In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to the six-year-olds. On my final day of work before Maternity Leave, two Reception students highlighted the imminence of my baby’s entrance to the world. During my last yard duty, a little girl handed me a pamphlet entitled Baby Checklist Booklet: An essential checklist to help you prepare for your baby’s arrival. Her mum had recently had a baby, and now it was my turn to employ the booklet’s wisdom. Then later, a Reception boy closed the day with a prayer asking God to, “make Mrs Wright’s baby come out quickly”. Perhaps if I had paid a little more heed to the prayer and given a little more weight to the document, I would not have found myself nursing a newborn without a bunny rug or breast pad in sight.
A group of my friends had organised a family holiday to Leonie’s parents’ farm – about five hours drive from Adelaide. Picking a date when five families are involved is always going to be complicated, especially factoring in one husband who works overseas in the mines two out of every three weeks. I was 37 weeks pregnant on the selected weekend, which I always knew was going to be a risk. However, I really didn’t imagine that the baby would be three weeks early, especially considering that Lily had arrived five days late. Besides, I had too much to get done, and I was counting on using every one of those weeks!
Perhaps I should also have interpreted the onset of Extreme Nesting as a sign. For months my attempts to prepare for a newborn had been foiled by a needy toddler, until I had gradually drifted into a state of inertia. And then the week before our trip to the farm, I was completely overcome by a need to set everything right. The nesting frenzy that possessed me proved a potent force: within days, eighty precent of longstanding items on our “To Do” list had been accomplished – tax finalised with our accountant, new glasses selected, Lily’s new “big girl room” organised, a few meals in the freezer, the station-wagon’s air-conditioner booked in to be re-gassed.
That week I was told by a paediatrician that the baby was lying in a good position low in my pelvis: “no guarantee, but a good indicator of an early labour”. Yet for me the word early conjured days not weeks, and even that I didn’t truly believe. I am not by nature a person of high drama and unpredictable behaviour, and I think I vaguely anticipated my baby’s arrival to reflect this. Sure, I entertained flippant discussions with my friends and husband about delivering on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Yet at the same time, I considered how frustrated I would be to bail on this trip only to end up having the baby a week late.
I felt bold enough to tempt fate, because fate for me seemed to favour the mundane. Chances were that I would go on this trip and then the baby would be born within days of my due date in the Women’s and Children’s Hospital. All things considered, was I a little foolish not to stay home? Absolutely! To be perfectly honest, I just really didn’t want to miss out on this holiday, in a rather teenage-ish don’t-go-have-adventures-and-make-stories-to-talk-about-later-without-me kind of way. We had been promised the “cottage” – the prime accommodation site on the property. The girls insisted they would help with Lily so I could have sleep-ins. There would be lambs and bonfires and girlie chats and BBQs and a pizza oven. It would be a sort of Baby Moon. In my (rather flimsy) defence, I did call a midwife at the hospital the day before our trip to ask for advice. She suggested that we go ahead with the holiday, but made sure we knew where the nearest hospital was, just in case.
Friday 28th September. Our plan was to take advantage of Jeremy being on holidays and leave late morning, after packing and getting the car’s air-conditioner re-gassed. We would settle into the cottage early evening, and the rest of the party would arrive after dark. However, both these tasks took far longer than anticipated, and it was almost 3pm by the time the three of us set off from home.
It was not ideal driving weather: heavy rain and strong winds that had me nervously gripping the steering wheel when it was my turn to drive. We stopped at Tailem Bend for a toilet stop, stretch and BBQ pretzels, and then travelled for a time beneath one of the most dazzling double rainbows I’ve seen. Later, Jeremy was to blame the pretzels (once you stop, you just might pop… out a baby?) I wondered if I should have read that freakishly brilliant rainbow as another sign…
Just before Keith, about three quarters of the way though our journey, I started to experience some cramps in my belly. They were like mild period pains – uncomfortable enough to notice, but not enough to talk about. My primary anxiety at this time was frustration that we still hadn’t picked a middle name for our baby. Lily received her middle name Marie in memory of Jeremy’s late mother. We liked the idea of meaningful middle names, yet nothing either of us suggested seemed quite right. I told Jeremy, “By the end of this holiday, I want us to have a middle name for the baby!” That car ride, I really couldn’t seem to let it go.
We stopped for dinner at the Keith pub, before hitting the road again. As darkness fell, the girls sent group texts from their respective cars, updating the status of their children:
“Your kids crashed yet? Mine are finally gone!”
“Charlie from Hi5 has a really annoying voice.”
