I’m an over-educator. I read endless books and signed up for every class going during pregnancy to try and prepare myself for childbirth. I found two extremes in the way labour was presented to me. The soft-focus, candle-lit, transcendental natural birth experienced (it seemed) predominantly by swaying ladies in tie-dye “breathing out” their babies, and the blood-splattered war stories of gruelling, endless, agonising and traumatic labours told to me with relish by friends and colleagues.
This is my “in between” story. On paper it looks like I had the perfect, intervention free home birth, but there is no way in the world I would call it perfect, or blissful or transcendental. It was brutal and scary. It was also powerful and amazing. I still think I made the right choices, and that was all I ever wanted to take away – the feeling that I’d done the best I could in the circumstances, that our baby was healthy and finally here with us and that I felt strong enough physically and mentally to look after him.
If you want a peaceful labour story, you might not want to read this. Equally, if you want a horror story, you won’t find much to sate you here either. It’s just what happened to me.
I started getting contractions on the Tuesday afternoon. I didn’t know that’s what they were at first – they felt like dull, achey menstrual cramps. By 7pm they were one every half hour, and feeling pretty uncomfortable. I googled, and I got on board with the fact that I was probably in pre-labour. That’s the niggly bit that can go on for days – especially for first babies in an awkward position. Sometimes it starts and then goes away again completely. I tried to keep my expectations in check. I didn’t expect we’d be meeting our baby any time soon. I continued to watch the whole series of Broadchurch and tried not to grumble about the increasingly squeezy feelings.
By bedtime, contractions were regular and closer together. S sat up with me into the night as I curled up on the bed listening to my hypnobirthing CD and tried to get into a deeply relaxed state. This bit was quite nice (with the benefit of rosy hindsight). I sent Sam to bed at 2am, convinced it would all ease off and he’d be going to work the next day. Then I nested in a load of pillows and sat up all night with my TENS machine on listening to ambient post-rock and trying to rise above the surges that were coming quite powerfully by this point.
7am was the first time I felt compelled to cry out with the pain – the start of my world of shouty noise. It was starting to become really difficult to manage. S got back up and I managed to get in the bath – chucking in some clary sage oil which really kicked off my contractions. I was getting frustrated as I knew I couldn’t call the hospital until my contractions were 3 in 10 minutes and they were averaging at 2 in 10 and nowhere near regular. Standard for a back-to-back baby, but triage weren’t going to give two hoots about that.
Two hoots was about right. At 10am and we’d been stuck at 2 in 10 minutes for hours – each round getting more painful until I knew we needed support. I had been adamant we wouldn’t call the delivery suite until we’d reached the magic number, but we caved. I had a cheery midwife on the phone telling me I was still in the early stages of labour and “doing really well!”. Thanks love. I was collapsed halfway up the stairs when Sam gave me the phone. I felt crushed. The pain was so bad that I couldn’t just not talk during a contraction now - I couldn’t talk, stand up, think, or even breathe properly through them anymore. If this was going to get worse before they’d even let me go to hospital or send somebody out, how was I supposed to cope through the rest of labour?
I had another bath to take the edge off. Getting out suddenly everything stepped up enormously. The contractions were still irregular but often coming one on top of the other with no break and lasting two or three minutes rather than the textbook one. I was so far beyond my pain threshold now that I started to panic- not the conscious or rational panic of overthinking, but something quite primal telling me this wasn’t the “good pain” the books tell you about (apparently this was the baby failing to engage correctly with my cervix). The only thing I could do to get me through the contractions was to make as much noise as possible to try and block out the pain. At that point the home birth was actually a godsend (I didn’t realise it at the time – I was just freaking out that there was no way I could have any pain relief) as I couldn’t have got in the car even if I’d been carried. I was being sick a lot and S had sensibly cleared off to leave me to it. If I’d had a doula or birth companion at this point I think this hour or so would have been a lot less traumatic!
When the midwives finally arrived, they performed an exam and told me I was 7cm dilated – suddenly it didn’t feel like I was making a fuss over nothing. Just being believed that I was well into established labour and that it was nearly time to have our baby was a huge boost. I started to think that maybe I could do it after all. I realise now that the intensity was at least partly down to the baby lying in an awkward position.
