Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Vet's On Standby

Dr John Braxton Hicks first observed them in 1872. Observed? Surely they were bleeding obvious. You certainly couldn’t miss them in our house on New Year’s Eve as Joanna writhed in agony on the floor. “Braxton Hicks” are the bane of pregnant women. They’re bogus contractions that nonetheless feel extremely real. Just two weeks off her due date, despite the pregnancy manuals’ reassurances that “you’ll know a real contraction when it comes”, these false alarms are disturbing. Although Izzy will be my fifth child, I found myself counting the breaks in the pain and planning the fastest route to the hospital. Childbirth is the most inexact science. Despite millennia of practice, it’s extraordinary how hit and miss the whole process is for the female human.

27 years ago, when my first child was due, my wife and I twice piled her hospital bag into the boot and dashed off to the maternity ward, only to be greeted with weary mockery by the nurses. “Oh, they’re only Braxton Hicks”, they said and sent us packing. The second time we felt truly ashamed.

It was on the eve of Charles and Diana’s wedding when she felt the contractions for the third time. “They’re only Braxton Hicks”, we chorused, cracked open a bottle of Moet and switched on television to watch the fireworks in Hyde Park. A couple of hours later we were merrily toasting the royal couple as the BBC prepared to light the hilltop beacons around the country. But despite the champagne, Jilly was in serious discomfort. I timed the gaps and picked up the car keys. “No rush – but maybe we should get ready”. We had another glass for the road, then climbed into our battered old van.

London was strangely silent. The reason became apparent as we reached the high street. The entire city was gridlocked. Over a million people were trying to get to Hyde Park and the roads were jammed solid. The hospital was four miles away across the Thames, and hundreds of stationary cars blocked our way.

At that moment Jilly’s waters broke. No time for an ambulance, we needed a police escort. So whether it was the alcohol or just sheer panic coursing through the veins, I decided to try to get arrested. On the wrong side of the road, horn blaring, I weaved through the oncoming traffic. Storming along the pavement, across a bowling green, down a shopping mall, I roared up to the local police station. It was shut; every policeman in London was in Hyde Park. It was the longest four miles of my life, with Jilly in the back screaming obscenities at me like women in labour always do in the movies.

We arrived with minutes to spare. As Ben’s head popped into the light of the delivery room, we heard the first bars of Handel’s Royal Fireworks music from the nurses’ lounge next door, and a hundred rockets exploded in the sky.

This time I’m determined things will run a little smoother. The calm, possibly hung-over telephone voice of Jo’s consultant on New Year’s Day (“They’re only Braxton Hicks”) has condemned her to another fortnight of discomfort.

Don’t believe anyone who claims pregnancy is a joyous experience. I reckon it’s an unpleasant process from start to finish. Jo’s body is absurdly distended, Izzy’s feet are somewhere under her mother’s chin, and neither has had a decent night’s sleep since August. You’d have thought women would have evolved a more user-friendly reproduction mechanism by now.

Jo says men have no idea what women go through. That of course is a great blessing, but it’s also a frustration, as I’d really like to be sharing our most important event of 2009. Meanwhile I’m taking no chances. Our next-door neighbour is a vet, and I’ve put him on standby, just in case the Braxton Hicks turn into the real thing.

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