“Second labours are different” they said. “It will be faster this time”. And ultimately they were right, but the birth of our first child had left me so broken that at the time I just nodded, smiled and thought, “We’ll see.”
My first labour was not the most extreme birth you will ever hear about: after 23 hours of contractions 3 minutes apart or less, and nearly 3 hours of pushing, our beautiful back-to-back baby was born with the help of a spinal block, an episiotomy, a pair of forceps, and some hefty effort fromthe obstetrician. The physical pain was bearable, I never felt afraid of that, but the loss of control and consequent psychological marks that remained took far longer to heal.
For many months afterwards I suffered angrily in silence plagued by pain, flashbacks and intense feelings of guilt and inadequacy. I had been unable to push our baby out of my fanny for myself and although the physical scars healed with time, falling pregnant with our second child proved my assumptions that I was “over” it, to be completely unfounded.
A few weeks before D-Day I attended a gathering of heavily pregnant women organised by the team of midwives with whom I had been lucky enough to be assigned. The literal and metaphorical weight in the room was tangible, emotions were running high and as one new mum told her story I struggled to contain the surges that were stirred in me by her story. It was so perfect and “amazing”, so opposite to the story that haunted me, that once again I found myself grieving the birth that I hadn’t had. In anger and sadness I burst into tears, pressed my face into Ray’s shoulder, and stayed exactly there as she finished her story.
Fortunately I think she assumed that my emotions were provoked by the beauty of her story, but in fact my tears came from a horrible place of resentment and anger. Even though I had told myself for nearly two years that I did nothing wrong the first time round, in fact I did a lot right and luck played a huge part, I was still tortured by thoughts that I could have tried harder, or perhaps I was just weak. Ashamedly, all I could think was how lucky this new mum had been, and how it was stories like her’s that served to reinforce the feelings of inadequacy that I harboured. I just wanted her to stop talking.
Despite my embarrassment at my outburst, attending the birth talk finally gave me permission to talk about the feelings I had which had only gone quiet, not away. Sobbing my way through someone else’s birth story had forced me to face up to the fact that I was not over it after all.
Importantly, once Ray heard first-hand a positive experience of home birth at the birthing talk, he altered his previous stance that hospital was the only way to go. This validation of my secret desire not to go to hospital, along with the guidance of my wonderful midwife Vanessa, gave me the confidence to say that a home birth was what I wanted.
I have never really given much thought as to why I found this such a difficult decision to make – being a mum to two young children doesn’t leave much time for reflection – but writing this has made me wonder whether I just didn’t trust my body after the horror of my first experience. Maybe deep down I was worried that I would “fail” again and so a hospital birth was the best way to keep me and my baby safe.
To be honest, even once we were in possession of a birthing pool, I continued to say that I was hoping for a “stay-at-home-until-it -is-too-late birth”. To desire anything too much was to let myself in for the same level of devastating disappointment I’d experienced the first time, but regardless of my finer feelings around the issue, the countdown began.
Christmas Day came and everyone was primed to have Christmas dinner at our house without our attendance. We needn’t have worried. Boxing Day (my due date), New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and on and on came and went. At 41w+5 I was taking 15 minutes to get out of bed, I’d had 5 cervical sweeps, and I’d had enough.
At 6pm one evening I went into hospital for my last chance at an out-patient induction. In hospital I sat on a hard bed, completed the obligatory monitoring and finally had the pessary inserted. Yet another pair of people had seen my undercarriage which at this point in pregnancy had turned a peculiar purple colour, but to be honest I couldn’t have given a rat’s ass, I just wanted this baby OUT. What I hadn’t banked on however, was that after two and a half hours of sitting my massive purple backside on a hospital-grade bed, my right arse-cheek would go into a horrific cramp.
Like a back-to-front Quasimodo I hobbled to the car unable to stand up straight. My greatest concern was that I would go into labour and not be able to walk, so upon arriving home, I demanded that Ray ran a hot bath in the hope it would ease the pain.
I got stuck.
In a manner reminiscent of a drugged Orca at Sea World being lifted from one woefully inadequate tank to another, Ray had to hoist me out. I then crawled crying, with a towel draped over my expansive naked purple poonani-ed self, to my bedroom.