“Mine are watching Postman Pat then lights out!”
“iPads? I told mine to watch the moon. I’m mean ha ha”.
It was a full moon: big and bright, milky white in the country-dark. Lily watched DVDs for a while, but became increasingly tired and crabby. We played some children’s CDs, hoping she would fall asleep, but she had reached that obstinate point where nothing could please her and she was determined to fight sleep.
Meanwhile, my “cramps” had gradually intensified since dinner. Though still easily bearable, they were longer and stronger. In between kid-wrangling and sorting out directions, I was silently timing the cramps, and a little alarmed to note their regularity. Determined to remain safely in my little bubble of denial for as long as possible, it was quite some time before I said anything to Jeremy. I didn’t want to speak my fears and make them true. I didn’t want to be going into labour four-plus hours from the hospital of my choice. I may not actually have written a birth plan yet, but I was dead certain Moree-Culla Road had no place on it.
When I did eventually tell him that my cramps (I still avoided the word contractions) were six minutes apart, Jeremy was characteristically calm – at least on the outside. Lily was finally asleep, and to be prudent we took a brief detour to the Naracoorte Hospital (an hour from the farm) so we knew where it was, “just in case”. A few nights before Lily’s birth I had experienced some fairly full-on Braxton Hicks which ended up petering out. I clung to a dwindling hope that the same thing might happen on this occasion.
We reached the farm at about 10.30pm amid torrential rain and rumbling thunder. The cottage was lovely. Lily was thrilled with her room and thankfully settled back to sleep quickly in her “porta-tent”. Jeremy and I went to bed, and he was snoring within minutes. Meanwhile, I tossed and turned for an hour, praying that sleep might overcome and subdue the cramps. Instead, they continued in relentless waves, stretching my belly tight and hard every few minutes.
By midnight, I had given up all hope of rest. There was no hiding from reality any longer. I went into the toilet and started sobbing. I felt like such an incredible fool for coming on this holiday. What in the world was I doing here in a little cottage on a remote farm at the end of a dirt road in a different state than my own, in the middle of a storm no less, about to have a baby? Oh, and with big fat clichéd full moon tearing holes through the clouds.
With every fibre of my being, I longed to be safely at home, pacing my own backyard, deciding when to call my parents to babysit, and when to start the 15 minute drive to the hospital. Instead there were so many considerations, it made my head spin. Who was going to look after Lily? She was a cautious child – how would she feel when she woke in unfamiliar surroundings, to find us gone? How could we get a different hospital up to speed with the complications surrounding Lily’s birth? What would the new baby wear? How could we even get him home without a car-seat?
It was cold in the toilet, so I went into the lounge-room and paced back in forth in front of the fire, timing my contractions. They were 3 minutes apart, and 24 seconds long. Since the contractions had begun to intensify, I had started praying, God, please make everything be would be ok, whatever happens. And as I paced and prayed and counted I stared to feel an acceptance and peace about where I was and what was to come. My body knew what it was doing, and there was no fighting it. I was going to meet my baby – soon!
I forced myself to focus on what needed to be organised: firstly, a hospital bag! I stuffed a few clothes and toiletries into a green Woolworths bag. It wasn’t exactly an Oi Oi Tote, and the energising rosewater spritzer was decidedly absent, but it would do. Jeremy woke, and also sprang into action, repacking all of our other belongings into the suitcases. Against my protests (a part of me still imagined that perhaps the hospital would check me over and send me home) he said gently, “Clare, we’re not coming back.” Ridiculous as it might sound, I had a moment of sadness – despite all my efforts, we were still not going to get that farm holiday. Next, he set off across the property to rustle up a babysitter for Lily and to call ahead and prepare the hospital for our arrival. He also planned to ask one of the girls to accompany us to the hospital, a little perturbed at the possibility of delivering our baby all alone by the side of a dirt road.
Soon after, Sam, Amy and Leonie bounded in, dismissing my apologies for waking them. They were buzzing with bright-eyed excitement, proclaiming it to be the best night of their lives, and giggling about how dark Steph (arriving the following morning) would be to miss it. It was actually a lovely thing to be labouring among a cluster of precious girlfriends, who had been though six labours between them. The girls were genuinely thrilled to be present at this time, and their encouraging words and hilarious banter offered a welcome distraction.
Jeremy returned with the news that that he had been unable to make contact with the Naracoorte Hospital. At the advice of Leonie’s parents (and without consulting me, because he knew I would think it needlessly dramatic) he had called an ambulance. Amy accompanied us back to the main house to wait while Leonie and Sam stayed at the cottage to look after Lily.
