I love birth stories. I was dead keen to write one… before I gave birth. For the first few weeks afterwards, I was carrying around too much shame to even speak about it: I’d done it wrong, I hadn’t been cool (I lost my shit completely, and then lost it some more), I hadn’t coped.
I did too much hippie reading beforehand and wanted to try a natural birth, but when it came to it that epidural was the single best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’d have named my child after it, if it was called something slightly nicer.
We had a plan worked out — if I asked for pain relief, Diogo was to gently talk me out of it unless I used the pre-arranged safe word. (It was “quesadilla”, pronounced the way my 70-year-old, rural-Canterbury-raised mother pronounces it: kwes-a-dill-a.) When it came to it, I was screaming it in his face before he even had a chance to ask if I was sure.
Let me backtrack a bit.
I went into labour naturally at 39 weeks and 5 days pregnant. I’d gone to bed the night before feeling like something was happening, and every inch of me was positive that I couldn’t be overdue. There just wasn’t room. I’d never been able to comprehend people who realised they were in labour and went back to sleep (the most exciting thing that’s ever happened is happening after nine months of waiting and you sleep through it?), but I woke up at 1:45 that morning, left myself a note on my phone that said “I’m pretty sure this is it”, and went back to sleep until 8am.
The next day was a blur. The contractions rapidly ramped up to between 5 and 10 minutes apart, and then… stayed there. All day. And all night. And they hurt. Technically, that early phase doesn’t even count as labour — it’s “pre-labour”. It’s not, apparently, meant to be that painful. Later it turned out that Nico’s head was in the wrong position, so nothing was progressing, and I think I had back labour (you feel the contractions primarily in your lower back, and the part where the pain is meant to go away between contractions just doesn’t happen…).
About 4am the following morning, I rang the midwife on call. The contractions had made it up to 4 minutes apart, were crazy intense, and it had been over 24 hours since I’d slept or functioned or been comfortable. She said, “you haven’t had one while we’ve been on the phone; it’s still too early” and I burst into tears.
And so we continued until lunchtime the following day, when my midwife was due to visit anyway. At that point they’d slipped back to about 7 minutes apart. She checked my blood pressure and it was too high, and there was protein in my urine. After a couple of weeks of threatening it, I was finally over the line of pre-eclampsia now that I was already in labour.
Because of that, my midwife said we could go to hospital and, if I wanted, she’d induce me to speed things up. An induction was number one on the list of things I’d said I wanted to avoid in my birth plan, but after 24 hours without sleep, I didn’t take much convincing. Faster seemed better.
(Little did I know that 18 hours later I’d be frantic with excitement for a woman to cut my vagina open with scissors to speed things up. I clearly remember being beside myself that she was taking the time to anaesthetise me first. Shit escalates fast during birth.)
It took until about 6pm for the drugs to actually start and things to kick off: in between we went out for lunch and then again for dinner, me white-knuckling the table through contractions and hoping no one noticed that the ridiculously pregnant woman wasn’t just in danger of going into labour but actually was.
The syntocinon ramped things up fast. I don’t remember if the pain got much more intense, but there was no break from it now and my back was starting to be constant agony. I couldn’t find any way to get comfortable. I don’t know how long I held out for — it could have been three hours or ten minutes; time had ceased to have any meaning — but at some point it occurred to me that we’d been at this a day and a half and almost nothing had changed. I’d skimmed half of the birth skills book I’d been putting off reading between contractions the night before, but it contained such sage advice as “curl your toes into the carpet” and “light a pleasantly-scented candle”, which is the kind of earth-mother shit I’d find delightful if I’d, say, stubbed my toe.
I’d read a lot about the medicalisation of birth — the idea that (male) doctors have divorced women from the natural processes of their bodies and made a beautiful act of nature into a medical emergency. Unfortunately, these books had kind of convinced me that birth wouldn’t actually be painful. Several of them even said in words, “birth shouldn’t be painful”. Thus I found myself in probably the opposite position to most of my friends, who’d had the dangers and interventions hammered into them by their antenatal classes, midwives and friends and went into labour terrified. I was surprised to find myself in such pain. And I didn’t feel at all equipped to deal with it. I’d packed a fucking scented candle and some Rescue Remedy.
I thought about how many hours I could keep doing this for, making bargains and deals in my head to keep me from begging for drugs. Finally, I asked my midwife how much longer she thought it might be. She said, “I’ll check your progress in another four hours”.
CHECK MY PROGRESS. CHECK.
Four hours was my outside guess for the whole damn deal: at this point I’d already been awake and in constant pain for over a day and a half. She’d check my progress in another four hours? Fuck that with knobs on, thought me. QUESADILLA QUESADILLA QUESADILLA.
And, oh, it was beautiful.
I even slept off and on for a few hours, watching my contractions scrawl across the monitors like mountain ranges, the baby’s heartbeat strong and steady underneath them. (One blessing: Nico’s heart never skipped a beat. He was utterly chill the whole time, still trying to squirm around right up to the moment he emerged topside.)
Things my midwife didn’t tell me: syntocinon is INTENSE. The pain of it is intense. Pushing under it is like being hit repeatedly by a truck that drags you under it until it hits you again a moment later like a truck snake that’s eating its own tail while you writhe underneath its snake wheels. Several people said later that very few people manage a natural birth once they’ve been induced, for exactly that reason.
