by Susan Flanagan
Susan Flanagan has worked as a freelance journalist (BJ, King’s College, NS, 1991) and columnist in St. John’s, NL for almost 30 years.
Two of her novels will be published in 2021: The Degrees of Barley Lick (Running the Goat Books & Broadsides) and Supermarket Baby, winner 2019 Percy Janes First Novel Award (Flanker Press).
I am a mother of five living in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
I wasn’t always a mother of five.
For nine years, I was a mother of four.
My husband and I had our first four children in a timespan of five years and three months, earning him the nickname Sure-Shot.
Once the fourth was installed – we moved house the day she was born – Sure-Shot did some calculations in his head and decided we could not afford to continue having children at this rate.
The result: he booked himself a vasectomy.
I was a little disappointed as I always wished for five children, but I couldn’t muster up much energy to protest.
But it’s a funny thing about vasectomies.
Sometimes they expire.
Nine years after the birth of our fourth child, I got pregnant. I had disregarded all the signs. Obvious signs like urging whenever something came in contact with my throat. Or tossing olives into my gullet as if they were popcorn. Or night sweats. Or falling asleep on my neighbour’s couch while her visiting mother was in mid-sentence.
Even when my leg started collapsing out from under me and I ended up in a sports medicine doctor’s office, I was in denial.
“Have you ever experienced sciatica before?” he asked.
“Only in pregnancy,” I answered. “But I can’t be pregnant. My husband had a vasectomy nine years ago.”
Famous last words.
“Tell me the date of your last menstruation,” the young sports doctor asked.
Hmm, come to think of it, I had skipped my last monthlies. But there was a valid reason, I explained. I was preparing to sell our house and move our family across the country. That was why I was suffering from night sweats and severe fatigue. Perhaps I had done something to the sciatic nerve while packing boxes?
The good doctor nodded sagely and pulled out his prescription pad. “You need to do a pregnancy test before you get an X-ray.”
I stopped by the supermarket on my way home for a tub of olives and a home pregnancy kit. I waited until early the next morning. The children were still asleep and my husband had left at 6 to drop my father-in-law at the airport on his way to work.
I was all alone when I peed on the stick. I didn’t have to wait long for a result. Almost immediately, the moist strip nestled in the plastic bar lit up the neighbourhood.
Holy mother. Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.
It’s true, I did always want five children. I just didn’t imagine one coming fifteen years after the first.
My husband had always been proud of his vasectomy – comparing his discomfort to my four anesthesia-less childbirths. The surgeon had told him that there was “no turning back” – once done, the vasectomy could not be reversed.
The aggressive technique involved cutting out two full inches of sperm tunnel and clamping the ends with titanium clips. He even cauterized the sides for good measure.
Good measure or not, I had to let Titanium Man know that his very soon-to-be 40-year-old wife was expecting.
He was almost at the office when he picked up the call. He had to pull over. This was not light news. “Maybe the test was wrong,” he suggested.
“If this thing had bells, there’d be no one asleep within a ten-mile radius,” I answered.
Our family doctor was of the same mind as my husband. “Could it be someone else’s?” he asked.
At this time in our married lives, my husband was in his second year of a corporate MBA program for which he, along with many other professionals, left their families for regularly scheduled overnights at the Vancouver Delta. I was a stay-at-home writer ferrying our four young children through Bangkok-style traffic to ice hockey and dance. If anyone in this couple was going to find time to get lucky, it was not me.
In a way, it was a relief to know I was pregnant; it explained the overwhelming nausea and daily consumption of Miss Vickie’s Sea Salt & Vinegar chips. A most unusual dietary component for me.
When the sperm test came back, Dr. Wong was agog with excitement. “There are live sperm,” he said. “They are not supposed to be there.”
Titanium Man feigned nonchalance, but I knew he was relieved he wasn’t shooting blanks.
Announcing the impending birth to the first four children went over like a rock. Their faces looked as if I had just told them a close relative had been eaten by a snake. Disgusting, yet riveting news. When we got into the physical explanation, number two actually plugged his ears with his forefingers and said: “I’m not listening.” The sex-ed lesson ended with number four running outside to make the first public cul-de-sac announcement.
Over the next couple of months, I sold the house, packed up our belongings and prepared the children for our drive across the continent. My husband was already in Newfoundland where he had started his new job. He flew back to join us as we headed southeast through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Minnesota. I have nice maternity pics in 38-degree-Celsius heat at Mount Rushmore.
