This is a post I’ve written over and over in my head. When I finally jotted down a draft, it was over a year ago. I read it over and over. It was a personal memoir, but something I had always hoped to share. I didn’t know if it was an “overshare” or something I should just keep for myself, but time and time again I’ve felt compelled to share my story in the hope that it resonates with someone else. Maybe just one person who reads it, like I have done when reading similar stories, will breathe that sigh of relief that says:
“Thank you. I am not alone”.
So, if you’re wondering what I’m on about, I want to share with you my birthing journey. It’s long and tedious at times, but bear with me if you’d like to get to the happy bit where I get two crazy awesome kids at the end. Oops! Spoiler alert!
The very beginning:
At twenty-five, I had been married for 8 weeks when I found out I was pregnant. My husband and I were excited and happy at the prospect of becoming parents. The idea of birth itself to me seemed foreign and I viewed it as a means to an end. I wanted a baby and I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to get from Point A to Point B. Point A being baby in belly and Point B being baby in arms.
So, come my first antenatal appointment, I was presented with a pregnancy and birthing book. I took it home and pored over the pages with a mixture of intrigue and horror. Much of what was mentioned was in regards to potential complications in both pregnancy and birth. I burst into tears and closed the book. I was terrified. I didn’t know much in the way of birthing, however I was determined to give it a try. Well hey, didn’t look like I had much of a choice, did it?
Then, upon my sister’s recommendation, I booked my husband and I into a weekend getaway featuring the CalmBirth course. I came away inspired, empowered, and most importantly, educated. I threw myself into birthing with zeal. I talked to everyone I knew about birthing until they were sick of me, and I read many publications about natural birthing. I became quite disenchanted with the western view of birth and in particular, the overuse of medical interventions in an otherwise natural, physiological event.
(If you think this is an anti-medicine, anti-intervention type rant, please, read on).
I could quite honestly go on for hours about the lead up to my first child’s birth, but I’ll cut to the chase and give a brief run-down of the birth itself.
My labour was spontaneous, coming a few days after the estimated due date. It progressed in a fairly textbook fashion. After some time, it got pretty strong and my waters broke. I was dilated to 8cm, meaning I had roughly two more centimetres to go until my body was ready to allow my baby to make its way down the birth canal.
From that point, things went a little pear-shaped (and I’m not referring to my postpartum body). After my waters broke, I was having strong abdominal pain even between contractions. The midwife used the doppler and we heard a worryingly low heart rate from the baby. The situation turned into an emergency fairly quickly and an obstetrician explained to me that they would need to get the baby out pronto. She informed me that if I was fully dilated once they wheeled me into theatre, they would attempt an instrumental delivery. If not, an emergency c-section would need to be performed.
The latter was true, unsurprisingly given the circumstances, and I underwent an emergency c-section under general anaesthetic. I woke up shivering and was told I had a healthy baby. I found out she was a girl. I was dazed and very sore, but eager to bond with my beautiful baby, who fed hungrily.
My dreams of a natural birth felt shattered. I felt that I’d had the worst of both worlds. I’d endured almost an entire labour without the reward and relief of pushing out my baby. On top of that, I now had to recover from major abdominal surgery.
The physical recovery was difficult and made harder by my lack of emotional recovery. I felt so indescribably disappointed. I felt that my attempt to birth my child had failed. The reason for the emergency c-section was a placental abruption, a rare occurrence where the placenta detaches prematurely from the uterus, thereby cutting off the baby’s life source including oxygen. Despite knowing this, I felt no closure. My feelings of disappointment remained, giving way only to feelings of guilt for a lack of gratefulness at having a healthy baby.
People’s well-intentioned comments such as, “the baby’s healthy, that’s the main thing”, invalidated my experience and left me feeling that I was merely a vessel for my child and my feelings and physical wellbeing didn’t matter. Of course, I’m aware that people meant well and it was true, I was fortunate to have my baby. But I knew that already. I wasn’t in need of reminders to be grateful. I was in need of a period of grace in which I could grieve my lost dreams for myself and my baby and my damaged body. I wasn’t awake when she came into the world, and I felt a huge hole in my heart at missing her first moments earthside. I didn’t know who first held her, what words were spoken to her. I didn’t know what she saw. I didn’t know if she cried.
