Louis is now six weeks old and fast asleep beside me. He makes loud grunting noises as he sleeps, sometimes interspersed by soft squeaking and cooing. He’s lying on his back, tightly swaddled to contain his startle reflex. He frowns and smiles, letting out a little cry occasionally when the wind in his tummy gets too much. Last night he fed nearly every hour. We’ve been told he’s going through his first developmental leap, so he’s needing lots of mummy time and feeds. I found myself gently crying after a feed and toilet trip. I was tired. I had started thinking about my birth after feeling how tender my scars still are when I wipe after going to the toilet. I decided that today I would write our story, to process it fully and record it whilst still relatively fresh in my memory.
For nine months I prepared as much as I could for Louis’ birth. I knew I had a phobia to overcome and my researcher-nature meant that preparation was essential. For as long as I can remember birth has terrified and astonished me. I’m not completely sure why. If you ask anyone in my family, I have never been good at dealing with pain. It’s not just my pain either – I’m an empath. I’m the wimp in the family. Perhaps it was always going to be my nature, but I attribute it to the loss of my identical twin sister to Leukaemia when we were 5 years old. Anything to do with suffering or the body is enough to make me feel faint.
So, when we fell pregnant I embarked on a journey of positive birthing – I attended Calm Birth classes and antenatal classes, did prenatal yoga two to three times a week (complete with positive birth affirmations during the shivasana), listened to hypnotising meditations, read Ina May Gaskin’s “Spiritual Midwifery”, Sarah Buckley’s “Gentle birth, gentle mothering” and Juju Sundin’s “Birth Skills”. Between these three books I was somewhat led to believe that birth will go right by approaching it the right way – surrendering, opening, visualising, relaxing – and through this I would become empowered to deliver my baby without intervention or drugs. Of course, there are occasions where birth goes wrong but these should be rare according to contemporary opinion. All I had to do was remember the countless women who have birthed before me. Besides, I believe in natural birth. How could I not? Once you read the science about procedures like c-sections, epidurals, nitrous oxide gas and synthetic oxytocin injections to birth the placenta it’s very difficult to accept – unless you want to set your child up to be a possible drug addict or myriad health consequences!
My story is not for pregnant women to read. No. If you are pregnant, stop here. This is what some people will classify as a horror story and some will judge it as they read it, imagining they know how everything could have turned out differently.
I wanted a natural birth but I was willing to accept a caesarean if that was what was the safest option. What I wasn’t prepared for was the birth I had. My phobia wasn’t about my body knowing what to do – I trusted the wisdom of my body but I didn’t think I could cope with the pain. In the end I did cope but it was my body that failed me and I had an instrumental birth.
Around 1030pm Wednesday the 6th July I started leaking amniotic fluid, then at 1230am I felt a pop and a gush of fluid rushed out of me. My contractions started. I continued leaking. I felt nervous but calm and patient. My due date was Friday the 8th July and I imagined that our little boy would be arriving a day early. I could barely sleep as the contractions weren’t too strong but were already regular and distracting. As Thursday progressed we made lactation cookies, made final preparations, checked the hospital bags and started timing the contractions. As the minutes ticked by they became more and more intense. I moved, swayed my hips, held on to the wall, rolled a stress ball in my hands and rubbed my legs together. It had become painful but bearable – like strong period pain.
By 830pm Thursday night I felt like I was tripping. I was high – in another dimension. The contractions were 45 seconds long and just under a minute and a half apart. A midwife visited and checked me, advising that I was nearly fully dilated but there was a membrane between bub’s head and the cervix so we should make our way to the birth centre to have the membrane popped and things would be well and truly on their way. I felt so excited. I couldn’t believe how well I had done. I waddled to the car, and we drove the 15 minutes to the Byron Birth Centre. I had 4 contractions on the way but when we arrived everything had slowed down and I started to worry that I had come in too early.
The next hours I stood in the shower with the water on my back, cycled my legs until a blister formed on my ankle, leant on the exercise ball, tried out the birthing pool, groaned and moaned until we decided to see how dilated I was again. Another membrane needed to be popped and reluctantly my midwife told me I was only 5 cm dilated. How was this possible? Cervixes are tricky things to feel apparently. I continued on for another few hours with Jean diligently by my side, changing the music occasionally to help me through.
