Our Birth Story
The events of a new life coming into the world are full of wonder, suspense, excitement, anticipation, and for many people – fear. I’m writing about our recent birth journey as a response to fear and in the interest of healing.
I’m coming to find out through sharing our story how bonkers birth is for so many parents, and that birth, like life, is what you make of it.
Like many pregnant women, I wanted a natural birth. Being a long-term yoga practitioner, I made a real project out of being pregnant. I read many books about female anatomy in pregnancy, signed up for a hypnobirthing course, read all the books, and practised my visualisations religiously in the bath.
I spent a fortune on Ayurvedic salves to soften my pelvic tissues, drank all manner of teas made from a variety of uterus-toning herbs, brewed the evening beverage recommended by Dr Gowri Motha in her Jeriyani Way. I kept up my yoga practice each day, walked regularly, and geared all my energy towards opening my pelvis in preparation for the day I would give birth to our son.
We planned to give birth at home in a pool, attended by midwives.
My due date came, and my waters broke on the evening of the following day. We were at a sushi restaurant when the first gush came. Wide-eyed, I bolted to the WC while my husband, Simon, paid the bill. Off we went with some takeaway nigiri for Simon. I was alarmed to see that my waters contained what seemed to me like a heap of pea soup. It was meconium, baby’s first poo.
So, meconium can be a perfectly normal feature of a happy baby, fully cooked and ready to come out. But it can also be a sign that baby has been stressed in some way. Apparently, there’s no way they can tell exactly why the baby has pooped, whether it is benign or evidence of a problem. In any case, meconium invites a cascade of intervention that you can read about in this post:
So the meconium “liquor” was why we had to abandon our home birth plans. I remember feeling that I could have used some actual liquor at the time. I called triage and they told us to come to the labour ward at the hospital where it was recommended from the outset that my labour should be induced immediately.
Because I know many women who have had meconium that progressed quickly to have perfectly normal births, I asked to be left alone to see if labour would start naturally. I agreed to stay overnight for monitoring, underwent a sweep, and in the morning, my contractions started around 10am. Simon was there from 9am and we carried on with our hypnobirthing training.
I was breathing through the contractions when I became overwhelmed with a fever and chills that caused my whole body to shake uncontrollably. With my temps way up, and my heart rate up, baby’s heart rate up, the obstetrics team was even keener for me to get induced to speed up labour. The doctor recognised our fever, chills, and elevated heart rates as signs of an infection.
I agreed to a vaginal exam so they could check my progress, and the midwife found my cervix to be 2cm dilated. They took blood to get analysed, put me on IV antibiotics and fluids. I agreed to be moved into a labour ward to get induced.
Meanwhile, Simon and I were both very stressed. Needless to say, the feverish chills with shaking (they called it “rigors”) was pretty scary, and having the whole process medically handled was both terrifying and comforting. The conflicting emotions under such pressure made it incredibly difficult for us to communicate.
I so desperately wanted to be left alone to labour naturally, as every time we had 10 minutes alone, my contractions increased, stress decreased, and I felt my labour progress. However, I could feel a deep chill with shivers and I was piling on the blankets even while my temperature was going up. There was clearly something wrong… or was this just a normal symptom of labour?
I learned in my hypnobirthing course and from independent research that variations in temperature and heart rate are normal signs of labour, and that it is possible to labour normally even days after the breaking of the waters. Elevated risk of infection is, while statistically significant, actually a rare occurrence.
I was stressed and terrified, feeling harassed to have my labour augmented despite the fact that my labour was in full swing. The mental load of factors presented a series of conflicting probability equations that were keeping my frontal cortex abuzz when what I really needed was to switch off that part of my brain so I could engage fully with the quietude required for efficient oxytocin production. Talk about stress!
This was all transpiring around noon on what happened to be my own birthday, Sept 16th, about 18 hours after my waters broke. I had so confidently prepared for a natural birth that I was determined to experience.
I felt sure I was already right into a labour that was bound to go smoothly, quickly, and painlessly, and I could feel the carpet being ripped out from under my dream of a natural birth. Much of the natural birth and hypnobirthing literature implicates doctors in the unnecessary medicalisation of natural birth and I was determined not to get forced onto my back! However, I was soon to be faced with the impossible choice so many women grapple with in the throes of childbirth: your plan for a natural birth or the medical intervention recommended for a potentially safer birth based on statistics?
I can’t remember if they had already cultured my blood and found the strep by that point, or if the doc told me the next day, but apparently, it was a strep bug that found its way into my blood and had proliferated into an infection. By this time, we had been moved into the labour ward and I had mentally accepted the induction process for which we were now awaiting attention.
The IV antibiotics and fluids had stopped the shaking and brought our heart rates down, but by then baby had been tachycardic for over 2 hours and nobody knew if the infection would progress uncontrollably if I was allowed to continue with labour. The obs team came into our room and recommended I have a Cesarean section to reduce chances of further complications. C-section?!? What? Nooooooooo…
When the docs said that sepsis, aka infection, could have potentially catastrophic effects for my baby and for me, they told me it was also the leading cause of maternal death in the UK. They said that the safest course of action was to get baby out ASAP. With this news, I could feel my idea of “giving birth” morphing into an acute sense of disappointment mixed with tremendous fear, and a helping of guilt (for what exactly, I don’t really know?). I was feeling guilty for considering an “unnatural” option even though it wasn’t a true emergency.