Meeting Leonie’s parents for the first time under such circumstances was a surreal experience. I tried hard to display an appropriate mix of friendliness at making their acquaintance and regret and gratitude for their troubles – but the gut-straining contractions kept twisting my smile into a grimace. Thankfully Geoff and Cherryl exuded kindness and hospitality. It was a comforting to be in the lounge-room of a calm, practical, pyjama-clad mum and dad, pacing among family photographs. A local “bush midwife” materialised, having been paged when the call went through to the ambulance. She felt my abdomen and confirmed that, yes, the baby was very much on its way.
I could feel myself slipping into the zone, walking the room, leaning and breathing through the contractions. Vaguely aware of Amy’s gentle encouragement in the background, “You’re doing great, babe!” The Triple Zero operator wanted to keep us on the line until the ambulance arrived. Jeremy, Amy and I took it in turns answering questions about my status, and making awkward small-talk in between (because there are only so many ways you can say that contractions are two minutes apart and that I’m doing ok!). Although she was pleasant and no doubt just following a script, in truth the exchanges became rather tiresome.
Operator to Amy: “I’m going to have to ask her to lie down on a couch or bed.”
Amy: “You want her to lie down?”
Me to Amy: While pacing the room relentlessly, “There is no WAY I’m lying down!”
Amy: “Yes, she’s lying down on the couch.”
Operator: “And now I’m going to need to ask her to remove her clothes from the waist down.”
Amy: “You want her to remove her clothes from the waist down?”
Me to Amy: While pacing the room relentlessly, “I’m NOT taking my clothes off! That’s just ridiculous!”
Operator: “Has she removed her clothes from the waist down? You can cover her with a blanket.”
Amy: “Yes, she’s removed her clothes.”
With a swoop of headlights and crunch of gravel, the ambulance finally arrived. The ambulance officers looked young and I couldn’t help wondering if they had ever delivered a baby before. The farm was located in between Naracoorte (in South Australia) and Hamilton (in Victoria) – about an hour from each. At the midwife’s recommendation, it was decided that we would drive to Hamilton Hospital, as it had the superior Paediatric Department. The midwife generously opted to follow the ambulance by car, in case she was needed.
My heart pounded as I was strapped to the gurney and wheeled into the ambulance. Moving through contractions had been such an important coping mechanism during Lily’s labour. I had walked and walked and walked around that birthing suite. Now here I was strapped down and unable to do more than paddle my feet back and forth across the sheet. I was aware of claustrophobia hovering like a dark spectre at the edge of my mind, threatening to swamp me. I resolutely pushed it away, refusing to let panic take hold.
It was an hour, it was a year. The gurney was my bed of nails which forced me to remain still and calm. I pinned my eyes to the moon, my steady anchor as the ambulance pitched and rolled along the dirt road, and as the contractions clenched my belly. In the serene spaces between contractions, I heard snatches of Jeremy’s conversation with the young ambulance officer:
“I was dreaming about hanging out with Keith Richards when I got the call. He just goes on and on, doesn’t he?”
“I think he’s been pickled by all the drugs. He’s going to live forever.”
“I’ve developed a new appreciation of the Stones lately…”
In the last 20 minutes of our journey, the contractions intensified from just bearable to excruciating. They were coming hard and fast and I was writhing and groaning, breathless with pain and almost frantic to be able to walk around. Please God, get me through this. Please God, please God. I finally accepted the “Green whistle” that the ambulance officer had offered earlier to take the edge of the pain. It was something to cling to and focus on for the remainder of the labour, but the pain was so huge by now that I can’t say it had a huge effect other than the sensation of sucking on one of my daughter’s textas.
It was with a great sense of relief that we finally reached the hospital, the baby yet unborn. We thanked and farewelled the midwife, before she turned around and drove an hour back home through the rain. I was wheeled into the birthing suite. (Such a gentle name for a place that bears witness to some of the greatest pain known to humankind. It’s a macabre thought, but there seems to be something almost execution chamber-esque about the space. The medical instruments laid out like torture devices. The finality of the bassinette in the corner reminding us that nobody leaves until it is filled. Of course, if anything, it’s really a sort of execution in reverse.)
A young American doctor and an older no-nonsense midwife assisted with the delivery, and both turned out to be brilliant. I was so excited to be told upon arrival that I was already seven centimetres dilated – all my “work” thus far had not been in vain! The next few hours were a blur of pacing (ah, blessed pacing!), shaking, vomiting, the gush of waters breaking, and wave upon wave of contractions. As each one crested I told myself, it will end. And then, when I reached the point of one rolling onto another, it will be over soon.
