Words by Emma Ross, Photograph by Sam Ross
I'm not much of a thinker - especially when it comes to the 'big' things in life. I decided on my A-levels as I was filling out my UCAS form, I didn't try my wedding shoes on until the night before and we live in a house in a totally unplanned location.
So the fact that I put so much thought into my second birth was a bit of a surprise. Jack's birth had been OK. There were thankfully and most importantly, no major dramas, but there were all sorts of small mishaps along the way from being mis-measured by a student midwife who told me I was 4cm more dilated than I actually was, to my epidural falling out at the heights of labour, a posterior baby, two doses of pethidine, an episiotomy and stitches; all of which meant a three and a half day stay in hospital and being left feeling fragile and totally exhausted before even contemplating looking after a newborn. My body felt like a wreck, and I think if I'm honest, I had underestimated birth and what a huge undertaking it can be emotionally and physically (especially when you are 5 foot tall and deliver a 7 lbs 9 baby). I had obviously heard that it was tough, but being a determined person, and knowing that my mum had given birth four times entirely naturally, and because we are so similar, I had (naively) thought that I would follow suit.
I knew that the second time around I wanted a different, and more natural birthing experience. Giving birth is arguably the most important and the most difficult (not to mention, potentially dangerous) day of your life; but I believe it can also be the best, the most natural and most beautiful day of your life, that if it goes smoothly, can set you and your baby up for an amazing start in life together.
So I set about doing everything in my power to be ready and feel strong to aim for the best birth experience possible. We decided a home birth would be the first step. I then took early maternity leave from work. Sam and I did a hypnobirthing course with the amazing Positive Birth Company. I spent time with Jack, painted positive affirmations and babygrows, bounced on my ball, had physio, took afternoon naps, swam, did some perineal massage and generally got to know my pregnant body and my "labour space." There's a fair amount to organise for a home birth so I really focused on that - not least sorting and blowing up a birthing pool. On the Sunday, I passed my 40 week "due date" happily. That week I'd been having some little "niggles" but had been breathing through them calmly. The Thursday after I felt unusually energetic and set about doing some gardening and cooking and even left the house to go food shopping. That evening, Sam had to go out so I went to bed alone putting on my hypnobirthing music as I had been doing almost religiously for the last few weeks. I was aware of Sam creeping into the bed a few hours later, and not long after that, whilst floating in a really lovely dream, I suddenly awoke to what felt like a little pop and some warm water trickling down my thigh. Sam was still awake watching the ipad as I popped my eyes open. "Hi babe", he whispered, expecting me to just lull myself back to sleep. "I think my waters have just broken!" I stammered, smiling broadly, eyes wide. "OK," he gulped. And so, the moment had arrived; the journey to meeting our new baby had begun.
The first thing I did was to call triage who asked me to come into hospital to be checked that my waters had actually broken. To have to go into hospital at this early stage wasn't exactly ideal not least because it was midnight by now and I wanted to sleep. Anyway, despite knowing I *could* have opted to remain at home, and not be checked, we decided to go in. I showered, phoned my mum to come and sit in with Jack, and at around midnight we headed out into the night to drive to hospital, bleary-eyed and nervously excited. Once in the waiting room, I plugged straight into my music so as to avoid hearing other women labour. The midwife did a speculum examination and confirmed that my waters had indeed broken, which was good news as it meant my labour had started. I was then hooked up to a machine to have baby monitored. All was fine. Wow! The less good, slightly stress-inducing news was that hospital protocol meant that I would be given 18 hours to go into active labour (4cm or more dilated) or to give birth, or they would consider the baby at risk of infection and I would need to be admitted to hospital, given antibiotics, and I'd have to stay there (insert emoji with tears pouring from eyes). I had 18 hours. I immediately didn't like the time constraint, especially knowing how slowly my labour with Jack had progressed, but still, my baby was on its way and that was pretty awesome.
By the time we got home (filling up the car with more petrol "just in case"), it was 3am. I tried to sleep for a few hours as I knew that conserving energy would be key at this stage, but I was getting minor contractions and feeling pretty pumped. On the Friday morning, I ate some chia porridge whilst bouncing on my ball and relaxing in silence. Sam and Jack soon woke and I pottered downstairs for a bit with Jack, playing with him and giving him his breakfast. It wasn't that comfortable though and soon my mother in law came to collect him. By now I was feeling quite emotional; I gave him a big kiss, knowing that the next time I'd see him he would have a new little brother or sister.
