Looking back, it’s baffling that someone like me — a lover of pleasure and loather of pain, a woman who pops Nurofen like breath mints and cannot sit on the sofa without six cushions wedged in at strategic angles for maximum telly-watching comfort — would have deluded myself into believing I was going to give birth gracefully in a state of natural bliss. Regular readers of this magazine may recall I’d decided on a home birth. In preparation for the big event I lined up two community midwives, scented candles, a self-hypnosis CD, a full-bodied Barolo and a birthing pool, which by 40 weeks, Rob could unpack and inflate in our living room in six minutes flat.
Needless to say it didn’t work out like that. After seven hours of spectacularly painful labour (people who say it doesn’t hurt if you ‘breathe’ are lying or insane or both) the midwife informed me that my baby was breech and I would have to be rushed to hospital immediately to avoid a grisly scene from a Victorian period drama playing out in the middle of our flat. I burst into tears — not of disappointment but happiness, because it meant I could have drugs without the indignity of begging for them. After that it was paramedics, gas and air, epidural, 14 more hours of painless labour and an emergency c-section. I spent the entire surgery chatting manically to the anaesthetist about celebrity baby names while Rob held my hand and sweated. Before we knew it — shazam — a perfectly healthy son was plucked from my abdomen and plopped on my chest. I was, for once, speechless. Who was this slippery little tree frog sucking on my chin? It occurred to me I was going to spend the rest of my life finding out.
At some point in the last decade it became customary for women my age to greet each other by commenting on our appearances. ‘Darling, you look AMAZING!’ we say to each other now at parties. ‘Nice hair!’ ‘Great shoes!’ ‘Have you started running again?’ This social tic never really bothered me until I had a baby. The fact is, after you have a baby you do not look amazing. You look like someone who has been stretched to bursting and then suddenly deflated, a person kept awake for weeks on end while the miracle of life chewed, sucked and mauled you before lumbering off leaving you for dead. In other words, you look exhausted and a little bit fat. But you don’t mind, not really. Because here’s the thing: a person just came out of you. A real live person who is now, somehow, able to stay alive with the help of nothing but your own magically occurring fluids. It’s utterly banal and yet nothing short of miraculous and sometimes when you think about it, your brain starts to tingle and you want to run down the street shouting the incredible story of what has happened to every person you meet. So when someone says, ‘You look AMAZING!’ you kind of just want to smack them.
My NCT group never contacted me after the course ended, which I thought was a bit odd. Then I did a search on Facebook and found out they’d formed a club and been meeting every Thursday afternoon in Chiswick for the past three months. I wracked my brain for reasons why they might have blackballed me and came up with a number of plausible ones: 1) They were threatened by the fact that I’d attended the classes alone, even though I’d been careful to explain that Rob had refused to come because he’d already done a course with his ex-wife and found it to be ‘a complete and utter load of hippy bollocks’; 2) They were put off by the fact that I was planning a home birth; 3) They noticed I wasn’t wearing a wedding ring; 4) My new fringe was too edgy for Chiswick. I fretted about the situation for weeks, nattering on to Rob, who in exasperation finally reminded me that I’d scoffed at the whole notion of ‘mummy friends’ in the first place. While this was true, I pointed out that the whole point of an NCT group was that I should decide whether I wanted to hang out with them, not the other way around.
For some reason everyone wants to know whether my baby is sleeping through the night. I find this question quite bizarre. Inquiries as to the name and gender of the sprog I fully understand, but what’s it to the fishmonger if my baby is awake at 3 a.m. or not? People are certainly curious though, because just in the last week, two mothers I know (one a war correspondent, the other a criminal barrister — see, I do have mummy friends) announced on Twitter that their respective eight-week-olds were sleeping eight hours at a stretch. The general response was ecstatic: Congratulations! people said, Well done! Free sweets and toys for everyone! I found this even more baffling because anyone who’s had a baby knows the reason why one newborn sleeps and another doesn’t is one of the great mysteries of the universe, and no amount of attachment bonding or militant ‘Gina-Fording’ can affect the outcome one way or the other (not at eight weeks, anyway). I suppose what grates is the implication that a baby’s sleep pattern is somehow the consequence of good or bad parenting — or worse, the good or bad character of the baby itself — when nothing could be further from the truth. The other thing is that on the subject of sleep, new parents, if you probe them carefully, tend to be judicious with the truth at best. When you have a baby it’s necessary to shift the goalposts in order to retain your sanity. In fact, evolutionary psychologists have scientifically proven that most parents are hardwired to believe their baby is ‘good’ even if he’s waking every hour, projectile vomiting, levitating from the bed and calling you a ‘stupid fucking cunt’ in a raspy old man’s voice. It’s true. It’s called the optimism bias and you should Google it. I’d explain it to you but I’m too tired to think. Which is not to say my baby isn’t sleeping through the night. He is! Well, kind of.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 5 January 2013