London - Eighteen years ago this December, I had a baby. Two months after that, I had a horribly infected and impacted wisdom tooth removed.
Ask me which experience has me wincing and gripping the arm of my chair in horror when I recall it — throb by throb, howl by howl — and the tooth wins hands down.
The baby, you see, was a breeze. There, I said it, out loud, without apology. I arrived at the Whittington Hospital in North London for an antenatal check a couple of weeks before my due date, stood up when my name was called, and my waters broke.
I was ferried off to a side room, called my husband, and a couple of hours later Joe came shooting into the world like a buttery torpedo. No drugs, no assistance and no actual midwife in the room (she’d gone to see if a birthing suite was ready for me). I swear I still had one leg in my knickers.
Afterwards I had to be stopped from popping down to the canteen to get a bowl of soup. I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t. I felt absolutely fine and fancied a stroll.
I enjoy telling this story now, partly to embarrass that same baby boy (now 6 ft tall), but also to reassure any rabbit-eyed, terrified pregnant young women I meet. I feel it’s my duty to tell these women, who’ve been drip-fed a series of horror stories which seem to have grown more awful over the years, that childbirth isn’t always ghastly.
That completely unassisted, straightforward births — even super rapid ones like mine — vastly outnumber the blood, gore, cruelty and neglect "penny dreadfuls" that seem to be exchanged on the mummy networks. It’s just we don’t hear about them.
Most births start spontaneously. Most don’t last more than eight hours.
But for many years in parenting groups, I kept quiet or embellished my experience with a few negatives, accounts of hanging out the door, begging for a midwife (that was my husband) and biting someone (John again, I think) or I’d get frozen out of the conversation.
Most recently we heard the terrible story of Grazia Editor Natasha Pearlman, who says she was left psychologically and physically traumatised and fearful of having another baby after a 33-hour, mostly drug-free labour three years ago.
A fully-paid up member of the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), she’d wanted a natural birth and ended up begging, on her knees, for morphine before her daughter was literally yanked and ripped out of her with forceps.
Give this poor woman the option of natural childbirth or a tooth extraction, and I think I know which one she’d opt for. My heart went out to her, but at the same time I felt my usual rush of indignation when I read the story.
Births don’t have to be like that. And mostly, they are not. Natasha spoke of a "childbirth conspiracy", where no one admits what it’s really like.
Well, I’d argue there’s another one. The silent majority for whom childbirth is actually straightforward, but who keep quiet through fear of offending the suffering, and increasingly vocal, minority.
Note I use the word straightforward, not easy. No childbirth is easy. It bloody hurts. It’s how we choose to manage that pain that defines our experience.
And that doesn’t mean "internalising" and "breathing through" the pain, like some chanting martyr — which I definitely am not. It means taking control of it and doing what is right for you and your baby.