I guess if I’m going to start a blog about being a mother, the best place to start is to tell you all my birth story. Not that I mind at all. I love my birth story. And I think telling it is probably also the best way for you all to get to know me.
Bean (and no, that’s not really her name, but I’m going to keep it anonymous because she did not ask for her mother to write a tell-all blog about raising her) wasn’t born until the 17th of December, 2019, but our story starts on the 12th.
My official NHS-issued due date was the 11th, but due dates are a fat load of bullshit so I wasn’t super attached to this date, although I was getting uncomfortable to the point that I wouldn’t have minded Bean making her appearance then in the slightest. But the day came and went. I went to my midwife appointment that day and declined a sweep because there’s absolutely no evidence that they’re at all effective and because I knew that if the midwife attempted a sweep and ended up not being able to do it because I was closed for business, I would just get anxious and that definitely wouldn’t serve me well.
The 12th, however, was almost an interesting day. It was the last day of term at the boarding school where my husband teaches and where we also live, so I was anxious for this day to arrive so that all the kids would bugger off and we would have the boarding house to ourselves, allowing me the home birth I wanted. I mean sure, I could’ve had a home birth with all the kids in the house, but I wasn’t planning on trying very hard to keep quiet in labour, and I really didn’t need 120 teenage boys listening in on me giving birth. That’s really not a life lesson I needed to teach them. So, after months of joking that our baby girl was going to wait and that I was going to go into labour during the end of term carol concert, you can imagine the shade of pure white I went when I actually had my first contraction during ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.
But it was a false alarm.
In fact, Bean was so kind as to give me four nights of false alarms, from Thursday through Sunday. Every one of those evenings, right after the sun went down, I would start having very minor but consistent contractions, and then I’d go to bed and it would all stop. Finally, on the morning of Monday the 16th, I’d decided I’d had enough and booked myself in for a sweep. Lo and behold, the midwife who did it informed me I was two centimetres dilated, so things were liable to kick off at any moment.
Fast forward to that evening. My dad and stepmom, who had come over from my hometown of NYC, were in our flat showing me all the clothes they’d brought over for Bean. During our time together, the sun set. And like clockwork, my contractions started picking up. Only this time they were actually time-able and they were much more consistent. After my dad and stepmom left, I phoned our doula, Amber, to ask what she thought of it all. She advised me to get in the bath and see whether my contractions sped up or slowed down. If they sped up, she said, it would be true labour. If they slowed down, I should try to get some sleep. Sometimes, she advised, the body just needs a little rest to get things going.
The bath slowed things down. So, as Amber suggested, we got into bed and I drifted off around midnight. At 2 AM, I bolted upright with what felt like horrible gas pains. I ran to the toilet. Indigestion? Nope. Mucus plug? Yup. And lots of it, too. Like holy shit no one actually tells you what your mucus plug looks like and that’s probably because there’s no actual way to describe it. It’s gross. There ya go. I was definitely having contractions, so I used an app to time them. 6-7 minutes apart, lasting 45 seconds to a minute. OK. Cool. So I got in the bath. Bam. Straight to 2-3 minutes apart and actually starting to feel properly uncomfortable.
I woke up my husband, James. I told him it was go time. I called Amber back. I woke up my cousin, Becca, who had come from NYC to be my birth partner. The Bean Team was assembled. James and Becca started setting up the birth pool while Amber put my TENS machine on me and helped me through my contractions. But there was a little hiccup; the hot water was off.
James had asked the head of estates at the school, a man we’ll call Bob, to make sure the hot water stayed on consistently over the holidays. When Bob asked James what for (the hot water usually goes over to a timer system when the students are gone because fuck us non-paying freeloaders who live here full-time) and James told him it was for the birth pool as we would be having a home birth, Bob apparently looked horrified. Bob is also famously unhelpful, so whether he left the hot water on the usual timer to deliberately sabotage my home birth or because he genuinely forgot – just like he’s forgotten to send pest control over to deal with the mice on our floor, or to fit a ventilation system to prevent the black mould we get in our bathroom – we’ll never know.
So the Bean Team set about heating up pots of water on the stove and boiling the kettle for three hours until the pool was filled. It was 8 AM by this stage and I needed to get in that water because my contractions had become unmanageable with just the TENS machine. The midwives were called then, and James, Becca and Amber huddled around me in the pool as I breathed through every contraction using the ‘up’ breathing technique I’d learnt in hypnobirthing.
