Tanya Sweeney: ‘I think I’ve just set fire to my life’
My childbirth story: A vernix-slicked baby was held over me for a three-second inspection
Tanya Sweeney with her baby Isola Cregan: ‘Isola spent her first minutes in life effectively lying on my face.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
What exactly does childbirth feel like? “I don’t know,” I used to tell people, and in some ways I really don’t. I’d had a C-section to give birth to my daughter (which is just as well on reflection, because she was a bouncing 9lb4oz. They’d probably still be stitching me up if we’d gone the, cough, ‘natural’ route).
Of course, I know what childbirth feels like.
Fine, I didn’t experience too much in the way of gore, fear, pain, or apprehension. I didn’t need to deploy heretofore-unfamiliar reserves of physical strength, courage and stamina. I wish I had a tale for you of crashing waves of contractions, primal moans, and reaching the summit of birth with one final sweaty push.
But whether or not you see it as a lesser form of birthing (and oddly, many people do), even us ‘sunroof mums’ have a childbirth story to tell, and here is mine.
Many people are concerned about the medicalisation of childbirth and the increasing reliance on interventions in the delivery room. I’m not one of these people. I was much less afraid of major abdominal surgery than the great unknown and potential complications of labouring and childbirth.
Friends had told me of vaginal tears, episiotomies, failed epidurals, shuddering contractions, distress, babies dislocating their shoulders in the birth canal. My inner warrior/goddess was so not interested in going through this special, innately female experience.
Let’s just clarify something. No one way of evacuating a baby from your body is more noble or more ‘right’ than the other. As is entirely my prerogative (and an unexpected bonus if you’re a ‘geriatric’ mother), give me a relaxed, pain-free lunchtime section any day of the week, please and thanks. Any labour that results in a healthy mother and baby is the right, great result. “Ooh, too posh to push,” accused one friend with a smirk. “Nope, but definitely too shy to sh*t myself in front of strangers,” I replied.
And so it came to pass that on a Friday morning, B and I checked into the maternity hospital calmly and brightly at 7am. An hour previously, I looked down at my bump for the last time, slightly guilty that I was gearing up for an eviction from the comfiest digs this baby will probably ever know. I poked at a tiny limb; the limb duly poked back. Hopefully this baby will be every bit as obedient from here on out, I thought.
B and I had spent Thursday night eating Camile takeaway and watching First Dates. Perhaps we should have done something more meaningful or momentous on our last night as non-parents, but this felt perfect, and very us.
After we checked into the hospital that morning, we were led to a cubicle in the maternity ward, where I saw the plastic tub that would have my firstborn in it within the next few hours. The enormity of this made me weep. “Time for a selfie,” B said decisively, and to be fair, it turned out to be quite the image: him, ebullient and upbeat, and me, red-faced and soggy with emotion.
A little later on, I walked into the operating theatre while B got gussied up elsewhere in hospital scrubs. There was barely enough time for an ‘oooh, doctor’ routine before we were summoned to theatre. The anaesthesiologist and I chatted amiably about Stoneybatter and coffee shops as surgeons cut through my skin, muscle and uterus. The vibe was decidedly relaxed, and not how I ever had envisaged childbirth in my mind’s eye. I felt nothing but light tugs until a cry that was at once mighty and delicate rose to the ceiling.
“Happy birthday! 12.22pm,” one surgeon called out.
A vernix-slicked baby, all purple limbs and black hair and wrinkles and gaping mouth, was held over me for a three-second inspection and brought to the back of the room to be checked over. More tears. More selfies. Did I have a right to cry with emotion when all I did was lie there? Sod it. I cried anyway.
She was perfect and beautiful and the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen.
There we were, changed forever. My body was back to being mine, sort of. They placed the baby, now less purple, on my chest. We named her Isola. I was still prone on the operating table, and Isola kept sliding down from my chest and onto my face. Unsure as to what to do or how to handle this magical new creature, I asked the anaesthesiologist to push her up off my chin, and he obliged. She slid right back down again. B and I were too spooked to do anything about it, so Isola spent her first minutes in life effectively lying on my face.
A while later, I was wheeled back onto the public ward, where through my druggy haze I could see other new mums acknowledge the three of us, benign and smiling.
“This is mad sh**, innit?” I shouted out to no one in particular.
Oh, how that would very much come to pass. There was just enough time to text a friend the most honest summation of the morning I could think of: “I think I’ve just set fire to my life.”