I don’t know about you, but I love a birth story. Perhaps it’s because while lots of the details of people’s lives are increasingly accessible via social media and reality TV, labour and birth feel like areas of life that are still shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. Or maybe I’m just nosey!
Birth is such an awe inspiring and powerful thing – regardless of how it happens – that it deserves to be spoken about. Women who birth deserve to be championed. And there is a huge amount of power in the sharing of birth stories, too. Real stories, not the dramatised examples so often seen on film and TV. Reading positive birth stories and learning that birth can be a peaceful, calm event and not something to be feared was fundamentally important to how I coped with my first labour, so I’m sharing my story in the hope it can help, too.
Before I had Soren, I had been utterly terrified of the idea of labour. I’m not sure where this fear came from, but I know that looking at my family’s medical encyclopaedia, aged 5, at the images of a woman looking fairly uncomfortable – to my young mind – while birthing, didn’t help; nor did family stories of birth (my own included) whereby the general consensus was it was painful, you were out of control and it was something you just had to get through. None of the births I saw on TV or in film helped me feel that birth was something that I, with a seemingly low pain threshold, could get through.
It can seem as though anyone with a birth story wants to glorify the gore and pain. Let me be clear – I’m categorically not saying that if you do have a painful or difficult birth, you shouldn’t tell your story, but I think these details without any context can be dangerous. I’ve never understood why there’s not a more positive, celebratory view of birth. Labour is possibly one of the greatest physical and mental challenges we can face, yet we can (and do) manage it. But it takes preparation and support. No-one would attempt to run a marathon without a great deal of training, including developing a positive mindset. I’m not sure anyone who has successfully completed a marathon began it thinking it was going to be the hardest, most painful thing they could do, or that they couldn’t do it. Yet this is the mindset society so often thrusts on expectant mothers.
Hypnobirting played a huge part of changing my mindset. I’d read Mindful Mama by Sophie Fletcher, and listened to the accompanying MP3 nightly during my pregnancy with Soren, and it was great, but this time round I wanted a refresher. I used the Positive Birth Company digital course, part of the attraction being the private Facebook group where positive birth stories are shared, adding to a font of positive mindset changing information designed to change the way we view labour and birth from something potentially scary and hard, to something positive, which our bodies are designed to do.
I loved the digital course, and felt so empowered and calmed by the knowledge and tools it gave me that I actually started to look forward to giving birth! I felt confident that the baby would come when it was ready and that I’d cope with whatever the labour threw at me. Or so I thought!
It’s amazing just how powerful the negative conditioning is, though; even the idea that the baby should come “on time”. Despite my best efforts to stay relaxed, by a few days past my due date I was starting to feel impatient. This was partly because I was so incredibly uncomfortable by that point – although my pregnancy had been healthy and smooth sailing, I had a lot of rib pain and heartburn all the way through, and my husband Kris had been away working a lot which meant I’d been solo parenting for weeks at a time. I was knackered, and I was done with being pregnant.
It begins… or so I thought!
However, I had been having lots of Braxton Hicks and intermittent period style cramps for the week before the birth. Overnight on the Saturday (40+3), I felt a few stronger surges and a trickle of waters. I got super excited that something was happening! I got up, put a pad in and went back to bed. I fell back asleep and …nothing else happened. I was a bit disappointed, but called my local maternity unit (where I was planning to give birth) the next morning to let them know, and they asked me to come in to check whether it was amniotic fluid.
On Sunday 10th (40+4) I still had intermittent period style cramps but nothing much else. On going in to hospital a midwife confirmed that it was waters, and that although there had been no more since, the baby would need to be born within 36 hours. She booked me in for a check up the following morning at 9am, but given my cramping and the trickle of waters was very confident that they’d be seeing me later on that night.
