I just slipped out she said. Like a slip of the tongue, slipshod, a slip stitch forever unknitted. I was born. Slippery, sibilant, small in the scheme of everyday lives. Nothing stopped. There were no celebrations. I was born and everyone got on with their work in the power station, the briquette factory, the mine, a gaping, brown open-cut.
She hung the nappies and sheets on the line, coal dust settling on the whiter than whites, on the window sills and mantle pieces, on the froth of the men’s beer, in our lungs. I was two-months old. Thin and pale, she shivered, her breasts bulging red and hot above her shoulders, a painful mountain range of igneous rock. Mastitis the doctor said. Milk fever, once a reason for admitting women to the insane asylum.
He laughed with a fat, purple face and said, ‘Keep breastfeeding! Let the baby suck’.
Not having a bar of it, my mother put me straight on the bottle.
She laid me down to sleep, seething ready to explode because my father’s English friend from the Woodcraft Folk was Morris-dancing in the bathroom day and night, until he got a desk job at Maryvale Paper Mills. Then he moved out.
Irene, our neighbour, would throw me around like a football and babysit when my parents went to Hamish Gardner’s house for Communist Party meetings. Dad was a proud member of the Trades and Labour Council, a deputy rep for the Transport Workers Union. He drove the bright-yellow Euclids carting overburden from the coal deposit.
The women went to Party meetings but my mother would rather have been at the picture theatre with its curved façade and big clock embedded into beige bricks. In summer, they turned on the air conditioning. In winter, she could take off her shoes, rest her feet on hot-water warmers and watch Vincent Price murder people in The House of Wax, 3D technicolour on a panoramic screen.
She took me with her once when I was a baby and sat at the back of the auditorium in the soundproofed, glass-fronted, cry room to watch East of Eden. I slept and she cried. My mother would sit in the cry room. Often without me.
In the theatre, she always refused to stand for the national anthem.
At home, she took a failed dish of bread and butter pudding from the oven, cried, splattered it against the kitchen wall.
What does it mean to be born in a town purposely planned and built, then purposely demolished for the coal that lays beneath it?
My birthplace is an ever-expanding, dark and greedy hole in the ground. With heat and oxygen, the coal spontaneously combusts. Lignite dust bursts into flame at the drop of a match, a spark, a welding torch, a yellow flash igniting in mid-air. Volatile, toxic. Giant, cylindrical cooling towers, chimneys, steel girders, high wire fences, power lines.
My birthplace is Brayakaulung land, Gunaikurnai, cleared, windswept, foothills.
What does it mean to be born to land where the ancestors are denied, where they are brutalised? Do they know my footsteps, my birth spirit?
My blood ancestors, Polish, Italian, Scottish, do they know my footsteps, my birth spirit?
I walk the short corridors of a small hospital, Bamalete Lutheran. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been. Seventy-four kilos. Twenty-four years old like my mother when she had me.
First baby. My father drove to Melbourne to collect his friend from England
First baby. My daughter’s father is out with friends.
The walls are green gloss, the floor concrete, painted dark red, polished, worn where I walk.
I walk because the nurses tell me I should. Read the birth records open on the counter in front of me. Stillbirth. Don’t think about it. Float.
The nurses give me an enema, warm and wet, not painful.
Cow bells ring hollow and deep. The land is dry, gold, studded with small trees and shrubs. I’m on my back on the bed. The midwife checks dilation.
‘Don’t hyperventilate. Breathe normally’, she says.
I read about the breathing in a book. Neon light.
The doctor is at the end of the bed. A tall German woman telling me to push. Round pain, rhythmic, I float. From deep within the back of my head I float. My hip bones separate like a spatchcock cut with kitchen scissors, pressed flat on the white sheet, I rip, a goat bleats at the window.
My baby cries.
Ten fingers. Ten toes. She is big.
A big baby.
We wait as my uterus presses down. A balloon shrivelling in on itself, contracting against the placenta, the temporary organ I have harboured, accepted and must now expel. Every process orchestrated by this new child in the room.
The midwife wants to sew the tear that extends from my vagina to my anus.
The placenta is ragged maroon not flat-cake perfect circle. We wait for more contractions. My skin smells damp, of freshly-cut grass, metallic.
The needle in and in and in and in.
Is it curved this needle?
Is it huge, with a big eye?
Black thread pulls through my tenderness. Pulls me back together, hurting. No pain killers.
The nurse tells me to get up and walk to the room.
I lie on my bed. My baby next to me in a Perspex cot. Sleep.
She cries. I take her. Sleep.
A nurse holds her to my breast. She sucks. Sleep.
I wake. It feels like I’m giving birth again. Waves of pain.
I tell the nurse.
She smiles, ‘The uterus contracting back to its pre-birth size. It’s nothing to worry about’.
I can’t float. The nurse brings tablets. They dull the pain. Sleep.
The light bulb hangs from the ceiling, stark and still. I sit up to look at my baby, eyes closed, her chest rising and falling rapidly, small lungs, heart, kidneys learning how to work in this world, outside me.
