This time 4 years ago I was walking around Fitzroy Gardens and East Melbourne. My waters had broken but my contractions hadn't started, not properly and I was trying to get things started. I reckon I walked about twenty kilometres that day. We were at the old Mercy Hospital which was a bit shabby and worn, the birth centre's wing was like a daggy but clean and comfortable country motel. In the end my contractions wouldn't start and I would have to be transferred to the labour ward the next morning to be induced. A mere snifter of syntocin would things started and Frederique would be born easily and relatively quickly, under 5 hours of labour, at the civilised time of ten to one in the early afternoon on the 21st April, Easter Monday - Monday of the Angel. But none of that had happened yet, four years ago.
I was excited, I don't remember being scared of giving birth - bring it on. But I was reluctant for other reasons. I believed (I still partly believe) that labour wasn't progressing because I wasn't ready to let her go. I loved having her inside me, like a secret, keeping her close and protected. Having her out, in my arms, in the world - having her belong more to the world than to me - was a daunting prospect. How would I keep her safe, the way I could when she sheltered inside my skin? How would I manage the complexities of breastfeeding, love, sleeplessness, separation, mothering? How would I learn to share her when she was my Best Thing?
We walked and walked around the gardens, in the golden light, under the deciduous trees, the sharp smell of Autumn in the air. What did we talk about? I don't remember because I was carrying on an internal conversation too, not so much in words but in the language we spoke then, a dream language, internal and fluid. We went back to the birth centre for regular checks, the midwife listening to the baby's heartbeat with the doppler. She wasn't Frederique yet, we called her Squeaky Delicious. We had chosen her name, but we hadn't told anyone. We were waiting to give it to her when she was born. But perhaps it was another way of keeping her close, keeping her private, belonging more to us than to the world.
Four years is a long time. It is four years between Olympic Games. It takes four years to get a degree with honours, or a Bachelor of Education. (Martin has two and a half years to go.) Four years is how long I was at Taroona High School. The official dates of World War One spans roughly four years. It's also how long the war of 'shock and awe' has been going in Iraq. For Frederique, four years is a lifetime.
Up until now, Fred's birthdays have seemed to creep up on me. I'd have thought it was just yesterday that we brought this tiny baby home from the hospital, that we sat up through the sleepless night with her, unable to settle her, until we rang the birth centre and they asked us if we had changed her nappy. We hadn't. It seems unbelievable now that this would be something we'd forget. But now four years seems right, there's a distance between me and that tiny baby that is insurmountable. It seems almost unfair that I can't return to that time, that I can't visit. So four years is a good way to describe the time I have spent with Frederique, though in other ways time is meaningless. Was there a time before Frederique? It seems hard to imagine. My memory writes her in, or amends things. For example, Martin and I were married in Greece in 2002, two months later we conceived Fred - now it seems that in essence at least the beginning of her was already there, that she glimmers between us somewhere in the wedding photos, like a background guest. In some ways mmore real than the village children and British and German backpackers who actually witnessed our wedding.
Four is a great age. Four year olds are fun, confident, they dig themselves. Fred is fueled by energy matched only by her boundless imagination. Her language is complex and intelligent, she is beginning to enter the wider world, she has a life beyond me, far far beyond the enclosure of my skin or even the enclosure of the family. She has secrets I don't know. She belongs to the world now but even more, the world belongs to her. She wants to know every part of it. I want to show her, but that's not my role anymore. No matter what, she will discover it herself, she will stubbornly see what she wants to see. We can point things out to her (and we do, often, we can't wait for her to see everything), but what we show her and what she sees is often a disparity as wide apart as the baby she was four years ago and the girl she is now. Same same but different.