Reflections on my birth experience - three years on

Jan 17, 2022

On this day three years ago, I was surprised to have made it to the day on which the medical professionals had told me I was due to give birth.

Surprised because only one of my mother’s five children was born at full term. I was born at 36 weeks gestation, one brother at 35 weeks, one at 30 weeks and another at 28 weeks. I was 14 and 16 when my mother’s youngest children were born, the ones who were born the most prematurely – I was old enough to understand the full horror of what I was witnessing and young enough for it to be a formative trauma.

I am like my mother in enough ways that I spent my pregnancy terrified of giving birth prematurely. The idea that I might need to make decisions about induction hadn’t really ever occurred to me. But here we were anyway. Life often takes us in surprising directions.

I’d spent my whole pregnancy being told I was high risk. You get a certain number of ‘risk’ points just for conceiving via a fertility clinic (even though, as far as we were aware, the only fertility issue we had was my wife’s lack of sperm), my weight, age, and history of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome apparently pushed me over into the category that required extra monitoring and that would have to give birth in a consultant-led unit.

When I reached 36 weeks, I requested a meeting with the hospital for them to downgrade my risk assessment and to give me ‘permission’ to give birth in a midwife-led unit. Since I had gained a grand total of 1kg throughout my pregnancy, my blood pressure and blood sugars had been completely fine every single time they had taken them, and none of the eight or nine or maybe more (I can’t even remember for sure!) scans I had throughout my pregnancy had detected any issue with the baby – they agreed to my request.

But a month later, I am back in the hospital discussing with the consultant my reasons for wanting to refuse an induction. In fairness, the consultant was excellent and agreed with many of the points that I made. But she suggested that she book me in for an induction when I was 13 days overdue anyway because it would be much easier for me to refuse an induction that had already been booked than it would be to later make an appointment should I change my mind. Whatever. I went home and prayed that my little boy would make an appearance soon because I really didn’t want it to come to that.

But apparently, my little boy was very comfy in there.

At ten days overdue, I go into the hospital for a stretch and sweep. I’m not hugely keen on the idea beforehand or the reality of the experience, but I am increasingly nervous about the threat of induction and feel like I am running out of choices. Some days I still wonder whether this was the first of a cascade of interventions that sent me down a path that ended up being very challenging. Who knows.

My contractions start at 3 a.m. and continue at 15-30 minute intervals for the rest of the night. The pain is manageable as long as it doesn’t take me by surprise. If I try to lie down and the contraction catches me unprepared for it, then the pain feels much more frightening. I do not get any more sleep that night. In fact, I do not get any more sleep for another five days…

The next day is Monday and my wife does not go into work. In the daylight, my contractions slow to every 30-40 minutes. We attempt a walk to the park and I manage it but feel very self-conscious – we live in a very busy, urban area and I don’t really want to be walking around in public having contractions. So we spend most of the day at home.

By the evening, when contractions start coming every 20 minutes or so again, I have learned that the best way to prepare for them is to get down on my hands and knees and lean over my birthing ball. By the middle of the night, I am exhausted and starting to wonder how on earth I am going to find the strength to carry on. My wife is also getting very anxious. We decide to ask our wonderful doula to come to our house. When she arrives, I have already by that point been having regular contractions for about 24 hours without any rest.

We make the decision to travel to the hospital mid-afternoon on Tuesday. By this point I was having contractions about every five minutes and I knew I was still in the first stage of labour. But I was getting increasingly anxious about the drive to the hospital. And, after labouring at home for nearly two days without feeling comfortable to go outside much, home was starting to feel a little like a prison. None of the small rooms in our house felt big enough. But also at the same time, I felt like I wanted to hunker down, make myself comfortable, build a den in which to give birth – the idea of having to change locations felt like a weight hanging over me.

When we arrived at the hospital, I remember a wave of relief washing over me when we entered the birthing room at the midwife led unit. This was where I was going to birth my baby and it was perfect.

