THE STORY MY mother tells me goes like this: I was late, not too late, but late enough to make the doctors talk about inducing me. There was a full moon and she lay in the hospital bed, the silvery light spilling across her. She communed with me, that is what she says, willing me to come out now, before the induction, while the doctors were out of the room, the nurses were busy elsewhere, while it was just her and me.
"I sent you messages," she says, "and you listened."
Because, sure enough, out I came, quickly, easily, slipping out in the moonlight, and she held me up in delight.
The nurses came back first.
"Doctor will be angry," they said, and they looked at my mother in disapproval. "Whatever will we tell him?"
I do not know how they explained the turn of events to Doctor when he arrived the next morning, too late to be of any use. My mother does not take the story any further than my birth. In fact, I do not think we have ever talked about what it was like when she first took me or my brothers home as small babies she had to care for. The story is confined to that moment in hospital, and the point is that we did it ourselves, together. We had a special link, a power. We beat the system. And how good was I? Capable of hearing, understanding and obeying my mother even before I'd come out of the womb.
This secret sense of superiority was only reinforced by the tales of my brothers' births, which went wrong. Jonathon shot out too fast, after an unnecessary episiotomy, and the doctor didn't catch him. Slippery quick, he landed straight on the floor, suffering a haemorrhage in the brain. Joshua was almost three months premature. My mother was rolling drunk on a pure alcohol drip when she delivered him. He, too, almost didn't survive.
But me? I did it perfectly. And I carried that knowledge around with me, slightly smug with all that I felt it meant.
As I grew up, I learnt, as everyone learns, that childbirth is not a matter of a baby just slipping out, but despite this, I still believed that I had somehow managed to arrive in the world with particular ease.
WHEN I BECAME pregnant, I found it impossible to shelter in the false hope of a delivery like the one my mother had described, and the reality of childbirth made me afraid. As soon as the pregnancy was confirmed, I bought the books recommended by my doctor. I started reading them on the bus on the way home, almost immediately flipping to the end sections on delivery. I skipped over the parts that dealt with possible complications; this was not what was making me scared. I had a faith that the birth would be normal; I had no faith in my ability to withstand the pain.
This was going to be the first great physical stress I had faced and I became obsessed with confronting the unknown through preparation. It seemed like the only solid handle I could grasp. My anxiety about being a mother (which was real and terrifying) slipped into the background. I could not even bring myself to contemplate it: I would deal with that after I had the baby; the immediate matter at hand was how to make sure that I coped with the birth.
The first thing I did was book Andrew and myself in for a tour of the hospital. We had a choice, the birth centre or the labour ward. Most people I knew opted for the birth centre. They wanted drug-free births. They wanted minimum intervention. I agreed with them in theory, but now that I was the one who had to deliver, I was not so sure. Because I did not believe that I was capable of doing this on my own, despite the fact that so many women had and did, I wanted to know that medical assistance was right there should I need it.
We went to the labour ward first.
The room was clean, fresh and modern, with pale wood furnishings. There was even a beanbag in a corner, and a shower. Any hospital contraptions were safely hidden away, out of sight, but they were there, revealed to us by the midwife as she opened doors, pulled down levers and slid back fake walls.
"This looks fine," I said to Andrew.
He suggested that we should just have a quick glance at the alternative but I had no interest.
"I want to go here," I said.
"But how can you know this is right unless you see the other one?" he asked.
I just did.
Yet I still felt embarrassed every time I corrected friends who made the assumption that I would, of course, be going to the birth centre. I hastened to justify my choice, each time emphasising the beanbag and the presence of the midwives, who had assured me of their primary role in delivery.
NEXT, WE BOOKED into classes. there were thirteen of us, five other couples and me, Andrew and Virginia. She was going to be our support person and I wanted to include her in everything. I had also just assumed that support people came to classes.
As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, I could see everyone waiting for an explanation for this arrangement. Three of us, and who was who? How did we interlock? I dreamt up stories, increasingly implausible explanations for our presence. I was a surrogate, carrying their child. I had been having an affair with Andrew. I had fallen pregnant. Virginia would only take him back if he owned up to his mistake, and she was there to see that he did. Virginia and I were having the baby; Andrew had simply supplied the sperm. The permutations multiplied. The truth was infinitely more dull.
