Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Alien in the Machine

Pregnancy. Childbirth.

When I try to imagine my body going through either of those states again, something within me simply fails to engage. 
Just the click, click of an empty engine turning over. 
Alien-me turns these two ideas over and over in my hands, squinting. 
Pregnancy. Childbirth.
So that is how it is achieved in this particular species. How very novel. What brilliant mind concocted that particular schema? Surely there must be a better way. 
I throw my alien hands up in despair at the inherent stupidity of the human reproductive system. If you can even call something so crazily haphazard a system. That can take a child so very far, all internal organs formed, limbs, fingers, toes, hair, eyes, nose, brain, and then still force their own mother's body to discard them.

I give pregnant women sidelong glances. Curious. 
They sometimes smile back at me, and at my daughter who beams at them from her buggy, imagining that I know what it is to be pregnant.
I am a fraud.
I did not provision her, I did not breathe for her, I did not nourish her.
I only took my children up to the very, very top of a high precipice. And then I let them go.
But I thought I'd give them a faint glimmer of a whisper of a chance of making it out alive. 
Just for a bit of additional tension.

My body did not experience the stresses and strains of pregnancy. 
I wonder what a doctor would conclude from a physical examination, would he or she be able to tell that I had ever had children, ever given birth?  

My daughters did not grow big and strong inside me. 
My thin babies.
My thin, thin, breakable little children.
So ugly. Like tiny, red frogs. Fused eyes. 
But never, ever ugly to me.
When I look back at the pictures, I am always shocked.
Because I don't remember them looking that way. To me they always looked beautiful. 
But my daughters look almost somehow indecent, appalling.
More naked than you or I would look if we stripped off all our clothes.
The soul too close to the skin, so near the surface that you can see the joins.
How they were made, how we are all made, is too glaringly obvious in those early pictures. 
There is something there that makes people want to avert their eyes, From the pain of it. Or maybe from the beauty.

Not many people have babies who look like my girls. I don't know how I would feel about having a baby that did not, those little forms make my heart twist so. 

One of the many cruel aspects of having a very premature baby in neonatal care is that the units tend to be co-located with maternity wards. I used to stare, google eyed at the new born babies who confronted me every single time I left the NICU. Those gigantic solid limbs. Their eyes were open. The ribs that didn't collapse and inflate visibly with every breath. The firm hold on that life that my daughters' tiny, bony hands scrabbled so to hold on to.

With mothers who touched them, who didn't stop to ask permission. That casual stooping down to a baby hidden within a car seat, the easy cradling of a tiny body. Their effortlessness never failed to fill me with astonishment.
I was knocked absolutely sideways.
At how different I was. 
At how different my children were. 

Both tiny. One dead. Machines in constant attendance.

It is those machines that are with me still. That whir around on the edges of my mind. That suck-thump-thump of the ventilator, the thin translucent lines that pushed nutrition, blood, drugs in, the trace on the monitor, the slow, slow progression of the syringes as the pumps ran down.

I don't really know what I expected child birth to be like.
I couldn't imagine it before the girls were born.
I thought it would be intimate, that I would enfold my new born children in my arms and whisper that I loved them. Show them proudly to my husband.

It wasn't like that.

The fleshy, earthy parts of this process seem to be closed off to me.
It seems somehow related. 
My inability to mother my own existing two children and my seeming inability to have another child.
No goodness seems to spring from me, or from my husband, or from the kind of love that we once felt for one another. 
Just illness and despair and death. I hope that time proves me wrong.

I wasn't able to pick up my child and comfort her. I watched a tear run from her eye, her mouth jammed full of ventilator and I could not offer anything. Unless the mixture of despair and love I felt during that moment was so strong that it somehow took on a tangible physical presence and drifted up to her where she lay in her incubator.

Those kind machines who looked after my children.

They gave one of my daughters back to me, just her and me. Alone. No more gentle mechanical helpers.

And she died.

Slowly but surely.
She died right there in my arms.
These same arms that are still attached to my body.
These same hands that I am using to type this.
Held her.

I would have given anything to help her.

But I was just a bit of feeble flesh.
Without those electronics and metal and plastic, her body failed. 
She stopped breathing and then, finally, her heart stopped beating.

