Not every birth is wonderous. I’m not talking about the openly physically traumatic or even tragic births experienced by countless women the world over. I’m talking about ‘normal’ births. Those births where the babies are angelic and the pictures on twitter and Facebook paint the picture of a perfect and happy new family. But if you look closely at certain pictures of certain families, you’ll notice Mum isn’t in the pictures….its always baby and Dad, baby and grandparents, baby and stuffed toy, but never Mum and baby. She gets away with it by always being the one with the camera, doting on her new baby. But in the rare side shot you do find of Mum, do you detect a hint of guilt in her eyes? An unwillingness to look down the lens of the camera, lest her true feelings be discovered? Or is that all in your head? Because who could ever be disappointed? Who could ever feel lonely? Who could ever feel so damned isolated they don’t know who or where to turn when their whole world is celebrating the arrival of a precious and wanted little bundle? Whoever knew that among all the stories of perfect births, of serene hypnotic waterbirths – and of monitor-laden hospital births, whoever knew that moment of perfection where a new little human, your newest family member joins you, could cause so much pain you’ll spend their early life wishing away your guilt and questioning why – when you have so much – you could ever want more?
My baby was born early this year and he was – and still is – beautiful. Not ‘I’m a new mother blinkered by hormones’ beautiful, but actually stunning. But his ‘normal’ birth was not. His perfectly normal birth left me empty and numb for a good few months, while the guilt will take longer to subside. This is our story, and it isn’t wonderful, but I think that’s ok…
I never had any set ideas about labour…I wanted an intervention-free birth, I wanted my son to be born into as calm an atmosphere as possible but I accepted that things could go wrong and was happy to ‘go with it’ on the day. Secretly, a part of me looked forward to labour – what was all the fuss about? Could it ever be that painful?! I was ready. I was ready to let go and be led by nature; to let my mind (for once) take a backseat and to let my body do what it was made to do. I welcomed the pain – let it hurt! I wanted to be moved and to experience the wonder and love that comes from bringing your baby safely into this world. I knew things can – and do – routinely go wrong, but I had an overpowering belief that my labour would be ok and that if I did the right things and thought positively enough, all would be well and good and normal and natural. Trouble is, I didn’t do the right things, I listened to the wrong advice and when faced with the consequences of that, I decided – shamefully quickly- that I couldn’t deal with those consequences and I gave up. I became a passenger….an object in my own birth.
I was annoyingly overdue. Induction was threatening and I was steeling myself, ready for a condescending consultant review where I’d be bullied into some form of accelerant. But that morning was different. It was cold, blustery, grey – my very favourite kind of day and as a last-ditch natural induction attempt, I found a friend and her dog and went walking. It felt good. The cold was sharper than I’d imagined and I was comically under-dressed. But the dog’s energy was infectious and we spent hours running, jumping, throwing balls. I was glad that I could still do and enjoy the simple things I loved whilst being so pregnant – no waddling and shuffling here. Looking back, the energy I had was mental….dashing up and down a beach after a Spaniel and lobbing a tennis ball again and again. It was a perfect afternoon and 4 hours later, the trudge home admittedly felt a bit like a chore. I went into labour that evening.
My husband was asleep by 11 and I was tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle for my aching back. By 1, I realised that the aching back wasn’t a product of the beach when teeny little contractions, 8 minutes apart started. I timed them. I got bored of timing them. I tried to go to sleep. I facebooked. And eventually, I got up and paced. I experimented. I quickly realised that sitting or lying down were growing increasingly uncomfortable – perfect, I’d rather walk around. I leaned forward for every contraction and felt instant relief. I listened to music in my head, concentrating on complicated harmonies…teasing out the individual sounds and by the time they were unravelled, the contraction was over. When it became too distracting to time contractions and distance myself from them, I woke my husband and he took over. I had a coping mechanism. It worked and it was comfortable. The contractions felt good – painful, but with purpose. I had one more hurdle and then I could relax – I had to figure out a way of getting comfy in the car for the hospital trip – and then everything would be fine. I freaked out. With all the standing and swaying and pacing, I hadn’t noticed that lying down brought a firey back pain that took my breath away. I bit my lip, downed paracetamol and got in the car to face full blown rush hour madness. Once this bit is over, we can get back to it being ok again.
