Childbirth grace and agony


I must say I agree with British actress Tilda Swinton on this one. Don't believe what you see in the movies, the actor said recently; natural childbirth is a 'truly murderous business'. Murderous, yes, but with the greatest return — a pink, slippery, squawking newborn in your arms.

How would it feel to be cheated of this miracle moment? In June 2010, Sydney mother Grace Wang was left paralysed from the waist down and suffering from extensive nerve damage after she was injected with antiseptic instead of a saline solution during an epidural while giving birth.

According to a recent study published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia the chance of suffering permanent damage epidurals during labour is much lower that previously thought; as low as one in 80,000. Not that such statistics offer Wang or her husband Jason Zheng any comfort.

I first came across the 33-year-old mother's terrible story not long after having my second son. Her plight resonated with me emotionally, spiritually and physically.

I recalled my own epidural experience with my firstborn, looking fixedly down at the floor trying to ignore the blood pooling angrily around my feet and hoping to God that I stayed still long enough in between violent spasms for the anaesthetist to insert the rather large needle safely into my spine.

With her nervous system effectively shut down Wang lay on the hospital bed looking more like a car accident victim than a woman who had just had her first child. Two months on, she was still unable to walk, sit or breastfeed.

Late last month, Wang and Zheng celebrated their son Alex's first birthday. Propped up against a battalion of pillows, Wang smiled for the cameras, watching on as others kissed and cuddled her son.

'When all those nurses hold Alex, when they kiss and hug him, I feel really sad because I really hope I can also hold him just like the others do because our Alex is so cute,' she heartbreakingly told SBS Mandarin News Australia.

How do you begin to reconcile what should have been the happiest day of your life with such a nightmare outcome?

It's a question that took on a sharp clarity as the mummy wars raged once again in the dailies. Up against the frivolity of mothers 'who do it with style' were women challenged by the choices — or not — and a ticking biological clock. In the background was the growing din of those unable to conceive or for whom motherhood is an odyssey of positive thinking and fertility treatment (such as yours truly).

Stories such as Grace Wang's take the motherhood debate to a whole new level. It challenges and changes us, its terrible randomness knocking us for six and right out of our complacency.

Wang's story isn't simply motherhood interrupted or denied; it's a routine procedure turned modern tragedy. For its part, St George Hospital in Sydney has admitted culpability and is in negotiations with Wang and Zheng regarding offering ongoing care to their small family.

As for Wang, even in the face of such chronic pain, she has the presence of mind and, yes, grace to be thankful for being alive. 'He doesn't ask me to hold him,' she said about Alex, 'but sometimes in the afternoon when I lie in bed and they'd massage me and help me exercise, he'd come by my side, next to my face and touch me.'

This is mother love raw and uncensored; ripe with longing. It's courage not under fire, but under the relentless drive of a growing child.

Wang is a new mother who, in all likelihood, will never properly parent. Despite two brain surgeries and intense rehabilitation she still can't change her baby's nappy or hold him without help.

As I bend down for perhaps the 20th time in any given day to scoop up my youngest son, I simply can't imagine the hell Wang wakes up to every day. The fog of sleep deprivation looks much less impenetrable next to her 'bad days'. A healthy bouncing baby boy her daily reminder of motherhood literally taken out of her hands. 

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend

Topic tags: Jen Vuk, Grace Wang, Alex, Jason Zheng, epidural, St George Hospital Sydney, anaesthesia, Tilda Swinton



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Existing comments

Jen, I liked and disliked your article and can resonate with the pain of epidurals and labour pains. I liked your article because it's as you say "raw" but brings to us still a sense of hope. But I disliked it because you at times made it like giving birth is a death sentence.It's not. It's what being human and woman is ontologically about. Grace has "the presence of mind to be thankful for being alive" Beautiful. Alex "comes next to my face to touch me" the intimate union between the woman and her infant. That's what this touch says. Not anger not pain but an intimacy known by all mothers whether abled or disabled.

Please dont make motherhood, a dangerous because it's not. Painful at times, but a monstrosity no. Her experience was accidental and nothing to do with motherhood, labour or giving birth. It was one of those monstrous accidents which sadly happen.

An accident came into our family 6 years ago which changed all for us. It was an accident which 3 seconds either way would not have happened. But it did.
This story about Grace is beautiful even is she cannot "properly parent" She is properly parenting with her Mother love.

Anne Lastman | 13 July 2011  

While I feel very much for Grace Wang, this is something that shouldn't have happened. Not just because the mistake shouldn't have been made, but because, unless there is a need for surgical intervention (as in cases of breech birth, for example), there should be no need for intervention at all. Pain in childbirth is natural and a part of the process, and it's a pity that in our over-medicated society woman can't just accept this and go with it. I did it twice, as a mature-age mother who was told "you're too old for a natural birth", and it was a joy from beginning to end each time -
and very much safer than needles or gas.

A "murderous business?" What utter rubbish!

Carolyn White | 13 July 2011  

Jen I know you meant well.. And this-like so many stories of medical negligence-is a tragedy. But to say that Grace "will never properly parent" is surely to be on the side of all those who (again often with 'good' intentions) judge that there is a 'proper' way to give birth and a 'proper' way to parent.All any of us involved in birthing and parenting can do is our best.Sometimes we get it wrong.Sometimes-mercifully surprisingly rarely- very badly so.

margaret | 13 July 2011  

Childbirth is not 'safe' and never will be. It's an evolutionary battle between the size of our heads and our hips. Humans suffer the greatest rate of death during childbirth compared with other animals, because of this uneasy compromise. I opted for a voluntary, planned and non-panic ridden C-section to avoid the 'natural' pain. Why is 'natural' seen as good by some people, regardless of the pain, as if women are one slimy step above non-thinking amoeba? We aren't 'ontologically' destined for suffering. What happened to this woman is a tragedy. It is important to remember that it could have happened in any medical procedure involving anaesthetic, if mistakes are made. I wish her well.

Penelope | 14 July 2011  

According to the WHO, the maternal mortality rate for women in developed countries is 9 per
100,000 births, compared with 450 per 100,000 births in developing countries. Given these figures, it seems foolish to me that any woman would choose to have major surgery, which always carries a risk, over natural birth, in a developed country. Women have died in childbirth over the centuries from many causes, but none ever died of the pain.

Carolyn White | 14 July 2011  

My heart goes out to Wang. To have a child and not be able to hug him breaks your heart. My lovely son will never have a beautiful baby to hug. After an accident he had an epidural in place for pain from which he developed a minute abcess at needle point which injured his spinal cord, paralising him. He then had his right leg amputated. A Mothers love for her child is beyond compare. Love Sheila

Sheila Cullinane | 15 July 2011  

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