I’m planning to add a lot more about taking control of your birthing experience. In the meantime, here’s my own story; an epic tale wherein a scuppered plan needn’t mean loss of control..
Contains graphic detail and images of nudity. NSFW.
What I wanted from my birthing experience
I wanted the birth of my baby to be a pain-free, pain relief-free, non-interventionist birth. I wanted it to be relatively quick, and straightforward, in my own home. It didn’t turn out quite that way.
But beneath wanting that were the reasons I wanted that. It was important to me to keep the motivations topmost in my mind. I basically wanted to avoid experiences I’d seen others have:
- Being on a birth ‘production line’,interact with medical staff who wanted me to give birth on a schedule, ignoring and sidelining partners, and being subjected to a bunch of unnecessary interventions because it was easier for the hospital.
- Having self-confidence crushed for years due to being made to feel their bodies and decisions are inadequate.
- Being in an unfamiliar hospital environment for hours on end, or forced in endless trips to and from the hospital.
- Taking weeks to recover from birth, missing the chance to enjoy the time with the baby.
- Having trouble feeding because of hormonal disruption and bonding difficulties.
- Having hormones and natural processes to be messed up, causing: postnatal depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and/or issues bonding with the baby that last into adulthood.
These are all very interconnected and the last one is the bottom line, really. Being physically healthy after birth is of course crucial, but I also wanted me, my partner, and my baby to be mentally healthy. That’s as important.
To me, birth is the ultimate feminist issue. I don’t just see it as a parents’ issue, and I’m heartened when I hear people who aren’t parents, or don’t even plan to be, discuss how women are so often let down by the structure, stories, and procedures surrounding birth in our society. Of course, of course, the most important thing is that the baby and mother are alive and healthy, but I don’t believe it’s the only important thing. I think birth is a major factor that affects equality in our society – being treated like silly little girls during the time in their life they are the most vulnerable yet conversely the most powerful.
I wanted a positive birth, and a happy bond with my baby.
Me and Ari did the Hypnobirthing course with Bonnie at Hypnobirthing Fife. We learnt an awful lot about the history of birth and the fear that leads to pain of childbirth. What we learnt really helped me from early on; reinforcing the idea that being pregnant is not being sick. Other than severe morning sickness early on, I had really limited time off work, was going out on long walks right up to going into labour, and felt strong and in control.
Labour and birthing
Looking back on it, I first started experiencing surges (which is how Hypnobirthing refers to contractions) on Sunday night – when I was technically five days over my ‘due date’ (I don’t really believe in due dates; babies come when they’re good and ready). At the time I thought it was more digestion related, but in retrospect it was the same sensations as I had later on.
On Monday, me and Ari went with our good friend Emily (my best friend and a birth guru who had come up around that time in the hope to be at the birth) went into town and pottered about a bit. I was still having intermittent sensations, but we laughed off the idea it might be labour.
That night, Ari and I settled down to watch Sister Act at about 8pm. We didn’t get far through the film though, when my sensations started to intensify and we realised this was it. I was a bit scared, despite all my prep, but I remember Ari looking at me saying ‘Hey, this is it, it’s happening; you’re in labour.’ I was so pleased I wouldn’t have to be induced. This was 12 May and so we figured the baby would be born some time the next day. We talked about 13th May and how exciting that that would be our baby’s birthday. I decided to get in the bath, which is where I’d always planned to labour. It was early on, but that’s always been my happy place anyway, so we went up there to chill out for a while, and Ari contacted Emily to let her know what was going on. I’d also wanted my friend Siân to be there, but she had further to come, so I let her know I was probably in labour (I still thought it could be Braxton Hicks) and so to maybe come across first thing in the morning.
Things in fact intensified pretty quickly. A couple of hours passed by (I think – my perception of time was very wonky during this whole time) and I threw up in the bath. I got up to drain things out, and after going to the loo saw bright red blood on the floor. I was freaked out because I wasn’t what I expected from my show – I’d expected something more mucousy, but this was just pure blood, and my show in fact came out slowly over a very long time. Ari called the hospital who reassured us everything was fine and that all these things were good signs. I then continued to hang out in the bath, with Emily timing my surges on her iPhone (yep; there’s an app for that). Eventually, it was time, and the midwife came out.
