I recently watched a 3-part HBO documentary called Expecting Amy. The series chronicles the comedian Amy Schumer’s pregnancy and delivery. Schumer experienced a condition known as hyperemesis gravidarum, or HG, which is a complication in pregnancy characterized by severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and possibly malnutrition. In the olden days women often died from this condition, including Charlotte Bronte, who was four months pregnant when her inability to keep down food or water ended her life. Most modern women with this condition, Schumer included, end up being repeatedly admitted to hospital for intravenous drips which stave off electrolyte imbalances, starvation, and dehydration. It was a harrowing series to watch, but got me thinking about how difficult pregnancy and delivery are at the best of times, and how little credit women often get for the extreme effort involved in this endeavour.
I had a miscarriage the first time I got pregnant. I was about 12 weeks along and had told family and friends the good news when I suddenly started spotting. My husband Douglas and I had just returned to Canada after a three month sojourn in Morocco, Spain, and Portugal. We couldn’t go to our house as it was sublet for another week, so we decided to visit our friends on Manitoulin Island to pass the time. I first noticed the blood when I used the bathroom on the ferry taking us to the island, and we stopped at a drugstore when we landed so I could get some pads. Douglas suggested it was probably nothing, but I was already alarmed.
The blood flow increased the next day and I asked Douglas if we couldn’t please go back to Toronto so I could see my doctor. He again assured me that there was nothing wrong, but even if I did lose this baby, it was just nature’s way and we could simply try again. I’m sure not all men would have responded this casually, but I’m pretty sure most men can’t understand the immediate love and protectiveness which blooms in a woman when a wanted pregnancy is confirmed. I felt connected to that little ball of incipient life, and the thought of losing it made me immeasurably sad.
The third day came with still more blood, and when everyone else went for a walk, I stayed behind. I sat on a large rock beside the water and talked to my would-be child, willing it to hang in there. This is the point where I would have prayed if I believed in God. Later that afternoon Douglas and I went into town to get dinner makings. We stopped at an ice cream parlour on our way, and while Douglas got in line I went to use the bathroom. No sooner had I sat down when I felt a great surge of blood and heard a splash in the toilet. I knew immediately that I had just lost the fetus, but I couldn’t bear the thought of just flushing it away. I reached my hand into the bloody water and fished it out. It looked like an ill-formed alien and was small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. I put it down beside the sink, washed my hands, and then carefully wrapped it in toilet paper and put it in my pocket.
Douglas had just reached the front of the line when I joined him. He asked if I wanted anything, but could tell by the look on my face that I didn’t. I told him what had happened as soon as we got back to the car, and he said again that this sort of thing is common and we would be successful next time. He clearly didn’t understand why I was so upset or why I didn’t just flush the fetus away, but humoured me when I asked if we could please bury it in the wildflowers beside our friends’ farmhouse. Douglas stopped the car when we got to the edge of the field and pulled out a small spade he always kept in the trunk. He dug a fairly deep hole, I put the little package in the bottom, and he covered it with dirt. I began to cry, and Douglas, while not sad himself, put his arm around my shoulders. We stayed like that until I said I was ready to go, then I wiped my eyes and nose and we proceeded to the house.
Miscarriages are relatively common, effecting as many as 20% of pregnant women, and yet they are rarely acknowledged. I do remember feeling guilt along with grief when I had mine. I felt that I was responsible for what had happened – that there must be some flaw in me which explained why the pregnancy had failed. It didn’t help that my husband felt no sorrow at the loss, but I think I would still have felt culpable even if he had assured me I wasn’t. I never talked to anyone about how I was feeling at the time because the whole experience was very isolating and shameful. There is still a stigma attached to miscarriages, but I am heartened to see that some famous women, most recently Meghan Merkle, have begun to speak publicly about the trauma of spontaneous abortion. Shedding light on the subject can only help women who mostly suffer this heartbreaking misfortune alone.
