I finished up at work on Friday March 2nd – two weeks before my due date. I was really looking forwards to two weeks of shopping and lunching with girlfriends. I had it in my head that I would surely go a week overdue – it seems like the done thing these days: all the girls are doing it. So I figured I had three weeks of holidays ahead of me before baby arrived.
On the Monday – my first day as a lady of leisure – I spent the whole day storming around a huge shopping centre, catching up on a million errands and little tasks and savouring the feeling of not having to be at work. I had extremely long, frequent Braxton Hicks all that day – I was happy that my body was doing so much good practicing for the impending birth.
That evening, at 7pm,. I had a “show”. I told my husband excitedly, then reassured my now panicking spouse that it did not mean I was in labour, simply that we were going to be meeting our baby within the next two weeks.
I should say at this point how fortunate my little family is that we found the Mater’s Midwifery Group Practice – it was the key to having the safe, gentle, natural birth we wanted, plus we had wonderful home visits to help us grow into a family during our babymoon. I come from an entire generation of caesarean babies in my family – me, my brothers, and all my cousins were all delivered by c-section. So I was surrounded by a lot of doubt and fear about my choice to pursue a natural delivery. My mother in particular was frankly angry at the irresponsibility of my decision. I was her first baby, and her doctor had stressed the need for her to have an elective caesar as he had identified the risk of foetal oversize, and that it would be too much of a risk to the baby’s (my) wellbeing to risk a vaginal delivery. It was only at the beginning of my third trimester (the home straight) that it dawned on me that as my birthweight was 6 ½ pounds a caesarean was most likely a complete misdiagnosis of the situation.
At 8pm contractions started – they were at uneven times, ranging between 12 minutes and 2 minutes apart – but on average were about 5 minutes apart. I gleefully attached the tens machine and started writing down the time of each contraction. I swung off the backs of chairs and walked around the house, and there were little bits of paper all over the house with lists of numbers on them – all the times of my contractions – and I even noted down when I had failed to time them: ‘in the loo – had two’. This continued for twelve hours, each surge was mild and doable though sometimes in quick succession, and at 8.30 the next morning I called the midwife and announced chirpily that my labour had started.
The midwife obviously knew that I was far too light-hearted to be in established labour. She asked me about my contractions and then gently broke the awful news: I wasn’t going to be meeting my baby anytime soon. While my labour could continue like this for a while and then establish into regular, stronger surges that would bring me closer to my baby, it could in fact, continue on and off like this for up to two weeks. I was ropable. Whilst I knew that I wasn’t in labour ‘proper’ I thought surely I am at least on the way to meeting my baby, and that will happen in the next 12 hours or so? Surely 12 bloody hours of writing down numbers has to count for something. I fell into a depressed state.
Well, the midwife must have spoken directly to my uterus down the phone line because the surges immediately slowed to one every 15 minutes. Each surge was still not very long or very intense, but the difference was that now I no longer wanted to do them: they were a waste of my time and energy. Previously each surge had filled me with enthusiasm, now each one made me shirty.
Plus I was reeling from the ever-changing timing of my baby’s arrival. First I was thrown off guard by the possibility of the baby arriving early: I wasn’t ready; the baby’s room wasn’t ready; I hadn’t washed the baby clothes; I had done no cooking in advance; no spring cleaning; and what about the pampering and rest that is supposed to happen between finishing up at work and baby’s arrival? I wasn’t mentally prepared for the baby to arrive any sooner than my due date. And worst of all I hadn’t finished varnishing the bloody change table to match the cot.
After reeling from the idea of the baby arriving two weeks early, and reconciling myself to this new turn of events (in the end it felt good to surrender all my ideas of what I thought I needed to get done in order for the baby to come home) I was then thrown off guard by the realisation that I may have quite a wait ahead of me, and that I might have plenty of time to do all those tasks I had considered essential for baby’s homecoming, albeit I’d be completing them with contractions every 15 minutes. I preferred the idea of having no time to complete said tasks, as it excused me from doing them at all.
That afternoon I had a regular meeting with the midwives at the Mater’s Midwifery Group Practice, and I unburdened all my woes to my midwife,: how would I sleep with contractions every 15 minutes? How could I deliver my baby when I would be utterly exhausted by the time my labour proper arrived? Her sage advice was calming: I would cope with 15 minute contractions for however long it went on because I had to and because I was capable of it. And I would sleep between contractions because exhaustion is a wonderful sedative. And lots of other women have done it before me. And this was simply the path my labour was taking.