But then they examined me and found that I was still only 1 cm dilated and so they wanted me to go home again. I refused. And they can’t actually make you leave, so…

There was a birthing room free at that point, so I was able to labour there for a while until someone else needed it and then I was asked to move into a waiting room. Eventually I was able to move back into a birthing room, but I can’t remember how long that took. Many of the timings are quite blurry for me from this point on.

I know that it took me until Wednesday evening to get to 4cm dilated. I know that I was having frequent, strong contractions the whole time. I remember deciding to get into the birthing pool, even though it could potentially slow labour down, because I had developed large bruises on my knees and the tops of my feet from the amount of time I had spent on my hands and knees leaning over a birthing ball and even that position was becoming too painful to sustain. I remember the instant wave of relief that washed over me as I got into the water.

I remember agonising over the decision as to whether to start using the gas and air because clearly this experience wasn’t going to be over any time soon and there was a chance that the gas and air might stop working for me if I used it for too long. I remember the point at which I realised that this was exactly what had happened. I remember deciding to carry on using the gas and air anyway, even though it wasn’t providing any pain relief, simply because it was helping me regulate my breathing and stopping me from slipping into an anxiety attack.

I remember turning down requests to check my progress. I remember agreeing to one because I was sure that by this point that it would be good news. I remember the shock of the cold as I climbed out of the birthing pool. I remember the pain of the examination, the disappointment when I was told that I still hadn’t reached 4 cm, the shock of realising that the midwife had actually also performed a sweep ‘while she was there’ without asking for consent or telling me that this is what she was doing. All quickly followed by an excruciatingly painful contraction which caught me unprepared. And in that moment, I completely lost my shit…

I remember shaking and shivering as I tried to pull myself together again before the next contraction hit. I remember getting back into the birthing pool and insisting that my wife join me in there as we made a decision that felt both like admitting defeat and like the only option that was still available to us. I couldn’t carry on like this. I agreed to be transferred to the consultant led unit for an induction. And if I was going to be induced, I decided to go all in and have an epidural as well. The gas and air had stopped working a long time ago anyway and I was completely exhausted.

That was Wednesday evening. If contractions hadn’t already started naturally, my induction appointment would have been Wednesday afternoon anyway. But we waited for several more hours before it was possible to transfer me to the consultant led unit for the induction and epidural.

By that point, I had surrendered to the idea that nothing about this birth was going to go the way that I would have chosen, and I decided to move on to the pethidine.

Pethidine was low down on my list of pain relief that I had wanted to use, but it was the only other option available in the midwife led unit. My concerns about it were valid, but luckily, they turned out not to be true for me. My wife still talks about how she’s never known anyone to remain so compos mentis after taking quite so many opiates…

At some point in the early hours of Thursday morning, I was able to transfer to the consultant led unit. The first stage of my induction was to manually break my waters - but that did a grand total of absolutely nothing. So, I was then moved on to a syntocin drip that got me from 4cm to 10cm dilated in 4 hours.

After the epidural had kicked in and while we were waiting for me to become fully dilated, I was told to rest. My wife and doula slept for a few hours on towels on the hard hospital floor. I rested but didn’t sleep – I could still feel the contractions.

When I was given permission to push, I found that I could still move about pretty well and moved into a semi-upright position leaning against the raised side of the bed. I remember almost enjoying this stage of the process. The only downside was that the consultant led unit insisted on continual monitoring of the baby. Initially I requested external monitoring, but the belt dislodged every time I moved – something I felt the need to do quite a lot. So the midwives insisted on attaching an electrode to my son’s head. I cried that this was his first experience of touch in this world.

Overall, I remember feeling strong and powerful at this point. I had much more movement and sensitivity than I had expected to have with an epidural. It felt like things were finally happening and that my son would be here soon. The midwives told me to bear down as hard as I could. I ignored them. I knew there was a better and gentler way to bring my child into the world. But I didn’t realise that I was on a deadline.

In the consultant lead unit, they’re only supposed to let you push for two hours before moving things along. They let me go longer because it was what I wanted and because all of the monitoring showed that my baby was fine (in fact, throughout the labour, several midwives commented on what a laidback baby I apparently had in there – a fact that proved true after my son was born too). But after more than three hours, I was strongly encouraged to opt for a forceps delivery and steps were taken to put that into motion.