Once we popped up to Ottawa to see his family, he had to get back to work. So my sister and her son from Calgary took his place on the journey through the New England States. I appreciated having someone to provide me with paper bags for regurgitated breakfasts. I craved frozen daiquiris which my sister forbade me to consume. It was hot and sticky, and my fingers swelled into sausages.
We arrived home to our new house at the end of July and started making it our own. Through the fall, my belly grew, and we settled in and met the neighbours.
We weren’t really able to ascertain when the baby was due.
My water broke on November 13, our 15th wedding anniversary.
I was in the process of painting a life-size cartoon Nativity scene to put on our front lawn at Christmas. I felt the sploosh just after we had cut out head holes so come December, neighbours could stand behind the plywood sheets and get their pics taken. Funny, the details you remember.
“I think we should celebrate our anniversary with a restaurant and a movie,” my husband announced. “I feel like steak,” he added.
“I can give you a nice protein-rich placenta in a few hours,” I felt like telling him. Instead, I said: “I can’t think of any local steak houses that provide towels to soak up bodily fluids.”
I knew from experience that an unbelievable amount of maternal liquid is produced, and that once turned on, those maternity taps keep flowing until the baby is out in the world screaming.
“Why don’t you drop me at the hospital to check in and come back after supper. You can rent a movie and we’ll watch it there on your computer.”
He agreed – the maternity ward is less than ten minutes away in traffic. We passed our next-door neighbour, an anesthesiologist, on our way out. “I’m on call tonight if you need me.”
I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need him. My experience with four vaginal births and no anesthetic taught me that the pain becomes unbearable just at the point that the head crests, and well then, it’s almost all over, except of course for the kind nurses who knead your abdomen for blood clots. That part is cruel and unusual punishment.
My husband arrived back a while later and got the DVD set up. It was the most violent and offensive movie I have ever seen. “We have to turn it off,” I said, thinking of the couple of soon-to-be-new parents separated from us by a sheet.
That was when my husband said: “Is that you, Bill?” One of his hockey buddies was on the other side of the curtain with his wife.
They had a grand chat.
Titanium Man is one of two things: either super hyper or super relaxed. And once the conversation with his hockey buddy had run its course, he was off the charts hyper. I suggested he go home and say goodnight to the children.
By the time he arrived back at the hospital for the third time, I was in the case room and had just pulled the metal arm off the birthing bed.
I knew what I was in for and wasn’t really in the mood. It’s harder being pregnant and giving birth in your forties than it is in your twenties. It hurts your back. But as anyone who has given birth knows, once the baby train starts, there is no getting off.
Plus, I knew I was in good hands. Although we had no doula, we did have our family doctor, Patrick O’Shea who had assisted in over 2,000 births and been with us for three of our previous four. As soon as he arrived, I relaxed. Well, as much as I could when it felt like my tailbone might snap off.
Titanium Man also knew the drill; don’t offer me an orange popsicle if you don’t want a kick in the head and don’t cut the cord until it’s clamped off. Pretty simple.
Labour was quick. Only really nasty for a couple of hours. No need to call my neighbour.
By 11:59 our surprise child had made his entrance into the world. Titanium Man and Dr. O’Shea had just been laying bets on the baby’s weight when the head crested.
Once Dr. O’Shea checked the baby’s vital parts, he glanced at the clock on the wall behind him and laughed. “I would have been paid an extra $75 if you had waited until after midnight.”
I knew our Surprise Baby would come on our wedding anniversary. He was well baked, suggesting he was perhaps overdue. Who knows?
What I do know is, like our other four children, he was absolutely perfect.
It took a while for the shock of our Surprise Baby to wear off. Not only for us, but for the countless men who heard the news of the failed vasectomy and quickly made appointments to get theirs checked.
There are times we still can’t quite believe that Surprise Child is here. We are grateful for Dr. O’Shea and all the nursing staff at the Health Sciences Centre, especially the lovely nurse who brought me tea and toast after the delivery.
Surprise Child laps up all the attention he gets from his older siblings; I’m pretty sure he thinks of himself as an only child with six doting parents.
As for me, I can’t imagine a world without him in it. I can’t imagine not being a mother of five.
Thank you to all those who assist with bringing babies into this world.