“Let’s have another!” I said, beaming at my husband, David. We were in the recovery room just ten minutes after our second son, Joe, had been delivered by caesarean section. It was markedly different to the way I’d felt after the traumatic birth of our first child, Harry. In fact, it had taken me four years to even think about having a second.
I hadn’t worried about the birth during my first pregnancy. I’d heard horror stories, but always thought it couldn’t be as bad as they said. Millions of women before me had done it and many of them more than once. I figured that if I was relaxed and kept an open mind, all would be fine.
After a lot of research, and reassured it was completely safe, we decided on a home birth. I’d never spent any time in hospital and didn’t want to be there, alone, with a new baby. I thought how hard it would be for David leaving the two people most precious to him in hospital, and pictured the alternative: three of us, snuggled together in our own bed.
With three weeks to go, I had a midwife appointment that confirmed what I’d suspected for a while: Harry was lying posterior. My midwife told me that home birth might be out of the question, that the likelihood of a normal, non-instrumental delivery was very small and, in fact, an epidural or caesarean may be required.
I did everything I could to try and change Harry’s position. I walked, swam, slept only on my left side. I bought a kneeling chair and exercise ball and crawled around the house on my hands and knees. I even had a remote reiki session with a friend in the USA and was amazed to feel Harry shift dramatically, only to feel him move back later that night. My due date arrived; Harry hadn’t turned and his head wasn’t engaged either. But I still had time. First babies don’t arrive on their due date, do they? Except, that night, as I sat on my birthing ball, my waters broke. My midwife examined me and told me the bad news I’d been dreading: the home birth was off, because the risk of cord prolapse and infection was too high.
The rush to hospital was followed by a night and a day of waiting. I hated the ward and missed David. Finally, on the second night, I was told I’d be induced the following morning, but woke in the early hours in the midst of a mighty contraction. My first waking thought was “I’m not going to be able to do this”. I timed the contractions: 30 seconds each, 5 minutes apart. There was none of the slow build-up I’d expected and each contraction was more painful than the last.
The midwife rang David and we proceeded to the labour ward, where I asked for pethidine for the pain, but as Harry’s heart rate was slow and pethidine would slow it further they refused. I’d wanted as mobile a birth as possible, but because of Harry’s heart rate, I was monitored constantly and made to lie down. At one point they allowed me to kneel, which was so much better, but then they made me lie down again. I asked for painkillers, and was refused. I cried. I vomited. I lost track of everything but the pain and wanting it to be over.
Following failed ventouse and forceps (with accompanying episiotomy), the midwife placed a hot, heavy, wriggling, wet thing on me and I had no idea what was going on. The midwife tried to get Harry to breastfeed, but neither of us was interested. And then, thanks to my waters breaking two days earlier, I spent the rest of the day unconscious with a fever, only surfacing once to see David gazing at Harry and saying, “He’s so beautiful.”
I finally came round that evening, only to find two midwives reading my birthing plan and laughing. I’d wanted a natural, mobile, home birth with as little intervention as possible. I hadn’t wanted constant monitoring or an episiotomy. I hadn’t wanted the foetal scalp monitor or the Vitamin K injection (I’d wanted him to be given it orally). Repeatedly, I was told that everything that had been done was “best for the baby”, but what about me? I felt like no-one cared about what might have been best for me.
The first few weeks at home were hard. Harry refused to breastfeed and I had to express each feed. When Harry slept, I couldn’t sleep too; instead, I hooked myself up to a milking machine and prayed there’d be enough milk. On the first Friday, I felt such relief that it was the weekend… and then sobbed to realise that weekends were no longer any different to week days. All day, every day was spent expressing, feeding, changing, and taking care of Harry.