And, then, as I was waiting for them to prepare the paperwork for me to sign (I had to consent to an emergency caesarean because they’ll only try forceps for three pushes and if that doesn’t work you need a caesarean), I suddenly started to experience the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced in my whole life. It felt like my left hip was being pulled from its socket and my wife says she has never in her life heard anyone scream the way I did then. Suddenly the room was full of people and panic. I still don’t know for sure what that pain was, but I do know that my hips have never been the same since and that when my son was born he came out not only back-to-back but also with his hand up by his face, so my theory is that he punched a nerve in my hip on his way out.

The doctors gave me a full spinal block at that point, and when it kicked in I cried with relief. By the time my son was born, I could feel nothing from my neck down. I was wheeled into an operating theatre, there was a team of at least 10 people who all introduced themselves to me. They put drapes up so I didn't see him being born, he was just passed to me. The delivery of the placenta and stitching up all happened behind a curtain and without my awareness. It all seemed to happen very quickly and suddenly my beautiful boy was here (I say beautiful, he was red and scaly and clearly showing signs of being overcooked, but hey, he was healthy and remarkably unaffected by my ordeal). This was at around midday on Thursday. It had been over 80 hours since my contractions had first started.

Afterwards, I spent one night in hospital before I was allowed home. Frankly, given how badly positioned my son was, it is nothing short of miraculous that I managed to get him out with nothing worse than an episiotomy and second-degree tears.

My wife gets to go home and sleep on Thursday night. I still do not sleep. I am on a ward with five other people, one of whom insists on ringing for the midwives at least once per hour. Breastfeeding is not going well, my son refuses to latch on the one side at all (in fact, it will be months before he will latch on that side but thankfully I do not realise that yet). My legs are still wobbly from the spinal block. I have a catheter in from the epidural and that can’t be removed for 12 hours. And once it is removed, it takes me several hours to regain control of my bladder. Everything hurts. New motherhood feels rocky.

On Friday morning, it snows. It does not snow here often and the daycare we have booked the dog into is cancelled. We have a dog with separation anxiety and throughout my labour had to cobble together a plan for her based on paid daycare and asking four different people to look after at various different times. My wife now can’t come back to the hospital until she has found someone to look after the dog. It is midday by the time I see her again. By that point I have navigated a shower and my son’s first meconium poo on my own, peed through every pair of pants I had brought with me, and quite possibly told the physiotherapist to fuck off because she arrived to examine me in the middle of some chaotic combination of those last two events. Or maybe it was the Bounty representative that I told to fuck off, my memory of that day is pretty blurry and that would make more sense! But one way or another, I definitely didn’t get that final examination from the physiotherapist and that was probably a mistake…

I was discharged from hospital some time after it had gotten dark on Friday afternoon. There was a rugby match just starting so my wife and son watched that on TV while I collapsed into bed completely exhausted and FINALLY managed to sleep! For 2-3 hours… Because, even allowing for the fact that I expressed some milk before I went to bed, that’s about as long as you get when you’re a breastfeeding mother with a newborn.

A midwife came to visit me at home the next day and discovered that my stitches had become infected and had therefore come loose. We spent Saturday evening in the out-of-hours GP surgery to get some antibiotics for me as soon as possible.

At some point in the next few days, I came out in a full-body rash. It didn’t happen straight away, so there was some confusion as to what might have caused it, but the best guess is that I had developed a penicillin allergy postpartum. Breastfeeding had been difficult already, it was not made easier by being so uncomfortable that even the touch of any fabric against any part of my skin feels unbearable. I am then prescribed an antihistamine that causes a reduction in breastmilk supply. I try not taking it for a day or two because I am anxious about what this will mean for our breastfeeding journey, but eventually the rash becomes too unbearable. It was probably around this point that we gave our son his first bottle of formula milk. In the end, I did manage to breastfeed him for 20 months, but he was combi-fed the whole way through.

At my check-up six weeks after birth, my GP realises that my episiotomy scar still bleeds when touched. She refers me for physiotherapy and I am not discharged from that service until my son is six months old.

