Recently I shared my experience about birth trauma in The 8cm Curse. I received a lot of positive feedback about the post, which was really heart-warming. I also had a couple of people reach out to me and say that the post resonated with them as they too had experienced traumatic births.
After having shared the lows of my experiences, I really wanted to share what transpired to assist me in putting the final touches to healing the wounds of the trauma. In truth, the wounds will always be there, but they have healed to the point where a memory or hearing of a positive birth experience doesn’t elicit any pain.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the irony of my son’s traumatic birth was that I felt it somewhat helped to heal the pain that still lingered after my first birth experience. The severity of the situation forced me to surrender and let go of many things that otherwise would have probably troubled me greatly, such as our lack of skin-to-skin contact.
Whilst the experience forced me to garner a huge amount of perspective and respect for what had happened, there was obviously still trauma and a wound which had been completely reopened. There I was again, with my stitches, unbearable wind (ask someone about trapped wind pain post-surgery if you’ve never heard of it. It’s agony), a foggy head and failed dreams.
But then, this is where I omitted a crucial part of the story. I did so because I wanted to speak about it here, in the post which celebrates the healing of wounds.
I was laying in the hospital bed shortly after my surgery when the obstetrician who had operated on me came to pay me a visit. I had never met her prior to being under her care for the surgery. I had met her just as she told me they were going to put me under a general anaesthetic. I couldn’t remember her face or anything about her, but I’ll never forget what she said to me.
“I’m so sorry for what we did to you”, she said softly in a beautiful Irish accent. Instantly I replied in an almost robotic and socially acceptable way: “that’s ok, it wasn’t your fault”. “I know”, she said. “But it was awful and I’m very sorry you had to go through that”. And there it was. She probably didn’t know that her simple act of kindness in humbly apologising for something which she was not responsible for, meant the world to me. It might sound cliché, but it spoke to my soul. I can honestly say I felt my heart begin to really mend at that moment.
What she had given me was not simply an apology. It was an acknowledgment, a validation of what I had been through. She had been there, and she had seen and felt the pain, and for that she was sorry. She was instrumental in ensuring my son was alive, but she didn’t expect praise. It brings tears to my eyes just typing it now. At that moment, she wasn’t an obstetrician. She was simply a human being, acknowledging the hurt of another.
I did find out her full name and send her a card, although I later questioned whether I’d accidentally sent the card without writing in it first. Having a newborn can do crazy things to the mind!
My heart felt on the mend in a big way, but I still had work to do.
After having missed the experience of both of my children being born (due to being under general anaesthetic at the time), I felt an insatiable desire to attend a birth and see in real life with my own eyes how a birth unfolds. It’s inexplicable really, but I felt almost a sense of desperation to one day be present at the moment a baby is born. I wasn’t in a great rush but I did feel that it was something I somehow needed in order to put the final piece of the birthing puzzle in place.
So, when we planned a trip to the Philippines earlier this year, I wasn’t thinking much about birthing.
As a family, we felt a strong desire to use our own wonderful blessings to assist those who may be struggling. I’ll write another post dedicated solely to the Philippines trip, but suffice to say we felt we had a calling to go there.
After a few setbacks, we ended up booking flights there without any plans of where exactly we’d be going. Eventually I got in touch with an organisation that runs a number of programs, including community outreach and feedings, a children’s home, and a pregnancy clinic, to name a few.
We were delighted that they were keen to have us come and visit and offer our services. We knew it would be slightly challenging with a four year old and one year old, but we felt really ready to take on the challenge. My husband and I felt a strong pull to assist neglected children, and therefore we felt we could be of assistance within the orphanage.
As happens in life, things don’t always go according to plan. Shortly after arriving, we visited the children’s home with our children. We quickly discovered that having our own children with us presented some issues. I guess we had naively envisioned our kids to just play with the kids there while we facilitated games and other fun things to do. The reality was that our children needed our attention far more than we expected, and we found it difficult to connect with the other children.
We visited on a few occasions but started to focus on some of the other programs the organisation had to offer.