Then, the same scenario was repeated. Another membrane to be popped. I was tired, disillusioned and starting to unravel a little. At each membrane popping I had been told labour would well and truly take off and my baby would be there soon… but I didn’t believe anyone anymore. The whole world had fallen away. I asked Jean to turn off the music. We got back in the birthing pool and I threw up.
I don’t know how much longer it was before baby started transitioning. I can’t remember the pain exactly but those hours must have been overwhelming as I lost focus and asked for a C-section. My midwife called my doctor who came to support me. It was too late for a caesarean – I would have to keep going and deliver this baby. It gave me motivation. Sometimes I felt scared. I remember curling up to Jean and saying “I want to go home now”. For some reason, whenever I remember this moment emotion bubbles up and tears roll down my cheeks. I remember feeling like a little girl, trying to be a woman. All I wanted was to stop, for it all to go away, to go home, to cuddle up, and to feel comfort and love and safety. I could see from Jean’s face that his heart sunk. “You can’t go home, Carlita”. I knew I couldn’t but I guess it was my way of expressing something – my fear, my helplessness, my vulnerability. Eventually my midwife offered me the nitrous oxide gas which I accepted. That wasn’t in my birth plan. Sometimes my eyes would roll back in my head and Jean asked for the dose to be lowered. I wondered if it had any effect. Of course it did.
Eventually, Friday’s sun started filtering into the room and again I wondered when this baby would be born. I started feeling the pushing reflex and found an energy I didn’t know I had. I gripped Jean’s shirt as I bore down, pushing as hard as I could to get this baby out. No more gas. A poo. Squatting, lying sideways, kneeling. The doctor and Jean held me as I squatted. A mirror was placed beneath me to see the head. Fluid and blood leaked everywhere. For more than two hours I pushed. Everyone could see baby’s head just a centimetre from the outside world. My doctor kept telling me I had to push harder but I couldn’t. I still don’t know how I could have. Baby’s head was on the wrong angle. They tried to rotate him but he kept moving back. Another midwife arrived. Her fresh energy helped me push harder and harder. It was raw – I was complete animal, finding sounds and strengths I didn’t know were possible.
My doctor suggested an episiotomy and a ventouse, to be able to guide baby out. I didn’t want an episiotomy. I searched the four faces surrounding me (Jean, my doctor and 2 midwives) for their reactions. I asked them if this was necessary but none of them looked confident. I felt small. I felt vulnerable. I felt so scared. Eventually one of the midwives told me if we did this, baby would be here so soon and it’ll all be over – that if we didn’t do it, I would tear. I accepted. I was cut from my vagina toward my anus and a ventouse was prepared. A small rubber cup was pushed into my vagina and suctioned onto my baby’s head. This wasn’t in my birth plan. On my next contraction I pushed and my doctor pulled. I screamed “get out!!!”. The ventouse popped off my baby’s head, splattering blood on to my doctor’s face. A second attempt was made. A third is not recommended. I unknowingly peed on my doctor. They checked baby’s heart rate – steady the entire time. He must take after his papa. They let me know regularly that “baby is ok” but at some point I replied “I know, but am I? Am I ok?”. I didn’t feel ok. They assured me I was but again I felt like a little girl, unsure of what was going on, navigating foreign feelings and situations, unable to make decisions.
My pushing contractions kept coming but now my doctor was making arrangements to transfer me to the nearest hospital by ambulance. My midwives decided to insert a catheter to empty my bladder. I decided I didn’t want one and walked – with a baby between my legs, blood running from my episiotomy, pushing contractions continuing – to the toilet.
I was strapped on to a bed and wheeled to the ambulance. That 35 minute journey to the hospital was surreal. I cried out with each contraction. I begged to be “put out”. My doctor said they couldn’t – I still needed to push when I got to the hospital. I sucked on some gas thing that was supposed to be a strong pain killer but it didn’t feel like it to me.
I was wheeled into the birth suite at the hospital, into a room of 9 people. I looked at the obstetrician in charge and said over and over “thank you for helping me, thank you for helping me”. Again I felt like a little girl. My legs were put in stirrups. An obstetrician and her entourage extended my episiotomy and on my next contraction she used forceps to guide my baby into this world. Three pushes actually. So much stretching and pain. My screams came from so deep inside me. I didn’t know I was capable. A student midwife stood beside me and explained everything calmly. She was my rock during that time.
