Last October, a month before my daughter was born, I bought a watch from the kiddies section of the jeweller’s store on the third floor of Yaya. Rupa’s. Have you ever been? It’s a silly plastic watch. Q & Q. Water resist, 10 bar. I would have preferred to show it to you in picture – the watch, not the store – to save myself the words to describe it – but that would have been one too many images for this post. (I need an active Instagram account, don’t I?)
It’s a silly plastic watch in matted pink and lavender. It has pink straps and lavender clasps. Its face is framed in pink and dotted with lavender bars. The minute hand is in blue, the hour hand in yellow and the second hand in red. In the background is two mushrooms, one is taller than the other. They are both smiling.
I bought the watch because it made for a silly laugh. Because I was channelling my inner child; my seven year-old-niece begs me to give it to her. Because it cost a loose 2,000 bob plus change. Because Quartz has a decent history of engineering clock mechanisms. But I bought it mostly because I needed a watch on my wrist during childbirth – time would be the only thing to give me bearing.
I woke up at 8.20AM on the morning Muna was born. It was my best friend’s birthday. I didn’t wake up to wish her a happy birthday, I woke up because I felt a squeezing dull pain below my belly button. A new pain with a sensation I couldn’t register. The pain came in regular bursts, in waves – it rolled in gently from afar, crashed at the shore of my pelvis then rolled back into the horizon where it emerged. It hit hard then I subsided as I went right back to sleep.
I played along with it for 40 some more minutes – pain, wake up, subside, sleep. Pain, wake up, subside, sleep. At 9AM, I whaled out of bed, grabbed my watch from the dresser then whaled back to bed as I strapped it on my wrist. I waited for two more waves to hit as I monitored them on my watch, as if I was a seismologist on his Richter scale. The blue minute hand crossed two bars, I counted the yellow second hand with my breath, like we had done in yoga. The pain came after 10 minutes, running for 20 seconds flat.
I was in labour.
There was a darkness and beauty about the pain. Its darkness was in how intense it was; a hard kind-of-pain that perfectly fit the perimeter of my pelvis, stretching from the centre going backward to my ass all the way to right above my crack, where my spine ended. This wasn’t the type of pain where you screamed or said, Ouch. It was itchy and burned with a stinging and blunt thud. Ironic. I grabbed on to anything hard and held on to it harder, as a drowning man would a floating log. I focused my breaths on counting.
Its beauty was in how it only hurt for the 20 seconds it lasted then vanished as if nothing had happened. How precise, how exact the timing was. Mother Nature had a silly watch of her own.
I only had a window of 10 minutes to catch a break. So I put my house in order: I took a cold shower, going as far shaving myself clean. I put on some eyeliner and lip gloss. I had a full plate of Nanny Dee’s kickass beef fry, with ugali and oily sukumas. I spread the bed. I stacked the fresh and folded laundry into the closet. I leafed through the baby’s clothes; I had done this on several occasions in the last few weeks – going through her onesies and burying them in my face. My hands eventually dirtied them and they had to be laundered again.
I tore out the grocery shopping lists from my notebook and stuck them to the refrigerator. I briefed Nanny Dee. I dropped mine and baby’s packed bags near the door; I’d packed them two weeks earlier. I walked around the digs, capturing the reflective moments of these before-baby echoes; an old life, before his presence filled up every room. I settled my debts; I sent my MPESAs and my online bank transfers. I texted GB, he was in a meeting. I got on whatsApp and told my sisters then my bitches, barely remembering to wish her a happy birthday. I texted my two other pals. Then I made one call, the only call I would make that day. I called my Mum.
“Mummy, I’m in labour.”
She half-laughed, half-squealed. I pictured her eyes sinking into her happy face, tongue getting stuck in the gap between her two bottom teeth. Seven kids, two grandkids later and her manic enthusiasm is still unfeigned.
“You are not serious.” She laughed again, “How are you feeling?”
“Great, actually. I’m still in the house. It started this morning. But from yesterday evening, I could feel that something was happening. I just didn’t know it then.”
“Thank God,” she squealed again. “It’s good to wait. Babies come when they are ready.”
“I knoww. Four days late isn’t so bad, eh?”
She prayed for me, right there on phone. She added, in soft Kale, “Be strong. Don’t scream. And don’t cry.”
