Vanessa’s story – Matheo’s birth

The Spanish phrase for ‘give birth’ is, brilliantly, ‘dar a luz’ (give light to). I gave light to Mathéo Zen at 7.30pm on a late May evening in St George’s hospital in Tooting, London.

The room on the delivery ward was luminous with mellow evening sun and crackling with energy; the air iron heavy with the raw smell of blood. I’d used hypnotherapy and my sheer bloody-mindedness to achieve a birth of my first baby that was natural, vaginal, drug-free (except gas and air – woohoo!) and seeing our miniature creature on the outside for the first time was mind-blowing.

He was the softest thing I’d ever touched; a tiny peach; deliciously creamy and a little bit fuzzy all over. He had come in his own sweet time and was very pleased with himself indeed. He was calm, bright as a button, and he seemed to suckle contentedly – if painfully, but that’s another story – when I put him to the breast.

For as long as I could remember I’d been deeply repelled by everything to do with childbirth, babies and breastfeeding. I don’t know quite why I’d developed such an aversion. I’m the only child of two only children, but that doesn’t seem reason enough for the strength of my feelings. The graphic birth film showed in ‘Parenting’ class I watched aged 15 didn’t seem to help. My dad referring to babies as ‘slug-like’ probably didn’t either.

Everything to do with procreation was disgusting to me, and
besides, there were far too many Western, over-consuming babies devouring the resources of the world.

I liked children and had taught in primary schools, but I didn’t feel every human on the earth need reproduce. Nonetheless, after 10 years of a happy marriage to a man that did indeed very, very much want children, it began to dawn on me that the decision not to have children can actually be just as challenging as the monumental decision to have them. I wanted to want to have a baby – but I didn’t want to. I went to a hypnotherapist, which I found enormously helpful. Two questions emerged from deep in my psyche: if you have a baby, will happiness increase? Will love increase? And if you don’t?

When I became pregnant I remained in a state of suspended disbelief for some time, terrified not just of birth, but of the massive changes of impending parenthood. Slowly, but surely, I began to realise I needed to educate myself.

I was panicky and frightened; unsure and overwhelmed. My body was hosting an alien. So I read, slowly but surely discovering so much incredible, inspiring information about pregnancy, birth and babies out there. I could not have cared less about the damn bugaboo, the nursery and the glow-in-the-dark sheep. I couldn’t even think about these things without feeling bored and stressed out. Instead, thanks to the information and experiences so generously shared I was able to transform my ambivalent feelings in a way that has helped me to also bloom forth in many other areas of life.

Yoga and hypnobirthing were also essential to my awareness of a woman’s innate power.  ‘It is said that a woman births pretty much the same way as she lives life’ (Marie Mongan, Hypnotherapist). I needed to be congruent and confident. By the time I gave birth I could hardly believe how strong, calm and joyful I truly felt.

Whenever I hear that someone say their labour lasted 3 hours, or 17 hours, or 49 hours and 14 minutes, I feel very confused. I have no idea how long I was in labour – days? Or was ‘labour’ only
the bit at the end? Do we only count the ‘active’ labour bit in the way we discount the years of slog before an ‘overnight success’?

I didn’t sleep for three nights, so does that count as ‘labour’? What are the rules?  Does your cervix have to be 2cm or 8cm dilated? Who made the rules anyway? In my NCT class the teacher asked how long we thought labour was. I said ‘it can take days, can’t it?’ and everyone laughed. They thought I was joking.  But I knew from communications with to avoid unnecessary interference. I needed the patience to wait, wait and wait some more and this was my (non)action plan.

So where shall I start? How about at (what I personally think was) the beginning – a Tuesday about 10 days before my ‘due date’ and 5 days before the Sunday when actually I gave birth. I’d met my NCT friends for lunch, some with their new babies (how weird was it that mine looked pretty much the same – with tiny toes and nails and facial expressions – and was still inside, I thought). Afterwards it suddenly seemed terribly important that I buy some sparkly nail polish in Superdrug, although I
was feeling very heavy and delicate and plonking my engorged private parts on a hard wooden chair at the restaurant hadn’t helped matters. I walked around quite a lot and then went on to a routine GP appointment, where I was informed my blood pressure was slightly high. I’d read that this is normal at the end of pregnancy, so I wasn’t concerned, but I rested on Wednesday.

Overnight, I lost the ‘cervical plug’.

