What was I thinking? It was two weeks before my baby was due but I was already at the reception counter of the maternity wing of the hospital that morning a long time ago. A nurse in blue wrote down my name and other personal particulars in a big registration book and took the file I had brought from the prenatal clinic.
Except for a pinkish stain on my underwear, there was no indication that the baby was coming. No pain. No discomfort. Nothing. Still, the nurse gave me an enema and by one o’clock she had ushered me to a bed in one of the ‘waiting rooms’ and handed me hospital attire: a green sarong and a ghastly white blouse which had had its whiteness sucked out of the fabric.
“Can’t I just wear my own clothes?” I asked but even before I came to the end of my sentence the nurse was already out of the door.
“You must put on the hospital clothes.” The voice came from the occupant of the other bed of this two-bedded room. Between my many trips to the bathroom, we had disjointed bits of dialogue and she let me awe at her bloated limbs, her ballooned face, her swollen feet and fingers the size of baby cucumbers.
She had a host of problems, she said, and the doctor had ordered CRIB. I sympathized with her. I knew how depressing it was to see nothing but four empty walls all day and half the night. That is if you could sleep the other half. I wondered if the doctor also forbade her to walk to the bathroom which was just a few steps away from her bed.
My first baby, born more than six years earlier, made her appearance after a very short labour and I did not expect this second one to have any problem. I was young and healthy. Walking up and down flights of stairs and endless corridors as well as running after my students kept me fit. At home I was a fastidious housewife, occasionally getting up at dawn so I had time to scrub the kitchen floor before leaving the house just after six. The other chores were done when I came home in the afternoon. Nobody could say I lacked physical exercises. I had also learnt the proper breathing technique to help me during labour. I was quite ready to face what was coming.
When I had Dottie there was only this one staff nurse to attend to the three of us expectant mothers at the small hospital and I gave her ‘As’ for her efficiency, kindness and sense of humour. This time, I was at this big general hospital for my second delivery. There was no shortage of doctors and nurses, I thought.
The time passed uneventfully. I pulled the over-sized hospital blouse this way and that, trying to wrap it around my small frame. I tried to read but my attention kept wandering. I rummaged through my bag, packed weeks earlier. I had brought my own clothes and, for the new baby, a fluffy towel, a few cute vests and cloth nappies – all white and new.
The nurse in blue came to check on the baby. She put a funnel-shaped instrument on my tummy and listened to the baby. I felt silly as I did not feel any pain. It reminded me of the time I went to the hospital to have my daughter. I went as soon as I noticed some blood stains. The staff nurse kept me overnight and told me to go home the next morning! Was this going to be a repetition of the first ‘show’?
It was late afternoon when the first spasm of pain jolted me. This was followed by a short respite and quickly succeeded by more intense pain and increasingly shorter intervals.
Where was the nurse? Except for the nurse in blue, no one came to check on me although I saw white figures walking up and down the corridor just outside the door of the waiting room. I was quite sure they were nurses and not ghosts. I waved my hand like a student fighting for the teacher’s attention.
‘Hello? Hello!’ No one paid me the slightest attention. Maybe I was the ghost here and the nurses did not see dead people?
I was frantic with worry when I felt a sudden gush of warm liquid flooding my thighs. My water broke? Or was that blood? I could not tell. If you were an expectant mum, and you are lying down, you can’t see anything on the other side of the hill that is your tummy. I was thinking: would I hurt the baby if I sat down?
I did not dare sit up. Instead, I turned to my room-mate.
“Is it blood?” I asked her, not even caring that I was interrupting her conversation with her husband who had just popped in to see her. She sat up on her bed and stretched her neck to see if I had discharged blood.
“No,” she said. “It’s not blood.” I huffed and puffed when the next wave of pain struck. I must have appeared like a mad woman with all that panting.., (not many people knew about the Lamaze method then)... and scared her husband because he asked his wife, “What’s wrong with her?” before he made a quick exit. That must have had been his shortest visit. Poor fellow.
And poor me as well. I could give birth there right before my room-mate, so great was the urge to push. My over-active imagination conjured up frightful images and I succeeded in frightening not only myself but my new friend as well. What if I pushed and the baby slipped out and fell off the bed and onto the floor? You know how slippery babies are, covered with all that yogurt-like muck.
Where were the nurses?
“Please, call a nurse,” I begged. By this time I could barely control the urge to push. When I was not hyper-ventilating, I was trembling and my teeth were doing a crazy tap dance in my mouth.
My room-mate, bless her, waddled the few steps to the door. “Nurse! Nurse!” Luckily, a staff nurse was passing by.
The nurse stuck her head at the door. She was all white and starched—and angry! “Why did you get out of your bed? You know you’re not supposed to get up! What? She? She will not give birth so soon. Now, stay in your bed.” Then she left. I did not know that some people could tell when a baby was ready to be born just by looking at the mother’s face. She had a great gift that nurse.
Another nurse came after what seemed like an eternity. She made me sit in a wheelchair before she wheeled me out to a tiny cubicle, checked my progress and then pushed me to the labour room.
It was a spacious room and very bright. As I climbed onto a bed, I heard a girl crying. She was in another bed and surrounded by a few nurses. They seemed to be facing some problems.
“The baby is in distress. Why don’t you just do a C-section?” someone was asking. Then I stopped paying attention to them because now I had my own problems. I was tired after all the labouring in the waiting room and I had neither energy nor desire to push.
“Push! Push!” I heard a voice encouraging me. Just before six o’clock my son was finally born but my relief turned into consternation because the nurses took him away and did not inform me what was wrong. The birth certainly did not happen like in TV movies where the doctor showed the mother her new baby and everyone oohed and ahhed over the newborn.
It was only the next morning, more than twelve hours after my baby was born, that I was able to tell the doctor – who was making his rounds – that I had not seen my son. The kind doctor went to investigate and told me later that my baby was in the nursery and that he had trouble breathing and he could not suck.
My baby was in an incubator for three days. I often wondered if his distress could have been prevented and if many mothers went through experiences similar to mine. I also wondered if I should have stuck to birthing at home which I had initially considered. My mother had every single one of her babies at home. We all survived and no one needed ‘incubating’.
I took my baby home, minus his beautiful, new clothes which I hope ended up with someone needier than us. I was also glad to be spared the horror of bringing home the wrong baby because it was around this time that some stories were being circulated about babies being accidentally switched right after birth.
However, when my baby was particularly fussy -- for some reason he always cried loudly when we sang ‘Rock-a-bye-baby’ -- big sister, Dottie, would sometimes ask, “Ma, are you sure you took the right baby home?”
(Note: I meant to post this last month on Sonny's birthday. But better late than never. Happy Birthday, Son!)