After 41 long weeks of pregnancy, where the memory of not walking like an obese penguin had long been forgotten and I had lived anywhere but in the bathroom, the moment had finally arrived. Labour. After months of nesting, vigilant avoidance of One Born Every Minute, practising relaxation techniques, and false alarms thanks to the Braxton Hicks; I was en route to meeting the bub who I had been painstakingly growing inside me for nine and a half months. The bub who I had spent nights flipping from side to side in bed as she kicked me repeatedly if I dared to encroach on her personal space; who I played Disney music to on repeat as she bopped along to it; and who I sang to each night.
To give some context, I am an obsessive planner. I like planning, for things to be organised, and to have a clear idea of what is going to be happening in my head. I wasn’t foolish, I knew that I couldn’t make labour follow my plan to the letter (though I gave it a good go and had strong words with Fate to just this once, follow the plan) but I did have several contingency plans to try and cover all circumstances. Following the advice of the hypnobirthing course that my husband and I attended in the second trimester, I spent the last few months of my pregnancy writing and re-writing my birth plan ensuring it was colour co-ordinated with my birthing colour. I specified how I wanted a water birth with minimal, if no, intervention using only gas and air as a method of pain relief if I really needed it. After reading nothing but positive hypnobirthing stories of a calm, natural birth where mothers-to-be just breathed their baby out, I was convinced this would be the birth I would have. I practised my breathing and affirmations daily (well, when I remembered…), feeling confident that although labour would be intense, my body was designed to do it and with that understanding the fear element was removed ergo removing the pain with it. With most things, Fate decided it had a completely different birth plan in mind, and how we look back and laugh at that plan I had.
For me, labour started with intense tightening sensations in my back and hips at 6am on Wednesday 10th May. How odd, I thought to myself, but as they kept disappearing and as I had been fooled by Mr Braxton Hicks in the past, I just ignored it. Keeping myself busy, and my mind off the fact I was a week overdue, I popped to Next with my mum. In the middle of the children’s clothes section I stopped in my tracks as it felt as if a bowling ball had just attached itself to my stomach and I struggled to waddle due to the pressure. Again, it passed, and I went on my merry way but gave the husband a call to let him know that something was happening but nothing too dramatic. By 6pm, and one McDonalds later (obviously), the sensations had gone from on and off into full blown contractions remaining in my hips and back, but nothing like the period pains I had been warned of. Instead, it felt as if I was being punched repeatedly whilst having an elastic band squeezed over my stomach. As the night went on, they grew more and more intense with barely any time apart and after trying to distract myself with bouncing all over the house on my birthing ball, watching The West Wing, having a bath and staring resentfully at my husband as he slept next to me, I decided at 3am we were going into hospital where they had gas and air, mother in tow. I have to give all credit to hypnobirthing here – it was those breathing techniques combined with a TENS machine, a Disney playlist and flannels infused with lavender and peppermint oil that helped me manage contractions until 12pm on Thursday when I finally relented to having an internal examination (the first element of my birthing plan thrown out of the window) with the compromise that I did it was gas and air.
My lovely midwife Sarah quickly carried out the examination, and told me that I was in ‘Active Labour’ (the stage where the contractions are at their most intense, lasting longer and with little space in between each one as you dilate more rapidly). I would have taken that more onboard, if I hadn’t been completely intoxicated from the gas and air I had been inhaling as if there was no tomorrow. Instead, I was laughing hysterically at everything being said to me whilst gently swaying from side to side, the mouthpiece dangling from the side of my mouth. The moment Sarah told me that the gas and air was mine to keep, I won’t lie, equalled the moment I married my husband in terms of joy. Now, there isn’t a lot I enjoyed about labour, in fact the only thing I enjoyed about labour apart from getting my daughter at the end of it, was the free-flowing supply of gas and air. If I could, I would marry gas and air. No it didn’t take the pain away, but I was too busy laughing my face off to care that the contractions were making me feel as if my entire torso was in an ever-increasing vice. I’m pretty sure the midwives thought I had mistaken the gas and air for my husband, as I never allowed it to leave my side. When not sucking out the endless supply from the wall, I wheeled a portable canister with me a long to the bathroom, into the shower; grinning and giggling as if we shared a secret just between the two of us.
Alas, our relationship began to falter as my active labour dragged on. On average, active labour generally lasts about eight hours for a first baby. Mine lasted sixteen hours. Sixteen. You see, it turned out that my little darling bub had decided she enjoyed the womb so much that she wasn’t at all ready to come out. In protest, she turned herself round and wedged her head at the bottom of my spine to keep herself in there for as long as possible. Grand for her, horrific for me.
After I had endured eight hours of active labour, with excruciating contractions because of her head pressing on my spine, all plans of a calm water birth went out of the window. I had been awake and contracting for 38 hours – my entire body was exhausted from the pain and effort of it, and I was demoralised as I had barely progressed in terms of dilation. The gas and air had begun to lose its previous comedic effect and the midwives had moved on to diamorphine to try and provide more relief. It failed. Next, my waters were broken in attempt to encourage my daughter out, but nothing came of it. She was not budging and I was becoming more and more distressed. Eventually, it was decided that I be moved from the midwife-led ward to the high-risk unit for an epidural, it was our last hope at trying to ease what had become a difficult labour. Everything I had specified on my original birthing plan was gone – I was desperate to have some relief from the contractions which seemed to be endless with no respite between each huge wave.
