Throughout pregnancy I was surrounded by women who dreaded the thought of giving birth. Some of those women weren’t even pregnant yet. But I managed to avoid fearful thoughts by focusing on what my mum had told me: contractions feel like period pains (and i’ve had enough of them to know they’re manageable) and the actual birth is, really, very quick.
I also avoided people and books who, though well-intentioned, couldn’t help but slip in a negative: “it’s the most amazing thing, and you’ll be fine… but it is painful. There’s no escaping that.” All I wanted to hear was the first part; that giving birth is mind-blowing and that I’d be fine.
Because it was mind-blowing and I was fine.
And so here are some common lies, myths and misconceptions about vaginal births debunked:
1. It’s like pushing a melon through a lemon.
This metaphor is not a useful one, as a lemon doesn’t have the flexibility or stretchability that a vagina does. If you attempted to push a melon through a lemon, the lemon would break. But vaginas don’t break from childbirth – they’re fully capable of stretching out to accommodate a little baby head.
Robbie Williams said that watching his wife give birth was like watching his favourite pub burn down. Someone else described his partner’s post-birth vagina as looking like a trifle that had slipped onto the floor. These jokes make women terrified that they’ll never have ‘normal’ vaginas again.
This is not true. Granted, it might be wise to not send your partner down to the business end during the birth if he’s squeamish (Rich kept his eyes locked to mine at all times) – but once you’ve been cleaned up, the healing begins. I was swollen for a couple of days and had to take care of my episiotomy stitches, but doing lots of pelvic floor exercises – straight away – reduced swelling and pulled everything back into shape extremely fast. I’m seven weeks post birth and you’d never know a head with a 38cm circumference had exited via my nether regions. Our bodies open up to birth our baby, and close up afterwards.
Labour and giving birth is excruciatingly, unbearably painful.
Women’s bodies are designed to give birth. Our hips are wide to create space for a baby’s (malleable) head to push through the pelvis. The contractions you feel are your body preparing the birth canal for the baby to make her/his way down it – and there are lots of ways to distract yourself from the discomfort you may feel. The TENS machine worked wonders for me, gas and air also worked a dream – and then if you need more relief (I did), there are other options. I had an epidural after about 36 hours of contractions. Other women use hypnobirthing, different breathing techniques, birthing pools, movement. Whatever feels right at the time. And midwives are amazing – they’ll give you options before and during the birth. It’s not unbearable. It’s a relatively short timeframe. And just remember: you get a baby at the end of it.
Giving birth zaps sex from every relationship.
You might need to be a bit more imaginative about finding the time to have sex with a newborn baby, but physically – there’s no reason you can’t get back into it as soon as you feel ready. I was told that it would really hurt. It didn’t. Everything tightens up a bit but if you’re gentle, take your time and stop if it’s not happening for you – you’ll soon get back into the swing of things. Move at your own pace and enjoy it. Of course, it will feel different for every woman but one thing’s for sure: having an open mind will relax your body, and that’s the most important thing.
It hurts to do a ‘number two’ after an episiotomy
As above – being scared about going to the toilet post birth won’t help. Relax your mind, know that nothing will go wrong if you do a poo and go to the toilet just as you always have. I was prescribed laxatives by a doctor but I chose not to take them as I didn’t want them to interfere with breastfeeding so, instead, I ate LOADS of fruit when I got home (two mangoes, a pineapple, five apples, raisins, a couple of bananas – every day) which softened my stools and going to the loo was no problem. The only problem, initially, was that I was quite tense after the doctor telling me lies about how it would feel. You needn’t be – I assure you. But a good tip is to hold a pad against your lady bits and apply some pressure if you do feel concerned.
There are so many more bullshit stories that people share but you should just ignore them if they’re making you feel worried about giving birth. So remember: you’ll be in great hands (and there will be lots of hands: midwives, doctors, anaesthetists are all available if you’re having a hospital birth), your body is designed to give birth and you’ll have the most amazing baby at the end of it. It was one of the best days of my life giving birth to Joni (see the slightly blue-looking, squidgy baby in the photo above). It wasn’t what might be considered a smooth birth but I kept an open mind, was well looked after, had an excellent birth partner and look forward to doing it all again.
