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This story really starts with my own birth. I was my mother’s first child, and despite the 1970s hospital setting she birthed me without medical assistance – she tells me I ‘popped out like a champagne cork’ as the July day dawned. My own birth gave me the body wisdom that I could do this too: that my body knew how to birth, given the chance.
My first child was born eight years ago. Aside from many months of nausea I had a blissfully straightforward pregnancy and happily planned a home birth supported by my NHS midwives. It was almost derailed by my daughter being overdue, and I had a hospital induction booked, but after a successful acupuncture induction I was so excited when my labour finally started at home. Labour was well established and the midwife suggested she examine me to check my progress. Everyone was shocked when she discovered my baby was breech, and according to NHS policy I was advised to transfer to hospital for an emergency caesarean. This was a traumatic experience and I had a difficult start to motherhood. As I learned to trust my baby, I relaxed and started to enjoy our relationship, but I had lost trust in my body and in the maternity services.
Three years later my second baby was on his way. I was determined to go for a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean section) but, wary of needing an emergency transfer again, I chose to birth in hospital. We were supported by our wonderful doula Kathryn Los, who radiated positive birthing energy, and it was fantastic to have her calm presence during the birth. Although I had planned a water birth, I couldn’t get into the pool as the midwife was concerned that our baby was showing signs of distress, and the birth became a stressful experience with the midwife and obstetrician coaching me to push before my body was really ready, which I found difficult lying on my back strapped to the foetal heart rate monitor. Our son was finally born with some help from the ventouse. I had been hoping to delay clamping the cord but it was cut straight away because the staff were concerned he would need resuscitation. In fact he was fine, and I felt very triumphant to have achieved a VBAC, but my recovery was not straightforward as I had suffered a 3rd degree tear and broken my coccyx while pushing.
We had to wait a while for our third baby, and after two miscarriages, another struggle with nausea and a Down syndrome scare, I knew this would be my last pregnancy. The desire to birth at home had never left me, and I felt sure my body could birth naturally if I could avoid my labour being disturbed and managed. I decided to do everything possible to give myself the best chance of a physiological birth, one last time. The first step was hiring my amazing independent midwife, Liz Nightingale at Purple Walnut Midwife. Liz’s holistic care throughout my pregnancy was the best possible birth preparation. I also used the Mindful Mamma hypnobirthing method, completed a Mindfulness Based Childbirth and Parenting course, practiced yoga and meditation, and had acupuncture, osteopathy and hypnotherapy to prepare my body and mind for a positive birth. After two difficult births it often seemed impossible – against the fates – for me to have a good birth experience. I used visualisation and affirmations to make the idea of a good birth experience real to me. I visualised myself in the birth pool in our kitchen, bathed in starlight under the night sky, laughing through the surges and belly-dancing my baby out.
By the end of my pregnancy I felt completely confident in my ability to have a natural birth at home. The last weeks of my pregnancy were a really special time, with a wonderful Blessingway ceremony to celebrate and prepare for the birth. I felt sad to realise I would never be pregnant again, and I had to work on letting go of the pregnancy and letting go of a tight grip on my wishes for the birth, to open myself up to the birth I was actually going to have. I found Pam England’s book ‘Labyrinth of Birth’ especially helpful in the last few days. Making a birth labyrinth helped me to focus on accepting events as they unfolded. It was really important to me to prepare for and visualise my ideal birth to feel confident going into HBAC (home birth after caesarean section), but to get my labour started I had to let go of this ideal and welcome my real experience.
One Sunday evening at nearly 42 weeks after an autumnal walk by the river, the intermittent tightenings I’d felt for the past fortnight seemed to get more regular. I felt excited that this might be it! We carried on with dinner and our kids’ evening routine, and then went to bed ourselves at about 10.30 pm. About five minutes after I fell asleep, I was woken up by a contraction – a proper one! The surges soon became regular and strong enough to stop me going back to sleep. I sent Liz a text to let her know things had started. Then we went downstairs to set up the pool. My husband, Phil, went back to bed but I couldn’t sleep, I was too excited and the surges were getting stronger. I pottered about in the kitchen, and around 2am I woke Phil as I felt it was time to fill the pool. The sound of the water running into the pool was soothing. I had all the birth art from my Blessingway and my affirmations on the wall, and my hypnobirthing music playing. The night was too cloudy for the stars to be twinkling, but the fairy lights on the wall were. It was beautiful, and I felt ready. The idyllic scene was tempered by the practical matter of needing to clear out my digestive system from both ends…
At about 4 am I felt like I wanted to get on all fours, kneeling over the sofa. I started to make a low ‘Ahhh’ sound during the surges and just wanted to close my eyes and rest in between. Phil called Liz and after she’d arrived I got into the pool. The water was lovely and warm, and I completely relaxed. The surges were really intense now, with a very strong feeling of pressure low across the front of my bump. My mooing got louder, and making this sonorous noise really seemed like the best way to channel the energy of the surges. The same low pressure continued in between surges, which surprised me as in my past two labours the gaps in between had been welcome breaks of complete comfort. I hadn’t been expecting to feel pain, especially not in between surges. My vigorous baby wriggling and kicking in between surges, while a lovely reminder of his active part in the birth, was also darned uncomfortable!