With some more space and quiet in the house, I had some tea, showered and dressed calmly and slowly, listening to my birthing playlists and resting when I needed to breathe through any minor contractions. I decided it might be a good idea to go for a walk in the fields near us, so we packed some provisions, including my clary sage and headed out. I knew that walking was a good way to get things going, and it was lovely to have some fresh air and be in nature. We walked and talked and held hands. It felt good. Too good. In the back of my mind I was worried as I knew time was ticking by. I had until 5:45pm until I would need to return to hospital to be induced. They had written that in big black letters on a form given to us the night before at hospital. Whilst Sam chilled on a bench, I started walking round and round a huge cricket pitch, sniffing occasionally on my clary sage and listening to my music. Every now and then I would have a minor contraction but I knew it was nothing much.
We decided to return home, by now feeling a little bit frustrated, and we started watching Bad Neighbours (WATCH THIS FILM if you are a new parent - it is hilarious). I wasn't comfortable though and was getting anxious and now quite tired from all the walking I'd done. I was still not feeling much and lay down for a little bit, there was still "time." The nap made me feel better but when I woke, nothing had changed and after a conversation with my home midwife who confirmed I would need to go back to hospital as I didn't seem to be in labour, we grabbed my half-packed hospital bag and reluctantly returned to hospital where we made our way to the labour ward. By now I was starting to feel a little low, as I felt my plans for a home birth slip away from my grasp.
Sam was trying to help me stay positive but I couldn't help it, I felt gutted, and scared. I knew that once in hospital, they'd want to give me antibiotics, keep me there, and induce me by administering syntocinon, which I knew to be very strong, and which often goes hand in hand with an epidural, which can then lead to an episiotomy (due to the lying down position in which you are giving birth). This all happened to me last time, and from my hypnobirthing training, I knew that intervention can often lead to more intervention. For me, the more medicalised a birth, the more out of control it feels. I called my mum who rightly reminded me that this was about a baby, not about a birth, and if there was any potential risk to him or her, we needed to act. We got taken to a tiny room in the labour ward and left. One of the reasons I dislike hospital so much is the idea that you are at the mercy of other people, told one thing, told something else, stuck in a room, left waiting, midwives and doctors flitting in and out without really telling you anything. All things that can make you feel really anxious. I lay on the bed, and could hear Sam on the phone asking my mum to bring in extra supplies. I was in my own little world though, all the while not contracting, and getting increasingly frustrated and despondent. I went out to the front desk to ask how long we would be waiting to see a doctor. A sharp and nonchalant reply came, "around 3 hours."
With that, I decided to get up and off the bed, I don't know what happened to me but it was as if my mind and body became one right there and then and started up. And in a bizarre twist of fate, in what was easily the most stressful moment of my labour, my body started contracting. These contractions felt different; I couldn't talk during them or between them and they were coming closer together. I started throwing up. I read my positive affirmations which Sam had stuck up on the wall. I stopped thinking. But subconsciously, I knew something was happening. Sam knew too. After some time contracting, a lovely midwife came into the room to measure me. That familiar feeling; lying back, staring up, having someone stick their fingers up you. "Well, you're certainly on your way," she said, "You're 4cm." The relief on hearing those words was immense. It meant that things were moving, it meant that I was in established labour and crucially, it meant that I had options now as I wouldn't need to be induced. We phoned our home midwife who confirmed that we could return home, I could continue labouring there and we could forget waiting 3 hours for the doctors.
At this point the midwife in the labour ward returned and told us that she had managed to speak to the doctors for us. Knowing how much I wanted a natural birth, they said as an exception they would administer the antibiotics and let me move to the birth centre. At this point, things became a little stressful in terms of deciding what the next best course of action was. On one hand, the thought of going home seemed comforting and it was after all, the "plan", but on the other hand, it was by now around 10pm, dark, we'd have to go in a car whilst I was contracting, Sam would have to fill the pool up, we'd need to wait for the midwife to arrive... That seemed unappealing and a little scary. It was when the hospital midwife told us that a lovely, huge room was ready for me in the birthing centre, and that the pool was being filled, that both Sam and I realised that we’d been given what felt like a "get out of jail" card (being able to leave the labour ward). The birth centre seemed like a great option. We agreed, and the midwife inserted the cannula with the antibiotics into my wrist and we left the room. "Do you want to walk up there or go in the wheelchair?", asked the midwife. "Walk!" I replied. I had a bounce in my step, I knew this baby was on its way, and I was back on track with the labour I had so hoped for.
I power walked up the stairs to the birth centre. On entering, I immediately felt calmer. It was quiet. There were no white coats or long corridors. We were shown our room which, as promised, was lush. With a double bed, and a large pool, private bathroom and various other apparatus, I felt at home there. We met our midwife, Angelina, and the student midwife, and straight away we asked them to dim the lights. Sam started setting up my positive affirmations on the walls, electric tea lights and playlists whilst I stripped down and got in the pool, all the while having to balance on one hand only as the cannula couldn't go in the water. The midwives were with me constantly from the moment I entered the room, checking baby's heart rate and my temperature every 15 minutes, and there when I needed them, but otherwise remaining quietly in the corner. The pool was really warm and felt pretty good. Again, too good, because after a few hours in there, I had only dilated 1cm more.
