Before I was pregnant I never really understood people sharing their birth stories, photographers in the birth room or people live streaming their most intimate moment (I mean, I’m still not quite there with the last bit, but whatever floats your boat!) It seemed like too much information and to be quite frank, a bit gross.
Then I got pregnant and I devoured these stories. I stayed up late at night gazing into the cold glow of my phone watching birth video after birth video. I would probably have asked every mother I met about their births, but I never needed to. Suddenly you’re part of a club where women are eager to share their own story, their own experience with you. Particularly the scary ones! It’s easy to see why new mothers become so frightened of giving birth when so many of the stories are so stressful.
I’ve been trying to piece together my own Birth Story because despite having given birth so recently, it’s already a blur. So if you’re pregnant and afraid, just think that it’s only been 3 weeks and the pain is already forgotten… I’ve remembered standing on Lego for longer than that!
But I have my maternity notes in front of me (I just cried reading them aloud to my husband!) and having enjoyed so many other’s stories I feel it’s only fair that I share mine.
My story actually starts about 9 months ago. I was pregnant and my instant elation had turned to terror. None of my close friends had done this yet, all the stories I knew from pregnancy and birth were negative. My incredible mother had suffered terribly for years and years with miscarriages, I wasn’t allowed to ask about my sister’s birth because “It’ll only scare you and put you off” so I didn’t really know what to do. I was struggling with extreme morning sickness, unable to keep anything at all down, and had resigned myself to snoozing beneath a tree in mum’s garden for the foreseeable future. My mind swirled with a strange mixture of joy, gratitude, excitement, utter terror, misery and confusion.
My husband and I read every review of every hospital in London, endless forums filled with nightmare stories about things that went wrong, women being left for hours covered in blood on a noisy ward without their new babies, the occasional comment about the champagne on offer in the private wings, and finding that if you wanted a private doctor, you’d have to book one immediately as they all get booked so fast and you don’t want to end up with “the wrong one”. Well, how were we supposed to know who the right one was?! I retreated back to the shade completely deflated with no idea what I was supposed to do. My kind hearted husband sat beside me and said you know what, I think this is all going to be too much for you, let’s just book a caesarean.
Desperate to feel something other than panic, I Googled “Positive Birth” and The Positive Birth Book popped up. I downloaded it and everything changed. I wasn’t even half way through before making my mum and husband read it too. It’s a brilliantly simple, easy read that essentially breaks down everything you need to know about pregnancy and birth. It presents all of your options, their benefits and risks. It’s also the first time I considered home birth, as statistically it has the lowest risk of things going wrong. I quickly read every book and study I could find on home births.
Long story made impossibly short – we’re mammals. We were designed to give birth in a cosy, dark, quiet space (not flat on our back in a bright sterile room with a troop of med-students peering into our vagina, doctors checking their watches and muttering about time limits). The hormones we need to go into labour and give birth are made in the dark, when we’re relaxed and happy. Adrenaline is designed to put a stop to labour (which makes sense if you’re a cavewoman giving birth and a bear ambles in! With or without a white coat.)
One of the books I read (The Homebirth Handbook) had a foreword written by a friend, who it turns out had the author at her own home birth. The author, Annie, also had her own company of private midwives. It seemed everything was falling into place! I gave them a buzz and was paired up with a midwife called Cheryl Opinio-Fisher, a no-nonsense South African who has since become one of my all-time favourite people.
Cheryl came by the house for all of my checkups, so I never needed to go into the hospital. We’d sit at the kitchen table over cups of tea and chocolate biscuits while I fired questions at her. We discussed endless articles, studies, ideas, she settled each and every one of my fears. Laughed at me often. Sent me off to see a chiropractor (not something I would ever have done and now swear by it to all of my pregnant friends) and reassured me about silly things like being able to sleep on my back and eat runny eggs. She never once weighed me, made me stress about arbitrary targets or measurements. In short she made my pregnancy a hundred and one times better than it would have been without her. (You can find her at Private Midwives now. Most women book her to attend their hospital births and advocate on their behalf, rather than just home births.)
