The birth

It was sunny on the day. That much I know.

It’s more than four years ago and time plays its funny tricks with memory. But it was definitely sunny on that Saturday.

My wife had now been in labour for longer than 30 hours and we were still waiting.

Our child was determined to delay his or her arrival into the world for as long as possible, until mummy and daddy’s nerves were stretched to the point of being loose and flabby. It was giving us a tiny aperitif; a taste of how our lives would be from now on.

Finally, two weeks after due date, on the very Friday morning my wife was due to be induced, the labour started. We were to be parents imminently. Only it turned out not to be as imminent as we thought.

We arrived at the Ulster Hospital maternity unit and were asked to sit in a room and offered tea and toast. Some time later my wife was given a bed and examined. Then we were told to wait. So we waited.

As I sat there by the bed a hospital ward was as unfamiliar to me as the far side of the moon. Perhaps I’d been in a hospital five times in my life, visiting sick relatives and always hurrying out as quickly as I could. I had no idea how familiar the surroundings would become to me over the next few years.

I remember my impression of the place. One of controlled panic. Almost of wartime stoicism as doctors, nurses and midwives rushed around trying to deal with problems which were arising quicker than they could be solved.

I remember asking one midwife if this was a particularly busy day. She said it was just average.

We stayed that way right through the Friday. I suppose we were too timid and polite to raise much fuss, to add to the obvious burden.

I watched midwives start and finish their shifts. My wife was becoming more and more uncomfortable and afraid. I felt totally useless and foolish.

Eventually in the early evening a midwife came to check on my wife. She was reassuring and lovely and told us that our child would be born on that day. On the Friday. Then she left and we never saw her again.

At some point later in the night a doctor checked my wife. I could tell from the look on his face he wasn’t entirely happy but he didn’t tell us anything. A machine was attached to monitor the baby’s heartbeat.

I remember sitting there for hours watching the machine slowly blurt out a long roll of white paper with coloured lines scratched onto it. Nobody ever seemed to come to check the lines.

Late at night my wife was distressed and I finally cracked. I found a midwife and pleaded with her to be told what was going on. Could nothing be done to speed things up? My wife was given an injection and I was told that things were all fine. It was very busy and we would just have to wait.

Near midnight I was asked to leave the hospital. Men weren’t allowed to stay overnight. My wife was hysterical by now and, at first, I refused. It seemed inhumane to make me leave.

Eventually I relented rather than cause a disturbance for other patients.

I stayed the night in my car, directly outside the maternity ward. As I struggled to get some sleep I remember thinking that this was not how I imagined the best day of my life would be.

I was waiting outside the doors of the ward on Saturday morning before the birds began to sing.

I was right back at the bedside, holding her hand and whispering my useless platitudes and reassurances. There are only so many times you can tell someone ‘It’s going to be alright’ before they can reasonably tell you to ‘shut the fuck up’.

Finally, later on that morning, she was moved to her own room. Something was happening! The sun was streaming through the window of the room and onto the bed. There was a little radio and I tuned it to Radio 2. Graham Norton’s pleasant Irish lilt seemed to help in calming my wife down. I’ll always be grateful to Graham Norton for that.

Things felt a little brighter now. One of the nurses told me to take a break, to get something to eat. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that it was more than 24 hours since I’d eaten.

I left the maternity unit and moved across to the main Ulster Hospital building. I don’t know what I ate in the canteen but I remember sipping coffee and watching some of the nurses. They were having their breakfast, chatting and laughing conspiratorially with each other. The intimacy that only shared experience can bring.

I walked back towards my wife feeling brighter. I was met close to her room by a senior nurse with a serious expression who told me there was nothing to worry about. Naturally I started to panic.

The baby was now showing signs of distress. A doctor was taking blood samples from the head. All I remember about the doctor was that she was Asian. She was calm and wonderful and stayed with us until the end.

After our son was born he had little scratches on the top of his scalp for the first few months of his life where the blood was removed.

I’ve no idea about the processes used but they managed to calm the baby (a skill I still haven’t learnt).

My wife was so exhausted and distressed that she consented to an epidural. In my mind I remember asking the doctor if they should not proceed straight to a C-section now, but it may just be time adding in its own details to suit my narrative.

The epidural helped to calm my wife but the baby seemed to be deteriorating.

Finally, mercifully, a full 34 hours after labour had begun, the doctor decided my wife should have a C-section.

I have a blurry recollection of having a gown and mask thrust at me. Then I’m standing uselessly in a room.

Then I hear a cry. I see a tiny purple ball of rage which resembles nothing. My eyes look again and I see a scrotum.

‘It’s a boy!’ I try to shout but my voice is trembling. ‘It’s a boy!’

He’s covered in shit so has to be cleaned up and weighed. Then he’s wrapped in a blanket and given to me. I brace myself for a weight but he’s light as foam.

He looks at me as if everything in the world is my fault. A look I’ve grown to love. One of his little eyes is swollen. It’s been a bumpy ride.

Then I place him on mummy’s chest, his little red face sinking into the familiar warmth. They should be together. They’ve done all the hard work.

The doctors and midwives congratulate me and then get ready to move on to the next family.

But hang on! It can’t be that way. You’ve shared this experience with us, been through this journey with us. We’re linked in spirit now. You’ll have to move in with us, watch our son grow, help him to blow out his birthday candles, wipe away his tears.

Except it doesn’t work that way. The wonderful Asian doctor smiles patiently as she extricates her fingers from my grip.

And then we’re back in the ward. People start arriving with balloons and teddies but we don’t really want to see anyone. We just want to rest and be together. Like a family.

On that first day my son doesn’t make a sound. He just watches everything, taking it all in.

I eventually go home late at night, just to grab a few hours sleep. I’m starting to think ‘This is going to be alright. We can do this’.

I hear the noise before I’m even at the bedside the next morning.

He has started screaming. A screaming that once it begins, you fear it will never stop.

But hey, that’s another story for another day.

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