The faffing that followed lasted for maybe 1 or 2 hours. Triage – and two room changes later and I was still mentally “on hold”. Holding that thought – this will be over soon and then I can get back to my music, walking around, leaning….because I needed a rest. I stood in the corner of the room and agreed to everything – anything – that would get me to that point sooner. Following some questionable tracing of my baby’s heart rate, I agreed to have my waters broken and a fetal scalp electrode attached. I could blame my poor decision-making on fatigue – 36 hours without more than an hour or so of unbroken sleep…….that romp in the countryside the day before…..severe nausea and vomiting during those early stages of labour…..or simply not having eaten in 24 hours. I could blame any one of those things, but that would just be covering the simple fact that I trusted what my midwife told me, didn’t ask questions and assumed that after, I’d be able to continue with happily plodding along through contractions, meandering around waiting for this to hot up. I didn’t question that the promise of ’20 minutes monitoring’ had been quietly tucked away, and it never crossed my mind that I’d spend the rest of my labour strapped to a bed, slowly becoming more and more of a prisoner. This was easy, and you don’t question an easy ride, right?
Having narrowly avoided induction, I’d done some light reading on membrane rupturing….not much, but enough to know it shouldn’t hurt and can speed up labour. I could deal with that, labour to 4cm dilated had been a breeze. I was miles away from needing pain relief, let it speed up. How bad could it be? The next memory is fuzzy. I think my waters must have been broken first – warm, surprisingly warm and painless. The electrode? Not so much. Maybe it hurt so much because I wasn’t expecting it, but the sensation of tugging – of rummaging and of picking made me want to kick. I surprised myself. I didn’t cry out, the pain internalised, locked into my head. Again, and again with the jabbing and pulling (“I’m going to get out as much fluid as possible”) until finally it that long drawn out minute or so ended. I was shocked, but relieved it was over and finally ready to crack on until the length of the cables made me realise I wasn’t getting down off that bed any more. And the horror of that – of coping with contractions in the only position I had found agonising in the hours before – coupled with the dull pounding I could still feel long after that horrible examination had ended sent the idea that I was doing this on my own flying away. I pushed away the emotion and got rid of the tears before my husband could see them and tried desperately to ‘unsee’ that I was bleeding. I was expecting all manner of blood, gore and goo. But not yet, not in this way. In fact, after this, I refused to see any part of my body below the waist and above the knee until well after the birth. I was detaching already and when the searing pain in my back began, I crashed back to reality with a horrible bump.
The reassuring and meaningful pain of contractions that I’d felt up until that point was quickly dulled by the knife-like stabbing in my back. Grating, raw and rough pain. Pain that was there for the sake of being painful alone. It spread upwards until I could no longer breathe. The contractions I’d previously felt dulled to mere tightening a as a vice-like iron fist clenched round my throat, making me wonder when I’d pass out from lack of air. Movement. Movement could help, maybe? But the only movement left was rolling from one side to another, desperately trying to escape….desperately looking for something – anything – that could help me breathe again. I searched for the music, but it had gone. All my thoughts were staccato – fractured and cut short before more than a few words could come out. It repeated, again and again and again.I willed the contractions to come back, tried to focus on them, but the feeling had all but disappeared. I tried to talk but the words wouldn’t form and I didn’t have the breath to back them up either. The room was silent, my eyes closed and I was truly, and maddeningly alone.