On Thursday I’d hoped to go to a party at a shared workspace nearby, but by late afternoon I was in quite a lot of discomfort and cancelled. I’d become accustomed to not being able to sleep well
during pregnancy, due to acid reflux, so a disturbed night was nothing new, but on Thursday night I needed hot water bottles pressed against by lower back and abdomen to get any sleep at all due to the contractions.

On Friday morning I struggled to waddle up the road to the follow-up appointment to check my blood pressure that my GP had arranged. Tito took the day off work. The doctor clocked my silly walk and was concerned: ‘You’re not in pain, are you?’ she said. Errr, no? Yes, of course I am, but does it matter? She saw pain as a problem to be solved. I was trying very hard to regard it as interesting, new sensation requiring my kind attention and patience, and I was trying out the TENS machine, which was distracting, if nothing else.

My blood pressure was again a little higher, so she suggested I go the hospital for further testing.  ‘Do I have to?’ I asked. ‘No’, she said, ‘but I suggest it, and I’d take my bag if I were you. You might have the baby today.’ I didn’t like the sound of that,
knowing that going into hospital at this still early point would surely disrupt my flow and could lead to unnecessary interventions. I had to weigh up the options.

I resisted until the late afternoon, when I decided to go in for the blood tests, heartrate monitoring, etc. (without my bag!). It felt like a bit of a waste of the staff’s time (‘Sorry, why did your GP refer you here?’) and predictably, thankfully, all was fine, but while I was there my contractions dissipated.  They  got going a bit again on Saturday morning, after I had an intense contraction
that spread like an electric shock right down into my thighs – a gripping sensation I’d never felt before. I was at my gym at the time so I stopped and leaned heavily against a locker.

Just then, my dear friend Hannah texted. Having a keen interest in the sacred feminine, midwifery and an ambition to become a doula, Hannah had agreed to attend the birth if at all possible.  It takes a real strength of character to want to attend a birth, and this birth would be her first. I desperately wanted her to come, as I knew she’d be an amazing source of strength and wisdom, but she’d been in India for three months, and we weren’t sure if the timing would be right. But, incredibly, she’d just returned and wondered what I was up to! When I told her I might be giving birth in the very near future, she said she’d come down to ours, and we joked that it was a full moon that night. At this point, I had no way of knowing what a massive support it is to have a friend
or doula present at the birth.

I hadn’t made sure there would be a doula by actually employing one – I’d just crossed my fingers. With the clarity of retrospection, I see Hannah’s unfaltering presence was absolutely essential to the positive birth experience we had – a partner alone simply cannot stay fully available to you while dealing with all the practicalities of bags and cars and communications with staff. Not just emotionally available, but I needed Tito to literally, physically support me – and I weighed a lot! After three months away, Hannah had blessedly come back to us just at the perfect time.

Not knowing what to do with ourselves that day, as we waited for things to progress, I suggested to Tito (my husband) that we go to the wonderful Apollo Banana Leaf in Tooting for a Sri Lankan curry. I seemed to vaguely remember hot and spicy curry being recommended to get labour going. Any old excuse!

The curry was divine, and entirely coincidentally, I felt the little trickle of my waters breaking as I sat on the plush red seat. It was far from a gush and the seat was absorbent, so having checked in the loo that it was the sweet smell of amniotic fluid, not wee, and that there was no trace of meconium, I carried on with my meal.  Looking back, I wouldn’t recommend the curry route, by the
way, I’m sure the waters breaking had nothing to do with the spices and I became too full and bloated in the tummy for comfort.

Hannah arrived at about 5pm and we chatted and laughed and ate eggs for dinner. I was trying to relax until the contractions started to come closer together. I felt no urgency, even though I’d begun
to need to have a little, private scream every time I squeezed out a wee. Things were weighing heavily down there… Finally, as the full moon shone bright in the sky, we drove to St Georges
Hospital for some monitoring.  Tito kindly dropped us off at the door while he parked the car – unfortunately we were dropped at a locked door far away from the night entrance on the other side
of the hospital.  We laughed at the ridiculousness of it all as we slowly trekked around the perimeter of the large building, stopping during contractions to howl at the full moon hanging bright, and giggle.

The ‘Carmen Suite’ birthing centre was hushed and dim. A lovely midwife performed some checks, such as heartrate monitoring. I gave her my birth plan to look at while we waited. All results were
perfectly fine. The midwife then said: ‘I’ve read your birth plan and you are not going to like this. We have a policy to induce 24 hours after waters have broken. So I’ll book you in for an induction.’ She smiled sympathetically. ‘But I’m sure we’ll see you back in here before then.’