Baby. Breasts are for babies, not lads. Lads may like them, but babies need them for nourishment. And yet our Western fetishising of boobs means that breastfeeding mums are stigmatised; they’re made to feel as if they’re doing something naughty.
While pregnant with Joni (my firstborn, six-week-old baby) I was sat in a cafe. A woman walked in, pulled out her entire breast, pushed it into her infant’s mouth and walked up to the counter. Now that i’m a breastfeeding mum, I think: wow – that takes some skill (and courage) but at the time I thought: is that really necessary? Why not just sit in the corner, drape a scarf from your shoulder over your baby’s head and feed her discreetly?
However, I now get why she did that – and fully endorse it. Covering a baby’s head in a scarf not only upsets the already hot, sweaty baby but it also means that the mother can’t observe the baby as she feeds. Keeping a muslin covering both the breast and the baby is quite an art. And all so that the men (and women) around you don’t feel uncomfortable.
That woman got her breast out because her baby was hungry and newborns will NOT wait to be fed – when they realise they’re hungry, they need milk immediately. So finding a muslin, positioning herself, latching the baby on and making sure they were both covered up – so as not to offend – would have been a faff, probably resulting in a screaming baby. And the reason she walked across the cafe is because she wanted to order a drink. If her baby was settling down for an hour-long feed, she was going to get thirsty. There was no other option.
As a society, we frown upon women openly breastfeeding. Women who dare to do so are accused of being exhibitionists, of trying to flirt with the men around them or of showing off. But in most other cultures, feeding a baby milk from your breast is the norm and so needn’t be hidden. We’re not a prudish nation when it comes to baring flesh if it’s on display for men to gawp at – and we shouldn’t be in a breastfeeding context, either.
I was in the supermarket a couple of weeks ago and Joni started pursing her lips, signalling her hunger. I decided to finish my shop then walk home to feed her. Except as I mentioned earlier: baby doesn’t wait for mum to be ready because she’s not yet a rational being. And so she started crying softly, and then loudly and then she was WAILING. People were looking at me like I was an incapable mother. So I dumped my trolley, found a seat by the toilets, got my tit out and shoved it in her mouth. She was instantly appeased but the people around me were appalled.
I was frowned upon for having a crying baby and I was frowned upon for stopping my baby from crying.
Many of the women within close proximity were wearing burkas, as there’s a large muslim community in Walthamstow. So here were two ends of the spectrum: these women completely covered – with only their eyes showing – and then me, exposing a part of a breast, as well as arms, legs etc. Perhaps each of us making the other feel uncomfortable.
The Qur’an encourages women to breastfeed and within female only groups, behind clothes doors, muslim women often breastfeed openly. But in public they’re told to dress modestly and breastfeed discreetly so I wondered what they made of my behaviour.
Before Joni came along, I didn’t understand anything about breastfeeding in public and how taboo it is, how difficult it is to do discreetly – and comfortably – and about the stick (perhaps unspoken, but we’re sensitive to every glare) women get for feeding their baby with their breasts. So I get that other people feel the same. But it’s high time we made breastfeeding public again and dropped this limited view on what boobs should be used for. Enjoy them during sex, if that’s your thing, but let mums enjoy using them to feed their babies; in private, as well as in public – if they choose to.
Sometimes I want to go to my room and feed with no one else around, and at other times I’m happy to be around friends and family. Then there are times when we’re out – because mums, like everyone else, do need to leave the house – and Joni needs feeding. Whether I do it behind a cloth or openly, in a park, supermarket or café shouldn’t matter to anyone else because these are my tits and right now: they’re for feeding.
So get over it and cast your judgmental gaze elsewhere. Maybe on the woman with the hoiked up cleavage who has hers out because she wants you to look – and gives a shit about what you think.
I was sat topless on the sofa on Wednesday – babe sucking on one boob, electric expresser on the other churning out breast milk. The repetitive hum of the machine reminded Rich of his days milking cows with his dad. He was laughing. I found it less funny. “I’ve turned into fucking a cow!” I exclaimed.
But at least i’ll be able to go out for dinner without my baby, I reassured myself. So I finished giving Joni her milk from my right breast, and filled a plastic bottle with milk from my left breast to decant into little milk storage pots (laboriously washed and sterilised) which I labelled with the date and lined up in the freezer.