After probably minutes, but seemingly hours – would I like another examinaton to see how far I’d progressed? The stabbing aching of last time echoed in my mind, but anything – any scrap of motivation that could help wouldn’t have been turned down here. I don’t even feel this examination and the words ‘no further progress’ leave me feeling despair and my last coherent and relevant thought was that the baby must be in a weird position (they couldn’t tell at triage) for my back to hurt this much. Something had to be wrong for the contractions to dull to nothing, surely. The cables and straps are constricting, I want them off, they need to go now, but this is what I signed up for – they are here to stay for as long as me and the baby are connected.
I try gas any air and nearly vomit – not bearable given I can barely breathe. I agree to have morphine. I cancel the morphine and beg for an epidural, fully expecting a fight. It isn’t questioned. As a roll around waiting for the anaesthetist, I think – twice – you can do this without. It’s been a shock but you can do it, I promise you can. I silence the voice, silence me, and lock that part away. You don’t matter any more. No-one cares. You are alone in this, there is no-one coming to help. Take the epidural, weakling. Take it and go away until it’s over. So I did.
I curled up into a ball and got the epidural. The back pain disappears first and I can breathe. The contractions continue and I stupidly wonder whether I’ll get to keep them, but their pain fades and eventually the sensation disappears. I chat. I send my husband to lunch. I distract myself. I turn away from the monitors, I ignore everything and for all the world spend the next few hours genuinely forgetting where I am and what I’m there for. I’m not tempted to feel for contractions, I don’t look under the sheets and I forget, even, that hours before I was thirsty, so I don’t drink. I barely move. For one horrible moment, my hand brushes by something cold, alien…..its my leg. I recoil, cover it up and talk about TV shows, my brother, my Dad…..anything.
As time goes by I become convinced that I was only allowed the epidural because I’m going to end up with a C-section. I know there is something they aren’t telling me, and I think this is it…and I’ve known it for a while. I can’t do this. They know it, and I do. I don’t understand why we’re waiting, but that’s how this will end up. So it is a surprise when they tell me I should start to push. Every ounce of me screams that it feels wrong, I’m not ready. I’m NOT ready. And it isn’t going to work anyway, so why try?
And it doesn’t work. My back to back baby needs turning (for reasons I still don’t understand). I remember shouting. SO much shouting. Not mine. They tell me to hold my breath and push. I hate holding my breath. They make me do it over and over. Its the only way. Suddenly I’m really not in the room any more. My mind drifts back to the last time I held my breath like this – a lifetime ago in an icy lake, kayaking. My boat capsized, and I waited, leaning forward and holding my breath, waiting to grab hold of the approaching rescue boat to pull myself back round. But it was slow and the water numbingly cold. As I pulled myself back round, I closed my eyes, nose under water and felt myself slip back. Its the first time I’ve ever understood how death could ever be peaceful. But this wasn’t peaceful. The burning in my chest shakes away the peaceful memory and I breathe harder, knowing that when I hold my breath, so does my baby.
They turn the baby, they shout. They get angry – I’m not doing enough, I’m not fast or strong enough. It isn’t enough. The baby is hurting now and it’s my fault. They threaten and eventually I’m doing better, clawing back a little control – this might actually happen outside of theatre. They tell me he will be here soon, but that I won’t be able to hold him. Buzzers sound and I know they think he won’t breathe. And I don’t care. A calmer voice repeats the news, but I heard it the first time. I just don’t care any more. I want out. I push for so long that that familiar feeling of faintness when you’ve run too far without eating appears. Good, maybe if I black out, I’ll get a rest? I feel my contractions now – not much of the pain, but the sensation. I feel the baby’s head being born, feel the burning beforehand and I hear the collective gasp as it happens and I know – I feel, despite wishing that I didn’t, I feel the violent tearing. It seems fitting, and again – I don’t care. Shouting to stop pushing. Shouting to push again and he is out.
I ask for some water.
And for some reason, they pass me the baby. My first thought? Why isn’t he blue? Why is breathing? You said he wouldn’t cry and this kid is BAWLING. And he isn’t ugly. He is stunning. He isn’t scrunched up, he’s pink. He can’t be mine, there must be a different baby under that sheet. For all I know, there could be. I have kept my eyes firmly closed for the last….hour? Two hours? I don’t know. Someone else gave birth that day, I was just along for the ride.
