When I fell pregnant I was ‘only’ 22 and in my third year at university. I was the first of my friends to embark on the journey of pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood. In the ensuing (many!) years I have encountered plenty of women who chose to start their families in their early 20’s with a supportive partner (often husband) and network of family and friends nearby. Things were quite different for me; all my close school friends were also away at university and the World Wide Web had not infiltrated West Dorset with its potential for virtual, online connectivity and seemingly infinite information. I felt very isolated and alone. My pregnancy was not planned and I deliberated for a long time over whether to have a termination. Once I had decided to ‘keep the baby’ I dropped out of my degree course at university for the year and returned to the family home 130 miles away. My parents were supportive and my mum agreed to be my birth partner.
Before I was pregnant I knew very little about childbirth, and what I had learned came from school, my mum, books and television programmes. I very much imagined the ‘Hollywood’ style of labour: your waters break (probably in the grocery store) you immediately start having contractions, you’re rushed to hospital (probably in an ambulance) and then you PUSH PUSH PUSH until your baby is born. (Probably in a lovely sterile hospital room, lying on your back on a chair, with your legs in stirrups and a sheet over your lower half…) This definitely gave me unrealistic expectations!
Towards the end of my pregnancy I attended NCT antenatal classes. There were two other couples, one a very young married couple (she was 22) and the other a fairly ‘hippyish’ couple. I felt more connection with the latter couple, but the instructor did little to encourage us to meet outside the classes and to bond (unlike the wonderful instructor we had when I was pregnant with my second daughter 10 years later). We were given the information we needed, played around with the pelvises and baby dolls and were bid farewell. I definitely took on board the NCT mantra of natural childbirth being best, and that we should all breastfeed.
So I approached my first labour feeling nervous but fairly prepared. I had confidence in my decisions to do things as naturally as possible (and to avoid pethidine, episiotomies, forceps and formula at all costs!)
I went into labour spontaneously in the morning a week after my due date. My mum was very clear that we were not to go to the hospital until my contractions were well established (she has 4 children and so was definitely the voice of authority in the matter). I don’t think we went to the hospital (40 minutes’ very uncomfortable drive away) until the evening. When I was eventually examined I was upset to be told that I was only 4cm dilated. I can’t remember the exact chronology of the evening, but I spent a long while in the bath of the en-suite writhing as the contractions increased. When I was examined several hours later I was very distressed to be told that I was still 4cm. I had been using a bit of gas and air (though it was not accessible in the en-suite) and at that point I asked for an epidural, having been told that the average rate of dilation was 1cm per hour. I was then told to lie on my back on the bed with the elastic belts and monitors around my belly so they could monitor the baby’s heartbeat. I was left alone and did not realise that I had to stay very still while the monitors were on for an accurate trace to be produced. The contractions were getting stronger and more frequent, so I was bracing myself on the foot of the bed and trying to withstand them, resulting in a fair amount of moving around! After being told off (which is always nice :-/) I was examined again, and lo and behold, I was 10cm and ready to push. As it turns out of course, the reason that they were so intense was that my cervix was dilating more rapidly than predicted and my daughter arrived within the hour.
Due to still being strapped to the monitor I was stuck on my back for the second stage, which is less than ideal. When my daughter was born she was fine (Apgar 9!), but I had a substantial and scary loss of blood (about 750ml) immediately afterwards. The doctors spent a LONG TIME trying to stem the bleeding. There were internal tears that needed stitching and they had trouble finding all the sources of blood. I remember a lot of different people being called in to have a look and take turns stitching me up, me with my legs in stirrups. Once they’d stopped the bleeding I was catheterised and my mum went home. I felt very battered both physically and emotionally.
I still feel a bit sad about the experience. I did not feel empowered and ‘in charge’ of what was happening. I wish that I had had the insight to listen to my body rather than believing in labour as a ‘numbers game’; I wish I had had the courage to question the necessity for continuous monitoring and therefore having to remain stationary. My mum has gone through childbirth four times, but did not have ‘current’ experience (when she was birthing her babies epidurals were not available) and would not have considered ‘pushing back’ against the medical professionals’ advice. I’m not sure whether I would have had a less upsetting experience if circumstances had been different. If I’d have had a supportive partner (and ideally a marvellous doula!) by my side, or someone who could have helped me understand what was happening to my body. I am very fortunate that my physical wounds healed very quickly and that ‘feeling a bit sad’ is a very minor issue. I plan to write accounts of my experiences birthing my second daughter and son, which were very different!