The funny thing about birth is that it rarely goes according to plan.
Pregnancy gives you ten long months to come to terms with pushing a human life out of your nethers, months of workshops and antenatal classes and birthing books all designed to put you in control of your birth experience.
Again and again we were told that a woman is perfectly capable of giving birth with no interventions so long as she has the right support, and so I planned carefully for an intervention-free birth. Chris and I practised my breathing techniques and exercised my pelvic floor and read up on active birth, preparing for infant expulsion as nature intended it.
But during all this “natural” birth prep no one ever mentioned that these interventions that I was hypnobirthing and kegel-cising so hard to avoid do one simple but very important thing: they make birth safer than it’s ever been in the entire of human history.
Episiotomies and cesarians, forceps and ventouse, inductions and epidurals, all these advances have dramatically reduced maternal and infant mortality during birth. Not so long ago “natural” birth could be a death sentence for a woman and her child.
For this reason alone I want to challenge the supposed superiority of a “natural” birth, and celebrate the medical advances that enabled me to bring my beautiful boy into this world without risking his life, or mine.
The story of Benjamin’s birth is really a record of just how quickly I abandoned my “natural” birth plan, and how I did so with a song in my heart and a lungful of laughing gas.
Birth is empowering, no matter how you do it or what you originally planned or hoped for. The experience is also (with hindsight) damned funny. Let’s be honest, a grown women draped over a hospital bed so far gone that she doesn’t even notice her arse is hanging all the way out of her hospital gown (the nurses kept trying to cover my shame) is pretty hilarious.
Not the Friday night I had in mind…
I was very fortunate in my pregnancy to be extremely low risk, so when the time came I planned to give birth in the midwife-lead birth centre at Ashford and St Peter’s Hospital in Surrey. As it turns out I only ever saw the inside of the triage examination room, but I have it on good authority that the rest of the facility (birth pools, mood lighting) is delightful!
Our little Benjamin is many things – beautiful, an infant prodigy, and the best baby ever – but his sense of timekeeping is lousy. I was four days overdue by the time he began to make his presence felt. At 9.15pm on Friday 21st July my waters broke. I was lowering myself on to a floor cushion in the living room when I felt a small pop between my legs, and a sudden rush of liquid that sent me sprinting up the stairs yelling to Chris “sh*t a brick, my waters just broke”. Tooled up with giant Tena Lady pads and a towel, we headed to the birth centre for a check up, to be told I was 2cm dilated and to come back in once my contractions were established at 3-5 mins apart.
This was the beginning of one of the longest weekends of my life.
At 1.30am my contractions were getting underway. I slept a little, but by 3am all I could manage was lying in a warm bath practising my breathing techniques. At this point I was experiencing two types of contractions; one that started as a pain in my lower back and radiated outwards, and a second that felt like an extremely intense period cramp. The former kind are usually a sign that your uterus is trying to rotate the baby into a good position, while the latter soften and dilate the cervix. Around this point I also started vomiting regularly as the more powerful contractions hit. Ah, the miracle of life!
At 8am on Saturday we were back in the birth centre. I was having regular contractions, couldn’t keep anything down, and hadn’t slept for hours. But I was only 3cm dilated (admission only happens at 4-5cm) and my labour wasn’t properly established, so I was given a shot of anti-emetic in the bum, a dose of cocodomol, and sent home again. I was also booked for an induction on Sunday morning as 24 hours after the waters break the risk of infection for mother and baby increases.
Back at home I slept throughout the day, and my contractions started to get more sporadic, sometimes at 3 minute intervals, sometimes 5, sometimes nothing significant for 10 minutes or so. By Saturday night, 24 hours after my waters broke, I was exhausted, vomiting again, and just knew that if left at home for another 12 hours I wouldn’t get any sleep. Fat chance trying to evict a baby through your nads with no shuteye.
“I need to be in hospital, now,” I said to Chris through clenched teeth, hanging on to the banister rail for dear life.
On the phone the midwife at the centre agreed to examine me again, and either admit me to the birth centre or send me straight upstairs to the labour ward for an induction. So once again Chris and I set out in the car, this time for real.
