Trigger warning: This post is about childbirth and contains details that may upset some people.
I am writing this post in the hope that, aside from it potentially amusing some of my friends, someone may read it and then have an inkling of one version of what the hell they could expect whilst giving birth. I had no shred of an idea of my role (I’m exaggerating, before you start pfffting), despite a ten-week course from an NCT ‘instructor’ on childbirth which we shall discuss later (and she’s not gunna look good), and I was vexed that I as an adult woman in the western world did not know enough about what to expect. At high school in Britain in the 80s sex was still a dirty word – we had one sex ed lesson ever, which involved the very embarrassed male Science teacher attempting to show us with a long pointy stick the whereabouts of the sexual organs on a big poster tacked to the blackboard. We were boys and girls together in the class; the louder boys were busy shouting out crude questions carefully designed to make the teacher blush harder than he already was, and the girls were either cringing themselves or, in some cases, were so much more knowledgeable than the teacher seemed that the lesson was rendered pointless. That lesson was the extent of our official education on sex – education on relationships did not then exist, and childbirth was presented as a thing that other people did, not teenagers (except for the handful of girls that mysteriously disappeared halfway through Year 11, reappearing later on the high street with a pram). It being the 80s, I was given a book by Muv on periods, and therein lay my second small morsel of information about the workings of the female body. As previously discussed, my twenties were largely spent travelling the world or partying (I know, poor me), neither of which are activities known to magically induce knowledge of childbirth. I spent my thirties in Tanzania, and my friends in Britain selfishly chose this decade in which to give birth, thereby making me miss out on the whole experience of watching other people do it (not literally). Hence my dilemma: I was 40, and about to bring a baby into existence without having a bloody clue how to do so. It has always irked me that no one talks about this particular, mammoth event which is going to feature in a lot of people’s lives, and that that’s why women are afraid when the time comes. We are afraid of the unknown, but there’s no need for it to be completely unknown! Experience is the best teacher of course, but fore-warned is fore-armed as well. The only information freely available was the following, gathered over the few months before Begu was due, followed by my thoughts on each ‘fact’.
- The woman will know what to do when the time comes (in her friggin’ dreams).
- The baby will come out of the woman’s vagina (will it fuck).
- No medical interventions exist or have ever been necessary in any woman’s birth before, so you almost certainly won’t need any help (you lying bastards).
- Upon being easily born, the baby will latch on to the mother’s milk-laden breasts and drink its heart out (for real – this bullshit made me cry for a whole year after the birth).
I can’t be bothered with the rest but you get the idea. Here then is the story of Begu’s birth – stop reading now if you are squeamish.
Babies are supposed to be born at around forty weeks (in the UK anyway) unless there is a problem and they need to be evicted early. Despite being large and fully grown, Begu did not want to come out. Because I was a week overdue and I was 40, I was strongly encouraged to be induced. I did not understand the implications of this, and along with the fact that the midwife actually stuffed it up rather spectacularly, I regret it happening. I did not feel like I had much choice at the time though and so booked in, earlier than I would have liked because to wait another few days would have meant being in hospital over Christmas, which I did not consider fair on my monster who was then eight. I presented at the hospital at 3pm on a Friday as instructed. This Friday was part of our scheming – we’d chosen it as it was Jake’s last day teaching before the Christmas holidays. Had Begu been born before this day, Jake’s paternity leave would have started and ended that same day, thanks to Norfolk County Council not allowing teachers’ paternity leave to be split either side of a school holiday, the twats. I had actually gone gently into labour naturally by the time I checked in, but when I told the midwife in charge she ignored that fact. (Interruption needed: I LOVE THE NHS! I love the NHS and am grateful for what we have in this country. Get it? This midwife though, was horrible to me throughout my stay in hospital for no apparent reason.) She had booked me in for an induction and I was bloody well going to have it.
