Waiting for Agnes

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The creation of a whole new person June 1, 2011

Aside from the utter exhaustion of feeding our small person and the other tiresome and frustrating aspects of parenting any kid, there are also the really lovely and funny and generally awesome aspects of watching a growing person unfold in front of you day by day. It can be pretty interesting seeing it in your close friends’ kids, but it is absolutely fascinating in your own. I can’t speak for all parents, but I spend most days lurching from the proud delight of ‘Look! He can load the washing machine…he’s a genius! And see how he struggles to get those big towels in…so persistent, such a great problem solver! And so so so so beautiful!’ to the teeth-grinding frustration of ‘For christ sake Beloved, he’s on the dining table again. I’ve told him a hundred and eighty times. He’s so bloody stubborn and willful and unheeding of his personal safety. Poor kid, he’s just like me.’ And I love this feeling, the gratification of seeing parts of yourself appear, blended with the curiosity of discovering the other parts. This is not to say that any child is only the sum of their genetic parts; every attribute, every habit, every skill being ascribable to one or the other parent – one of the miraculous parts of personhood is the emergence of the completely new. But I think there is a desire in every parent, even extended family members, to search for themselves in the new generation, to tie them to their ancestry and feel part of something bigger. My family may not be the closest knit band of dysfunctional individuals, but even they will proudly attest to small’s behaviours being ‘A Family Trait’ with absolute conviction.

For the beloved and I this is a doubly fun exercise, as the small person is the product of conception with an anonymous donor. We know some things about the donor: his height and eye colour, his cat allergy, his detached earlobes, his lack of acne as a teenager, his self-assigned celebrity lookalike, and his motivations for being a donor, amongst other things. Before small was even conceived the profile seemed comprehensive, with three generations of medical history and little things like favourite books and music. But the more small grows, the scantness of this information becomes more obvious. What age did he walk? Did he have eating and speech issues, too? Did he have a fascination for laundry appliances? Who knows? And, in a sense, who cares? Small is, as the saying goes, his own person. He will continue to grow and learn and unfold before us, regardless of what we do or don’t know about the donor, or even about me. It isn’t with sadness or regret that I talk about this, but just with the growing realisation that the beloved and I have of what it means to be lesbian parents using an anonymous donor to have our children.

Yes, children, plural. Somewhere way back even more than a hundred years ago, last November, the beloved and I started to consider having another baby. Who knows? we thought, it may take ages to happen. So if we begin to think about starting to think about it and maybe plan a bit  and check out our options and whatnot then there will be at least two years between small and the new baby, maybe three years. In our typical style (as the LMFs can attest to), this vague idea turned to an actual initial appointment date within the space of about a week. Somehow the stars had aligned – the roster gave the beloved and I days off together, the airfares were cheap, the appointments were available, the money was miraculously there. Small was conceived at an interstate clinic, back when it was illegal in our home state of Victoria for single women or lesbian couples to access fertility treatment. Since then the law has changed. In fact, the bill addressing this issue was passed through parliament on the day I found out I was pregnant. And for about a minute we considered having treatment here, cutting out the hassle of flying interstate and juggling work and money and small. But it was a short minute. Going interstate to sunny Queensland meant being able to use the same donor and being treated by the same excellent and lovely staff. Queenslanders might be offended by this, but we thought it was pretty ironic that we had access to such great care in the great redneck state.