Go for childbirth
A quick check confirmed I was still only at 3cm. Bye bye birth pools and mood lighting, hello hospital gown, canula, and monitoring equipment. I lay on a bed, on my back, surrounded by instruments and medical kit and the wreckage of my natural birth plan. It was the happiest I had been all weekend.
(Poor Chris did not fare so well at this point. His wife was in proper hospital, rather than birth centre pretend hospital, hooked up to several machines, and it was all pretty frightening. Plus he had to call our families and let them know what was happening, double fun.)
Looking after me throughout the process was a wonderful, no nonsense woman with a superb sense of humour whose name I was convinced was Margaret. I only discovered later that her name was In fact Rosemary. Birth (ehem, gas and air) takes your brain to some special places. Chris assures me I was high as a kite for much of the next few hours, and kept sneaking him puffs of the inhaler when Rosemary/Margaret was out of the room.
Rosemary/Margaret looked over my notes and over my birth plan and said “Well, I don’t think we can do much of this.” I took a big pull on the gas and air and quipped “it’s all right, I promise not to start yelling for scented candles when the time comes.” I like to think she laughed.
All my bravado aside, what terrified me was the realisation that I would be spending my labour and birth lying on my back, literally the one thing that all the courses and guides tell you to avoid at all costs. Also no moving around during labour, and nil by mouth because of the IV drip. I was going to have to give birth with little to no sleep in the past 24 hours, powered only by Lucozade. But after 24 miserable hours at home I was just thrilled to be in hospital and getting ready for the big showdown. Rosemary/Margaret hooked me up to two drips, one for rehydration and one for the induction hormones. Two straps were placed across my belly to monitor baby’s heartbeat and my contractions, and we were go for childbirth.
Getting my contractions up and running took about 6 hours and 40 minutes, according to my notes. I couldn’t tell you how long it felt like because I was out of it, first on the gas and air and then on the pain as the gas became less and less effective. What I do remember is reaching transition, the point where the sensation of stretching characterised by early labour contractions is replaced with a growing urge to push. Basically your body is pushing the baby’s head down the birth canal, getting you ready for the final stage of actively forcing the little bugger out.
I remember transition vividly because it was horrible. With hindsight I can see why many women want epidurals at this point. I hate needles, and the notion of having a big one stuck in my spine filled me with dread. So I refused the offer, to the utter astonishment, I later discovered, of the attending staff. Apparently the cocktail of hormones used to induce labour make for extra intense contractions, and epidurals are the norm rather than an exception. Afterwards everyone kept on congratulating me on my bravery, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them it was just plain old needle fear, and if I could have a do-over I would totally take the epidural.
Farewell to dignity!
At this point I started throwing up again, and so was allowed to stand at the side of the hospital bed and lie over it. I was in full deep breathing hypnobirthing mode at this point, and I remember vividly thinking that I couldn’t wait for a time when I wouldn’t have to focus on the sound of my own goddam breathing any more. I was also drenched in sweat and yearning for a shower! And every time a really powerful contraction came on I would end up weeing all over the floor. According to Chris a supervising doctor came in at one point and asked whether the patient was going to the bathroom ok, to which Rosemary/Margaret shrugged and pointed at the sopping wet absorbent pad on the floor. I left most of my dignity in several sodden sheets on the floor of that delivery room. But the honest truth is that by that stage I didn’t give a damn. What with my arse hanging out, sweaty hair plastered to my face, leaving moon-shaped nail marks in Chris’s hand with every contraction, I had more to worry me than what my bladder was up to.
At 5am on Sunday 23rd July Rosemary/Margaret announced me 10cm dilated and ready for the final push. Back up on to the bed, on to my back, legs into stirrups, and showtime. Well, the first thing to go was my bowels (sorry, but this is just what happens). But what I can honestly say to any woman who is remotely concerned about this scenario is that you won’t care at all. By this point I had peed all over the delivery room floor, and exposed my bare arse to at least four strangers. When a human head is making its way through your pelvis, a bit of public pooping seems minor by comparison.
