“Can’t you hear what I’m saying?” I cried, my face growing hotter as my sadness boiled over into anger. “Why do none of you see what I’m going through?” 

 My mother was looking at me with a mix of shock and horror. Dressed only in a pair of faded granny panties and an already-stretched and stained nursing bra, I was standing in the middle of my mother’s overgrown garden, yelling at the woman who was trying to understand the child that had seemingly lost her mind in the six weeks since she’d had a baby. 

Around us, ground cover circled my ankles like snakes. The air smelled like the sea, the ocean a hop and a skip away. Here I am, I remember thinking, like a forgotten thing doomed to bloom in wicked dark, away from chance or promise.

“Why does nobody fucking get it?” 

I was filled with the horror of being so young and yet being postpartum, furious at everyone around me for failing to hear or see what I’d been through. I shouted and I screamed until I was hoarse, dancing through the long grass like something possessed, duiweltjies – little devil thorns – sticking to my heels, the sting a lasting, painful thing.


In the weeks leading up to that day in the garden, I had taken to not wearing a seatbelt when I drove. Images of my newborn drowning had been filling my mind. I felt myself sinking under that water, too, so that the lines between the imaginary and real began to blur. I threw my belongings around. Once, I almost threw the baby. Almost. He’d been howling, tired and sore with silent reflux, and all I wanted to do was swim in the ocean.

He was a September baby, born in the cool chip of spring, and by the time he was three months it was hot and balmy, a December like no other. And yet, there I was, a 26-year-old compelled by a twisted fate to spend her mid-twenties nursing an unplanned baby, when all I wanted was to revel in the heat and quick of midsummer, like all my friends. I can’t recall if I cut myself during this time but the likelihood is high: I had been doing so since I was 15. Why wouldn’t I have done it after the worst experience of my young adult life? 

I don’t want to die, I remember thinking. But I wanted whatever mess I was in to end. I pushed the pedal toward the road beneath the car, speeding up until I was dangerously close to hitting a lamp post. I swerved, I braked, I slowed down and came to a rolling stop beside the lamp post, the sea thundering beside me. I gripped the steering wheel tightly.

I just need this to end.


I don’t recall any blood, but my mother, who mopped the floor when I had gone to hospital, said there was plenty. 

What I do recall is having my legs held wide open as the midwife swept my membranes, a euphemistic term that does very little justice to the extreme pain that it can produce. I was groaning then, I think. Crying even. I remember my partner helping the midwife, who instructed him to grip my thighs hard. We’ve spoken about this once before. He says he doesn’t remember this. But how could anybody want to face the truth of such a wretched moment?


“Please,” I had begged my partner, after I had been pushing for hours without the baby emerging, crouched over the wooden birth stool that so many other women before me had labored upon.

I was aware even in the middle of labor that my eyes were crazed, that my expression was that of someone who was desperate beyond measure. “Please.Take me to hospital.” 

The irony is that we had both been told to expect this: my midwife had said that women often feel as if they’re dying, especially during the transition phase of childbirth, and there was a moment when doubt flickered across my boyfriend’s face. Sometimes I think that I must have done something good in a past life, because it was as if he shook himself and saw me, really saw me, in the throes of a torturous labor that was growing ever more dangerous. 


Sometime during that night of childbirth, I pressed my fingers to the space above my pubic bone and felt two hard lumps under the skin. A pelvis split apart, a woman come undone.

Into your hands I commend my spirit, I prayed in the car ride, certain that I would die before this pain could end. Visions of a cold, lifeless baby filled my mind. I was afraid for both of us. 


“Just get on all fours,” the midwife had commanded me. I did what she said, the sounds of other women in labor audible in the icy passage of the public hospital we had finally arrived at. The floor was streaked with blood. It smelled like hospital. Like sickness. This was not how I had imagined giving birth. When I had planned to have a home birth I had felt empowered and prepared, convinced that I could push out a 4.36kg baby from my tiny frame without any anesthetic. I tried to get up from the floor and stumbled. I leaned against the wall and my partner helped me to a standing position. Just then, a doctor I recognised from a birthday party I’d attended months before walked past us. 