Physically, I felt like I would never walk again. And of course, I did, but the process felt painstakingly slow and unfair. There is nothing quite so disheartening for a mother as the inability to take care of your own child. In the first few days, standing was a challenge and as such, my husband was left to do the nappy changes and bring the baby to me for feeding. I felt pretty useless. I should mention that this is not the experience all mothers have after a c-section. Unfortunately my body seems to have an aversion to most strong pain medications, so I was only taking paracetamol shortly after major surgery.
I was exhausted from the labour, the anaesthetic, the surgery, the feeding and the lack of sleep. Not to mention the excitement that comes from welcoming your first newborn baby into the world. I couldn’t sleep!
In the months that passed, I had a lot of difficulty breastfeeding. Fortunately I had a lot of support and was able to persevere despite the pain it was causing me and the feeding issues my baby presented with. When she was around four months old, we discovered she had a severe tongue and lip tie. It was incredibly frustrating that it wasn’t picked up earlier, but we had it revised (which was an awful thing to experience as a parent), and we were able to work on lactation issues a bit more after that.
At this point, I’m thinking that any potential parent who may be reading this is just about ready to book in for permanent sterilisation. I must stress that these are only the “struggly” bits of the journey. The good bits more than make up for the crap parts, and nothing worth it is ever easy… Yada yada yada. You know what I mean. I’m just pointing out the prickly parts from a pretty awesome journey.
When I fell pregnant with my second child (she decided to go AGAIN?! You ask… Yep!) Well, I realised I needed a bit of work if I was going to approach this birth with a positive mindset. I found a great perinatal counsellor and did some sessions to assist me to deal with the unresolved feelings I had surrounding my first birth. At that point, I wasn’t even calling it a birth. It didn’t feel right. I felt like saying “surgery resulting in a child”. I felt embarrassed and ashamed to use the term “birth” around mothers who had pushed a baby out of their private bits. Nowadays I’m comfortable in saying that it is of course a birth. She just came out the sunroof.
So I had some counselling. I laughed and cried and moved backwards and forwards often in my thinking and I got to a place where I felt ready to tackle a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean). I booked into a birth centre within a public hospital and went through the hoops they had set up for their “pro VBAC” program. I say that because whilst many places claim to support VBACs, a woman attempting a VBAC is treated painfully different to a woman who is a first time birther or one who had previously had only vaginal birth/s. At one point I had a midwife explain to me that I wouldn’t know when I was in labour as I had never experienced it before. I reminded her that I had in fact gone through an entire labour and was well-aware of how it felt (how could one forget?) thank ya very much.
So, I was all prepped and going through the variety of emotions my mind had in store for me: excitement, anxiety, self-doubt, anticipation. Right at the end of the pregnancy, we moved house. Brilliant idea. Unfortunately it just worked out that way and there wasn’t much we could do about it. My “due date” came and went. Bub stayed put.
I was under pressure from the hospital to “get things started”. I longed to be in a European country where “due month” is often the more appropriate approach to suspecting when a woman will give birth. Well, here in the Western world, my baby wasn’t jumping through any hoops (or so it seemed), so the pressure was on. And it was mounting.
About 7 days post estimation date, I went into pre-labour just prior to going in for monitoring at the hospital. After hours laid up in a bed (on my back, which is another gripe story) and without any dinner and my husband driving around with an exhausted toddler, the pre-labour fizzled out and I was left exhausted, disheartened and instructed by one eager young doctor that if I didn’t agree to get things started, I would basically be choosing not to go home with a live baby. Wow. Apparently the idea of a normal pregnancy being anywhere from 37-42 weeks was NOT common practise. I resented being treated like a microwave oven who was supposed to pop out the goods on command.
