Well, hello. That ended up being a longer break than I expected. Our rainbow baby boy turned six months old last week so an update is well overdue.
We’re all doing OK, despite what feels like daily batterings from the UK government and its response to covid-19. We’ve been locked down or under the strictest local rules – no restaurants or cafes open; no people allowed over, not even in the garden – since the end of the summer now. It’s made having a new baby a strange and (even more) relentless experience. All the newborn survival advice from books and parenting websites has been rendered redundant and rather trite – you cannot just ask a friend ‘to pop round for an hour’ to hold the baby while you nap.
Still, I am not complaining. Not really. A baby under difficult circumstances is infinitely better than no baby at all, no question. And Edward is a daily joy. A smiley, wriggly squidge of deliciousness. He is a determined, curious little soul, with eyes like a Manga character and a quizzical expression just like his Dad’s.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Throughout my pregnancy, the door to the birthing suite had been kept firmly shut in my mind. We went through the motions, of course, as my due date came closer. Under the duress of NCT classes (which we did via Zoom) Dan and I discussed vague preferences and I did the required reading, but preparing for labour always felt like an academic exercise rather than working towards something I was actually going to have to do. I did not – could not – write a birth plan. To be honest, I’m not sure my mindset ever really adjusted from its tense, clenched focus of willing my body to stay pregnant.
Three days after I wrote this post, it started.
I was one day past my due date, I’d been having random, niggly, not-quite contractions for a day or so, and then in the shower that morning I thought my waters had gone. (Somewhat humiliatingly, this leak was, in all likelihood, just my pelvic floor finally admitting defeat). I phoned the maternity ward triage, who said to come in to be checked. Then, in the time it took to get to the hospital and to be seen, I started to worry that the baby’s pattern of movements had changed, feeling slower and less intense.
While Dan waited in the car, chewing his nails and staring at his phone, I was – not for the first time in this pregnancy – hooked up to the CTG monitor to check the baby’s heart rate. There was no obvious cause for concern, but the consultant offered me an induction anyway. The wards were quiet; they could start it that evening, she said.
My first reaction was relief: warm, cosseting relief, like sinking into a bath. I wouldn’t have to wait any more. With the passing days, I’d felt increasingly like a caged animal – and one that was rapidly outgrowing its pen at that, unable to move far, or sleep for long, or focus on anything other than the quivers and lurches just beneath the surface of my huge dome of stomach.
At least with an induction, I thought, there would be motion, activity, and something else to think about. But, in hot pursuit, came a wave of doubt. Inductions were a thing pregnant people resisted, weren’t they? They are the thing you’re not supposed to want.
I’d written a piece for a newspaper about inductions not that long ago, so I had a head-start as to the facts. Even so, some part of my brain still thought choosing an induction would be wrong. By agreeing to one, was I letting my anxiety get the best of me? Should I be stronger? Was I just setting myself up for a truly horrible birth experience?
I don’t think it is controversial to say that for middle-class, Instagram-fluent women there is a type of birth we’re supposed to aspire to. Waiting for labour to start naturally. Perhaps a homebirth. Definitely using a birth pool. Bit of gas and air. Bring-your-own fairylights and those little fake, battery-operated tealights; yogic breathing and hypnobirthing tracks…Constant CTG monitoring, artificial hormones, and having your waters broken manually don’t really come into it. And yet, all those things which I wasn’t supposed to want were starting to feel distinctly appealing. Especially the CTG monitoring, the thought of being able to keep a constant track of the heartbeat – that heartbeat we’d waited so long to hear.
I understand the theory and the impulse behind the poster-girl, active, ‘natural’ labour and the positive birth movement it comes from. It’s a welcome corrective to old, paternalistic obstetrics practices that ignored women’s preferences, instilled fear and mistrust in their own bodies, and then silenced any trauma afterwards with an insistence that ‘you have a healthy baby, that’s all that matters’. I am by no means dismissing it.
Only, I wasn’t particularly afraid of labour. Or of what my own body could cope with. But I was afraid of my baby dying. More than anything. So what then? What counts as a positive birth under those terms?
I didn’t know. I had no scaffolding for this decision and none was provided for me by the healthcare system. Unlike with later pregnancy loss, if you have early miscarriages – even, as in our case, lots of them – it is generally assumed that it won’t and shouldn’t affect how you give birth. This may be true physically, but psychologically…? It wasn’t even a conversation.
I trudged back to the car to talk it over with Dan. I also phoned my mum, who’d had both induced and non-induced labours. She didn’t mess around. ‘Just go for it’ was her verdict. It might take a while to get going, she said. It might mean the actual labour stage is pretty intense. ‘But I think you’re too anxious to go home now. It’s time.’
So I signed the forms and had my covid swab, before being taken up to the ante-natal ward. It was surreally quiet. It was the day after England’s lockdown had lifted and I had the whole place to myself. Dan stayed for as long as he was allowed and then I was left to try to sleep for a few hours, drifting off to the sound of summer rain tap-shoeing across the hospital’s flat, grey roof.
I’d braced myself for it to take up to three days for the induced contractions to start – and for the really hard work to begin. In the event, I was down in the delivery suite the following afternoon and everything went quickly from there. Too quickly. Even the midwives were surprised when it was, in fact, time for me to push, a couple of hours later.
It sounds disingenuous to say I can’t remember the pain of labour. But I can’t. I know it was agony. I know I kept saying I couldn’t do it. I know I was so wretched and addled that when the midwives encouraged me to use the gas and air, Dan had to hold the nozzle up for me. I know it was the worst. Worse than anything. And yet, I can’t bring the precise sensation to mind as I can with other types of pain, like stepping on an up-turned plug, or the iron grip of my first miscarriage.
What I do remember: On hands and knees, I push and I push. Someone says I am nearly there. There is a scary moment when one of the midwives tries and fails to attach the heart rate monitoring clip – a foetal scalp electrode – to the baby’s head. Fleetingly, it occurs to me that I am flying blind now. Except I do not have room left in my body for fear. I push and I push again. Again and again and again until something releases. There is liquid and falling. Slipperiness. And then there he is, on the bed underneath me. A he. Reddish grey and absolutely livid.
To me, it feels like he cries instantly – as if he knows that what I have been dreading most was silence at this point and so decided to come out bawling. But Dan tells me later that it was the longest moment of his life, waiting for noise from those new, new lungs.
Air becomes breath. ‘The baby’ becomes our son.
‘It’s OK.’ I say as I reach for him. ‘It’s OK’. Over and over and over.
You’re here. You’re here. You’re here.