“Please help me,” I said, and she turned around, recognition dawning on her face. I realized how I must have looked: my hair, sweaty and matted from labor, was tied up in a messy bun. My mother’s tatty dressing gun wrapped around me, I was completely naked underneath. She ran down the passage to call someone. Minutes later a surgeon signaled to my partner. 


The doctor’s hand tore into me. He hadn’t asked. He hadn’t warned me. I hadn’t had any anesthetic up until this point. A nurse had already inserted a catheter into my urethra. This, I hardly felt, for in comparison to the searing of my pelvis and groin, it was nothing. But the doctor’s arm, this, I registered. My screams tore through the early morning, and everyone in the room seemed to jump. The air grew taught and it was as if time accelerated. Suddenly, I was bent over in a theater, feeling a needle glide into my spine. Someone plucked my nose ring out of my nose. It stung. A metallic scent filled the air. I could hear shouting and realized that it was my own. And then, relief. I felt my legs cease to exist. Then my belly. And my pelvis, ah, it was gone. 

I began to giggle uncontrollably at the sheer relief of being freed from that prison of unimaginable pain.Tears rolled down the side of my face.  


When I discovered the term “obstetric violence” I realised that I had not been foolish to equate what I had experienced during childbirth with a sexual assault. My birth trauma, compounded by difficult living circumstances and a strained relationship with my baby’s father, as well as (a then) undiagnosed Bipolar 2 disorder, had unleashed an almighty wave of post-traumatic stress disorder upon me. I was diagnosed with postpartum depression, but nowhere did I find anything about the rage I felt. There was no symptom checklist that had anger next to a neat little bullet point. 

At first I mistook my anger for madness, thinking that it was directed at myself, that all I was feeling was the crushing sense of failure that I’d been trying to protect myself from since I first found out that I was expecting. Some context: I was a South African writer on a grand adventure, teaching English in Thailand’s blistering party capital, Bangkok. My boyfriend had visited me from South Africa for christmas, and during that time, I fell pregnant. I was only 25 and had just tasted financial freedom and independence for the first time. It felt like I was throwing away everything I had worked so hard for, and for what, a baby? This, coming from someone who only a few weeks before had sworn that she would never have babies. 

“My books will be my babies,” I whispered into the Technicolor bliss of twilight, standing on the 31st floor of my apartment building. Yes, fate had other plans, and it involved a horrifying birth that would stain my fourth trimester bloody.  


Truth be told, I was angry at the midwife. At the doctors. At the nurses who told me to shut up and stop crying. At everyone for not talking me out of a home birth in a town that had neither the infrastructure nor the support for such. A cruel labor. A pelvic injury that was ignored. A transverse baby. A midwife who fell asleep when I was in active labor. A surgeon who didn’t care. These were enough reasons to feel the white hot rage that had inhabited my body and mind.

I was medicated. Naturally. Capsules of antipsychotics graced my tongue three times a day, settling there like plump little delicacies. Discounted therapy sessions organized by a family friend held me for a while. The psychologist told me to move to Costa Rica. Handed me a box of tissues when my mascara stained my cheeks. But the despair, the utter anguish, was powered by anger and refused to abate until my pain was acknowledged. 


My mother and I fought about my anger, once. You see, when I had returned from Thailand in my second trimester, I had moved back in with my parents. My partner lived in Cape Town, 1000 km away, and although we didn’t know it, he was about to lose his business, lose everything. I was weeks away from queuing at a public clinic for my prenatal vitamins, pressing my palms together to thankfully receive the sacrament of iron pills and calcium, and months away from a childbirth experience that would traumatize the Bejesus out of both my partner and I. 

“You were so angry all the time,” my mother once told me. “It was so difficult to live with.” But my body, I wanted to tell her, my body. What had happened to me was unforgivable. At my most vulnerable I was abused and neglected. My anger at the world, at everyone, was warranted. And accepting it was the key to healing.