Five months after this sorrowful event I became pregnant with my son. I was understandably anxious throughout the pregnancy, fearing that I would again miscarry, but Douglas said I was being silly. Once again I had to face all of my mixed emotions alone, but luckily I was healthy as a horse the entire nine months and had a very good and reassuring doctor. Douglas and I had decided to move out of downtown Toronto to raise our kids and, after several forays outside the city, had settled on moving to the hamlet of Millbrook (located about an hour and a half north-east of Toronto). I wanted to stay put until after I had the baby because I really liked my doctor – we had similar ideas about childbirth and I trusted her completely. Douglas ignored what I wanted, as usual, and determined we should leave as soon as possible.
He put our Toronto house up for sale before we had found one to move into, and when it sold we had to scramble to find a place to live and to figure out what to do with all of our possessions. We eventually put our furnishings into the back of a large truck and arranged to have them stored in a container yard just outside Millbrook. We then rented a cottage on Lake Scugog until the end of October. If we still hadn’t landed a permanent home by then, we intended to move into my in-laws’ place in Lindsay while they wintered in Florida. I was seven months along and really big when we packed up what we needed for the summer and moved to the cottage. I was also very unhappy at having to leave everyone and everything I knew behind at a time when I really needed consistency. Having a child is a scary, life-changing business, and having everything else in your life change at the same time is very disorienting. I was especially sad to leave my mother and my wonderful doctor behind because I really needed both of them.
I went into labour on a very hot and muggy day in July. Douglas drove me to the hospital in Lindsay where I had never been before, and I was assigned a doctor I had never met before. All of this made a novel and scary situation infinitely more difficult for me. I knew from experience that I couldn’t turn to my husband for support in this situation, so I turned inward. I was completely silent during labour despite the bone-jarring pain. I was wearing only a hospital gown and a pair of clogs, and felt more comfortable walking up and down the hall outside my room than lying in the bed. There was a rocking chair at one end of the corridor, and every time I had a contraction I would sit in the chair and furiously rock in time with my deep breaths.
I did this for several hours after my initial visit with the doctor before he finally came back and insisted I lie in bed so they could put a fetal heart monitor on my belly. He checked my dilation and decided I was big enough to allow for a forceps delivery. I really didn’t want any interference in my birth, and my doctor in Toronto knew that, but this doctor kept going on about how his kid was giving a recital at 1:00 that afternoon that he’d promise to attend. In other words, he was determined to deliver my baby as soon as possible to ensure he didn’t miss his child’s performance. The doctor slid the forceps in and immediately the baby’s heart rate dropped. This was, I think in retrospect, exactly what he wanted to happen. Now he could claim concern for the baby’s welfare as an excuse to give me a C-section. I was utterly exhausted at this point and in no state to disagree, and Douglas bought his line about the baby being at risk. Next thing I knew I was given an epidural and Max was pulled out of my stomach.
We were settled in Millbrook and I had an excellent doctor when I got pregnant with my daughter almost two years later. Peterborough is the closest city to Millbrook, and my doctor, Joyce Barrett, was well known throughout the community. Doctors (male ObGyn’s in particular) didn’t like her – she insisted on letting women follow their own birthing plans and often facilitated, and championed, tricky vaginal births that other docs refused to have any part of. Her strong advocacy for the rights of moms made her a persistent thorn in the established medical community’s side, and an absolute hero to pregnant women. I felt so lucky to have her because unlike my first pregnancy, this one was harrowing.
I began having overwhelming nausea and persistent vomiting almost as soon as I got pregnant. I lost 15 lbs in my first three months because I simply couldn’t keep anything of substance down. Trial and error taught me that there were only three foods I could tolerate during my first trimester: mashed potatoes, green olives, and Coffee Crisps. A strange trio to say the least, but these foods at least allowed me to get something in my stomach. Just opening the fridge or smelling an unwelcome food would make me throw up. There was one time when I was helping a patron in the culinary section of the library when the cover of a cookbook sent me scurrying for the bathroom. Douglas had a friend named Alan who sometimes visited us from the city. One day he decided to surprise me with dinner because he knew how difficult it was for me to cook. I walked in the door after work and was greeted by a beaming Alan, and the unmistakeable smells of lamb and broccoli co-mingling in a noxious funk. Can you imagine being so thick headed as to make those two foods for a nauseous person?! He meant well, but what a dope.
