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The Sunroof: The Birth of Alba

Writing by Freya Bennett

The cabbage moths exploded the week before my planned c-section. Puffs of white tumbling and bouncing through the sky, distracting even the most conscientious driver – their beauty understated but their joy, palpable.

The sun was just starting to get that sting to it and my daily walks up the hill, navigating the bull ants who share our neighbourhood, became a languid affair. Elizabeth was always in her garden, harvesting posies of pink and purple pea flowers for my six-year-old daughter and sharing words of encouragement on the impending arrival of the stranger in my belly. Despite the discomfort, I continued to move every day, my belly stretching in all directions, my lungs stubbornly fighting for space.

The last day of being pregnant was bittersweet. While I had loved the process of holding my second daughter in my belly, treasuring every somersault and hiccup, the hormones fluffed in my brain like cotton wool, and I was looking forward to some space for my own thoughts.

Rory slept in our king bed the night before. I watched her calm face and felt a pang of pre-emptive empathy for the huge change that was about to barrel her over. A change she would eventually be grateful for, a change I wish I had been granted as an only child who still longs for a sibling. I didn’t sleep much that night, both excitement and intrusive thoughts exploding scenarios throughout my mind as I lay in the still calm of early Summer.

We had to be at the hospital by seven am so mum had stayed the night ready for grandma duties. We decided Rory could stay home from school for the week, both as a treat but also to allay my fears of her catching covid and sharing it with the tiniest, soon-to-be member of our family. Covid was spreading slowly through our school, not so quick as to be alarming but much like a slow leak on a carpet, too risky not to act. I had dropped her off on the Friday and after being enveloped in a hug from her friend, who joyfully told me “Mum and brother have Covid!” before blissfully patting my belly, I decided there was no harm in a week off from school.

Dawn seemed exceptionally beautiful the morning of my c-section. S and I spoke of the coincidence that the only name we both fell in love with also meant ‘dawn’ alongside our beautiful Aurora’s name. Rory liked the fact that she would match her little sister though still insisted she would call her ‘Algie’ – a nickname stolen from my favourite – and now Rory’s favourite – childhood book, Ramona Quimby.

The magpies had just begun their warble when we packed the car, S with a piece of vegemite toast in his mouth, me breathing the sweet, rain tinted air. We gave Rory the biggest hug, but she was already distracted by the promise of pancakes. We bundled ourselves into our rusty old Corolla, the same Corolla we bought just before Rory’s arrival. The Corolla that is held together with duct tape and the occasional swift kick to the bumper.

Driving beside fields of kangaroos along the empty Calder Freeway to Bendigo, the early sun washing the world gold, I felt a tug of sadness at forgoing a natural birth. I’d had a keen interest in childbirth since I was a kid myself. Growing up with a menstrual educator for a mother meant the house was always overflowing with books, props and honest answers about periods, sex, pregnancy, and birth. I had watched countless videos of childbirth, never once fearing the pain, only marvelling at the incredible feat. But after 50 hours of labour, two hours of pushing and a subsequent emergency c-section with Rory, I didn’t feel I could handle doing that again. The risk of a similar experience wasn’t worth it for me even if I was in great shape to give it a go. It was a choice I embraced with comfort, albeit tinged with subtle melancholy.

A few weeks earlier, at my local indoor pool, an establishment privately run by a curious family, the owner asked when I was due. I explained I was having a c-section so knew the exact date of my daughter’s arrival.

“Can’t you just push her out?” he asked.

Neither offended nor upset, I felt rather bemused by the man’s naivety at childbirth, and what was appropriate to say to a pregnant woman. I was comfortable with my decision so no questioning by an out-of-touch man could illicit guilt, however I was curious as to why I wasn’t offended by his vastly inappropriate comment. I realised it was a sense of familiarity with his views. As a young woman, I had strong opinions myself on childbirth (always hilarious when someone who hasn’t given birth has opinions about how it should be done). My black and white view of the world had since mellowed to soft grey, and I realised childbirth is a) never as simple as just “pushing the baby out” and b) totally a woman’s choice.

Feeling empowered and wistful were not mutually exclusive emotions for me and I savoured the drive to the hospital as my last journey of acceptance at the closed door of natural childbirth.

This would be the fourth time visiting the hospital and this time to welcome our baby. I noticed how my body felt much more at ease than on our way to my ultrasound appointments. Somehow, the thought of a c-section was much less scary than the grainy peek at the kidney bean of a baby nestled in my womb.

