I thought I’d start by writing about the birth.
I was 39 weeks pregnant, two days before my due date. I had been on maternity leave for a week. I’d spent the week batch cooking dinners to freeze, arranging baby clothes in drawers and overanalysing every bodily sensation.
(I also went to the Skygarden in central London, as I’d read it was good to plan things around your due date, so you’re not disappointed if the baby is late. I was planning to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat if she was late.)
On Saturday night, I was watching something on Netflix while Andrew made us dinner, when I felt a twinge in my stomach.
It happened about three times, about 15 minutes apart. I told Andrew as we sat down for dinner, but he was sceptical. There was a bit of a ‘boy who cried wolf’ situation – since I was 36 weeks pregnant, I’d said confidently several times that I was going into labour. However, this felt different.
We decided to see what happened as the night progressed.
After dinner, we lay on the bed and watched Dracula on Netflix. On reflection, this wasn’t the most appropriate choice, but we find it so hard to find a series we both like. It was a BBC version with just three episodes, and the one we watched had a child zombie being killed, which was stressful in my situation. I also don’t like things with fire in, and there were undead cremation scenes which stressed me out.
All this time, I was keeping track of the feelings in stomach and timing them. I had a pregnancy app with a contraction timer which I used.
By about midnight, we knew they really were contractions and this was probably it. I phoned the hospital and told them I was having contractions that were about five minutes apart.
They said, at this stage, the best place to be is at home. They recommended I take some paracetamol and have a bath and phone back when the contractions were 3 in 10 minutes.
I didn’t feel like a bath though, as I was really hot and sweaty.
Saturday night we were awake all night and it flew past. It seemed like every time I looked at the clock, it was much later.
The contractions were gradually getting more painful. When we’d been watching Dracula, Andrew didn’t necessarily know when I was having one, as they were fairly mild. By now, I was making noises and involuntarily moving each time.
It’s interesting – a pregnant friend asked me this week what the contractions felt like, and I couldn’t really remember. I’m not sure if it’s just hard to memorise something as subjective and abstract as pain, or if it’s that evolutionary thing of the pain of childbirth being quickly deleted from our memories, so we aren’t put off doing it again. By the time I’d given birth, it was definitely the worst pain I’d ever experienced.
Apparently, it’s common to have vomiting and diarrhoea in the early stages of labour, as the body is clearing everything out. I had diarrhoea by this stage. As the pipe-work for arse-related stuff is very near the reproductive organs, throughout pregnancy I’d found that when I needed the toilet, I had pains in that area. At this stage of labour, when diarrhoea came it was as painful as contractions.
At about 2am, I told Andrew to go and grab something for me to be sick into.
He came back from the kitchen with the mixing bowl from quite a nice Joseph Joseph set. I nearly told him to go and get something else, but it wasn’t the time.
At around 3am or 4am, the contractions were closer together and we decided to go to the hospital. In a way, I knew they would say it was too soon and send us back home, but I just wanted the reassurance of being seen by a professional.
We staggered down the stairs with the hospital bag, the overflow hospital bag (containing the things that wouldn’t fit in the original hospital bag) and my Joseph Joseph mixing bowl to be sick into.
It’s just a 10 minute drive to the hospital. We felt unsure of the route, even though we had been several times. It felt a bit eerie, being out and about on the dark, deserted streets at that time. It had parallels with the time I woke up in the middle of the night, and realised I was having the second miscarriage, and we drove across London so I could go to the doctor’s as soon as they opened in the morning.
It’s usually a nightmare to park at the hospital, but as it was the middle of the night, it was fine.
We walked to the same part of the hospital where I had been for my scans and other appointments, but it was all dark and locked up. We pressed a button on an intercom and were buzzed in, and told to go upstairs, where we hadn’t been before.
We had to wait in a waiting area for a few minutes. I told Andrew off during one of my contractions – I had asked him to remind me to breathe during them, but he kept forgetting.
“You didn’t say breathe!” I said, as the contraction waned.
Soon I was called in and examined by a nice midwife. She said I was only 1cm dilated. They recommend I go back home until things progress further.
I asked about pain relief and they gave me some oral morphine.
We asked when to come back, and they said, “when the contractions get a lot more intense.”
“How intense? How will we know?”
That didn’t sound reassuring.
It was starting to get light outside, when we came out of the hospital.
On the car journey back, I was sick when we went over some speed bumps. All the morphine came back up into the Joseph Joseph mixing bowl, which I was very annoyed about, as it was unlikely to have been absorbed.
I found it a lot harder to cope with the pain for the rest of Sunday morning. I was tired as I’d been awake all night, but the contractions were much less painful when I was moving around, and more painful when I was lying down. I spent the morning pacing around the living room and hallway.