She also told me, that if I chose to, I could keep this time as a secret, intimate time between me and my baby. The surges weren’t so strong or so frequent that I couldn’t keep them entirely to myself – no-one needed to know I was having a surge unless I chose to tell them – so, if I wanted to, I could have complete privacy to share this special time with my baby, and only the baby and me would know what was happening. I really liked this take on things, and so I asked for, and got, loads of support and comfort from my husband, and I continued to go about my daily business (like having the baby capsule fitted) smiling to myself ‘none of these people knows I’m in labour’. At this point I felt I occupied the whole house or wherever I happened to be at the moment a surge came. Later, as my birth progress I found my world shrank down closer to my body. I was still wearing the tens machine all the while. And so I spent the next two days varnishing the bloody change table to match the cot.
On the Tuesday night fate smiled on me – my surges slowed to 30 minutes apart, and I was able to sleep well between them. Then they stopped for 4 hours, so I woke on Wednesday morning feeling refreshed and much more positive about the whole affair. I decided I could do two weeks of 15 minute contractions if that was what destiny required of me.
I awoke at midnight on Wednesday night as my surges were coming closer together and I was no longer comfortable to remain in bed with the tens machine on. I woke my husband and told him that I was getting up because I was no longer comfortable to remain in bed, and he set up the spare mattress for me in the lounge room. Then he pleaded tiredness in a pathetic, whiney voice and I dismissed him back to bed, wondering to myself why I needed to be pregnant when I was already married to a big baby. So I remained in the lounge room, watching tv, using the tens, and changing position – mainly being on the sofa supported by vast numbers of pillows. I was working on the assumption that this was another full dress rehearsal, and I was hoping it would be briefer than the 12 hours on Monday night. At this point my consciousness occupied the whole of the lounge room.
At 3am things changed – it was as if a switch had been flicked, and I knew that at last I was on my way to meeting my baby. The surges were more intense, lasted for longer, and were much closer together. Time distorted dramatically – I kept thinking to myself ‘half an hour must have elapsed’ but each time I looked at the clock no more than seven minutes had gone by. Often only 3 or 4 minutes had elapsed. I was awed at the intensity of the surges as they rolled over me, and I was filled with confidence that my body obviously knew what to do. I felt the world had shrunk and I was only aware of the existence of a space of about 3 metres around my body. Quite soon I woke my husband, and told him I needed his emotional support. He came and sat beside me.
The intensity of the surges was such that at 4am I told him to call the midwife and let her know that we were in labour. I marvelled when I heard his calm voice speaking to the midwife: again another switch was turned on and from that moment on my husband became the father of our little family. He was the ‘face’ of our family and I could feel him standing between me and the world like a forcefield. That moment in time, hearing him call the midwife, is an unforgettable moment from my birthing.
I talked with the midwife, and answered her questions, and she told us to keep going at home (which we were happy to do), and then she told my husband to call back in 4 hours. Apparently she also meant to add ‘unless you wish to call me earlier for any reason at all’. Unfortunately my husband took her literally, and so for the next couple of hours he gave me a countdown of how long until we could phone the midwife again, and I despised him for it.
I spent most on my time in a side-lying position – but supported by lots of pillows so my belly was hanging downwards, so it was kind of half way between side-lying and on all fours. Sometimes I would get up onto my knees for a surge, but mostly I was settled into one position, which surprised me, as I had good intentions about being very active during the birth, but it felt good at the time, so there I stayed. All through this time I used the relaxation breathing we’d learnt at Hypnobirthing, and as the surges grew more intense I used deeper and deeper breathing. And I fell in love with the tens machine all over again. It felt surprisingly good to make a lot of noise during surges, I found it very cathartic.
After 7 am my surges changed dramatically – they were much more intense, closer together and lasting longer, and suddenly I found I wasn’t able to control my breathing. My breath was catching involuntarily like the way it does when you’re retching, and I panicked because I thought this indicated that I was no longer coping. I told my husband that I was stressed because I wasn’t able to keep my breathing calm anymore, and that although I felt I’d done so well so far, my labour now seemed to be defeating me. My consciousness had shrunk to a one metre radius around my body.
My husband reassured me that I was still doing well, but I asked him to call the midwife, and tell her I felt I wasn’t coping. He told me that the allotted 4 hours wasn’t up and we therefore weren’t yet due to call her back, and I hissed at him through clenched teeth ‘call the bloody midwife!’. So call her he did – and she heard me grunting in the background and immediately said ‘call an ambulance!’. I was very happy with this turn of events, as I had a horror of delivering in the car, plus I thought driving to hospital in the car would be really bloody uncomfortable.