When she arrived, we pretty much all just continued to hang out in the bathroom. I didn’t want to be examined unless it was necessary. Although the surge breathing we’d learnt in Hypnobirthing wasn’t really working for me, I was getting great relief singing my way through surges. I knew there’s a correlation between tenseness in your pelvis and your jaw, so was working to keep the latter relaxed, including blowing bubbles under the water, which I think quite amused everyone, including the midwife.
Things were getting closer and more intense and everyone was reassuring me it would happen soon – we all believed Siân would miss it. I don’t know, looking back, if this was something that was making me hold things up. Eventually I was finding it hard to cope with, and asked the midwife to leave the room for me to have a discussion with Ari and Emily. This was something key to the experience for me – at every new turn, I wanted me and Ari to take time out to discuss and consider a decision.
I asked if they’d judge me for asking for gas and air (they give you some as part of the home birth pack). They said of course not, and went to discuss it with the midwife. They came back to say that whilst of course I could have it if I needed it, there was a limited supply and if labour went on longer than expected I might have none left when I needed it even more.
On account of this, I agreed to let the midwife check how far along I was. She was happy to do this from the position of me lying in the bath – I didn’t have to get out or anything (again, I’d heard bad stories about midwife checks being the worst part due to the positions women are made to adopt).
On being checked, I was told that although I was 75% effaced, I was only around 2-3 centimetres dilated, and that the baby was lying in a slight back to back position, which tends to make things more painful. My waters were still intact, too, which meant a lot of pressure, but also meant we weren’t on a timer yet. It was 4:30 in the morning, and the advice I was given was to take paracetamol and try and get some sleep. The midwife went home. Everyone went to bed and I lay in bed trying to get some sleep but still experiencing regular surges which interfered with that somewhat. On that Monday night I don’t think I slept at all.
On Tuesday morning, Siân arrived, and the four of us tried to just hang out in a chilled way – now I was out of the bath I felt more like I wanted to be in the world for labouring. I remember the feeling being that women generally give birth at night, so to just take it easy. We read horoscopes, watched a bit of telly and I continued having frequent, but fairly short and sporadic, surges. For each one I felt an incredible urge to lean back, and did so using various props and people as support – Ari, Emily and Siân were all getting very sore arms.
This went on throughout Tuesday and into the night, the three of them taking it in turns to be my support person/arms. I spent the night on the rocking chair, and managed to get maybe 2 or 3 hours’ sleep, but labour didn’t intensify. I was told by someone at some point that ‘Some people would say you’re not really in labour.’ I believe my response was ‘I would tell those people to go fuck themselves.I was starting to feel a bit bleak.
On Wednesday, things took a turn for the better, though. The midwife came out just for a chat to see how I was doing.’ My fear was that if I wasn’t ‘really’ in labour, but was finding it hard, I wouldn’t in fact be able to cope with ‘real’ labour.
The midwife was very reassuring though, and told me nothing was going to get worse; it’d just be more of the same. Emily had had a chat with another doula friend, who told her the leaning back behaviour was a typical fear reaction, so to try and avoid it. Again I was told to chill out, as births tend to happen at night. I emailed Bonnie for some advice, and managed more successfully to calm down a bit. Emily went out, Siân sat down to do a bit of work, and I went for a bath, continuing to sing through surges. At that point I was for some reason going with the EastEnders theme tune, although I don’t watch EastEnders. I think it’s just because of the scales in it. Closer to the birth, I was singing ‘Ode to Joy’ for similar reasons. It was never a conscious choice, just notes (never lyrics) that came out. There was a third scaley tune I think just came from my head, but which we all had stuck as an earworm afterwards!
After my bath, I even got dressed and went into the garden for a bit. I was pacing round, experiencing regular surges, bracing myself against someone or getting down on all fours at their height. I threw up in a plant pot, which turned out to be not very clever as it had holes in it. Our downstairs neighbours, a male couple, passed by at one point. ‘still no sign of baby?’ one asked. ‘Er, yeah, this is me in labour now actually.’ I’m not sure what they thought I was doing!
