Please forgive me dear readers.  My blog has been lacking in attention of late as I have been rather preoccupied with thoughts of an impending childbirth.  Not mine I hasten to add, I am still quite undecided about that life experience (more inclined to sing along to that Doris Day song when even considering the prospect). Rather more the case of my dear friend Joana’s child being born, of whom I was asked to perform the honourable duty of ‘birth partner’.

Prologue

This is a role I never thought I would perform.  According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, I have already ticked off 5 out of the top 10 most stressful experiences for adults (and before I turned 30 too) so I am never in a rush to add to this list, preferring to enjoy a more continual calm after previous storms. With regard to this request though and my eternal enjoyment of a challenge, there was no possibility of me declining this front row seat.  From a passing request last September, I never considered the gravitas of the situation, retaining a slight suspicion that my services might not be called upon (although in the weeks prior, I admit that my anticipation grew, in-keeping with the size of Joana’s stomach).  When I mentioned my impending role-play to outsiders, frequent assumptions arose from the father being absent and shockingly unsupportive to homosexual lover connotations (neither of which bore any fact; the father was most active, some couples just prefer to keep some mystery to their sexual organs and as for the level of friendship I share, I am most certainly of the hetero leaning, although I do hold deep love for my friends).

Upon entering the final week of her pregnancy, reality had been playing havoc with my mind, inspiring day-dreams of where and what I would be doing when it would be time to fulfil this duty.  Would I be awake or asleep?  Will I be at work or out socialising wildly in an East London gaggle?  Must I even avoid social situations to ensure I am in peak condition when clutching my screaming friend’s hand?  My favourite day-dream had been comparing my role to some sort of ‘superhero’ destiny; living a normal day-to-day life, only for in one unpredictable moment receive ‘The Call’, a shadow cast over my face as I remove my work glasses, clutching the telephone-receiver in comic book pose with a speech-bubble exclaiming the ‘jump into action’ words “My waters have broken”

It is a destiny in many ways and I never hesitated for a moment to claim it.  All I knew is that if someone needs my help, I will do whatever I have in my power to come to their aid, so I suppose in some ways we all have the capability to act as a superhero in our daily lives.  Except, as is the case with most things in life, they never quite go to plan.

The Call

Act 1.

On an average Tuesday morning, with my mind set on the coming weekend when my friend’s baby was ‘due’ to arrive, I got ‘the call’ at work.  I suddenly felt like so many husbands, boyfriends and partners have felt before when hearing that waters had broken and frantically tried to remain composed whilst packing my things up and heading out onto the London roads, peddling excitedly on my bicycle.

I arrived at the Kingdom of Royal London Hospital (the place is so large it deserves a crowned title), amidst the usual East London flow of junkies and general workers, beaming a smile from ear to ear that the day had come.  This was an important aspect I considered on my inbound journey.  So often, as I previously speculated, can this process begin at inconvenient times, places and situations that to occur on a Tuesday at 11am was almost perfect timing.  I was on annual leave that afternoon anyway for a maternity nurse appointment and I had rested well enough the night before to gather my strength for the Mother to be.  A round of applause please for the impending birth!

But of course, I have yet to finish the story.  As I arrived at the ultra-sound unit where Joana would be awaiting me, no doubt nervous and full of anticipation for the experience she was due to go through, she was no-where to be seen.  A slight panic began to threaten my jovial disposition, only to be placated by her phone-call.  Hunger had struck and she was returning with boyfriend in tow from a trip to the canteen.  Relief.  So then the waiting began.  Endless other patients were summoned by intermittent nurses calling out names that you were never quite sure were yours.  Yet still, Joana was not called.  My dutiful side started to emerge and I sought to calm her anxious state by checking at the reception desk in a polite yet assertive manner.  After 2 or 3 checks on my part (as well as an hour or so wait) she was eventually called through and both Pedro & I (as I would like to affectionately be known as the A-Team, or ‘Andrade’ Team) waited alongside until required.