Despite the farcical turn events had taken, on some deep, barely acknowledged level I knew that I was experiencing a cramping sensation in areas other than my backside. Somehow however, the fact that I was about to have a baby managed to fade into insignificance in comparison to the colossal pain in my arse and so, feeling very sorry for myself, I allowed Ray to spoon feed me some pasta and went to sleep just before midnight.
Forty-five minutes later a pop and rush of water woke me. I hadn’t experienced this the first time around so I had just enough time to be surprised before the first proper contraction hit.
I couldn’t have given any less of a shit about my arse hurting. That pain was dead to me.
Ray immediately called Vanessa who upon hearing my primal screams in the background instructed him to take me straight to the hospital. In organisation overdrive in between contractions I ordered Ray around – which clothes I needed to wear, which shoes, get me a maternity pad so my waters wouldn’t leak onto the car seats. All hail the mother-plucking-mum-boss-mum-bossing-that-labour-shizz. I kid you not, I was a labour don. I was owning that shit.Hoo-YAH!
A few hours later, after our son was born, I found out that Ray had suffered some sort of mental cramp of his own and had padded my pants with 2 breast pads. My midwife never mentioned this.
With our daughter safely looked after with the arrival of my parents, it really was time to MOVE. I screamed on the pavement on the way to the car; I screamed in the car; I screamed at Ray when with another moment of mental spasm he pulled into the ambulance entrance of A&E; and on all fours I screamed at the locked door of the correct hospital wing that housed the labour ward. My son WAS being born on the pavement. And then it happened.
Not that I was embarrassed by this. No, I was elated.
“It’s ok,” I gasped, “It was a poo.” Some paramedics who had been standing next to their ambulance had now wandered over to see what all the screaming was about and were delighted to receive this nugget (of information).
“It was a poo,” I told the nice man who unlocked the doors and bought me a wheelchair to kneel on; and the first thing I told Vanessa when she arrived at the labour ward seconds after us was “I’ve done a poo in my pants”. Minutes later I was in a labour room.
To be honest my memory of this room is hazy to say the least. I spent most of the time on my knees, on the floor, with my forehead pressed firmly on the bed, only turning it to the side to suck like a demented vampire on the gas and air with the onset of each contraction.
In spite of this, in spite of the speed and the poo and the abandonment of any resemblance of my (purposely vague) birth plan, I felt calm and in control. Each contraction was doing something, I could feel it and it was so different to the birth of my daughter that I was excited – really f**king painfully excited.
I have no idea how much time had passed when Vanessa, in the calmest voice imaginable, said to me, “Nicola, what are you scared of? What are you waiting for? If you want to push, push.” And it was all I needed to hear. I didn’t trust my body. I had felt let down by my body for so long but now it was doing what it was meant to. It was, and still is, the single most empowering moment of my entire life and it moves me to tears when I remember so clearly the wonder I experienced as my body took over.
Just as circumstance had conspired against me with the birth of my daughter, this time circumstance played all in my favour, and in this magnificent act of birthing my baby, I was a bystander.
At one point Vanessa asked me if I’d like to touch my baby’s head. I did. It was wonderful.
Who knows how many contractions, how many minutes later, Vanessa held the doppler to hear my baby’s heart-rate and the all-important duff-duff was slow. Way too slow. In the same voice she had used before she simply said, “With this next contraction we want to get this baby out.” I had heard the too-slow heart-beat, I knew he had to be born now and when that wave came I pushed with more might than I knew I possessed.
I think even Vanessa may have been surprised at the speed with which our little boy was unceremoniously ejected as she called to me to, “Slow down now” in an effort to preserve my perineum, but honestly I simultaneously thought “How?!” and “F**k that!”.
And so, one and a half hours after my labour had woken me, we welcomed our little man into this world.
Second labours really can be faster, it seems.
The irony does not escape me that the only way I came to trust, and feel proud of, my body again is to have achieved exactly that which I had tried to tell myself was not important.
For so long I had told myself that it doesn’t matter how you birth your baby – what matters is that you love and care and nurture and comfort your child (and curse and moan and swear under your breath too, of course). Of course I have never judged harshly mums who have experienced a difficult labour – if anything my heart hurts that they might judge themselves as harshly as I have judged myself, but the truth remains that to forgive myself for “failing” the first time, I needed this birth.
The pride I feel has not diminished over the last 18 months – I needed this birth to heal.