"Good, good," Carolyn said, smiling all inclusively at Virginia as she explained why she was there.
Next, we had to talk about how we felt about the pregnancy. I looked at Virginia helplessly, apologetically, but in her spirit of inclusiveness, Carolyn altered the question for her – she could tell the class how she felt about being a support person, and around the room we went again.
It seemed that everyone saw this time in their lives as a momentous experience, wonderful, blissful, joyous; the men were perhaps a little less effusive but their response was still primarily positive. I wished I could say the same. I wanted to lie. But it felt too large, too important to lie about. I needed to speak the truth.
I was ambivalent, I said, aware that I wasn't being as honest as I would have liked. I had wanted to be pregnant, but now that it had happened – and I found myself unable to complete the sentence. The truth was I feared that it was just my body, my hormones, that had wanted this, and now that this desire had been satisfied, my head could take over again. I was not only afraid, I could not think of a single intellectually satisfying reason why anyone would want to have a child. I looked at the ground. I didn't dare say how I really felt out loud.
It was Andrew's turn next, and I waited for him to fill my lack of joy with something that was a little more akin to the other responses we had heard.
"I feel sad," he confessed.
Carolyn waited; her eyes were kind.
"Sad to say goodbye to my old life, I guess." He searched for a better explanation. "I've been going through a kind of grieving. For who I was, I suppose."
I knew this. But I didn't want to hear it uttered in front of others.
"And I find Georgia difficult," he added.
I could only look at him, mouth open, and will him to shut up.
"She's just been so negative about it all."
"Good, good," Carolyn said. Her eyes met mine and she quickly looked away again. "No, it's good you said it all."
It was Virginia's turn next. She was excited she told the class, and a little bit afraid, she added. "About how I'll cope with the blood and everything."
I turned my gaze back to the ground, wishing we had never come.
ON THE WAY home, Andrew and I fought. It was inevitable. It had been fine for me to speak the truth, so why hadn't it been fine for him? I had no rational answer. I just wished that one of us had been able to lie, to create the fiction that I wanted to be the reality.
As my pregnancy progressed, I visited the hospital more regularly. I had endless tests and most of the time I was completely unaware of what they were for. The check-ups seemed pointless, irrelevant. I was not concerned about the pregnancy itself. It was the birth that worried me and I barely listened to anything the midwife had to say, unless it concerned the end event.
A few months in, she told me I had placenta praevia.
"Which basically means you may be looking at a caesarean. We won't know until you are closer to full-term," she reassured me. "And more often than not, you find that everything has moved around to its proper place."
When I went home, I cried. I told Andrew, and he was sympathetic. But there was a part of me that welcomed the possible escape from the potential horror of hours of pain.
Carolyn soon closed the door on that one.
As I told the class my news, she listened sympathetically, then, choosing her words carefully so as not to imply that there was any right or wrong way of giving birth, she talked about the difficulties of caesareans, about the pain that can follow, the problems women face in sitting, driving, breast feeding after the operation.
"It can make the recovery from the birth process harder," she said, and as she spoke I began to truly feel sorry for myself. There was, it seemed, no way out.
She had a couple of videos for us that night. One showing a birth in a spa tub, the other where "everything went wrong".
She dimmed the lights and we sat in a circle.
The first was the water birth. Ambient music played in the background as an entire family gathered around a woman who rocked and sang in the tub. Even her groans sounded relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, I closed my eyes as she actually delivered the baby, only opening them again when she held her child in her arms.
Carolyn turned on the lights. What did we all think? How did we feel?
"Amazing," one woman said.
Beautiful, erotic, incredible. I listened to their adjectives, and once again found myself unable to lie.
I hated watching it. I hated the blood. It disturbed me, it only made me anxious about what I was about to face. "I just don't see anything constructive in watching someone else's pain. I don't want to know."
"Fair enough," Carolyn said.
The second birth took place in a labour ward. Pethidine had slowed down the woman's dilation, the foetus was in distress, doctors and nurses rushed back and forth, forceps were used, the woman screamed in agony, and the blood was everywhere.
This time we were asked to talk about the two experiences in comparison to each other.
Of course, the second was more disturbing. I had barely opened my eyes. But basically I didn't want to watch either of the videos. I had hated the water birth and the terrible ambient music, and I had hated the hospital birth. I didn't want to be going through this. I wished I could hide in a corner and deny what was happening.