Later on I learned that Benji was trying to come out sideways. The optimal baby position for birth is head down with the spine pointing outwards towards the belly button. Benji’s back was pointing off to the left, which could explain why my early progress through contractions was so slow. This also made his progress down the birth canal painfully slow. I had been pushing like crazy for over an hour and was completely worn out, and while his little head was nearly there it wasn’t nearly enough. At this point I remember quite clearly asking if someone couldn’t just grab his ears and pull. Instead Rosemary/Margaret began to prep me for an episiotomy.
Now, after an epidural, an episiotomy was close second on my list of Things I Never Want To Have Done To Me Ever. I had even written on the infamous birth plan that I wanted to avoid one at all costs. But at the time I can honestly say that anything to speed up my baby’s arrival would have got my approval. It had been nearly an hour and a half of active pushing by this point, and although I refused to give up, I was also approaching 33 hours without sleep or significant food, powered solely by Lucozade (a grotesque substance that I never want to taste again in my life ever!).
During my next contraction, while I was pushing like mad, a delightful doctor gave me a few quick snips that I didn’t feel at all thanks to a lidocaine injection, and before I knew it the head was clear, followed by the shoulders, and then the rest of him, 8lbs and 6oz of purple, cone-headed, screaming fury. 6.29am on the 23rd July, 31 years and 1 minute after his mummy. Damned birthday thief.
Chris, who had been a super star birth partner throughout, went beautifully to pieces over his newborn son. Benji lay on my chest for a bit while Chris cut the cord and I got yet another injection to deliver the placenta. Then it was time to get him cleaned and weighed, and for me to be put back together. Armed with my trusty gas and air once more, I watched in abstract fascination as Rosemary/Margaret went to work between my legs with the sutures. Over her shoulder I could see Benji being cleaned up and put in his first nappy for a cuddle with his daddy. Watching a midwife ordering your husband to take his shirt off (in order to have skin on skin time with the baby) while you’re tripping balls on laughing gas and someone prods around your inners is utterly surreal. The last thing I remember before the room cleared and suddenly the three of us were left alone was a huge cartful of absorbent sheets stained with my blood (and other things) being wheeled surreptitiously out.
The next 24 hours are a blur. Ben and I were quickly positioned for our first feed. A lovely woman brought us toast and coffee, the most welcome calories I have ever consumed in my life. Later on two orderlies appeared with one of those wheeled baby goldfish bowls for Ben. We wrapped him up in a blanket that I’d made specially, and I declined the offer of a wheelchair for our walk down to the postnatal ward. Somewhere in all this I was able to get a shower, Chris brought us a picnic from a nearby newsagents, and both our families came to visit. For the most part we were left to our own devices to snooze and recuperate. And try to learn breastfeeding, but that’s a tale for another time.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t enjoy giving birth. It was uncomfortable, trying to get myself admitted to hospital (where I felt safe and in control) felt like a mission, and the whole process took bloody forever. One of my overriding memories is of being really bored, even during mounting contractions, and there was definitely a moment when I found myself wondering whether one could request a cesarian section just to get it over with. Afterwards, as I was lying in the postnatal ward trying to sleep, I could still feel the sensation of scrabbling fingers between my legs. At the time I wrote on Instagram, “birth was everything I hoped it wouldn’t be – long, complicated, medicalised, and exhausting.”
With the benefit of hindsight, and three months, I can now feel positive about the experience. I don’t resent the induction or the episiotomy, and the sensation of scrabbling fingers gradually subsided. I feel grateful that these advances exist, and that they were available to me when I needed them most. The induction gave my labour the leg up it needed and reduced the risk of infection for both me and Benji, and the episiotomy got him out quickly and safely when I was too tired to do it myself.
I am not opposed to intervention-free birth. If you can do it and it is what you want then I am extremely happy for you. But I do want to challenge the notion that there is a hierarchy of birth, with “natural” up at the top of the tree. Isn’t female self-esteem under attack from enough fronts already, without the suggestion that one woman’s birth is more valid than another? Let’s all just agree right here that all birth is powerful and primal and wonderful, because the end result is a beautiful human life.
To everyone out there who has given birth, is about to give birth, or is contemplating it, I salute you, no matter how you do, did, or plan on doing it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, the beautiful human life I pushed out of me wants feeding.