My mind and body became increasingly stressed. I lamented with my doula and she helped me a great deal to get to a better place. I also relied on my faith and was fortunate enough to have a conversation with a lovely obstetrician who was very reassuring.
Every year we have a special Mother’s Day breakfast at my mum’s church, and this year I had envisioned being at the breakfast with my little newborn bundle. The night before the breakfast, the guest speaker was staying at my parents’ house (where I also happened to be staying as it was closer to the hospital). It just so happens that she is a midwife. I was convinced that I would labour in the night and have a semi-accidental homebirth with her as my impromptu midwife.
Well, the breakfast came and went and I happily indulged in food for two. Many of the women looked at me, their eyes wide with disbelief at my girth. Being quite short in stature, my belly seemed to have been attempting a new Guinness world record of how far outwards it could stretch. It was a sight to see as you really couldn’t tell from behind that I was pregnant, until I would swing around with this enormous belly, prompting members of the public to gasp and at times, make comments and gender predictions.
I was a bit disheartened but convinced that the baby would make an appearance eventually. And so it was that 9 days after my “estimated due date”, I went into spontaneous labour. I called my doula to inform her that after my many false alarms, this was it. I gave my daughter a bath after dinner, pausing intermittently to breathe. Then she got ready for bed with my mum and I kissed her goodnight and goodbye for a little while.
I asked my doula to come to the house and shortly afterwards, I decided to go to the hospital. Our doula drove her car and my husband drove me whilst I struggled with the idea of keeping a seatbelt on. I really wanted to be upright and the contractions seemed to be coming pretty thick and fast.
I was relieved to find that the birth centre was unoccupied, so we set up camp there. I remember thinking “wow! Is it my imagination or is this labour a lot faster than my previous one?” I allowed the midwife to check me and I was about 3cm. She then happily left us to our own devices.
I quickly discovered the joys of the double shower head. Our doula showered warm water on my back while my husband held another shower head to my belly. The warm running water was so soothing.
At one point, I thought I would try a bath. The bath was filled up and I heard the midwife ask my husband, “did you put oil in there?” “Yes!” He exclaimed, proudly. Using his initiative, he had put in a few drops of the calming lavender oil that I had brought along.
At that point, I heard the midwife explain that you can’t use oil in the bath in case it’s a water birth and the oil would get into the baby’s eyes. Semi-deflated, he assisted in emptying the entire bath and refilling it. I then got in the bath for a total of about 4 seconds and decided it wasn’t for me. Not this labour. My last labour I had relished the relaxing bath, but this time I needed to be standing. I did pause to consider how my dad would feel about the amount of water being wasted on this exercise. I pictured him saying “are you done with this shower being on?”, and it made me giggle.
My husband began taking some photos as we had totally forgotten to get any labour photos last time. He snapped the camera and a huge flash went off in my face just as a strong contraction swept through me. “Turn the flash off!!” I demanded. Within seconds, a number of flashes went off, blinding me and enraging me enough to yell “turn the (censored) flash OFF!!!”
“I’m sorry, I thought you said to turn it ON” he pleaded. The contraction passed and I apologised. “Sorry babe, it was just right in my face”. He looked a little afraid to move.
After labouring a while, he encouraged me to lay down to get some rest. I protested and stated that I wanted to stand up, but I was also getting tired and didn’t know how long the labour would last, so I relented.
As soon as I lay down, I felt this enormous sense of pressure and said “I think the baby is coming down!!” It turned out that it was the waters breaking. And boy did they break! There was water for days!
Despite the dimly lit room, the midwife stated that she had seen some meconium. She checked my dilation: 8 cm. She used the Doppler to hear the baby’s heart rate. I heard the familiar slow “thud.. thud” and my heart sank. I thought “here we go again!” She informed me that I would need to be transferred to the delivery suite and I obliged willingly. It seemed something was going a little haywire.