The junior midwife inserted a pessary in me, which would have been alright except for how far up it needs to go, and then explained that there are two types; one to gently induce labour in someone who shows little sign of starting naturally, and one to hurriedly induce fast contractions in someone whose waters had broken and who needed to get a move on, to avoid infection. I was a perfect candidate for the gentle, slow one. She gave me the other one by mistake. Within 45 minutes my entire torso was being wracked by frequent, violent contractions that I had been expecting more like six hours in. Jake attached the TENS machine (get one) and I tried not to punch people who came too close. The pain I was feeling though didn’t seem as bad as the pain on the junior midwife’s face when she realised her mistake and had to grass herself up to her senior, who furiously invited her to step into the office and then shut the door so we couldn’t hear the bollocking. On emerging she removed the pessary (but did not apologise, strangely) and the contractions calmed down a bit. I decided that this was the absolute premium moment to wander around the hospital with a machine attached to my back giving me electric shocks, looking for the canteen so I could buy a hot chocolate. Your brain gets a bit mashed, you know?
Hot drink in hand, Jake and I traversed the canteen and right in the middle of it I felt another contraction start. I dumped the cup on a table, bent over at a right angle, leaned my forearms on the table, dropped my head and shut out the world for a minute. You just have to keep breathing slowly and deeply and, if you’re a masochist, counting the seconds. It was a long contraction and when I straightened up after, the population of the canteen had been freeze-framed. Staff and customers had stopped walking and stood, trays in mid-air, watching me and holding their breath. A mother with her two daughters held a fork halfway to her mouth. Conversations had been paused whilst all eyes were on me. One man looked ready to spring into action, although I’m not sure what he thought he was going to do. I let out a breath and they all followed suit. Normal canteen activities resumed. It was quite sweet seeing that in a time of need, forty people had my back.
The pain was actually perfectly bearable with the TENS machine but this early labour went on for about eight hours. The junior midwife had given me a second pessary. Jake had not left my side at all so far, but the second he left the ward to go to the toilet my waters broke. This was supposed to happen first, and was bizarre – a bucketful of fluid poured out of me. None of this film crap where an eggcup-full plops daintily out; it kept flowing for a good half a minute. Jake came back from the bathroom (presumably a different one than that small one which I had redecorated with projectile vomit and various other bodily fluids immediately after the wrong pessary. My body seemed to explode from every orifice. Consequently Jake threw away whatever I had been wearing and we had to barricade the door shut until the cleaners could come) to find me weakly calling his name because I’d just let out a small river. A second clean-up operation commenced.
Around midnight the senior midwife examined the inside of me. Her junior had already done it once, and although she had tried to be gentle, there’s no getting around the fact that someone’s hand going up you as far as your cervix is going to cause some horrible pain. The senior made no such attempt to be careful or gentle, and from where I was she looked a bit like those vets who have to… oh never mind. She made me howl in pain and she seemed unsatisfied with whatever she discovered and grumped off without saying anything. After she’d pickaxed my cervix the contractions became a lot more painful, so I ditched the machine and asked for gas and air. This wondrous concoction had been ingested by me before, in less sanitary surroundings (at a music festival, out of a balloon) and I was looking forward to seeing what the correct ratio of components would be like as opposed to whatever the hell it was that time in a field. Breathing in and out of the tube every time a contraction started, which was every two minutes, I passed the bulk of the night. At one point, laying on my side, I opened my eyes during a particularly ferocious contraction to see Jake dozing in the chair. Here I was, sucking like mad on the tube of relief and trying to stop everything from my navel to my spine falling off, and Jake was having a nice little snooze. I thought ‘You bastard’ at him as hard as I could through my eyes, but he didn’t wake up. [I have just shown him this paragraph and he said “well, it was an exhausting night.” FML.]
One of the midwives had brought me an exercise ball in an attempt to get me off the bed, and after all night in a small space I thought I’d give it a go. I sat on it as shown, holding on to the bed for balance, and rolled around on it a bit. This felt totally hideous and I have no idea what it is supposed to achieve. I told the ball to fuck off (audibly) and walrussed back onto the bed. The junior midwife examined me again to see if my cervix had dilated enough for the latter stages of labour to begin soon. Sufficient dilation would be ten centimetres. She could see I was very tired after my four thousand contractions since the day before, and in an encouraging tone she said ‘Oh, well done! You’re two centimetres!’