Immediately after giving birth, I talked a lot about my experiences with friends. But it has taken a long time to feel ready to share this story online. That’s mostly nervousness around how you the reader will receive the story and my inability to tailor what I am saying to your responses. I believe that telling our stories is an important way of healing them. I believe that there needs to be a lot more open conversation about the full spectrum of childbirth experiences. And I also know that if I had read this story when I was pregnant, I would not have found it in the least reassuring! Despite my experiences, I do still feel that the way women are both culturally conditioned to fear birth while simultaneously being so often underprepared for it is one of the great injustices of the modern era. I want to find a way of telling my story that honours my experiences and the complexity of my relationship to those experiences without it simply being a horror story that contributes to a culture of fear.

I'm also aware that despite the fact that the whole experience was definitely very challenging, I also had the privilege of being very well supported, both during labour and in the years that have followed.  Our doula was worth every single penny and one of the best financial investments I have made in my life.  The vast majority of the midwives who supported me were outstanding.  There was never any point at which either mine or my baby's health was in question.  I had access to a variety of tools to help me process all of the emotions that came up for me afterwards.  In comparison to the difficult conditions many women have had to give birth in since this pandemic started, I consider myself lucky.

My truth is that over the last three years, I have made sense of my birth experience in various different ways. Initially, I struggled to reconcile how much it felt like the last stage of labour was something that was just done to me. Despite the difficulty, for a lot of the labour I felt strong and empowered; but the actual birth was a complete contrast to that. I felt disconnected from my own experience, like my body had gone through a trauma that the rest of me had somehow been removed from. And I felt disconnected from my son, for the first few weeks I even found myself wondering if he definitely was my son or whether someone else had somehow given birth to him.

I couldn't help but feel like my body had failed me. That maybe the doctors had been right in their initial classification of me as a high-risk delivery. That maybe if I’d moved more, he might have been born more quickly or in a better position. That maybe if I’d rested more, I would have been able to refuse induction for long enough for him to get himself into a better position. That maybe if I’d laboured at home longer, things might have progressed quicker. That maybe if I’d pushed harder once I was fully dilated, then we could have avoided the forceps delivery. When I was in the mood for beating myself up, I could see so many opportunities for things to have been different that I would berate myself for not making choices that were often mutually exclusive.

When my son was six months old, I had a Matrix Reimprinting session which changed a lot for me. I stopped seeing my body as having failed me and started seeing it as having been strong enough to give my son the birth he needed. It wasn’t the birth I would have chosen for him, but I do believe that it was the birth he needed. And maybe it was the birth that I needed too.

Now, when I look back on my birth experience, the main emotion that I feel is pride. Yes, there’s still some anxiety when I imagine the possibility of having to give birth again. But when I look back on my son’s birth, I see all the ways in which I discovered a strength I’d not been asked to find previously and all the ways that I handled a difficult situation remarkably well.

My relationship with my body has always been complicated. But over the last three years, I have developed a closer to relationship to my body than I have ever had before and I’m not sure that would have been possible if it hadn’t happened in the context of healing from my birth experience.

For as long as I can remember I have found the messiness of life frightening.  It has felt so much safer to stay in my head, to hide in my room and read a book, than it has to connect with my body and open myself up to all the pain and pleasure that comes with embodiment.  I suspect that my experience of birth was the most effective way of ripping the plaster of that particular habit that I could have ever experienced.

I tried to connect more deeply to my body while I was pregnant, I really did. I knew it was healing that would be profoundly helpful for me when I went into labour. And I am grateful for the person I was then because her determination to do as much of this work as she could, did undoubtedly help me to find the resources that I needed to get me through the most physically exhausting five days of my life. But there was healing that I just didn’t even know how to begin until after I had given birth.

Sometimes shit just happens, but that’s really not how I feel about my experience of giving birth. The sense I make of my experience is that sometimes we don’t get to skip our initiations. Sometimes the hardest things that have ever happened to us were exactly what we needed. There are ways that my body still carries the trauma of that experience. And there are other ways in which the healing has made me even more than I was before. I am both whole and broken. Healed and healing. Alive.

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