I had a funny feeling in my tummy as we went to bed that Saturday night in the middle of a freezing January. Not a pregnancy feeling but a night-before-exams feeling or just-before-a-performance feeling. “Everything’s ready isn’t it babe? If the baby comes, we’re ready aren’t we?” I said to my partner Toby.
The hospital’s date was the coming Wednesday but I thought it was way too early. I knew when I’d conceived: in the middle of Beltaine when the woods were full of bluebells and everything was lush and green and abundant. Me and my sister had rubbed shelanigigs on the trees for good Spring luck and fertility that weekend as we tramped through the woods near our childhood home and I’d wished hard for some of that fertile energy to soak up into me. The hospital’s date had Merryn arriving in the world way too early by my reckoning. The reality was she came that Monday morning and now I think she was simply a 38-week baby… she was born fully cooked and ready.
I woke up that Sunday morning after the nervous feeling with mild cramps in my abdomen. Tobes got me a hot-water bottle. I didn’t think for a moment that I was in labour. All the birth classes and birth workshop stuff I’d done and still I genuinely didn’t have a clue. After 2 hours Tobes said “I think you’re in labour.” No way, I said.
Tobes pulled down a pioneering 1970s book called New Active Birth by Janet Balaskas from my bed-book stash. Along with Ina May Gaskin, Janet was my touchstone for positive birth stories throughout my pregnancy. It looked like one of those early Yoga books my mum had when I was a kid, all leotards and softly tonged hair, and men with beards. Janet Balaskas was a pioneer and brought some sense back to obstetrics. Tobes flipped open a page and thumbed down it with a frown. “Feels like period pains. I think you’re in labour.” Perhaps I was! Holy SHIT!
Tobes leapt into action and ran downstairs to get the birth pool ready. We had planned a home birth not out of any particular desire to give birth at home, but more out of an aversion to being in a hospital, which didn’t seem right either. There didn’t seem to be any happy medium. My mum had looked vaguely nervous when I told her.
I felt okay about it though… I’d read lots of birth stories, talked to lots of women about their experiences, and done a workshop and regular pregnancy yoga classes. I did yoga and pelvic floor exercises every night for the last four or five months of my pregnancy. If I can give one piece of advice to you it is this: pelvic floor, pelvic floor, pelvic floor! Also, liberal use of wheatgerm oil or olive oil (before bed) on your vital birthing parts is great. Slap it on!
So! Now here we were. Shit. I tried to have a shower. Couldn’t relax at all. I felt slightly sick, and sweaty-palmed, as if I had an upset stomach. I’d read that this can happen so I just went with it. Your body empties itself out so this was fine; I just went to the toilet and didn’t freak out about it. Then I went and leant over my pilates ball in our spare room, while Tobes was trying to time my contractions. They were coming pretty often, even at this early stage. I suddenly felt very emotional, and felt that I wanted to see my mum and sister right away, so Tobes called them. They weren’t far away but the feeling passed quite soon, and they made us promise to call if they could do anything or if I just wanted them to come and be there. I just felt quite insular by then though: I just wanted a midwife. With hindsight I should have got them all there for support for Tobes, to help with practical tasks and just the general vibe. Probably a bad judgement call but I don’t like fuss.
Tobes was on the phone to the midwives and I shouted at him to get someone there as soon as he could. I felt anxious now, as my contractions were getting quite full on. I wanted women around who knew what they were doing… living in community would have been great at this point.
My favourite midwife came really soon and was very reassuring. She took my blood pressure and told me I was coping beautifully, which was nice of her. She then told me she couldn’t deliver me at home cos my blood pressure was up. High blood pressure is a possible sign of pre-eclampsia and the NHS really HATE this. They won’t risk home delivery and you can’t blame them. I knew I didn’t have it though. I had had a totally normal pregnancy.
The midwife called Southmead Hospital to say I was coming in. I had chosen Southmead because they had a birthing suite and birth pools. Someone had cocked up some paperwork, though, and when we phoned up, I wasn’t registered to give birth there. So we went to St Michael’s where the one birth pool was occupied, and I gave birth in a hospital room, constantly monitored because of my ‘worrying’ blood pressure. Tsch. I should say at this point that ALL the midwives at St Michael’s that looked after me, without exception, were amazing. The things I have issues with, on reflection, are the system and practices in place.
So back to my birth story… the car journey was mercifully short, with me sat backwards and clinging to the back seat like a dog looking out the rear window. The reasons I did not want to give birth in a hospital were (a) increased risk of intervention and (b) increased risk of infection. I gave birth in a hospital and sure enough, both these things happened, but only to a mild degree. I had a normal, unassisted delivery in the end because I held firm when the “cascade of intervention” started. But I did not have a “natural” birth because I had a hormone drip at one point, and pethadin administered with it. Both these things need not have happened. But I digress.