I arranged a visit to the pregnancy clinic. I got to go there all on my own, with no kids in tow, which was pretty much akin to an all expenses paid holiday in itself! I helped the midwife to package nappies and eggs. It wasn’t thrilling work, but I was content. Each week, women attending the clinic would receive some nappies, some eggs (for nutrition) and vitamins as most would never afford them.
At appointment times, the midwife allowed me to sit in and watch the proceedings. It reminded me of my own antenatal appointments, although it seemed much less formal. Although the women spoke in Tagalog, I was able to get the general gist of what was said, and at times the midwife would pause to translate.
Here, I got to hear the heartache of mothers who had lost children to infections and diseases, mothers whose husbands or partners had taken up with other women and left them to care for their children on their own, with no financial assistance. I saw the excitement of young couples who were expecting their first babies, and I saw women chastised by the midwife for choosing to have a baby instead of completing their studies first. In such a poor area, it was easy to see why the midwife felt so strongly about women being educated.
Over the following days, the midwife entrusted me to start measuring the fundal height of the women’s baby bumps, which I felt was a great privilege. She then also allowed me to feel the position of the babies and in some cases I was able to use the Doppler to find the heartbeat. It was such a thrill! I’ll never forget a mum’s face when she heard her baby’s heartbeat for the first time. I felt very honoured to be given such important jobs and continually checked with the women whether it was ok for me to be doing so. Most seemed very at ease and not at all unhappy for me to be using them to learn.
One of the young American girls who was also attending the clinic to help told me of how she had been fortunate enough to see a birth. She had arrived a little early one day, just in time to see a baby be born. She was then given the privilege of cutting the umbilical cord. I was in awe and slightly jealous. I wondered whether I might get to see a birth!
Later, I met the on-call midwife, a larger than life character who often attended births in the wee hours and many times in the homes of women who weren’t able to safely make it to the clinic in time. She asked me “would you like to see a birth?”
“Of course!” I responded. “It would be my dream come true!”
So, late one night after having a shower and starting to put the kids to bed, there was a knock at the door. My daughter flung open the blind before I could even get dressed. It was one of the managers of the organisation. She said “I heard someone wants to see a baby be born?”
“Yes!!!” I jumped to my feet, accidentally frightening my children, and threw some clothes on.
I spoke to the on-call midwife on the phone and she advised that the woman was in the early stages of labour and she would call me when she was ready to come to the clinic. Someone would collect me to walk me to the clinic in the dark.
I waited anxiously, hoping and praying that I wouldn’t miss the birth. Finally, the call came! It was time.
I lost no time in dashing to the front gate, my water bottle in my hand and a sense of determination in my mind.
An American woman and her daughter who had just arrived at the ministry were also there. They had missed out on attending a birth the last time they visited the Philippines.
My excitement gave way to a feeling of uneasiness. How would this woman feel about a bunch of strangers intruding upon her private space at the birth of her child? The midwife assured me that the women are quite happy to have helpers attend, but she would check if it was ok first. She explained that in areas such as this, western people often bring a sense of calm to Filipina women, who feel they’re in capable hands. At this point, I felt genuinely terrified. Why would I be capable of anything? I’m not trained as a doula or midwife. I’ve never even seen a birth!
As we arrived at the clinic, I immediately recognised the labouring woman as one of the women I had seen for an appointment the day before. This would be her sixth child! I wondered how quickly the labour might progress for that reason.
The mother paced outside on the verandah and occasionally came inside to use the bathroom. Her older daughter accompanied her.
I couldn’t stop my nervous chatter to the midwife and the other girls. I tried to keep it to a whisper.
Soon enough, it was time for the baby to be born. The midwife checked with the mother and then ushered us into the birthing room, which was very basic and consisted of a medical bed and some supplies.
It struck me that all of the people present were women. This was women’s business (no offence intended to men).
The midwife gave us instructions as to which items she required (such as absorbent pads… I don’t even know if that’s the proper term), and we tried our darndest to fumble around and get the required items for her.