Anyway, off we trot in December for the initial round of appointments with the fertility specialist, his practice nurse, the other nurse, the counselor, the pathology nurses and the semen coordinator. As an aside, this fertility guy is hilarious – somehow he can say things like ‘yep yep, take that, then do the rooty rooty rooty every day until your next appointment’ (overheard phone conversation, clearly the rooty rooty isn’t going to help us so much) without seeming like a total bastard. After the forty-eight appointments and several hours of small galloping his crocodile all over the clinic, we’re all set – schedule of appointments, schedule of drugs, bag of drugs, letter to accompany drugs onto plane, pathology slips and ultrasound slips. Still it doesn’t really seem real that we will actually end up with another baby. Oh, it could take ages, we say. Hmm. Then, early this year, the stars of rostering and cashflow not so well aligned, the beloved returns to Queensland solo for her first attempt at being transformed into a Sacred Vessel (or Getting Knocked Up, whichever terminology takes your fancy). The next day she returns, unbeknownst to us all…. a Sacred Vessel (ie. pregnant, if you hadn’t already made that leap)!!

And so a whole new person has been created. Another growing being to love and marvel at, feed and clothe, wake with and snuggle with, carry about and entertain. Another combination of genetics to discover. According to the beloved this baby’s Polack tendencies are already showing – it’s already cheaper than the small person (hahahaha teehee teehee, fertility treatment humour). But really, how will small and new baby be alike? How will they differ? How will small cope, absorbing another person into his world, a person that shares the focus of his mamas? How will we cope? How will our mothering roles stay the same? Change? Blend and develop? What will it be like for the beloved to be the foggy, fuzzy breastfeeding mother? Will she still remember to pay all the bills for the household, like she does now? What will it be like for me to be the working-away-from-home-almost-full-time mother? Will I get sick of being the only one able to change the cat litter? And why, you may well ask, would the beloved being a Sacred Vessel have prevented me from blogging? Fair question. Although she is well and blossoming and glowing and such, she has been basically comatose for the first trimester of her pregnancy and sort of out of commission on the home front. She has also been Eating Healthily since the start of the brief pre-pregnancy planning period, which has sadly eliminated the baking of Sugary Delights from my day to day life, and no baking = no particularly interesting food to blog about. And perhaps most significantly, the knowledge that, at the end of the year, I will need to be the primary wage earner has got me plotting and scheming of ways to achieve this without working full time in the hospital. Which leads neatly into the story of: an unexpected Career Addition…


Not so odd really December 5, 2010

Filed under: Midwifery — titchandboofer @ 6:37 am
Tags: , ,

Most of us are such well behaved, people pleasing suck-ups. At least in the context of attending appointments with health professionals. By and large, we show up on time (despite knowing we’re likely to be kept waiting), we come prepared with relevant documentation, we’re polite, apologetic even (despite having been kept waiting), we readily divulge enormous amounts of deeply personal information – often to someone we’ve never met – trusting that it won’t become the subject of idle gossip and intrigue, we submit unquestioningly to intimate physical examination, we somehow maintain faith that the system’s purpose and ours interconnect, we pay for it (private, public, we pay for it all in some way), and then, often, we head back out to reception and book in to do it all again another day.

And it is by no means dreadful to be a well behaved, people pleasing suck-up. It keeps the system ticking along nicely. Not just the smaller system of, say, a fairly large public hospital, but the larger system too, of general social interaction. It would be utterly exhausting to spend every day in conflict, constantly shoring up our defences against personal scrutiny, fiercely guarding our intimate information from prying eyes and ears. And from inside my particular system, it is useful and expedient when people behave themselves. We midwives get to tick all our boxes. Statistics line up neatly. Clinics run a little closer to time. We feel liked and appreciated. The women feel like they get all their answers right (because somehow being quizzed about your personal life can seem just like a test that you could well fail). The computer system doesn’t implode. Everyone goes home happy.

Well, kind of. For the midwife who sees the system as an unwieldy, impersonal production line, all this nicey-niceness, pleaseandthankyou, I’m so normal and uncomplicated, I’ll just agree to float along the mainstream, just tell me what to do, can leave you a bit cold. For us contrary beings, we like the slightly less expedient. We like the women who question, who educate themselves, who pick and choose which interventions they will accept or decline. We like the women who see us for the service-providers we really can be and use us in kind. We love the women who stand up and take responsibility for themselves and their babies. But it’s easy to love these women. Because on the whole, these women are still people pleasing suck-ups. They’re just very good at being politely assertive. They’re working pretty damn hard to anticipate how we want them to behave and what they’ll have to do get what they need from us. It’s an absurd paradox that the best educated pregnant women spend the most time justifying their decisions.

