I had my first baby at home in water, with an independent midwife here in Ireland. It was a very positive birth experience, though mightily hard, as birth is, and the story reflects the reality of it, but I think would encourage other women thinking of going this route on their first.
I never intended to have a home birth. Not being particularly brave and not liking pain seemed like two sound reasons to discard it as a serious option. But I wasn't particularly keen on a hospital birth, either. I suppose, like most women, the whole idea of birth just left me a bit cold. And, as for the mechanised approach of a hospital birth, accounts from friends had taught me that, once the natural process of birth was meddled with, complications often arose, as one intervention led to another. Everyone got out alive, yes, but little thought seemed to be spared for the depressing aftermath. Too often had I witnessed friends feel lost and alone as they desperately tried to piece together where it all went wrong, and recover from an experience they could not even name. They seemed to feel robbed of something.
But, despite all this, when I weighed up the two options, the concerns I had about home birth - pain-relief free birth - seemed to outweigh those of a hospital one. It wasn't until I was almost five months pregnant that my thoughts on that were challenged.
Note from Angela:
In the UK, pain-relieving drugs are available at homebirths. Midwives can bring Entonox ('Gas and Air'), which is commonly used, and Pethidine or other injectable opiates are usually available, but are rarely used. See Pain Relief for more information. Ciara's options were different because she lives in the Republic of Ireland. Contact the Home Birth Association of Ireland to find out what the current situation is regarding drugs and homebirth.
I wanted to be part of the Holles Street Domino Scheme, but unfortunately lived outside the catchment area. An early scan after a bleed in the eighth week had led me to their fetal assessment unit, and I had found the midwives to be fantastic: reassuring, kind and extremely capable. So I opted to stay with the midwives. At around eighteen weeks into the pregnancy, a kind relative who worked there organised for me to have a tour of the birthing room. Myself and my husband were shown around. As I surveyed the clinical surroundings and the various pieces of mechanical apparatus, and breathed in that familiar hospital smell, a small chill set in down my spine.
A member of staff explained to us about Active Birth Management, and the chill intensified. It seemed to me to have more to do with what wasn't allowed and what interventions would be put in place in the event of a birth not following a clearly set out path, than to do with the facilitation of a natural process. I felt the chances of me dilating to textbook were slim enough, especially with the threat of an accelerator drip hanging over me as the clock ticked. As I left the hospital, I felt as though my energy, my very potential, had been zapped. But something had crystallised in my mind and, unbeknownst to me then, in my husband's too. I knew there and then that I would not have our baby in a hospital if I could possibly help it.
But where would I have it? I had a deep feeling that, in a healthy pregnancy, in the right environment, a woman knew instinctively how to give birth. Yet I could hardly go to Holland and have it in a birthing centre there. I needed to find something at home to support my feeling.
An acupuncturist encouraged me to consider the home birth option. She gave me the name of an independent midwife, Philomena Canning, whom I soon contacted and met. After a good discussion I knew that home birth was, though perhaps not my ideal option, the option I would take. Philomena put into words what I had been feeling: that when all is normal, the less a woman is interfered with, the better she will progress when giving birth, and the better the result will be for mother and baby. The added advantage was that the risks associated with drugs, for mother and baby, would be obviated. But, to get there, I had to be prepared to take on the reality of a pain-relief free birth. Given that I had no prior experience of birth, I got over that hurdle easily enough, bolstered by my newfound confidence in the natural approach. Ah, sweet naivety!
As the weeks and months progressed I looked forward to Philomena's visits. She always seemed mindful that she was facilitating the wondrous process that was taking shape within me, but didn't own it, and I felt my confidence in my upcoming role grow. And yet I trusted utterly in her expertise. But I still had many fears. As the time grew closer and the size of the bulge made it clear that soon it would need to be out instead of in, these fears grew. But perhaps the biggest one was that it would not work out at home and I would end up in hospital, where I would not be well received, and be made to feel stupid for having attempted something so 'irresponsible' on my first baby. I found talking about these and other fears with Philomena and my husband divested them of some of their power. But, of course, they lingered. However, I knew that, ultimately, what would be would be.
