This post was originally written for Neighbourhood Midwives who were my amazing birth support team. I’ve decided to share it here as well because birth is important to me. I know for some sharing a story of something so intimate and personal so publicly may seem strange but I’ve come to believe that it is important to share our stories about the parts of our lives which we don’t often talk about and so I am choosing to share this with you. I hope that, when you read it it might inspire, reassure or comfort you. Positive are experiences are possible and I believe that how women are supported to birth very often has an impact on the way things turn out.
My earliest memory is of my sisters’ birth at home in our parents’ bedroom in the house where we grew up. That was in 1981. I was just three years old at the time but I think the experience gave me faith in the possibility of intervention free natural birth that has stayed with me ever since. When I was a postgraduate anthropology student I also remember reading a book called The Woman in the Body by Emily Martin. In it there was a chapter that described the growth of intervention in childbirth and the extent to which it had robbed women of their power.
I began investigating alternative birth support options for myself after an unsatisfactory visit to see the midwife at my GP surgery. I left the appointment feeling that my choices were being restricted because I had been identified as high risk. The increased risks were supposedly due to my age (I was over 35) and BMI (which was in the 30s). Unfortunately that pregnancy ended in miscarriage as did the next and by the time I was pregnant for the third time I was clear that I wanted to look for someone to support and reassure me through my pregnancy and help me to make the right choices for my birth. That was when I stumbled across Neighborhood Midwives online.
I was apprehensive when I first mentioned their services to my partner Matthew because I wasn’t sure that he’d be willing to support me cover the cost. I also felt some reluctance to pay for something the NHS provides for free. I had never paid for private healthcare before and the idea did feel somewhat indulgent to me at first. But Matthew was encouraging when I broached the subject and when we met Rene from Neighborhood Midwives we both immediately recognised that the investment would offer me the reassurance I wanted during my pregnancy and the opportunity to choose the homebirth I had set my heart on despite my ‘high risk’. It also provided a level of postnatal care that I felt might be particularly important for me because I have suffered from depression in the past and was worried that I might struggle post-natally. The fact that Neighbourhood Midwives is an employee owned social enterprise seeking to promote the availability of the service they provide to more women also made me feel less reluctant about our decision to pay for independent midwifery.
The rest of my pregnancy went extremely well. I was pretty tired the first four months but otherwise had few issues. For the first trimester I even continued to work as a Nia teacher. My body felt great. My regular check ups with Neighbourhood Midwives did provide reassurance and luckily neither I nor my growing baby ever had any health issues of concern. The fact that the appointments were flexible and in our home also meant that Matthew was able to be there for most of them which he really appreciated. It meant that we both knew and understood how I was doing and the choices that we were making about the birth of our baby.
One thing we decided early one was that following our first scan (at 11 weeks) we wouldn’t go for any more scans unless issues arose that made our midwife feel that a scan would be particularly beneficial. There were a number of reasons for this. First having had two miscarriages we were longing to have a child and had decided that we would not consider a termination on any basis. Secondly following a natural miscarriage in my first pregnancy I had come to trust my body to end (as well as create) life and so trusted it would do so if necessary. Also many years working with disabled children had taught me that some conditions for which you might routinely be offered termination could be a blessing rather than a curse. Finally I was keen to avoid the unnecessary distress that I felt repeated scans might cause me.
I was surprised when I called to cancel my second scan that when I explained ‘that I had decided I didn’t want the scan’ I got the response ‘I hope for your own sake that you are having it somewhere else’. I shared my experience with Rene and she reminded me that scans (along with most of the things women are offered during pregnancy) are a choice. I knew remaining scan free for the rest of my pregnancy was the right decision for me.
My Birth Story
By the time my due date was approaching I had convinced myself that, because my mothers’ deliveries had been early and relatively uncomplicated, mine would be similar. I remained committed to a home delivery knowing that I absolutely trusted Rene’s judgment and would go along with it if at any point she felt a transfer to hospital was necessary.
I truly believed my baby would come early and so cleared my diary from before Christmas. By New Year’s Eve I was surprised (despite still being almost a week off my due date) that my baby hadn’t yet arrived. That evening I had some twinges that came to. In the morning I awoke impatient and tearful. I wanted my baby to come now!
It wasn’t till the full moon arrived the following Monday morning that I began to feel more consistent twinges in my back. Rene came for a planned appointment that morning and said that it was possible that my labour was about to start. The twinges continued and we went out for lunch. I was convinced I was in pre-labour and began to think that my baby might arrive that night!