By the end of my pregnancy she knew me inside out. And by the end of my pregnancy I was ready for it all to be over. The baby “dropped” very early so I was waddling around town. I was having Braxton Hicks (practice contractions) every night for weeks. And I could have murdered every unsuspecting Instagram commenter who said “you’ve been pregnant forever!!” But for all my longing for pregnancy to be over, I didn’t feel ready to become a mother. I was bombarded with people saying “make the most of now, life will be so difficult when the baby arrives!” I was dreading the “sleepless nights covered in vomit” that everyone so gleefully promised. I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to bond with the baby, having never been much of a baby person. Mum came up to visit and we spent an entire day talking it all through, all my fears and concerns. By the end of the day I felt like the world had been lifted from my shoulders and I whispered to my bump “I’m ready for you now little one, you come out whenever you’re ready.” Uncharacteristically I then tidied the house and rearranged the kitchen! Mum went home promising to return the following week to start getting things set up for the birth. I ordered a curry for supper and bounced on my birthing ball unable to eat more than a couple bites through my nightly faux-contractions. I joked to my husband that it wasn’t like me not to want to eat, that just maybe this was the real thing. We watched a movie and went to bed.
At 2am I was still contracting and told him that actually I really thought this was it, I was in labour. He said that was good news, now go back to sleep. I managed a few more hours of snoozing between contractions, woke him again at 5am for a make-out session and roll in the hay (both these things help with producing the labour hormone Oxytocin, make pain management easier and hurry things along!) then I used the Freya app to start timing the contractions. They were coming every 3mins and lasting a minute at a time, meaning I was in active labour. I was finally able to say “Call the midwife!” excited that after all those months of planning it was really going to happen!
We went down to the kitchen, my husband set up the pool and I roamed around the room lighting candles and setting up my aromatherapy scents. The lights were off, we had the sound of crashing waves on the speakers, the whole place smelled like a spa and I wriggled into a pile of warm blankets on the sofa next to the birthing pool.
I had taken a hypnobirthing class with the lovely Megan and was putting my breathing techniques to good use. The app continued to coach me through each contraction, my husband stroking my back and Mr Custard laying quietly with his head across my neck.
I stayed in my little nest for the next few hours. Snoozing as much as I could, knowing I’d need my strength later. At some point I slid into the pool, lay back and floated there in the twilight. Warm, lavender scented water surrounding me and easing the pain of the mounting contractions. I practiced some of the yoga moves I’d learned throughout pregnancy and as each contraction surged through me I gripped onto two rose quartz spheres my mum had brought me.
At some point Cheryl, who had snuck in quietly, suggested a bite to eat and I happily agreed. Sitting in the pool chatting away, tucking into an acai bowl I felt everything slow down. The contractions seemed to lessen and ebb away. Somewhat disappointed I crawled back into my nest of blankets. Custard (who has never been a fan of baths) was relieved and crawled in next to me. My husband sat beside me and stroked my hair while I dozed.
By the afternoon things were slowly building up again. Annie, our second midwife (the author I mentioned) arrived at about 3pm and by now my contractions were much stronger. I had to really work to breath through them. The midwives had me walk sideways up and down the stairs, stopping to make it through each contraction. I found comfort in leaning over the edge of the pool (it’s soft like a large, firm paddling pool) with my husband rubbing my lower back.
At 6pm Cheryl offers an examination to see how far along I am. She checks, asks if I want to know how dilated I am, I say “I don’t know, do I?” she says “probably not.” so the midwives go home promising to return later and to call them if anything changes.
My husband takes me upstairs to bed and we cuddle through the contractions. He’s incredible, calming me, coaching me, reassuring me. Never leaving my side for a second. After a couple of hours in bed I move to the shower, putting a very low stool (one of these) right under the cascading water. I sit with the jet hitting my sacrum and groan with every contraction, which are getting more and more intense. At some point I remember having a very definite realisation that I’m fighting the contractions. That all the breathing I’m doing is to try and get past the contractions rather than harnessing them. I try to welcome them, telling myself “it’s not pain, it’s power” and become determined to use them to my advantage. I keep reciting “power” to myself between moans, while my husband peers through the glass convinced that I’ve lost my mind and perhaps we should go to the hospital after all…
I remember an affirmation I’d read months ago “every contraction brings me closer to meeting my baby” and I try to ride them like waves. Then things changed.
