The most undignified moment of my life occurred in Lewisham Hospital Maternity Ward. Yes, labour is inherently undignified but the miracle of birth is equally inherently wondrous and the gorgeousness of a newborn makes everything more or less forgotten. Lying on your side, mangled and bloody and bewildered at appearing to have to know how to look after a tiny human being, with your nightie shucked up while a midwife parts your bottom cheeks to see how your stitches are healing, stating ‘you have piles,’ as she does so? Undignified. Glaringly obvious. And no, not even a little bit wondrous.
Lewisham A&E (which recently cost 22 million pounds to refurbish) is threatened with closure. It will probably close. Where there are no A&E facilities, there can be no Maternity Unit, because giving birth to children is still a pretty unpredictably risky thing to do.
I’m not one of those women who enjoys labour. In fact, although I have heard of women who do enjoy labour, I’ve never met one who will admit to it. Frankly, anything that makes you feel like your pelvis is slowly being cranked open by a wheel jack in order for the monster off The Goonies to squeeze his head through is difficult to properly enjoy.
When my sister’s youngest boy, Titch, was born, Sausage asked me to be a birth partner along with her partner, Mr X. She had him at home, on her sofa, once the lovely Lewisham Community Midwife was able to persuade her that a). she really did want another baby and b).she didn’t really want to give birth to it under the dining table. The house was calm, and quiet, and dimly lit, and comfortable. Sausage got by with breathing techniques and an (empty, although she didn’t know it) canister of entonox. Apart from the fact that one point she was squeezing the bones in my hand to smithereens and mooing like a cow you wouldn’t know she was in any pain at all. She got into her own bath to clean off the gore of childbirth and then slept in her own bed with little titch swaddled cosily beside her. When I awoke on the still-damp sofa the following morning it was to her older son Munchkin frantically looking for a tape measure with which to measure the baby and then he snuggled into bed with the rest of the family and waited for the doctor to come and check Titch over.
Without access to a nearby Maternity Unit with emergency provision, home births are not feasible. No more Lewisham mothers in their own beds post-childbirth. No more calm and quiet and dimly lit births. Women labour best where they feel comfortable, and for many this isn’t a very public and impersonal hospital bed.
My own children’s births were a bit different from Sausage’s, being inductions. They mainly involved waiting, not sleeping, and politely trying to labour quietly in a room with two other women who were also waiting and not sleeping (I curse my programming to want to be considerate even in the face of bloomin’ childbirth). When we got to Lewisham Maternity Ward we had to wait and see if there was any room for us, or if we had to go home again due to too many people having babies (I was hoping for the latter, desperately hoping that I would go into labour naturally and have a lovely, peaceful homebirth like my sis). Trulove had to go home overnight and was called when I went into labour. When Pickle was being born, South London had frozen up in the Great Snowstorm of Twenty Ten; there were no buses and the roads were impassable. This meant that Trulove trudged through the snowy park at 5am to be greeted the emerging head of his younger daughter, and promptly threw up. We were not able to leave the postnatal ward for a couple of days – not because of the snow, but because the staff were so busy they forgot to discharge us.
The plan is to disburse the 4,900 births every year in Lewisham to the other Maternity Units in South London. Is this because Lewisham is failing financially or medically? Nope. It’s because other hospitals in South London have fucked up their spending. You can read the full story here http://www.savelewishamhospital.com/.
So, the plan is to disburse the births. 5000 more women in hospitals across the district. People currently turned away from Lewisham when it’s too full; staff too busy to clear out beds for new occupants; London Transport at a halt in bad weather. No more beds, no expansion of existing provision, a birth rate that’s increasing. Anyone else have a growing feeling of impending doom?
My friend Sunhilde had her second baby at Lewisham Birth Centre. Because she already knew what labour felt like and she knew that it takes ages, she didn’t bother ringing the hospital for a while. She thought she’d have a little sleep, her husband could drop her off at the hospital, drop her older son at nursery, and then saunter back to greet the new arrival.
Didn’t quite work out like that. The baby’s head began to make itself known on the South Circular, in a traffic jam. Little Marbles, Sunhilde’s older boy, was laughing at the funny noises mummy was making. Psyche, her husband, put his foot down and used the bus lane. ‘You’re not going anywhere, mate,’ said the midwives when Sunhilde, Psyche and little Marbles finally screeched into the hospital carpark, grabbed a wheelchair and made it to a birthing room. Marbles met his little brother minutes later. Sunhilde reports they batted barely an eyelid at the Birth Centre, which only opened in 2010.
“We were impressed what little fuss they made about Psyche and I slightly screwing up the timings not leaving any time to drop off Marbles anywhere else! They just let him be there as well and even included him in the whole process by trying to explain to him what was happening and encouraging him to watch the baby being born.”
Lewisham is poorer than it is rich, and plenty of people don’t own a car. Maybe those babies born on the hour-long journey on the 122 to Woolwich (the next Maternity Unit along) will be awarded free bus travel for life. I’d rather have access to a midwife and an incubator, myself. And to lose such a brilliant, inclusive, unflappable facility only 3 years after getting it is heartbreaking.
Lewisham A&E is vital. It’s terrifying to think of living somewhere so densely populated and yet so sparsely primed for emergencies. Lewisham Maternity Unit has played a part in my most recent experience, it’s true. It is one facility out of many in the country. But its loss symbolises who is punished by Austerity Measures. Of course – again – it is women. Only women labour. Labouring women are in danger when medical assistance is further away. They are in danger when they are anxious and frightened when they’re having their babies. And the poorer-than-they-are-richer population of Lewisham is given a pretty clear message about their value right from the moments of their births.
At one time, women and children went first into the lifeboats on a sinking ship. These days we are first to be shoved, sprawling, into the icy ocean.