a birth story
Prelude to Labour
In week 39 of pregnancy, I was on a mission to distract myself from my impending labour. I baked, cleaned, and reorganised cupboards and wardrobes. I bought this glorious embossing label maker and labelled every container in sight. I ignored my Nurture app when it advised me to stay away from crowds to avoid getting ill. Unfortunately, I couldn't avoid my husband who had caught a mild cold. On my due date, I was stranded in bed, nose blocked, energy sapped, throat sore and feeling very sorry for myself. I was super anxious about going into labour while sick.
It took me well over a week to recover. By that time, baby was overdue. I was referred for an ultrasound which found nothing abnormal. My midwife and I made a date to meet at the hospital on the first day of my 41st week for monitoring and to possibly schedule an induction. My midwife described induction using phrases like "hormone drip", "a cascade of interventions", "we expect to see progress at certain points", "we can make the birth nice but it will be clinical". Frankly, the entire thing sounded terrifying. My husband and I went straight to The Warehouse and bought a swiss ball. That night, I bounced on it for hours while drinking raspberry leaf tea and eating chopped pineapple - anything to induce labour naturally.
Five days after my due date, I hopped out of the shower and felt a gush of liquid down my leg. It splattered onto the floor. My water had broken. My husband and I called my midwife who told us either labour would start or it wouldn't. However, the longer it took for labour to start after my water broke, the greater the risk of infection to myself or the baby because the sterile environment that protected him was gone. I was told that water would keep leaking out and to keep an eye on the colour of the liquid. Clear was fine but green or brown meant the baby was in distress and I would need to urgently go to the hospital. I had twenty four hours to go into labour before we would need to consider medical intervention. That night, I had a set of mild contractions but I fell asleep and they were gone.
The next morning was a brilliantly sunny autumn day. I was still hoping for labour to start so my husband and I took the dog for a walk. We strolled around the waterfront, took photos, and met up with my mother and her partner for brunch. I never expected to be brunching like nothing ever happened barely twenty-four hours after my water broke. In the afternoon, we packed my hospital bag in the car and headed to the hospital. I was frightened about what would come next.
At the hospital, I had a CTG scan to monitor my baby's heartbeats and my contractions. After a couple of hours, the conclusion was that baby was happy and I was most definitely not in labour. My midwife recommended that I be induced first thing tomorrow morning if I didn't go into labour. In the meantime, it took two midwives, one doctor, and an anaesthetist to successfully slide an IV into my hand. I felt like a pincushion by the time I was hooked up to antibiotics and fluids.
By late afternoon, my husband and I were moved into a delivery suite. We were left alone, staring at blinking machines, surgical lamps, scissors and medical equipment. I started crying. I had expected to labour, for the majority of the time, at home, surrounded by familiar and beloved things and comfortable beds and pillows. I never imagined lying flat on my back, on a narrow and plasticky hospital bed, with a painful and throbbing IV anchored on my left hand and a surgical lamp looming above me.
That night, we walked slowly around the hospital grounds, still hoping to induce labour naturally and also, for distraction. There were moments of peace - my husband picking a lone hydrangea still in bloom from a bush and placing it in a blue plastic water jug for my room, a warm roast lamb hospital dinner, two cheerful midwives who fetched us extra pillows, a swiss ball and made us feel welcome and cared for. It was almost midnight. Even though I was frightened of being left alone, I sent my husband home, wanting him rest. Barely an hour later, he was back, unable to sleep. I was grateful. That night, I pressed the call button after another set of contractions. The midwife told me I was only in early labour and the best thing to do was to get some sleep. She fetched a recliner for my husband and left. Next door, a woman in labour was screaming so loudly, the sound seemed reverberate off every surface in the room. My husband and I fell asleep clutching each other.
My midwife was late getting to the hospital because she had to take her cat to the vet. The doctors came round, introduced themselves, and wondered where my midwife was. I didn't have the heart to tell them that she was currently prioritising her cat before an adult human being carrying a baby. The senior doctor was dressed in scrubs and brown leather shoes. He exuded competence. I was going to be hooked up to a hormone drip, he explained. The hormone was syntocin, the synthetic version of oxytocin, the hormone that causes labour. We know oxytocin causes labour, but it is a mystery what actually triggers labour. You're like a stalled car, the doctor said. The hormone drip is the push we're hoping gets the engine started. It was that word hoping. Inducing labour forces your body to do something it isn't ready to do. Either the car would start or it wouldn't.
We were left alone with my midwife (who had finally appeared). She attached the hormone drip to my IV. Shortly after, a monitor started to beep and wouldn't stop. My midwife bent over it, frowning and muttering. I looked down at my wrist and watched as a trickle of liquid entered my IV. As my midwife continued to twiddle with my IV line, the beeping continued. I sagged back onto the bed, blinded by a contraction so sudden and deep that my vision started to go black around the edges. I reached out in a panic for my husband. My midwife jumped in alarm, urgently began to tap the sensor monitoring my baby's heartbeat, and in a panic, lunged for the emergency button. In seconds, the room filled with what felt like an army of doctors. Turns out that my baby's heartbeat had plummeted in response to the sudden contraction. He was frightened and in distress.
"How much syntocin did you give her?" a doctor asked my midwife in disbelief. "Honestly? Not much," my midwife replied. The senior doctor kept his eyes on mine as I slumped on the bed trying to recover. He joked that maybe all I needed was a sniff of syntocin and I was off. The baby settled down and the pain eased. We were ordered to wait a few hours before starting the hormone drip to help baby recover and then to start the drip very slowly.
