I had a cup of tea before I met my second child. A cup of tea and a piece of toast with jam. It was the best cup of tea and the best piece of toast I’ve ever had, even though the toast was hospital-cooked cold white bread and the tea was in a styrofoam mug with UHC milk from the little nook in the delivery ward.
I still feel slightly gobsmacked that I did it: that I stopped to have tea and toast, and then a shower, before I even saw my baby’s face properly. After he was born, all I saw was a grey triangle of squashed-looking face peeping out of a towel as he was rushed out of the theatre and up to the special care unit. Before that, he was a tiny lump on the other side of the room, hidden behind a huddle of midwives and doctors as I lay, sobbing, under glaring lights with my legs in stirrups while my body juddered and convulsed from shock.
Brazil didn’t know where to be, hovering behind the doctors and then coming back to squeeze my hand while the doctor set to work examining the damage they’d done to me in their haste to save my baby. “Wow,” the doc said, “look, there’s only a first degree tear!”
She went to get suturing supplies. “I feel like something bad happened to my haemorrhoids,” I told her. It didn’t hurt yet, but it felt like there was a cold breeze down there, like something that had been on the inside was now on the outside in a way it shouldn’t be.
She looked again. “Oh,” she said. “Ah.” Then, “well, the good news is if you ever have another baby, you can probably ask for an elective c-section.”
Back to the tea. They took my baby to special care once they got him breathing. Brazil went with them, I think, and I was stitched up and wheeled back up to postnatal, my limbs still jerking their violent and involuntary dance. I was covered in blood and sweat (and shit, probably), and I couldn’t stop crying. The whole thing felt surreal, like I was drunk or dreaming or underwater.
“He’s okay,” my midwife said. “He’s going to be fine. Let’s get you cleaned up, and you can go and see him. Do you need anything first?”
I hadn’t slept or eaten. I’d had a baby inside me and now he was outside and nowhere near me. I didn’t know who he was yet. We hadn’t met. He was supposed to go from my tummy to my chest and stay there, switching sides with my skin but staying part of me. Nico didn’t feel like a separate person for days, sometimes even for months. My legs continued to shake and my eyes continued to leak.
“Can I have my phone?” I asked. “And maybe something to eat?”
Let’s back up again.
Throughout this pregnancy, everyone assured me that second births are nothing like first births. They’re faster. They’re easier. Your body knows what to do. I was terrified of having to go through giving birth again, but I was pretty confident that this time would be better. I packed my hospital bag with one change of clothes. Positive thinking!, I’d thought positively. No week in hospital for us this time! We’d go in, have the baby, and be home when Nico woke up in the morning.
“I’m really sorry I told you it would be better this time,” my midwife said as I drank my tea. “Two bad births is really bad luck.”
This time did seem better, for quite a while. I’d been having contractions on and off for a few days, but they’d always vanish when I lay down to try and sleep. Finally, six days overdue, they started up and didn’t stop. There had been so many false alarms that when I told Brazil he needed to call my parents and let them know tonight was the night, he just kept reading his book. “Oh,” he finally said. “You mean now?”
Things happened as they’re meant to happen. It was painful and intense but manageable. I’d forgotten how much it hurts, but this time it felt like I was making progress, like the pain would lead us to a baby. We put Nico to bed. My parents arrived. I leaned on our bed and tried to breathe through the contractions until it was time to call my midwife, and then contracted my way down the path and into the car, and then out of the car and up to the delivery ward.
And then everything slowed down again. We passed a fun few hours alternating between the bed, the bath and the swiss ball, the contractions strong and regular but not getting any more of either. I mashed Brazil’s hand and forearm between mine in rhythm with the pain, like I could transfer it out of me if I squeezed hard enough. Sometime around 4am, I think, I hauled myself out of the bath and called a team meeting.
My midwife would check my dilation. If things had progressed, we’d keep going as we were. If they hadn’t, she’d break my waters and see if that sped things up — and we’d get the 20 minutes of monitoring required before having an epidural started, so that if nothing changed and we were in for another long haul, we’d be ready to go with some sweet, sweet relief.
I’d told anybody who’d listen that I wouldn’t wait for the epidural this time. I don’t need to try and be a hero, I’d said, paraphrasing a thing I saw on Twitter about how we don’t want anything about women to be natural until it’s causing them unimaginable pain.
But then it came to it, and… I just kept putting it off. The competitive perfectionist in me wanted to know if I could do it. And the idea that an epidural was a failure or an admission of weakness had buried itself too deep. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it.
So I put it off. And put it off.
I have two thoughts about this. The first is that if I’d been even a few minutes earlier in giving in, I wouldn’t have had to feel what came after.
The other is that if I’d tried to tough it out, we might never have known how much distress Luca was in — or at least not until it was too late.
I was still only seven or eight centimetres dilated, so a nurse came and set up the fetal heart monitor, and we broke my waters. And then things got hazy.
Two things happened at once. The contractions went from crushing-Brazil’s-hand-and-breathing-through-it to screaming agony, and in the middle of each one my body would kind of hitch and I’d get this insanely strong involuntary pushing sensation, and then it would flip back. It was like I was in two stages of labour at the same time.
