No Country For Fertile Women

Oh dear, Ireland. What are you doing? What are you doing to the women who live within your jurisdiction? When will your patriarchal misogyny end? When will your tyranny wear itself out? When you start to treat women like equals? Are you completely incapable of learning from your past?


It is 2013 and women in Ireland are dying for the want of access to legal, safe, abortion. Savita Halappanavar is not the only woman who was treated inhumanely when she arrived at NUIG, in the early stages of a miscarriage. This is how women are treated in hospitals in Ireland.


We’ve been here before. Women have had to leave this country in their thousands for abortions that they cannot legally procure in Ireland. Now, in the past 48 hours, we have heard that our government is set to propose abortion legislation that will ‘allow’ women who are pregnant, a termination of that pregnancy if they are suicidal. Provided no fewer than six (six!!) consultants – two obstetricians and four psychiatrists – concur that she is, indeed, suicidal. Oh yes! And one of those psychiatrists must be a perinatal psychiatrist – of which there are only three in the country.


I don’t know where to begin with this one.  Do you know how difficult it is to assess suicidal ideation with any degree of certainty? To be blunt, you can only be 100% sure that someone is suicidal when they have completed suicide. Do you know how difficult it is to get six people to agree on anything? Let alone six medical consultants who bring their own moral, ideological and religious beliefs to the consultation?


When and how would these assessments take place?  Six different appointments with six different consultants? Or one appointment with all six? Where would the assessment/s take place? In a hospital? If so, of which variety – mental or maternity? In the woman’s home? Or somewhere else entirely?


Who would foot the bill? What if the woman had a medical card? Some consultants don’t see public patients.  And – have you seen the waiting lists for consultants? You could be waiting months to see one. I have a sneaking suspicion that that’s part of the plan, though. That if a woman who is four weeks pregnant has to wait six months to see a consultant, by the time she does so, it will be too late to terminate the pregnancy. Or she’ll have already killed herself, thereby relieving the consultants of calling it either way. Or, as is more likely, she’ll have taken the boat or the plane out of this jurisdiction to somewhere the laws are more humane.


There’s something that worries me more than this six consultants nonsense (for it is nonsense): In this country, under the 1871 Lunacy Act – which is still in force today – it takes just two doctors to decide that a person should be forcibly detained in a mental hospital. So, theoretically, a suicidal pregnant woman could present, seeking six consultants to decide whether or not they believe her (I’ll get to that in a second) and two of them could have her committed to a mental ward for the duration of her pregnancy. THAT scares me.


Then there’s the notion that women are devious little feckers who run off and get pregnant on a whim and then decide to fake their suicidal ideation in order to hoodwink doctors into ‘allowing’ them to have abortions. That sickens me. It speaks of how women are still infantalised in Irish society. How they are presented as generally un-trustworthy and incapable of making decisions for themselves and their families.


In the same vein, attendees at the Home Birth Association’s annual conference today were reminded that, should they dare to attempt to birth at home without ‘permission’ from the HSE, they can be forcibly removed from their homes by members of An Garda Siochana and brought to a hospital. Once there they be subjected to procedures that they neither want nor need – and many of which, are in fact, not evidence-based.


Why does Irish society fear women so much? Why does Irish society fear our wombs so much that it feels the need to control our reproductive rights?  Let’s not forget that this is the only country in the world where the CEO of a maternity hospital is called (and insists on being called) a ‘Master’.  That single fact tells us so much about how women are perceived in this country. We’ve a long way to go – and for the moment, Ireland is no country for fertile women.




The Baby Trousseau

Looking for something else entirely this morning, I came across this. It’s a short story I wrote a few years ago. I thought I might as well post it here. 

Dr. Joe has been my doctor for four years. I really like him. Bill, my husband, likes him, too. Which is a good thing. It’s important to like a man when you’re watching him touch your wife in her most intimate of places. Dr. Joe has been in charge of helping me get pregnant since I turned 32. Until then, no doctor took me seriously. They pooh-poohed my desire to start a family, airily telling me that I was young and had plenty of time. Like the fact that I wanted to have my family young was irrelevant. Like the fact that I wanted more than one child – I was aiming for three or four – was of no importance.

Dr. Joe took me seriously, though. He understood that I was one of life’s ‘Mammies’ and that I ached to hold a baby in my arms. One I didn’t have to give back. He promised to help me – and I suppose he did his best. He started with the tests. Nobody had bothered testing me before this. They had just given me clomid and told me to go home and have lots of sex. Dr. Joe, on the other hand. rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in. Not literally, you understand. He just did the things his colleagues had neglected to do over the previous twelve years.

It started off with blood tests, ultrasound tests and sperm tests for Bill. Then came the other tests – ones I’d never dreamed existed; mucous tests, ovulation tests, post-coital mucous tests, followed by key-hole surgery to have a look inside. Key-hole surgery. It sounds innocuous. Like you’re hardly having surgery at all. Pity they don’t tell you how much it hurts – how they pump you up with gas and how painful that is when you come round. How you can’t really bounce back into your life the following day. It’s still surgery and it still hurts and it still takes a few weeks to get over.

