I wrote this essay during the course of my baby’s first year and finished shortly after her first birthday. I never got around to posting it. As I come back to these words — six months after the story told here ends — I realise there is much more to write on the themes I uncovered. If you’re aware of the goings on in my life the latter half of this year, you’ll also know the story gets more complicated. I hope to make time to process the next chapter, and write about it. The fascinating thing about writing motherhood is that it is ever-flowing and provides us with steady streams of material. I want to savour the musings from these life-changing events so that they can shift me into the woman and mother I’m meant to be. Our written words carry legacies for our children to inherent should they choose to receive. If you’d like to learn more about writing your own motherhood, please get in touch. My writing groups will soon be resuming.
Part One: Mermaid Paths
“There’s one!” my four-year-old calls as we walk down our road. “And another!” She takes so much joy in spotting the rainbows on windows. In the photo I snap of my two girls after we tape up our own, I see the pride in my eldest’s face. This is our rainbow, she is thinking perhaps. “Ain-Bow!” my one-year-old begins to say after daily walks in the Spring sunshine, ever increasingly learning to copy her older sister.
The month before, we settled on a pregnancy nickname as a family for the baby growing in my womb. “Bow Bow,” because he or she is a “rainbow baby,” conceived after the loss of a pregnancy the previous Autumn. I walk the streets in our neighbourhood on our one-hour daily outdoor allowance noticing the dozens of rainbows with my girls and reflect on my own little rainbow growing inside. How long will this pandemic, they are calling it, last? Though I’m in the second trimester, I still wonder sometimes, how long will this baby last? And if she makes it, what will her birth look like come July? Not all rainbows.
Remember I want to know everything about the pregnancy. My mother messages me in the early weeks of this post-miscarriage baby. And I can never get enough of my other two beautiful babies. Maybe I could come over there sometime soon. I just miss you so much and the girls.
We process this part of our relationship — mother/daughter turned Grandma/Mum — over Facebook messages and Facetimes. We are getting used to long-distance, but it’s left little tears and holes in the fabric of our bond.
I have thought so much about you coming for the birth and staying for a while, I reply back.
I would love that, she says.
I throw some summer dresses on the girls and I, and we head to Botany Bay. The tide is out, the evening feels like the last spontaneous moment we have before the baby comes. We snap photos to treasure this season: me, very pregnant with our third daughter, the girls dancing around our feet as we walk on the beach. There are paths in between the rock pools. Little sandy lanes between the mossy, seaweed-covered chalk islands that make walking on my swollen ankles easier to get to the water’s edge. I have to walk to the water. The sea beckons the baby inside of me so that I must walk this mermaid path she makes for me. It leads to the next home I’ll have: an unexpected fluid state of transition where I can either drop an anchor and try to hold on in resistance to transformation or surrender to a valuable but violent undercurrent. These waters are new to me, to all of us. Yet, we swim on in this sea of uncertainty.
That annoying door. I remember this from when I was pregnant with my second child. Same door. Same midwife. But everything is different. I wait to be let in, this time not by the release button the lady at reception pushes, but by my midwife who is the only one in the building, the children’s centre’s normal services completely halted. She welcomes me in quickly, mask on, then retreats back to her desk to ask me the normal questions as I sit down across from her. It’s my first in person appointment since lockdown started. My previous appointment was changed to over-the-phone. I’m not nervous to be out, but I am anxious.
“For now, they are not happening,” my midwife says nonchalantly when I ask about home births. “I can’t tell you if they will or not by your due date.”
She does not remain my midwife for the rest of the pregnancy. It’s the “home births are dangerous even in the best of times” comment for me. I can’t quite fathom her perspective, especially after knowing the success of my less than 2-years-prior home birth “in the best of times” we now know as pre-Covid life. I don’t expect to have to advocate for myself so vehemently this time. Didn’t I do all that work last time when fighting for the validity of a home birth after a C-section?
I walk along the shore. Late pregnancy weight and my swollen feet sinking into the sand with each step as my friend lets me chat away. I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve spent with a friend since March. I need space, and the evening summer glow and the expanse of the sea is the opening. I stand in the gorgeous waters and speak her name, my Ondine in my belly, my “little wave” on the inside is about to come.