Second, everyone got really quiet and focused on the heart rate monitor. Luca’s heart rate was dropping precipitously with each contraction, and it wasn’t coming back up in between.
I could tell it was bad and that people (more and more of them all the time) were getting really concerned, but I couldn’t see the screen and I was in and out of these overpowering, all-consuming push-pull contractions.
My midwife did another examination. She called a nurse in to repeat it, and then another one. Luca, who’d been lying sideways for weeks, had finally turned — but the wrong way. He’d gone posterior — and then he’d tipped his head back, and now the hard ridge of his forehead was stuck against my cervix.
He was stuck, and he was in trouble.
What happened next was this: the emergency caesarian team were already performing an emergency caesarian. There was no one else who could do one, and no time to wait for them to finish.
“This baby has to come out right now,” my midwife kept saying to me. “We don’t have any time. I need you to push him out now.”
I wasn’t even fully dilated.
My midwife and two nurses took turns reaching inside me and trying to physically shove what remained of my cervix behind the baby’s head. I expect that will be the most painful experience of my life. I certainly hope it will be.
With every contraction I just had to push and push and push, as hard as I could, with whatever I had. “You can do this,” my midwife told me. “You can do this because you have to. There’s no other way.”
I screamed. I cried. I shat myself.
The baby remained stuck. His heart rate dropped further.
They took my bed and ran me down to theatre, while I screamed and writhed my way through contractions in the hallway and the lift. They wheeled me into a huge white room, filled with people in scrubs and bright lights. My legs were locked into stirrups. An obstetrician ran in, a lovely older Sikh man in a colourful turban. I feel this rush of love for him every time I think about it, because he stopped at my head first and asked my name and told me it was going to be okay. (I think that’s what he did, anyway. All I actually remember is this sense of kindness, and an overwhelming gratitude that someone had remembered I was still a person, too.)
“I’m going to get these forceps,” he said, “and I’m going to pull and you’re going to push.” A nurse unpackaged the huge set of forceps, like salad tongs gone wrong, and handed them to him. “We’re going to do this right now, in one go. You need to give this push every single thing you have. This is our only shot.”
No one ever said “or your baby will die”. It sat there in the room, but nobody said it. I didn’t really process it until later.
While I drank my tea later that morning, my midwife said “usually they’d at least take the time to give you a local”.
They didn’t, though.
They pulled. I pushed. My baby came out. He was grey and floppy and he’d aspirated meconium. A swarm of people carried him away and left me lying on the table.
Luca was born at 6:45 in the morning, and I held him for the first time that evening. He started breathing on his own shortly after he was born, and he latched and fed the first time we tried. He had to stay in special care for five days of IV antibiotics due to the meconium, but he was strong and healthy and nothing else was wrong with him. We don’t know what happened to him during the birth, but there don’t seem to be any lasting effects.
He’s a healthy, happy, chunky baby.
I have an obstetrician follow-up this week to check the state of play in my ladybusiness, but it feels like I got off fairly lightly, considering. I went back to the gym this week and the only pain I’m in is the usual. I’ve had two rounds of gastro since he was born (thanks, sticky daycare fingers and completely fucked immune system) and other than discovering it’s possible to breastfeed while vomiting, my body and pelvic floor coped the way it always has. We haven’t even tried to have sex yet, both because we have TWO BABIES, ARE YOU EVEN KIDDING, and because I still feel like that area of my body is a war crime that should be cordoned off and left to grow weeds. I don’t know when that feeling will change — it still hadn’t really after Nico when I got pregnant with Luca (thanks, wine!).
I thought a lot during the election about whether the state of funding in our hospitals put my baby’s life at risk. Should there have been backup for c-sections? The hospital had no incubators free at first, and then his monitoring equipment was “the buggy one” that alarmed constantly for no reason because it was so old. After the birth I was put into a shared postnatal room because there was no other space, and I spent the first couple of nights separated by a curtain from a first-time mother and her screaming baby, while my baby slept down the hall in special care. The staff were trying so hard, and were so kind, but they were so obviously overstretched and overstressed.
The last nine years of cutting costs and corners in our public services are really showing, once you look under the hood.
So there it is: round two.
I’m both more and less cynical about the natural birth movement now. I still believe in empowering women to do what their bodies are designed to do. I read a book about the medical history of birth while camping out beside Luca’s incubator (Brazil made me stop reading especially gory facts aloud, but privately I thought it was probably small fry to anyone in that room. We’d all seen the kraken), which was a revelation in how many of the women who used to die in childbirth died because of shoddy medical practices rather than the process of birth.
But I also think women are on average older than they used to be, and fatter, and more sedentary. And less versed in experiencing both pain and loss of control.
There’s a very real risk that pushing women to give birth naturally makes them feel weak for asking for or getting pain relief, and ashamed of births that don’t go to plan and require intervention (which seems, anecdotally, to be most of them?). I know people who’ve had powerful, pain-free, empowering births, and I love that it’s possible. But are we risking making women feel like that’s usual, when in most cases it really isn’t?