So my husband then calmly called the ambulance, and in no time we had 3 ambulances outside and 7 guys in blue uniforms and latex gloves in our lounge room. There were reports of a 4th ambulance which started up our street but then did a u-turn and departed. Apparently ambos really like turning up to a birthing woman – there’s always the chance of them getting their picture in the paper with a caption if bub arrives suddenly, and it sure beats turning up to a car accident or domestic stabbing. The arrival of a fleet of ambulance vehicles at the time all our neighbours were leaving for work certainly made an impression on our street, although I was oblivious to the herd of ambo guys in the room with us – at the time I was so focussed on my body I wouldn’t have noticed if Condeleeza Rice was doing a pole dance in our lounge room.
The ambos were very concerned to ascertain if the baby was crowning. I reassured them it wasn’t, but they kept asking anyway. A couple of them introduced themselves and told me they were going to take my pulse, blood pressure, etc. Personally, I couldn’t have cared if they took all our cash and valuables, I just kept doing my thing. Then I got to lie down on a lovely gurney and got wheeled into an ambulance – it was heaven. I fully recommend taking an ambulance to hospital when having a baby – you get wheeled door to door and you don’t have to bother with painful hospital admissions procedures. The ambo in the back of the ambulance gave me a lovely green plastic whistle thingy full to drugs to suck on, (not entox but similar) which was good fun, and he kept urging me not to push. I was sorely tempted to screw my face up and grunt loudly, just to freak him out.
When I arrived at hospital my midwife was already waiting in the birth suite, and in a very lucky turn of events, another midwife from the same team was in the building, so she attended also. I feel very blessed to have been attended by two midwives. When I arrived I was given a very perfunctory internal examination to determine how far along things were – it was perfunctory on account of the fact that the midwife was not able to insert her finger into my vagina as the baby’s head was blocking all access to that door. My husband arrived at this point (it must be said – he arrived without my bag) and I was asked to take a pee, so he helped me into the loo. No joy: couldn’t pee. So I hopped up on the bed and was catheterised. I wasn’t perturbed by this, as I was aware that the pressure of the baby’s head on the mother’s bladder can make peeing impossible. This done I was immediately scolded for not drinking enough fluids during my labour.
One of the midwives went outside for a moment, and when she returned she asked if I would mind if some midwifery students sat in on our birth (apparently opportunities to observe unmedicated births weren’t that frequent)? The deal was that they would simply sit silently in a corner of the room and remain unobtrusive throughout. After having a flock of ambos come to our house I was more than happy to have midwifery students join our birth. My husband told me afterwards that there were four midwifery students. I was completely unaware of their presence. My world had shrunk to only about a 30 cm radius around my body, and I was not fully aware of anything happening beyond this sphere. My husband and the midwives had to come within this space and talk to me closely in order for me to be conscious of what they were saying.
So now I was on all fours at the head end of the bed, propped up on pillows, (actually on my knees over the head of the bed) and it was time to put in some effort. For the first few contractions I simply breathed and panted and whinged through them, as I didn’t want to start pushing as I knew the effort was going to start in earnest then, plus my perineum was going to start hurting in a big way once the pushing started. Anyway I had nil urge to push. Instead I had a very strong urge to leave and go home. So the midwife came up to my end of the bed and told me “you know, you are going to have to push this baby out”. I was appalled that she would say something so cruel to a woman in my situation. I was shocked: she obviously hadn’t read the same books about birth as I had – I was going to ‘breathe my baby down’ and I certainly wasn’t going to start pushing before I had the urge to push, I was going to practice ‘mother-lead pushing’. In hindsight it turns out she was right. But at the time she was most incorrect.
So, for the next few contractions after this awful news was broken to me, I grunted a lot during contractions, but didn’t actually push. I figured this would satisfy the midwives, and no-one would bother me. But they were onto me immediately, with one midwife coming up to my ear and saying ‘Anne-Marie: less throat, more bottom’. Again: very poor treatment of a birthing woman.
So then I found myself in the horrible predicament of having to start pushing. If I could have delayed it any further, I would have, but I couldn’t think of any other evasions, plus there were rather a lot of eyes in the room focussed on me. So I started pushing, and immediately regretted it. The pain in my perineum was exactly like a Chinese burn, and once commenced it didn’t switch off. Unlike the surges themselves – which I found switched off completely between rounds, leaving me the most exquisite breaks between contractions. Each break between contractions was like a holiday and I enjoyed them immensely. I still smile when I think about them. Someone should sell ‘Breaks-between-Contractions’ as a holiday destination. I was surprised by the intensity of the sensation in my perineum, but at no stage throughout my entire birthing did I think ‘I can’t do this’ – instead I experienced thoughts of ‘you’ve got to be kidding’. I continued to whinge and complain, which included a fair degree of bitching and moaning, and of course I was still clinging to the control button of my sacred tens unit all the while.