Given my overwhelming desire to be standing, and my body doing hard work to push out this baby, I was not at all comfortable at being put on a bed and having every man and his dog have a good prod at me. Doctors and anaesthetists started sticking things in lots of places and I recall asking for an epidural “I think I deserve it”, I thought. The nurses nodded sympathetically and told me they would get me one, even though they knew full well they would be doing nothing of the sort.
After what felt like a lifetime, I was informed I was going to be put under a general anaesthetic (again!) in order to deliver my baby.
When I awoke, it felt like no time had passed. I was soon aware of what had happened. Somehow I was expecting the circumstances to be similar to my first birth. I wasn’t prepared for someone, I’m not sure who, to inform me in a kind but matter-of-fact manner, “you have a baby boy, but he’s not very well”.
That’s a bit crap, I thought. Again my husband didn’t get to announce the gender to me! Followed by “I knew he was a boy!”
It took a second for the final words to sink in. He’s not very well. Not very well? What did that mean? He needed some oxygen?
They wheeled me through to see him and I definitely wasn’t prepared to see what I saw. A little naked body, covered only in a web of tubes that seemed to be poking out of every orifice. He had an oxygen mask on that covered his face. In any case, laying on a bed, I wasn’t in any position to see what he looked like.
My husband was with him. He was outwardly calm, as he always appears to be.
I asked them if they could please cover my baby with a blanket. He looked cold. My arms would do the trick, I remember thinking. They informed me that he was meant to be cooling and he was ok. It was only later I remembered having read somewhere that cooling the body reduces the effects of brain damage in situations such as stroke.
The doctors informed me that my son, my sweet little boy, had had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck three times, as well as being wrapped around his torso and having a “true knot” in it, which is apparently quite uncommon. I remember thinking, “how long can this cord be?!?!”
As it happened, when the waters broke and he started to descend, the cord tightened, cutting off his oxygen. By the time they got him out, he was quite unresponsive, with an apgar score of 3. They were not sure of the extent of any possible damage to his brain.
Somehow, amidst all of this craziness, I felt a sense of calm. I didn’t know if it was merely shock, but I felt he was going to be ok. I asked if I could feed him. They said no. I then asked if I could just hold him but they said no, not yet. I reached out to touch his little foot.
I was then wheeled to a room in the maternity ward while my husband stayed with our son as they continued to monitor him and run tests.
I was positioned in a shared room, next to a couple who were bonding with their new baby, a paper curtain the only thing that separated me from the murmurs and coos. I wondered when I would get to hold my baby.
A team came to assess our little boy and told us that he seemed to have improved greatly, but that they would need to transfer him to the children’s hospital to continue monitoring and testing.
They had wheeled him into the room and I said a teary goodbye to him and my husband, still unsure of what our son even looked like.
They left and shortly after, the nurses presented me with a photo of my son in a frame that said “I (heart) Mum”. It was Mother’s Day.
I was informed that if they could find a bed for me, I might be transferred to the women’s hospital which is attached to the children’s hospital, so that I could be closer to visit.
In the afternoon, I was told that they had found a bed and I would be transferred. I was bundled up like precious cargo and put in the back of a makeshift ambulance, my sister by my side.
The journey was excruciating. My wound was hurting badly and I felt every bump in the road. At one point I asked my sister in all seriousness whether she thought the vehicle had suspension.
Finally we arrived and I was disappointed to discover that I was nowhere near my son. I was in a whole other building. My husband texted a photo of him to me. They had taken his oxygen mask off and he was looking tiredly at the camera. He was so cute but weird looking and I exclaimed that he looked like neither of us.
When I wished to visit him, I would need to be wheeled in my bed by a hospital porter. That was even worse than the journey in the back of the truck-cum-patient-transport.
For some reason, hospitals get a laugh out of creating little trip hazards and bumps along all of their corridors, making it virtually impossible to get from one end to another in one piece. I was white with pain when I arrived, but so excited to finally meet my son.
The staff disentangled him from his wire nest and placed him on my chest. He was so beautiful. I tried to feed him but he seemed completely unsure of what to do. He had been sucking on a dummy for comfort, and my nipple seemed far too supple for him to get a grip on, so he kept letting it loose.