When we pulled into the carpark, we saw doctors and nurses arriving alongside us. It felt wrong to see them before they were on duty. Like seeing an actor before a play. I avoided eye contact, shy at the size of my belly. Not from shame – I loved my big belly – but from the feeling of being exposed, my waddle betraying our plans for the day.

S carried our three bags, his bag almost as full as both mine and the baby’s combined – his over preparedness in packing made up for his tendency to always be late. As the lift ascended, the butterflies in my stomach turned to wasps, buzzing with angry anticipation.

The corridors were wide, new, and flooded with too bright lights. It felt empty and I wished for some hustle and bustle. Not too much that our needs couldn’t be met, but just enough to know we weren’t alone.

Lost in the white halls, a bright-eyed student midwife waved us down, her energy that of an eager puppy – new and naïve (but in the best way). She led us to our room and checked us in. The room was sparse and clean if a little uninviting. I craved warm dim lights and soft edges.  I could see into an adjoining room, our window at a right angle to theirs. A woman was lying in bed, her mother, or a mother-in-law perhaps, was rocking the new baby. Exhaustion was etched on the new mum’s face as she stared solemnly at her baby. I remembered deeply the grief I had felt at losing a part of myself as I entered my motherhood era.

I had been expressing colostrum, an act I would be very grateful for later when low milk supply and a latching issue meant anything extra was crucial. We asked the midwife to store the liquid gold and she happily grabbed our stash for the freezer.

My stretched belly had prevented any kind of personal grooming so when the student midwife came back with a razor, declaring it time to shave my upper bikini line for the operation, I had no idea what I would be presenting to her. I was glad not to be able to see over my swollen belly at the task below, only witness to the aftermath as she cleaned up the debris with such spirit. The midwife retrieved a doppler to listen to the baby’s heart, a moment that always triggers a gut reaction in me since the loss of a pregnancy eight years ago – the doppler searching and searching for an absent heartbeat.

“Would you like to film this?” she asked excitedly. The baby kicked and my worry evaporated as I got my phone out to film the last whoosh whoosh window into our baby’s heart – a perfect metronome of beats.

We’d been told by friends who had recently birthed via planned c-section that it could be hours of waiting so I had brought two books in preparation, perhaps a little overzealous but I wanted to be able to choose the vibe. Humour won in that moment. S and I spent ten minutes laughing at Miriam Margolyes’ ice breaker questionnaire from her latest book ‘Oh Miriam!’.

Just 20 minutes later our laughter was interrupted by the student midwife who announced,

“Are we ready to have a baby?”

My easily excitable heart sped up to match the pace of my baby’s. I was glad to be able to walk to the theatre myself, the distraction of movement always welcome in my ever-anxious body.

S was briefly whisked away to change into scrubs and I, already in my hospital gown, stood, slightly awkwardly, in a long corridor as I awaited his return. What a strange feeling to know I would be meeting my baby in the next hour. S returned looking very handsome in scrubs, and we joked about him retraining to be a doctor. We were taken into a strange room to meet the team, double doors on both sides and a hospital bed in the middle. I sat on the bed with the theatre ahead of me and the corridor behind and felt very much like I was on a production line. I laughed internally at the unceremonious nature of my second daughter’s birth. However, being about as sentimental as a calculator, I didn’t mind.

It was in this room we were introduced to the theatre midwife and anaesthetist. Having undergone six operations, I have a soft spot for anaesthetists. They are the friend sitting by you, making sure you’re kept asleep or in the case of a c section, without pain. She joked about being the one to have to poke and prod me apologising in advance for her part in my discomfort. A tiny firecracker of a woman, I relished her jovial nature and felt safe in her care.

Another c-section was happening just through the double doors. I simultaneously felt a wee bit intrusive and completely enthralled at being so close to another women’s birth.

An IV was inserted, tests were done – I focused on S instead of the tightening cuff of the blood pressure machine – white coat syndrome a recent acquaintance during this pregnancy. Without warning, a small but mighty cry commanded the space. The cry of a tiny human, their first sound, testing their lungs, confused at the feeling of cold on their skin. My heart swelled.

Only moments later I was wheeled into the theatre which was already bustling with staff.
S went off to sort out our playlist so we could create some gentle atmosphere in the harshness of the theatre. Courtney, Mick, Paul, Art, Taylor, Harry, Aurora. The old and the new. The rock, the pop, the folk ready to welcome our daughter.

Having a needle poked into your spine feels like a dance with trouble. I sat up as directed, stiff as a plank of wood, reluctantly, and gratefully accepting my spinal block. The feeling was strange, not overly painful but rough, like a toddler with a crayon.