At 11.00 p.m. one night, three days before my due date, I was overcome by a desire to be beside the sea. So off out we set, in the car, to Bull Island, my startled husband dutifully indulging the whim of his woman, half-crazed with heavy pregnancy. There I waddled beside the water's edge for a few minutes, and looked out across Dublin bay. I breathed in the cool, sharp night air. On the way home we stopped for chips and I wolfed them back and felt large but satisfied. Perhaps I knew that this would be the last chance we would get to do something so spontaneous and free for a long time. Perhaps I knew what was coming, and sooner than I thought. Whatever urged me to go there, I do know that, on that small journey, I let go of a treasured part of my old life. And it felt OK.
The next night I lay sprawled like a beached whale across the cough, vacantly gazing at the TV screen. I felt a sudden warm gush of water between my legs. Jesus! Could it be? I hadn't felt anything stirring, not even a murmur of a contraction. I looked down and saw a large wet patch spread across the red sofa. I could barely speak with shock and disbelief. I started to shake. My husband, too, could barely speak, but he was smiling broadly in a way I was not. I called my mother. She, too, was temporarily struck dumb. 'Call the midwife,' she eventually blurted. I called the midwife. She was gently reassuring. I had experienced no contractions yet so it could take some time. It was absolutely normal to feel shocked. I should go upstairs and run a bath, and relax. Call her as soon as anything else happened.
So, aided by Roddy, I ascended the stairs and we ran a bath. And then, another gush came, this time allaying any doubts about what we had witnessed the first time. It splashed across the floor accompanied by what felt like a swooping sensation inside me. Shit. I knew not waxing those new terracotta bathroom tiles would come back to haunt us.
That night mild contractions began. We timed them slavishly. They were erratic and unpromising, but just sharp enough to keep me awake for most of the night. The next morning Philomena came and examined me. I was worn out and beginning to feel fed up by the lack of progress. She deduced that the baby was lying in the wrong position, on its side, and would have to turn before labour proper could commence. It could take some time and it might be painful, but it would not necessarily indicate that I was in labour. We were to call her as things progressed.
The day passed much as the night, with mild pains in an erratic pattern. I ate a bit and felt OK. Word had got out that I had entered labour, I don't know how. Texts and phonecalls started coming through. I know it was just excitement on people's part, but it made me feel exposed, as if this most private of functions was being made into the territory of others. I should have turned off the damn phone, but instead I just got irate. As day moved into evening, I called my homeopath. She advised caullophylum 200c to help get the contractions going properly. The midwife called and examined me again: baby still hadn't turned. She reiterated her earlier words: it could even be a couple of days before labour proper began, try not to get to impatient. But by now I couldn't help it - I wanted it out!
She left and, at 8 p.m., I took the homeopathic remedy as advised. Within five minutes the contractions changed. They were much stronger and more regular. Within an hour I was on all fours, making what I can only describe as the opening rumbles of a symphony of animal sounds that would emit from my mouth over the coming hours. My mother arrived and looked wide-eyed as I protested that this was not actually labour - it could just be the baby turning as Philomena had advised. It would be painful, the midwife said so. She kept her counsel, as did Roddy, but both were looking increasingly sceptical.
Another hour passed by, and that inner animal was really cranking up. Finally, my mother snapped. Followed a moment later by Roddy. Time to bring in the expert - no argument. I didn't have the energy to protest anymore. Roddy was now busy filling the birthing pool, and it was with blessed relief that I climbed into its soothing water and immersed myself in my own private world. Damn that mobile phone, it was still bleeping messages!
At 10.45 the midwife arrived. I was by now half-woman, half-animal. She inspected me. 'Well done, you've got yourself to three centimetres,' she announced encouragingly. Why was she being so encouraging? I'd got myself to three, but didn't that mean there was seven to go? And didn't it get worse? How could it? What on earth had made me think that I would be able for this?
