lines on a screen.
The next day dawned. I no longer recalled the baby. It was all I could do to survive each oscillating minute. My body felt turned inside out, wires and hoses like veins across skin.
Time limits were set. Advice given. Gas sucked. Moans. Something was shot in to ramp up the contractions. Crawling up the bed, Dan’s face inches from mine, urging me to breathe, I pressed against the upper limit of my threshold, beyond which was only searing white light.
I couldn’t see the huge needle used to pierce my spine. Wrapped in plastic like a supermarket chicken, I sat as they instructed, hunched on the edge of the bed. We had already been given a detailed talk about consequences: catheters, paralysis. Most of it went over my head.
‘Stay absolutely still,’ the specialist said.
I didn’t feel the needle going in, so focused on the unique torture of being balled up, tightly constricted around the mound of my squeezing stomach. When a contraction came on mid-procedure, I felt guilty for holding things up. Dan held me, helped me. I felt the presence of the anaesthesiologist, the nurses, behind me. Breathing softly on my neck.
Four am found me on my back, spot-lit. Transition, when the head descends, had never arrived. Shaking from adrenalin and drugs, numbed, I waited quietly while surgeons pulled and yanked at parts of me hidden behind a screen. The bed I was strapped to, arms outstretched as though crucified, shook with their efforts. Dan sat at my head, trying not to catch sight of the hands of strangers, slick with my blood. When they pulled the baby from me and whisked it away, Dan followed. I could only lie there, overcome by the shock of being cut open while conscious.
Seconds later Dan was back. His eyes were full of tears.
‘We have a beautiful little daughter,’ he said.
I’d never heard Dan use that tone. My body responded: goosebumps, tears. But the meaning of what he had said took longer to register. A daughter. My ears were ringing. A daughter. The difficulties of the last hours washed back like a tide. Those few seconds, the moment of our daughter’s birth, instantly dulled the many hours of preceding horror. Though I was crying, the high I felt was incomparable: addictive, flooring, made of hormones and shock. From as early as the very next morning, I would long to have another child just to return again to that profound moment, so fleeting, when another person – ours – joined us in the room for the first time.
It would take Dan many months to recover.
The baby was given to Dan to hold while they sewed me up. I was still strapped down and couldn’t see the child’s face from where I was lying. Then the baby was brought closer and I saw her, finally. She looked like a stranger; we had never met before. Her face was perfectly formed. A midwife took Dan’s camera to document our meeting. I was hyper aware of the click-click of the shutter, an eye, opening and closing on my face.
The house looked different when the three of us returned from hospital, a family. We had been gone only days. So much had changed. Our dirty dishes were still piled on the sink where we had left them.
How little I had known of what was possible: what a body, a team of doctors, could do. Stepping in through the backdoor, I felt a wash of pity for the woman who had left only days before. I was no longer that person. The imagined care of a baby and the actual structure of newborn days are as different as life from death. I couldn’t have imagined what was coming. No point even trying to prepare.
Our second winter in the cottage approached, though now we had a child. She seemed fragile, helpless. Too easily hurt. At night she woke hourly, mewing. I paced with her face in my shoulder, warm mouth on my neck. When she was quiet, we hovered above her cot, anxiously checking for breath. Her face gave a zap every time I stared at it, forgetting its true beauty from one moment to the next. But she screamed terribly at bathtime, reducing Dan to tears. Afterwards, she lay on the towel staring up at us. Soft, pink, blinking: a baby bird.
It grew wet. The roof leaked. Weather beat the walls. The cottage filled with the percussion of water on water, every bowl collecting rain. We burned through our store of firewood quickly, with months of frost still looming. In my winter coat, I pressed tears into the modern cloth nappies we couldn’t possibly hope to dry.
I was napping with the baby when a publisher called to say that he had found my novel in a slush pile. He liked it. When I hung up the phone I was elated, and scared. The effort of quickly showering, making small sandwiches for lunch, constituted tasks of so many manoeuvres that they left me exhausted and confused. I couldn’t imagine the reprieve of sitting alone at a desk. Writing seemed an archaic, frivolous skill from a far off, distant time, like lacing a corset, not at all applicable to my circumstance. At the same time, cradling the phone, hair mussed by sleep, I watched the baby’s tiny chest rise and fall, understanding with thrilling certainty that my life would be more complex, whole and rich, than I had allowed myself to believe. The moment of birth, those remarkable few seconds, were a kind of false beginning. We would spend months remaking ourselves. Continuing the work we unconsciously began by moving away from the city, we transition into our daughter’s parents. Much like birth, it is a painful process. We hadn’t really understood what we would need to relinquish. What other things we would gain. But one year on, I write when I can. I watch our little daughter playing in the garden, her home. They both survive, despite us.