And then there is the small group of women who manage to be simultaneously the hardest and easiest to love. They are the least expedient, the least well behaved. Pleasing you is the last item on their agenda. In fact, you seem to have pissed them off before you’ve even met. I met one of these women this week. From the look she gave me when I called her name, coming to her first antenatal clinic visit was about as much fun as sticking pins in her eyes. And I didn’t even pronounce her name the wrong way. Some excerpts from our conversation:

The beginning:

Woman, arms crossed hard, slumped in her chair, glaring – What do you want from me?

Me, quickly revising usual chit chat in head – Urhh, really I like to approach this more as ‘what do you want from me?’


*   *   *

So, this wasn’t a planned pregnancy. How do you feel about being pregnant?

(still glaring) Happy. Obviously. Or I wouldn’t be here. Jeez, what are you? Stupid?

*   *   *

Nuh, never been sick. My family don’t get sick.

Have you ever had any surgery?

Yes. I’m not telling you what though.

That’s fine. You don’t have to tell me. I only want to know if the surgery would affect your pregnancy, labour or birth. Do you think it could?

I don’t want to talk about it.

*   *   *

And they were the high points of our forty minutes together. Yes, it was unpleasant. Yes, it made my job harder. Yes, it’s irritating knowing that the very patchy history entered on the unforgiving computer system will no doubt come back to bite me in managerial form. Yes, I hope that, at some point, the pregnancy-relevant bits of her history will come out so we can care for her and her baby safely. No, it didn’t leave me with the warm glow of trust and rapport. But at the end of that day I didn’t care about any of this. Because it’s not so odd really, is it? It’s not so odd to be cautious about revealing yourself to a strange midwife that you probably won’t see again. It’s not so odd to be cautious about what’s expected of you. It’s not so odd to be distrustful of the impersonal system, with its jargon and machines that go ping and its one-size-fits-all approach to care. Kind of seems reasonable, if you ask me.


Disinterested ≠ Stupid November 3, 2010

Is there a mother anywhere who hasn’t been accused of having ‘baby brain’ at some point between conception and the present? Either your brain sort of leaks out (perhaps through the placenta or maybe your breasts?). Or you just ship your brain off into long-term storage for the duration of your intensive parenting years. And after this you’re basically peri-menopausal, so it’s not really needed then either. You can just write everything you need to remember on your patch. Then it’s retirement and no-one needs a brain to circumnavigate the country in a campervan, with only a husband, hair curlers and high-waisted slacks to manage.

Of all the dumb platitudes dumped on mothers, this one really pisses me off. Having a baby, at any gestation, doesn’t make you stupid. Pregnancy pulls your focus deeply inward, physically and emotionally, igniting your imagination, your dreams, your future-gazing. Your body carries secrets and you want to divine them. Your baby grows, their birth is closer every day, and other people, other things simply stop being interesting. Mothering stretches this focus to its limits, at once outward to this tiny new being, and inward to this new part of yourself. Somehow you need to feel and think and be in this new self, to take this new self and weld it into your original self. And you, this amalgam of welded bits of new and old, will look and feel and be different. But you won’t be dumber. Your brain will not be lying, dusty, in a forgotten corner.

In fact, it will be bigger and better than ever!

Thank you blue milk, for bringing this piece of research into my life.