It was soon after that I hit a wall and began to quietly weep. Things had clarified in my mind. I wasn't ready to become a mother. Suddenly thirty-two seemed ridiculously young to have a child. I was a naturally lazy person who needed lots of uninterrupted sleep, especially at weekends. Wouldn't having a baby conflict with this? And anyway, I was tired, exhausted. I just wanted to go to bed. Could I? Could everyone just go, could we just wrap things up here and now and come back to it some other time? Maybe a year or two down the line, when I'd got India out of my system? Everyone would still be invited.
Philomena gently explained that I was feeling what all women feel: the fears, the doubts, the worries. To not feel ready, it appeared, was a universal predicament. There was no turning back. India would have to wait.
For the next while the midwife sat in the kitchen with my mother, leaving us in private and only entering to check the heartbeat of the baby in tandem with the contractions. To have this space felt right, and though the pain was mounting and becoming difficult to cope with, I always felt safe. My husband was gently encouraging, but I was in my own world by now, almost semi-delirious. Things were progressing, but I didn't know how much more I could take. I was three-quarters animal by now, the one-quarter woman fighting to survive, and I don't think any hospital would have tolerated what was coming out of my mouth. To be honest, I wouldn't have blamed them.
If I had been in hospital I would probably have screamed for whatever pain relief was on offer. But it wasn't an option, and those sounds, those basic mouthings that rose up from deep within me, were my outlet. Those, and the water, which by now had lost much of its pain-relieving calm. But, as night pushed slowly on, through the pain and the sometimes despair, I was getting in touch with the deepest part of my nature, a place I had not even known existed. The world fell away and all outside influences were obliterated as my body prepared to move a baby through my pelvis and out into the world. Every ounce of my being was invested in this struggle. The contractions gathered force and speed and soon there seemed to be no let up at all between them. Thoughts of death began to form in my mind. Thankfully, the midwife had forewarned of this, a harbinger of the transition period. I was nearing it, but I did not consciously know it. I felt like I was on a train to hell and I couldn't get off.
'If this keeps up, there's every chance of a dawn baby.' The midwife's words were to offer hope, but right now dawn seemed like an unbearably long time off. But her calmness was reassuring. All was as it should be.
The homeopath had been summoned and she gave me chamomilla 200c to take the edge off the pain. It helped, but nothing makes it go away. My husband dutifully held an icy cloth between my clenched teeth. It helped - it was my lifeline - but nothing makes it go away. The deep breaths audible in the distance were of my mother, trying to transmit to me her energy. All a mother ever wants to do is take away her child's pain. And, as all mothers know, there are times when all they can do is suffer alongside their child. But simply being there is, in itself, an action.
The room held me in its support, its inhabitants my angels. The pool held me like a womb, into which a small life would soon be born. And I struggled as if for my own life within its circular walls.
The midwife announced that I was nine centimetres dilated. Then, within a couple of minutes, I had spontaneously flipped over, with animal force, from my back onto all fours. An almighty push came from deep within me, the kind of push that makes a mockery of those birthing-room TV dramas, the kind of push that would eradicate pimples from your face in a single grimacing roar. It was a force that I felt to be in me, but not of me. I heard the midwife register her surprise. I was in stage two.
There was light at the end of the tunnel, but I didn't think I could make it. My body was not designed for it. I was an egg and the world was cracking me open, literally splitting me in two. Philomena reassured me that I was capable, that this was natural, that all was fine. I trusted her so much that I believed her, even though I could not understand how it could be. Another shuddering push ripped its way through my body. Everything was spinning out of control. And then, the best advice came. The sounds I was making were not utilising the pushes to their full potential. I needed to send the energy down, instead of out. I needed to make the sound travel downward. I can't describe it now, but I knew what she meant. With the next push I tried it. It was harder, but more productive.
As the moment of birth drew ever closer, I struggled desperately to hold onto that quarter part woman. I was afraid of what would happen if I let her go. What would I become? But, by not letting her go, it seemed, I would not get this baby out. To tap into my deepest power as a woman, I had to surrender every last shred of my womanhood: my will to keep intact my body, to stop my vagina being torn asunder, to keep any remnant of my civility, to stop myself exploding into a million little pieces. I needed to be all animal. Time to say goodbye to that final quarter.
