I’m struggling to remember what it was like being pregnant, so I thought this had better get written before the rest of my brain slips away! Please be warned that while this is a positive story, I’m going to talk about things from the beginning that might not be for the squeamish. But if you’re a regular reader, you knew that already, right? There also might be some sensitive issues if you’re an expectant mum.
I knew that he was going to arrive early. People didn’t listen – Patrick even booked the two weeks of holiday he’d saved up for the fortnight after Barnaby’s due date. I had been three weeks early, and I was convinced that my first baby was going to be the same.
On Thursday, I had my usual check-up with the midwife planned. I’ve been really lucky – Clair is one of those people who is just so natural in her job – she makes you feel utterly reassured that everything you’re thinking and feeling is normal, and that you are strong enough to take on anything that can be thrown at you. She did the usual – measured the fundal height (the distance from the top of the bump to the pubic bone) to check the baby’s size, and had a good listen to his heartbeat.
The thing about pregnancy is that it’s a full-on assault on every part of your body. All kinds of weird things happen, and you’re waved away with “aah, it’ll be over once the baby has arrived”, after taking your blood pressure for the gazillionth time, of course. It’s a strange experience – everyone is reassuring and positive but not entirely helpful! The most bizarre experience was when Barney decided to stop kicking me for a day. The triage nurse told me to come straight in to the surgery, which of course terrified the life out of me. After a listen-in with a Doppler quickly revealed that he was just chilling out at the back of my abdomen, I apologised to the doctor for being *that* kind of mother. He responded with “no! Perfectly understandable if you’re worried there’s a dead baby inside you.” Um… Wha? Fair, but a little to the point.
Anyway, my random symptom of the day was, how do I put this? A little leakage. They warn you that some women think that their waters might have broken when really the extreme pressure on your pelvic floor is making you pee a little. Nice. Our NCT teacher said that was nonsense – that you can always tell the difference between wetting yourself and your waters breaking. So, I brought the matter up with the midwife, and she suggested that I see how it went, and go to the maternity ward if I continued to feel that my waters were leaking.
The next day, I can’t explain it, but I just felt that he was coming. I had a small list of essentials still to buy, and went out and bought them. That evening, we went to the maternity ward so that I could be checked out.
I was examined by a midwife, and she confirmed that my hind waters were indeed broken. I was keen to have as natural a birth as possible, and wanted to know the options available to me. I struggled to remember the BRAIN mnemonic taught to me by our NCT teacher – Benefits and Risks of the treatment offered; what Alternatives are available; what my Instincts were telling me, and what would happen if we did Nothing.
The registrar working that evening spoke, unfortunately, very broken English. She performed an ultrasound, and kept on referring to the “afterbirth” – a phrase we rarely use to describe the placenta before the baby is born. She told me that I was at risk of infection, and that I had to be induced. I asked her if there were any alternatives. She stared at me blankly and said that there was no alternative. I am usually a stronger person than this, but she honestly worried me into thinking that something terrible would happen if I did not go along with everything she was telling me to do.
The first stage of induction was a pessary containing the hormone prostaglandin. This is used to soften the cervix, and it was explained to me that this was in the hope that labour would start spontaneously. I was to have this pessary inserted, and if there was no development after 12 hours, another would be administered. If it were possible at that stage to break my waters fully, that would be the plan, and if not they would review the situation, with the possibility of a caesarean section should things not progress further.
This resulted in my first experience of gas and air. That stuff is incredible – it’s like being happy-drunk almost instantly. The feeling soon wore off. I had a series of long waits; no progress and – most memorably – a midwife who decided to tell me that the oxytocin drip, the next stage of the induction process, was incredibly painful. I got myself into a bit of a state at that stage – all my careful planning in my head about how I was going to avoid tearing by having a slow second stage was dashed. I spent late Saturday night in hysterical tears, convinced that I did not want the baby any more; that I just needed it out of me. I think the midwives who were working (Ms Helpful had since gone home) were a bit worried at that stage, as I was firmly stating that I would not be having the drip.
Sunday came, and what my family lovingly refers to as “Hospital Becca” had appeared. Please excuse my icky third person here, but Hospital Becca is insanely paranoid, borne out of too many “you’ll go home tomorrow” hospital situations, and convinced that the staff are conspiring to keep her there indefinitely. I was certain that I would be stuck there for three weeks, like my Granny had been when waiting to give birth to my uncle, 30-odd years ago. Sunday night brought more waiting, and one of my ward-mates went into unattended, established labour in the ward – it was more than ten minutes before we found someone who could help her.
Being told that you can’t go home because you need to be monitored, and then not seeing anyone for nine hours tipped me over – I rang Patrick and told him that I was coming home. I then proceeded to walk the hallways of the hospital for the next couple of hours. Stopping into the chaplaincy brought me back to earth with a bump. They have a book of remembrance on display, and seeing so many birth dates and dates of passing only days apart was a proverbial slap – stop whining and be grateful that you are healthy. I didn’t realise until the next day, but Patrick drove to the hospital and slept in the car park that night.