I don’t think I was suffering from postnatal depression, but I do think I had post-traumatic stress disorder. Rather than the experience of motherhood, it was the actual birth and how I’d been treated in hospital that I couldn’t get past. While David had been disturbed and upset by it too, he’d spent the rest of that first day doing what I couldn’t do – bonding with Harry. For David, the miracle of Harry’s existence completely obliterated the manner of his arrival. But not for me. For four years, I couldn’t even talk about Harry’s birth without crying. I believed I’d failed at the most important thing I’d ever had to do.
I don’t think Harry was aware of my feelings, but it’s impossible to know for sure. There were certainly times when I couldn’t tell which of us was crying the most; but even before I felt that I loved him, he was still my precious baby and I never regretted having him. I just regretted the birth.
David always said he wanted another baby, but I was perfectly happy with just one. Not only was Harry so perfect that I didn’t see the point of another, I was also afraid to put myself through the same experience again. So convinced was I that we were sticking with one, we’d actually given away most of our baby stuff. But then I started thinking Harry might be happier with a sibling. He was painfully shy and I worried about him not having any friends. The thought of having another child began to appeal, but I still had to get over my fear of the birth. No matter how many people told me it would be different, I was terrified it would be exactly the same.
Eventually, David managed to convince me to try for another, and we were shocked to find we’d fallen pregnant straight away. I immediately started making plans for the birth. My first instinct was to avoid home birth. I was afraid that I’d be doing it for the wrong reasons, that I would be trying to do it “right”, because I’d failed last time. Concerned that I’d cried when talking about Harry’s birth at my first antenatal appointment, my midwife arranged for me to have counselling. We talked through the birth, but also about how it made me feel. My midwife retrieved Harry’s birth notes and we went through them together. I learned that none of it was my fault. For four years, I’d been thinking – and saying – that Harry was “dragged out” of me, but the notes showed this wasn’t the case at all. My body had done everything right, but for reasons known only to them the hospital staff had insisted on every intervention I hadn’t wanted. I was angry to learn that my trauma could have been avoided, but I was also relieved. I hadn’t done anything wrong. So, after discussing the merits and risks of both elective section and home birth with my midwife, I decided to once again try for a home birth.
As Joe’s due date approached, I felt incredibly positive. I had a birthing pool already inflated in my office. We’d explained everything to Harry, who was looking forward to being there and seeing his brother arrive. And then Joe’s due date came… and went. Two weeks later, I went for a scan and the consultant thought she’d spotted meconium in the amniotic fluid and recommended I be induced the following morning. It was the worst case scenario. All I could imagine was a repeat of Harry’s birth and I was terrified. After discussing it with David, I chose to have a caesarean.
I was surprised to find that I wasn’t at all scared or nervous, just excited to meet Joe. Everyone in theatre was friendly and relaxed, David was holding my hand and the Jason Mraz CD I’d prepared was playing. Through the window I could see blue sky and the tops of the hills, sunshine glinting off the frost. It was lovely. The consultant told me she was starting the incision and just moments later Joe was lifted out. The whole birth – from incision to final stitch – took less than 15 minutes. I was crying, but I felt euphoric.
I wasn’t thrilled to have to stay in the hospital, but I loved having so much time alone with Joe. We cuddled day and night and I realised this was what bonding with a new baby was supposed to be like. This was what I’d missed with Harry. I also found recovering from the caesarean much easier than recovering from Harry’s birth. With the caesarean, I wasn’t allowed out of bed for 24 hours and I was given painkillers at regular intervals. After Harry’s birth, I was left to get on with it and given no pain relief.
Choosing to have another child was the best decision we ever made. Not only is Joe a sweetheart, but the pregnancy and birth helped me to forgive myself for Harry’s birth. I still resent the fact that I missed out on those blissful early days with Harry, but at least I got to experience them with Joe.
The other important thing I learned was that there is no “right” way to give birth. Make sure you have a supportive midwife – someone you can trust to be your advocate when you can’t speak for yourself. I would also recommend reading through your birth notes – it’s impossible to make informed decisions in the midst of labour, but knowing why things happened the way they did can help set your mind at rest.