By the time Emily came back, I was in a much better place. She commented that my whole energy during surges was much calmer
In the early evening things really started to pick up. Bonnie came over at about 7 with some music and a further Hypnobirthing script, but looking at me it didn’t seem like I needed it. I was set up in our living room now, cushions, towels and candles everywhere (and vomit pots. These were needed frequently, as were the towels, as I peed on the floor twice. I never said this was glamorous.)
I got to a point where I really wanted quiet and just Ari. I told Ari this privately and she got everyone to go into the kitchen. Bonnie stayed for a fair while – although she’d planned to pretty much drop stuff off, she was as convinced as anyone else that there was going to be a baby here any minute now.
What followed was probably my favourite part of labour, and closest to how I’d imagined it. I went into what I can only describe as a proper transcendental state. I sat cross legged on the sofa opposite Ari, holding her hands and drawing incredible strength from her, but not able to talk, though at one point managed to ask for a midwife to be called, as I was sure the baby was coming soon. I hummed and sang peacefully from surge to surge, and had many I’m sure weren’t discernible to an outsider. I began to feel that the surges weren’t coming from me, but from some universal outside force, and that it was just my job to let them go through me, likes wires carrying an electrical current. I began to look forward to each surge, and often raised my arms in joy. I was smiling through most of it, and felt like in holding Ari’s hands I was holding the hands of women throughout the world, on top of a series of hills. I’m aware that probably sounds a bit kooky, but that’s how it was.
However, at some point this trance ‘broke’. No-one seems to remember what broke it exactly, but I think we pretty much all thought I was transitioning – I was displaying some classic signs. One of these was fear I couldn’t cope, so I decided to have the midwife examine me again. I was so sure I was so close that I figured the good news from the midwife would bolster me.
However, I was only 3cm, and I have to say I broke down a bit at this news. It was the middle of the night and although I still thought I could progress quite quickly, the midwife went home. Ari went for a ten-minute nap, but ended up sleeping for hours. I think this is something that really slowed things down for me. I was very worried she’d miss it; and by the time morning came things had stalled again. I don’t know if it would have gone differently if Ari had still been with me; I do know that she very desperately needed to sleep in order to be there for me and the baby, so it was good she had the chance to do so.
On Thursday morning Siân had to go back into work, and I was back in the bath, determined to give birth one way or the other. Ari called the midwife as I really wanted someone round for a quick chat in the same way as someone had the day before, and to see if I was any further along as I had still been having surges.
This experience was in a way the most negative, but also a bit where I can be proud of how we handled it. The midwives made me come out of the bath to be examined, found I was no further dilated and they were putting a lot of pressure on me to keep an appointment I’d been made months before at the hospital in Kirkcaldy that morning. I was adamant I wasn’t going to Kirkcaldy – I was in labour, so didn’t see how it would help. I know this appointment is known as the ‘induction appointment’ and I didn’t want to be induced or interfered with; and I know that’s all they would do at that appointment. Furthermore, I was in no position to drive and Ari can’t drive, so I had no idea how I’d even get there. Mostly, I felt very pressured by the midwives to go in and didn’t see any reason to. Ari ended up shouting at them and insisting we had more time to make this decision. Emily came back and was able to lend support to our end of things, and insisted they went away and we were given the chance to really think about it. To be fair, they did this calmly.
The three of us had a chat about the pros and cons of going to Kirkcaldy and essentially decided that if I was going to go in, I was going to be admitted and stay – I could perhaps be given some pain relief that would let me get some sleep, and the pressure would be off Ari and Emily. I was reassured by stories of women who had had very interventionist births but still bonded with their babies and were all very happy. By taking the time out to think about the decision, Ari and I were able to make the positive decision to go into hospital in our own calm way, and take ownership of that decision. The hospital sent an ambulance to pick me up as there was no other way of getting there.
The hospital was better than I’d expected and, crucially, admitting myself didn’t equate to surrendering control. We had a lovely room where I put up the picture Toby had drawn for me, and we had some lovely food Ari had packed. I was given a massive beanbag I found very useful for between surges, and on which I finally managed to get some decent sleep for a couple of hours – first time since Sunday night I’d really slept.
I had a copy of my birth preferences I’d written in case of having to transfer, and the midwife properly read it and went through it with me, which I was reassured by. They wanted to monitor the baby’s heartbeat for a while, but agreed to do this by putting a strap round, and that they would only monitor it for the least time necessary.