I managed to chill out and get some sleep. I had been placed on a waiting list to have my waters broken, but women who were in labour kept on coming in and needing the rooms (the bastards!), so I kept waiting. Patrick came in to visit, and as we were laughing at this video … Whoosh! Oh yeah, there’s a big difference between peeing and waters breaking! Thankfully, this moved me quickly into a delivery suite, where contractions quickly started. Because they had started to induce me, they wanted to keep monitoring the baby. My plan to stay upright as much as possible so that gravity could help baby come out? Out the window.
I started with gas and air, hoping that would be plenty, but with an open mind to more pain relief if required. After a few hours of contractions, the midwife kept saying that she would have to start me on the oxytocin drip soon, because the contractions were not strong enough. As she said this, I began to think that while I felt ok, if they got much stronger I’d definitely need an epidural. I changed into a hospital gown, and had to quench my thirst with swills of water – no swallowing. The anaesthetist was really old-school – fifty-something, super well-spoken and unbelievably laid-back. I don’t remember exactly how, but it didn’t work the first time. The contractions became stronger, and I started to struggle. The anaesthetist was called back and fixed things. I remember thinking that he needed to be immensely rewarded in some way, and said “take his name!” Patrick was worried that I was planning an official complaint! I guess I can sound a little scary when grunting like a warthog.
As soon as the epidural was in place, the midwife examined me and discovered that I was almost fully-dilated and ready to start pushing. I didn’t know before, but the pain relief is actually meant to be there for the first stage of labour, and so I had managed to get through almost all of that stage with simply gas and air. Plenty of women manage to do this with nothing at all, but for me, it felt like a mini triumph.
Pushing went on, and on, and on. The baby was being monitored using a device on the top of his head, so Patrick could see the end of this device as I pushed, but when I stopped, it would disappear again. The level of anaesthesia was perfect – I felt no pain, but I could feel what was going on and knew when to push. After a couple of hours, they called in a doctor to examine me, and established that the baby was not progressing any further. The decision was made to use a ventouse to help him out – a suction cap that attaches to the baby’s head. While it still involves an episiotomy – a small cut to the perineum to help avoid tearing – it definitely felt like a preferable option to forceps.
This was the point at which the epidural was the greatest gift – the episiotomy and the final pushes were painless, and my beautiful little boy was born. Immediately, they saw the reason that he had got stuck – the umbilical cord was wrapped twice around his neck. Seeing him so grey and so still was extremely upsetting for Patrick, but for some reason I felt that everything was ok. They checked him over, weighed him and brought him back to me, and I had my perfect son laid upon my chest, ready to feed for the first time.
I have mixed feelings about the birth experience. On the one hand, I am utterly grateful for how smoothly it went, that I didn’t have any scary moments. I do, however, feel like I missed out on the experience I had hoped for. I genuinely believed that if I did everything I was supposed to do, everything would go the way I wanted it to. I was religious about the “upward, forward and open” position throughout pregnancy, on the promise that it would get the baby into the optimum position for labour. I felt awfully clever because I had recognised that I might struggle with the pain, or I might not, so I was open to a variety of pain relief options. I felt that as an informed patient, I could stand up for myself and make my own choices about my healthcare. I didn’t consider that I would fail when faced with a doctor who refused to consider her patient’s wishes and concerns.
Going forward, I know that I would still love to have more children. My attitudes towards other things have changed immensely, though. I used to consider homebirth as more of a lifestyle choice (homebirth, extended breastfeed, co-sleep, babywear), that didn’t grant modern medicine the respect it deserved. I was incredibly wrong. A relaxed mother has value that cannot be measured, and, should the extremely unlikely worst happen, it takes longer to gather the right medical staff for surgery than it does to travel to my local hospital. No, an epidural would not be an option, but I feel confident now that I could’ve got through the whole labour without it, especially if I had been free to move and make use of water, rather than being forced to lie down for the days leading up to it.
I would also be keen to have a doula. Just knowing that someone who is knowledgeable and employed by you is there is an idea that fills me with confidence. I feel sure that having such a person would have made me more confident in the decision to start/refuse induction.
I suppose that’s it really. It wasn’t a bad experience, it wasn’t the smoothest-sailing. I think that’s how the majority are, but that doesn’t make for exciting watching on One Born Every Minute!
I’ve heard a lot in recent months about women feeling “robbed” of their positive childbirth experience, and I can understand that feeling. Because I was frightened into admitting myself to hospital; because I frightened myself into having an epidural that might not have been necessary, I may have missed out on elements of childbirth that are fulfilling and – dare I say? – enjoyable. But we will never know. The most important lessons I have learnt are that I have more strength than I possibly imagined, and that old favourite: want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.