Passing through? August 31, 2010

Filed under: Midwifery,Parenting — titchandboofer @ 9:39 am
Tags: , , , ,

Some months ago I was asked to co-author an article with one of my lovely-midwife-friends, on the topic of birth as a rite of passage, for Barefoot magazine. As can be the way with writing, the words went off in their own direction and what resulted instead was a story of the small one’s birth from both of our perspectives (my LMF was also my private midwife). ‘Birth as a rite of passage’ is an enormous, unwieldy theme. For any person, it is all too easy to get bogged down in the nitty gritty of either facet. For me, the co-existing perspectives of midwife and mother lead to deep entanglement of thought in the realms of both. As my LMF and I tried to exert a coherent and shared grip on the entire concept and put pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, we got more intimate with our own ideas but further and further from either consensus or an article shorter than a thesis. The confines of small’s birth at least gave us a helpful boundary around a shared experience.

What it didn’t allow for was any meandering into the social paradigm, any talk of the meanings placed on birth by the modern woman (well, to be more specific, the white, middle-class, english-speaking woman of Australia, who is all I can really speak of with a speck of authority) and the society in which she lives. So what is this paradigm What are these meanings? What order can I create out of my tangled thoughts? How much can I assert my viewpoint without being critical and alienating?

To be flat out negative, I think the importance of birth as a rite of passage has been diminished to the point of non-existence. My cynical self believes that the modern, capitalist world has turned becoming a parent into yet another consumer experience. It’s no longer about being transformed, stepping away from one self toward a new self, irreversibly. It is all about acquiring a baby. Sometimes this is couched in ‘becoming a family’, but let’s not kid ourselves, this is just one more way of saying ‘as a couple, we are getting a new thing’. A new thing, in a natural progression of new things: holiday, engagement, wedding, house, coffee machine, car, a fancier phone, a pregnancy, a baby, mountain of largely unnecessary stuff for baby, newer bigger car, newer bigger house, newer baby, holiday (and yes, I’m  aware that I am generalising wildly, but that doesn’t make me wrong)….. Becoming a parent is just one more opportunity for us to be aggressively marketed to and it starts before you’ve even conceived. ‘Take this supplement! Scientifically proven to make a better baby!’ ‘Buy this pill for your man! Give him the gift of higher quality sperm!’ ‘Eat this cereal! Your ovaries will thank you!’ I know that taking prenatal supplements isn’t an inherently bad practice (unless you’re the woman who unwittingly took ten times the recommended dose of folate) but it’s certainly not bad for business either. There’s not nearly as much money to be made from telling people how to maximise their ability to conceive without drugs. In pregnancy the pressure builds a little more. ‘Book into our private hospital! We have a big sparkly nursery!’ ‘Use this cream! You’ll never get a stretch mark!’ ‘Buy this special seat-belt!’  ‘Buy bottles now! Every mother needs them just in case!’ Then comes labour and birth. ‘Wear this labour dress! You don’t want to be stuck looking bad in hubby’s old t-shirt!’ ‘Take the drugs! Don’t be uncomfortable!’ ‘Listen to this music! Your unborn child will already be smarter!’ And once your child is out in the world the marketing pressure that parents are exposed to intensifies further, cunningly devised to play into every fear and anxiety they are vulnerable to. ‘Worried if your baby is sick? Buy this drug! Use this dummy that doubles as a thermometer!’ ‘Afraid your baby will stop breathing? Use this motion-detecting cot alarm! Buy these multi-point baby monitors!’ ‘Want your baby to sleep? Buy our disembodied, plush model-hands so you can trick your baby into thinking you are holding him! Bathe her in this bubble-bath! Slather him in this cream! Use this dummy!’ ‘Want your baby to be smart? Buy this toy/music/book/dvd/mobile/walker/bouncer/class! It’s never to soon to be over-stimulated!’ ‘Want your baby to be healthy? Buy this fortified formula! We’ll pretend it’s for toddlers but you know it’s really for babies!’ On and on and on and on. And that’s just the stuff you’re meant to be buying, never mind the image of modern motherhood you’re meant to be buying into.