So, for eight hours after we arrived in hospital, I laboured using breathing and visualizations to get through the contractions. I sat on a pilates ball and pushed against Tobes’ hands which held mine very tightly. This was intense for Tobes, who was exhausted and hungry! I was neither of these things as I was just focusing on the contractions. I turned to one visualization which had come up in my head during one of my ante-natal classes, of a Chinese dragon (like you kind you see in carnival) streaming through the air, and another which was a classic textbook visualization of a flower opening when the contractions reached their peak, which I’d read about in a hypnobirthing book but NEVER thought I would use.
The contractions were painful but not unbearable. More intense than I had anticipated though, and yes, more painful. But just about manageable. I remember saying to Tobes at one point “this is full on.” Apart from that I didn’t say much except to tell midwives that I liked them, or they smelt nice, or to get me another energy drink out of the machine, or to tell Tobes not to leave me. When he had to leave the room for a few minutes to take a break the midwives wouldn’t hold my hands firmly enough: I felt desperate! Didn’t they know I needed more of a firm hand handhold than that?! I was drinking and drinking so much liquid but I couldn’t pee.
After eight hours the midwife on our shift said that she’d like to break my waters, as they were still in tact “to speed thing up a bit.” I couldn’t think of a good reason why not: I had read about midwives doing it and it seemed an innocuous enough thing to do. I was 7 or 8 cm dilated at this point. This was a mistake. A short while after she broke my waters she measured my dilation and then looked as if somebody had died. “I am afraid that you’ve gone back to 3cm,” she said, her face ashen and white. She should have left my waters alone, as it turned out they were partially holding open my cervix. Their protocol is to break waters if women have been in labour a certain amount of time but I know now that it is not necessarily a good idea to do this. Me and Tobes both felt very despondent. I didn’t think I could do another 8 hours like that.
While we were at a low ebb we accepted the midwives’ next plan of a hormone drip to speed up the contractions to get me dilated again and some pethadin – also administered on a drip – for pain relief.
Let me say here that pethadin is a crap and ineffectual drug. It is not a good physical pain reliever and from my experience, and my reflection on my birth journey afterwards, I have concluded that it was introduced to make women compliant. It makes you out of your head but the pain doesn’t go away. I think it has been used to calm the fears of anxious partners ‘cos the women appear calm, and I think it probably makes doctors have an easier time convincing women of whatever intervention that they want her to accept. This sounds harsh but I cannot find any other reason why pethadin would be used as a pain-relieving drug during labour. I have since met medical staff and a cranial osteopath who agree with me. I also think that the pethadin made me feel disassociated from my experience in the few hours after I gave birth to Merryn. I was happy she had arrived safely, but I felt like I just wanted to zone out and was quite happy for Tobes to hold her. This is not like me at all. I guess you can factor in exhausion too, and possibly mild shock from such a momentous experience, but that still doesn’t cover it fully. I also think that Merryn didn’t feed straight away because of the effects of the Pethadin. Crazy to think you spend your whole pregnancy avoiding any kind of stimulant or drug, and then during labour you get an intravenous drip of a strong narcotic!
So after the pethadin drip we laboured on through the night and at one point I had lovely gas and air. I had not wanted it at first but Tobes persuaded me and what a lovely, soothing respite it was for both of us. The deep breathing necessary to inhale it is a great tonic to the tightness and intensity of the contractions. We had a long happy time of deep breathing.
The midwives asked me a few times if I wanted an epidural and encouraged me to have one. I knew at this point that I had to put the brakes on. If I let this journey slip any more out of my control then I could see it slipping all the way down the road to an emergency c-section and something in my brain just clicked into place and I told them I didn’t need one, and I didn’t want one. They didn’t ask me again. I knew I had had a straightforward pregnancy. I knew I was fit and strong, and that there were no complications with my labour. I had read so many birth stories that every sensation I had, I knew had been felt by someone else and that was a great comfort.
I still couldn’t pee, so at one point the midwives inserted a catheter so that I could go. I literally did not feel this at all, and was simply very grateful that that intervention was available, as I knew it was important that I go.
The heart monitor on my tummy kept falling off and the doctors did not like this. They pressured me a bit to have a tiny monitor clipped onto Merryn’s head while she was still inside me. I wasn’t happy about this but was too tired to argue it endlessly and deal with contractions. This was probably the only real low point for me. They clipped it on in the end after a few failed attempts, and me and Tobes ignored them again and went back into our world of labour.
As I was going into transtition I was sick a few times. I had read that this happened so I didn’t mind…
Then morning came, someone said that I was ready to deliver my baby. I was elated. “YES!” went my brain. “Bring it on, this has gone on long enough, let’s finish the job.” Tobes asked me where I wanted to be and I jumped onto all-fours on the bed, leaning over a bean bag that Tobes has thoughtfully chucked into the car as we packed for hospital.