I also felt guilty for being perceived as ungrateful for the care I was receiving. How many women, past and present, have died in childbirth for want of the care I was being offered? And here I was feeling utterly rotten about having my baby’s life and my own life potentially saved from nasty complications arising out of something so ordinary as a strep infection.
Other sources of guilt have arisen, stemming from what feels like the failure to give my baby passage through the birth canal where he would have picked up his founding microbiome. I won’t go into that here, but you can find out a lot about how microbes matter here.
The conflicting feelings and instincts at this time represent the most angst I’ve ever felt, and I’m no stranger to angst. It was like every high and low I’ve ever experienced plus 11 teenagers condensed into a few hours. I was grateful for being “saved” yet I was frustrated with not knowing exactly what it was I was being saved from. It was confusing to think that saving my baby from the potential of harm now could be potentially putting him and myself in harm’s way down the line. C sections are by no means a guaranteed safety net and pose threats of their own.
As so many parents know from experience, you get very little time to process any of these conflicting emotions. All of your research and reading and experience dwindles to a tiny pile of WTF while seasoned professionals with years of actual medical training swiftly assess your situation and make recommendations based on averages and protocol designed for the population at large. It is a humbling experience, to prepare so carefully for one of the most natural biological processes of life and have it dissolve into surgery.
Once we decided to go for the section, it was all so seamlessly executed that we began to enjoy ourselves. Like anyone, Simon and I are at our best when we are relaxed. In the moments of accepting our decision, we regained our sense of humour. Although we had to let go of our plans, we didn’t have to abandon the joy we so wanted for the reception of our son who we were so excited to meet!
We weren’t rapidly wheeled down a corridor amidst shouting and panic, because my section was a preventative one rather than urgently medical (although it went down in the books as an “emergency” section). We had an amazing team of supportive, positive, extremely skilful medical personnel who walked us calmly through the whole procedure. The consultant who dealt with my operation, Pete, was well aware of my plans to have a natural birth and was very sensitive as he helped me come to terms with their recommendation. They weren’t pushy. The doctors explained the basic factors:
- Meconium-stained waters meant that baby could be in distress, or the meconium itself could cause problems later during baby’s passage through the birth canal
- Appearance of infection could lead to rapid advancement of infection in mother and/or baby
- Labour for first-time mothers is completely unpredictable – no way of knowing if it would take hours or days
- Any possible complications further down the line would lead to prolonged exposure of baby to potentially advancing infection
It was all up to me. My choice. What should I do?
My determination to have a natural birth shifted immediately to a determination for a positive birth, which is the most important shift I have experienced so far in the processing of my birth experience to date.
From the moment I consented to the C section, I knew it was up to me to bring all my strength, enthusiasm, and humour into that decision. Ultimately, the whole experience of motherhood is much more about love, much less about control. I’ve learned that if you do everything with love and humour, outcomes are exponentially improved. I wanted my baby to arrive into an atmosphere of joy, fun, love. Furthermore, I wanted my baby to arrive well and for both of us to have the best possible chance for a smooth recovery. Is a C section a guaranteed ticket for easy birth? Not exactly. But it is a case of weighing up all the probabilities and minimising severe stress. It seemed that opting for the C section would immediately reduce stress and maximise our chances for a positive outcome, all things considered.
So we had terrific banter with the surgical staff and I resolved to enjoy the fascinating process of a surgical birth. I noticed how competent the young woman anaesthetist was, and how handsome was her assistant. I chatted pleasantly to both anaesthetists while she systematically powered down my sensation. My husband and Handsome Anesthetist joked about the CD player in the corner as both were old enough to remember burning CDs. Was that Luther Vandross playing in the background? I considered making some requests but thought better of it.
Competent Lady Anesthetist conducted sensation tests on my thoracic region. I felt my contractions fade from perception, and with a wistful farewell to my uterine functionality, I prepared to let the baby out the sunroof. They rolled my floppy body from one tray to another, and I wholly handed over the driver’s seat to these people.
I was allowed to watch 2 of my 3 knee surgeries and felt as though healing was hastened by a full understanding of the procedure as it happened. However, I resisted the fleeting urge to ask to observe my C section and settled instead for the blurred mirror-reflection from the light fixture above my wide-open abdomen. Ever the anatomist! Simon was right by my side. Suddenly, he stood bolt upright to observe our emerging son. With an outpouring of emotive energy, he exclaimed: “Look at the size of his baws!!!”
…and I knew we would be fine.
Earlier, we were presented with the choice of either:
- Having our baby placed immediately in my arms and all checks to be done 10 minutes later
- Having the checks done first and then having baby placed in my arms
I chose to have Owen checked first so that from the moment he was placed into my arms for skin-to-skin contact, he would stay there uninterruptedly and we could live happily ever after.