It was Andrew's turn to comment next. He thought the comparison between the two films was unfair. "I mean the production values in the second video were so much worse than the first. The lighting, the music, the whole lot."
The class laughed.
I looked at Andrew and wondered how we managed to turn ourselves into the evening's amusement each time we came.
"Putting that aside, what about the actual birth experience?" Carolyn's patience never seemed to waver.
"Well it's just pain," Andrew said. "You go through it and then it's over." He turned to me. "But then I have a high threshold for pain. Georgia doesn't."
"What about when you had kidney stones?" I asked him on the way home, remembering the night I had rushed him to hospital after waking to find him on the floor, screaming and crying.
"But that was agony," he said.
"And childbirth isn't?"
Of course it was. He just knew I didn't cope well. He wasn't criticising me, he rushed to add. It was just the way it was.
I started going to yoga classes in the hope that the physical preparation would make the birth a little easier. I spent a lot of time watching the other women, the new arrivals who barely showed any signs of pregnancy, lying next to the old hands who only had a matter of days to go. We were like lemmings walking towards the edge of the cliff. I was somewhere in the middle and that was where I wanted to stay, but there was no way of halting this horrible progression towards being the most pregnant one, the one who didn't turn up next week, the one who just disappeared.
"What's the pain like?" I asked a friend who had a two-year-old.
"Incredible," she said.
"No. What's it like? What kind of pain? Like knives, like being kicked, like what?"
"I don't know," she said. "It's like nothing you've ever experienced before. It's like being on the bow of a ship riding through the storm, crashing through the waves, and all you can do is go through it."
In classes, we got a little more technical. We discussed the three stages; pre-labour, transition and third stage.
Pre-labour can go on for days, Carolyn warned us. It was common for first-time mothers to rush to the hospital at the first signs only to be sent home. She told us about timing our contractions, about ringing the hospital if we were at all anxious, about staying at home for as long as we could, about having our bags packed, taking food and drink for the support people. "And music, aromatherapy oils, whatever you want."
We talked about the dilation of the cervix, how far it needed to go before delivery was possible, how close our contractions would be and about moving into transition.
"That's when it's hard," she said. "When it comes on like the clappers. When you feel all at sea. That's usually when women scream for some kind of pain relief, for anything to get them out of the agony."
And then there was the third stage, the pushing.
She gave us a demonstration, a run through of the sounds we would find ourselves making. An actor, and a mother of two, it was an amazing performance. I listened, fascinated and vaguely embarrassed, as she moved from the occasional groan to screams of agony that were so close together they might have been one, shifting finally into a deep, guttural grunt.
At the end, Andrew clapped.
MEANWHILE AT YOGA, I had suddenly become the second most pregnant woman in the room. In the final stages of our class, the one woman who was closer to the edge of the cliff than I was bent over in pain. The teacher asked her if she was all right.
"It was a contraction," she said. She had started having them the night before and then they had stopped. She was sure she would be fine.
But at the end of the lesson, I watched her attempting to put on her shoes, grimacing with an agony she could not hide.
Was her partner home? the teacher asked.
He wasn't, but he would be back soon.
As the only other person there, I felt I had to give her a lift, to offer to stay with her until he returned. She accepted immediately.
We didn't even know each other's names. In the car we tried to make conversation, but as we pulled up at her house, she apologised for not being able to talk.
"Do you think I should take you straight to the hospital?" I asked.
She shook her head.
Her husband was an auctioneer. He was at an auction. She called up his number on her mobile and then passed it to me as another contraction began. I left a message, telling him to get home as soon as he could; it looked like his wife was in labour.
Inside her flat, her hospital bag was packed and ready by the front door. She paced the room, managing to tell me that she had hot packs and that she wanted one, as a particularly powerful contraction subsided. I found them in the microwave and dutifully heated one, although I had no idea how hot it should be.
"Would you like a drink?" I asked, remembering Carolyn telling us that women could get very dehydrated during labour.
She just shook her head, her eyes showing almost no registration of my presence, and she leant forward, hands against the wall, swaying back and forth as she moaned.
I took the pack over to her and gingerly placed it on the small of her back. I was no good in this situation, totally unable to just step in and take charge, completely ill-equipped to know what I should and shouldn't be doing for her.