My healing was anything but gentle. Healing had its own language, its own voice, even, and sometimes it spoke in ugly, hissing tones. And yet I realize now that my anger was a signal. A sign from my subconscious. A voice whispering to me, growing more and more urgent, saying that I was not okay. And that I had every right to not be okay. It was an emotion that said: stand up for yourself. Forgive yourself. Protect yourself. And most of all: hold everyone around you accountable. Force them into community with you. 

But my rage was treated with contempt: an angry woman isn’t usually welcome, a woman who had fulfilled the role society had forged for her, had given birth to a healthy baby, and a boy, no less, should be the polar opposite of angry. She should be serene, pink and glowing, breastfeeding effortlessly, all oxytocin-drunk while the baby guzzles, contentedly. Anger, then, was certainly not welcome. Not in the hallowed halls of the antenatal group meet-ups, every new mother about as honest as a mushroom about her experience so far; not in the nurse’s room as she weighed the plump little thing who still seemed so alien. So ripe, and new. 


To recall this all is painful, even now. It’s almost eight years later and I’m growing tearful just writing about it. But it’s glazed with a comforting acceptance, a cooling balm that soothes some of the heat of that fury. I now know that my anger wasn’t directed at me: it was furiously outward in its intent. It was my sense of self being weaponized to fight a battle I had never anticipated.


Far too often newborn mothers are pathologized for reacting quite naturally to unnatural circumstances: grueling births, physical pain, emotional neglect, chronic lack of sleep. Many new mothers are told that they have postpartum depression when really, they are victims of a society that treats mothers, especially new mothers, with contempt. 

This is why I forgive myself for those early days. It’s why I can look back, barefaced, at that anger and thank it. 

After all, it was an emotion with volcanic heat. And it was the emotion I needed most. It was the clarion call that pushed me to demand the help I so terribly needed. It is how I survived. The anger stripped the skin off me, turning me porous to everything around me. I felt sadness with such acuity, and in communion with every small helpless thing. The world had taken on a rawness I hadn’t recognised before; everything felt immediate, and terrifying, and bloody. 

I was angry because I was denied the birth experience I had so lovingly planned for. I was angry because what should have been an empowering birth made me feel more disempowered than I have ever felt. My anger was purposeful. I accept that now. It propelled me towards necessary change. To a hospital, and then a doctor who would listen. It sent me forth into a pharmacy to collect medication that would help me start to make sense of all that had happened. It made my partner and my family aware that I was hurting.


These days, I can be found at my writing desk until midday, when I wait for my partner to bring home our son from school. He is in grade two, the South African equivalent of second grade, although he was born in September, and so he is quite young for his year. At night he still needs me to cuddle him, in echoes of all the years that I spent breastfeeding him until, milk sated and warm, he’d fall asleep. Sometimes it’s difficult to look at him, his big green eyes and tawny hair, and see the baby whose birth was so terrifying. Whose first few months on this earth were bathed in such wrath. The two seem so removed from each other. 

But then I see his fiery spirit, and the fury with which he’ll stand his ground, refusing to back down until my partner or I truly register what he is trying to tell us. It’s then I realize that two can live as one; that both great trauma and great joy can inhabit the same event. Sometimes I lie awake at night in my son’s bottom bunk bed, his sweaty little body breathing softly beside me, and I recall what we both went through to bring a newborn him — and a newborn me — earthside. It’s then that I recognize some of that anger in him, that inclination to fight, and I feel proud that I too, was able to stand my ground. That maybe I gave a little part of that to him. After all, the flip side of righteous anger is compassion and empathy; it is the emotion that moves us towards seeking justice. 

“Why is nobody hearing me?” I had cried that fateful day in my mother’s garden, the day that precipitated the start of my healing. As it turns out, I had to hear me before anyone else did.

About the Author:

Megan Ross is the author of Milk Fever (uHlanga Press, 2018) a collection of poetry, and several short stories and essays that have gone on to achieve critical acclaim.

She is also an editor, journalist and graphic designer, working on both the copy & art aspects of book production for publishers across the African continent. She is a recipient of the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction (2017) and an Alumni Award for the Iceland Writers Retreat in Reykjavik (2016), as well as a finalist for the Gerald Kraak, Miles Morland, Short Story Day Africa and Short. Sharp Awards.

*Featured image by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash