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Thursday, 26 July 2012

Under the Knife, Over the Moon.

When I was nine years old, I stood at the business end and watched a baby being born. My mum was acting as birthing partner to a friend, and - being my mum - had decided that it would be "educational" for me to watch. Unsurprisingly, I remember the whole experience vividly. I particularly remember that there was a lot of waiting about, and then a LOT of screaming, and then some poo. I definitely remember the poo.

A picture of a moses basket, in place of a picture of poo.

I also remember the head crowning, and seeing the baby's shock of black hair emerge, and the mother crying as she held her new daughter in her arms, both of them naked. These are memories that will stay with me forever. What I don't remember is feeling much in the way of emotion. I was curious, but there was no horror, or fear, or happiness. It wasn't my mummy screaming, and it wasn't a new sibling for me, so, frankly, I was a pretty cool customer about the whole thing.

Twenty-one years later my friend Lisha asked me if I would be her birthing partner. I am godmother to Lisha's (almost) five-year-old son Enlai and was, I think, the first person to know that Lisha was pregnant with a much wanted second child. We bumped into each other in the reception area of our workplace and she sneaked something out of her pocket and showed it to me under cover of her raincoat. It took a second for me to realise that it was a positive pregnancy test.

Enlai didn't come into this world easily. Lisha tried for a natural birth over and over again, but in the end they had to perform an emergency C-section. She was drugged to the eyeballs and pretty distressed by the whole experience. So I knew, when she asked me to be there with her this time, that she was trusting me to be strong and calm for her, whatever happened. Needless to say I was honoured, and more than a little scared.

After some toing and froing as to whether to attempt a natural birth again, a friend of Lisha's suffered a serious prolapse during natural labour, comprehensively deciding the question. Elective C-section it was. I was glad. The elective surgery meant that we would have a time and date scheduled for the birth, allowing Lisha to be fully prepared, and saving me from being rudely awoken at some evil hour of the morning. It also saved me from the poo. So, you know, wins all round. But I confess that I also felt it would, in some way, be less of an experience. Having been at the business end of a natural birth, surely a Cesarean was going to seem cold and clinical?

On Tuesday, July 24th, 2012, I was up at the crack of dawn. I met Lisha at her flat and we walked the sunny half hour to St Mary's Hospital in Paddington. Not only did Fleming discover penicillin there, but it was the birth place of Prince William, so we were already in auspicious company. On the walk we chatted about the office and Enlai, and worked up a good appetite for breakfast. This was unfortunate since Lisha was nil-by-mouth and there was no way I was going to tuck into my picnic with her sitting there watching me with those big, hungry brown eyes. Surely that would have been an instant birthing partner fail?

Upon arrival, we were shown to a waiting area, where we encountered a couple with approximately one hundred pieces of matching Louis Vuitton luggage. OK, perhaps I'm exaggerating, but it was a lot of fancy luggage. I wonder what they thought of us, firstly being two women (are they lesbians? Is the pregnant one a surrogate?) and secondly with our raggle-taggle selection of bags and cases. Our dignity was preserved solely by the fact that Lisha had had the presence of mind to apply some make-up, and that - in a rare moment of pampering - she'd had her toe nails painted scarlet.

Lisha's pedicure saves the day
Lisha was third on the morning's list, meaning we had a long wait ahead of us. Mrs Louis Vuitton was going first. Debbie, the midwife, took Lisha through a whole heap of paperwork (Lisha's notes, drug form, anaesthetist form, allergy form, consent form, form form form) and then left us. Several other members of staff popped by over the next couple of hours, to check things over, and to tell us that we still had a while to wait. I must say now that the staff were universally friendly and helpful. Some of them did look momentarily confused when they asked me who I was and I replied with a deadpan "the father", but I think they knew I was joking. I have heard horror stories about surly midwives and uncommunicative doctors, but I am happy to say that we encountered none of these.

We did, however, encounter a good dose of boredom and increasing hunger. I gave Lisha a massage, no doubt adding further fuel to the rumour that we were lovers, and we commenced a game of Scrabble on the ipad. About an hour and a half after she was wheeled out, Mrs Louis Vuitton was wheeled back in to the recovery room, a look of pure elation on her face. "Ten years ago" she said to the midwife, "I thought I'd be dead by now. But here I am, holding my baby." Her words were so heartfelt I could almost forgive the suitcases. No matter how tacky someone's choice in luggage, they may have suffered all sorts of things that you have no clue about. We then found out that Mr. Louis Vuitton had fainted during his wife's initial injection, which gave us a good giggle and further warmed us to the pair of them. It transpired that they'd been convinced that they were having a boy and had prepared accordingly. The midwife kindly provided a book of baby names, which seemed to entertain them even more than their new daughter.

Anyway, mother number two, who wasn't as yet in the recovery room, was waiting for her partner to arrive at the hospital, so Lisha was next. Hooray! We were both delighted at being unexpectedly bumped up the schedule. "Lunch soon, thank God" said Lisha. Good to know we had our priorities straight.

So, here comes the first of my firsts for the day. I got to put on scrubs. Please see below for an awesome picture of awesomeness, where I totally look like a DOCTOR. I was deeply happy with this unexpected event, as I'd been predicting a plastic outfit of some kind, which wouldn't have been nearly as cool.

Lisha did not look quite as snazzy in her bottom-exposing gown, though the disposable hat did lend her the look of The Girl with a Pearl Earring.

We were now in theatre. The anaesthesiologist's assistant asked me if I was going to faint like Mr LV, and I said no. At which moment my legs got very shaky and I started to feel a bit dizzy. "Cold and clinical" suddenly felt very, very real. It dawned on me for the first time that I was in an operating room about to accompany my friend through a serious and potentially dangerous operation. To diffuse my nerves I switched on the camera and started snapping. Which made everything feel a lot better. Here's Lisha waiting for her epidural, looking very cute, very brave, and very small. Please note the glimpse of sexy embolism stockings in this season's must-have forest green.

The anaesthesiologist's name was Mo, and he explained extremely clearly that putting in the epidural was 90% position, 10% skill. This meant that it was down to Lisha to arch her back "like an angry cat" and be incredibly still whilst he inserted an incredibly long, thin needle between two of her vertebrae. If it were to fail, they'd have to try either above or below the original area. Lisha was given some pain medication through the cannula already inserted into her hand, and a very cold spray to clean and numb her back. Nonetheless, I saw the size of the needle, and the length of the very thin tube that was inserted afterwards. Lisha didn't move a muscle. "Cold and clinical" was already a million times more of an experience than I had been expecting, and my respect for my friend soared as I watched her breathe through her anxiety, pain and nausea.

Goya's angry cats, ready for their epidurals...
Next there was a slight wait as the medical staff prepped themselves for the operation, and the epidural took effect. A fabric screen was erected just below Lisha's chest, so that all either of us could see were the heads of the doctors and nurses bustling around her stomach. Mo and his assistant stayed up at the head end, administering various different things via the cannula as the procedure begun. Lisha gripped my fingers pretty hard when a buzzing noise indicated that her lady garden was being shaved. I resisted the urge to make a joke about vajazzles. Lisha did not.

As we doctors call it, 'knife to skin' happened at 11.09. For the next ten-odd minutes, Mo kept us distracted by talking about films and superheroes. At 11.22 the doctors told me to get ready with my camera. I had a moment of anxiety thinking that the camera might suddenly fail me, and then the blue screen was suddenly dropped and there was a baby emerging from Lisha's body. I tell you now that only once before in my life have I experienced the sudden, uncontrollable, prolonged rush of adrenaline that hit me at that moment. This was how it felt:

I'm not ashamed to say that I was gasping for breath, my heart thudding in my chest, tears welling in my eyes as that baby was born. It was the feeling of a lifetime, beautiful and overwhelming. The halogen bulbs shone down on him as he came into the world, lighting his path. I am so honoured to have been there, and to have captured the moment forever.

7lbs 12 oz

Alas, there is no picture of Doctor Jojo cutting the umbilical chord, but I assure you that I did cut it, and it felt like wet leather and spurted some very red blood. Nice.

What else can I tell you about this amazing experience? There are lots of things, like how we returned to recovery to hear Mr and Mrs Louis Vuitton still trying to decide between the names Elizabeth, Phoebe, Daisy or Adriana. Or how it was still a good couple of hours before Lisha got her much deserved lunch of a cheese and pickle sandwich and a hot chocolate. I could talk about the fact that the baby barely cried and took to the breast like a duck to water, and how Lisha and I eventually resumed our game of Scrabble. I could tell you about the insanely annoying new mother up on the maternity ward, who spoke loudly on the phone for at least three hours solid, sometimes on speaker. I could tell you about the first meeting between Enlai and his new baby brother, which was full of tenderness and care, because that's just how Enlai is. I could tell you how I changed the baby's first nappy (there was poo after all, you see), and narrowly avoided being baptised in wee. I could tell you how I felt as I held his little innocent body in my arms, or how I watched Lisha fall in love before my very eyes. I could write for hours, and in fact, I already have. It's three in the morning and I've lived the journey again from my sofa. I suspect I will relive it many more times over the years, as I watch the brothers grow and fight and play and laugh.

I wrote a poem for Enlai's christening, and I hope that one day inspiration will strike and I will be able to write one for his brother. But for now, Lumen Esperanzo Rooney, this is your poem:

Let there be light. 

Thank you, Lisha and Lumen, for sharing this birthday with me.

Six down, twenty-four to go...


  1. Beautiful. I actually welled up. x

  2. Beautiful story. I enjoyed reading it so much. I felt with you there reading about it. It brought me amazing memories about Rafa's birth last year.I can understand how emotional this day was. This is a great gift for Lumen , Lisha and Enlai... thanks for sharing with all of us!.

  3. Gosh, JoJo, I welled up when reading this one. Lovely!

  4. Beautifully written and illustrated JoJo. Witnessing a birth is an amazing, totally unforgettable experience...

    I remember SO clearly the first time I participated in the birth of a child... a little girl who has turned out to be the most amazing and talented creature I know: You!

  5. Loved the story, the writing, the pictures and all the feelings wrapped in here!

  6. oh wow what a beautiful post. I was also a birth partner for a friend last year and it really is the most amazing thing to be a part of - totally different, but at the same time relevant, to having your own child. Hope all are doing well now.

    1. Thank you so much Joanne! It really was a huge privilege to be there. Mother, baby, and big brother are all doing fantastically well.