I had got a TENS machine for the labour (a small device that sends an electrical current to your body, reducing pain signals). Andrew read the instructions and we put the sticky pads on my back, as instructed, and he told me how to use it. It felt a bit weird, a sort of buzzing feeling on my back, and there was a button I could press during contractions, that changed the impulses. It definitely helped.
Mid morning, I got freaked out because I went to the toilet and saw I was bleeding. In the information from the hospital, it said to contact them if you get certain symptoms, including bleeding.
We called them, and they said it was most likely that the cervix examination had caused the bleeding, and not to worry, but to keep an eye on it.
I said about finding the contractions less painful when I was upright but that meant I couldn’t get any rest, and they recommended kneeling next to the bed, on pillows, with my top half of my body leaning on the bed.
I spent a couple of hours like that, I think. By this stage, Andrew had downloaded the pregnancy app so he could record the contractions. They were about 3-4 minutes apart.
Around this time, Andrew started panicking that we didn’t have enough Lucozade in the hospital bag.
I had started packing the hospital bag when I was about 30 weeks pregnant. It took a while to get everything together, because there were things I needed to buy. We were given a long list from the hospital of what to include.
I found it funny comparing notes with people who were due to give birth in other hospitals, about what we’d been told to bring.
My hospital was obsessed with me bringing things that I “wouldn’t mind discarding” – pyjamas I wouldn’t mind discarding, pillows I wouldn’t mind discarding and towels I wouldn’t mind discarding (things I had kind of thought they would provide, and it turned out they did, in the end).
Someone else was told if they were giving birth in the birthing pool, they had to bring their own sieve. They couldn’t work out what it was for – it was to fish out any poos from the pool. I knew hospitals had an official sieve for that purpose but I couldn’t believe they had to bring their own!
Although the hospital bag had been ready for weeks, including clothes and nappies for the baby, clothes for me, toiletries, things I’d never used before, like nipple cream and disposable underwear, the last thing from the list to be added, only the day before, was isotonic drinks.
Andrew had been on his way to the shop and I had asked him to get me Lucozade for the hospital bag. He bought a multipack of four bottles.
I had never been a big Lucozade drinker, but that morning, while in labour, I drank a bottle in one go. Andrew had been worried about me not eating or drinking enough since I started vomiting. When the Lucozade went down well, he started worrying we didn’t have enough to last the whole labour.
He suggested he went back to the shop to get more Lucozade.
“No way, I want you to stay here with me!” I said. “We have enough Lucozade!”
But somehow, twenty minutes later he was coming back from the shop with 12 bottles of Lucozade.
He suggested a few things I could eat, which he had bought, but I said No to everything because of the vomiting.
“What about a yogurt?” he said.
“Yeah. I could eat a yogurt actually,” I replied.
He went to get me a yogurt. I had assumed he was just going to the kitchen, but he was gone for ages.
It turned out he had thought he bought yogurts from the shop, but he actually hadn’t, so he had rushed back to buy yogurts for me to eat.
A bit later on, I remember lying on the single bed in the spare room. I think because I was trying to rest, I said I didn’t want Andrew in there, apart from when I was having a contractions, when I would shout to him in the next room, and he would rush in. As my contractions were only about 4 minutes apart, I’m not sure why I didn’t just have him in there all the time.
Whereas he had initially not felt comfortable telling me to breathe during contractions, because it was not normal in our relationship for him to tell me what to do, by this stage, he had got into it and it was really helping me. I think his calm but authoritative policeman side was coming out.
It sounds like it would be obvious to remember to breathe, but it helped so much to do it more slowly. I think partly it was a distraction from the pain, and a way of feeling more on control of my body. If he didn’t say anything, or the pain was too strong for me to do as I was told, I would just hold my breathe and tense everything, and it made the pain worse.
I also remembered that it can help to visualise things. I imagined cycling or running up a hill during each contraction, and when it started to wane, I pictured freewheeling down the other side.
As the afternoon went on, I felt the lowest point in the labour. I was in so much pain, but I knew it was going to get worse. It had already been going on for many hours. I felt like if I can only just handle this, will I be able to take it when it gets worse?
I started feeling pressure in my vagina at the start of each contraction. We called the hospital back and told them that, as I thought maybe it was a sign things were progressing. They asked if I felt pressure in my bottom. I said I thought I might’ve once, but it was mainly my vagina.
We agreed I would go back to the hospital in about two hours.
One of my friends who has had a baby said she had heard that during these phone calls, they always tell you not to come in yet if you don’t sound in enough pain, or even if you can still talk. However, I think this runs the risk of them mistaking not being in that much pain for being a middle class, overly polite British person.
One time when I phoned up, they asked me how I was and, after answering, despite being in the foetal position in pain, I automatically asked them how they were back, and I knew I’d instantly gone straight on the No pile.
It was about 4pm on Sunday afternoon when we drove back to the hospital.
