Living next door to the hospital used to be comforting. In fact, one of the reasons we were planning to have a beautiful, transcendent home birth was because we knew how easily we would be able to abandon those silly ideas and get swiftly medicalised. But as the pandemic worsened, our feelings about the hospital changed. We walked past it most days, peering at the masked security guards with clipboards, the boxes of latex gloves, the queues of people in the car park, each person standing alone in their own gaffer-taped square on the ground like performers in a Brechtian play about alienation. There was also the huge banner tied to the railings that read, “Thank you to all our NHS workers because” …and then in huge letters… “THIS IS GOING TO HURT”. The hospital no longer seemed like a place where babies should be born.
The contractions started late one evening when we were halfway through the third season of This Country. We finished the episode and got the house ready, positioning bedside lamps in each corner of the room for that relaxed, speakeasy feel, playing a looping mixtape of Bill Evans’ least challenging solo piano work. The electric pump whirred as the inflatable birth pool rose from the floor. We threw dust sheets and shower curtains over everything. All in all, the atmosphere was of a Hollywood cocktail bar closed for major refurbishment. By the time the sun came up, the contractions were coming hard and fast and, when we called the midwife, she told us to start filling the pool.
At 7am, our three-year-old son woke up and came downstairs. He noticed the hose running into the darkened living room, the dust sheets dotted with blood, light piano jazz drifting through the house, and he considered what to do. As a rule, he hates even small changes to the domestic setting. In this way, he is like Kathy Bates’s character in Misery. He will notice if the pepper grinder has rotated by 90º and make you suffer for it. But on this occasion — with masked strangers carrying shiny medical instruments back and forth and shuddery groans emerging from what was ordinarily his play room — some deep self-preservation instinct told him to go with it. He remained calmly in the kitchen with his grandma for the next seven hours.
By mid-morning, the cocktail bar atmosphere had long given way to science fiction: my wife — lit by the cool blue torchlight of the midwives’ iPhones, floating in a pool of water the colour of a shark attack — was screaming and biting the walls. Who was the shark and who the victim, it was difficult to say. Our daughter was born at 11.16am. Although, in truth, her head had come out at 11.11am and so she’d spent a good five minutes with her neck being strangled by the birth canal. This was probably why, a few moments later, her face turned blue. And though the midwives remained calm, reassuring us that it was probably just congestion, it was hard to ignore the fact that they were calling for an ambulance.
Our daughter’s lips turned a dusky, haunted colour as they placed her on the “resuscitation station” which, because we were in our own home, was just a towel and some implements laid out in front of the fire place. If we had been capable of clear thinking, this would have been the moment to ask ourselves: who decided to illuminate the room with fucking bedside lamps? Who thought piano jazz a good idea? Where were the monitors and emergency cords and cupboards full of medical-grade drugs? Who was responsible for all this?
The paramedics arrived and helped my wife and newborn daughter into the back of the ambulance. They explained to me that, because of Covid, I would not be allowed to come with them and, in fact, it was possible I would not be able to enter the hospital at all. Then they shut the doors and drove off.
Watching them recede from view, blue lights flashing, I became aware that my brain was speaking to me with two contradictory yet simultaneous voices. One was loudly saying, “You will never see your daughter alive again if you don’t take immediate and melodramatic action”, while the other spoke in my own exaggeratedly reasonable voice — the one I use when my son is having a tantrum — and it said, “Hey buddy, take it easy, the best thing you can do is stay calm.” I now understood why my son finds this voice so irritating and I, too, ignored it, sprinting through the estate beside the hospital.
That I arrived at A&E before the ambulance was, I would like to say, one of those superhuman feats of parenthood — like when a mother lifts up a lorry that is crushing her child — but it’s also true that there were some roadworks and the ambulance had to go the long way round. I approached the front entrance, sweating, confused, having forgotten to put on my mask, failing to notice the grid-system of gaffer tape on the floor of the car park. The security guard held up his palms and took a big step back as I incoherently tried to retell, in detail, the entire birth narrative. Luckily, all the useful communication was being done by the terror in my eyes and so — after calming me down and politely reminding me to wear my mask — he waved me through.
Our fears about the hospital instantly receded. Everyone was calm, dedicated and kind. They had all the professional lighting. Tests quickly confirmed that our daughter’s oxygen levels were fine and her spooky blueness was indeed congestion due to her head having been born five minutes before the rest of her. Over the next few hours, she gradually returned to a more normal colour, by which I mean the cheerful shade of a blood blister.
She’s six months old now and thriving. Whenever we carry her past the hospital we remind ourselves that what looks sinister — masked people, gaffer tape, latex gloves — is actually heroic. Without this dystopian bureaucracy, the inside of the hospital would not function. It also makes me think that we need to widen our conception of heroism. When I see the security guard in his high-visibility waistcoat standing outside the gates of the hospital, stamping his feet to stay warm, I do try to communicate this admiration. I give him the “you’re my hero” look and he smiles back his huge, glowing, film star smile. Or at least I hope he does, behind his mask.
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