Pedro was the epitomy of calm; having attended an antenatal class previously, I was at a distinct disadvantage to him and felt quite the novice having only really skim-read pregnancy information, as well as recollecting a Science lesson from school and half-listening to new mother conversations.  I had no ‘game-plan’ or preparation for it and was mystified by the medical jargon to classify the various sensations and medications involved.  I just felt that like most experiences yet to be had, my coping mechanisms would find their pattern when the time came and there was no point over-thinking it.  My role was to be there for my friend, take any abuse or pain she threw at me and keep her motivated to complete the birth.  Simple.

My senses were heightened in many ways and I listened with unusual intent to all the information provided by nurses.  Joana’s contractions had not yet started so aside from a check on the unsavoury factors of bodily excretions, we were told to just ‘wait’ for the next 24 hours until nature took its course.  I was in this for the long-haul, so this was of no concern to me, however Joana was keen to get this show started so plans were made to walk to a fairly distant lunch venue.  I remember reading that it was important to keep strength up for the partners too which simulated an urgency in me to eat almost everything I saw, a sort of stock-piling approach, to ensure that I was strong and able to deal with any banshee-like behaviour that Joana might project.  Her face was pained at points yet with no external symptoms it is difficult to gauge the level of internal trauma she was experiencing.

Act 2.

On arrival at the family flat, my temporary hide-out, she slowly began to feel what she perceived as contractions.  Were they or weren’t they?  Frequent questions entered in the A-Team’s mind in assisting the situation, however we relied entirely upon the Captain’s instructions.  So between us, we timed, massaged and soothed her as best we could until barely an hour went by before the urgent need to leave was upon us.  Now it really WAS time.  This was where my adrenalin kicked in and I was sent to source a taxi (which is a lot harder than it sounds when you are used to waiting patiently rather than demand one like I did on this occasion.  But yes, I was polite of course).  Within moments and an increasingly agitated Mother’s screams we were brought back to the hospital, stampeding our way to the Delivery Suite.

All sense of reason and tolerance is gone when a woman is experiencing pain like this.  We see films and programmes, we hear stories and we also are able to witness it ourselves sometimes, however we never TRULY know what it feels like, and more importantly, whether we could cope with it either.  To watch Joana writhing in agony as we waited for a nurse to come and check her progress was one of the hardest parts for me.  In addition, Pedro was swiftly banished (as was previously agreed) and also had to experience a different level of discomfort; the unknown.  Whereas I was a 1st hand witness to the reason for the wailing and screaming, he could only imagine and assume what was going on behind closed doors; a behind the curtain seat that I’m glad not to have shared.  What was worse too was that all plans for a water-birth and a last-minute decision to have an epidural were eliminated options as she was too far advanced.  Simply gas and determination of will were her only allies, a disappointing ruling that drew further anxiety from the loom of further pain.

The part that none of us were prepared for (thankfully coached through by two very supportive mid-wives Maria and Indigo) was the labour itself.  Maria spoke Portuguese which was a welcome tongue to be heard by Joana, even though it would never be enough to truly alleviate the uncontrollable agony she was about to experience.  Further noises emulated from a dock, this time musical, which I provided to distract both Mother and myself from her own emissions, playing the tribal, raw sounds of Fela Kuti (which will now mark my mind for eternity as the soundtrack to the occasion).

My role was that of a silent warrior; blood and hysteria I was certain to face however I had to remain calm and poised to draw a comforting hand out whenever it was reached for.  And so I did, as I watched Joana pace animatedly around the 6th Floor room for a two-hour period, uttering the line every few minutes that had me primed for battle once again ‘I’m having another one!’  My gestures of wet-wiping down her brow, tying back her hair and letting her squeeze my hands and arms as tight as possible seemed finite compared to the internal pain that induced her loud exclamations.  Every contraction led to no further progress either as her strength was diminishing and no amount of encouragement seemed to edge the little girl out further.

Other Doctors were brought in after a while to make suggestions and it culminated with Joana lying down due to exhaustion, facing the prospect of assisted birth or even a Caesarean.  It must be said though, that such clinical folk do not want to have to cut or damage another human being unless necessary, however Joana was relenting to any option due to fear and complete redundancy of patience from the seemingly unending process.  A consent form was signed and it seemed we were destined for Theatre.  Then another consultant entered in, this time a more mature woman, with a brisk walk and similar attitude.  Her presence brought immediate comfort to Joana; a woman of experience clearly and an unconventional attitude to child-birth. “She’s not going into the Theatre, no, she’s going to have the baby on the next push” she stated confidently, whilst stroking her stomach and providing a kind smile.


