My birth story started in the middle of the night, five days before my due date. Now, I’ve spent a lot of time stewing on the most accurate way to describe how it felt for my waters to break, and the best I could come up with was like ‘a well of water in my nether regions’. It wasn’t how Hollywood would have depicted it — an unexpected drenching, perhaps in the veg aisle, with slack-jawed strangers watching on.
It actually happened during the most relaxed part of my day-to-day life, and the imagined crowd of excited onlookers was replaced by my sleeping partner and dog. And it was less a sudden gush, more a steady trickle lasting hours.
A bit, I guess, like labour.
Hospital protocol is that when your waters break, you phone the maternity unit and go straight in for an assessment. But it was 3.30am, and the place I was due to give birth — the midwife-led Birth Centre at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital — was a decent car ride from my home in Ealing.
So I told my partner Vic I would rather stay in bed. My waters were clear, and there had been no changes to the baby’s movements. I figured the hospital would only want to confirm my waters had broken and then they would pack me off back home. In short: a middle-of-the-night journey which would disrupt the calmness with which I wanted to approach giving birth.
Vic did message our doulas, who work as a pair and one of them phoned back immediately, saying in light of our decision, we should turn off the lights and snuggle down instead. It turned out that Michelle would be the one attending our birth, and she offered to come over whenever, but I felt happy it just being me and Vic at that point. Her and Vic kept in regular contact by phone though, keeping my headspace free from distraction.
We struggled to get back to sleep, but it soon reached 7am. I thought I may as well celebrate the final moments of my pre-baby life by doing a load of laundry. Vic, meanwhile, dusted off her drill and resumed building a flatpack wardrobe that had arrived the day before. By 9.30am I was having mild period-type pains, so I phoned the hospital, who asked me to go in for a check-up.
The dog packed off to my sister-in-law’s for an undetermined amount of time, we made the twenty-seven-minutes-in-good-
At the hospital it was confirmed my waters had broken (‘ah yes,’ said the midwife, whilst holding the taut, sodden, maternity pad, ‘they’ve definitely gone’) and I was told to go home, but come back at 3.30am to be induced, if there had been no developments by then.
I hesitated. I knew friends that had been set similar deadlines, and had ended up having serious interventions, including c-sections. It’s impossible to know whether their interventions were linked to this line being drawn in the sand, but the mere suggestion of this appointment made me feel like: you’ve got 17 hours left to sort it out — and if you don’t, we’ll sort it out for you. Would that help my body stay relaxed enough? I felt strongly that, whilst maintaining the baby’s safety, I wanted to give my body the space to labour naturally.
So we pushed this appointment back to 6.30am, which at least meant I could try to sleep overnight if labour had not begun by then.
I was all sunshine and light when I left the third-floor hospital consultation that confirmed my waters had broken. On the ground floor, I decided to pop to the loo — which is where, hovering in the cubicle with my knickers around my ankles, I experienced my first significant contraction.
I’d been feeling relaxed and excited about going into labour. Whilst I wouldn’t call what I had a ‘hypnobirth’ (I didn’t do enough breathing practice), I was on board with the whole ‘considering contractions as surges’ and I’d spent nine months accidentally stubbing my toe and dialling down the pain to the point that I began to think ‘does labour even hurt?’.
Well, I’d be lying if I said this first contraction didn’t — it’s probably more accurate to say it made me feel intensely nauseated — but it can’t have been too bad as I have a pathological aversion to public toilets, and I remember trying to brace against the walls without actually having to touch them.
Plus, as a nod to the transitory nature of contractions, within two minutes I was waiting to be served at Pret a Manger next to the hospital, silently cursing the man who approached the back of the queue at the same time as me and had barged in front. When he did this I did want to mutter ‘I’m in labour goddamnit!’, but instead did the very British thing of throwing imaginary daggers into his back.
In summary, contractions: they are fleeting and finite. Inconsiderate twerps, though, last forever.
We arrived home at midday, and got into bed to eat our Pret picnic. I noticed that if I laid down the contractions were strong but irregular, whereas if I got up they were more regular — and more bearable too.
