There are very few male-authored birth stories to be found. This was a fact that bothered me, somewhat, in the months before the birth of my own daughter. In fact, there has been very little written by men, or for men, on the wider subject of pregnancy, childbirth and newborn care. The internet is stuffed full of high quality female-authored pregnancy and birthing material. Very useful yes, but only to a certain extent for a man wanting hard-core, useful information on this 'mysterious' subject.
To compound this situation, the vast majority of my male friends and aquaintances are fairly useless when it comes to describing their own experiences and feelings. Also, let's face it, this is, by its very nature, a rather female-centric task, but it is almost as if the male perspective counts for nothing. This really surprised me, since all recent literature and thinking insists that men must be totally involved in the whole pregnancy and birthing process, for the benefit of the mother, the child and himself.
I could go on. And on. But I won't. Instead, I've written this story about my experience. I am, I believe, a fairly typical man. And, due to the paucity of current similar literature, I feel I have license to provide a somewhat longer-than-usual account. So, here it is, the story of the birth of my daughter, Herdis Hekla.
By way of background, I am an an Englishman, now living in Iceland with my partner Arna, a very calm, spiritual, strong-minded lass. And we made the very early decision of a homebirth. The whole idea of bearing our child in the tranquility and comfort of our own beautiful, wooden house by the sea, just seemed right. Coupled with this, neither of us like hospitals, our opinion being that they are for sick people. And pregnancy isn't an illness, it is the most natural condition possible. You can, of course, suffer complications; this is what the hospital is there for.
Iceland has a very fine health service with a first rate system of ante- and post-natal care. You can opt for a homebirth, but it is not easy to convince a midwife to take you on, especially for first-time mothers. This is because there are very few midwives who work independently from the hospitals. Also, we don't live in the capital, Reykjavik, where the majority of homebirth specialist midwives reside. But, eventually, we were lucky as we found Sigga, who lives close by. She is a midwife at the local hospital, but she agreed to arrange cover for her shifts, if necessary. The midwife is also responsible for arranging liability insurance cover for a homebirth. As all was progressing well, she commenced one month's cover at 38 weeks.
Our due date of March 19th, came and went. Arna and the baby were very fit and healthy, as had been the case throughout her pregnancy. Yet as the days passed, the pressure from the medical staff at the hospital grew. At 41 weeks, Sigga started to get a little twitchy. Arna was being monitored at the hospital every 2 days. At 41 and a half weeks, Sigga said that her insurance was due to expire on April 2nd, so we must have the baby before then, or it was a hospital birth. I thought she was kidding us, but no, she wasn't. I then asked if it was possible to extend the insurance. Of course it was, but it was not the policy of the hospital to allow homebirths beyond 42 weeks. In fact, we soon discovered that it was also the hospital's policy to induce labour after 42 weeks, for all hospital births.
It was obvious that Sigga was being 'leaned-on', but, as we were digging our heels in and Arna and 'bump' remained fit and strong, she stood up for us. And she arranged for an extra week's insurance. Marvellous! Arna was now monitored daily. Her raspberry leaf tea intake increased dramatically. Also, it seemed to be an excuse to increase her organic liquorice consumption considerably. And I seemed to have a new job, playing with and licking nipples on a regular basis! Just Arna's, you understand...
Until this time, I had continued to work very long hours. Although I had always been very involved, attending virtually all of the midwife appointments and ante-natal classes, my workload had left me one step removed from Arna's experience and pressures. I gave up work on Tuesday, April 1st (it took a while to convince her that I had...), realising that Arna needed me by her side. We continued to try more traditional, 'natural' induction methods; long walks and sex featuring quite highly. I upped my nipple playtime. They had some affect; well, on me anyway...
After 42 weeks, induction became the main discussion topic during our hospital checkups. We dug our heels in further. Arna felt great and the baby's vital signs were all very strong. I felt calm and confident in Arna. It is important to note here that the baby's head had been engaged since 37 weeks, Arna's Braxton-Hicks contractions had been increasing steadily, her blood pressure had remained on the low side throughout the pregnancy. All of the signs were positive. One of my friends summed up going overdue perfectly: 'You don't take the cake out of the oven until it is done!'
On Thursday April 3rd, 15 days overdue, we had an appointment with the doctor. This was all in Icelandic, as the doctor claimed his english was bad. My Icelandic was good enough to get the gist of the conversation. Arna just sat there, impassively, as this senior doctor tried to bully her into having an induction.
When he stopped, she just said 'No. You will not force me whilst I and my baby are still strong and healthy.'
I, by this time, was nearing boiling point, but had promised Arna that I'd let her handle it.. The previously highly animated medical man, just sat back, suddenly lost for words. He had more than met his match. Arna, I am sure, would make a very fine lawyer, or world leader, or something similar. He agreed we could have another day or 2 for our homebirth. As our midwife was based at the hospital, the decision was ultimately his. But he admitted that he couldn't force an induction on us.