9:30 AM saw the arrival of the midwives, Jackie and Millie, who checked me and Bean over and then went to stand around in the kitchen and have god knows how many cups of tea between them. It was at this point that I got a little lazy. I realised that, if I sat back in the pool instead of staying on all fours, my contractions weren’t quite as strong and I could kind of doze off between them. Suffice to say, this slowed things down. After two hours of this, with not a whole lot happening on the actual birthing front, the midwives threatened to leave. They told me they generally only like to really stay once you’re in “established labour” and are at least 4 centimetres dilated.
That was the only moment I had any thoughts of violence towards anyone on my birth team.
They didn’t know how dilated I was because I refused any internal examinations. (Shoutout to currently pregnant women – YOU ARE ALLOWED TO DO THAT IN BIRTH! Isn’t that crazy? To think that no one can actually stick their fingers up your foof without your consent? Madness!) I had been in active labour for 10 hours by then. There’s no way I wasn’t at least 4 centimetres.
Amber convinced them to stay, but also recognised we needed to get things moving. So out of the pool we got. James, Amber and I paced up and down the hallway outside our flat and my contractions started building right back up. I then got back in the pool and James forced me to eat half a rice cake. And, as if that rice cake had magical powers, I hit transition. I started shaking and my contractions went from painful to excruciating. I swore up and down that I couldn’t do it. I remember thinking, “I know now why women have epidurals and c-sections and my god I am such a fucking idiot for trying to do this naturally.”
But there was also a sane part of my brain – the same sane part, I’m assuming, that stays mysteriously sober whenever I’ve been absolutely shitfaced in the past that tells me I’m a dingus for getting so drunk and will really regret it the next morning – that told me that I was close to the finish line. That I could do it. That, in fact, I’d better bloody do it because at that point I didn’t have a choice. That it was too late for an epidural and, besides which, I was perfectly capable of going without one anyway. Thank Christ for that part of my brain.
Thank Christ, also, for Amber. Who, at that time, started holding up all the positive affirmation index cards I had made for myself and going through them a la ‘Love Actually’, thus rendering me a fat, screaming version of Keira Knightley. It wasn’t so much the affirmations themselves that saved me in this moment, but rather the fact that Amber was showing them all to me whilst lounging on my couch looking completely relaxed and self-assured. I may have felt like I was dying, but surely if I really had been dying, Amber would have been doing something more proactive than lying on my couch, drinking a cup of tea and doing her best impression of Mark.
It’s worth noting at this juncture that Bean’s waters hadn’t broken yet, which was maybe why everything was taking slightly longer than it otherwise could have and also why my contractions were manifesting themselves as extreme pressure in my lower abdomen, making me feel like I needed to push, but not giving me anything to push against (if that makes any sense whatsoever). My midwives suggested once – around the time that I got back in the pool after my little field trip to the hallway – that they examine me and try to break my waters, as this might’ve sped things up. But I declined and, to their eternal credit, they dropped the matter immediately.
Why, you might ask, did I decline this if it could’ve sped things up? Well, it might have sped things up, but it also might have done nothing at all, or it might have actually made things worse. Maybe my waters hadn’t gone because Bean just wasn’t quite ready to come out just yet. Maybe artificially rupturing them might have hurried her along faster than she was prepared for. Maybe that would have stressed her out and resulted in acceleration or deceleration of her heart rate. Maybe that would’ve landed me in an ambulance, being blue lighted to hospital. Or maybe she’d have popped out right afterwards with no trouble at all. Point is, there was a lot that could’ve happened as a result of the midwives popping my waters, but enough of the possibilities were negative that I decided (using my BRAIN) that sticking with the status quo and doing ’N’ for a fat lot of Nothing was probably smartest. I’m glad I made that decision.
Somewhere around this point, almost without really realising it, I started to push. That pressure in my lower abdomen that I had spent my entire labour being desperate to push against finally felt like it was yielding to something. It also felt like I was totally going to poop. I spent a laughable amount of time when I was pregnant googling how to avoid pooping during labour and delivery, but every blog post I found basically said there’s no way to avoid it, but you won’t care when it happens anyway and you might not even notice it. Well, I’ll corroborate one facet of that: there truly is no way to avoid it. But I absolutely did care that it was happening and I absolutely fucking noticed it. Good news is, no one else seemed to care. But I did find myself nonetheless profusely apologising with every spare breath I had to whichever midwife it was that was having to fish my shit out of the pool with a sieve.