In hindsight, this need to entirely relinquish control in order to achieve the goal seemed like a strange irony, given that I've mostly lived believing that calmness and control are the best assets in trying to stay afloat in life. But right here and now, it was all I could do to surrender everything. A final, monumental push ripped through my body, and I did nothing to hold it back. A thousand petals burst open in a moment, the single most incredible moment of my life, and the baby's head entered the world. As I began to reconnect to my environment, I sensed the atmosphere of mounting excitement in the room.
'One more push now, Ciara, and we're there.'
I gave it another, and the shoulders slipped out effortlessly. My baby was born.
The tiny bundle was handed to me, still attached by its cord. I had to be told to look at it, my blown mind still being transported back from a far-off place, well unhooked from its source. I gazed down at a beautiful little face, two huge wide eyes that stared at me with full trust and openness.
'We waited for you,' I said.
We had waited for this child, through a miscarriage and then, short months later, an ectopic pregnancy. We had waited for this little soul to come to us, not knowing if it ever would. And, now, in the flickering semi-darkness of a candlelit room, here it was. Ours, but not ours; of us, but truly its own. A flood of pure love, the kind I had never before experienced, flushed through every cell of my being. This love would almost come to torment me in the days ahead, as its shadow - fear - threatened to tip the balance. Fear that I would not always be able to make things right for this little creature. Fear that, despite my best efforts, bad things could, and would, happen to it.
But now, we gazed at each other in wonder, as my husband's arms encircled us both and he cried for us all.
I'd known I was having a boy since early in the pregnancy. It hadn't been verified by a scan or anything, I just knew, as women know these things. The long dangly thing between his legs verified it. A tad on the long side, I noted, but hey, his luck. Just to be certain, I asked the sex.
'I don't know,' came the midwife's reply.
Weren't they supposed to check these things?
Did anyone know?
It seemed that everyone had forgotten to look. It was up to me. Turned out the long dangly thing was not a penis, but an umbilical cord, and my son was not a son, but a little daughter. And, although I had been scared to have a girl - perhaps some unresolved childhood issue - I was overjoyed. My perfect, beautiful little girl, with the wide, intelligent eyes.
The weeks ahead were tough. I had borne a healthy baby but she wasn't too interested in feeding. At day ten, we wound up in hospital with her after she lost too much weight. Ten days later we returned, stressed out and worried, counting millilitres and trying to impose a routine of three-hourly round-the-clock feeds, many of which she just didn't want. She was alert, bright, and, at four weeks, smiling. She was capable of breastfeeding, but just not that hungry. At all times, day and night, I seemed to be either trying to feed her or hooked up to a mechanical breast pump. I felt like an animal again, but this time for all the wrong reasons.
But despite a bumpy start she began to thrive, and although through those early weeks and months I faced bewilderment, tears, worry and sometimes despair, not to mention pure exhaustion, I derived much-needed strength from that remarkable experience of birth, knowing that, like millions of women before me, if I'd coped with that, I'd cope with what faced me now. I had bounced back from the birth very quickly, lucky enough to have had no tearing, and felt strong again within days. And, as the days turned into months, I even began to experience flickers of pure love without its shadow, and rejoice without fear in the little life that was blossoming before me.
And something else happened during that birth, which I only realised later. There will always be a place in my heart for the two tiny lives that resided within me for a short time, but did not, could not, stay. But the part of me that had left with them - the quiet loss of faith - was restored. I came back to myself.
I know that I have been lucky. At 3.39 a.m. on a Monday morning, on 10 May 2004, as dawn unfurled her fingers just beyond the horizon, Romy Flynn made her entrance into the world. Despite the blood, sweat and tears, I wouldn't change a thing about that journey. Well, maybe just one thing. Next time, I'd switch off that blasted mobile phone.
© copyright Ciara C, 2005
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