As we walked from the car to the maternity unit, I cried, saying, “I don’t know if I can do it!” to Andrew.
He said encouraging things and we carried on walking.
We had to wait in the waiting area. There were three or four other people. One of them instantly got up and offered me his seat, as I was clearly struggling, but I said I wanted to stay standing.
We didn’t have to wait too long, and then were called back in to be examined again.
This time I was 3cm dilated, but the midwife said my cervix was very effaced, which was a good sign, so they thought I should stay at the hospital.
I had a couple of contractions while she was examining me, and Andrew was telling me to breathe, which I did, and the midwife said she thought I was doing really well, and was really calm.
However, I then had another one a few minutes later, and completely lost the plot. My back was really hurting as well, due to the baby’s position, and that pain wasn’t coming and going like the contraction pain, and I felt like I couldn’t cope. They both managed to calm me down as the contraction passed.
I asked again about pain relief. (I’m a big believer in making use of all the wonderful advances in medicine available to us. If someone has a headache in the office, I’m always puzzled if I offer them painkillers and they say No. I couldn’t see the point of going through the greatest pain I’ll probably ever experience and not taking the edge off. When going through my birth plan, I had ticked everything in the pain relief section, except epidural, but written underneath, “I wouldn’t rule out an epidural either.” I had planned ideally not to have an epidural because I had read research saying you’re a bit more likely to need interventions like forceps if you have an epidural, because it’s harder to push. Also, the hospital has a birthing centre, for lower risk pregnancies, run by midwives, and a delivery ward, run by consultants, for more complex births. The birthing centre was set up to feel less like a hospital, with more calming decor and things like fairy lights, to make people feel more relaxed, as the hormones related to being calmer can help the birth to progress more easily. I wanted to give birth in the birthing centre, but they didn’t do epidurals there.)
“What’s your plan, with pain relief?” the midwife asked.
“I had said yes to anything but an epidural, but I’m really not married to that now,” I said.
She said I could have more oral morphine or an injection of pethidine. I asked which she would recommend, and she suggested the pethidine. I asked if it was OK for the baby, and said it was – sometimes, if it’s given too close to the birth, it can make the baby drowsy, so they avoid giving it less than 2 hours before the birth.
I had the injection in my thigh, and then we went to our room.
I can’t remember much of this, because the pethidine kicked in and it was GREAT. I felt very spaced out and was able to sleep in between contractions.
A really nice midwife, who I think was South African, came to check on us. She was really encouraging and she brought me some toast and tea. We asked about the birthing pool, as I wanted a water birth, but she said I wasn’t far enough along yet.
After a couple of hours, the contractions got more painful again, either because the pethidine was wearing off, or the pain was increasing in intensity.
I went to the toilet and felt something coming out of me. It was my mucus plug.
I had heard of this – a plug of mucus that seals the cervix closed. Sometimes women lose it or part of it a few weeks before labour, and it can replace itself, but it can be a sign that labour is imminent, if labour hasn’t started yet.
I had pictured it being a little blob, about the size of the amount of hand sanitiser you get from one of those automatic dispensers, so I was not prepared for this extraordinary thing!
It was enormous! It ended up on the maternity pad I had in my underwear, and it more than covered the whole pad.
It was like an enormous jellyfish, mainly clear but with some blood attached.
More blood started coming out of me as I stood up. Andrew came into the bathroom and was trying to mop up the mucusy blood on my legs, while I had another excruciating contraction.
We called the midwife back in, in case it was important that I had passed the mucus plug.
As the evening progressed, I started to feel more pressure in my bottom during contractions. I felt like I could feel the baby’s head and that I had no choice but to push, and it felt like it was going to come out of my bum.
I told the midwife, when she next came in. I hadn’t realised at first, but she was a student, but she seemed very knowledgeable. She didn’t seem that concerned by what I said. (I now wonder if this was because she was a student, and if the same situation came up again, she would take it more seriously.)
I asked if it was a sign that I moving to the next stage of labour. She said it was best not to worry too much about what was going to happen next and to stay focused on the present.
She examined my cervix again, and said she needed to speak to the qualified midwife first.
When she came back, she said I was 9cm dilated and could go through to birthing pool. (She later said she hadn’t wanted to say I was 9cm without checking, in case she’d got it wrong and I turned out to be less far along.)
We started moving through to the room with the birthing pool in.
I think I had said a few times by then that I thought I could feel the baby’s head coming, but no one seemed to believe me. Andrew started carrying the hospital bags and all the bags of Lucozade through to the room with the birthing pool, at a very leisurely pace, and the student midwife was casually filling up the birthing pool.
I thought, No one has the requisite level of urgency here!
I kept asking if I could get in the water yet, really keen to crack on as I thought I could feel the baby’s head somewhere near my anus.