After 20 minutes they were reassured everything was fine and said I could go home if I wanted to, but now I was in I wanted to stay. So they transferred me to the midwife led unit and gave me the room with the birthing pool, which was fantastic. This bit was my second favourite part of it all. I spent the night floating in the pool with a little pillow under my neck, snoozing between surges, which became closer together and longer as the night progressed. I had this song stuck in my head,but substituting the second part with ‘I wish it Theodora’, which was our chosen girl’s name – though we didn’t know whether we were having a boy or a girl.
Every so often the midwife would check my temperature and blood pressure, and bring me water, and toast and jam – I was also now eating more than I’d been able to do in a few days. At one point they said my temperature and heart rate was a bit high, and they wanted me to take a couple of paracetamol and get out of the pool for a bit. I wasn’t happy about doing this. The midwife’s position was that by body was stressed by the long labour, causing a bit of a fever and fast pulse, but my position was that the birthing pool was finally relaxing me after several days and that getting out of the pool would be counterproductive. I said I would think about it and she left the room. I talked about it with Ari and decided I would take the paracetamol and stay in the pool, but keep the water as cool as I could and keep out of the water between surges as much as I could. Ari went out and told the midwife what I’d decided, and that’s what we did. After the hour, my temperature went down and everyone was happy. I felt really empowered by having taken charge and achieved what was needed in my own way.
At about six on Friday morning I woke Ari up for the next day of things. I was feeling good. Ari had slept; I’d slept after a fashion. I hadn’t properly slept for four nights, really, but I felt energised and good. I clearly remember thinking that I could carry on for another four days if need be. The shift changed at seven and the new midwife, Katrina, came and introduced herself, going through the birth preferences again, and telling me she respected what we were going for. She was lovely and we trusted her. I agreed to be checked again given I’d been surging regularly all night. She said for a proper examination she wanted me out of the water, but I could get back in again.
The first thing she looked at were the purple lines, which showed my body was working as it should, and that I was in natural labour. Then she did an internal exam. I was fully effaced but still only 3-4 centimetres dilated. This wasn’t great news, but on top of that there was meconium in my waters, which proceeded to gush out over the next hour or so. It was fresh meconium, suggested the baby was properly distressed. They wanted to put me on continuous monitoring and give me syntocinon to speed up labour.
I really wasn’t happy about this. I knew syntocinon messes up all your natural hormones and overrides your natural endorphins, and that plus continuous monitoring meant I wouldn’t be able to be in the pool. I said I’d be monitored for a while, but wasn’t happy about the rest of it. They put a belt around me but I was having to move around so much that the heartbeat wasn’t being picked up properly. It was at this point they got concerned at Katrina told me there really wasn’t a choice at this point; that they *had* to monitor the baby as a medical emergency. I was wheeled through to the consultant led unit, asking for gas and air.
They had respected my birthing wishes and not offered me pain relief but I was trying to step back and look at where things were at. I had planned a number of ways to minimise the pain of labour: the Hypnobirthing techniques we’d learnt, water, positioning (ie being able to move around freely), and my body’s own natural endorphins. As the latter three of these were being removed as options, I asked to discuss other forms of pain relief. Between diamorphine and epidural, I chose the latter because it doesn’t cross the placenta – particularly given that they were already worried about the baby. I asked that the epidural be put in place before the syntocinon was started, which they were happy about. While I was waiting on the anaesthetist, I continued to sing (my voice never became tired despite days of singing) and use gas and air. I was using it wrong for a long time – not breathing it in an effective way – but it was still a massive psychological help. Possibly more so than when I was doing it ‘right’ as I couldn’t sing and use the gas at the same time.
The anaesthetist, Savine, when she arrived, was just lovely. We had long chats about her life as an anaesthetist and all kinds of other things.
The baby’s heartbeat was being monitored via a clip on its head and the consultant wandered in every so often to check the monitor. ‘Baby fine’ he’d mutter, then wander out, as we waited for the epidural to take effect.