I knelt by the edge of the bed, in silence, embracing the pain, breathing with the red second hand as I now counted to 22. Then I waited.
It was 1.30PM when GB checked into the digs. He found me mid-contraction. He couldn’t believe how much pain I was in.
He changed clothes into the first things he saw – the same ones I had just stacked, the ones that smelled of Sta Soft – then told me, “Let’s go.” He was headed out the front door, into the November sunshine, bags stuffed under his arm, when I told him to chill, Gotta wait this contraction out. They were more intense now.
And they didn’t let up: We’re reversing out of parking when another one hits. I ask GB to stop the car. We’re approaching the highway and there it goes. Jesus. I tell him to slow down. We get to Aga Khan. We’re just about to take the stairs when another one hits. I squeezed the railing as I counted it out. We’re at the admissions desk on the First Floor when I tell GB to grab me the waste paper basket. Another wave plus I spew my guts; that heavy meal – those sukumas especially – weren’t such a good idea after all.
It was alittle after 2.15PM when I settled into my labour room. I had on those hospital gowns, the ones in starched cotton which expose your ass. It was just me and GB. My sis, my Doc and my doula were knotted up somewhere in the snarls of this crazy city. Everyone promised they would be there in a jiff. I was calm. I fixed my eyes on my watch, counting. GB scuttled in and out of the room with paperwork. He seemed confused, hehhe.
Nurse Madaga was my nurse for the afternoon. She had shiny dark skin and wide nostrils. A burn scar ran on the inside of her left arm. Her cornrows said she was having a bad hair day. She was pleasant and professional, eager to assist. She spoke in that positive customer-service lilt, the one that reassures you but doesn’t say much. I liked her.
Madaga tethered my belly to a heart monitor. She told me I had dilated five centimetres – I was already at the halfway mark.
“So that means that by 6PM my baby should be here? That’s if things go on as they are?”
She said, Yes, “You are progressing very well. Just breathe. Would you like me to get you the gas to help with the pain?”
The baby’s heartbeat from the monitor drummed in a soothing rhythm, it filled up the lull of my counted breaths.
2.40PM. The breaks inbetween were shorter and the pain dragged on for longer. 8 minutes for 25 seconds. It hurt. It fucking hurt. I couldn’t scream because I’m Kale, and I couldn’t cry because my mother told me not to. But this, you guy, was too darn much for six centimetres. Something was wrong.
I asked Madaga if everything is peachy down there. She gave me a thumbs-up, “You are progressing very well. Just breathe.”
I was certain things were going wrong when the next wave hit and I felt what should have been my water breaking. Turned out it wasn’t.
“Guys, guys, something is pouring out. It’s alot.”
GB sneaked a peek, he cleared his throat then stuffed his hands deep into his front pockets. He mumbled to the nurse. Madaga checked again, whatever she found down there upset her poise.
“Uhm… OK… Let me get the Doctor.” She ran out. Finally, some real emotions!
Madaga returned with the Doctor on call. He was a young lad, looked like the ink on his practising certificate hasn’t even dried yet. He had on a cobalt blue tie and a tight white shirt. So tight I could trace his chest hairs from where I lie. One springy coil had come loose and was staring at me through the crack in his shirt. I winked back at it.
I was on my back, knees bent. He did his thing. “Well,” he said as he peeled off his gloves, “You are bleeding. The baby is OK but we have to go to the theatre now, for Caesarean.”
“Yes, right now,” he said. “That heart monitor could go silent at any minute. We can’t wait for that. ”
I turned to GB to get an explanation, he gave me nothing but the whiff of Sta Soft. There were two things I saw in his face in that moment: I saw helplessness. And I saw fear. The helplessness was in the way he stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets. As if he would look at them and realize there was nothing they could do for me. The fear was in his eyes. They widened into large marbles, shifting in his head from left to right as if searching for his voice. He looked like a mad man.
Let’s pause for a second here, I need to confess some things to you: For a long time, I had this simple-minded and misguided belief that associated a CS to chicks who wanted to take the easy way out to childbirth. Divas that didn’t have the spine to push. Or those that had been too lazy or too busy to walk, swim or yoga during their pregnancy. A CS suggested a shortcut.
