The big birth lie

Revelations; The time: 17 November 1990 The place: St George's Hospital, Sydney The woman: Kathy Lette, novelist
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The thing that changed me the most was the day I discovered that women could be as deceitful as men. I say that as a passionate feminist. That was the day I gave birth to my first child, which is when I realised that every single woman I knew had LIED TO ME and betrayed me. It's depressing to know that we can be just as devious as them. There's no word for "macho" for women, but there should be: "femcho", because it's really competitive between women.

First of all, nobody tells you about the birth, how bad it's going to be. Nobody tells you to have drugs, there's this incredible pressure on you to give birth naturally. I call this a case of stiff upper labia. Why? We've done drugs all our lives, why stop now?

On that birthing table I was so shocked; I'd had no idea. It is prehistoric what happens to women, and when you're lying on that table adoption starts looking a very, very attractive alternative. If you were ever in doubt about the gender of God, which you shouldn't be after period cramps and big breasts hurting when you run, when you're on that table you know that God is definitely a bloke.

I went for 25 hours of incredible agony, still thinking "Oh God, I must be an earth mother, I'm the only woman failing at this." I was in labour doing all that ridiculous beanbag squatting thing - only homeless teenagers should squat, it's not something a grown woman in labour should have to do. Didn't you wonder, when you look back at the Sixties, what all those beanbags were for? Well, finally I knew they were to help you pretend that you could have a natural childbirth. I threw my beanbag at my husband, saying if anything bad happened I was going to sue him.

My husband didn't want to be there but I thought if he was there when it went in, he can be there when it comes out. I had him there because it's the only time in your life to get anything you've ever wanted. While you're lying there going "ugh, ugh", gasping, and he's saying "darling, darling, what can I do for you?": new car, new carpet, holiday in the Caribbean - those are the pregnancy cravings I got.

After 25 hours I thought to myself, "You idiot, what are you trying to prove and who are you trying to prove it to?" And I gave up the idea of being femcho and just cried out for drugs. They came with the biggest needle you've ever seen, it looks like you'd use it on a horse, but you don't care. They put it in your spine and it's bliss. You can still walk around, you can still feel yourself pushing the baby out, it just doesn't hurt.

I think of natural childbirth the way I think of natural appendectomy. It just doesn't compute. This is why we live in this century, to have some kind of pain relief. What I would tell other women is: ask for the epidural. No, you won't be able to ask, actually, you'll be in too much pain. Write "epidural" on your stomach with an arrow pointing back. And don't have the enema, because crapping on the obstetrician is the ultimate revenge. And when the doctor is doing the episiotomy, just get the doctor to keep sewing, because you don't want anything going in there or coming out of there ever again.

I lay there as a passionate feminist, in a froth of loathing for my fellow females. They told me three great lies: it would be the ultimate orgasm (this is the line Sheila Kitzinger takes); that it would be no worse than a period cramp; and that it's the most euphoric moment in your life and you will fall so in love with the baby that that's the only thing on your mind. In fact, the only thing on your mind is wanting to kill the man who got you into this in the first place.

But you do love your baby with an unbelievable passion. You're aching in bits of your body you didn't know you had before, but you do love them like crazy. You're so besotted, you keep thinking, who is this tall hairy person hanging around me and my baby? The husband really gets short shrift.

Birth is like a Chinese meal, you forget it about 10 minutes afterwards, and when my child was finally born, Julius - we thought he was going to be Caesarean so we called him Julius as a joke, and he wasn't but the name stuck anyway - I was so appalled at the Stone Age experience I had had, that everyone was saying to me, "shouldn't you be bonding with your baby?" and I was writing it all down. I knew I'd forget, because then I'd just be so in love. You're so tired when a baby comes out that you couldn't care if it was a grand piano - in fact that's what it feels like at the time - but I wrote it all down.

I understand the swing back to natural childbirth because I think our mothers had no say at all, those hospitals called Caesar's Palaces because of the amount of Caesareans they did - a quick bit of slash-and-grab so the doctor could get home in time for golf. But it's really gone too far. And femchos - it's worse when they become mothers and turn into the Stepford Mums. I'm saying, "Oh God, I wanted to put the kids out the window and the husband down the food disposal unit", and instead of saying, "absolutely - drink this", they just say, "have you thought about therapy?"

There are the mothers who pretend to run a major corporation by day and enjoy doing creative things with Playdoh. A lot of the time you think I'm the only mother who isn't coping. I honestly thought after my first child, OK, everybody else copes really well, I'm the only kid-and-career juggler who tends to drop things, especially husbands. It took me about a year to come to the conclusion that any mother, who says she copes all the time, is either lying or taking a lot of drugs.

I wasn't prepared; I thought I was going to go into Doris Day overdrive. The really sexist joke is that childbirth is a doddle compared to what comes next - cracked nipples, constipation, mountains of haemorrhoids, and you're tethered by the tit, you're a 24-hour catering service, meals on heels. Then there is the lack of sleep, which is a legitimate form of torture in some of the more repressive regimes in the world, and it works. You'd admit to anything after a week with a bonsai insomniac, except there's nothing to confess to - the highlight of the day is getting the lint out of the dryer. And the lack of sex: children are a contraceptive. Every time you go to have sex the baby wakes up or the toddler toddles in. My sex drive didn't kick back into fourth gear until about six months after the first baby.

That was a real turning point for me, because up till then I'd pretty much seen men as the enemy and after that I thought, hmm, maybe I should concentrate on women's faults and foibles as well, because sometimes there's a grand canyon between our beliefs and our behaviour.

I don't know any other woman who will admit to me that motherhood is not the ultimate fulfilment for a female. It's the last great sacred cow and it's time we whacked it on the barbie. I can't stress enough how much I love my own kids, I love them with a primal passion, but being objective about motherhood, I would say it's the hardest thing I've ever done and I don't think everybody is the type - we shouldn't expect everybody to be the type.

My kitchen is always full of women sobbing that if they had children they'd be fulfilled as a female, and the next weekend it's full of women sobbing that if they didn't have children they'd be fulfilled as a female ... We always want what the other woman's got. But as long as you know you're not the only one who finds it difficult at times, that's OK. It's just when you're trying to live up to this perfect mother myth perpetuated by Miriam Stoppard and Penelope Leach and all those Kiddie Commissars that you feel like such a failure.

For the next birth I took a book in called Medical Malpractice - You Too Can Sue and left it for the doctor to see, so I knew that I would be absolutely taken care of. The only natural thing about the second birth was that I didn't get time for the old bikini wax first

Kathy Lette's latest novel, `Mad Cows', is published this month by Picador at pounds 12.99.

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