‘Oh you are fucking kidding me,’ says I. She wasn’t. She removed what was left of the second pessary and regrouped with her colleagues to discuss how to sort me out. They packed me off to a labour room, a private room with one labour midwife, rather than the ward where ten of you are at the same stage. I wasn’t really ready but they tend to know what they’re doing, pessaries aside, so off I popped. From this point on my memory is hazy, thanks in equal parts to hours of gas and air and having been awake and in labour for fifteen hours so far, but I have Jake’s testimony to rely on – it turns out he did manage to stay awake for some parts.
The labour midwife suggested a Caesarean section, as the dilation was going nowhere, but I insisted I could carry on for a few more hours if I could have an epidural. The pain was getting to be too great and I was exhausted – no sleep, no food, no rest, not enough hydration, and bloody knackering pains in my actual womb lasting one minute, every other minute all night long. I apparently signed consent forms – can’t remember that – and was given an epidural which numbed everything from the waist down. The benefit of this was that although I could feel the contractions, they barely hurt anymore. In between each one, I kept falling asleep for a minute or two, then the next contraction would wake me. The disadvantage was that now that my lower body had been numbed, the contractions calmed down and came less frequently, which meant that the latter stages of labour, where the baby enters the birth canal, had been delayed. My head thought this was great and kept dozing. The rest of my body however considered this a terrible turn of events and wanted the baby out.
As for the baby, his massive head had become firmly wedged in my pelvis, so there was no way he could come out vaginally. He had spent hours nudging further and further into my pelvis and now was well and truly stuck. There followed another hour or so of me snoozing in between contractions which by now were wearing me out completely; unbeknownst to me, Jake and the labour midwife couldn’t take their eyes off the screen showing Begu’s heart rate. After the epidural more or less stopped the contractions, I’d been given an injection of oxytocin to restart them. Now every time I had a contraction, Begu’s heart rate dropped to ever more dangerous levels, and was taking longer and longer to re-stabilise. He hardly had time to recover each time before another contraction sent him into foetal distress. Poor thing – upside down, head rammed into bone, heart rate dancing all over the place; no wonder babies come out crying. By now I was off my head and had no idea of the heart issue, and so felt only vague surprise when two doctors appeared by my bedside, already in blue scrubs, smiling and suggesting I have a Caesarean now. I declined and said I could still manage, then noticed that one of the doctors was wringing her hands. ‘Get on the operating table or the baby will die’ is what I took from whatever she said next. I assented after all, as after all this I quite liked the idea of having a baby alive at the end of it, and within a few minutes they had me on the table and an anaesthetist was tickling me with his pen to establish where the numbness ended, which was immediately under my breasts.
After a few snips through my abdomen I could feel the doctors rummaging around inside me. It didn’t hurt of course, and it felt weird, but after a certain stage anything goes, so I just lay there looking forward to meeting my baby. After they did the washing up in me for a while I heard a sucking noise, a pop, which was them finally grappling Begu’s head back out of my pelvis. He was passed to the labour midwife who showed him to Jake. I could not see him yet and I asked Jake whether it was a boy or a girl (the idea of forcibly assigning a gender to someone without their input seems ridiculous now, in light of everything we know about gender, but that’s what happened). Jake, who knew I was desperate for Begu to be a girl, stammered over the fact that he was in fact a large boy, with enormous purple testicles. We did not know that babies’ genitals are swollen and red or purple when they are born, because of the hormones raging through the mother’s body being passed along the umbilical cord into the baby. It’s perfectly normal – another thing no one tells you – and it subsides after a day or two.
After a quick weight check (9.2lb) and whatever other stuff the midwife measures at birth, she wrapped Begu in a blanket and gave him to Jake, who just stared at him in disbelief that everyone in the room was still alive, although some had big holes in them, and that he was now the father of two people. I was flat out and being stitched back together and too covered in wires and tubes and hospital-type items to be able to hold Begu, but Jake held him down near my face and I touched my baby boy, my baby that I had made with my body, using only the magic of nature.