The mother laid on her back and I queried whether most of the mothers birthed in this way. My concern about this very westernised and anti-gravity approach was unfounded, as we soon saw a head starting to crown.
At this point, the midwife asked “who wants to catch the baby?” The woman’s support person was by her head, giving her reassurance, and I unashamedly piped up, “Me, please!” I asked the American girls if that was ok, and I probably didn’t even wait for a reply. I felt this monumental moment of my life drawing closer and it seemed nothing could stop me from fulfilling my heart’s greatest desire.
I repeated to the mother “Maganda (beautiful in Tagalog), maganda”. I wasn’t sure if I was helping but it was one of the only Tagalog words I knew and all I could think was how beautiful and strong she looked preparing to give birth to her son. I breathed with her and soon, the midwife was instructing me to put on a longer pair of gloves. My hands were trembling and I wasn’t sure I could get my left glove on in time, as I could see the head starting to come out.
The midwife instructed me to press hard against the woman’s perineum in order to prevent tearing. I did as instructed and magically, this black-haired head pushed its way out and then popped, and turned to the side, just as I had seen on birthing videos. I was transfixed.
I supported the baby’s head as his body slithered out and a huge amount of amniotic fluid gushed all over my pants and shoes. My immediate thought was, “Why did I only think to bring one pair of long pants on this trip??” Haha.
I placed the baby on his mother’s tummy, as instructed by the midwife. I could see the relief and exhaustion on her face. I felt absolutely euphoric. She thanked us for helping her, and in return I thanked her for allowing us to be present. She couldn’t know just how much she had in fact been the one to help me. I knew that this was her moment, but in my heart it felt like a moment for me, too. Somehow, being in such close proximity to birth and actually assisting in the process made me feel that I had finally been an active participant. I realised that’s what my heart had been aching for. To actually be part of birth, which was something I felt robbed of in my own experiences.
After the birth, I felt euphoric and so jittery. I had just witnessed something so magical, yet something so natural. It felt strangely normal to have been there, and I realised that for many women across many cultures, being present at births is quite commonplace.
I made my way back to our guesthouse, full of adrenaline. My kids were sleeping. My husband asked how it went, and my eyes were on fire as I explained what had happened. He chuckled and could see how much it meant to me, but he was tired and needed to sleep.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t sleep. I lay awake for hours and wrote, scribbling like a mad woman, in my journal. I was determined not to forget the details.
We had planned to go to church in the morning, but by the time we got up and had breakfast, everyone had left for the big church service, and the service at the small church next door had nearly finished.
As luck would have it, the phone rang and it was the on-call midwife again. “Do you want to see another birth?” She asked me. “There’s another woman in labour”.
I was so excited! I could tell my husband wasn’t overjoyed as we were supposed to be spending time as a family over the weekend, but I knew this experience was a once in a lifetime type thing and I wasn’t going to pass it up. And anyway, judging by last night, I didn’t think I’d be gone very long.
I rushed around trying to find the American girls, but it seemed they had gone off to church. The place was deserted, so I eventually headed off on my own to the clinic.
When I arrived, I was met by a young labouring mother and her support person, her sister-in-law. This would be her second baby, and she was also having a boy.
Her husband and young son waited around the clinic, her son occasionally coming in to check on his mama, until his father would retrieve him and take him outside again.
As every labour is different, I could see that whilst this mother was fairly silent (just as the one the night before had been), she seemed to be having a tougher time. This was her second time birthing, not her sixth.
The midwife spoke to me in hushed tones, “this baby is big”. “Really? Are you sure?” I responded. “Yes, trust me. I have delivered thousands of babies”. I honestly wasn’t convinced. The mother wasn’t the smallest of Filipina women, but I still couldn’t envision her having a gigantic baby.
It didn’t seem like long before it was again time for the baby to be born. This time, I felt more confident in knowing how to be of assistance to the midwife. I knew mostly where the equipment was and which things she needed. I could also see where I might be of assistance to the mother, and I began pressing on her hips as she would reach a contraction. I would then mime breathing slow and deep breaths, encouraging her to follow.