“Does this feel centred to you?” asked the anaesthetist.

“I’m not sure! What do you mean? I think it feels off to the left!” I answered, panic rising in my chest, I didn’t want to get this question wrong if this was the difference between the block working or not.

She wiggled it round, seemingly without care.

‘Be careful of my spine!’ I wanted to yell.

Sensing my fear, the anaesthetists reassured me it was working, she just wanted it to be comfortable to lie on. Finally, I was allowed to lay down. A warm, weighted blanket of a feeling crept up my legs as I went numb. A relief in such a cold room. The warmth continued to spread, and while nice, my fear jumped again, and I asked:

“Will it stop before my lungs?” the fear of not being able to control my breath gripped me.

I was reassured with warmth.

My heartrate slowed, the monitor flashing from the 70s down to the 60s. Normally, I have a high, easily excitable rate. It felt good to slow down, I wondered if this is how normal people felt and cursed the anxiety that keeps my body in such a state of fight or flight. Of course, despite the calmness of my heart, the anxious voice in my head, like an unyielding dictator began to question if it was going too slow. Would it keep dropping until it stopped?

“Is my heartrate going to drop too low?” I asked, embarrassed but unable to stop my incessant and fearful questions.

“The drugs make your heartrate slow down a bit, but it’s completely normal.”

The anaesthetist answered with a twinkle of amusement, I was once again reassured.

I was briefly introduced to my surgeon; she waved over the curtain that had been erected. How strange, the feeling of letting a stranger cut you open.

As the operation began, the midwife started to explain the layers of my body which were being cut. Not a squeamish bone in my body despite my health anxiety, I welcomed this knowledge with fascination.

S was next to me holding my hand, ever the calm companion.

Five songs in and “She’s a Rainbow” by the Rolling Stones began to play as the midwife informed us the last layer was being cut, baby girl was about to be pulled from my womb.

S fumbled to get out his phone to take pictures and I lay there, mind still for what felt like the first time in my life. A tiny yet powerful cry pierced the air, the sound I longed for but had prepared myself not to hear immediately. Alba was here.

The curtain was lowered, my baby lifted into view, her umbilical cord still attached, was thick and spiralled like the telephone cord at my grandparent’s house growing up.

I cried. She cried. S cried. Congratulations bounced round the room. The air was light.
As she lay on my chest, eyes trying but failing to open, I barely noticed the next twenty minutes of being stitched up, despite remembering so intensely the sensations from my first c-section – a palpable roughness akin to someone doing dishes in my stomach.

All my worries finally forgotten. My baby was ok, I was ok – I had made it through pregnancy and was out the other side with a new companion.

                                                           Three months later

It’s 3am, I swing my legs off the bed, momentarily distracted by the crumbs I can see on the carpet – the moonlight through the gap in the curtain highlighting the chocolaty fragments. Alba whines again and I hoist my body out of bed, dragging my tired bones down the hallway to the kitchen where the pantry light greets me. I put the kettle on and open the fridge, the blinding light unforgiving. I pour milk from a little bag into Alba’s bottle, one of many perfect packages donated by a local mum and gratefully, tearfully received by me when breastfeeding failed. A chest freezer was bought in a frenzy when multiple mums enthusiastically offered us their milk:
“I have nine litres in my freezer for you!”

“I can drop over a freshly pumped bottle tonight!”
“My baby is due in two weeks, and I am a furious over supplier if you want a regular donor!”

A whole universe has formed in our house since Alba’s arrival, a vibrant expanse, ceaselessly expanding, our own little world spinning with new discoveries and a munificent, sprawling community of milk donors.
There are piles of dishes in the sink, washcloths scattered throughout the house, ready for the milky dribble that somehow always catches us off guard, the cat, relishing the night, a refuge from hungry baby yowls and six-year-old emotions, blissfully stretches on the couch.

The scar on my lower belly is healing but ever present, a portal to life, so unassuming yet magnificent in its power.

This tired, achy moment in time cocoons me, it’s fleetingness bolsters me as I allow myself to be enveloped in the universal experience of raising a child. While I wait for the milk to warm up, I stand on our veranda and marvel at the brightness of the milky way in the clear, silent, warm air. A pair of cabbage moths twirl romantically under the moon, over our fence and into the mellow expanse of the night.

Freya Bennett

Freya Bennett is the Co-Founder and Director of Ramona Magazine. She is a writer and editor from Dja Dja Wurrung Country who loves grey days, libraries and dandelion tea. You can follow her on Instagram @freya___bennett

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