And, in that moment, you realise that you have no say, no input, that your opinion and all of your mighty, mighty love cannot be of any assistance. Because death has all the cards.

When I contemplate the tremendous, hideous abyss between what I thought being pregnant and having children was about back on the 25th of August 2008 and what I believe now, my head feels as though it will simply twist and twist until it spins off my neck and vanishes off into the wild blue yonder, never to return.

I know now that I had false expectations. 

I thought that if it wasn't done perfectly, it was a reflection on my worth as a wife, as a mother, as a woman.
Because there are people who put all their store in natural birth, in bonding, in breast feeding, in avoiding medication and medical assistance. Because there are carefully constructed birth plans. Because other people told me to make certain to do x,y or z. Because different people told me to make certain NOT to do x,y, or z.

I don't have a problem with that. If you have been lucky, you've probably still got it in you to sit and worry about those issues. But I won't be joining you. And I certainly won't be passing judgement on your birth plans or child rearing abilities.

What I don't like about this strange mythologising of pregnancy and childbirth, or implying that there is some magical 'correct' way to approach it, is that it somehow seems to makes me and my children less.
That it has made me judge myself and my attempts to have children as failure.
That it has made me feel ashamed because I found the birth of my tiny children painful.
When I should have been able to grit my teeth through the pain.

That we are, somehow, diminished or incapable.

Because we did not do it properly.
Because the girls were born too soon.
Because Georgina died.
But do you know what?
It was still beautiful. It was still amazing to see my children.
I gave birth. It was too soon. It was sad.
But I am not weak or a failure. Neither are my daughters. 
I still think that all three of us did a good job, given what we had to work with. 
We tried. Everyone does. We live and we try. I don't have time for all this judgey, judgey I gave birth to seven, eleven pounders naturally with nary a squeak. Well bully for you.
Their birth, surprising and agonising and quick and bloody as it was, does not change the strange beauty of my daughters or my love for them.
Nothing can stop that.
Not their appearance, their fragility, not illness, not those machines that stepped in and took over from me, nothing.
On a good day, I feel that even death can't put a stop to it.

People don't want to hear about the birth of my children. It makes them uncomfortable. But I don't care. I'm taking back the beauty and the mess. It's mine.

'You'll be given love
You'll be taken care of
You'll be given love
You have to trust it

Maybe not from the sources
You have poured yours
Maybe not from the directions
You are staring at.'

Some very (very) loving machines.


  1. Oh Catherine, there is so much I want to reply to this post, but the words get jumbled in my excuse for a brain.
    I thought I knew about pregnancy and birth, and babies, but I knew such a tiny amount. I've learned so much more from this community. We all have different experiences, but they all have beauty in their own way. Our children were, are beautiful.
    Our experiences are all valid.
    My doctor said to me that it's a miracle that so many babies do make it, it's a gamble that everything goes right when those two cells meet.

  2. Wow. This was beautiful. Thank you.

    I too, don't care that it makes others uncomfortable. Your way of putting it though, is wonderful.

    "People don't want to hear about the birth of my children. It makes them uncomfortable. But I don't care. I'm taking back the beauty and the mess. It's mine."

    It caught my breath when you wrote that your daughters' souls were so close to their skin.


  3. you aren't weak. not one bit.

    "When I look back at the pictures, I am always shocked. Because I don't remember them looking that way. "
    SO TRUE...

  4. Not less, Catherine ... more. Your experience of pregnancy and children is so much MORE than so many women will experience. More complex, the torturous twisting of life and death so much more apparent than most mothers ever come close to experiencing. And I wish it wasn't ...I wish you had had the lesser experience of carrying and birthing your babies in simple ignorance of the enormity of that amazing feat.

    "The soul too close to the skin, so near the surface that you can see the joins."

    I cried so hard reading this - such a beautiful/difficult image of your tiny, fragile daughters. For months after Emma died, I couldn't bear to look at pictures of living babies but I would stare at the pictures of dead babies on blogs and forums. I was particularly drawn to preemies too (even though that wasn't my experience). Something about their incredible, fragile beauty just held me - maybe it was this - their souls too close to their skin.

  5. Beautiful, beautiful. Well done. Fuck 'people', you take the beauty back. I know you mean it.
    I LOVE this will be taken care of...