I wondered how Rich felt that night as he walked to the tube station to meet his friends in Hoxton. Would he replay the image of me looking like a human milk machine, lamenting the days when i’d be dolled up beside him? Or would he cast the image from his mind and focus instead on the cold lagers he’d be sinking, while discussing anything but babies with his pals. (There’s a third option, of course: that he’d lovingly recall my efforts to both nurse my baby AND produce spare milk so that I could be all his for one-nite-only. But I’m no idiot).
And it was then I realised how much pressure western society puts on new parents to quickly ‘regain independence’. Parenting author (who has no children) Gina Ford tells new mums to have sex two weeks after giving birth to make sure their relationship doesn’t turn to shit. Women are encouraged to think about returning to work immediately by arranging 10 ‘keep in touch’ days during maternity leave. And we’re all told to make sure we have a life away from the baby.
But why is this? Can you imagine an African tribeswoman expressing milk so she could have some time away from her young? Or a cavewoman dumping the baby on a friend so she could join her man for a romantic candlelit dinner? It wouldn’t happen. And that wouldn’t lead to them falling out of love – because there’s no greater bond than creating life together.
How have we moved so far from this innate need to stay glued to our babies – and to be supported, not resented, by society for doing so? And when did we stop listening to instinct, and adopt this insular, western method of parenting?
In Kate Evans’ The Food of Love, she discusses human beings as a tribal species:
‘…Just as surely as fish swim in shoals and wildebeest run in herds, we have evolved to live in a close-knit, extended family group. There is a common saying in many countries that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, and if we were living as we used to live, at least twenty other people would be actively helping you and you partner to look after this baby.’
While I’m perplexed by this urgent need so many of us feel to abandon the baby as soon as possible for some ‘me time’ – I certainly advocate calling in help. So I take comfort in Evans’ tribal attitude towards parenting. My mum, dad, sister and close friends have all held Joni while i’ve rested, they’ve helped with cooking and cleaning and supported me emotionally. They’ve been amazing. But i’ve been a few metres from Joni at all times because she needs me. She’s distressed when i’m not there. And that’s because a mere five weeks ago she was nestled in my womb, oblivious to the big world outside where you have to wriggle and cry and poke out your tongue to indicate your needs (thirst, hunger, tiredness, nappy change, wind).
Babies need their mothers. And mothers need their babies. So the next time I was sat feeling like a milk machine, questioning my motives for all this unnatural pumping, I decided to pull the plug. I’m not saying i’ll never express again, or that i’ll not leave Joni’s side until she’s grown up. But well meaning friends and family offering to take Joni out while I sleep, or to babysit, will hopefully put those offers on hold until she’s a bit older, because right now instinct tells me that we need to be together – and instinct overrides all parenting manuals, advice from seasoned parents, and suggestions from society about how a new mother should behave.
Everyone has their own ideas about parenting and I fully respect other women’s choices. The only way to cope with the hugely demanding job of parenting is to decide what works best for you and stick to it – regardless of what other people think. That will make both mum and baby happy, and that’s the only thing that matters.
In bygone years, parents consulted mammoth medical tomes for answers to their anxious first-time-parent questions. Now we use the internet. So throughout my pregnancy, I visited many a pregnancy/parenting site looking for reassurance.
One aspect of these sites that I’m not down with is the acronyms. If you log on to a forum right now and ask any pregnancy question (ie. methods for naturally inducing labour) – you’ll be met with an array of personal accounts detailing how women tried to speed their labours along, and within these accounts they’ll casually drop in DS and DD.
What’s a DS? I thought on first reading – and what’s a DD? I soon realised that the D and S stood for daughter and son but I had to google the first initial as I couldn’t work it out. That’s because it stands for ‘darling’ or ‘dear’. And that would never occur to me because WHY WOULD ANYONE REFER TO THEIR CHILDREN AS DARLING SON/ DAUGHTER???
I vowed never to use these ridiculous acronyms and continued to read the badly-written (but sometimes reassuring and useful) comments feeds, silently judging everyone who dropped in a ‘DS’ or ‘DD’. And that’s pretty much everyone.
