I’ve just had my first birthday without my mother. She often told me the story of the night I was born. It was a Thursday (Thursday’s child has far to go) in the middle of nowhere (Birchip in north western Victoria). In one of the many small bush nursing hospitals that dotted the country then and that country people relied on for births, deaths and everything in between (not any more). I always assumed they were public hospitals (like the network of public primary schools that then existed in even the tiniest hamlet throughout the mallee) and was surprised to discover they were in fact privately owned and operated. Where I was born looked like an ordinary country house – white weatherboard, tin roof, wide verandah, garden all around.
I was never inside it again and only remember this from the night my father took us to stand outside a fly screened window to see the tiny bawling bundle that was my youngest sister. Children weren’t allowed inside – unless they were patients. My second sister had her appendix out in the place but we didn’t go to visit. Different times. Nor were fathers encouraged of course. Birth was a strictly female affair. Mine particularly so.
My mother was better prepared for this, her second time at this same hospital. When my brother was born she’d carefully put on her makeup and dressed in good clothes when the contractions started and sat waiting for my father. A little travelling case beside her chair. When he turned up, not much later, he didn’t notice these careful preparations. When told the time had come he went into overdrive concerned lest he find himself – as other men in the district had – caught between hospital and home and, god forbid have to deal with the birth itself. So off they went at breakneck speed covering the twenty two miles to hospital quickly. This may have contributed to Mum’s dilemma when she got there. When asked how frequently her contractions were coming she found they’d stopped. So my scrupulously honest mother lied – this amazed the younger me to whom the story was told. Half an hour was as long as she dared proffer in the absence of any movements at all. She then spent the night anxiously hoping they’d start. She didn’t want the ignominy (not unprecedented) of having to return home after a false alarm. In any event Terry arrived in due course, without the need for a return visit.
Second time around Mum was greeted by a nurse she knew and liked. I had a feeling you’d be coming in tonight so I stayed on after my shift finished, she said. Doctor (male) was out of town on a house call at some far flung farm. No matter, the women settled in for the night. Mother in the high, hard, uncomfortable bed in the labour ward. This was apart from the rest of the hospital. I know this because of another story my mother told. Of a first time mother coming in, sure she was going to have her baby that night, asking to go to the labour ward. The nurses on duty were unfriendly and irritated. So they put her there. And left her there. And when the baby did start to come in the middle of the night, the labouring woman went to ring the bell for assistance but found it disconnected. And no-one heard her calls. She had her baby all alone. And when they found her in the morning, my mother told a wide-eyed young me, the first thing they did was to connect the bell. Before attending to mother and (healthy) child. Birth. In the country. Women’s business. I knew the woman of whom this story was told. A farmers wife with four children. Stoic, taciturn, she and her husband pillars of the community. Mum thought they should have sued the hospital, But he wouldn’t .
Back to me – I’m on my way in that same labour ward, on that same bed. Where my mother is lying. Alone. I don’t know where the nurse was. Nearby but not within sight. Behind a wall? A screen? Why isn’t she next to the bed? Mum must have asked how things were going. She was told her contractions were coming three minutes apart. How do you know? Because the bed squeaks every time you move and I’m timing them. It breaks my heart this story. The aloneness. On a bed, in a room, far from anywhere, from anybody. I’m pleased about the nurse. Her intuition that kept her there that night. Doctor turned up after I’d be born. Dad too, probably the next day. Different times. But here I am. Without my mother on my birthday, for the very first time.