So out of bed it was.
I loaded up my self-made Spotify Birthin’ Tunes playlist (a 13-hour behemoth of treats including Bonnie Tyler, Liza Minnelli and Olivia Newton John… plus some guilty pleasures I won’t embarrass myself by mentioning here), laid on or bounced on my birthing ball, and picked through the newspaper. Vic, meanwhile, recommenced building that bloody wardrobe.
Things continued in this lovely, surreal way for a few hours — at least until Susan Calman and Kevin Clifton took to the ballroom in that night’s Strictly Come Dancing, when my contractions went up a notch in intensity.
Suddenly I couldn’t bear the distracting noise and moving images coming from the TV.
It took all my might to grab the remote control and hit the power-off switch. Then I relaxed my knees and rolled onto the floor whilst Vic — who had been in the kitchen clearing up the detritus from my earlier request for cheesy chips and mayo — went to grab my lavender-oil-infused muslin sheet. (Helpful tip there: sniff lavender oil during contractions. If you are in the birth partner position just don’t do what Vic did during a later contraction and pass me a muslin sheet, not suffused with soothing lavender oil, but with my own vomit).
My own vomit you see, because I was sick a lot during labour. This wasn’t entirely unexpected — heavy periods make me feel nauseous and so I did wonder whether labour would have a similar effect on me. Thankfully, Vic had the foresight to act on this information and order thirty sick bowls from Amazon.
After the contraction which was so significant it caused me to even turn off Strictly, I knew it was the right time to go to the hospital.
When pregnant I’d become slightly preoccupied about when during labour I would make this journey —I’d heard tales of women being refused admission to the hospital because they weren’t four centimetres dilated. This was one of the reasons I’d considered having a home birth, so I wouldn’t have to break up the natural progression of labour with the discomfort of sitting in a car, possible traffic issues and waiting to find out if I was considered dilated enough to be admitted.
Vic had been tracking my contractions and said they were roughly every five minutes, not three in ten minutes that the hospital stipulate.
But I just knew it was the right time to go.
It was at this point that I covered my eyes, and didn’t see anything else until the baby was born. I’d planned to do this using a shawl, but as I was being sick I used an eye mask (emblazoned ‘Bedtime Bliss’) instead.
When I told friends I intended to give birth without my sight, they chuckled at the thought of me being shrouded and shepherded into hospital, looking either like a C-list celebrity prima donna (‘don’t take my picture!’), or, on a darker note, a hostage.
But it was yet another invaluable piece of advice that my doulas had imparted — and it made perfect sense. I’d never given birth before, but using as my frame of reference the undergoing of previous medical procedures, I’d always wanted to source strength from myself; outside distraction had actively irritated me when I’d been maintaining an inner calm.
Covering my eyes simply meant the removal of unnecessary distraction, whether that be bright strip lights, or the expressions on people’s faces — and it worked. Removing distraction was also why I quickly became naked at the hospital, as I didn’t want the sensation of fabric against my skin. (That my oversized t-shirt had unsightly washed-in dinner stains was by-the-by.)
The car journey to the Chelsea and Westminster was bearable. I remember above all else the silence, only broken by the gentle whirring of a ticket machine and speed bumps which confirmed we had reached the hospital car park. Our doula Michelle met us there, and after being sick again I was assisted into a wheelchair. Vic later told me she was worried she’d catapult me out of it when she hit the lip of a kerb, which would have added a tragicomic twist to events, but I reached the third floor of the hospital in one piece.
The next hour was perhaps the most mentally challenging of my experience.
Women are typically sent to triage to be examined, before they are sent back home, or admitted. I was grateful that Michelle somehow worked her magic to ensure I avoided this side-ward, with its communal waiting area, and I instead found myself in a small assessment room, with a bed, in the actual Birth Centre. Still, it was hard to get comfortable (I did tear a poster off the wall during one contraction), and I knew there was a chance they would not admit me. As I have already touched upon, this is a downside to having a hospital birth: some disruption to the labour mindset is inevitable. (If you’re wondering why I didn’t pursue a home birth, I couldn’t get Vic on board.) I’m not sure what I would have done had I been refused admission — I think I would have set up shop in a corridor, or an abandoned disabled toilet. I’d have even touched the walls!