I didn’t really hear what anyone was saying now, and I had no idea how many people were in the room. I just went for it. I felt an enormous pressure and I just went into myself and made some loud bellowing noises. I didn’t feel like I had to “push” exactly: it was more a huge pressure release that I had to go with. Pretty soon I heard someone say, “the head’s here already!” After 20 hours in labour I think they were surprised how quickly this bit was progressing. Pretty soon, Merryn’s head was out and I heard the midwives saying: “Vicki, push into your bum?!!!” This made no sense to me whatsoever: whoever decided that was a helpful physiological command needs to rethink their strategy. Merryn was definitely not going to come out of my bum.
Then another midwife said: “Vicki, you’ve got to change position to get her shoulders out.” I had absolutely no clue as to what other position I might get into so I knelt up on the bed in a slightly confused state, put my hands on one of the midwife’s shoulders and said to her: “I can’t sit down now, I’ll squash my baby!” and with that Merryn slithered out, shoulders, body and everything. One of the midwifes caught her and she was put to my chest after a brisk rubdown. The whole delivery took 25 minutes. I remember thinking how dark she looked, with her dark downy fluff and olive skin, and how much she looked like my dad’s side of the family. I couldn’t conceive in my brain how something that size had just dropped out of me. It all seemed very surreal. It didn’t feel like I had just delivered this healthy, bonny little package of baby girl. I didn’t see them cut the chord so I have no idea when that happened… it was all efficient flurries and toweling down, and clearing up. Bless them.
The midwives had already asked me when I checked into hospital if they could give me the injection that releases the placenta straightaway after the birth. I couldn’t have cared less about the placenta at that point so I agreed and actually, it was amazing. They literally counted to 3 and placenta slithered out. I was too weak to think about getting up to look at it but afterwards, I was gutted no-one had showed it to me. I really wanted to see this amazing organ that had been living inside me for 9 months. Tobes has a look and said it was huge. After 27 hours of labour though, neither of us was in any state to think about keeping it or how we might store it! I told the midwives it was okay to let it go.
Merryn was a healthy, beautiful little girl. Our little otter. I stayed in a few days because she didn’t start to feed until the Friday. During that time I constantly expressed colostrum and then proper milk when it came in. The midwives were absolutely amazing and endlessly patient: kneeling beside my head with pipettes while I expressed tiny amounts of colostrum for what felt like hours. Tobes also helped me with this. Without exception every midwife who cared for me was an angel.
During the next few days that we stayed in hospital to get her breastfeeding properly, the midwives (and Tobes) both – separately – witnessed Merryn have a “dusky episode”. No, not a vampire moment (!), but apparently something quite common with newborn babies where they go a little bit grey and stop breathing for a couple of seconds. I didn’t witness any of these “episodes” and was very skeptical, even blasé, about it. Merryn was such a good colour, and so well filled out and healthy-looking, that I wasn’t the slightest bit worried about her… but St Michael’s deals with a lot of high risk pregnancies and a lot of very ill babies, and they are working at the front line of maternity care. They take the worst possible scenario and treat each case as if it were that: they have no option but to do this if they are to provide first class health care. I understand this, but it was frustrating for me to have us – a normal pregnancy and health, full-term baby – caught up in this cycle of over-preventative medicine. Because of the dusky episodes, the midwives ran loads of tests to see if Merryn had picked up a little infection somewhere. All tests were normal except one, which was ‘inconclusive’. We eventually consented to a lumbar puncture (tiny sample of spinal colum fluid taken out with a little injection) to check she had not picked up Meningitus in hospital. I told the paediatrician (in tears) that I was very unhappy about the procedure, before I consented to it. She had three children herself and allayed my fears. The baby across the ward from us had picked up Meningitus somehow. So we agreed to it. In the event Merryn did not utter so much as a whimper. And she didn’t have Meningitus. (I should say here that all the paedriatricians we met at St Michael’s were dedicated and committed individuals who I have a lot of respect for). So those few days were more stressful than they needed to have been, and for a couple of days, Merryn had antibiotics administered as a precaution, but ultimately she was fine (I believe she was always fine anyway… but we’ll never know for sure if she had an infection or not). I gave her probiotics with expressed breastmilk when she was a few weeks older to try to counteract those early anti-biotics.
The one thing I would say about labour, though, that you need to stand firm if the tide of intervention starts when you weren’t expecting it. Take your time to make decisions. Ask for half an hour to talk to your birth partner and think about your options. Nothing in labour happens quickly. You can ask for time if you need to think something over. As long as you feel you made your decisions independently and without pressure, you will feel absolutely fine about whatever happens… and at the end, you will have a lovely baby, no matter what. Don’t be afraid. We live in a country where we are very lucky and the infant mortality is extremely low. You have the best care possible. Your belief in yourself will go a long way to making your birth story a positive one…