By this stage, I was hanging onto Andrew’s shoulders and neck during every contraction.
Finally, the birthing pool was ready for me to get in. I hovered at the edge, unsure how I was going to climb while I was in so much pain, but then somehow I managed.
“Oh my God!! The baby’s head’s coming!” I cried out.
The second I got into the water, I felt the baby’s head starting to come out. She was crowning.
The midwife had a sort of rearview mirror on a stick, which she used to look at my vagina, under the water, and she realised I was right – the baby’s head was indeed coming.
She hastily went and got another midwife.
I started panicking at that point.
Everything I had read said there were distinct stages of labour – the early phase, when your cervix is gradually opening, and then the pushing phase, when your cervix is fully open and you push the baby out. I had even read about a phase in between, called transition, when women apparently can mentally struggle the most.
Even though for a while, I had been feeling the baby’s head and knew I was involuntarily pushing during each contraction, because no one seemed to believe me, I still thought I was in the early phase of labour.
I felt overwhelmed when it turned out the baby was coming out. Now.
I remember having a meltdown and saying, “I’m feeling very overwhelmed and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing!”
I didn’t know what position I should be in, in the water.
The extra midwife who had joined the room was really nice, and Andrew was sitting by the end of the pool, saying something like, “this is good! The baby is nearly here!” which made me feel better.
I saw there were two handles to hold onto, on the edge of the pool, so I held onto them and got into position.
“It hurts!” I said.
The top of the baby’s head was stretching my vagina.
Everyone said sympathetic but encouraging things.
Then I felt another contraction come.
I barely remember it, but I pushed the baby out in one go!
“The baby is here!” everyone was saying, and someone handed me the baby.
I had heard people say they felt overcome by joy or love when they first saw their babies, but for me, rather than overwhelming feelings, especially as I’d been overwhelmed a few moments earlier, it instantly just felt completely natural and normal to be holding this baby.
She was tiny and pink and looked a bit disgruntled and surprised at being out of my uterus.
I held her close to me and kissed the top of her head.
Now the midwives wanted me to get out of water, but I said I wanted to stay in, as it was comfortable.
I needed to pass the placenta. They let me stay in for a bit longer, but then I had to get out.
I had chosen to try and pass the placenta naturally, but I think my body was so exhausted from pushing the baby out in one go, that I had nothing left. Apparently, usually I would feel an urge to push not long after the birth, but nothing was happening.
They suggested I go and sit on the toilet (they were also worried as I hadn’t had a wee for a while and apparently this can cause problems during labour) as that can help encourage the body to pass the placenta.
The baby was still attached to me with the umbilical cord, so everyone helped me stagger to the bathroom with the baby in my arms.
I couldn’t go to the toilet, so next I had to sit in this special chair, with my feet up in stirrups.
They looked at my vagina, to decide if I needed stitches, put a catheter in to empty my bladder and gave me injection to help me pass the placenta. A lot of this was quite painful, so they gave me gas and air to help.
I had made a birth playlist in the weeks leading up to the birth, and had this playing on my phone, the whole time. As the birth ended up being a bit of a rush, no one was paying attention to what song the baby was born to. However, I remember being in the chair, listening to Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles, while breathing in gas and air, while people did things to my vagina.
The next song was Good as Hell by Lizzo, and I remember looking at the baby, thinking You’re getting to hear some bangers.
The midwife thought I probably didn’t need any stitches, which they were amazed about, especially when I had pushed her out so quickly. However, apparently I had two grazes near my urethra which they wanted to get the doctor to look at.
The doctor and some more midwives came in, and they said, “congratulations! What did you have, a boy or girl?”
I said, “Thanks! A girl,” as I’d known I was having a girl since quite early on. Then I added, “actually, has anyone checked that?”
Everyone laughed and said, “yes, definitely a girl.”
They pulled the placenta out, and I vaguely remember seeing a bowl of blood and liver being taken away. I think the placenta broke or something, as apparently I ended up with blood clots in my uterus.
The doctor had to press on my stomach to get them out, which hurt.
They put a canula in my hand to give me some medicine to help my uterus after the blood clots or something.
They decided I didn’t need any stitches but the doctor warned me it would hurt to wee for a few days as the graze was so near my urethra. She recommended I spray water in the area before going to the toilet (although, it actually didn’t hurt, after all. Not sure if I was just lucky or whether I lost a bit of sensation in my bladder).
When all of this was finished, and they had cut umbilical cord (we were happy to leave this to professionals), Andrew and I lay down on this arrangement of pillows in the corner of the room.
The student midwife came back and weighed the baby, and did various checks, which she talked through with Andrew, and I lay down and relaxed, and texted my parents to tell them they had a granddaughter.
At some point I realised that the Joseph Joseph mixing bowl got lost when we were changing rooms, but I didn’t mind, as I had my baby now.