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The Painful Truth


All I wanted to be was the best goddamned birthing partner I could be. To stroke Tamsin’s cheek when it was there to be stroked. To massage her aches when they threatened to overwhelm. To liaise with the midwives about pain relief. To keep up the encouragement. To fill a chair. To get my freaking hands off her when she told me to get my freaking hands off her. I didn’t want to perform heroics. One of the first things taught at our ante-natal classes was that the birth shouldn’t first and foremost be about the birthing partner. I just had to be there.

It was 3am when Tamsin descended into labour. I wasn’t there. She was in Frances Perry House, under observation in advance of an 8am induction. I was asleep at home in North Fitzroy, unimpressed by the size and softness of the Frances Perry sofa beds.

The first I knew of it was a 4am text message.

‘Contractions 3 minutes apart. Terrible pain. Nurses not sure if labour. I’m sure. Come in.’

I leapt from bed and into a cold shower. This was it. Tamsin was five days overdue and we’d never been more ready for anything in our lives. I did the mental checklist. Cold packs, yes. Weiss bars and lollies, yes. Fit ball? Shit, did the hospital provide fit balls?

I texted Tamsin. The hospital provided fit balls. She suggested I hurry.

Nine minutes later I was striding into the birthing suite on level eleven. If Tam wasn’t already in hell, she was definitely floating on the River Stix, gazing at me with desperate eyes, looking for a spot to disembark. The contractions were now less than three minutes apart. The attending midwife had cast initial doubts aside and was offering Tam the gas.

‘T.E.N.S machine!’ Tamsin gritted at me through the mouthpiece. ‘You have to put on the T.E.N.S machine. Now!’

For many months, the plan had been that Tamsin would get through the early hours of labour with the assistance of Transcutaeous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. A T.E.N.S machine comprises two electrodes, some connecting wires, and a handheld amplitude control button. Electrical impulses shoot into the nerves near the base of the spine to distract pain receptors in the brain from the considerably more serious pain of labour. According to the instructions, T.E.N.S might reduce early pain by as much as 30%. Tamsin was definitely a disciple. She believed in T.E.N.S.

The problem was that at 4am in the labour ward, I couldn’t find the electrodes.

‘Search the bags,’ Tamsin shrieked as another contraction started building.

“They’re not here,’ I kept saying. The contents of our carefully packed hospital bags, overflowing with all manner of essential oils that no longer seemed so essential, was strewn across the floor. No luck.

‘They must be on the kitchen table,’ I said, trying to comfort Tam. ‘Your Mum’s got a key. I’ll get Caroline to drive in and get them.’

‘No. She’s in Burwood. It’ll take an hour. I need them NOW! It has to be you.’

Suddenly, I had a mission, a purpose. I farewelled the nursing staff as if I was Clark Kent heading for a phone box. Seconds later I was out of the lift and into the car, accelerating to a speed that said to Tamsin that I loved her, but which could only have offended the most cold-hearted of police officers. I gripped the steering wheel, white knuckled. Tamsin was doing the hard work. I had to get those electrodes.

Minutes later, I was at the front door and racing down the corridor. As soon as I saw the kitchen table I knew we were in trouble. No electrodes. ‘No, no, no, shit, come on, they’ve got to be here.’ I fell to my knees and started rummaging through the adjacent newspaper basket. Maybe the electrodes had fallen between the pages of the papers? Then I scanned the table again. Seemingly a limitless amount of T.E.N.S order forms and instruction manuals. There was TE.N.S paraphernalia everywhere, but no actual bloody electrodes.

I traversed the kitchen floor on hands and knees, hoping that the electrodes might be born out of the tiles. Then I was on my feet, running from room to room, checking beds, desks, shelves, cupboards, all manner of surfaces — with desperate uncomprehending eyes.

‘Come on, come on. Please God, give me something.’

I’m not a religious man, so couldn’t expect much. Once I made it to the end of the corridor and the bedroom, I sprinted back to the kitchen table for another search. As a final Hail Mary effort, I pulled open the drawer of an antique dresser given to Tamsin by her Granny Durleen. Suddenly, gloriously, there they were. A plastic bag containing two strips, instructions, and a tube of application fluid peeked out of the top of the drawer. It was like I’d struck the Welcome Stranger. ‘Thank God … thank God …’

I wrote the text as I ran to the car. Simple and restrained, I figured. No need to gloat over the difficulty of the find. ‘Got them. Be there in a minute. Hang in there. Much love.’

The message back was blunt. The pain was written there across two desperate words. ‘Please hurry.’

I parked in a two hour zone straight outside the emergency arrival gate, and sprinted for the lift. Within a minute, I was back at Tamsin’s bedside, treasure in hand. She was practically in tears, begging me to assemble the machine as quickly as possible.

’How do I attach them,’ I asked desperately, as I grabbed the amplitude control in one hand and a silky blue-black electrode in the other.

‘Isn’t it obvious,’ she said, clearly annoyed because we had been through the assembly process a couple of weeks before. I remembered it being easy. Nothing a meccano savvy three-year old wouldn’t nail. Electrode jack to input hole. Turn on the power.

But it wasn’t obvious. There were no jacks. I held up the strip of material, and there was no wire leading off it. The instruction sheet fell out of the plastic bag.

‘BICYCLE REPAIR KIT’ said the evil black lettering at the top of the A4 page.

‘It’s not possible,’ I murmured to myself feeling the full, sickening weight of the disaster unfold. It wasn’t possible.

I stared again at the contents of the plastic bag. The nylon patches. The glue. I read those horrible words again, willing them to say something else.

They didn’t.


‘Tam, I’m such a dickhead. I’m so sorry. It’s not them. I brought in a bicycle repair kit.’

‘What! WHAT! Already she was crying. ‘Why? Why is it always YOU who these things happen to! Why do these things always happen to YOU?’

Later she told me that she was thinking of the time in Ireland when I told her as we were returning the hire car at Dublin airport that the passports were still in the room safe in Galway. But she said nothing. She just curled up on the delivery bed and cried, which set me off as well. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I sobbed. Jesus, I had to hold this together. ‘I’m so sorry.’


At 8.05am, Tamsin opted for an epidural, and temporarily at least, the agony was over. I asked her if she minded if I moved the car. She grunted, indicating City of Melbourne parking regulations weren’t high on her list of concerns.

I drove the car across the road to the multi-storey car park, which the sign said was $16 per day. I actually jumped out of the car and asked the guy at the window whether hospital patients received a discount, but he just shook his head. Some might say it’s a little tight to haggle on the day of the birth of your first born, but really, if there was a discounted rate, it would have been worth knowing. Then I drove up the different levels, parked the car, shut the door, locked up, glanced into the back seat, and suddenly, sickeningly, annoyingly, found the freaking T.E.N.S electrodes. Just where Tamsin had left them. That’s the unfair thing. Strictly speaking, the misplacing of the T.E.N.S electrodes was her oversight, and yet how would history attribute the blame? That bicycle repair kit would damn me forever.

Polly Marie-Louise Wilson was born at 1.29pm on a hot Wednesday afternoon. I’d try to describe the moment, but figure the miracle of life is best left to poets, songwriters philosophers, and people making documentaries about the human body. For nearly an hour, my beautiful new daughter lay in my arms softly cooing, like a marathon runner who never expected the race to be so hard or so long.

‘She’s beautiful,’ the midwife Pam said, after weighing and wrapping. ‘She’s a good breather, and everything seems to be in the right place … tens fingers and tens toes.’

At least that’s what it sounded like to me.