I went home and at 4pm the cramps began getting stronger. I didn’t want to hope that this was really it happening, but I was excited. At 5pm I started to monitor the surges using an app. Soren and I sat snuggled up together under a blanket and watched The Lego Movie while Kris made us tea, and I remember feeling so happy and relaxed and excited. It’s a strange feeling, potentially being on the cusp of your life changing forever. I wanted to soak up those last moments as a family of three as best I could.
The surges continued all evening, and we got my mum to come out to the house so that she could be there to look after Soren. They carried on all night, strengthening in intensity. They were manageable, though, and I used a TENS machine and bounced on the birthing ball, breathing through the increasing waves. By around 8am they were coming every three minutes, so I was confident that this was it and that we’d be having a baby that day. Kris had been sleeping off and on throughout the night, but I woke him up and he was a great help, talking me through the surges. I was coping pretty well, apart from feeling quite tired. We got ready; I had a lovely hot shower and packed up the last few bits and pieces I’d need and headed for the car.
Weirdly, from then on in everything seemed to die down. By the time we got to the hospital the surges were back down to 5 minutes – at one point 7 minutes – apart. The midwife on shift took some observations and said I should just go back home and see how things progress.
This is where things started to go a bit awry, for me. In hindsight, I probably should have just gone home, but having laboured all night it felt like a backwards step and I couldn’t – or didn’t want to – accept that my labour wasn’t “progressing” like I thought it had been. Logically, I knew that it could take a long time, but I was already so tired and I *had* been in active labour, damn it! It’s here that I feel like I wasn’t mentally as well prepared as I had thought I had been.
The midwife went to take advice from the Dr on shift and led us to a room. By the time the Dr saw me my surges had ramped up again and were coming every 4 minutes, then every 3. The Dr was happy for me to stay, however within a about 10 minutes they were back down to 5 and 6… even 10 minutes apart. It was beyond frustrating, and not helped by the midwife’s continuing assertion that I “wasn’t in labour”.
I know that she meant I wasn’t in active labour, but hearing “you’re not in labour” every time she came into the room was soul destroying. The surges weren’t unmanageable, but after 18 hours with no sleep they were starting to wear me down. For some reason this midwife was almost like kryptonite to my contractions: every time she came into the room I felt them space out and die down. I felt like she thought I was making them up, that I was wasting their time.
Even still, we decided to stay put and set the room up to be comfy as best we could, with essential oils in the diffuser, snacks and music. And we managed to have a laugh, despite the frustrating circumstances. I stood and swayed my way through the erratic surges, which ranged from coming every 4 – occasionally every 3 minutes – to 7, all afternoon.
Things hadn’t really changed much by teatime, when my own midwife came on shift. I was totally fed up and disheartened, and given the need for the baby to be out 36 hours after the waters had leaked, anxious that I’d end up with an induction which would mean no birthing pool. I was also pretty knackered, given that I’d had no sleep since Saturday night.
I had a few options, though, and I’m very grateful to have been in a midwife led unit that allowed me to choose. The options were: the induction process could begin that evening, meaning I’d be hooked up to monitors and in bed and not able to move around; or we could leave it overnight and see what happened and be induced in the morning. Both options meant no birthing pool, though, which had been so vital to how I’d coped when having Soren. I couldn’t believe I was facing an induction, and although I’d heard stories of people having positive experiences, I was really worried about how I’d cope with being strapped to a bed and monitored, considering I was finding it hard to stay still during my (at that point) comparatively mild surges.
My midwife suggested that I go for a walk, and then get some painkillers which might help me to relax enough to sleep and kick things off naturally. Kris and I set off outside in the dusk, stomping around the town for a good hour and trying to be as positive as we could. We decided he should go to my mum’s for a rest in case it was going to take a lot longer.
She cheerfully greeted me with “right, lets’s have a baby!” and my whole mood started to shift – I felt like she believed I could do it, that I *would* do it.
When I got back to the unit the head midwife came in to give me my painkillers. She cheerfully greeted me with “right, lets’s have a baby!” and my whole mood started to shift – I felt like she believed I could do it, that I *would* do it. I took the painkillers, and lay down to try and doze.
