HealthPregnancy & Childbirth

On having a lemon where my body should be

Part of the reason my body is a lemon is that sometimes I go this yellow.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Remember this, for it is as true and true gets: Your body is not a lemon. You are not a machine. The Creator is not a careless mechanic. Human female bodies have the same potential to give birth well as aardvarks, lions, rhinoceri, elephants, moose, and water buffalo. Even if it has not been your habit throughout your life so far, I recommend that you learn to think positively about your body.”

― Ina May Gaskin, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth

Until I was 21, I believed my body was not a lemon.  I was young, fit, healthy and thin.  I was at the bottom of every actuarial chart, the baseline for measures of elevated mortality.  It was part of who I was, as much as my name and my gender and my penchant for science.

The summer after I left university, I slipped a disc.  It didn’t heal.  The disc degenerated.  Eventually, I had some metal surgically implanted in my back to try and alleviate the pain which had aged me prematurely, stringing me out on painkillers as I leaned on my walking stick.  So it was that I ended up immobile in intensive care, the second of two blood transfusions dripping into my arm, feeling so sick and so lightheaded from the morphine and realising that if they forgot about me now, I would probably die.

A few years later, I got another illness. More surgery, two hospital admissions, and just recently the news that I need to spend a good part of the next year focusing on my health if I want to avoid being chronically ill for the rest of my shortened life.  Apparently, either of those two hospitalisations could have killed me.

I don’t say this for sympathy.  The back surgery worked; I recovered well. The lifestyle adjustments are small and will make me happier in the long run. But both these experiences have robbed me of that comforting teenage certainty that illness and death are things that happen to other people.  I will become old someday.  My joints will seize up.  My movements will become clumsy, laboured.  I will be tired.  Doctors will start to worry about my death; that ache in my head or blood on the toilet paper will incite a guarded concern instead of a cheery reassurance.  I knew this before I got ill, of course, but now I know it.

All of which makes it hard for me to take seriously Ina’s claim that my body will somehow come through for me.  I don’t believe in a god; I certainly don’t believe in a god who makes discs that slip, organs that seize up; agony that serves no purpose. Of course my body is a lemon: everyone’s is, in the end.  This scar on my uterus will disintegrate someday, and I have no way of knowing if that’s going to be when I lie buried in the ground or at the height of my next labour.

Some of the mothers around me don’t think this way.  They press her book into my hands, encourage me to be fearless. Women are strong, they say. Birth is safe. I notice they are often the ones who have never been ill themselves.  They are young and healthy.  They will not die. These things happen to people who aren’t immortal. They take the risks they don’t believe exist; they feel vindicated when they beat the odds.

Those odds are not for me to bet on. I know now that I can be one of the one out of ten, a hundred, a thousand who do not make it out of childbirth unscathed. I knew this before I got ill, of course, but now I know it.


I'm currently trying to finish off my PhD in neuroscience and my medical training. I hope to get a proper job sometime in my 30s. I have a toddler who is, naturally, the bestest, most gifted, prettiest and nicest child to walk this earth, at least until I can persuade my partner to have another. I plan to use this platform to rant semi-coherently about people willfully misunderstanding neuroscience in the service of their favorite parenting soapbox, as well as trawling Medline for interesting stuff, so you don't have to.

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  1. Refuse the epidural and you will have an orgasm during your birth! Doctors are evil! Go to a hospital and be subject to torture!
    I read that stupid book and I wanted to light it on fire afterward.

  2. Yeah, me too! As someone who nearly died due to pregnancy, I’m not impressed by the “oh, but it’s so natural and beautiful blah blah” argument. I’m glad nobody was stupid enough to say that to me when I was lying in a hospital bed feeling like I was burning up from the inside, because I doubt they would have survived the experience.

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