I was sitting on the toilet thinking about an essay I wrote when I was 12. It was about change. ‘You know how to appreciate the first time you do something,’ I had written, ‘but how can you appreciate the last?’
My eyes darted from the grey slate tiles to the white porcelain of the basin finally landing on the wicker drawers that needed reorganisation.
Out of the roughly 260 million sperm competing to reach the site of fertilisation, only 300 or so reach the egg, and only one actually fertilises it. A one in a million chance.
I’ve reflected on that essay often over the years. I was right. Change so often happens before we’ve had time to prepare for it.
Sitting on that toilet on that sunny summer afternoon, I knew things were about to change, so I tried to appreciate that last moment. A moment of not knowing.
I looked down.
A blue cross.
A flimsy test strip changing colour was all it took to upend my life forever.
The baby has a heartbeat now. And a set of rapidly developing lungs. And yet all I can think of is how tight my jeans are.
My husband walked in while I was standing in front of the mirror examining the new roll of fat that I couldn’t quite squeeze underneath the buttons of my high-waisted Levis.
‘Stop doing that,’ he said, his eyebrows furrowed.
‘Doing what?’ I asked, not looking away from the mirror, fully aware of what he meant.
‘That!’ He said again, pointing to my hands.
‘I don’t like how I look.’
He sat on the edge of the bed and regarded me for a minute in silence. I didn’t look at him, I just continued to examine my reflection.
‘You haven’t put on any weight at all,’ he said.
‘Yes, but it’s not about the weight,’ I turned to face him now, ‘it’s that I’m too tired to exercise and everything has just gone soft.’ I unbuttoned the jeans. I felt constricted. ‘I’m never going to look the same,’ I told him, flopping onto the bed as unexpected tears filled my eyes. I looked to the ceiling and blinked a few times in an attempt to blink them back.
‘You will always be beautiful,’ his tone was gentle, patient, loving. Everything that he always is. Tears began to rush down my face. I angrily swiped at them. The reaction was so out of proportion for the circumstances, and yet equally uncontrollable.
Two nights later, after dinner, I announced that I needed new clothes.
‘Ok,’ my husband replied, ‘let’s make a list of the things you need and then we’ll slowly start to buy them at the end of each month.’
‘It can’t wait until the end of each month.’ I emphasised the ‘each’. Like a hormonal teenager. He looked at me without saying anything. I knew exactly what he was thinking, and my rational self knew it too. But in that moment I wasn’t rational, I wanted clothes that fit. ‘You got me into this position,’ I said, standing up abruptly, ‘and now what do you expect me to wear?’ I hadn’t meant to speak so sharply, I wasn’t even that angry.
‘What exactly do you want me to do?’ his words were direct, but his tone was calm.
‘I don’t care what you do!’ I shouted. My face was burning red and I could feel my cheeks were ablaze. ‘It’s bad enough that I have to look like this!’ I rushed up the stairs and slammed the bathroom door. I leaned against it and pressed a cheek onto the cool wood. I took a few deep breaths and then I walked over to open the window, wondering if I'd ever feel like myself again.
In the dead of the night I lay in bed staring at the filtered light that was glinting off of the chandelier. I was getting used to being awake at this time. I had been trying to use the time to focus on the breathing exercises my midwife had given me, rather than pick up my phone or get out of bed.
I was lying on my back tapping my stomach absentmindedly. The room was pitch black and there was no noise except for my husband’s even breath. I was thinking about how envious I was of his sleep when I felt an unfamiliar movement underneath my hand. My heart started to race as I tapped my stomach again. There was a tap back.
An unforgettable reminder of what was really happening. I wasn’t only getting fat and angry: I was growing a life.
The next day I woke up and I felt like myself again. They say it happens, I’ve read every book, downloaded every app; I follow both mine and the baby’s development rigorously. I know everything there is to know. The date the heart started beating for the first time, when the sense of hearing would develop, when fingernails and hair would begin to grow.
I looked down at my belly and I felt grateful. I tapped, and I waited for the response. I laughed when I felt it. They say it feels like flutters, or like bubbles. I didn’t think it felt like either of those things. I felt like it was my baby moving inside of me. My husband looked over from above his kindle.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘I felt a kick!’ I said. I laughed again. ‘Try feel.’ He put his cold hand on my stomach. He shook his head.
‘I wish I could feel it too,’ he said.
The changes keep coming. My body is covered in angry red marks. A new one every day. My husband keeps telling me he thinks I’m beautiful, I keep telling him he doesn’t understand.
‘It’s just a small sacrifice,’ he told me one night as I came out of the shower.
‘You don’t get to decide if it’s a small sacrifice or not,’ I replied. I went into our bedroom and slid open the drawer that I kept my pyjamas in. I couldn’t find a single pair that fit.
My husband came back into the room and opened his side of the cupboard and pulled out a pair of his tracksuit pants.
‘Here,’ he said, giving them to me. ‘Put these on.’
I sat motionless on the edge of the bed. He crouched in front of me and helped me to get dressed. I looked at him and thought of all the years we’d spent together. He’d always been my best friend. We’d had the happiest relationship. I used to look at our friends and feel grateful for him, and for what we had. I thought that nothing could change it.
‘An alien has taken over my body,’ I told him that night as we lay next to each other in the dark. An explanation, an apology, a justification. He used to hug me as we fell asleep but I can’t bear the weight of his arm on my back anymore.
He simply stroked my hair in response. I started to cry, hoping he didn’t notice.
‘Every time I think I can’t get fatter, I do,’ I moaned to my friend on the phone.
‘You’re definitely exaggerating,’ she replied.
‘You haven’t seen me in ages. The last time you saw me I was in a pair of size 10 jeans,’ I huffed. ‘I’m about fifty kilograms heavier now.’