I attempted to rub her shoulders and she told me that she was OK, that the hot pack was fine. I stepped back. I had flashes of the videos we had watched, the blood and the agony, and I could only reassure myself that she didn't seem to be that far along.
"Let me know if there's anything I can do," I said.
She pointed to the hot pack on her back and I took it off and reheated it, relieved to have some kind of task.
The next contraction was even more powerful. I was worried. "I think I should get you to hospital, or at least call them," I said. "I can ring your husband and get him to meet us there."
She told me that she was OK, she was sure it would be a while yet.
The phone rang and she seized it. I stepped back so that she could talk in private and as she hung up, she told me that it was him, her husband, he wasn't far, and her look of relief was almost matched by my own.
When his car pulled up in the drive, there was no longer any question about getting straight up to the birth centre. "That's everything?" I asked, pointing to the bag, and she nodded.
I picked it up and thrust it in her husband's hands as soon as he opened the door.
"I'll get going," I said, as she screamed once more.
He thanked me and I wished them both good luck.
He almost hadn't made it back in time. I had been closer to delivering a baby than I had realised. At the next yoga class, the teacher told us all that the woman (whose name she also didn't know) had given birth ten minutes after arriving at the hospital.
"Yoga," she told us proudly. "It does wonders for you."
ALTHOUGH I HAD felt useless when I was there, I was relieved that the pain hadn't been quite as horrific as I had been expecting. Actually being there was not as bad as watching the video. The experience had eased my anxiety a little and, as the class began, with me now the latest lemming to reach the cliff edge, I began to feel, for the first time, that I was perhaps capable of dealing with this after all.
It was also our last birth class. I had my final ultrasound earlier in the day and found that my placenta had moved. There was no need for a caesarean. I did not know whether I was relieved or disappointed.
Carolyn was pleased for me. It was wonderful news, she said, and I agreed with her because I felt that was what I should do.
We sat in our circle once again and she told us that we were going to devote this class to discussing "after the birth". What would our lives be like with a new baby?
We plotted out a day, slotting in sleeps, feeds, an attempt to stroll to the park, shopping, making dinner; the clock she had drawn up on the whiteboard rapidly filled with a day marked by exhaustion, frustration and boredom.
"And that is why women scream at their partners to get home from work," she said as she looked at our faces. "And why babies get thrust into their father's arms the minute they enter the door."
I didn't want to know. Just as I was coming to terms with my anxiety about the birth, I was being asked to face another fear. I had to take this one step at a time.
Carolyn had advised us to write out a birth plan and to give it to our partners. I tried but it seemed pointless. The possible permutations of events overwhelmed me, and in the midst of this, I was the great unknown. I had no idea how I would cope or what I would need. Planning was ludicrous.
"Just let me have drugs if I want them, and look after me," I eventually said to Andrew.
We discussed what we would need at the hospital. I didn't want candles, oils, music or cameras. "No photos," I kept insisting, until eventually Andrew promised he wouldn't point a lens in my direction until after the birth.
Virginia said she would bring food, in case she and Andrew got hungry.
Andrew said he would get a supply of water and fruit juice.
I read up about birthing positions and tried to see what felt right for my now heavily pregnant body. I became obsessed with breathing. Everyone talked about it, but I couldn't find anything that adequately explained what they meant. Was there a special trick that I was not privy to? Were there right ways and wrong ways of taking in and letting out air during each of the stages Carolyn had described? I panicked, certain I was missing out on some secret that would make the pain that little bit more bearable. No one seemed able to answer me.
My due date came and went. Everyone asked me if I was getting fed up. "You must just want it out," they would say, and I would agree, although the truth was I would have been quite happy to stay just as I was.
AND THEN, FOR the first time, my panic shifted into a new territory. Suddenly my worry was no longer just centred on myself, it had turned towards this unborn child. I was not anxious about anything going wrong in the delivery (I still had some strange faith that everything would be smooth); I was worried about what she would be like as a person. My brother's schizophrenia, my father's terrible depressive bouts, Andrew's father's suicide – they all came crashing down on me and I was afraid. Would she (I knew it was a she) also have a fragile place within the world? Would she be unable to cope? Would I (and again, it turned back to me alarmingly quickly) have to witness what my mother had witnessed with Jonathon's illness? I wouldn't be strong enough.