Eventually he sort of got the hang of it. Sadly, because I was not a patient of the children’s hospital, I had to return to my room to receive my meals and medication. It felt so wrong to say goodbye to my husband and new baby.
Begrudgingly, I returned to my room. The nurses suggested I might like to try a wheelchair next time as I wouldn’t require a porter to take me across. That night, I tried to get into the wheelchair. The pain was unbearable. My palms were sweating. I ended up taking half of a heavy painkiller. I began to float a bit in my mind and discovered that the pain was still there, I just couldn’t access it as readily. My mind seemed to disconnect somewhat from my body.
By the time I reached the ward where my son was, I couldn’t lift my arms or open my eyes. I remember my sister saying “she’s completely off her face”. I wanted to talk but I was too tired, and when I tried, it just came out as a muffled sound.
I needed to feed my son, so my sister literally placed him at my chest and attached him, while I sat listless and slumped in the chair.
When we got back to the ward, my sister instructed the nurses to NEVER EVER give me that drug again.
I decided that sadly I would have to return to the bed and schedule a porter when I needed to visit my son and feed him. At one point, I instructed the nurses that they were allowed to give him some formula if he was screaming for a feed and I couldn’t get there. I was angry at feeling so powerless and wanted my son with me.
The next day, one of the porters, whose job it was to take me to see my son, had some unkind words to say about me to a newly rostered-on nurse. “She had the baby two weeks ago! Why can’t she just use a wheelchair?”, amongst other things.
Actually buddy, yesterday (not TWO WEEKS AGO) after labouring and nearly birthing a human body from my own, I was given a powerful cocktail of drugs to numb me and render me unconscious while they plucked my listless child from my womb. I’m now recovering from major abdominal surgery with nothing but some panadol, which I’m knocking back like lollies. Anything else to say?
At one point, while he was wheeling me around, he said to me, “it’s lucky your baby is sick, because you can’t even look after him”. At the time, I wasn’t in the headspace to even process his comment, so I think I just nodded in agreeance.
Fortunately my sister ALL THE WOMEN, WHO INDEPENDENT! had overheard the comments he made to the nurse about me and proceeded to give him a verbal spray, telling him in no uncertain terms to do his job and not dare make any comment to me again, as well as making a formal complaint. It prompted him to make a semi-apology to me when he next saw me, which went something like this… “apparently I said something that offended you so I’m sorry about that”.
Yahh. Fanks but no fanks.
Anyway, the next day I was delighted that the doctors felt my baby could leave the intensive care unit and join me in the maternity ward. It felt surreal to finally hold him in my arms and not have to say goodbye.
We had only told our close family about our baby’s birth. We had gone through so much and needed time to bond and get to know each other. It was a precious time. I relished every moment with him and kept him snuggled up next to me for the next few days until we were ready to go home.
I’ll never forget a dear family friend texting me. My mum had told her mum about the birth. This friend had also had a son with a cord coil, who unfortunately didn’t make it to birth. He died in utero. She told me that she knew how disappointed I would be feeling that I didn’t get to experience the healing birth I deserved, and that even though people would tell me to be grateful, she knew I would be hurting. I felt incredibly grateful for her beautiful and kind words, and with tears streaming down my face, I realised how blessed we were to have our little boy with us after his ordeal.
Somehow, experiencing his difficult birth allowed me to put things into perspective and appreciate everything about my daughter’s birth that I hadn’t been able to focus on before.
I felt truly blessed to have come out of two very hairy situations with my beautiful, healthy babies, knowing that others are sometimes not that fortunate. I felt such an intense appreciation for the little things, like the struggle my son had to latch, because I knew he was here, and he was trying. I knew that we had got through the thickest part, and I was grateful for that.
So, even though I sometimes joke about my “8cm curse”, my second crazy birth seems to have been the birth I needed to heal and move forward.
I still sometimes lament and pine for a positive and present birthing experience, but it doesn’t consume me like it once did. I have more peace in my heart, which is more than enough for me.