A spider, light brown and black, with very long front legs speeds across the wall above her cot.
My feet feel the cold of the concrete floor. Trembling, I take her wrapped in pastel yellow, blue and pink softness, and hug her close to my chest.
Indecision and anxiety prickle my skin. The spider waits for my next move. I bend over, clutching my baby with one arm, grab my shoe and throw it. The spider falls. I’m not sure if it’s dead. Part of a spindly leg sticks to the wall.
At home with my baby. I am frightened to hold her in water, to rub her skin with soap. My breast swells, lumpy, the ducts blocked.
The doctor gives me antibiotics for mastitis. I keep feeding.
She cries. Every night she cries.
I pull my hair, fighting the temptation to throw her across the room.
We drive dark streets and she sleeps. Drive and cry. I am very thin. Mosetsi.
What does it mean to be born outside of marriage to a mother who wonders if the bleats of a goat are your first cries? What does it mean to be born to land that your mother came to as an adult? That your father’s mother came to as an adult? Bamalete land, Bangwaketsi land where your father and his father and all the fathers going back in time are deeply rooted in the sand, deeper than the roots of the shepherd’s tree?
Who knows the vibrations of your feet on the earth?
Who knows your birth spirit?
Who do you become?
I walk dusty streets beneath a dark-sky sliver of a moon but still I see my path. Walking, holding my daughter’s hand. My womb tenses again and again.
The telephone has been cut. No money to pay the bill. My husband is out somewhere with his friends.
I walk to my mother’s house. She drives me, forty-five minutes to Bamalete Lutheran.
The nurses check dilation. Straight into the birthing room. The midwife guides the small head from between my legs. I split but not much. She is not a huge baby. Just right.
A June girl born in the desert cold, on a winter night. Many stars in a black sky.
I eat brown motogo porridge heaped with sugar.
My husband in the corridor talks loudly to a nurse, joking, ‘If it’s not a boy, I won’t bother going in’.
Holding my girl, delicate, dark eyes looking at me as she sucks. The uterus contracts with double the intensity. Cramping in hard, unrepentant beats.
His skin smells of stale, bitter brew.
He brings strawberries.
In the afternoon, my baby reacts. The strawberry seeds grow in my milk, grow on her skin, spotted-red welts.
I know how to wash this little one. How to put her to sleep but her sister pinches her. She howls, vulnerable, not understanding.
Hurt digs into my loneliness, into my tiredness. It becomes a rage I supress in slow, unending tears.
The doctor gives me antibiotics for the mastitis.
The little one continues to suck and as her eyes close, drowsy, her sister yells and slams the cupboard doors.
What does it mean to be born a girl when your father longs for a boy? Bamalete land, Bangwaketse land.
The land where you do not learn your father tongue?
What does it mean to be born second and in between because there is another one to come?
He started off as drops of blood, thorn in the side, sharp to the point of ectopic. Scans showed a peanut with a big heart throbbing life in the uterus, the right place for an embryo to be. He.
A grey-haired doctor treats me with an arrogance I am well acquainted with. He makes arrangements for an amniocentesis test. I want more information. He ignores me. Raucous twitching scratches at my throat.
‘I will think about it’, I say.
Broken veins form an angry net across his nose and cheeks.
His lips are thin when he speaks, ‘You are no spring chicken! It’s imperative you check for Down Syndrome. It won’t take long, painless, perfectly harmless’.
‘I will think about it.’
He throws the form and his pen across the desk and huffs, ‘I advise very strongly that you do the test’.
I’m up, walking towards the door. He doesn’t see me out.
This father is a different man. From another land. He says, ‘Wait and see. We will love our baby whatever happens’.
I’m working as a bookkeeper, paying the salaries. We all have strict toilet and tea times, and a locker room where we leave our bags and put on overcoats and elasticised paper caps and paper shoes before padding across the factory floor. The women make wound dressings. Sometimes they sneak one into my pocket and I take it home, peel it open, stick it on my skin.
Morning sickness invades my existence, deep, persistent nausea. In the fourth month, it leaves. I feel free.
An oversize red jumper, stretchy black pants and black lace-up boots become my uniform. Baby grows within me.
A fart escapes climbing the stairs.
I wee myself at the table during Christmas dinner at our friends’ home.
Run my stretchy black pants under water and dry them on a towel.
No one realises.
The hostess proudly serves suckling pig. Slaughtered at three-weeks old. My baby’s father is sick at the thought. He cannot pretend he eats pork.
It’s difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position. Difficult to turn my body on the bed.
This baby is overdue. He likes it in the womb. I eat curry.
The father curls his body around mine from behind. We have sex three nights in a row.
I sit for almost three hours in the cinema watching The English Patient. None of it convinces this small being to screw headfirst, round and round down the birth canal.
The hospital is in a cold place especially for women. Hull Maternity.
A male nurse measures dilation.
He says, ‘You are doing very well. Opening up like a flower in spring’. The urge to scream at him is furious, kick him.