In between surges the midwife used a hand-held heart monitor to monitor the baby’s heart rate, which I found immensely reassuring, as I knew I wanted to avoid a big ‘strap-on’ continuous monitor on my belly if I could, plus each individual time the monitor was applied to my belly was an opportunity for the midwife to communicate with me and of course for a conscious decision to be made: machines that go beep and print strips of paper don’t make conscious decisions.
The midwife told me I needed to use more of each contraction – I was stopping pushing once the surge had peaked, and simply panted my way down the other side, but she said I needed to maintain my momentum for the whole of the surge if I was going to make progress. In between contractions I relaxed, and found myself slipping down the pile of pillows – I really needed to be propped up better, and next time I’m going to grab a bean bag. The pushing went on and on, with the Chinese burn getting more intense while I pushed, and abating ever so slightly when I stopped. I didn’t see my efforts in a mirror during this bit, and that’s something I’ll be doing next time, to get connected with what each effort is doing. At some point the midwife informed me that she felt I was almost certainly going to tear, as things were very tight downstairs, and she offered to perform a little episiotomy if I wished. I declined, telling her I was happy to take the risk of tearing on the off chance I didn’t tear, and she respected my wishes. I felt good then that my wishes had been respected, and I still feel good about it, even though I did end up needing a couple of stiches. How do I feel about having a tear? I have learnt that there’s a difference between ‘unfortunate’ and ‘regrettable’ – for me it was unfortunate. The midwife came up to my end of the bed and told me I was doing really well – her words were like gold.
After a while both midwives called for a change of position to help make some progress. So I was helped to the other end of the bed, which the midwives had put down so it was like a step. I sat of the very edge of the bed, and they attached a bar above it (kind of like the frame of a high headboard) for me to hang onto. But I ended up placing both hands beside my bottom to hold myself slightly off the bed. This was because the sensation pressure in my perineum and back passage was such that I felt I would explode if I put even the slightest pressure on my tailbone or seatbones, and so despite both midwives reassuring me that I could completely sit down without fear I remained in this position throughout, because I felt compelled to. And so things continued for a while, I put more effort in: I realised that I needed to; I was more in the swing of it; plus I found that once the pain in my perineum was turned up to ‘10’ it didn’t get any worse, so I knew I was going to be ok with it (ie I had made it so far, so, so far so good). I had no real sense of the passage of time through any of this, so I’m not sure how long this bit lasted, but I was mightily surprised when the baby’s head suddenly ‘popped’ out. I had a real ‘popping’ sensation. Prior to this I had no inkling whatsoever that I was close to delivering the head. Of course the baby’s head didn’t ‘pop’ out at all – it had been delivered very slowly and gradually indeed, it’s simply that once the widest part of the head is delivered the whole head (down to the neck) is then out, and as the neck is narrower you suddenly get a return of sensation to your perineum, hence the ‘pop’ feeling. At this moment I saw the baby in the mirror for the first time, and the moment I saw his face I knew he was a boy. I was actually extremely shocked when I saw the baby’s face, as he was a perfect clone of my husband, and no-one expects to look down and see their husband’s head sticking out of their vagina. The midwife told me I’d have to put in a big push to deliver the shoulders, and I was surprised how much effort that took, and also that it was painful – I had thought that after delivering the head (ie the biggest bit) the rest would all be painless. I was also stunned that I had complete sensation of the entire length of his body being delivered – it was an astonishing feeling to feel something so incredibly long leave my body. Again, I had assumed that after the head I wouldn’t really have any awareness of the rest. I can honestly say I had no awareness that my perineum had torn at all until I was told. No different pain, no additional pain.
And then my baby was placed on my chest, and I held in my arms what I had held in my belly for so long. Cuong, my husband, looked and told me we had a boy. My first thought when I beheld my son was that he was an entirely, totally separate person from me. Then the midwives announced the time of birth as 10.30 am and I was shocked – I knew that at least 20 minutes must have elapsed since I started pushing, and it felt to me like somewhere between 25 – 45 minutes had passed, but then I did the maths and realised that 2 hours had gone by. I was stunned that time had stood still like that.
And so my son and I stared into each others eyes, and in no time he was nuzzling and suckling, and I really, really wanted to do it all again. And I said so.