About 15 minutes after I got a strong surge. I tried to lie down through them, but I had to get up, and it felt obvious to me that these were different. After about half an hour, I lost my show and the rest of my waters. Then things really ramped up, and the surges came thick and fast. It was actually, finally happening!
I hadn’t been examined during all of this time because of the risk of infection, but the midwife could tell from feeling my bump and timing surges that I was in active labour. Things seemed to happen really quickly after this. She left me to go and fill the pool and I called Kris to let him know he could come back in. Surprised and delighted (and looking a bit dazed) he arrived back in time to help me be wheeled through to the birthing pool room – there was no way I could walk at this point! I remember feeling loads of pressure and thinking I wasn’t going to make it to the pool.
As soon as I got into the birthing suite I practically dove into the pool, and with the next surge got the urge to push. I remember the midwife calmly telling me to go with my body. The water didn’t feel as warm as I’d remembered from Soren’s birth, everything felt much more real than the other-worldly memories I have of birth first time around. I guess I still felt a little bit in shock that this was actually happening and I wouldn’t have to be induced! On the next surge, I felt the baby’s body moving down through my body, and finally remembered I could get gas and air: I took some, and within one more surge the head was out. I reached down to feel it, this velvet smooth little ball between my legs, and marvelled at the capabilities of the human body. My body. It was the most surreal feeling, and it seemed to take forever for the next few surges and her body to be be born, but finally, at 10.36pm, she was here.
And she was a SHE! Although I initially didn’t realise that – I thought she was a boy. I had been convinced all through pregnancy that we were having another boy. I picked my baby up out of the water and cradled her, wiping the white goop from her face. Her little purple un-breathing face. The wobbly little creature in my arms was being worryingly unresponsive. I remember watching in disbelief as my baby was rubbed with a towel, looking at Kris for some kind of explanation as to what was happening… but she finally came to. It was a scary few moments – I’m not sure if it was minutes or seconds until she started breathing, but I’ve never felt relief like it.
She started to cry and I called her baby boy and the midwife asked me to check again… in my defence, at first glance it’s easy to make that mistake!
Unfortunately her cord had broken when I picked her up, so we didn’t have much skin to skin time in the pool and obviously no delayed cord clamping, both of which are encouraged to allow the baby to receive as much of the nutrients and oxygen left in the placenta as possible. But we got up into bed she latched on straight away. She was safe and I was no longer in labour, no longer facing induction… I’d done it! I honestly can’t even begin to describe how happy I was.
I was checked over and had a small tear but thankfully didn’t need stitches, so just lay there, wrapped in a soggy bathrobe on cloud nine, staring at this new tiny human and her perfect little face.
It’s kind of ironic that for all of my fears about how I’d cope, I only had gas and air for the final few pushes and was in the pool for all of ten minutes. And although her birth overall doesn’t feel like a hugely positive experience, given how much of it I felt demoralised, tired, and like nothing was happening, from the point at which I was in active labour, it was great. I’m proud of myself for managing to stay calm and breathe through even the most intense surges. Even still, I’ve grappled with weird feelings of disappointment post-birth, which really surprised me. I couldn’t have been happier with the outcome, obviously, and part of me feels entitled and silly for these feelings, given Marnie and I are both healthy. But I do believe that our experiences in birth matter. It’s a lot to go through, even if you do end up with a healthy baby.
Did your birth go the way you hoped it would? If not, please consider speaking to someone. No matter how big or small your trauma or worries, a good first port of call might be your midwife or health visitor, or even your GP. There’s no right or wrong way to go through these things, so make sure you look after yourself as much as you can and don’t be shy in speaking about anything that doesn’t feel right. Yes, it’s important to have a healthy baby, but your experience matters equally.
Here are some links to organisations that might be useful:
PANDAS Foundation – support service for parents and families suffering prenatal/antenatal and postnatal mental illnesses.
MIND – The mental health charity
SAMH – Scottish Association for Mental Health