‘You can go on ahead and book me in for an induction’, I said ‘but I’m afraid I won’t be having one. Why is it is after 24hours?’ The midwife said ‘Well, it used to be after 72 hours, but the policy changed after some poor outcomes…’ No further explanation was given. Thank goodness I’d read widely and felt confident in my decision not to be induced without sufficient medical indications to do so.

All night I listened to hypnobirthing recordings whilst rocking on my birthing ball. My third night of virtually no sleep, but I felt peaceful and resigned. I hoped my contractions would come closer
together, but by the first light they still hadn’t.

We got up and drank milky liquorice Earl Grey tea. At 11am the phone rang. ‘You need to come in for your induction now’ I was ordered. I assured them that I would not be doing so, and as my monitoring from late last night showed all was ok, I felt fine, and I would be staying at home until Mathéo was good and ready to meet us.

The midwife I was speaking to wanted me to go to the Day Assessment Unit again straight away, if I wouldn’t be induced. Without intrusive vaginal examinations, I felt the risk of infection tiny. I knew the waters were not gushing, merely trickling. The midwife made it clear that I was a naughty lady. I can’t remember what was said I believe it may have involved raised voices. Instead of rushing into hospital to have my labour unnecessarily artificially induced, we instead sat in the glorious Sunday sun in the garden and I groaned and bounced around on the birthing ball as we told rude jokes and stories about poo and laughed (as recommended by the incredible Ina May to open up the sphincter muscles!).

I’d asked Tito to take me to the hospital when I could no longer speak or understand properly, and by about 2pm I was found insensible in the living room, crying quietly and leaning over the sofa, with my eye mask on and headphones in.  The carbonara being prepared by Hannah was abandoned. Soon I was bundled into the back of the car on all fours, as I’d requested. The five minute journey was a weird kind of swaying hell.  Hannah parked the car (thank goodness she was there!) as we walked through the hospital – I had my hands on Tito’s shoulders and he led me slowly through the bustling corridors, I was looking down and trying to keep in the zone with my eye mask and headphones.

We reached the birthing centre.  It was now about 30 minutes before 24 hours had passed since my waters had broken – ish. I’d had no idea the exact timing would be so crucial! The midwives were in their staff room – it seemed they were eating lunch and chatting.  One emerged to speak with us.

No, she can’t come in, she said. She was supposed to be induced at 24 hours. But it is just before 24 hours, and look! She is here and ready to give birth now, without induction. No, she must go to the delivery ward, as she needs continuous monitoring to establish if she is in labour. Things change, she said. Establish if she is in labour? But she is here, in a hypnobirthing trace, relaxed and clearly in active labour. Have you ever seen anyone in labour before?  We haven’t, but it is pretty clear to us that if you let her in she will plunge into the birthing pool, as she deeply desires, then she will surely give birth. No, things change, she must go up to the delivery ward for continuous monitoring. But it says in her birth plan she will not agree to have continuous monitoring, so why not just pop on a Doppler, establish the heartbeat is fine, and let her give birth? No, we cannot. No, we will not let her in. She was supposed to be induced at 24 hours. No. No. NO. Things change, they chanted.  Although we can clearly see she cannot sit down, would she like a wheelchair up to the delivery ward?

Because there is no room at this inn. At this point I pulled out my headphones, lifted the eye mask and dragged myself back to reality to argue my case. ‘Yes, I understand there is a line, at 24 hours. But I have not crossed it. What is the point of drawing a line, then?’ Things change.  ‘What has changed?’ What has changed is that you are treating me like a truant child. They all went back into the staff room and shut the door.

I crawled up to the delivery ward feeling like a wounded animal. I needed a dark, safe corner to birth in.  They were awfully surprised to see me there, in the state I was in: ready to give birth without anyone’s permission. Had they ever seen a woman in labour before? Bizarre. I really couldn’t stand, and so I lay on the floor in the reception as nurses walked back and forth past me. What a drama queen! Finally, a room was ready! The midwife was introduced! No, she would not trouble herself to look at my birth plan. She needed to establish if I was in labour, by continuous monitoring and a vaginal examination.

By this point I was HOT and I was absolutely desperate to get in water, so we went into the triage room’s ensuite bathroom. I was devastated to find we couldn’t get the shower working. In desperation, I stripped off naked as Tito threw cold water from the faucet at me. Hot hot hot! SO! HOT! WATER!

You must have a vaginal exam. Lie down on your back on the bed.  I could not, I would not; it was just too unbearably uncomfortable. I sat perched on the end of the bed. It seemed I would not even be admitted without agreeing, even though I knew I had every right to refuse, but I reluctantly
consented to a vaginal examination in a sitting position.