Back at home I began to use a TENS machine for pain relief and as the evening wore on the contractions which felt like increasing pain in my back continued and seemed to become longer and more acute. They still weren’t regular though so Matthew and I spent the night half awake on the sofa waiting to see whether they would increase.
By the Tuesday morning I was frustrated and I began to wonder whether my body was not embracing the contractions because I knew that Rene hadn’t yet arrived and so we called and asked her to join us even though the regularity of the contractions was still in doubt.
When she arrived I was in the bath breathing through the occasional contractions the pain of which was being soothed by the warm water in the bath. Matthew began to fill the birthing pool and once it was ready I transferred to the lounge and got in.
It was early Tuesday morning by now and the contractions had already been going many hours. I began to listen to the hypnobirthing recordings I had been working with during pregnancy but I was really struggling to breath through the pain in my back. When I was thinking about my labour I had imagined I would use my Nia techniques and hypnobirthing tools to relax. But now the moment had arrived and the acute pain in my lower back seemed up worsen with each contraction. Despite all the techniques I had at my disposal, the pain was distracting me and it seemed near impossible to let go of all the thoughts jumbling around in my head.
Around midday we agreed that Rene would examine me. I hoped desperately that I was fully dilated but found I was only 7cm. I got back in the pool and continued to try and relax into my contractions. The pain in my back continued and I was getting frustrated. Rene examined me again some hours later I was still only 7 cm dilated. The baby’s head was also not in an ideal position and she couldn’t be sure which way around it was. Sally the second midwife had also arrived and we tried a few techniques to adjust the baby’s position and relax me. But I couldn’t relax. I was beginning to worry that I really couldn’t do it and that I would have to go to hospital for assistance – a journey I had really hoped to avoid.
I was struggling with the back pain as well as the lack of progress. It was early on Tuesday evening now and so I was also growing tired. Rene and Sally encouraged me to try Gas & Air. It eased the back pain and at some point I recall that I began to speak about how important it had been to hold on to my pregnancy as it followed two miscarriages and how I felt that perhaps I was afraid to let go. Voicing that seemed to finally help relax me a little and eventually I was ready to push.
I don’t know how many times I said I can’t do it, it’s too painful. My waters broke in the pool late on Tuesday evening but eventually I had to get out and push ‘on land’. It felt excruciating in my back but eventually, almost three hours of intense pushing later, my baby’s head emerged followed, in the next contraction, by his body. It was the early hours of Jan 7th, the due date I had originally estimated from my dates! Rene unwrapped the cord, which was wrapped twice around him and passed him straight to me. I looked straight down and saw that he was a boy. My placenta delivered itself spontaneously during the next twenty minutes as I cradled my son in my arms. I was exhausted but euphoric finally and began to feed him.
As I recovered Rene explained the cause of my pain. It turned out that my Son had emerged back to back – rather than back to belly – and he also had his head a slight angle making it even more difficult for me to push. I knew immediately that I had achieved with her support something I would have almost certainly failed to achieve at hospital; the unassisted delivery of a long laboured back to back birth. I felt elated that it had been possible for me to have my Son in the comfort of my own home. Amazingly I also didn’t need any stitches and my body healed quickly.
I’d read that your birthing experience brings you whatever you don’t expect. And as an anthropologist I think of a woman’s first delivery as a right of passage, the physical trial if you like that takes you from maidenhood to motherhood. Some say it gives you the medicine that you need. So what did mine give me? It felt like a lesson in patience and in expecting the unexpected as well as a reminder that I can have utter faith in my body and my amazing birth support team. I want more women to know that with the right support they may be able to make different choices about how they birth. I have certainly found that when you know and trust your midwife you feel more confident and less fearful and as result many more options become open to you.
The postnatal support offered by Neighbourhood Midwives was amazing. Not only had Rene and Sally stayed with me until Edward was born in the early hours of Weds morning and helped clear up and make sure we were all ok finally leaving around 4am – they came back that afternoon to support me further as I figured out how to care for my Son and become a mother! In fact Rene came eight times in the first ten days and regularly for the next five weeks after that. I struggled with breast-feeding initially and Edward lost just over 10% of his birth weight. Rene’s regular visits helped me persevere with it, rectifying the tongue-tie he was born with and using nipple shields temporarily to help us continue feeding after that. Happily we don’t need them now and Edward is feeding and growing well. Comprehensive postnatal support has been amazing helping me navigate being a new mum with confidence and know that I always have someone to ask when I have concerns or questions.
Mary Ann Mhina, 18.02.15