That night, we went out to dinner. I acted as though I wasn't pregnant, eating oysters, soft cheeses and drinking champagne. I was so far gone now, I couldn't see what damage any of these forbidden items could do. I wanted one night of pretending I was the person I had once been, my own body inhabited by no one but myself.
The next morning, I went into labour.
I woke at 7.30 with terrible stomach cramps. As I vomited, I remembered Carolyn telling us that this would probably happen. I ran a bath because I thought I would be comfortable, but I couldn't get in, the pain was too strong.
I heard Andrew call Virginia, I heard him tell her that she had better get round to our house but, no, there wasn't a rush; Carolyn had told us this could go on for hours.
In between contractions I asked Andrew to pile up pillows for me and I leant across them. I was in the lounge room, the sun streaming through the windows and I remember thinking what an extraordinarily glorious day it was. I also remember thinking that this pain was indescribable; it suddenly made sense why no one had been able to tell me what it was like.
Virginia arrived. I told them both to leave me. I wanted to be alone. I could hear them at the other end of the house, whispering, trying to time my contractions, unsure as to what they should be doing.
"Call the hospital," I said.
Andrew did. He told them I'd just gone into labour, that we'd probably be a while and then he hung up.
"Get me up there," I said.
"Not yet," he told me. "Remember all that Carolyn said about pre-labour."
I did. I was terrified. If this was pre-labour, there was no way I was going to be able to cope with labour. I had been right. I couldn't deal with the pain. I just couldn't.
"Call the hospital again," I said. I was panicking now.
He did as I asked. I could hear him saying that my contractions were coming faster – that, yes, he would bring me up.
"I can't get down to the car," I screamed at Virginia. "I can't get down to the car."
Somehow, she helped me down the stairs, somehow she held me up in the street while we waited for Andrew.
I lay across the back seat, absolutely terrified now, screaming at them to drive faster in the few moments I had between each contraction.
I can't do this. I can't do this. The words were embedded in every breath I took. Virginia pulled up out the front and Andrew took me to reception.
I shouldn't be screaming this much, I thought. I shouldn't be in this much pain.
In the lift, a doctor told me to try to calm myself, that I would be fine, just take a deep breath, he said, and I looked at him as though he were insane, but I was unable to utter a coherent word in response.
Something was wrong, something was wrong. For it to be this bad this soon, something was wrong.
The midwives took us to a room and told me to put on a gown and to give them a urine sample.
"I can't. I can't," I just kept screaming those words, holding the small plastic jar in one hand and the gown in the other.
"Don't," Andrew told me, and the liberation of suddenly being told that I didn't have to do what I was being asked to do, that all rules could be thrown out the window, was overwhelming. I threw the jar and gown across the room and then suddenly I heard myself grunting, the sound deep and guttural, totally unlike any noise I had ever uttered before.
The midwives were in immediately.
"We're having a baby."
I heard the words in total shock, as they asked me whether I wanted to squat.
"No," I commanded. "Put me up there. Up on that bench. Lift my legs."
It was only one more push. As Virginia came into the room, weighed down by bags of food and water, Odessa was born.
"THERE," THE MIDWIFE said. "Look you have a baby." She placed her in my arms, and I wanted only to cry out. "Don't. Just give me a moment. I just need one moment." But I didn't utter the words. How could I? You weren't allowed to say that. I had to take her. That was what I was meant to do. As I held her in my arms, as she sucked ferociously, the pain cutting through the shock of the birth, I looked at her for one brief moment. She was big, healthy and strong.
You are going to be OK, I thought.
She was. She was all right.
But I could feel myself slipping away.
My months of anxiety about the birth were no more than they had ever been, a waste. It was over and I had coped because that was what I had to do. Odessa had shot out, just as I had done (although my mother had taken care to phrase it far more gently) and I was completely unprepared. My body had known how to deal with birth, but I did not know how to deal with this child. I was going to fall apart. I knew it as instantly as that.
The midwife took Odessa out of my arms and gave her to Andrew, and as I looked at him, holding her, crying with happiness, I was aware that somehow, in the ferocity of what had just passed, I had shattered.
"Hold her," I told him. "I need to have a shower."