Labour had to start very soon. It must...
The afternoon trundled in to evening. More raspberry leaf and, now, stinging nettle tea. Liquorice and (not surpisingly) chocolate, started to feature heavily. Then, crafty old Kelso pulls out his trump card;
'Will you marry me, please?'
A couple of hours later, lying in bed following some celebratory coitus (she said yes!), Arna announced, quietly, that she was in labour. It was 6pm. This was it, the moment I had longed for (and dreaded), for 9 and a half months. A recurrent question to myself was 'How will I react? Will I panic, or take it all in my stride?' Luckily, I didn't panic. Not outwardly, anyway. I was ready for this, due to some quality birthing literature (Ina May Gaskin and Sheila Kitzinger), coupled with a very healthy relationship, based on honesty and respect. Also, we had purchased and prepared everything for the homebirth. I hoped.
So, I set about sorting the birthing pool. First, I had to pump it up fully. In Iceland, the standard birthing pool is a blow-up kids paddling pool, complete with fishy patterns. I had left it half pumped-up in the spare room. It was now that i regretted not pumping it fully, as it took another 20 minutes of frantic, noisy inflation with the foot pump. This, I can assure you, is not the ideal activity when the future mother of your child is experiencing strong contractions on the sofa.
This though, was my only real mistake. I filled the pool about a quarter full with very hot water, as Arna may not be using for hours. I made some strong coffee, baked some bread, pottered about, making the room ready, always there if Arna needed me. Sigga said she would be round about 10pm, so Arna just relaxed and let her yoga training take over.
Luckily for me, Arna remained in complete control. Sigga arrived and checked the baby's heartbeat and Arna's dilation, which was 4.5 cm. Great news. Things were definitely progressing.
Then came 'The Long Night...' As with everything that Arna does, she wasn't in a hurry. My memories from midnight to 7am are confused and hazy. All I know is that I was there for her, with her, through every contraction. I rubbed her back, held her, stroked her head. I was with her during all her (many) trips to the loo, and several showers. This, she said afterwards, was the most important thing I did; I was there for her. I certainly didn't, and never can, fully comprehend what she was going through. But, when I held her, I could sense a force, an energy that scared and fascinated me.
But still, she remained in control... It was the yoga, she assured me. The breathing, the visualisation of the baby's journey through her.
And what about me? Well, I admit that I was not awake the whole time. I cat-napped between quite a few of the contractions, drifting off for maybe a minute or two. It's all I needed, wanted, deserved. I had to try to stay focussed, to deal with each new phase. Sigga was also there during that time, but she had several sleeps in the spare room. She needed this rest, as she had to be fresh for the actual birth.
Then, there was the emotion. I think that this is the part that we males fear the most (this and having your partner turning in to an unrecognisable, demonically-possessed screamer!). I admit to having some concerns about this subject during the last few months of our pregnancy. I mean, our [western] society doesn't exactly encourage us males to embrace our emotions, does it? How would I react during the birth? Would I cast away my manhood and become a useless, blubbering wreck? It is all about the fear of losing control...
So yes, the emotion. I could feel it, stalking me, through that long night. Here was the woman I love, going through the most incredible, exhausting and potentially dangerous activity imaginable, all to bring 'our' child in to the world. I wanted to take the load from her, to absorb the pain, face the danger myself. I mean, that is the man's role in life, right? Well, no, it is not. This is the ultimate test, the ultimate journey and we men have to leave it all up to our lovers.
The emotion? We never know how we are going to react to a new situation. And yes, I admit it, I blubbed. Quite a few times actually. But it was a joyous, gentle sobbing. I tried to disguise it, of course. But it was useless. So, I embraced the emotion, finally. I think this was one of the most valuable aspects of a homebirth; you are not held back by anything. This is Your patch. You are surrounded by Your stuff. You are equal to anyone in the room. The crying didn't incapacitate me or embarrass me. It helped release tension.
Then, at 7.15am and 8cm dilation, a very knackered Arna allowed Sigga to rupture her membranes. Her waters broke. The liquid was clear; no meconium contamination. Big relief all round, especially for Sigga. This had been one of her big fears. Arna's contractions intensified almost immediately and, finally, she decided to enter the pool. I had kept an eye on the temperature; it is good to have a task to concentrate on. So it was ready for her. We both got in. Bloody fantastic! There we were, in our front room, in a hot pool!? For me, it was very relaxing. For Arna, it was an enormous relief. She was able to lie back, resting in my arms. The midwife could easily check the baby's heartbeat and her dilation. The second midwife, Herborg, arrived at this time, which visually relaxed Sigga. We stayed in there for a while, through several very strong contractions. But then, Arna wanted out. By this time, she wasn't really sure what she wanted. Everything was becoming a tad overwhelming.
