Look at Life: Giving Birth

23rd March 2018

A Tale of Two Births

My first-born arrived six weeks early. I hadn’t even started my maternity leave. No coffee catch-ups with friends, or indulgent me-time. No last minute knitting. A few strange twinges meant I’d gone straight from work to the hospital and been kept in for monitoring. My husband was told the birth was still days or weeks away and that he should go home to rest and prepare the nursery. He promptly went down the pub.

It was a shock, therefore, when my waters broke later that night and the contractions were thick and fast.

A deep-sleeping husband was duly summoned and arrived in the delivery room to find that a screaming madwoman had replaced his wife. ‘Oh darling, remember your yoga breathing,” he said supportively. “It’s not *@*$*%* working!” I shrieked in return.

I’d expected giving birth to hurt, of course. But not this much. I later found out that I was experiencing ‘back to back labour’. At the time I could barely speak, breathe or think. It felt being stabbed repeatedly in the spine with a red hot poker. (If you’re an expectant first-time mum, don’t be alarmed; this story does get better…). It didn’t help that I couldn’t move around or get in the bath, or do any of those things I expected to be able to do, given that I’d been strapped to the bed and linked up to lots of bleeping machinery. This was standard practice since my daughter was so premature, and should have been reassuring, but I was too deranged to appreciate .

“I need an epidural! Get me an epidural nowwww!!” I bellowed and, far too long later, a consultant arrived to tell me that I was only three centimetres dilated (typically a woman dilates from 0 to 10 centimetres while giving birth). “Do you really need an epidural already?” she asked, not a little condescendingly.

It wasn’t the first judgmental comment I’d ever received, but it still stung. After attending all those NCT and yoga classes; after reading all those books on natural birth – I was a failure. My pain threshold was so low that I couldn’t do what women had done for all of history. I couldn’t last five minutes without resorting to medical intervention.

Happily my daughter was born healthy and a good weight, but she still needed to spend a week in special care. She was fed through a tube and her sucking reflex didn’t kick in properly. After a fraught few weeks, I faced up to the fact that I couldn’t breast feed her and so I put her on formula. “I’ve seen other women try much harder,” muttered my midwife when I sought reassurance that I was doing the right thing.

What is it with these polite, but oh-so-jarring observations that flourish through pregnancy and beyond, and leave you feeling so defensive and deflated? From ‘don’t you think you’ve put on a little too much weight’ to ‘you shouldn’t be drinking, you know.’ (I was twenty weeks along, and had one solitary slender glass of fizz at a friend’s wedding.)

Memories are, apparently, linked with emotion; I suppose it’s the heightened hormones that mean I can recall every single one of these barbs so clearly so many years on.

As a result of my experience first time around, I approached my second pregnancy with subdued trepidation. Or maybe plain terror. I knew I wasn’t cut out for giving birth. But with a live-wire of a toddler to look after, I just had to get on with things.

I passed the scary seven and a half months mark successfully, and was delighted to find that this one wasn’t in so much of a hurry to come out as his big sister. Over lunch with a friend a few weeks later, she remarked anxiously, “Do you realise you keep pausing and taking deep breaths. You don’t think the baby could be on its way?”

“Ridiculous!” I replied. “Labour hurts. I’m not in any pain at all” – but after dessert I was forced to admit that I was mildly uncomfortable. “Maybe I’ll go and get in a hot bath.” I phoned my husband to voice my suspicions, but told him not to rush. “I’m bound to be ages away from giving birth.”

Another couple of hours later and I was sitting up in bed, gazing at my son. We’d barely got to the hospital in time.

I’m not going to say it didn’t hurt towards the end – especially in a tricky stage when we were stuck in a traffic jam and I thought I might have to give birth in the car – but this time the pain was always manageable.

The first moral of the story is that every birth is different: no woman should ever feel like she’s somehow failed if she doesn’t get the natural birth she envisages. We live in the 21st century: we shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed for asking for pain relief.

And the second is that consultants should think twice before judging a woman who’s begging for an epidural. Trust me… if she says she’s in pain, she’s definitely in (*@*$*%*!) pain.

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