Which takes me back to the notion of transformation – and this is where things are even more depressing. For an event to truly be a rite of passage it must involve change, irreversible, life-altering, monumental change. The transitions through menarche and menopause, from boy to man, from parent to grandparent, the events of starting school, finishing school, leaving home for the first time, retiring, all times of change. Change that, for the most part, is celebrated. Yet we have an image of motherhood held up for us that glorifies an absence of change. How many articles exhort you to get your old body back? How many articles indirectly encourage this, documenting celebrity mothers and their miraculous bodies, manicured nails and glossy hair? How many methods are being peddled, promising to produce a baby so controlled it couldn’t possibly inconvenience you? How pervasive is the notion that babies should be cutely silent and sedated, predictable and compliant? How negative the adjective ‘mumsy’? Because whatever you do, you shouldn’t actually look like a mother. Dammit, you should look sexy – boobs up, tummy flat, stretch-marks erased (if you were so irresponsible as to come by them in the first place), back-in-your-skinny-jeans-slim and absolutely no leaking. You should be out there, working, shopping, socialising, having coffee, having it all. The message is strong: have a baby – you needn’t let it change your life.

And whatever you do, don’t be dwelling on your birth experience. If it was awful it doesn’t matter, because (chant with me now) all that matters is a healthy mum and a healthy baby. If it was great just shut up, or you’ll make the other whiny mothers feel guilty and inadequate. Anyway, why are you even thinking the birth was about you? Clearly your pregnancy was a temporary and potentially life-threatening condition, treated heroically by our state of the art medical system. All you had to do was show up and get handed a baby at the end. There’s nothing special about having a baby. Women all over the world do it every day, squatting in rice paddies and fields and whatnot, and you don’t hear them banging on about it ad nauseum.

But it is special. And when the cynical ranter in me takes a break and the dewy-eyed midwife steps in, I’d even say it is magical. No matter how many times I see it happen, it is magical to watch a whole new person come into the world, a person that has been there, out of sight, curled up behind a wall of skin and muscle for fortyish weeks. It’s magical to see women birth their babies and cross over the threshold to parenthood, sometimes sweetly, sometimes with a lurch and a crash. I love bearing witness to those first few hours of naked emotion, naked bodies, tears and blood, shock and awe. Before the cleaning up, tidying up, washing, dressing, wrapping, texting, calling and anxiety begin. But if the message I’m reading, socially and culturally, is that birth is no biggie then should I care? Maybe women don’t care. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s the idealistic hippy in me, yearning for a scene from Spiritual Midwifery, where all the sweetly smiling, long-haired, vegetarian folks are kissing and singing as the newest arrival slithers into Ina May Gaskin’s hands. You could almost have convinced me of the error of my convictions, before I crossed the threshold myself. Yes, as a student midwife and even as a newly minted midwife, my only image of the transformational power of birth was a scene like that. I would have argued that birth has to be felt, that a woman needed to immerse herself in the raw physicality of it to truly appreciate her female power, to be truly transformed. I don’t believe that anymore. Yes, I believe in the importance of natural, physiological labour and birth, but not for the same reasons. I don’t think a normal labour should be messed with, but that’s because I’ve seen the damage that can be done to a woman and her baby, not because I feel we’d be interrupting her passage to powerful, enlightened motherhood. Now I believe that whether a woman births her baby through the tumult of labour, or has her baby lifted out under the glare of surgical lights, or even if she adopts her baby, she still walks the wild and vulnerable path to motherhood. She is changed and can never be the same again. She could bear the pain of her baby dying or of giving her baby up for adoption but she cannot undo becoming a mother.

This passage should be honoured, tended carefully, rejoiced in. Whichever way they do it, women need to be held up by their friends, family and carers when they become mothers. They are vulnerable and need to be able to find and wield their own power, they need safety but not rescuing, they need love but not infantilising. They need open minds and hearts surrounding them, allowing them to change and enabling them to know the changes within intimately. That knowledge, that is power.