“You won’t be running again, any time soon,” the midwife said.
I sat up straight and looked into her serious eyes, framed by metal-rimmed sensible glasses. She was short, with a limp, and wearing an off-white NHS tabard. She looked like she knew exactly what new mums would be capable of.
I waited until she’d edged her way out of the shared ward, with her lopsided tread echoing on the hard hospital floor. The air stank of the tomato soup we’d all been served earlier, mixed with the sickening sweet scent of babywipes. I whisked the nylon curtains around my bed and the metal rings clattered against the top-rail. I waited a few more minutes.
Then I sobbed. Silently sobbed. My chest felt so painfully tight that it pulled at the seams of my oldest T-shirt. I couldn’t remember the last time I cried. I tensed my jaw and locked the racking cries at the back of my throat. My lips quivered as the warm tears ran down my cheeks. I looked down at myself, not really liking what I saw. My swollen feet were pressed into brown fluffy slippers. I hadn’t been able to squeeze into regular shoes as yet, so I’d borrowed the footwear from mum. A catheter bag hung shamefully low and heavy against my left leg. Hideous thing. And then- and then- these massive unwanted appendages sticking out from my front.
That midwife was right. No-one could run far in this get-up. My body looked worse than any of those ridiculous outfits some people wore for the London Marathon. Dressed as a hippo for charity, that kind of thing. Well, I certainly felt like a hippo today. My breasts clenched and released their own droplets of milk as I cried. Ouch. No-one told me in advance how painful breastfeeding could be. I could have used some gas and air right now.
A mewl came from beside me, like a lost kitten calling for help from deep in a rubbish bin. I glanced over to the plastic tub next to the bed.
“I suppose you’re hungry.”
I reached out into the rectangular box, awkwardly lifting the little scrap of a baby. Then, I wedged her into my loose tummy as I propped myself up on the cheap pillows. I shifted myself, concentrating on staying comfortable as I pushed her head towards a tender nipple. She knew what to do all right. Sucking away like a pro. It was me that was having difficulty adjusting to it all.
Before having a baby, I guess I’d thought that women just carried on with their lives as usual. Which, for me, was going running. My other reckless hobbies included cycle touring, white-water kayaking, mountaineering, all-year-round surfing. I’d dub myself a fitness freak, an adrenaline junkie.
And, looking back, I’d been healthy throughout the pregnancy. Two days before giving birth, I’d kayaked to a remote beach with my husband. The day I went into labour, I’d cycled twelve miles on a rugged off-road trail. My dad despaired of me.
“You might want to take it easy,” he’d said, watching me freewheel madly down a muddy hill, my arms stretching out for the handlebars over my bump.
“Dad. Giving birth is just one day of my life.” I span the bike round, heading back up the ramp again. “It’ll be like a marathon I imagine. One day of pain, then it’ll all be over.”
That night, the contractions started. If it was just one day, it was a shockingly difficult one. Worse than any race, if I’m honest. Because – if you’re running, you can make the decision to stop. You can swoop to the side of the road and grab a drink. Tell yourself you’re out of practise and you’ve not trained well enough. You can stand still, rest, and choose to do the race another day.
But you can’t stop labour any more than you can stop a runaway train.
End of week one and the midwife had still banned me from running. I’d got home to my house. I’d fed the baby. Changed the baby. Washed the baby. Tried to sleep. Fed the baby again, hourly, in a relentless cycle of horror. I sipped a mug of lukewarm coffee, blinking through bleary eyes at the midday sunshine slipping through the double-glazed window.
I pushed my front door open, letting in the smell of mown grass and jasmine flowers from the hedgerow across the street.
“It’s time to go for a walk.” I said to the baby, laying her gently into the over-sized pram. I gripped the chunky plastic handle and angled the wheels softly over my front doorstep. This ‘runners buggy’ was crammed with technical features, such as an additional waist leash to clip to, enabling baby to stay safe when I swung my arms wide on a downhill stretch. Today, I’d have settled for a cup-holder.
No, I wouldn’t be running. I planned a short stroll around Swanpool lake like an old lady feeding the ducks on a Sunday afternoon. I leant on the pram, bent over in pain. I’d lost a lot of blood during the protracted birth process and I was exhausted. The sensation was similar to altitude sickness in that my stomach clenched with nausea and my legs just didn’t seem to be working. I clung onto that buggy handle and let the weight of it pull me downhill.
The street was empty and I regulated my breathing. Calm and steady. In and out. The sun shone bright on the daisies in the verge but the air was cold to breathe. I stopped by a lamp-post and fiddled with the fleecy baby blanket. I twitched it in around her shoulders, making sure not to wake her again. I wondered whether I should be asleep myself. Sleep while they sleep, my mum kept on saying to me.
The baby lay still, breathing steadily. Clean, well-fed, calmly asleep.
Mums are supposed to love their babies. See them as beautiful. Well, I didn’t.
The baby’s face looked a sallow yellow colour. She had an asymmetrical squished-up skull where they’d twisted her body, ripping her out from me in a rush. The ventouse suction device had slipped from her scalp, causing a red bloody mess of her skin. Splitting the scab into sections, there was a downy fluff of strawberry-blonde hair growing in tufts. I’d jammed a cotton cap over the whole lot for today’s outing. Blue outlines of bunnies and rockets roamed across the soft fabric.
The smart navy blanket added to the illusion that there was a baby boy in the pram in front of me. I dreaded those conversations with strangers. The ones where they ask how heavy the baby is, how it sleeps, how old it is, how the feeding is going. I hardly knew myself. I’d never planned to be a mum. My body had rebelled against my ideals of training as a mountaineering instructor and I had my womb, deep inside me, physically yearned for a child.
How hard could it be? So, in my late twenties, I’d thought I’d have a go. See if I could get pregnant, then take it from there. Turned out my rebellious female form was right – I conceived easily.
I hadn’t realised that giving birth isn’t like signing up for a marathon. That’s six months of training, four hours of pain, then the race is all over in an afternoon.
Nope – someone should have read me the small print.
A baby’s for life.
I stumble-pushed that pram for the short half-mile walk around the lake. Heaving the pram back up the tiny incline to my house, I felt like I’d ascended the Hillary Step on Everest. I eased the door shut behind me and sat down heavily on the lowest of my stairs. I needed a coffee, simply to feel alert again.
I saw a wriggle of movement from within the pram, shoved in the narrow hallway just inside the door. A squeal and a whimper like the silent start of an avalanche in the Alps. I lurched to my feet, ready to lift her up, or to rock her, or feed her, or whatever.
She opened her eyes.
I noticed they were blue, like mine. Still blue, after a week. I read somewhere that all baby’s eyes are blue for the first day, then they change to their regular colour. Or was that kittens? She focused on me, and her eyes locked onto mine. She stopped the noise, her mouth an oh of recognition. She stilled, looking at me. Taking me in. I looked back at her, guessing what she’s thinking. She knew me. She loved me. We were in this together. I breathed out a soft sigh and reached out to pick my beautiful daughter up.