And that’s pretty much what happened! Apart from seemingly constant HR and blood tests, I was left to bond with Owen overnight. As the anaesthetics wore off, I got really itchy as a side effect of the opiates, so I chose to forego any further painkillers other than paracetamol and ibuprofen. Shame about the antibiotics, a double-edged sword of modern medicine, and the blood-thinning jags that are now given prophylactically, sigh.
Cannulation notwithstanding, I got up as soon as I could and walked the halls with my boy. I cried and cried and got on with the business of processing my emotional tsunami, sick with gratitude, guilt, joy, frustration, drugs, disbelief, confusion, exhilarating helplessness, and utter astonishing levels of pure devastating love.
As we get on with the business of parenting a newborn, each day I feel less disappointment in how our baby made it out of my body. I was so intent on having a “natural birth” that I am still having a hard time with the what-ifs. What if I hadn’t called triage and just proceeded with our home birth as planned? Did I pick up the infection from my overnight stay at the hospital?
With my advancing hindsight and through hearing so many birth stories, I’m now of the mindset that conflicting emotions are heightened by a suite of hormones wrapped into the visceral physical process. This makes pregnancy and birth an epic experience no matter how it goes with the delivery. People die from lack of care in one set of circumstances, and in another, we see complications arising from too much care. It is an imperfect system. In my opinion, outcomes arise from 3 factors:
- mindbody health of the parents as a unit and as individuals
With all the unknowns in healthcare, epidemiology, and the cascade of physiological algorithms going on within the individual human, there is just no standard way to a guaranteed perfect birth. I would love to have a vaginal birth if we are lucky enough to get there next time, but vis-à-vis “natural birth” my definitions have grown to embrace intervention as a possible part of the process.
Surgery is not necessarily evidencing the pharmaceutical industrial complex hijacking our birth plans, although the natural birth movement sure does make a fair point in this accusation. Sometimes intervention saves lives. In my opinion, interventions are probably most often a matter of increasing comfort and reducing stress, outcomes that must be balanced against potential complications in wider timescales.
For the lives they save in the process, we are ultimately very lucky to have these interventions. As women, we are faced with choices that simply weren’t available in previous generations. In my experience, the doctors were very risk-averse but there was no question that they’d all have prefered me to have had the natural birth I wanted. Despite what is said about doctors, I don’t think they always inherently want to medicalise birth. Their performance as a unit is actually negatively impacted by the number of surgical interventions they carry out.
The bottom line is that doctors want to keep mother and baby alive and healthy, against the lurking dangers of infection that are legendary in the hospital environment. For them, it makes more sense for an otherwise fit and healthy woman to have a C section if she shows signs of infection during labour, because she will most likely heal very well from the surgery and it minimises the dangers associated with long labour beset with infection. So that is where the question becomes one of hospital birth or home birth? I think in our case, the meconium meant we were going to be safer in the hospital even though the hospital carries its own set of risks.
Alongside the interventions, mainstream obstetrics is at least minimally clued up on active birth. There were a couple of birthing balls scattered around the floor. The midwives tried to keep a pool available for me, and there was no question that skin to skin was on the cards regardless of the tunnel from which baby would come out, so long as he was healthy. I’d much rather give birth in 2017 than 1917.
The harrowing question that I have grappled with most often in my fourth trimester has been: Did I have an unnecessary C-section? The answer I have grown familiar with is, well, maybe. Maybe I did, but getting caught up in what-ifs is a dangerous mental health trigger. I come back to the fact that was no crystal ball. I will never know if I would have had a smooth vaginal birth without the complication of advancing infection, had I made a different choice. What I do know is that I made the best choice I could given the circumstances, which were of course highly influenced in their presentation by the medical staff at the time.
I am comforted that my pro-homebirth midwife thinks I made the right decision. I am comforted every time I pick up my cherubic baby. I am comforted by my eligibility for a VBAC, by my beautiful new scar, my rearranged definition of natural birth and my increased respect for women everywhere who have given any kind of birth and/or raised children. And I am incredibly grateful to the NHS for giving us the care we received during my pregnancy, birth, and in the postnatal months that followed.
I think the most meaningful choice for the health of our family was when we made our choice for surgery with a heartful of love and as much humour as I could muster. Our baby may not have been bathed in my vaginal microbiome, but he has been swaddled in love and fun since he emerged under the theatre lights into the dulcet tones of Luther Vandross.
In closing, thank you for reading our birth story. I know that some of you reading this might be fearful of giving birth, and/or possibly attached to a certain birth plan. Having come through all of that, can I offer one piece of advice? Prepare, adapt, repeat.
Bearing a child involves a time period somewhere between hours and days. Feeding, changing, carrying, and loving a child unconditionally represents the next era of your life – decades. That era of decades is what you are preparing for. Prepare your mind and body for healing from the birth and being strong and flexible for everything that comes next.
Whatever happens during the days of the actual childbirth, your preparation puts you in the best possible condition for the lifetime of care that requires all you have to give, and more! Whatever you’re doing to prepare your body for birth and beyond, do it with joy, do it with discipline, enthusiasm, and humour, as you’ll be developing these skills along with your physique not just for birth – but for healing your layers of self along with your partner as together you nurture your little one.