Michelle deftly negotiated, out of earshot, that I was only to be examined by the midwife who would be with me for the rest of the birth. She knew that continuity of care would help to keep me calm. The midwife wanted to test my urine, so poor Vic was dispatched to the loo with a small receptacle to procure a sample from the swaying, blindfolded, heavily pregnant woman. Challenge eventually completed, I was then examined and determined to be four centimetres dilated, so was officially admitted to the Birth Centre.
I must have felt some sense of relief to have been admitted — either that, or it was 11pm and thus way past my bedtime. Anyway, as soon as I got into my room, I asked them to guide me over to the double bed, where I fell asleep.
Maybe the midwife was thinking ‘erm, this is precious labour time now young lady’, but she did let me snooze whilst Vic and Michelle looked on. I think I was asleep for about forty minutes, before I woke up, told them about a horrid dream I’d had (not to be repeated here as I don’t want to sully my otherwise beautiful birth experience) and said I needed to push.
Actually, I’m lying… I said I needed to poo.
I kept asking women when I was pregnant ‘how will I know when to push?’, to which I kept getting told ‘oh, you’ll just know’. I wish they’d dropped the mystery and had said: ‘it will feel like you need to have a massive shit’.
Anyway, I remember thinking it was good to know what pushing felt like, and I definitely found this stage preferable to the contractions in early labour at home, which just had to be breathed through.
Now I had something to work with.
Each lead-up to a push also made me shiver to the point of shaking, which, similar to the nausea, made sense as I feel shivery before I have my period each month. Not long after the first push I had my show, and shortly afterwards they saw a bit of the baby’s head. I was told ‘it’ (we didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl) had lots of dark hair, which vindicated an internet fact I’d read that acid reflux in pregnancy equals hirsute baby.
This was around midnight, and I remember hearing some gentle encouragement that the baby would be with us before long.
I did the first few pushes whilst laid on the bed. I never imagined I’d give birth lying down, as I understood King Louis XIV was the main reason why pushing laid on one’s back became the position du jour (he apparently liked watching his children being born). I knew there more ergonomic positions to give birth, like squatting, etc, so I had planned to give birth in water. But the only time I wanted to go in the pool I think I was gently discouraged by the midwife because she thought I was too relaxed (immediately after my nap) — and then, when she did run it (erm, three times), I was never in the mood.
Not very ‘eco’ of me I know.
Anyway, I was pushing whilst laid on the bed. Bereft of vision, I didn’t know who was doing what, but a cold flannel was on my forehead, the lavender-oil-infused muslin sheet was within sniffable reach, a hot water bottle that Michelle brought was on the base of my back during contractions, and somebody else was holding my ankles as resistance to my pushes — and between pushes I was being fed mouthfuls of Snickers, Marks & Sparks’ biscuits and ice cubes.
I was also given salted honey water to sip as the intense vomiting had made me dehydrated, which eventually led to an IV line being inserted so I could be put on a saline drip.
Those first few pushes went into a few hours, without much progress. I don’t recall feeling panicked about this, just perhaps a tinge of resignation when another push hadn’t done much. From what I understood the baby was moving out a little bit, and then moving back in. I must have done every birth position in the book: all fours, swinging from a ballet bar, sitting on a birthing stool (Vic holding me from behind with her head squished against aforementioned ballet bar…).
Could a full bladder be inhibiting the baby’s progress? I tried to wee using both a bedpan and on the loo, but nothing came out. My midwife then suggested a catheter, and that I have some gas and air for its insertion.
All being well, I had decided to aim for a drug-free labour. There were a few reasons why: I wanted to feel every last bit of it, as I wasn’t sure I’d experience birth again. I didn’t want to remove any of the sensation, as I felt it was instructive in helping me birth the baby — and that was why I didn’t want an epidural, as I didn’t want to rely on somebody else telling me when to push.