Mother and Child

The Finale

Understandably, disbelief crossed the faces of the younger nurses, who had been dutifully trying all methods previously but to no avail.  Upon further instructions and hands entering orifices (that should never normally be entered as aggressively as they did), Joana found herself in a frog-like position, with myself and one nurse pushing up against 1 leg and 2 on the other.  I used some expletives at this point, reminding Joana of what a strong woman she was and that she had to summon this to perform the final hurdle.  All these tactics seemed to work, and the head of Maria Inês edged out further and further, before her whole body then flowed out into the arms of the nurses, in her slippery, slightly blue-tinted guise.  No matter how much blood had escaped onto the bed, with injections in various places to assist the necessary incision that needed to be made and screams of denial in even being able to reach this point, none of it should be described as ‘horror’.  I had witnessed LIFE; in all its unrehearsed, chaotic, pungent and dramatic glory.

I found the emotional come-down more wearying than the 1st and 2nd Acts, as the reality finally starts to hit that this tiny, fragile being is now an additional body in the room.   My work was done, however the task was to now feed (again) and ensure the A-Team were looked after.  I called Pedro to greet his daughter and left the trio to enjoy the conclusion for a few moments.  As I paused to reflect on what we had just gone through, the surreal surroundings of the Maternity Ward were muted, although as I ponder back, the astonishing good fortune we had with the duration and arrival were mercifully fated.  Only a few hours later, the ward was closed off due to staff and bed shortages and there were dramatic groups of nurses and doctors running collectively to rooms where further wailing resonated from within.  My own mental exhaustion was secondary and had Joana not sent me home, I possibly would have sat in the room only to refer to a Tom and Jerry episode, with matchsticks pinning up my eyes.  As would be the case with any new-born (I would hope), it only seemed appropriate to ‘wet the baby’s head’ before resting my own, so a momentary beverage was enjoyed with the Father (accompanied by a brief monologue by a drunk passer-by, stating to ‘Live your life!  That’s what it’s all about!” providing some needed comedic relief to the evening’s proceedings) before I dashed off in a taxi to seek solitude.

Tom & Jerry Sleepy Eyes

Epilogue

As I lay my head on their couch, my mind and body weak from a combination of mental exhaustion, irregular eating patterns and disengaging my ‘high-alert’ status, the images and noises I had gone through started to seep in.  The emotional state never quite worn off though and even now, it is hard to contemplate, let alone truly fathom the experience I shared with Joana.  But we have all done this before, thousands and millions and billions of times, with generations being born then dying, to then continue the cycle as we fill the time in between with inherited concerns, love lives and monetary worries.  What I can be truly thankful for is that in that moment, between Maria Inês being inside her Mother and then suddenly out, nothing mattered.  The only focus was progress and completing this cycle.  I gazed with inane pride at my friend, as a smile slowly spread over her sweaty, relieved face.  My tears came the next day rather than in the moment, as I wanted to remain stoic for her (and a mid-wife kindly wept joyfully on my behalf).  The following day would be slower paced, as we adapted to this new person, this wrinkled formation of skin, blood and organs that I could not stop staring at whilst pondering how my friend once had her inside, to then have the cord cut for inevitable separation.  The picturesque view of London from the room was completely unappreciated too, however, there was a more incredible view to be witnessed from inside the room itself.  As I passed the proverbial baton onto the Grandmother who arrived from Portugal, I kissed my friend and her family goodbye, casting my imaginary cape dramatically over my shoulder as I bound out the door (in my mind to the tune of Extreme Ways by Moby), back to the outside world to resume my daily life.  Sitting in a Shoreditch bar, sipping a much needed aperitif with a sympathetic friend and casting my eyes over the design-led surroundings and polished crowd, my whereabouts the previous day seemed such a distant memory.  This story had only just started though and what an honour it was for me to pen the introduction.  Until my powers would be needed next, I resume routine, ever more enlightened by yet another life event and savouring this increased wisdom of an extraordinary human feat.

The Outside World

(1522)