So when I’d heard Fulani or Fulani had had a baby, I’d ask the next question, “Did she push ama it was CS?” And if it were a CS, my thoughts would move – foolishly, spitefully and linearly – to the next thought, “Ah, of course she didn’t push. There was no way that baby was coming out in any other way.”
I wasn’t going to take a shortcut. My plan was to go natural. But isn’t that every woman’s plan?
Another other reason I wanted a natural birth was so I could have material for this story I am telling you right now. Shallow, I know. I had taken it to the extent of preparing some sentences and paragraphs in my head. Instances where I would have these epiphany-like moments that explained the meaning of life and the purpose of my existence. A string of loose clichés, at best.
Most importantly I wanted closure. A natural birth seemed like the only line that marked the end of pregnancy and the beginning of motherhood. I am all about closure. Clean breaks. I needed to be present to experience it. And besides, if I was present when she was getting in (ahem), it’s only fair that I be present when she’s getting out. Right, right?
What I understood later was that nobody cares how your baby got out. Because there is only two ways he can get out: either through a bikini cut or through a vagina cut, either breathing or not breathing. It is that simple and distinct. That certain.
Madaga didn’t waste time with the consent forms. It’s as if they had been stuffed in her bra ready and waiting. “Sign here,” she points, “And here and here.”
Time was no longer just about bearing, it was now the carpe that drew the line between great news and not-so-great news.
There was a clock in the theatre displaying the time in large LCD digitals.
I breathed in the anaesthesia through the face mask.
I blinked once.
I blinked again.
I blacked out.
I woke up to my Doctor’s face. He’d done that cool thing where doctors slide the surgical mask to sit around their neck. I was in recovery, I could only move my eyes.
“Hallo Florence,” he said.
“Hey,” I mumbled. Skipping any small talk, I asked. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
“It’s a girl.”
I smiled. I felt a tear roll down the side of my face then heard it burst into a thousand little droplets before it faded away in a soak.
“Is she OK?”
He said she is.
He explained. In brief non-medical terms, finished by saying, “We didn’t have a choice, you had to have the CS. Sleep some more. You will see her shortly.”
He walked away before I could ask him what time it was.
Let’s pause here again, let me I tell you how I imagined meeting my baby for the first time: So we’d be in the delivery room, right? All of us – me, GB holding my left hand, my Doc and his team of nurses flanking us in their green scrubs.
Push, push. Baby comes out in all her newborn grace and slime then shrieks as her tiny ass meets the biting cold.
The scene segues into slow motion. The Doc would make the announcement, “It’s a girl!” Or, “It’s a boy!”(Notice the exclamation marks.) Then GB would turn to me and smile, I’d choke back tears. He’d saunter over to cut the cord. Then the Doc and nurses would smile as they nod their heads, turning to each other.
Then they’d wrap her in a white sheet and bring her to me in my beautiful post-birth glow, crying beautiful tears and saying beautiful things. Then GB would rush back to my side and we’d both look into her face before he kisses her forehead. Then we’d remain in silence, smiling, soaking in the moment of this new-found family love. A calculated culmination.
We were shooting an ad basically, for, I don’t know, Bank of Africa.
It was far from this.
It was 6.30PM when I they wheeled me – propped up – into my room. My bed parted through the small crowd outside the door. I was sweaty and still groggy from the anaesthesia. My makeup had washed off my face. I think I was drooling but didn’t even know it. My arms felt as good as spaghetti.
The Princess was carted in right after. It was 3 hours since she breathed her first. “Florence, meet your baby,” the nursery nurse said as she bundled her to me.
And there she was: my baby. I have a baby. A baby! My baby!
Her skin is all fair. She has GB’s square head and squarer forehead. Her nose looks like a little scone – round, fluffy and yellow. She has eyebrows (thank God, I have none). And moppy hair (thank God again, hehhe). She’s making those jerky movements newborns make with their arms and legs.
I was having a quiet moment when I looked up to see that the small crowd had moved in a unit into the room. It now had the atmosphere of a house party. My Mum was threatening to break into song and dance. My sisters were breathing down my neck cooing awws. GB still had his hands in his pockets, hehee. Someone was shooting a video. Someone was laughing hard. Someone, the doula actually, said loudly, “Say something to your baby, Florence. Florence? Florence? Talk to your baby.”
Muna and I looked into each other’s eyes.
I found my closure.