  6. yes, yes, yes.

    i think i could have written this same post, though certainly not as beautifully. im so glad i found you. and im so sad that it had to be under these circumstances.

    i actually look at pregnant womens' bellies with such disdain that i catch myself and am embarrassed! maybe one day that will change, for now i have to live with my crazy.

    thinking of your Georgina tonight and thanks for the glimpse into how it all fell into place.

  7. Beautiful. You are so right that we are neither weak nor failures.

  8. Catherine, you are so right, about everything. So often I feel like a failure, and I remember feeling as though I had to ask to touch my baby. I remember when they told us that he had no brain function, yet they told us not to touch him too much, lest we disturb him. I did not know which to believe, but Im sure you can guess, that I chose not to touch him too much, lest I disturb him in his slumber.
    My love to you...

  9. Like Jeanette says, it really is amazing that any children are ever born. Let alone healthy living ones. There is SO MUCH that can go wrong.

    You did well. You did everything you could for your girls. You never would have chosen to hurt them. Like you say, you did a good job. So did they.

    And you should tell the story. Who cares if it makes people uncomfortable? For them, it's only a minute or an hour, or maybe a day or two that it stays with them. You have to live it. You deserve to celebrate both of your daughters.


  10. Oh Catherine, Your eloquence, your heart, your spirit - move me to tears. I will always to be here to hear about the beauty and the mess and your two beautiful girls. It is the great loss of others that they can't bear witness to you and Georgina and Jessica. Sending much love xxxx

  11. you write so beautifully! and everything you say is always so true...truer than my own thoughts sometimes. i feel the same way about so many things.

  12. This is beautiful, Catherine. As one bit of feeble flesh to another, I salute you. You did do a good job, an amazingly good job, with what you had to work with.

  13. catherine, your writing is so powerful. i hardly know what to say in response to this post, except that i'm here and i'm listening. and i hope that you are able to believe that you are beautiful writer and able to find a real value for yourself in this way of expressing. i am always impressed by your honesty and eloquence. xo

  14. Lost for words, amazing post.

  15. I'm so sorry for your loss. I just came across your blog. I lost my full term daughter on March 16 of this year. She was stillborn. I have twin brothers, so it always hurts me to read stories of babyloss moms with twins...either losing both or one. Praying for you and thinking of you..check out my blog:

  16. "That we are, somehow, diminished or incapable.
    Because we did not do it properly."

    I feel like this all of the time. Rather than receiving more love because birth for me hurt so bad (much beyond physical pain) I feel judged. Like I never deserved a baby and was foolish to try.

    Reclaim their beautiful birth Catherine! And thank you for the reminder that my son's birth was perhaps the most beautiful moment of my life.

    You wrote a gorgeous post!

  17. Right with you, Catherine. With the beauty, with the mess. Sending much love your way.

  18. Love you, Catherine!

    And that's one of my all time fave songs!

  19. This was a fabulous post.

    As an NICU nurse I totally get what you mean about their souls being closer to the skin. Somehow looking into the eyes of a very premature baby is like looking into the abyss. Sort of like seeing into a space where life and death meet. Because without all those modern machines they would be dead. And somehow, those babies seem to know it. It makes every movement of their eyes, every flick of their finger mean so much more than your average full term baby. You are completely aware that you are watching something that should not exist in our time and space.

    I like to think that our births were so painful, and so much MORE than the average birth BECAUSE our babies were so small. There was no happy excitement or geared up tension in the room. Yes our bodies may not have had to stretch to accomodate those monster 10 pounders...but we pushed them out while our hearts were breaking, our minds were screaming "IT'S NOT TIME YET". There was no happy smiles waiting for us at the end. Just more pain. So damn right you should claim your birth. It was messy and awful and scary and real. It's the truth.

  20. Catherine, you gave your girls the best chance you could. And one of your girls is still with you now. I gave my three the best I could, and none of them are with me now. How long you can keep your children healthy inside you doesn't seem to matter in this random thing we call life. xxx

  21. Thank you for this post. I am about to give birth to a 1 pound 10 ounce baby who, up until last week, we were told wouldn't make it. You cannot tell I am pregnant by looking at me and it makes me feel as if this is not a real pregnancy and as if I am a fraud. Thank you for do beautifully putting this into words.