Anyway, I readily took some puffs of gas and air whilst the midwife inserted the catheter. Its impact wasn’t like necking a gin and tonic, although it must have done something as a wave of joviality came over me, and I made Vic tell Michelle and the midwife a really bad ‘dad joke’ involving Oxford dons sunbathing naked… there’s nothing like enforced fun, especially when it’s directed by a woman in labour!
It was probably around 4am at this point. Bladder drained, I continued to push, this time whilst gnawing on the gas and air mouthpiece. A short while later the midwife indicated to Vic that she wanted to speak to her outside, whilst I snoozed on a beanbag with Michelle stroking my back.
Vic and Michelle knew my birth wishes, which could be summed up thus: if I had the opportunity, I wanted a natural labour at the Birth Centre with minimal intervention. And that’s why our midwife asked to speak to Vic in private, as the Labour Ward, and all the interventions I associated with it, was now where I was headed.
Knowing this might make me stressed, Vic concocted a tale that I needed to go ‘next door’ so they could examine me better, whilst Michelle jogged to the Labour Ward to instruct the nurses and doctors not to tell the blindfolded woman she was no longer in the Birth Centre. The 100-metre wheelchair push somewhat gave it away, but I played along until a young doctor said: 'Welcome to, ahem (cue dramatic pause), the room. Here at the Labour Ward...'.
Apparently Vic wanted to smack her.
To be honest, I’d have known I was on the Labour Ward even if they hadn’t pushed me so far in the wheelchair (and if the doctor had kept to the script). I couldn’t see anything, but from the general noise, to the words being used — and the way they were said — the Labour Ward felt so different to the Birth Centre.
Take this for instance: somebody said ‘you must be in a lot of pain’. That was the first time I’d heard the word ‘pain’. I had detached myself from it whilst labouring, which I think was one of the reasons I remained calm. I also heard ‘running out of options’’ — a phrase not likely to make a labouring woman stay in the zone.
From here on, everything happened quickly.
Another catheter was inserted, and I agreed to be put on a synthetic hormone drip, to ramp up my contractions. I was reluctant to do this as my mum had been on such a drip during my sister’s birth, and she’d not found it to be the most pleasant experience. But I knew the opportunity to birth the baby in my own sweet time was running short: now I just had to do it.
The hormone drip caused definitely another level of contraction — Vic said if I’d been wearing any clothes I’d have ripped them off in an Incredible Hulk fashion.
In the Birth Centre I had told the midwife I didn’t feel I was giving everything to my pushes — maybe 80%. What was happening was once I reached a certain threshold of burning sensation I was trying to stop pushing, as I didn’t want to tear. It was psychological over physical — it wasn’t the actual sensation I wanted to avoid because it hurt, it was what I interpreted that sensation meant was happening to my skin.
She suggested this psychological barrier could be overcome by injecting some local anaesthetic around my vagina — I remember this was something I initially refused, because of my desire not to block out any sensation. In retrospect, maybe I should have agreed when it was first offered. Anyway, I presume this was done on the Labour Ward — it must have been done before I had an episiotomy (upon the midwife’s recommendation to give the baby’s head more room). I honestly can’t really remember the episiotomy being done — maybe a short, sharp sensation, if that. Around this time I also remember registering that I had torn a little bit.
Once the episiotomy was done, the head soon arrived.
Oh… my IV line had ripped out. I just about managed to express the sentiment of ‘are you kidding me?’ without using any swear words, as the Labour Ward midwife had asked just as the most almighty contraction was rushing through me…
‘You might want to take your eye mask off now,’ said the Birth Centre midwife, who had been with us all along.
It was 6.21am.
The IV line was back in…
And there was a beautiful baby curled up on my chest.
So that’s my birth story. I delivered the placenta within six minutes of giving birth (I had an injection to speed up the process), and then spent fifty minutes or so getting stitched up. But now, with Annie here, time had entered a different dimension.
I really did love giving birth. It was bloody hard work, but I’ve never done anything as all-consumingly satisfying in my life. I was on a high for months afterwards.
It is an incredible experience, and I hope you enjoy yours, however your baby arrives on Planet Earth.
Martina Booth is writing a book on OCD. Follow her on Twitter @martinabooth