After a while though, things changed; the baby’s heartbeat was going down. The baby wasn’t coping with the labour as well as I was and the consultant was recommending a caesarean. He said that it wasn’t an emergency at this stage, but given the progression speed, it would become one before the baby came out by itself. It was half two in the afternoon and I was knackered. The idea of finally seeing my baby was overwhelming. I asked a lot of questions about exactly how it would work, all of which were answered patiently and fully. I felt very much in control of the situation. The bad news was that Ari couldn’t stay with me in the recovery ward. Ari swore somewhat at this, and I reassured her it was going to be ok, and we decided to go ahead with surgery.
They gave Ari scrubs so she could go in with me, and I was introduced to a lot of people – there were so many midwives, nurses, surgeons, anaethetists etc, and each one of them came over and introduced themselves personally – so much so I started to panic about not remembering names. Apparently I started interrupting people before they finished the introduction, saying ‘I won’t remember that! I’m sorry!’ I was worried about being rude – and think I ended up being more so! It was great, though, that each and every one spoke to me – something else that made me feel like a real person.
For most caesareans, they give you a spinal block, which is different from an epidural, but as I already had an epidural in they said they’d try topping that up, which they said works about half the time.
It worked this time, and the surgery itself was quick, easy and painless. They played the CD we’d brought in of the Hypnobirthing music, and Ari talked me through some of the relaxation techniques. Before I’d even really realised they’d started, it was over. One of my clearest memories was Katrina saying to one of the surgical staff ‘If the baby doesn’t cry immediately, they’re going straight to special care’. It made me appreciate that these really were special circumstances, and everything that had happened had needed to. (Katrina said afterwards that she’d never seen a baby so covered in its own poo.)
The baby did cry, and before I knew what was happening, Ari was being beckoned round to see the first glimpse of our beautiful baby. She told me she was a girl, and I didn’t believe her at first – I thought I’d heard one of the surgeons referring to ‘him’. Ari cut the cord and they cleaned her up a little – my birth preferences had said we didn’t want her bathed immediately, but she was so meconium-covered that they had to. They checked about Vitamin K too – we had decided to go down the oral route but given the distress, we decided to go for the injection, as she was probably in a higher risk group.
The sewing up took longer than getting her out, but I was totally unaware of that by now. Then they brought her over and laid her on me – the gown was still sticking up from just below my boobs, so there wasn’t a lot of room and at first all I could see was blanket, but then they moved her round and I got to see our beautiful daughter. Savine loved our name, and when we started to sing the made-up songs we’d sang her in utero to the Spiderman theme tune, she pulled out pictures on her mobile from her Spiderman-themed hen night and we all looked through them whilst they sewed me up.
Ari took the baby back – standing holding her in awe of the fact we got to keep this gorgeous new human – whilst they wheeled me back to the recovery unit. Now my gown wasn’t in the way, I put her to my breast and she began happily feeding immediately, which she’s done ever since.
A couple of months later, I’m now suffering with some sciatica, which is postnatal-related, but we’re not sure whether it’s due to the caesarean or the long labour, or whether it would have happened anyway. In any case, I figure that postnatal problems could be with Dora’s health, with my mental health, or my physical health, and out of those options I’m glad it’s the latter.
The thing I wasn’t prepared fro was the long labour. I’d read up a lot about encouraging labour, but I was told a lot to try and stop it for a while, and that was something I wasn’t prepared for. I felt that during the day I was waiting for the night, and at night I was being told to get some sleep. If I ever do it again, I’d want to be more prepared for that. I also think I still had fears to release – there’s no way of telling if that would have changed things, though.
Points of pride
I acknowledge the regrets, and they do get to me in my lower moments, but all in all, I’m proud. I remained in control and had time to make my own choices and felt in charge of my own body, and respected by the wonderful NHS staff.
Although I ended up asking for an epidural, this was only after four days of back-to-back, waters-unbroken labour, managed with no intervention at all. Most of this was managed at home – again, although she wasn’t ultimately born at home, if I’d admitted myself to hospital on the Monday night it would have been much worse. The endorphins released throughout this had a chance to affect me and the baby as they should. The Hypnobirthing techniques I learnt was me through the natural labour, and through the surgery too. My baby is happy and healthy and we’ve all bonded well.
Now just to raise her to take the same control of her own mind and body!