The vomiting stopped in the fourth month, although I had low-grade nausea for the rest of my pregnancy. I was due on January 28th, which was a Thursday, and was horrified when Dr. Barrett informed me that she was going on a ski trip that week and wouldn’t be back until the 31st. I had visions of ending up with someone I didn’t know again, and determined to hold on until she returned. I clenched my legs together and made it all the way to the 31st before I simply had to go to the hospital. We got there about 3:00 in the afternoon, and Dr. Barrett had still not returned from her trip. I was distraught to say the least.
The nurses got me comfortable and said they had left a message on Dr. Barrett’s service, so she would certainly show up if she got back in time. This labour was turning out to be completely different than the last, because whereas with Max I had been silent and stoic, this time I found noises erupting unbidden from my mouth with every contraction. Douglas suggested that I try to be quiet as my loud groans might scare other women on the ward, so I did my best to keep the volume down.
It was about 7:00 and I was lying on the bed with my back to the door when suddenly the lights lowered, classical music filled the air, and I felt Dr. Barrett’s warm and soothing hand on the small of my back. I rolled over to look at her just as a contraction hit, and when the inevitable, unearthly sound rose up in my throat, Dr. Barrett said, “Let it out. Those sounds are good. They let me know where you are in your labour.” So I did, and it was such a tremendous relief to finally give voice to my pain that I started to cry. It went on like that until about 9:30 when the doctor determined I was fully dilated, so I got off the bed to squat on the birthing stool. If you have never seen one, a birthing stool looks like a toilet seat with three legs – it provides support for the mother as she pushes, and has an open front so the doctor can access the emerging baby.
It is almost impossible to put into words the experience of pushing. Imagine the worst pain you have ever had, then double it. Now, add to that torturous pain the need to exert sufficient pressure with your muscles to push a large foreign object out of your body. Then, imagine doing that over and over again. I remember at one point in this process I looked at Dr. Barrett and said that I couldn’t believe how much work this was, to which she replied, “That’s why they call it labour.” On the final big push when Hannah’s head came out, I felt like I was actually going to split in half. I screamed “Noooo!” as the final wave overtook me, fearing that I was literally going to die. It was absolutely terrifying, but luckily also fairly fleeting. The rest of her body followed easily once her head was out.
Dr. Barrett immediately cleared Hannah’s mouth and nose, wrapped her in a towel, and, assessing her weight like a bag of apples, confidently said, “7 pounds.” She then took my lovely little daughter over to the scale, while the nurse behind her peeked over her shoulder at the gauge and then turned to me and said, “Right on the nose, as usual.” They then let me hold my baby girl as they sewed up the damage she had wrought on her way into the world. This procedure was plenty painful, but it paled in comparison to what I had just gone through. I required so many stitches that when the maternity nurse came into my room later that night to change my dressing she said, “Glad I’m not in your shoes.” Thanks a lot!
A few years after this a good friend of mine, Sarah, was pregnant with her first child. She had great trepidation about the pain of delivery, and I told her that although it was extreme, she would bear it like women do. What’s more, she would immediately forget it once she had her new babe in her arms. Douglas and I went to visit Sarah and her husband Eric about a month after their son Henry was born. At one point Sarah and I were alone in the kitchen when she suddenly turned on me. She was furious that I hadn’t adequately described just how painful labour was going to be. I reminded her that I had said that it was going to be more pain that she had ever experienced before, and she yelled at me, “Yeah. But you didn’t tell me it would make me feel like my fucking head was going to explode!” I then asked her if any words could possibly have prepared her for how bad it was, and she instantly calmed down and said, “No. I suppose there is no way to express how truly awful it is.”
Even though this is undoubtedly true, women keep popping out babies and, amazingly, many do so more than once. Despite the discomfort, inconvenience, and seemingly infinite health related side effects of pregnancy, despite the horrific pain and trauma of childbirth, and despite the often irreparable changes it makes to their once taut bodies, women continue to reproduce. Yet for time immemorial we have been called “the weaker sex.” Talk about male propaganda bullshit!