Rebecca’s birth was the most beautiful thing imaginable; if I had to dream up my fantasy birth scenario I can’t think of any way it could have been improved. This was all the more precious because at 32 weeks a routine antenatal appointment identified that the baby had developed an irregular heartbeat. As it was a Friday night and all the cardiologists had gone home, the duty obstetrician on the antenatal day centre wanted to deliver the baby straight away by crash caesarian “to be on the safe side”. I was by this stage in a surgical gown being prepped for theatre, absolutely terrified and in floods of tears, while my husband was at home trying to sort out childcare for our elder daughter Catherine. I spoke to our (independent) midwife Andrea who reassured me that although the heartbeat was unusual it didn’t sound to her like the baby was in distress, and she came out to the hospital to help me explore what other options might be available. The obstetrician finally managed to reach a cardiologist on the phone, who told her not to do anything drastic but keep me in for monitoring over the weekend.
When we finally saw a cardiologist he told us that delivering the baby early would have been absolutely the worst thing to do, and the baby’s heart would probably right itself with time. However the obstetrician was still pushing for me to agree to an elective section, due to the expected difficulty of monitoring the baby’s heartrate during labour. After many long discussions with Andrea we reached the point that we couldn’t think of any risks that could not be adequately addressed during a home birth (in most cases, they wouldn’t be able to do anything more in hospital than we could at home). Moreover I knew that I would be more likely to have a successful birth at home with the very experienced midwife who knew me and my baby intimately rather than in hospital surrounded by the panicking midwives whose only training was “odd heartbeat = immediate caesarean”. Andrea had many years more experience, including monitoring babies with irregular heartbeats, whereas most of the hospital midwives couldn’t hide the look of horror on their faces when they heard the heartbeat for the first time, and I could see they were uncomfortable that I was being allowed to just watch and wait rather than doing anything to intervene.
Andrea agreed to come with me to the obstetrician appointment, and I found the strength to go against the obstetrician’s advice and instead plan to go ahead with the home birth. In the event the baby’s heartbeat righted itself before the due date as the cardiologist had suggested, so I discharged myself from the obstetrician’s care.
I finally went into labour four days after my due date, at 6.45 on the morning of Friday 13th. After breakfast my Mum took Catherine out for the day, and we phoned Andrea, who came out almost straight away, because she said she had nothing else planned and would only have been at home pacing! I spent the morning pottering around with the TENS machine on, then when John cooked himself and Andrea some lunch I went and paced up and down in the other room because I couldn’t face the smell, and by the time they had finished my contractions had become much stronger and closer together and we decided that it was time for me to get into the pool.
From then on my labour proceeded very much as I remember from last time, only this time when I reached the point that it felt like there was no rest between contractions and I couldn’t take much more, I was able to remember that I felt like that last time too and actually it meant that there wasn’t long to go. Anja had arrived by this time, and shortly after this I felt the beginnings of an urge to push. I heard the clock striking 3 o’clock, and told myself that by the time it chimed the half hour the baby would be with us. I told the midwives “it’s nearly over now!”
The next contraction the urge to push was irresistible so I gave into it, but only a “breathing” push at the height of the contraction, not a held-breath-straining kind of push. No-one was telling me what to do, which worried me at first (since Catherine’s birth had been more “coached”) but then I realised that if I needed to be doing anything different someone would surely tell me, so from then on I just did what I felt like, which was as little as possible: a little bit of a breathing push when I couldn’t resist it. So the birth was very gentle and quiet, and quite slow: Andrea and Anja told me afterwards that they wouldn’t have known I was pushing at all were it not for the fact that I was pushing a little bit of poo out. I didn’t feel the need to make any noise at all, apart from heavy breathing.
A few contractions later and I could suddenly feel the baby’s head, which was the strangest feeling, as if it had suddenly appeared there from nowhere. The next contraction and I felt my perineum begin to stretch, then the contraction after this the baby’s head crowned, and Andrea told me to stop pushing and start panting. The next contraction Andrea told me that the baby’s forehead had been born – the widest part – and that my membranes hadn’t broken, so it was still in its “cowl”. The one after that the whole head was born, and the next one brought the shoulders, and with the one after that the baby was finally born. Andrea pushed it between my legs and I guided it up to the surface, however this pulled the cord tight around its neck – it was wrapped around twice – so I instinctively lowered the baby back down again to disentangle it. John told me afterwards that he had never seen two middle aged women move so fast, as they thought I was going to put it back under the water! It was 3.24pm.
The baby still had its membrane over its face, and looked to me to be very blue and floppy. It also didn’t appear to have breathed yet. I just kept on saying “Is he alright? Is he alright?” We were convinced that the baby was going to be a boy, because apparently the majority of babies with irregular heart rhythms are boys, and the heart rate had also been at the “boy” end of the spectrum. Andrea blew in the baby’s face and gave it a bit of a rub with a towel, and it soon started crying. She suggested that I have a look to see what it was, and I was amazed and delighted to find that we had another little girl.
I sat and cuddled her in the pool until the cord stopped pulsing and Andrea cut and clamped it. I then handed the baby to John and got on with the serious business of delivering the placenta. I hadn’t managed a natural third stage last time and was determined to give it my best shot this time. Although I wasn’t feeling any contractions at all, I pushed anyway – when nothing happened I tried standing up, and then finally got out of the pool and squatted on the bedpan. When eventually I felt the placenta slipping out I felt absurdly proud of myself!
John had by this point rung my Mum to tell her to bring Catherine home – they were at the shoe shop. I showed Catherine her new baby sister and Catherine’s first response was “Can I show her my new shoes?” Later, helping Anja to examine the placenta in the kitchen, Catherine said “It’s great fun having babies, isn’t it?”
Andrea told me afterwards that it was one of the gentlest births she had ever seen, and my abiding memories are of unhurried peace. Andrea and Anja were observers only, occasionally offering words of reassurance (“that’s fine” was as much as I needed to hear after each listen in to the heartrate) but not otherwise interfering. No-one was touching me or telling me what to do. I really felt like I birthed my baby all by myself, or maybe even that she birthed herself and the rest of us were just onlookers. It was a wonderful illustration of how our bodies know exactly what to do, and all we have to do is allow them the space to do it.