Finally, as dawn’s first pale light washed the room, I pushed into the most tremendous roar of pain. Pushing and screaming as bone pressed bone and flesh cleaved flesh, and then a baby sliding and surging forward to be born. And there he was: slick as a fish, dark eyes wide, mouth gulping first lung-fulls of air. Hair damp, face scrunched like a walnut, skin mottled with the waxy cling of vernix, and lovely.
There is holiness in birth: when the barrage of pain and the clamour of voices and the hours of exertion all finally cease in an instant. Before the weighing and bathing and heel pricks and visitors. The world receded and it was just us looking at the face of our son. Trying to wrap our minds around the profound mystery of this new life we had created. And the rush of joy and love and protectiveness so immense I ached from the weight of feeling.
The midwife recorded the baby’s vital statistics. Born: 6.10am, 29th September 2012. Weight: 2.9kg (6lb 5oz). Length: 49cm. Her pen hovered above the space for name and she looked at us expectantly. Jeremy’s eyes questioned mine, and we both smiled, even giggled a little as we told her, “Elijah Hamilton Wright”.
So here we were, stranded six hours from home, in a town where we knew no-one, without so much as a suit for our baby or a place for Jeremy and Lily to stay. I am usually the kind of person who likes to be in control of a situation, who feels more comfortable offering than receiving help. Yet, just as back in the farmhouse I had come to realise that I could not control where the night was heading, I was now conscious that my family’s welfare rested very much on the mercy of others.
I was surprised to note that there was release in yielding control of the situation; the feeling of breathing out, letting go, unfurling inside. Trusting God to take care of us and being willing to accept with gratitude the help of others. I’m sure part of it was that I had just given birth: I was dizzy with a sense of elation and invincibility, and my head had little space for worrying about such matters. Over the next couple of hours, we watched on in amazement as those practical considerations seemed almost to resolve themselves.
I was reminded of a recent conversation I had had with my sister-in-law. She had given birth in one big city and two small towns, and maintained that the country hospitals were always better. That rang true for me here. Not only did I have my own lovely and spacious private room with bathroom, but I actually had the entire maternity ward to myself. The nurses were caring and attentive (perhaps more so when they learnt that we had named our son after their town!). By the first afternoon, the staff knew how I liked my cup of tea.
Our first visitors were a young Hamilton family we had never met who brought flowers, congratulations, and the generous offer of accommodation for Jeremy and Lily. To our astonishment, it emerged that Aaron was the brother of a member of our church in Adelaide. His family had been asked to visit us on behalf of the church.
Aaron and Jess proved incredibly gracious hosts to my husband and daughter for the next two nights. They provided food and beds, enabling Jeremy and Lily to rest and recharge between hospital visits. But beyond that, it was the little details of their family and home that felt like the sweetest blessing. Like Jeremy, Aaron was a youth pastor finding his way in a new job, so they had the opportunity to exchange ideas and encourage one other. Jess worked at the hospital, so she was able to check up on me a few times during our stay. Lily had a ball playing with the couple’s three young daughters. The family even lived on an agricultural college, so Lily didn’t completely miss out on seeing piglets and chickens after all.
Our next visitors were the four girls, bringing our car and our daughter, plus a car-seat to borrow, baby wraps and blankets, tiny suits and giant black knickers. I need not have worried about Lily; the girls had cared for her so lovingly that not a tear had been shed. Apparently, she had spent the long drive to the hospital singing and eating marshmallows.
Growing up in churches, I have heard the word “thankfulness” used a lot. Sometimes it can be a sweet-sounding, fill-a-space, empty husk of a word. I’m sure I’ve used it that way myself. At the time of Elijah’s birth I discovered that true thankfulness is transformative. I had made a flippant, perhaps foolish decision to go on this trip. Yet I was blown away and humbled by the kindness and care shown by friends and strangers alike in my time of crisis. With their help, I came away from a potentially chaotic and terrifying situation feeling blessed and nurtured and deeply thankful. I had a sense that God had held my little family in his hands, that he had made it ok, and then some.
Most of all, I was thankful for this baby. Thankful that he had been brought safely into the world. Thankful that he was ours: this helpless little still-curled scrap of a boy. From the moment he first fixed me in his wide, unblinking gaze, I was utterly and hopelessly bewitched. On the third day after his birth, giddy with a mix of exhaustion, euphoria and the last remnants of adrenalin, we bundled our little girl and tiny boy into the car and started the long journey home.