At this point I could see Sam go over to have a word with the head midwife, after which they both suggested that I get out the pool as it seemed to be slowing my progress. I knew they were right. That's the thing about labour; it's hard work, and unless it really feels like bloody, bloody hard work (at least in my case), it's not really happening. During this time, I also had to have a catheter inserted (bloody painful) as I wasn't drinking or urinating enough. When she measured me, the midwife had also seen that my waters hadn't fully broken (given there had only been a trickle the night before, and nothing since, this seemed to make sense), only my back waters had, so she pierced them. There was a gush of water. I stood up and headed to a set of bars on the wall that I had been swinging on but not before I was hit with the most enormous contraction. This was something else. The piercing of the waters had obviously brought a new intensity on as the head must have dropped and put extra pressure on the cervix. After a few more similar contractions, I had to get back in the water for some relief. I didn't know it at the time, but with each contraction, I was dilating quickly towards 10cm and experiencing pain (not a hypnobirthing word but oh boy!) like I've never known. I was also entering what is known as the transition phase of labour. My focus was faltering, and I started to doubt that I could do it. It was at this point that I called out to Sam that I couldn't take it any longer and that I needed an epidural. By now it was about 4am. At this stage, the midwife suggested gas and air which I took, if not just to distract myself, but I didn't like it and it didn't help. I ended up having a few puffs and discarded it. Sam and the midwives knew that I was getting closer to meeting our baby, meanwhile I was definitely floating in a different world at this point and wholly consumed with labouring this baby. Thankfully, I soon found myself calling out that I needed to push. Funnily enough, I didn't really believe it myself as I said it as I had just been told that I was only 5cm and it felt more like a cry for help. But looking back, I think at this stage you have little control over what you say. You are pure animal at this point.
Anyway, I was right! The midwives came over to the pool holding some things. The senior midwife started talking to me and telling me to stay calm and to listen to her. Sam was by my side, encouraging me to keep breathing but once I realised I was in the final, pushing stage I could no longer keep my shit together. I abandoned all my hypnobirthing practice and breathing and just needed to yell this baby out. (I think I may have even done some moo-ing!) With each contraction, I pushed as hard as I could, whilst the midwife coached me through it. I kept asking if she could see the head, I was desperate to know that I was making progress and that this baby was actually being born. I was checking with Sam, who was by now down at the business end. I desperately wanted to feel the head myself and was trying to come up out of the water but the midwife insisted I stay down in the water. (Babies need to be born in the water, and then come to the surface, not be born in the air, take their first breath, and then plunge into the water.) She was encouraging me to really make the most out of each contraction, and to push as much of the baby out as possible with each surge. I must have pushed about three or four times when I felt extreme expansion down there and the baby's head come out followed by a slippery, squirming sensation as I birthed his body. And then the most incredible feeling- sudden relief. That split second realisation before I met our baby that the pain had ceased, that our baby was in this world, and that I'd done it! A totally unforgettable, most intense and amazing feeling. The midwife caught the baby in the water, and asked me to hold my leg up so she could pass him through to me. I thought to myself, hang on, I can't do that. But I could. My baby was out. She passed him through and up to me, I took him and she helped me place him on my chest. I collapsed back onto the side of the pool holding my new baby. A miracle. I saw his little penis, and asked Sam if he knew the gender because I did! The midwife cut the cord as it was a bit fiddly and were getting a little concerned that I was losing quite a lot of blood. She helped me out of the pool, whilst Sam held the baby. I was led to the bed where I lay down and started shaking uncontrollably. I think from the adrenaline. They wanted to get the placenta out as quickly as possible to prevent any more blood loss. So whilst I'd wanted to birth it naturally, by this point all that mattered was that my baby had been born, and I wanted to be healthy, and to hold him! So I agreed. (It was amazing to see the placenta though - it's awesome, and much larger than I'd ever imagined.)
And with that, lying back in the bed, I was handed back my baby. I placed him back on my chest and fed him a little, not taking my eyes off him. He had so much hair, just like Jack! We decided on Sonny as a name there and then, for our second son, and on what turned out to be a beautiful sunny day. Once all the formalities of the various checks had been carried out (he weighed a healthy - for me - 7lbs 14!), we were left alone in total peace. And with that, the three of us lay on the bed together floating and cuddling before drifting off into the most beautiful, hazy sleep, all totally exhausted and entirely in love.
I just feel beyond grateful and happy to have experienced childbirth naturally. Though it's not for everyone, for me it was a true privilege and dream of mine. Yes, the home birth didn't go to plan. (When do births ever fully go to plan?) The birth instead lived up to everything I'd hoped for (and more - we had the most amazing postnatal care and room with a double bed and tea and hot meals brought to our bedside!)