It was a good thing, I was told. It meant the baby was really really close. I didn’t give two fucks. I still felt horrible and gross about it. (I’d say I didn’t give two shits, but clearly I did.)
As the pushing started getting more intense and I felt the need to really use my muscles to push instead of just breathe and let my body do the work, one of the midwives told me to reach down and see if I could feel Bean’s head. On the first push after she told me to do that, I felt nothing. On the next, I felt her sac of waters, as well as the infamous ring of fire, the feeling of which was so unpleasant that my dumb ass actually tried to stop pushing for a second because I didn’t like the feeling, acting like I actually had some sort of choice in the matter. With the next push, finally, Bean’s waters went, and a matter of moments later she shot out like a tiny human torpedo. After 40 weeks and 6 days of pregnancy and 13 hours of labour, the end was seriously that quick. There was nothing I could’ve done to control it. That Foetal Ejection Reflex is real, guys.
In fact, she shot out so fast that she actually ended up behind me in the pool and I had to awkwardly use her umbilical cord as a sort of fishing reel to get her back and bring her up to my chest.
She was tiny and purple and screaming but I can honestly say she was the best thing I’d ever seen. And, of course, being the eloquent and poised lady I am, the first thing I said as I held her in my arms was, “That was the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever done.” (Not the having a baby part, just the giving birth with no pain relief besides a TENS machine and 45 minutes of totally ineffective gas and air part.)
Cue some skin-to-skin contact and an immediate attempt at breastfeeding, which there are photos of but which I honestly can’t remember. James swears that he kissed me and thanked me for giving him a family, but I can’t remember that either and I think the cheeky sod is taking advantage of the fact that my memory of those first post-birth minutes is wiped. I delivered my placenta “physiologically”, i.e. with no help from an injection to speed things along, very quickly and then made my way out of the pool to be examined.
And this is where things went just a tiny bit haywire.
I should preface this by saying that I do not consider the following to be part of my “birth story”. I had a home birth and I am forever proud of that. Nothing can detract from that. It was the most metal thing I’ve ever done and I’ll be damned if anyone tells me they’ve done something more hardcore. But I feel I should nonetheless include some details of what happened next so that any mamas-to-be out there who are reading this understand the different routes these things can take, and that it’ll turn out OK in the end.
Upon examination by the midwives, I was found to have torn quite badly, likely thanks to the sheer speed and force with which Bean entered the world. First and second degree tears can be easily stitched up by a midwife wherever you happen to give birth, but tears worse than that require repair in an operating theatre under a spinal block. They couldn’t quite make out whether my tear was second degree or worse, but they understandably weren’t willing to take the risk, and they recommended we transfer into hospital so I could have it taken care of there.
I should tell you all now that I chose to have a home birth because I have a phobia of hospitals. I have had a chronic autoimmune condition called uveitis since I was a child, and treatment for it along with the fact that I frequently came down with various viruses and infections thanks to a suppressed immune system meant that I spent a lot of time in hospitals when I was younger. Nice things, I am convinced, do not happen in hospitals, and I’d sooner give birth at home with no pain relief a hundred more times than do it even once in hospital under an epidural.
So I did not love the idea of having to transfer into hospital to have stitches. But I wasn’t left with much of a choice.
Off to hospital we went, in an ambulance driven by a very nice paramedic who allowed me to have Bean in with me on my lap instead of separating her from me and having James drive her to the hospital in her car seat. One of the midwives came with me and we chatted lightheartedly the whole way there. I was trying desperately not to be scared or to feel let down and the adrenaline was preventing me from feeling the extent of the pain I was really in. But it was hard to ignore the fact that I quickly bled all the way through the sweatpants I was wearing and that, by the time I got into a hospital room, every sheet I touched immediately looked like a piece of evidence from a murder scene.
The NHS is what it is. We waited three hours before finally making it into theatre. Before then, we had to contend with an extremely overtired chief midwife whose examination of my tear left me sobbing in agony, and a consultant OBGYN who talked to me like I was a naughty schoolgirl for sucking on a throat sweet before my procedure. Looking back on it now, I wish I had had the energy to tell her to go fuck herself. But I didn’t, because I’d lost almost a litre of blood by then.
The procedure wasn’t pleasant, but it was quick, and thanks to the spinal block I was out of pain for the first time in almost 24 hours. James and Bean were allowed into theatre to sit next to me and keep my mind off it all, and afterwards we spent our first night as a family in a private hospital room. Exhausted out of our minds. Excited and scared in equal measure for our future together. But together, at least.