The day Grenouille was born was one of the best days of my life. It was a Sunday, syrupy with late-summer warmth. In the afternoon, Eldest plumped for a visit to the koi carp farm as a family outing. His Papa chose the short route, which had recently been fitted with speed bumps whose profile appeared to have been modelled on the Matterhorn. I yelped as we bounced over the first one, and even though P slowed the car, each subsequent bump felt like a blow to my lower abdomen.
At the farm, the fish swished lazily in their pools like the aquatic equivalent of tortoiseshell cats. It was too hot under the glasshouses. Even out in the carpark, the sun beat down. On the pond opposite, a swan glided in serene dignity, its wings arched over its back. Suddenly, it upended itself, feet beating furiously at the pond surface, sending a great flurry of brownish-white water high into the air and leaving its bum stuck out of the water, quivering. E pealed with delighted laughter.
Since we couldn’t join the swan in the water to cool down, we decided to move on to our local stately home, where a public footpath through beech and fir woods offered shade. The beechwood was dim and golden, and the fir trees further down the hill threw deep green shadows at the sides of a pale, sandy path. Shafts of sunlight slanted between the branches and dust motes danced up and down them. We moved slowly from one patch of shade to the next, but at the bottom, where the woods opened out into grassland, I decided I’d had enough. The ache at the base of my belly hadn’t gone away since the speed bumps episode, and now it felt like the sore place had a bowling ball pressing down on it. We toiled laboriously back up the hill. I had to stop at intervals, as the bowling ball threatened to sink right into my pelvis. Back in the car, I realised that the intermittent heavy feelings were actually contractions. I made P go home via my friend Chrissie’s house; she had promised to lend me a low bedroom chair that was a perfect nursing seat.
Chrissie was slightly surprised to see us. “I thought you weren’t due for a week or so,” she said, despatching her husband to fetch the chair down from her daughter’s bedroom, and eyeing it doubtfully as he brought it downstairs. “I’m afraid it’s a bit grubby from the kids scrambling all over it.”
“No worries, I’ll put the upholstery cleaner over it this evening. “
Chrissie inspected my middle even more doubtfully than the chair. “Do you really think you’ll have time?” she said, as a muscle-wave swept over it, visible under my clinging T-shirt.
At home, I phoned my midwife, Mary, to warn her that I might be calling on her services later that night. P sorted dinner and put E to bed while I scrubbed the upholstery shampooer all over the chair, pausing at intervals to lean heavily on the nozzle and take some deep breaths. I finished about 10pm, and P carried the chair up to our room. At half-past, I told him it was time to call Mary again.
She arrived as I was halfway up the stairs, on hands and knees and focussing very hard on my breathing. She laughed. “Well, I don’t think you called me out too early! Do you want to go up and down a few times? Stair climbing is great for getting things moving along!”
I peered round under my elbow at her. “No offence, Mary, but I think when I finally do make it to the top of these stairs, I’ll be staying put for a while. I feel like I’ve done enough up and down for now.”
G made an unfussy entrance not very long afterwards. The waters didn’t break until just before the birth, which Mary said often made things easier. I stayed crouched low on on all fours, breathing hypnotically, and G slithered down the gentle chute of Mary’s hands to land face-up between my knees, squinting lopsidedly at me. I was instantly entranced. It was so different from E’s hospital birth, where he had been whipped away before I’d even seen him, stuck under a warmer and cleaned up before I was allowed to touch him. When they brought him back, I wasn’t quite sure he was mine. I picked G up out of the puddle of birth fluids myself, the thick, purple cord between us still pulsing strongly, and Mary wrapped us both in a large, warm towel.
I didn’t know it then, but Mary was worried. For a baby who had had such an easy birth, G had a low initial Apgar, and there had been meconium in the waters. She suctioned G, to prevent meconium aspiration, and stayed with us until 8 in the morning – long after I had pushed out the placenta, G had had a first feed, I had showered while P cuddled G to his bare chest (“Get your shirt off! Babies need skin-to-skin!” said Mary) and drifted into contented sleep with G tucked up next to me. Then Mary drove straight to our GP’s and waylaid my doctor on her way to her morning surgery.
The doctor came the next day to do the newborn check. Two days after that, she came back again, accompanied by Mary, to explain that they had some concerns about G, and had made an appointment for us to see the paediatrician at the local hospital the following noon. “And,” said Mary, “I shall come with you, unless you don’t want me to.”
The next day, we dropped E off at a friend’s house for a lunchtime playdate and drove to the hospital. A dark-haired woman whose badge on a lanyard proclaimed her to be Dr. Lisa N-, paediatric registrar, clerked G in. Lisa was puzzled as to why someone hadn’t already checked G out by “walking past the end of the bed while you were on the maternity ward”.
“Er, because G was born at home.”
“Oh, I didn’t realise you had a home delivery.”
“I didn’t,” I said, rather irritated. “G had a home birth.”
“Ah, um, er, yes.” said Dr. Lisa. She turned to Mary. “And you are Granny?”
Mary smiled wickedly at her. “No, I’m Kara’s midwife. Mary Lloyd, independent midwife.”
Dr. Lisa looked still more flustered. “Oh. So did you do the delivery?”
“No. Kara gave birth and I caught the baby.”
Dr. Lisa put down her pen and looked straight at Mary. “You don’t like the term ‘delivery’ either?”
“Kara feels – and I wholly agree with her – that it’s a term that implies passivity and imposes object-status on mothers,” said Mary. “It’s terminology centred on the medical practitioner. Woman-centred language is: Mothers give birth; babies are born. If you ever have children yourself one day, I hope you’ll find you can actively give birth rather than passively be delivered. As women, none of us can afford to give our power away by using feeble words.”
Dr. Lisa opened her mouth, closed it again, looked slightly stunned. “Mmn, I can see I need to consider my vocabulary,” she said, picking up the pen again and moving on to the next lot of questions.
The paediatrician came in. Dr. Lisa presented to him: “… and Mary here was the midwife who did the home delivery…”
“I attended G’s birth!” said Mary. “You’re talking about Kara’s baby, not a pizza! Home births mean babies, home deliveries mean fast food!”
Lisa turned scarlet. “We, er, we were having a discussion about appropriate language,” she said to the paediatrician. “I think I’ve just been taught something I’m not going to forget again.”
† The alternative title for this post was going to be, Extirpating Pizza.