My will was weakening; I was going out of my mind. Luckily I was confident that I had left it late enough to come in. Oh! The midwife said. Your hind waters have not broken! She wanted to break them, putting me in the totally nonsensical position of agreeing to have my waters broken, a minor but nonetheless invasive procedure which I believed was not necessary and had not wanted, even though my waters having broken 24 hours
earlier was the whole reason I had not been admitted to the birthing centre. WTF? Exhausted, I agreed, thinking at least this was a fairly minor intervention at this point. Water gushed. Right, you must lie down on your back now so we can do continuous monitoring by attaching this belt. Would you like some pain medication? NO, said Hannah, have you read her birth plan? She wants a natural birth, without pain medication. Can we ask you to please respect that and not offer drugs?  Please could you make this experience more like the birthing centre atmosphere? She wishes to surrender to the pain as a way to let nature take control, and let things unfold as they should.

No, I would not, I could not, lie down, and thus the midwife attached the monitor sitting up.  I could not have that shackle. I immediately demanded it be removed; I was getting up to walk; I felt like I needed desperately to pee. NO – I COULD NOT SIT DOWN LIKE AN OBEDIENT CHILD. I am going to
give birth. Everything is fine. I have an idea, how about you ‘let’ me have the baby, then you can monitor him on the outside, wouldn’t that be easier?

Finding I had gone into a primal state of disobedience, not using my mind now but only wildish, strong, instinctive feelings, I was finally moved to another room and left alone with my darling
husband and dearest doula. There was a ball and a pillow for my knees on the floor. The room was clean, white and shiny in the clear afternoon light. I looked at Hannah and Tito in disbelief, shaking my head. It felt like a dream. Me? Give birth? Finally, there was peace. Gas and air? Yes, I will have some please! Ahh! The midwife would like you to lie on the bed on your back now. Would you like an injection for the pain? NO, she would not, said Hannah and Tito, again. Will you have the injection
so you will deliver the placenta more rapidly?  What ON EARTH is the rush, I wondered, why can we not wait? This is the culmination of months of pregnancy and days of contractions. NO, I will NOT have anything, I thank you very much for not asking again!

I knew I must be in ‘transition’ phase when I asked Tito and Hannah if they thought I really should have something stronger for the pain that cold towels and gas. NO! they said in unison.  I finally got on the bed, according to the midwife’s wishes, abut I lay on my side, as Tito held my leg up, suspended. Thank goodness he is strong. It was quite comfortable but I definitely wanted to be on all fours. ‘Not on my watch’, the midwife had earlier said, as if it were a silly little whim of mine. When she saw I would not lie on my back, she finally encouraged Tito to help me get into my preferred position.

A juice box, so cold and sweet, was snatched away from my lips. Not allowed. I’d brought a new flannel and thank GOODNESS this was given cold and wet and lovely to suck as I moved onto final pushing.

I’d read about ‘the ring of fire’ when the baby crowns, but I didn’t notice it. The final pushes were deeply intense, but PROFOUNDLY gratifying. Hannah moved away from the business end of things, encouraging me gently, but Tito was watching and kept crying ‘Beautiful!’ which I found inexplicably wonderful. Oh yes, there was pain. Sure, why not? For me, it had never been about it being ‘pain-free’, but rather, not resisting it, letting the waves wash over with nothing to catch on. I’d thought I’d be noisy, but I felt no great need to scream or moan, or low like a cow or shout or swear. I was quiet. Little stifled screams now and then seemed to suffice for me, I was surprised to find.

There he was, at 7.28pm, a slippery, quiet purple bundle, whisked away to a table across the room just for a moment to ensure he was ok. Was this necessary? I don’t know. The table was there. Could it have been brought closer? Perhaps he was not crying because he was not distressed. The cord had been cut by the midwife straight away; it seemed there was no thought of allowing it to pulse though or allowing my husband to cut it, although these were our wishes, and Tito was standing right next to her. Our baby was back for skin-to-skin, properly crying now, a squirming, fresh life. I felt euphoric, proud and elated. In photos, Tito and I both look glowing and about ten years younger, so uncontained was our radiant delight.