Think of his feelings.
I don’t want a male nurse.
My daughters are with me, two friends, the father. They hold my hand. Talk. Laugh. The midwife allows them in the birthing room. They hold their breath when I moan and grunt my animalness into the air. One friend grabs the gas and sucks on it. The other friend glares at her.
I have never had gas before. I wait. Stoic.
Give me some.
A nurse places the mask over my nose and mouth. I breath in and float.
‘I can see the head. Nearly there. Push.’
Total length of labour five hours fifteen minutes.
Membranes to birth one hour seventeen minutes.
They hold him high. His legs curl towards his chest. I see huge testicles. He cries. My daughters laugh. The father holds his son.
Birth weight 4.139 kilos.
APGAR 9 at 1 minute, 9 at 5 minutes.
The midwife places this baby boy on my chest, my chin rests on his head. He is quiet. He is warm against my skin.
The father, the friends, the daughters are hungry. They go to eat pizza. Laughing as they walk down the corridor.
The midwife leaves. The nurses leave.
My child sleeps.
1st degree Perineal tear. Sutured by Ann Watson.
Blood Loss 250 mls.
Membranes complete but ragged.
I get up from the bed, legs shaking. Place a hand on the wall and manoeuvre to the door. Across the corridor to the bathroom. I stand in the shower, blood pouring onto a mosaic of small blue and white tiles.
Hot water pounds my head and back.
No sleep in the ward. There are ten mothers, ten babies. My baby sucks. The nurse is pleased. Contractions three times as strong. I cry. They give me painkillers.
Dulled light. Morning is on its way. I want to go home.
Mother is very tired, otherwise well.
The father drives to London to collect an uncle who stays with us. They play loud music and card games.
I lay on the bed on my back, arms and legs stretched out.
I stare at the ceiling. I cannot move. I cannot speak.
The father asks me what is wrong. My daughters are concerned. I hear them. I see them.
I cannot move.
I cannot speak.
They call the doctor.
I need rest.
The doctor tells me I am suffering from hysteria.
I have not recovered my tongue. I say nothing.
Antibiotics for the wrathful breast. Mastitis. Hot baths. My baby continues to suck.
The doctor says I must stop breast feeding.
I am too thin. Too tired.
He prescribes Prozac.
I thicken around the middle, around the brain. I am dulled down.
What does it mean to be born outside of marriage to an old mother who defies authority, hides her depression and throws away the medication? What does it mean to be born on a small wiggle of land that your mother and father came to as adults and will leave?
Who will know your footprint?
Who will know your birth spirit?
English is a dominator language.
Was there ever an English word for a woman who has just had a baby?
In the time when women had control of birth, was there a word?
When women cooked special food to ensure the mother’s recovery. When they made sure she got rest, when they shared the care of the newborn. Maybe then there was a word.
My mother often sits at the kitchen table staring out the glass doors at the sky. She says, ‘Aren’t the clouds beautiful. I’m very lucky to be able to watch the clouds’.
She says this many times a day.
The present and recent past crumble, her mind outstretched, hoping for memories. But they are mirages, dark, frightening gaps in her existence.
She is forced further and further back in time, seeking solid ground.
Walls are crumbling too. Inhibitions, restraints.
She is entirely inappropriate.
She voices her fears, her hates, past secrets, abuses.
She hugs me in a way I have never known. Shows love, simple, straight-forward, child-like love without resentment. It is strange but liberating to be loved in this way by my mother.
I begin. I learn. I understand.
My birth spirit.
This story was written in response to Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs of young women holding their newly born babies, exhibited in Nude: art from the Tate collection, Art Gallery of NSW, 5 Nov 2016 – 5 Feb 2017.
Image: portrait of Gaele Sobott
Gaele Sobott has published a range of acclaimed works including, Colour Me Blue and My Longest Round, co-authored with Wally Carr, the second edition forthcoming with Magabala Books. She identifies as a disabled artist and was selected for the first cohort of the Australia Council for the Arts 2014 Sync Leadership Program. In 2015 she was artist in residence at Google Australia. Gaele is the founding director of Outlandish Arts. She produced NoRMAL, a performance of stories by four artists on their experiences of disability, the Australian tour of Caroline Bowditch’s, Falling in Love with Frida, the Australia-UK creative development of Deaf Australian playwright Sofya Gollan’s play, MotherLode, in London, and Fools’ Gold, a series of poetry performances, workshops and critical discussion events involving artists who experience psychological and emotional distress. Gaele was commissioned to write Zaphora and Ali for Urban Theatre Projects’ Home Country staged by Sydney Festival 2017. She participated in the DADAA and Perth International Arts Festival Aesthetics of Access residency in March 2017 with Jenny Sealey MBE, Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company UK. She was also selected to take part in the two-week Jo Bannon Penetration and Performance residency in Adelaide in August 2017. Gaele facilitated the Access2Arts Embody project for disabled writers and is currently leading the Writing Me project. She has just completed a collection of short stories about life in an apartment building in Lakemba, Sydney, where she resides.