“The baby’s coming” I said.
The midwives were called and I told my husband that I really wanted to be in the pool. “Right.” he said, “Wait here” as he bolted down the stairs.
I can’t wait, the baby is on its way. I creep agonisingly slowly down the stairs, stopping every step as a new wave hits. I arrive in the kitchen to find him bailing out the now cold pool with buckets and trying to top up the hot water with huge saucepans from the AGA and a hose so hot it threatens to melt any moment. I sink to the floor with a huge contraction just as my waters break. He lifts me into the pool and my body starts pushing. I always wondered how I’d know when to push, and I needn’t have worried! I couldn’t have not pushed if I’d wanted to.
Cheryl arrives just before 10pm and quietly asks me if I might like some gas & air. I agreed and the relief was incredible! I was completely away with the fairies but still very much aware of every sensation and everything going on, but it also stopped me from clenching my jaw and gave me something to focus on. She had me float on my back and try to relax, saying my body would know what to do. Before I know it she’s calling at me to “stop pushing!” and “pant like a dog”. The baby starts to crown and all of a sudden there’s someone else in the pool with me! At 10.15 I scoop the baby up and gaze down into huge blue eyes. “Hello” I say, “we’ve been waiting for you!”
My husband has his arms wrapped around us and Custard is sitting on his knee peering over the edge. We’re bathed in candlelight and surrounded by the most tremendous sense of calm. Cheryl asks if it’s a boy or a girl, and I exclaim “Oh! Oh it’s a girl!” (then check again because we were so convinced it would be a boy that I didn’t trust my own eyes). I said “It’s Lily. Hello little Lily!” and my husband and I cried, kissed each other and looked in complete awe and wonder at the new centre of our universe. Lily didn’t cry or yell, she just peered around like she’d done it all before.
Annie, our second midwife, arrived and thought Cheryl was joking when she said it was too late. There was no way we could have gone from 1cm dilated (yea, 1 cm – thank goodness Cheryl didn’t tell me at the time!) to giving birth so quickly! But it turns out the “power” plan had worked its magic!
Daddy cut the cord once it had turned white and had “skin to skin” with Lily while I tried to deliver the placenta. I was concerned that after all that work to have a home birth that I’d have to transfer to hospital anyway. I tried pushing but nothing was happening. Lily was brought back to me to breastfeed and the midwives had me cough, this worked a charm and the placenta was born without any bother at all.
I had a shower while Lily was weighed and checked over. She was perfect.
Then I climbed into my own bed and someone handed me a toasted hot-cross-bun dripping with butter and a cup of tea. It might as well have been nectar of the gods! At midnight the midwives said goodbye and left a new little family to their first night together.
Before the birth we had agreed that we wouldn’t have any visitors for a while, that we wouldn’t even tell anyone for a few days so we could enjoy the newborn bubble. But when it came to that moment, all I wanted was my mum.
Of course for the first time in her entire life she’d turned her phone off before bed. I tried dad, but as usual his phone was lost under a sofa cushion. We rang the home phone a few times before getting a hold of mum on Facetime. I said I wanted to introduce her to someone… at which she screamed and burst into tears, bringing dad barrelling into the room in a panic having been searching the house for the ringing phones! She suggests coming up in the morning to which dad says “bugger that, we’re coming now!” They pull on jumpers and boots, throw all the dogs into the car, and race off into the night.
If you’re wondering how I had the name Lily picked out, I chose it a very long time ago. After a number of heartbreaking miscarriages mum fell pregnant with twins. My twin was going to be called Lily, but didn’t survive. So when mum walked through my bedroom door at 3am, looked down at this tiny person and smiling through her tears said “Oh Lily, you finally made it…” well, my heart could have burst.
They had arrived to find us all in bed, Lily in my arms wrapped in a huge cashmere jumper, both my husband and I grey with exhaustion with wide eyes and wider grins. Mum scooped up the baby and left us to sleep. I couldn’t be more grateful to them for dropping everything and coming when I didn’t even know I needed them. They helped us muddle through the first days together, sworn to secrecy so as not to upset any other loved ones.
I hope one day I can be that sort of parent to my little Lily Valentine.
The best Valentine’s gift I could possibly have asked for.