New life tinged with smoke
The waiting room was tinged with smoke. Most were women with more visible bellies than mine. There were a couple of men, presumably fathers-to-be. One made eye contact with my partner, a moment of solidarity. We registered our arrival and sat down, a cloak of smoke attaching to our clothes. The hospital only had evaporative air conditioning, which was pulling in dangerous air we had no choice but to inhale.
We’d had warnings of things to come from the east coast, which led me to order face masks online: for my partner, myself and a tiny one for our toddler. The health agencies weren’t recommending people wear masks, simply stay indoors. Who can keep a toddler indoors for days? In any case, they hadn’t arrived in time for our first day of dangerous air quality in southern Adelaide, from the Kangaroo Island fires. The day that happened to be my 12-week appointment at the hospital.
I was sleep-deprived and depleted from a toddler still demanding to be breastfed and refusing to sleep through the night. Now there was dangerous smoke in the air, unavoidable. My boss shared articles of the risks this caused to unborn babies, as she traversed her own pregnancy journey. Hers ended when mine really began, publicly declaring miscarriage in an article this same morning of my 12-week appointment. Her publicness made me feel like I was hiding. In some ways I was.
I was an emergency responder, trained firefighter, missing from action. When a Red Cross organizer called asking me to staff the Adelaide Hills relief centre, I gave half-truths: lack of childcare, work commitments. I didn’t tell them I had morning sickness all day. Smoke made the nausea worse.
Though our masks hadn’t arrived yet, we’d replaced our home air-conditioning filter and bought a backup before the smoke from the Kangaroo Island fires descended. So, I stayed home, working on my laptop, feeling guilty. Guilty that when I’d worked for the Country Fire Service it was an unusually quiet year and now, when times were desperate, I wasn’t using my training. Guilty for bringing another child into the world now the climate crisis was to any sane mind undeniable.
The midwife made an error, saying, “gosh I’m sorry I’m just not with it today!” I suggested, “maybe it’s the smoke? It’s pretty full-on in here.” She responded acknowledging the smoke but dismissing its impact. I could avoid the toxins of risky food and alcohol while pregnant, but not bushfire smoke.
I’d already been exposed in my first weeks of pregnancy, when I’d travelled to Sydney for work. It was so early then – hinted by my heightened sense of smell. Smoke began settling upon Sydney that week, harbour horizons hazy and the scent of burning in the air. Now months later, still bushfire season, smoke wove into my home life too.