They say that birth is beautiful. They say we surprise ourselves. I don’t see the beauty, but I did surprise myself. I’m weaker than I thought. Up until now, I’ve always believed in the power of the mind. How you can think your way out of most situations, you can trust your mind, your instincts to steer you the right way. There’s always an answer, always something. My instincts didn’t do that – and if they did, well I didn’t listen to them. In fact, not only did I ignore them, but I silenced them. I sent every feeling part of myself away to the detriment of my son. Thank God babies don’t have long memories. Thank God he won’t remember that his Mummy didn’t look at him and love him. No baby deserves that.
At some point, after everyone had left and the baby was sleeping, a wheelchair appeared in the room. I swear it appeared on its own. Noticing it sat there, by the door is an ominous image that has stuck with me all these months. I wanted to walk to the ward. I refused to get in it. I was bribed by my husband. Getting in, I realised that even post-birth, my body still wasn’t going to become my own again for a while. The four days and nights that followed were entirely sleepless, painful and entirely centred around trying desperately to not fail at breastfeeding. I didn’t leave my baby – not even to go to the toilet – unless my husband was there. I didn’t eat (fed husband instead), I made jokes, I took photos. I only cried at night and only got caught crying once. I watched the weather a lot those days. It snowed a little. After that, I couldn’t watch the weather any more. Remembering the wind on my face, the freedom to dance and run around like I did a few days before hurt too much, reminded me of the person I used to be and I wished would come back. I closed my blind until all I could see where the headlights from cars driving by. And I waited for life to begin again.
And now, nearly 9 months on, we’re certifiably normal. We laugh, we play, work hard, dance, sing, read stories, breastfeed (still!), make a mess – everything you’re meant to do. Everything that’s good about having a baby. But the guilt is the one thing that remains. Its a guilt that comes from not only a failed birth, but four long and entirely sleepless days and nights with a newborn in hospital wishing someone would take him away. I look at other people’s pictures and envy their early bonding – wonder how things would be different with my son now if I’d experienced it. As it is, I rejoice in every milestone, every new move and sound. I do – and feel – all of the right things, and life goes on. But I wonder – would I love him more? Would I love him more if I’d loved him longer? I honestly don’t know. I suspect not. I suspect it has more to do with how I feel about me than him. That’s a feeling I was interested in for a while. I’ve been through the denial, the questioning why I couldn’t have what comes to so many others naturally. And I have no answers – if everything had been perfect with this birth, maybe I would have. Or maybe not. Would it have been an achievement? A drugless “beautiful” birth where everything had done exactly what it should have? It probably would have felt that way. I’d probably have been sat here congratulating myself, preaching the beauty of life, love and all things birthy. As with most things in life, its when we’re tested that our true colours show – and finding out that your true colour is something different – duller than you thought is never going to be a pill easily swallowed.
Its not wonderful, birth. But that’s ok, I think. Its changed me; I don’t trust easily any more, I question myself and leave everything to logic and nothing to instinct. If my baby cries, I don’t trust any instincts I might have – I look things up. I analyse… It doesn’t matter in the end, not really. Birth becomes a memory that you can package away, and its what you do next that really matters, really counts. But as I think about the birth of my next baby, I can’t shake that feeling….that instinct….that knowledge. I’m planning a quiet homebirth. I’m humouring myself – painting a beautiful picture that’ll last for another seven months or so. It’ll comfort, but it isn’t real. I know, deep down, that when it comes to it, when it really matters. I’ll disappoint. If – when – I’m tested, I’ll fall apart and there is no safety net, no pair of hands to catch you, you’re alone….all alone. This birth won’t be wonderful, it won’t be beautiful. But it’s ok. We’ll survive. And sooner or later, I’ll love the baby in spite of it.