Then there was the IUI. Four rounds of that. Daily injections, scans every three days, a final ‘super’ injection just before the egg popped, and then your husband’s sperm injected into your womb at the optimum baby-making time.

Then a few months off. Well, not really. We just monitored ovulation ourselves and had very carefully-timed lovemaking. Or ‘intercourse’ as the doctor clinically called it. After that, we scraped the money together and went the whole hog – the IVF route. The same as IUI except that my ova were very painfully extracted and mixed with Bill’s sperm in a Petri dish before being reintroduced into my body as embryos. That, we tried three times before Dr. Joe told us our chances would not be improved by further rounds.

Still, it was worth it. Or it would have been if I’d become a mother at the end of it. But I hadn’t. Month after month, year after year, all the years we have been married, we have been trying to have a baby. Bill has been fully on board. In that much I am lucky and I know it. He wants to be a daddy as much as I want to be a mammy. He understood as much as a man could. He didn’t hate me because my eyes cried in tandem with my womb every month. He got excited all the times I was late. He went to the late night pharmacy to get pregnancy tests. He held me and comforted me and told me he still loved me and reassured me that I was still a real woman even though I didn’t feel like one. He agreed with me when I said it was time to stop trying. And he agreed with me a few months later when my internal Court of Appeal overturned that decision. He even understood when I added another item to my ‘baby trousseau’.

The baby trousseau was an idea I hit on during our second year of marriage. It was based on the old idea of a wedding trousseau. The way a woman would add a little something to her collection of clothes and accessories and practical bits and pieces for years before she was even engaged – never mind married. So, every time I got my period, or a negative pregnancy test, or a friend or relative announced her pregnancy, or even whenever I saw something really pretty on sale, I added it to my baby trousseau. I ended up with a wardrobe full of stuff. Just a single wardrobe, though, I wasn’t unrestrained.

We were married when I was young and people assumed we were putting off having a baby. Then we celebrated our ten-year anniversary and people started to make comments about how it was time we started thinking about having a family – we weren’t getting younger, they would joke. That wasn’t a joke. The joke was the fact that we’d been trying so hard for so long, we were exhausted.

Then, last week, I hit on a solution. No, not adoption. We’d looked at that already and, despite what so many people think, it’s not like going into a pet shop and choosing the most adorable puppy. It’s hard and it’s expensive and, given that Bill is ten years older than I, we’re deemed ‘too old’ to adopt a young baby. No, my idea is better than that. Far, far better.

You see, I have realised that I have been living all this time on hope. ‘Where there’s life, there’s hope’, people say, in effort to be upbeat and rallying. That’s bollocks. Hope is bollocks. Asking someone to live on hope is exactly the same as asking a starving person to be satisfied with the smell of bread, rather than handing them a loaf. It’s simply not good enough. Far, far better is the honest route. It’s kinder in the long run. Tell the woman with cancer that she won’t live to see Christmas. Tell the parents of the boy on life-support that he’s never coming out of a coma and they might as well switch the machine off now. Tell the wife of the man who has been in an accident that he’ll never walk again. Tell me that I will never hold my own child. And make me believe it.

I don’t want to live with hope anymore. I want the threat of hope removed. I want Dr. Joe to perform a full and complete hysterectomy and ovarectomy. It is a reasonable request and a very rational solution. I wonder why I didn’t think of it before. If my leg were withered and useless, many doctors would consider amputating it if I asked them to. If I had a spare digit on my hand, it would be practical to remove it. If something is useless and is, by virtue of that fact, causing stress, you remove it, don’t you?

The baby trousseau is all packed up for donation to my favourite charity shop. Some children somewhere will have lovely things, lovingly picked by a loving mammy.

I am thirty-six years old and I want my life back. I want to stop living for, and loving, a child who will never exist. I want to count my blessings and feel truly blessed – not have my inner voice go ‘Yes, but…..’ I want to stop feeling as though I have been stabbed in the heart every time someone I know – or even someone I don’t – announces their pregnancy. I want to stop feeling as though I have been stabbed in the heart and in the back when someone announces their pregnancy and then blithely adds, ‘I don’t know how it happened – we weren’t even trying!’

I want to stop feeling as though there is a ‘conception queue’ and everyone else keeps jumping it. I want to stop my judgmental eyeing of junkies with kids they’re too drugged up to even notice they have: My equally judgmental eyeing of middle class mummies who shove rubber nipples attached to plastic bottles filled with the poison that is formula at their babies, while they have coffee with others of their ilk. I want to stop caring that my thoughts on raising children are dismissed by those of my friends who are parents because I am not. I want to stop holding my breath.

Dr. Joe welcomes me like an old friend. He is warm, genial and sympathetic. I expect that he is expecting me to talk about my longing – to ask him if there anything I can do that I have not already done. There are two boxes of tissues in different areas of his office. Women cry a lot here. I have cried a lot here. Dr. Joe probably expects me to cry today. Or is at least aware of it as a possibility. But I won’t cry today. Today, I am made of steel. Today, I have come, not to beg for solutions, but to provide one. Today, I am not beseeching. Today, I am powerful.