‘I’m sure you look fantastic,’ she said. I changed the subject, feeling uncomfortable.
That night I was scrolling through Instagram before bed, unable to focus on the book I had been trying to read for months. I came across a celebrity who was also expecting. I opened her feed. The first square showed her in a lacy bra and suspenders, posing on a four-poster bed. The caption read: ‘6 months pregnant and feeling as sexy as ever’.
Her body wasn’t covered in stretchmarks and cellulite. Her hair didn’t look like dry straw.
I deleted Instagram from my phone.
The next day I woke up to the smell of pancakes. I drifted back off to sleep and woke up when my husband was walking in with a tray. I smiled. I used to be the one who made breakfast.
‘Here we go,’ he said as he put the tray down, ‘today is a very special day, you know?’
‘Why?’ I asked. I was already biting into one of the misshapen, slightly burnt pancakes.
‘It marks the sixth anniversary of our first kiss!’
We sat next to each other and ate pancakes until we couldn’t move.
On the morning of my due date, although I had prepared myself for the fact that only 5 percent of babies are actually born on this day, I was excited as I got ready for my appointment at the hospital.
I had a bounce in my step and I was wearing sparkly new shoes my husband gave me for my birthday a few weeks before.
They were the first thing the midwife commented on as she saw me.
‘Thanks,’ I beamed back. I had a good feeling. My baby was on his way, I was sure of it. I hopped onto the bench and the midwife palpated my stomach.
‘Hmm,’ she said, as she continued to press and prod my gigantic belly. ‘Your baby is Occiput Posterior. His head is lying against your spine.’
‘So he’s not in the right position?’ Thoughts of inductions and c-sections were racing through my mind.
‘You’ll still be able to have a natural birth,’ she explained, ‘it does increase the chances of you needing to be induced, though. And often first time mothers ask for an epidural as the labour can be more intense.’ I nodded, soaking up the information. ‘You can try moving him by sitting on the exercise ball and doing lots of exercise.’
I spent the next few days doing everything the midwife had told me to do.
By the fourth day I was feeling depressed and desperate to meet my baby. It was a beautiful, clear winter morning and I was bored. The baby’s clothes were all washed and packed away, my hospital bag had been ready for months, I didn’t know what else to do to keep myself busy. I decided to ask my mom if she wanted to meet me for a cup of tea.
‘How are things?’ she asked, as she sat down at the table. We were at our favourite café and it was busy as always. She’d just been to the hairdresser’s and she looked fabulous. Her hair was thick and shiny, I was jealous. I felt frazzled and exhausted.
‘I’m desperate Mom,’ I replied, wheezing slightly.
‘I know,’ she replied sympathetically. ‘It will happen soon.’
I nodded, and we ordered our tea. I ordered raspberry leaf, of course. I was told to drink raspberry leaf tea at our antenatal class. It supposedly prepares the uterus for labour and strengthens and tones the uterine muscles. I wasn’t sure I bought into it, but I was willing to try anything at this point.
‘Has the baby been moving?’ she asked as our tea arrived.
‘A little less than before,’ I replied. ‘I’m not worried though, I felt him change position last night, so I’m sure it’s just because of that.’ She narrowed her blue eyes in concern.
‘You should phone your midwife,’ she said. ‘You don’t want to take a chance.’
I wasn’t concerned at all, but I decided to phone the midwife. I picked up my phone and called the maternity ward. I’d had the number saved for months.
‘Come in and we’ll have a little look,’ the midwife, Helen, said over the phone once I’d explained the situation. ‘Bring an overnight bag too.’
Helen monitored me for ages and I knew that something wasn’t quite right when she called the doctor in.
‘It’s nothing to be concerned about,’ the doctor said, ‘but the baby is quieter than we’d like. I’m going to recommend that we induce.’
I was scared when Helen came in to apply the prostaglandin gel that would encourage contractions to start.
‘Don’t expect anything to happen tonight,’ she explained, ‘it’s your first pregnancy so we might have to apply more gel in the morning.’
But two hours later my contractions started and lasted through the night. The next morning, the doctor broke my waters artificially and the contractions continued. Everything was happening so quickly, and yet the time between the doctor’s visits seemed to stretch out infinitely. When he came in again at 3 o’clock, I was exhausted and desperate for relief from the pain. I never thought I’d beg for the cool, sharp prick of the epidural needle, but I did.
After a few hours nothing was happening, and I could tell from the hushed whispers that the doctor was concerned.
‘Is everything ok?’ I asked. I was shivering uncontrollably, a side effect of the pain relief, I was told.
‘The baby keeps moving,’ Helen said, ‘it’s very unusual for such a big baby to keep changing position,’ she explained. She couldn’t hide her concern.
The doctor came in and said we needed to consider a c-section.
‘I don’t mind,’ I told him, ‘as long as the baby is okay.’
His heart rate stabilised though, and after twenty-two hours of labour, he made his way into the world. The doctor pulled him out and showed him to me. I was the first thing he fixed his eyes on, and as he looked at me with his dark, beady, tiny eyes, I knew that it had all been worth it. All the tears, the pain, the stretch marks, the hormones, all the changes, I knew I would do it again. I would do it again for the rest of my life if it resulted in the child that was staring into my eyes in the labour ward.
Even what awaited me: the weeks of exhaustion and sleep deprivation, the blood loss and the operating theatre where I’d hear his desperate, lusty cries through the air vents, unable to move, unable to soothe him, I’d go through it all again.
I never really got to say goodbye to my old self, or my old body. I thought, on the day I took the test, that I could hold onto not knowing for a while, but the truth is I already knew. I knew when I woke up that day, I knew when I bought the test at the pharmacy. Everything had already changed.