And I pulled myself up, slowly, and left them – Virginia, Andrew, the midwives and the baby.
"Look," I could hear Andrew saying, "she has a tooth."
Then the noise of the shower drowned out their talk as the water drummed hard against the tiles.
"AND THEN WHAT happened?" Odessa asks me now, whenever we talk about her birth.
The story I have always told her goes something like this: "I woke in the morning, and I knew you were coming. But we almost didn't get to the hospital in time. You were almost born in the car."
She loves that bit.
"We rushed straight in, and ten minutes later out you came, so fast."
"And I had a tooth," she says.
"And you had a tooth."
"But no one believed it."
"But then they came and saw."
I show her the photos Andrew took straight after she was born and I tell her how we all held her, one by one. Me first, then Andrew, then Virginia. I tell her how she was bathed, how she screamed and how the midwife wrapped her tight.
When she was about four, she asked me if it hurt.
I didn't know what she meant.
"Having a baby."
"A bit," I told her.
Two weeks later, she told us that she had changed her mind. She didn't want to have a child. Not anymore.
"Because it hurts."
"It doesn't hurt that much," I told her, the words slipping out before I could even think about them.
She didn't believe me.
"It's true," I said, suddenly unable to let it go. "There's a bit of pain. But it's nothing. And then look what you have at the end." I pointed at her.
She refused to accept my lies. "No," she said, and she kept saying it for several weeks. "I don't want to have a child."
She was only four, but still I didn't let it go. Every time she mentioned the pain, I told her another lie, until eventually she gave in. "OK," she finally told me. "I'll have one child. Just one."
I listened to myself in dismay, wondering why I, who had been so afraid of childbirth, was now denying that fear in her. I did not want her to think she had caused me any pain. I also love her with an intensity that stuns me. Although it took me some months, I finally came to delight in having a child; I finally came to adore her. And I am doing what my mother used to do to me. I am trying to tell her that no matter how difficult it may be it is worth it, and you should never choose not to do it because of fear alone.
Daughters write about their mothers, but mothers do not often write about their daughters, and now I know why. I could not tell her the truth about childbirth and I worry about writing of my ambivalence in being pregnant and my despair after I gave birth to her. I fear she will misinterpret my words. I am anxious she will doubt the truth of the love I now have for her and she will think she was not wanted. But I also remember how alone I felt straight after her birth and how desperately I clung to the few words of other women who also talked about how difficult they found the transition to motherhood.
ABOUT FOUR WEEKS after I went into labour, everyone in Carolyn's class had had their babies. She organised a reunion. She did it for every class. We were to bring some food and meet at her house.
I had not been coping. I had just got out of hospital after being sent back there with mastitis. I had blacked out with a fever and was admitted. I was put on an antibiotic drip and lay in the bed with Odessa next to me in a crib. As I begged the midwives to help me settle her, I wondered how low I would have to go before someone would rescue me. On the third night, I rang Andrew at 4am and pleaded with him to come and stay. He slept on the floor next to my bed, exhausted and irritable. He did not understand. This was the best time of his life. Why didn't I feel the same, why was I crying all the time?
I felt I had made a terrible mistake. I shouldn't have had a child. I couldn't do this. I wanted to say it out loud. I wanted to warn everyone. "Don't be fooled," I wanted to say. "I'm here to tell you that this is not joy, it is not bliss," knowing that no words were adequate enough to convey the desolation I felt. Each time Odessa cried, I panicked. I did not know her, how could I comfort someone who was a stranger? Andrew, on the other hand, picked her up and held her tight, the delight never leaving his face as he rocked her back and forth until she eventually calmed.
Apart from my visits to the baby health clinic and my stay in hospital, I did not leave the house. I was scared that Odessa would cry and I would fall apart, my inability to cope evident to everyone. But I wanted to go to the reunion. I wanted to be able to talk to the other mothers about how hard this was (because surely they were in the same boat as me?). I wanted to know that I was not alone.
But it was not as I had hoped it would be.
They were all there, with their babies dressed up for the occasion.
It was wonderful, the parents said to each other, so amazing, and the mothers swapped birth stories: epidurals, emergency caesareans, 48-hour labours. When I told them I had been in hospital for only half an hour, they looked at me in envy.
In the kitchen, Carolyn asked me how I was coping.