In calm, measured tones, I issue my request to Dr. Joe. He is shocked. The colour leaves his face. He tries to tell me I can’t mean it. For the first time, I hear how Dr. Joe treats me like a child and it irks me. I tell him that I have given my situation much careful thought and have arrived at my decision. I tell him that because he has been my doctor for so long, and has been through so much with me, I would like him to perform the procedure. Implicit in my request is my knowledge that, should he refuse, there are other doctors in other cities on this island who will whip my womb out for me if I ask them. Some even do it to women who don’t ask.

The doctor asks me if I have spoken to my husband about my intended course of action. Of course I have, I snap back at him. As if I’d consider having part of myself amputated without talking to Bill. My conscience pricks at me slightly. I haven’t actually mentioned it to Bill. My plan was to meet the doctor and then talk to Bill when I had a definite date for the surgery.

Slowly, as though speaking to a retarded child, Joe tells me that my womb is not diseased. It would be unethical to remove a perfectly functioning part of the body. Bitterly I counter that it’s not perfectly functioning. It if were, I’d have four kids by now.

‘Just whip ’em out, Doctor,’ I say to him.

‘I understand your frustration,’ he tells me.

‘No you don’t!’

The doctor shakes his head almost sorrowfully and proceeds to tell me about a woman who attended him years ago. She had been trying to have a baby for ten years. Then she gave up. The next Joe saw of her, she was in for her annual well-woman check-up. She thought she had started the menopause, but Joe was able to give her the happy news that, actually she was pregnant!

I roll my eyes, not politely – not inwardly – but physically. Right in his face. I am not interested in this patient of his – I don’t even care if she’s real or fabricated. I am not interested in anyone else’s experience. The only experience that interests me is my own. And I want to be back in control of my own experiences. I am still young enough to carve out a career for myself. I am still young enough to enjoy many more years with Bill. I am still young enough to enjoy my life without the weight of longing hanging like an albatross off my heart.

Joe is deaf to my reasoning. He refuses to understand and accept my logic. I am annoyed with him. Suddenly, a thought crosses my mind. Joe is reluctant to help me because to do so would not just remove my hope, it would remove his. While I am still in possession of my all reproductive organs, he can tell himself that he has not failed. His ego need not take a hit. Once I realise this, I realise that further discourse with this particular doctor will yield me no satisfaction.

Driving home from Joe’s office, I experience a twinge of regret that our relationship has come to an end. But it is momentary. I have other things to think about. This is Ireland. Paternalistic, misogynistic old Ireland. The only country in the world where the CEO of a maternity hospital is called a ‘Master’. I know I will find a doctor here who will be ‘sympathetic’, who will nod with understanding and who will do what I ask. I know he’s out there, I just don’t know who he is yet. I set myself a goal: By the end of next week, I shall have a new doctor and he (I am sure it will be a man) will perform the surgery that will make a new woman of me.

Health, Parenting, Personal

Let Sleeping Babies Wake

The other day, I was really saddened to hear the mother of a baby giving thanks for the fact that her child had slept for ten hours straight. She was delighted that – with a little bit of ‘professional’ help from a soi-disant sleep nanny – her baby hadn’t disturbed her all night. This woman was bemoaning that her life was different since her baby had arrived.


Well, newsflash! Babies are supposed to change your life. If they don’t, you’re doing it wrong.


I am fed up of hearing people talk about their babies as if they (the babies) were evil little demons trying to rob them of sleep or peace or ‘me’ time. If you have made the decision to have a baby, it is up to you to change your life to fit in with the baby – not the other way around. And that isn’t as hard as it might sound; most babies are extremely accommodating and won’t put too much of a stop to your gallop. I’ve brought mine to work; I’ve taken them for trips in trains,  planes and boats; taken them to the cinema, the doctor, the dentist, lunches, brunches, dinners, launches  and anywhere else I might have to go. They’re very portable, I find.


But let me get back to the sleeping thing because I actually meant this post more as a public service announcement than a rant. (No, really!). It’s actually dangerous to have your babies sleeping away from you. The fad for having babies sleep away from their mothers is a fairly recent – and a fairly Western – one.


With this separation of baby from parent/s, began the rise of SIDS.  In Africa and Asia, children sleep with their parent/s for at least the first two years (in some places, even the first five years) of life. Cot-death is unheard of.  There is more on that here and in Meredith Small’s book ‘Our Babies Ourselves’ .


But, quite apart from the science and the evidence – let’s be practical about this.  I am a great proponent of lazy parenting. I am far too lazy to get out of my bed in the middle of the night and wander around a dark house into another room to pluck a crying baby from her cot before feeding her (or comforting her if she doesn’t need a feed), putting her back in her cot and stumbling, bleary-eyed, back to my own bed. I love my sleep too much. So my babies slept with me and found the breast as and when they needed it. (That didn’t work so well with my eldest, who was early born and unable to suck.  I expressed and fed her every hour for the first few months, then every two hours. I kept her in the bed with me, though.  It was still easier to feed her that way.)


Apart from when they were sick, I never had a broken night’s sleep when my children were babies. I expect they’ll come – along with the ten-hour sleeps  – when they’re teenagers.