But then I discovered an even better one. And not because the acronym is new to me but rather because the information it’s teamed with makes it hil-ah-ree-us. It’s TMI (too much information). My favourite example was this…
Person A asks the Mumsnet community if sex really does kickstart labour. Person B says that she doesn’t really feel up for sex and is surprised that other people do – isn’t it awkward? She asks. Person C responds: Soz for TMI but don’t you or hubby have hands? Don’t need to be penetration.
And so it’s in this context – or similar – that TMI is utilised. Someone will discuss the consistency of their discharge but will first prepare you with: sorry for TMI! [emoticon] but noticed (insert colour) discharge and want to know if it’s normal.
(For a selection of gems, check out this Netmums feed – these laydees do not hold back. Saying that, I was told by a qualified midwife that doggy-style would get things going. No one holds back when it comes to pregnancy/birth/parenting.)
Lastly, the partner of the comment-leaver will almost always be referred to as OH (other half), DH (yes – darling husband) or just good old ‘hubby’. And chocolate, which the entire Mumsnet community seems to crave during pregnancy, is ‘choccy’.
And so there you have it. A quick introduction to popular pregnancy and parenting acronyms and abbreviations from one of those tedious forum-users who makes use of other women’s contributions, disses their grammar and never leaves comments.
Just after midnight on Friday 13th June I went into early labour. As I couldn’t sleep, I walked around upstairs and while standing on the landing, noticed a full moon illuminating the dark sky. It filled me with hope, as I knew this meant the birth was imminent.
The full moon landing on Friday 13th is rare – it won’t happen again until 2049. And the next June full moon on Friday 13th will be in 2098.
I was pleased, as 13 is a good number for me and Rich: we had an amazing year living at number 13 in Frome – it was during this year that we got married – and again, we’re living at number 13 in Walthamstow. This is where the baby was conceived.
I tried to sleep but was too excited. A few hours later my sister messaged me to tell me that more babies are born on full moons than any other day of the year. She didn’t yet know that I’d been into hospital for a check and was in labour. Or that I’d overheard a midwife say that she couldn’t believe it but the labour ward was full.
I remained in labour all of Friday. And Saturday, which was also my birthday – the sweet midwives found this very exciting and kept giving me the best rooms and special treatment – and then on Fathering Sunday at half past midnight our long-awaited daughter arrived.
June full moons were named the ‘strawberry moon’ by native North American Algonquin tribes, as it signalled that the strawberries were ready to be picked. Strawberries didn’t grow in Europe so they called it the ‘rose moon’ instead. As our little girl began her journey into the world with the rose moon, and because Joni Mitchell is my favourite poet and singer songwriter, we’ve named her Joni Rose Moon Ridout.
I love that my sister was part of this journey too – with her psychic thoughts and suggestion that we incorporate the moon into Joni’s name.
When Joni Rose is 84, she’ll celebrate her birthday with a rose moon shining bright. Maybe she’ll eat some sweet strawberries while listening to Joni Mitchell, gazing up at the sky.
I wrote ‘an open letter to my housemate the party animal’ for The Debrief – recalling my bygone days of hedonism when I was living in a shared house with girls who liked to party, as well as the period after when I’d given up the all-night parties. Read it here.
I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post in defence of Kirstie Allsopp’s comment about women prioritising procreation during their fertile years. Read it here.
I was bathing under the Sicilian sky
when a white feather floated down and caught my eye.
“It’s an omen!” I exclaimed, and from then on I knew
that the following month I’d be carrying you.
Reproduction is science and we know how it works –
but there’s an element of mystery too.
And so even those who’d normally damn the spiritual world
might suddenly notice ‘signs’ coming through.
When we try to nurture nature – to make it go our way –
we realise the magnanimity of this quest.
Because the earth; its energy and our chemistry
will be manipulated by neither wit nor zest.
Both fans of superstition and the non-believing mass
can grow anxious and so open their eyes wide
to any indication of things going their way –
appearing as cryptic symbols; in disguise.
So your conception was marked by a fluffy falling feather
and now I’m desperate to see your face and to hear your baby blether.
That’s why I took great solace in the petal that just fell
from a bunch of pure white roses – it’s a sign, I can tell.