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Jo'Burg Days: The First Child

“Will ya look at thaaat,” admiringly exclaimed the Irish nurse. “He’s ready to take on the world like a mini prize-fighter.” But the new mother is not pleased by what she sees, as Barbara Durlacher reveals in this vivid account of childbirth.


She was eighteen and very pregnant. Social ethics of the times kept her ignorant of what lay ahead. All she had shared with female relatives were baby patterns, the layette, choosing between ‘pink for a girl, blue for a boy’ and the purchase of a cot and pram. Nothing was said about her pregnancy or the labour to come. No chatter or advice about preparing physically or emotionally for the birth.

Her due date approached and passed. Nothing. Daily she grew heavier and more ungainly. A small fall did not dislodge the infant - just a bruised knee and wonky ankle, but no baby.

A neighbour, a certified nurse, pressed, prodded and listened, then pronounced the head ‘engaged’ – whatever that meant. The prospective mother knew nothing, but heeded the woman’s tip guaranteed to ‘start’ overdue births. “Drink a coke glass of castor oil,” she advised, “that’s bound to do the trick.”

Poor thing, it certainly started something; but unfortunately not the baby. Pressure caused a small blood vessel to rupture and the bleeding frightened the prospective mother into an early hospital admission. Once in the ward she was tucked up and told to let the duty nurse know if she felt anything.

A quiet day in the ward had her yearning for the company of her husband, but when he visited at 7pm they avoided the difficult subject of babies and birthing. Neither of them had any idea what was involved; better not to speculate. “Wait and see what happens,” was his advice from the depths of his male knowledge. Reading the evening paper after he left, she glanced through the news and the social columns before the nightly routine swept her towards sleep with washing, brushing and hot drinks.

A restless night and an early morning made her yawn with boredom and exhaustion. Reaching for the paper she read snippets of news. The cartoons caught her eye and it was while she was chuckling at the antics of Bugs Bunny and his chums that she felt the first urgent need to push. Bells were rung, examinations made and hasty decisions reached:

“Take her to the delivery ward, quickly, she’s about to give birth,” the sister instructed.

They wheeled the bed into the lift and down the corridor, being given a further high gloss by the handsome Zulu cleaner, who, treading carefully in his rubber-tyre sandals, beaded earplugs hanging nearly to his shoulders, was polishing it to a high shine before Matron’s inspection.

She heard a strange noise. A combination of deep-throated groans and moans. It caused the startled cleaner to glance at her on the gurney. Suddenly she understood. The noise was coming from her, not from the labour ward next door.

“How dreadfully embarrassing! Sounds like a cow giving birth! Why, even animals don’t make as much fuss.”

Then, events moved swiftly as, with a rush of water, a warm wriggling fish, about the size of a Kingklip, slid out from between her legs. The masked midwife quickly reached down, grabbed the creature and, she hoped, prepared to dispose of it in the nearest bin. Instead the doctor gave her a quick injection; put her legs up in the stirrups, and as she slid into oblivion started to do something strange to her private parts.

Some hours later a swaddled bundle was brought to her. A monk’s tonsure of brown hair above a deep frown brought his eyebrows together as he clenched his infant hands into fists. “Will ya look at thaaat,” admiringly exclaimed the Irish nurse. “He’s ready to take on the world like a mini prize-fighter.”

“That’s nothing to do with ME,” exclaimed the new mother. “Take it away! MY baby is long and slim, with fine hands, blonde hair and blue eyes. She’s not a brown-haired prize fighter, no matter what you say!”

It took a lot of persuading and a visit from Matron to convince her that this beautiful 12lb child was indeed her son and that she hadn’t given birth to a large wriggling fish. She wept disappointed tears for the dainty, fairylike daughter she had been convinced she would produce and years were to pass before mother and son bonded. Was it only Nature, the rushed delivery and the hours of oblivion immediately after his birth that delayed the process and alienated mother from son?

Lack of instruction into the mysteries of childbirth, narrow-minded hypocrisy and small-town prudery resulted in years of misunderstandings. Emotional immaturity, the unexpected fast birth, and an underdeveloped maternal instinct led to a great lack of love and closeness.

Nature teaches harsh lessons.

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