Getting into the birth pool was like being embraced by angels – do not underestimate the power of water to relieve pain. I spent the next half an hour flopped over the side of the pool getting to transition pretty quickly. Transition is the bit where you’re ready to push the baby out – fully dilated and ready to rock. It’s renowned for women totally losing the plot/screaming for pain relief/punching their partners and S had been dreading it – I think he genuinely believed that I would be capable of filing for divorce in that window. I do remember feeling a wild, animalistic panic but realising pretty quickly even in the middle that it was just an adrenalin surge rather than real fear, and S and the midwives managed to soothe me. In a strange way it almost felt good to just go with it. At last I was working with my body and not fighting a frightened brain.
The pushing stage was great – hard and painful but psychologically incredible to feel I was actually moving the baby down myself. It felt really effective and although I did get frustrated and tired (I vaguely remember screaming “he’s never coming out!”) it was so exciting to know that we were so close to meeting our little boy. And I finally got gas and air for the last hour, which didn’t seem to help massively with the pain for me, but was great to have something to focus on. I made some highly weird noises though. S described me as “a cow-lion, doing a mooey-roar” which is about right. Our poor neighbours.
E finally turned right at the last minute which felt like transition all over again… I bloody well knew he was nearly out even as the midwives casually chatted and sent Sam upstairs for more towels. I was very much in my own headspace but I still remember hearing “ooh, better get dad back quick, baby’s coming!” and thinking “yes he bloody is!” I think by this point I realised that I’d known more than anyone else what had been going on with my body through the whole of labour – why had I ever doubted myself?
Crowning and the actual delivery had really worried me- I was scared of tearing and the baby getting stuck – but it was actually the simplest part for me. I managed to stop pushing and breathe through it and he pretty much shot out. With hindsight it was an amazing moment – at the time I just felt relieved that it was over and in complete disbelief that I’d managed it.
When the midwives bundled little E onto my chest at roughly 3:10pm and he opened his eyes and looked at me…. there aren’t words in the world that would do justice to that moment. I have never felt anything like it in my life, I don’t think I ever will again. Both S and I were crying, ironically, like babies, and E was just lying there blinking at us, frowning a bit, probably wondering who these stupid people were who were blubbing all over him.
People say that after you give birth, your brain kindly gives you amnesia so you forget about the pain. I can honestly say I haven’t. In spite of having a really successful and amazing homebirth, I still think about that hour and a half where I was lying alone on the bathroom floor and I wonder what I could have done to make it less horrific. I realise now how brilliant it would have been to have somebody there to tell me that I’m not being a baby, and to verify what I already knew (that back to back labours are awkward and may not settle into regular contractions) and to recognise that things were intensifying much more quickly than I or anyone else realised. The midwives were fabulous – I’m sure I got even better support than I would have done in hospital with two midwives all to myself – but they arrived two hours before the birth which left a big chunk of labour to manage on our own with no idea whether what I was feeling was normal or not. I can see why that element would be ok for a second or third time mum, but for a first timer it was a lot to process and I still feel shaky about it if I’m perfectly honest. I would really recommend a doula if you’re thinking of having a homebirth for your first. Or just thinking of having a baby at all – I really get why they’re so effective now.
You make the birth choices that are right for you, and I absolutely chose the right thing for us by picking a homebirth. I wonder now if it was sixth sense that it was going to be an unusual labour best left to its own devices (I’ve no doubt I’d have had all sorts in hospital – and I’d have been shouting for most of it!) and that I wouldn’t be moved when things started kicking off (honestly, I roared if anyone came near me). I had come to terms with the fact that hospital transfer was a very real possibility for me as a first time mum, if I’d ended up needing interventions that would have been fine – I had got my head around pretty much every medical eventuality. For me the shock and the loss of control came with the pain and the realisation that I couldn’t manage it – and that I sensed nobody was taking me seriously. I hated how that made me feel.
It’s funny how much I’ve played over E’s birth in my head since – this need to recount the experience is almost a compulsion and I get now why people feel the need to share. At the same time all the matters is that you’re safe, and your baby is safe. It’s amazing how quickly labour fades into insignificance when you’re faced with caring for a newborn for the first time.
And now that’s off my chest, on with the baby adventures….