I also didn’t know that the epidural would be stopped when it was time to push, but the syntocinon would continue. I’m still not sure whether this is the only option or if I missed a choice somewhere in the haze of that night. (At one point I remember looking over to find my left side covered in blood. This seemed completely unsurprising, even though I was fairly sure it wasn’t standard practice for a birth. Turned out my IV had been dislodged somehow and my vein was emptying itself down my arm and into a puddle on the bed. I felt very calm and not at all bothered about this at the time. Bigger fish.)
I don’t know whether it was me or it’s like this for everyone with chemically-assisted contractions, but once it was time to push and the epidural was turned off, there was no let up at all. By dawn, the contractions had concatenated one into the other and I couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t even breathe. The pain in my back and hips was so intense that I all I could do was writhe and beg for it to stop, and then scream and scream and scream.
By this point it was my due date, two days after I’d left myself that note on my phone and gone back to sleep.
A couple of days later, through our shared bathroom door, I heard my hospital-room neighbour telling a visitor that she couldn’t understand why anyone would scream — such a waste of energy, she said.
Well, good on fucking you, perfect birther. I’m glad all your energy was productive. Mine felt like it was too much for my body, and the only way to bleed it off before it killed me was to get it out in noise.
I literally thought I was going to die. I felt like I was about to have a stroke. I was begging Diogo to make it stop, to let me out of my body just for a minute. And later, when I told Rachel B this and got to the part where my midwife then checked my blood pressure, turned white and immediately hit the emergency call button, she pointed out that that’s actually what was happening.
That hadn’t occurred to me until then. I’d been thinking about it purely in terms of my own failure: at a natural birth, at any kind of composure. Like, I knew things were going to get real in that birthing room, but I’d been thinking about, you know, the prospect of pooping myself in front of my love. I’d briefly worried that my scented candle might be too intense. Going full exorcist was nowhere on the birth plan.
To the medical profession’s credit, once that emergency button gets hit, things move. Doctors and nurses swarmed into the room. I lay there, legs akimbo, writhing and sweating in a puddle of my own drying blood, and could not have given less of a shit who saw what. If they were going to get the baby out, they could have told me they were sawing my legs off at the knee and I would have kissed them and offered to hold the saw.
A nice lady told me she was going to make a bit more room for the baby so they could get him out faster. Then she got out her scissors. I saw them very clearly, which I remember precisely because I couldn’t have cared less. “Oh, she’s going to cut me with scissors,” I thought, the same way you might think, “oh, there are scones at this morning tea”. Then they stuck a suction cup on his poor little head, and (and this is just my memory, so it may not be factually correct) a team of them lined up like a tug of war and hauled.
I always think of Rach telling her birth story with Joe, and saying that she was surprised to look down and find a baby after he was born. I feel the same way about the moment when he finally came out — intensely, suddenly and overwhelmingly shocked as I felt a whole person, with shoulders and limbs, come slithering out of me. The size of him was staggering. The feeling of all those limbs working their way out… like, somehow, I’d sort of thought it’d feel like, I don’t know, a really big tampon? I’d only thought about the head, so I was kind of just expecting something smooth and round to pop out of me. But instead a whole human person came out of my vagina.
I was surprised by a lot of really obvious things that day.
Everything is a blur from there. I remember him being put on my chest and looking at him and feeling this… very casual relief. Like, “oh, there you are. Of course”. Nico himself didn’t surprise me at all, and I’d really thought he would. I’d spent months wondering what he’d look like, if he’d have hair (of course he’d have hair). I couldn’t imagine him before he was born, but as soon as I saw him I felt like he never could have been anyone else. At some point Diogo cut the cord and someone took him away and cleaned him up, either before or after the nice doctor stitched my insides back together. I have no memory of birthing the placenta.
My next clear memory is Nico already dressed and wrapped up in the little plastic cot thing, and the relief midwife suggesting I might get up and take a shower. I looked at her, stunned. Get up? Shower? Like, did she SEE the massacre that just happened? I just spent over two full days trying to get a human out of my body and now I should just… get off the bed and go to the bathroom?
So I did.
And nothing will ever be weirder than the first time you try and stand up straight after nine months pregnant. There was a hole in my middle where my baby used to be, and all my organs hadn’t realised yet. Taking a breath felt a little like my whole body was about to fold in and swallow itself like a broken accordion.
I started thinking about this post because I was reading an article about the percentage of women living quietly with injuries from birth. (I have more to say on that later.) It made me think about how intensely ashamed I felt of having had an epidural and a ventouse delivery, and how the (supposedly) feminist literature had convinced me that without my body doing everything naturally, I wouldn’t produce the right hormones to bond with my baby. I was genuinely scared that any interventions would compromise my ability to love my child.
I’ve always been cautious with my feelings. I was scared I wouldn’t have the emotional capacity to bond, to love a baby the way he’d need to be loved. I shouldn’t have worried. The first weeks were a tired, aching, oozing blur, but I never felt anything but overwhelming, enormous love every time I looked at his squashed little face with its wildly lazy eye.
Now I don’t know what I think. I think mothers should feel empowered to birth their babies however they want to, by whatever standards they think are best. I think caesarean rates are too high and fear and clinical surroundings probably do make birth harder than it needs to be. But I also think humans have a fucked-up reproductive process, and drugs and interventions save lives and stop a lot of suffering.
I also think mothers are fucking heroes. Goddesses. They’ve been to war. They’ve looked the kraken in the eye and raised a middle finger to his tentacles. They’ve brought new life into the world in blood and pain and love, and then they’ve got up and had a shower.