After the move to the delivery suite, my memories of the remaining six hours of my labour are a vague haze of midwives, doctors, failed pain relief and panic. I don’t remember much, but have had my mum and husband fill me on the blank spaces in my memory. Thinking back to the parts I can remember, my stomach goes into knots and tears prick in my eyes remembering how it felt to feel my body begin to be unable to cope with each wave of contractions, the crushing disappointment when my last chance of relief in an epidural failed, and moments where I wanted it all to be over because I physically couldn’t stand it any longer. I pride myself on having a high pain threshold, but by the end of labour I felt completely and utterly broken – both emotionally and physically. Arguments were had about me having a c-section, as the midwives and my birthing partners fought with the doctors that although the baby was not in distress, I, as the mother, clearly was, and that it was not fair that I continued to struggle with such little progression. My husband told me of his sheer panic and the harrowing experience as he watched my eyes roll back into my head, my body writhing on the bed as I began to hallucinate, mumbling incoherently about not wanting to go to the cinema.
Finally, as the agreement was made to take me to theatre, I had one final examination to see if I had dilated any further. Luckily, our little girl had made a final turn and I was fully dilated. I had the immense need to push, it was if that was all my body could do and I had no control over it. It just kept pushing by itself. Within 12 minutes and four pushes later, she was out and handed to me. Apparently, she came out waving, obviously making a grand, pageant-like entrance to support her belated arrival. It was so unexpected that my main midwife, Sally, had not even made it back from the bathroom to deliver her, and something she continued to mention she felt robbed of. None of the midwives could believe that she was out in four pushes and my mother heard them gasping about it in the hallway. For me, once I felt ready to push, I was not going to stop until she was out.
As traumatic as I found my labour experience, it was nothing compared to the sheer, inexplicable joy I felt when holding my daughter in my arms for the first time. Due to my exhaustion, the midwife had to place her on me to feed but the little darling knew exactly what to do, and got straight down to it. My husband says that I immediately began shushing her as she cried, cradling her close to my skin. She was mine, and I had never seen anything as perfect as her little face looking up at mine. Sadly, there were complications with the placenta not coming out naturally, and it was beginning to look like I would need to be taken to theatre in the end anyway, much to everyone’s frustration. In a good twist of fate, the doctor managed to manually remove it (a wholly unpleasant experience to end it all) and I was left alone to just enjoy my brand new, beautiful baby girl with no more interference.
12 weeks on, I am still suffering from the intense labour I underwent. I have herniated a disc from where her head pressed against my spine and remaining in the same position on my back for 8 hours; my stomach muscles are non-existent from going through contractions with little to no pain relief for over two days; and my nerves have remained over-sensitised resulting in my body thinking it is still in labour and randomly going into active labour contractions even three months on. It’s been incredibly difficult, and to an extent, I do feel as if my body has failed me in some ways. Since labour, I have been re-admitted to hospital via ambulance due to the pain, undergone steroid injections in my back, been on a cocktail of painkillers that I would either not take or meant I had to regulate how I breastfed/expressed milk, and have weekly physiotherapy to try and repair the damage. I have had to have help in the form of my mother and husband every day to help look after my daughter as I am only allowed to have limited time lifting, bouncing, dancing and playing with her without making the contraction spasms worse. I haven’t felt as if I have been able to be the best mother that I can be to my daughter and have hated relying so heavily on other people to help me care for her. I have sobbed more times than I can count as I have breastfed my daughter through contractions or had to hand her over to someone else to soothe as she cries because I physically can’t hold her any longer. I become angry that the hospital did not do more at the time to intervene – why could I not have had an epidural earlier once they realised it was a back-to-back labour and it was clear I was not progressing? Why did they not just give me a c-section earlier but instead continue the ordeal in the pursuit for a ‘natural’ birth? The midwives were fantastic, but I do feel that the doctors cared only for my child and not as me as the mother. Seeing me as nothing more than the vessel rather than the person who after the labour needed to be fit and well to actually care for the baby that they were delivering.
There are so many questions I have and so many emotions surrounding my daughter’s birth – initially, it made me not to want another child. I never wanted to experience that again. Three months on, and falling more and more in love with my daughter as each day passes, I’ve begun to reconsider this stance, but I remain strong in my wish to never undergo a ‘natural vaginal delivery’ again. For me, this makes me strongly question hospitals attitude that only the baby matters in regards to childbirth – the mother and her wellbeing should be just as important, otherwise it can result in long-lasting damage, both emotionally and physically, that could easily be avoided. I love my daughter, more than anything in the world, and even knowing everything I do now, I would do it all over again to get her. But how I wished the doctors/consultants had cared just as much about me as they had about their desperate desire for a vaginal birth.