I started on the hormone drip in the afternoon. Contractions followed shortly. Before long, they became intense enough that staying still in bed and breathing through them wasn't enough. I got up and started bouncing up and down on the swiss ball. The motion relieved some pressure and pain. My husband had set up a little bluetooth speaker and streamed songs from Spotify to provide some normality.
Before long, the contractions became too painful and frequent for me to bear without pain relief. My midwife hooked me up to gas and I spent a happy few hours sucking down on the hose. Gas didn't eliminate the pain; it just took the edge off. My husband and midwife started laughing when I told them, woozily, that I felt like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. I was also very hungry. My husband begged my midwife to allow me to eat. She allowed my husband to feed me a few slices of dried mango and peanut butter and cacao protein balls. My throat was dry from the gas and my husband offered me sips of water through a straw. My midwife left the room briefly, and giggling, I offered the gas hose to my husband who hurriedly sucked gas down.
The contractions progressed. I was shaking and breathless, even with long draws of gas. I remembered from antenatal class that you have to be quick to order an epidural because it took a while to set up and C-sections were prioritised. I knew my limits and I could foresee that the pain would shortly become unbearable. I asked for an epidural and prayed it would come quickly. In the meantime, I tried not to panic and sucked down so much gas that my midwife threatened to take it away from me for a while. "No! Why?" I moaned to which she replied, "You're getting too dopey."
The anaesthetist came. I shouted something about the calvary when he entered the room. He kneeled in front of me as I clutched the gas hose and bounced up and down on my Swiss ball. He explained the epidural process, its risks, and asked if I wanted to proceed. Frankly, it was ridiculous being asked to give consent while in a haze of pain. My contractions were long, deep, and teeth-clattering. Like enormous waves, I felt like they were going to pull me under.
After what felt like forever, the epidural was administered, I was put on a catheter and I got to lie down. The gas hose was pried out of my grasp. Now, I could only feel vague pressure from the contractions. The pain was blanked out. I fell asleep around dinner time and woke up about an hour later. The epidural had worn off so I spent the next hour playing catch-up with my pain relief, sucking down gas and pressing the epidural top-up button in a panic. The doctors came round to examine my progress and found that I was fully dilated. It was time to push.
A Birth Story
Most people tell you to wait till an epidural has worn off to start pushing. I did the opposite. I punched the epidural top up button like my life depended on it. As a result, I was totally numb when I started pushing. My midwife and my husband monitored the CGT machine and told me when a contraction was starting. Trying to push when you can't feel a single thing below your waist is hard. It was like shouting into the wind.
After two hours, the doctors re-assessed progress. I'd made none. The baby hadn't magically popped out with a push. The doctors put their heads together and I chanted over and over in my head Please not a c-section. Please not a c-section. Please not a c-section. Instead, the doctors recommended ventouse with an episiotomy. I wanted to cry. My husband knew my birth plan and getting cut open in any way, shape or form was not part of it. He asked the doctors whether an episiotomy was necessary. I was grateful that he asked but I didn't bother to register the doctor's answer. I was resigned to anything that would end the entire ordeal.
Once the decision to proceed with a ventouse and episiotomy was made, things happened very quickly. Surgical lights came on, my legs were hoisted into the air, a flurry of people entered the room. The doctor started to coach me - Push now. Long, hard push. Don't make a noise. Just push. Just a few more pushes and your baby will be born. Short, sharp breaths. More. More. He has a lot of hair!
Out of nowhere, I felt a give, like a balloon being popped. A baby started crying. My baby started crying. Relief flooded through me. I cried out thanks to the doctors, thanks to the midwife because at last, ten or so hours after the hormone drip was administered, it was over. A pale, warm, and tiny body was plopped onto my chest and there he was. My baby. He was earth-side.
Notes on Post-Natal Care
We stayed in the post-natal ward for a day and a half. I had the massive bad luck of being put in a shared room. I had one night in the room to myself but the next night, a woman who'd had a C-section was wheeled in with her newborn. Our babies spent the night taking turns crying and setting each other off. I was in pain from the ventouse and episiotomy and exhausted from giving birth. The only pain relief I was offered was paracetamol. Husbands were not allowed to stay the night. At two in the morning, the newborn we shared the room with was crying inconsolably. Her mum explained that her milk hadn't come in and her baby was hungry. She was also bed-bound from the C-section. To help my poor baby get to sleep, I clutched him in my arms and hobbled, in pain, along the empty hospital corridors. I was so tired, weak and in pain. It was an awful, lonely night.
I hold some anger and resentment about my post-natal experience. It's not directed at the midwives and doctors. In my short stay, I encountered brilliant midwives who taught me breastfeeding basics at two in the morning, stopped by before going home to give me a hug and wish me luck, and personally escorted me to a free breastfeeding clinic with a lactation consultant. What I do have an issue with is shared rooms in a post-natal ward where mums recovering from interventions and surgery and their newborns are forced to share a room with little space, little privacy, and little comfort. Support people such as dads and other family members are forced to go home at night, leaving first time mums like myself isolated, struggling, and solely reliant on staff members who are obviously run off their feet. Post-natal care is not set up to ease parents into parenthood or help mothers physically and emotionally recover from birth. It is set up to provide the minimum level of clinical care for the best possible price. It makes you feel like a burden to the system, to be discharged as quickly as possible.
If I'd had a room to myself, I would have liked to stay in the hospital for a little longer. My husband and I had no experience with newborns. I wanted to have easy access to midwives and doctors for advice, particularly on breastfeeding. I asked for a single room but was told the ward was full. The midwife gave us a pep talk while hurriedly thrusting discharge papers our way. "He will cry and cry and cry and drive you absolutely crazy. But here's the thing," she said, "they all do that. It's absolutely normal. You guys will be fine."