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Gritty Grannies

Gritty Grannies

Epigenetics and Me

There was a time, long before I was a mother, when I believed I had been handed the hardiness that comes with generations of struggle. From the whole new-Australian settler thing, back to Ireland and its conflicts and famines. I felt it every time I ate a potato. And I believed that it came from my grandmothers.

Last week, I read a Facebook post on family history and its effect on genes, something called ‘Behavioral Epigenetics’*, an article that uses terms like ‘molecular scarring’ . . . and stuff. It’s about the kind of personality, or psychological tendency, that can be handed down by the sufferings of your genetic up-line. That’s a pretty wild thought. Could somebody’s great-great grandmother’s decade of famine, be a source of their constant hunger? Could the stress of war create PTSD symptoms that are handed down and down and down? Should I tell my daughter to stop stressing and think about what she’s doing to her grandchildren? Could my great grandfather’s distress at being locked in a trunk with bees explain my claustrophobia?  And my Winnie the Pooh-phobia?

The article got me thinking about my grandmothers again, about all the life events twisted into their DNA.

Nan Vincent, the tea-making mother of my mother, cleaned her floors on hands and knees, and speared cane-toads by moonlight (okay, my cousin did that, but she handed him the spear). She weathered the storms of my grandfather’s moods. And after he died, she regularly shlepped buckets and soil, shovel and flowers to his grave, a long, hot walk in the northern Australian sun. And she grew no hairs under her arms. Ever.

During my one, and only, pregnancy, I was sure I was anointed with Nan’s gritty genes.

Then there was my paternal grandmother of sizable stamina, the imposing Grandma Murphy, who sprouted ten children. And though they were short on money, and room on the horse, she was an impressive sight into her eighties, with her waist-length black hair and perfect posture.

I thought of her, too, as my due date approached.

Somebody put a bike pump into my spine and filled it with gravel.

It was a Saturday evening in June, 2003, in Santa Monica California, at the AMC Theater on Third Street Promenade, about twenty minutes into ‘Nemo’, when I got the first contraction. I know how this goes, I smiled, maybe even smirked. I was ready to have this baby by the pure gritting-of-teeth and determination. No drugs. Just me, and my anointed uterus.

Several hours of panting, breathing, yoga poses, partner sacrum massage, and contraction-euphoria later, I announced to Kent (also panting but for different reasons), “It’s time to go!”

Several hours later at Santa Monica Hospital, I was . . . sent home, at less than one centimeter. Expectant nurses waiting to witness my courage and amazon qualities would have to wait another few centimeters.

The next day was a different story. I don’t care to remember the time, or any of the details. The pain was flipping my lid. They tried to send me home again, but I was levitating and hyperventilating. Where oh where had my little dog gone? That kind of thought process, if you follow my madness. I swear, somebody put a bike pump into my spine and filled it with gravel. Every cell was vomiting into other cells and my legs were crawling with under-the-skin fire-ants.

“You are only just one centimeter, honey.”

“What? No!”

Excuse me Doctor, I Love You

The contractions came. I thew everything I’d learnt at the situation. Cat and cow, holy cow! child’s pose, sacrum massage, move, don’t move, walk, pray, swear. Nothing worked. BREATHE. Breathe? I couldn’t belly breathe, I for-sure couldn’t breathe into the pain. Maybe I’d kill the yoga instructor. For sure, I’d kill Kent.

They gave me something that knocked me out for two hours, in between contractions. Kent was much happier, apparently. My reality was one, long contraction, as I death-gripped the rail of the hospital bed. They gave me something to speed up the labor. An aching eternity later, I was a measly  two centimeters, when I spotted a white coat and a beard outside my door.

“Doctor?” I was in between contractions, waving the white flag of wimping-out.

Somehow, I talked him into an early epidural, and soon after, I sat with a monitor on my finger, quizzically watching my contractions on a screen. I told the anesthesiologist that I loved him several times as we waited for the time to push.

 Will talk if tortured

I guess I was nobody’s grand-daughter that day. For a long time after, I couldn’t come to terms with my inability to live up to all of my internal cliches – I didn’t suck it up, see it through, bite the bullet, take it on the chin, grin and bear it – at allIn fact, I’m sure I added ‘panics easily’ and ‘will talk if tortured‘ to my epigenetic coding.

I choose to believe that it was too late to pass the wuss-factor to Savannah, in her final hours in the womb. I choose to believe that, because then I get to sweep that day’s misgivings under the carpet – which is just what my grandmothers would do.

*Discover Magazine, May 2013. Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes



1 Comment

  1. Have read lots of birthing stories Robyn and what with my daughter’s Champagne Daze blog today and your blog, they both bring tears to my eyes. Well done and let’s hope Savannah takes after me when her turn comes – a very rare and very true painless birth with by daughter – not the same experience with my first born son though.

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