My husband and mother are back home waiting for me, my other two daughters upstairs tucked up in bed. “If I have her tonight, I wouldn’t be surprised,” I said. My summer baby is coming at the right time: lockdown restrictions have eased a little in England, and my mother is here in my home quarantining after her flight from my home state of North Carolina. “We’ll just have to wait and see,” was the echo of our weekly FaceTime calls right up until the day she arrived.
I am sitting in a different children’s centre examination room. The hormones are doing their thing, and I am bearing my soul and crying my tears in front of a different midwife having requested a change. She tells me she got into midwifery because she had a traumatic birth, and she wants to be the right kind of midwife for other women. She is just who I needed to calm my doubts, listen to my desires, and get on board with me. I see her colleague the next month, and I am also listened to and empowered in our appointments. They still don’t know when home births will be reinstated, but they walk with me along the way. I wait, and I hope, and somehow, despite it feeling like lockdown is taking all my power away, I remain determined to birth at home — the weight of a woman confident enough to consider free-birthing seems to move mountains, and I feel I have divinely called forth the opportunity to home birth with an NHS midwife the very week of my due date not just for myself, but for the other mothers around me.
I feel something like wetness between my legs in the middle of sleeping and waking and hoping and willing. I touch my vulva to investigate. It’s warm. It’s liquid. But is it blood? I stand beside the bed. A small trickle, and then a gush. The flow of my waters releases a giddiness and relief in the early hours of fresh daylight. 4am after my beach walk with my friend. This is definitely it, David. We google it. Read and discuss it. We sop up the liquid on the floor with towels.
“I don’t want to wake my mom yet,” I say. “I just want this to be ours right now.” I wanted Ondine to be born en caul, the “mermaid birth” I thought would suit her, but my water breaking pre-labour and not in the birthing pool is something new I’ve never experienced. A whole new world is breaking before me. I try to sleep again, but I don’t. I breathe. I wait. A few hours later, the girls wake up. My toddler has her morning mama’s milk, and I can feel a little contraction building.
“Some time today or tonight, Bow Bow is coming,” I tell them as they sit on our bed. “My body has started to tell me it’s time.” Sharing with them the sacred work my body can do is a gift. They go about their day playing and being. I try to relax, prepare my mind, and go into my own bubble in my home, hypnobirthing tracks and my music playlist going. But daytime early labour drags on, and the girls are restless. My mother takes them out. We have a visit from an on-duty midwife in the afternoon. All is fine, but contractions are very few and far between. I am left with gaps where little doubts and questions start to appear, and I have to force my mind to a place of reassurance that my body will follow the energy I give out. Magical birthing energy.
I make a space up in my bedroom to harness that energy. I rest (not sleep) and watch peaceful birthing videos and let the happy tears flow. Seven in the evening now, and I can feel it kicking up a notch, mindful that my body knows the night is coming, the children will sleep soon. We fill the birthing pool, and I invite the girls to play in the water with me as I sway and kneel, sometimes pausing to breath deeply. I love their skin touching mine, their tender eyes and precious souls not fully aware of birth power but reminding me of their intrinsic bond with my womb and the connection they have as fruit of my previous labouring. I am confident in this space, just my family with me, no professionals around.
But David makes the call to get the midwife here, as he can tell I’m near time, and perhaps we waited a little too long to call last time. He gets the girls out of the pool and up to bed, each of these things going so smoothly, me blissfully not in hard mothering mode.
I quietly labour in the pool with just my mother in the room. It is calm and something feels quite reverent. She has watched me do many things as I grew up, but this is the most powerful she has seen me. Her presence at this birth is a bridge to our bond. I will give the daughter within me one of my grandmother’s names, a formidable woman who gave birth to thirteen babies, a heritage I can claim, a reconnection to my maternal lineage.
Once David is back in the room, I want him to hold me and not let go. We have made four babies together, and when we lost the third one, it changed everything. I feel intensely desperate for him, because this addition takes on a new meaning after grief. Re-trusting my body in this pregnancy and labour when not so long before it wasn’t able to hold one for very long takes courage, and David is the one who makes me feel most brave.
I am out of the pool, prepared for the midwife to check the heartbeat. It’s actually you! I think, internally pleased and incredibly grateful as the on duty midwife who walks in is the one who first listened to me a few months back. She is trying to clock the baby’s heartbeat, but I am uncomfortable lying down, labour is moving along rapidly now, and I am certain my baby’s head and therefore chest is just too far down to really hear on the outside.
“I’m going back in the pool,” I tell her. I breathe. I roar as I instinctively push. I am hunkered down, holding my arms around David’s neck. She suggests I turn over, which I didn’t think I wanted, but it’s better this way this time. “Yep, I can see her head,” she says. On the next contraction, the baby comes out to her nose. I breathe, but I need the next wave to see her out fully. It’s probably only 30 seconds, but it feels like forever. A brief What if? or two pops up in my thoughts, but then my body’s current moves me away from anything cerebral, and she is now there in the water, and then she is in my arms and on my chest.
Everything goes quiet. The midwife (and the second one I wasn’t really ever aware of) move into the other room. I speak to my baby. Our first sighs and tiny noises we greet one another with linger there above us as David and my mother look on with joy and admiration.
“You did so well, little one,” I tell her. “We did it brilliantly together.”
After we are congratulated and praised, I am helped out of the pool. Ondine and I work on her latching to my breast as I wait for the placenta to make its way. I am easily frustrated with this part of birth. An hour passes, and I opt for the injection. There my placenta finally comes, so heavy with the life blood of sustaining a baby during gestation. It’s massive, and we investigate to see a large clot of blood sitting in it. “No wonder the birth was so tidy in the water,” my midwife muses. I marvel more this time at these little details.
There are no tears this time either, only minor abrasions. “She was actually back to back,” the midwife tells me. “It’s remarkable how well you did.”
My mind reels at this thought: “She’s sunny side up (what they call back to back in the States), and your pelvis is shaped in a way that will make it harder for her to come out.” I recall these words said to me by my doctor in hospital at my very first birth, which ended in unnecessary c-section. Ondine’s birth healing old wounds I didn’t know were still there. I have a shower. I eat. We sleep some. I am bewildered over the experience. Overwhelmed at the thought of raising three in a Covid world.
November. Another lockdown. A stressful house move with three little ones with little help because of restrictions. A subdued Christmas with a 5-month-old who can’t go to other people’s houses. A winter lockdown that drags. Postpartum depression. Rage. Then I try cold water swimming and reaching out. Therapy. Spring. Slow lifting of restrictions. My mother books another flight. Easter with friends in the park. An anti-depressant. May is grey but hopeful. The sun comes in June. Mom comes in July.
“I feel connected to you in a deeper way,” I tell her on Facetime days before her flight. “Such a good conversation,” she agrees. We chat about how the past year has linked us. I understand her differently as we have shared more openly this year about our mental health, stigmas being broken down. We’re in very different mothering worlds, my generation and hers, and I often feel far from each other in some of our approaches to life, but we are attached in deeply spiritual ways forever, just like my daughters are to me. The more daughters I have, perhaps the more understanding I have of my mother. It is, consequently, the celebration of Ondine’s first year and the subsequent birthdays of my daughters in close succession that brings my mother here for a three month stay.
The year of Ondine: the “little wave” whose context has crashed into me with such force the ripples continue to appear. A year of being a mother to three, and it is this third daughter who has also quietly brought me to the sea in a new way. Now I see that I swim fully submerged not because I drown, but because I surrender. Drenched in the weight of giving in to the current, letting go of control, and gaining an entire, new ecosystem.
“It feels like we are celebrating still being alive,” I say to David. We are sitting on the beach steps, half an hour after I’ve put the littlest ones to bed, the evening of Ondi’s birthday. The sun has dipped into the sea already, but the sky is still on embers. Mom is sitting at home and will tuck Talitha in with her whilst we’re out. The novelty of a drink out together somewhere other than our living room makes me feel almost young. I yawn, though, and cuddle in close to him, the sea air fresh and tingly on my bare legs. “The rest of this year is going to be different,” he says. I know what he means. It’s going to be better. But really I hear a proclamation for all of the future, an acceptance of change, a leaning into new territory with no idea of the twists and turns. Making new paths for mermaids.