I’d been suspicious of the donation of cord blood or placenta, ever since I’d spoken with a young nurse who approached me about it in a hospital waiting room late in pregnancy. I am a registered
organ donor, that wasn’t the issue, what I was concerned about was if would I be ‘allowed’ to let the cord pulse through? Yes, she reassured me. I was also worried about pressure to have the
Syntometrine drug for a quick delivery as I wanted a physiological third stage.  No, I didn’t have to, she said – but then went on to explain that it usually only took 5 minutes before the placenta was
delivered.  Hmm – that didn’t sound realistic to me, without drugs. I made a definite, informed decision NOT to sign up. But then, I was approached by staff again, actually during my labour, when my will was weak, and I’d foolishly allowed my husband to sign permission.  Madness – how could he sign permission for MY placenta?  I’m convinced this, along with my insistence on a natural third stage, led to the nurse using unpleasant and, I believe, unnecessary cord traction. After all, it was the
end of her shift and I had not been an obedient patient.

After the birth I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the staff that had attended us.  I’d seen how much pressure is on them. The woman who gave me a few stitches (I’d hardly torn, although I believe the cord traction may have caused much more blood loss); the woman who helped me out when I almost blacked out in the shower, blood pooling in my flip flops; the woman who brought me hot tea & buttered toast, etc. Tito took Hannah to the station and I was left lying on the bed with my tiny angel. It had grown dark outside and the florescent strip light was on in the room. I wished it were off but I couldn’t stand up and could barely move at all, marooned high above the hard, shiny floor, clutching my treasure on the narrow hospital bed.  I had hoped to go home straightaway but I was too dizzy from the blood loss.

When Tito returned we were left alone in the delivery room until about 3am, when I was moved up by wheelchair up to the post-delivery ward. I desperately didn’t want Tito to leave us in
this strange, dark place full of snoozing strangers. I felt vulnerable and neither of us could sleep from our oxytocin high. All night, Mathéo and I gazed at each other in frank disbelief. Dark, liquid eyes in the darkness, filling my heart. I was absolutely desperate for the toilet, but I didn’t know where it was, and how could I leave my defenceless newborn baby all by himself in this big room full of people?

In the morning, Tito came and we took our little one home. Before we left two very, very young midwives asked me how breastfeeding was going. It seemed ok to me, so I was given no practical advice. I lived to regret that, but as I said, breastfeeding is a whole other story (I fed on demand until 15 months – so it did have a happy ending!). I felt like I’d gone a few rounds in the ring.  Every muscle I didn’t know I even had was aching. But not just physically.  I felt that only, as I said before,
by my sheer bloody-mindedness and the help of Tito and Hannah, had I managed to achieve the natural birth I knew I could, if only I were ‘allowed’. Oh my goodness, don’t get me wrong, I deeply
respect the miracles of modern medicine, and how deeply grateful I am from the bottom of my heart that these modern methods exist. But unnecessary intervention is something that must be
fought, when you are most vulnerable, and this is not right. It is not how you give birth – of course intervention is sometimes absolutely necessary. It is how you feel about the experience. Were you in control of decisions? Were your decisions respected?  Often the term ‘going with the flow’ is confused with ‘being swept along by the current, without control’. For a natural birth, with only the intervention that is medically indicated as necessary, a new definition of ‘going with the flow’ is needed: ‘to find the deep force of power that flows through you and harness it: ride the wave.’

Reading – Natalie Meddings – Dr Rachel Reed – Milly Hill writes great articles published in ‘Best Daily’

Hypnobirthing – British Maggie Howell personally appealed to me more than American Marie

Mongan. Lorraine McReight was my friendly local practitioner in Wimbledon Park – highly recommended.

New Active Birth by Janet Balaskas – excellent old black & white pics of hairy hippies giving birth

Everything by Ina May, Michel Odent (fear-tension-pain), and Sheila Kitzinger you can get your hands on.

BBC Horizon Documentary 1974/75 – A Time To Be Born (available on iPlayer)

In terms of baby books, I do wish I’d actually picked one up before birth, as you might expect, I found myself instinctively falling into ‘AP’ attachment parenting, but I read some awful stuff on the way there…

Put down the Gina Ford ‘Contented Little Baby’ books – where she talks about getting ready for baby as if it were a purely consumer exercise – buy, buy, buy! After that, train, train, train the little savages! Btw, Gina Ford does not have any children of her own & has not given birth! And the godawful Tracey Hogg’s ‘Baby Whisperer’ she addresses the reader as ‘luv’ and promotes labelling your baby as a ‘type’, strict breastfeeding schedules & various other nonsense.

Babycalm – Sarah Ockwell-Smith – much better!

Everyone adores ‘Your Baby Week by Week’ – I liked it too, until I realised it promotes early weaning on to food at 4 months (against gov’t guidelines and all common sense) as well as sleep training.