Time passed, dawn rose outside, later a friend came to take the kids to school. The surges were more and more intense; I was feeling pain across the front of my bump and low in my back. This was where I really needed to use my mindfulness practice, to accept that this labour was not going to be the fast, easy one I’d imagined. I worked on accepting things as they were, accepting myself for finding it hard, especially as I found myself thinking ‘This was a mistake, I wish I was in hospital getting an epidural!’, and reminding myself I just needed to get through each moment as it happened. Labour seemed like a very appropriate word, as this was hard work!
The morning continued and our kitchen filled with light; I carried on breathing through the surges in the pool. Despite the continuous sensation of pressure I was able to relax completely between surges, and I would become aware of the music that was playing on repeat. I noticed the details – warmth under my legs where fresh hot water was poured into the pool, ripples on the water created by my vocalisation as I knelt with my face just above the surface, the exquisite trickle of warm water being poured down my back. I was filled with a sense of gratitude towards Phil and Liz.
After I’d been in the pool for around four hours I heard my vocalisation changing – it started to sound a bit more like a growl at times, and I started to feel like a mother bear. I had been floating on my back but now I got onto all fours and every few surges I could feel my body pushing a bit. I felt a pop and a gush in the pool as my waters released. After a time Liz asked if she could examine me (she was wondering if I had a lip of cervix in the way) – I was excited when she said I was fully dilated and she could feel my baby’s head.
Soon I started to push with every surge, by now it was around 10am. Liz reminded me to direct the energy of the surge downwards into my bottom by grunting, rather than mooing it away. I was holding Phil’s hands and squeezing them hard during surges. I was so glad to have him with me. I felt hungry and had a few bites of banana. Liz was monitoring my baby with a Sonicaid after each surge and his heart rate was dropping a bit. She suggested I turn around to floating on my back again. Then I tried squatting in the pool. Meg, my second midwife, had arrived and was writing in my notes.
I had been pushing for a while and was starting to feel tired. Liz suggested I get out of the pool and try the birthing stool. I found this really helped me push as I was able to pull on the handles, and had Phil supporting me between surges, but the position didn’t seem to suit the baby so well and finally Liz suggested I try the left lateral position, lying on my side on our sofa. I hadn’t expected to be in the lounge and hadn’t put any protective coverings on the furniture. As I pushed with all my might I had a moment of concern for our new sofa cushions! Liz supported my perineum with a warm compress which felt great. She said to Meg ‘I can see the purple walnut!’ and I wished I’d thought to ask during the many antenatal visits what this was. I began to feel that I couldn’t go on much longer and I needed the baby to come. I pushed as hard as I could – it felt like I was turning inside out. Finally I could feel his head moving down, but it was so discouraging every time it slid back up when the push finished. Liz said not to worry, and that this rest was just what my baby needed to recover for the next surge, when he would move down further. I’d been pushing for an hour and a half now; I felt really tired and desperate for our baby to be born. Liz encouraged me that he was really close, saying ‘This baby’s got lots of black hair!’.
At last Liz was saying ‘Little push, little push’ and I knew his head was coming, I couldn’t hold back and his head surged out. No stinging or burning, just a huge stretch and the delicious feeling of pushing his head out. I was surprised that his head felt squashy like a fruit – I’d been expecting something hard. At the next surge I pushed again and his body came out – he was born! It was 11.30 am. Liz lifted him onto my tummy – he looked perfect. I felt so relieved he was here, and tired and overwhelmed. I just wanted to hold him. I didn’t even want to check whether he was a boy or a girl at first. I said to Phil we can definitely never, ever do this again!
Our baby started to wriggle and bob his head on my tummy and I helped him nuzzle his way to my breast. He latched on and I felt a rush of love as he started to suckle. I didn’t even give a thought to the placenta but gradually I noticed the surges returning. About an hour and a half after he was born, with some coughing and Meg massaging my abdomen, the placenta came away. I refused to do any more pushing but it moved down with the surges. We had a lotus birth so instead of cutting the cord we let the placenta drain in a colander over a bowl next to me. I needed some stitches as I’d had a 2nd degree tear, due to the pressure of his big head against the vulnerable area from the previous tear. Phil held the baby while Liz did my stitches. It felt great to be getting my stitches in the comfort of my own lounge watching my husband crooning to our baby, instead of needing a spinal block and a couple of hours in a cold operating theatre. We weighed him: 9 lbs 4 oz, much bigger than his siblings were! Then I snuggled up on the sofa to nurse and cuddle our baby. Phil made some lunch, and later collected our older children from school. They were delighted their brother had arrived at last – the final weeks had seemed such a long time to wait. That night I went to bed with our new baby and his placenta tucked up next to me.