Baby came out at 930am on his due date, Friday 8th July, and was put on my chest. My leg was injected with oxytocin. I birthed the placenta. This wasn’t in my birth plan. They stitched me up with so many stitches no one bothered counting while I held my slippery little boy. I was in shock. I cried but no tears fell. I gasped, but couldn’t get enough air. Then, my baby boy latched on to my breast and started sucking. I couldn’t believe it. How did he know what to do? I felt my body relax. It was over. 36 hours after my waters broke, it was finally over. I was exhausted, a little broken and in shock. Thank goodness for Jean, my love, who stayed with me every moment of the birth. He was an absolute hero to me. I would have felt very scared and alone if he hadn’t been there. He didn’t leave once, not even for food or a nap.
Remembering the moment Louis latched on will always make me teary and warm. He had stayed calm the entire time. He heard his papa speaking to him in French and it was clear he knew we were his. He loved us already. He had big red marks on his face from the forceps. He had a round bruise on the back of his head from the ventouse. He had a big egg shape on his head from where I had been pushing him at the wrong angle. He was big – 57cm long and 3.7kg. We were all so sleepy and exhausted, so we curled up and rested as much as possible, despite the adrenalin.
I know when I was pregnant I wanted to hear positive, real birth stories but I think ones like mine are useful too. It might have been scary and unplanned but I also feel empowered and amazed at what I could endure. I feel proud and know with every part of my being that I tried my hardest, I couldn’t have done any more. I also realised that despite moments of exhaustion, of wanting to stop and sometimes even being scared, I wasn’t actually thinking about my phobia through the whole process. Actually, I was just reacting, present to what was happening, in another world.
Like most things in life, childbirth is different for each of us. For me, it was difficult and messy but it was also empowering. I coped when I didn’t think I would.
My midwife said “at least you had a vaginal birth”.
My doctor said “not sleeping that first night is a first time mum’s rookie mistake – you were just too exhausted”.
My mum said “they don’t call it labour for nothing”.
Others said “all that matters is that the baby is healthy”.
Really? “All that matters is a healthy baby”? Can’t multiple things matter? Doesn’t it matter that I feel wounded, physically and emotionally?
The Friday night after birthing my Louis, I couldn’t sleep. Jean wasn’t there as he couldn’t stay in the hospital. I hadn’t slept since the Tuesday evening but I was wired. I started to process what I had just been through. I was sore. I was fragile. I felt guilty. What had I done wrong? Why couldn’t I do it by myself? The midwives at the hospital were such an amazing support. They talked with me, reassured me, cared for me in such an empathetic way.
Saturday morning I texted Jean early. “I need cuddles.” I looked across to the tiny human in the basinet beside my bed, with all the bruises on him and thought “if I need cuddles at 36 years of age, he must need them too” and I bundled him up in my arms, tears silently running down my face as we helped each other heal from this experience.
I was so swollen and black between my legs that I couldn’t move. Each time Louis cried, I buzzed a midwife to pass him to me. I got put on extra strong painkillers. Louis developed jaundice and needed phototherapy for 24 hours. I would visit him in the nursery every two hours to feed. I quickly missed him between feeds but I was also happy for the rest.
Eventually, we went home. I felt so broken but so in love. Jean called me his lioness and wrote me a card that I will treasure forever.
6 weeks on and where I had the episiotomy is still tender. I’ve discovered I also have a tear near my clitoris, which causes discomfort. I have little control over my sphincter and when a poo calls there is no time to wait. The skin at the top of my stomach (below my breasts) has no sensation, apparently due to stretched nerves. Breastfeeding has been a challenge with an overactive let down, then a low milk supply and latching/attachment issues. Really? All that matters is a healthy baby? I’m in love but that doesn’t take away the trauma. I have a healthy baby but it’s not all that matters.
I’m wounded. I lie in bed some nights, after feeding, with flashbacks of my birth reminding me why I still don’t feel ‘normal’. Tears escape. I don’t know how much of it is from the birth and how much of it is from becoming a mother. Perhaps the two are so very linked – pain and pleasure, loss and love. When I think of the moments during birth that I felt like a little girl, wanting to be held, saved, helped and loved upon it makes me realise that I’m capable of being so many things all at once. I’m still a little girl, a woman and a mother. I am still a wimp, fearful of suffering and pain but capable of enduring so much.
Photos thanks to my mum at Moments in Time.