Again, I saw a black-haired head beginning to crown. It was a bit slower than the last one, but every labour and birth is obviously different I guess.
As the head started to come out, I could see that it was larger than the baby’s head from the night before. The midwife instructed me to rub oil around the vulva and perineum. I was then instructed to push hard on the perineum, just as I did the time before. The midwife started speaking fast in Tagalog to the mother, presumably telling her to push. It was obvious that she was giving this her all.
The head popped out, and it was purple. The midwife reached over and pulled the cord up and over the baby’s head. The cord had been wrapped around the neck.
At this point, I started to worry. There seemed to be a distinct lack of oxygen in the baby’s face. The midwife continued to give orders to the mother, who seemed to be struggling.
At this point, it looked as if the baby’s body was having difficulty getting out. I worried about the oxygen, and it seemed the midwife did too, as the next thing I knew she was reaching her hand up and hooked the baby under the underarm and literally pulled him out. I caught him and placed him onto the bed. He wasn’t moving. I exclaimed “pogi!” (Handsome) to the mother and kept reiterating to her “he’s ok, he’s ok”. I whispered to the midwife, “is he ok??” She responded “he’s fine, he’s fine”. I wasn’t sure if she was convincing me or herself.
She started flicking his toes to get a response, but he wasn’t breathing. I could see he was indeed a big baby.
She then quickly told me to hold an ice pack to his bottom. I did so and she rubbed his back. Then, she picked him up by his feet. I supported his head and she told me, “let go! Let go!” I let go and watched his head drop listlessly. At this point I was getting very worried.
Finally, he drew a breath and started to cry. I was so relieved! I could see the relief in his mum’s face too. During the whole time, I have no idea what she was seeing or thinking. I thought to what the expression on my face might have said.
She was finally able to hold her baby, and I felt relief and fulfilment. Reluctantly I took the baby to weigh him (their protocol, but I didn’t want to separate mum and bub). At first I thought the scales were off, but I quickly realised he was over 4.5kgs! This was indeed a big sized baby for a Filipina woman.
Again, I thanked the mother for allowing me to be part of her birth. She thanked me for helping her, and I assured her that I would send her the photos that her sister-in-law had taken of the birth on my phone.
I felt so honoured to have been able to catch two babies being born in the space of a day. From someone who had no experience with birth outside of labour, I had certainly had a crash course! I was amazed at how natural it all felt, despite the difficulties the second birth presented with.
As I reflected on the births, I felt slightly ashamed at how caught up in my own feelings I had been. I was so desperate to have been part of the births that I wondered if I had adequately respected the mothers during the process. I had done my best to support them, but there were things I would have done differently. For example, the midwife encouraged me in the excitement to take photos of myself and the babies, as well as the women and the babies. My phone was also used to take photos during the births. The women of course obliged, but I wondered later just how much they felt like having their births recorded by a stranger and their photos taken moments after giving birth. It’s hard to object to something when you’re labouring/birthing. Of course, I wanted to send the photos to them, but I still think in retrospect I should have just appreciated it all without documenting it with a camera.
I did get a special gift for each of the mothers to show them how much I appreciated being part of the experience. Unfortunately I was unable to give the gifts in person as we left for the next leg of our journey the next day, so I gave them to the midwife to pass on.
It’s a funny thing, birth. You can’t predict when it will happen. And it just so happened that in the last two days of our stay, I got to be part of two babies’ entrances into the world. The experience gave me a feeling of elation. I was also mystified that in having missed out on my own two children’s births, I was given the opportunity to witness the births of two children, with the second one having a cord coil just as my son (my second child) did. Call it what you will, but I believe it’s no coincidence that I was there for those births. I believe God placed me there to heal precisely the parts of me that felt broken. I immediately felt a sense of closure and wholeness, as well as a renewed feeling of confidence.
Despite the fact that it wasn’t me birthing those babies, I no longer go quiet when women share their birth stories and get to the part post-labour where the baby is born. I feel part of it, and it’s a wonderful feeling.