The next one and half hours, for Arna, was all about trying to get comfortable, listening to her body. She lay on the floor, on the beanbag, got on all 4's, hung on to my neck. I just had to remain patient, to go with whatever she suggested. And she remained so incredibly calm.
At about 9.30am, Sigga announced that she was fully dilated. I was slow to catch on, being slightly 'punch-drunk'. Then, suddenly, Arna was back in the pool, surrendering to the overwhelming urge to push. I stayed out this time, rubbing her back, holding her. She never shouted or screamed; she just moaned, through incredible, long, deep, breaths.
It was all happening so fast now. 'Do you know, David, that she has the baby's head in her hands now?', informed Sigga.
'What?', blubbed I. That was a sight and a feeling that I can never fully describe. Arna was kneeling, her hands between her legs, with a look of total, utter concentration. The appearance of several floating stools failed to dent this concentration (yes, despite the fact that she been for at least 5 craps during the night). Our rice sieve proved a very useful tool at this point. That reminds me, I must buy a new one...
Suddenly, at 9.58am, the pool turned red and a baby broke the surface! It coughed, snorted, then took its first defiant, amazing breath (I'm almost blubbing again now, writing this weeks later...). It was placed immediately in Arna's arms. I checked out the bits and pieces; a girl! I double checked. Yes, definitely a girl! And we cried, all of us. Instinctively, she started to suckle Arna's breast.
'Now, this does not look like a long overdue baby!', exclaimed Sigga. Apparently, long overdue babies are usually pretty wrinkly and dry skinned. Our baby was just pink and perfect, covered in a layer of vernix, the softest, lightest fat imaginable. So no, our baby was not 'overdue'. She came out when she was ready. And we knew this fact all along. We were listening to our instincts.
I cut the cord, which is the proudest moment of my life. And my hand was steady as a rock (another one of those fears unfounded...). Then, suddenly, there she was, our baby, in my arms, her deep blue eyes staring up at me, in to me. Somehow, she knew that this hairy creature holding her was not a source of nutrition. I held her for a while as Arna waited for the placenta. It soon became apparent that, as usual with Arna, this was going to take a while. So, I handed our daughter back to her, in the hope that suckling would speed things up a little. It just seemed the right thing to do.
She waited a while. Still nothing moving. Sigga was getting anxious, and more or less insisted that she give Arna an injection to hurry the process. I took 'The Little One' back in my arms and we waited. An hour and a half after the birth, Sigga lost her patience. She said that Arna would have to go to the hospital to remove the placenta. Herborg, bless her, told Arna to go to the toilet and went with her. I then spoke with Sigga, explaining that everything else to do with Arna's pregnancy and birth had taken a long time and I thought that this would be the same, and would turn out fine. She couldn't go to hospital, not now!?
She had just started to answer me when there was was a shout from the toilet; it was out! This was the most relieved I have ever felt. Nothing though, compared to Arna's, I am sure. And for the midwives, this was the moment when they could finally relax. I have tried to forget the image of Sigga and Herborg picking through the freshly-extruded placenta on my living room floor, checking it was all there. Unfortunately, we have photos. But this was just another example of how real and raw the homebirth experience is.
Following the few necessary measurements and checks (3.81 kg, about 8lb 5oz), and hugs and kisses all round, the midwives left. There we were, surrounded by bloodied towels and sheets, approximately 600 litres of cold, bloody, slightly pooey water and holding the most beautiful, precious baby girl, Herdis Hekla. What a journey, for all of us!
One of my biggest concerns was this: Would I really feel a useful part of the birth process? Would I really make a difference? Or, would it just really be about Arna and the midwives? Well, I am sure you know the answer to this question. Of course I was a valid, useful member of the birthing team; just as important as the midwives. Arna told me, so it must be so. And I felt it. This, I believe, is the most positive aspect of a homebirth for me. But, of course, in the end, it was all about Arna. It had to be. Now though, it is all about 'Us'.
You can visit Herdis' website if you want to read more about her, at http://web.mac.com/natturubarn/
If any of you future, or current dads (or mums) want to discuss any of this with me, then email me at... whereiskelso (at) yahoo.co.uk
Fathers and home birth - fathers' feelings about the birth, and how they can help.
Overdue - but still want a homebirth? When is 'postdates' risky?
First Babies and homebirth
Waterbirth at home
Blood on the carpet - How much mess are you likely to encounter at a homebirth, and what can you do about that carpet?!
The Third Stage of Labour - what are your options, and the pros and cons of each?
Home Birth Stories
Home Birth Reference Page