"Not that well," I admitted, scared that I would start crying.
She smiled. "It's hard," she said.
She had a picture of a mother and a newborn baby on her fridge and on seeing me looking at it, she explained that it was someone from the birth classes she had run just before ours.
"The baby was born very ill," she said. "They were told he only had a couple of days to live."
"What happened?" I asked.
"They took him home. They wanted to have those two days with him in their own environment."
"And he died?"
Carolyn clapped her hands. It was photo time. This was what she did with every class. We lined our babies up along the length of the couch, the newest ones propped up by the larger ones. Odessa was at the end, thriving, awake, healthy; she beamed at the camera. The smaller ones were nodding off, falling asleep on the shoulders of the babies next to them. Everyone crowded around, laughing as they took their pictures. The glare of the flashlight made some of the babies cry and I watched as one mother seized her child out from the midst of the group, the tension momentarily sharp along the lines of her mouth as she tried to comfort him.
"It's hard, isn't it?" I said to the woman next to me. She didn't respond.
"When they cry, that is."
"Yeah, it is." She turned back towards the line-up on the couch. "But then you love them so much that it's all worth it."
I smiled back at her. "It is," I said, and the lie slipped out.
I looked at Odessa there, at the end, and at Andrew leaning through the others to take the picture, and I wished I had not come. I was not alone, but I did not realise it at the time. Months later, when I saw some of the women from the class, they, too, talked about tears, exhaustion, strained relationships and depression, but on that day at Carolyn's I felt I was the only one who had failed.
Later that afternoon, I left Andrew and Odessa at home and walked down to the beachfront. I sat on the steps at the southern end and stared out across the promenade. It had been hot and there were people everywhere. Children squealed, couples bickered, music boomed out of cars cruising slowly along the esplanade. An old man stood under the shower, his skin leathery smooth as the water sprayed down, glittering in the last of the sunlight.
Andrew and I often used to come down to the beach at this time. We would swim, go for a walk and then perhaps head out to a movie. The life that I once led was gone and I did not know how to enter the new life I had chosen. I did not know why I had chosen it. I had not yet experienced the startling love parents have for their children; I would, but I did not know that yet, and all I wanted in that moment was to go back to what I once was.
In the distance, two women walked towards me, a young boy running between them. They were talking to each other, laughing, and I watched as they stopped, the blonde woman leaning down towards her son, and opening a juice for him. As they approached, the blonde woman waved, and it took me a few moments to realise that I knew her. It was my friend, the one who had told me that the pain of childbirth was like riding the crest of a wave. I had not seen her since Odessa was born.
As I raised my hand, she left the other woman with her boy, and came towards me.
"How are you?" she asked.
I could not answer. I looked at her and beyond, to the people walking and eating and laughing, the sun setting in the west and the ocean, pale blue.
I could not speak.
"Oh, you poor thing," and she sat down next to me. "It's awful, isn't it?"
I could only nod.
I looked at her and I wanted to tell her that I had been watching her coming towards me and that I had envied her, that I had seen her laughing, out there, part of it, but with a child, and I had wished that I was her, that I was anyone but me.
"I can't do it," and it was all I could utter.
"I know what it's like," she said, and she did not attempt to counsel me.
We sat in silence. Behind us the park was darkening. The streetlights were coming on and a full moon was hovering on the lip of the horizon.
In about six months I would begin, tentatively, to fall in love. In a year, I would know that love was here to stay. By the time Odessa turned two, I would feel, without a doubt, that having her was the most miraculous, wonderful aspect of my life.
But on that night all I could do was look out across the ocean and know that I would be grateful for this moment. I had needed someone to tell me that she, too, had found it hard, but right then and there I had no strength for even gratitude. I just had to do this and wait for a change that I had to have faith in.
I stood up, and took one last look out across the beach. People were heading home.
"You have to go back?" she asked.
"Shall I walk with you?"
I shook my head.
"I'll be OK," I told her, and I turned my back to the sea and headed up the hill towards home.
Level 4, Griffith Graduate Centre
South Bank, Campus – Griffith University
Sidon Street, South Bank 4101 Australia
South Bank Campus, Griffith University
PO Box 3370, South Brisbane 4101, Australia
Phone: +61 7 3735 3071
Fax: +61 7 3735 327