The Best Plan Is No Plan

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Looking at my life as it is right now, I know I never planned this.

I didn’t sit down after graduation and say ‘OK, I’m going to teach English in a bunch of countries, meet a husband, buy a house in Portugal, and then have three children, one after another.’ I did sit down and decide I would relocate back to the UK, that I would study for a PhD, that I would be a researcher. Then, I looked at these goals and they didn’t match with my instinctive decisions. I had two sets of ideas guiding me in life, some conjured up on a spontaneous basis, and others that I considered at length.

Whenever, I look back I realise that I haven’t carried out any of my long term plans. In fact, I am a terrible planner. Sometimes, I have a word with myself about this. It goes ‘if there is anything you don’t like about your current circumstances then it is entirely your own fault for jumping into everything headfirst. It is your own fault for not following the plan. The solution to every problem you ever had is to make better plans.’

Wait a minute though.

I am so glad that I made those instinctive choices. That I decided to study English Language in Glasgow instead of Theatre at Leeds. That I moved to Korea and not Japan. That I taught English. That I married my husband. That we lived in Poland and Portugal. That we had our kids. I would not unmake those decisions for anything. I have no regrets about them.

Well, sometimes I think that perhaps I should have studied sciences, gone into a sensible medical type profession, and made a lot more money. On the other hand, I chose to do other things because that is who I was when I made those choices. A person who didn’t have any fears about long term financial security, mortgages, and providing for a family. Back then, I had faith in my ability to sort it all out as I went along. Haha. Youth.

So, a couple of years ago, I finished my MSc, got pregnant, had another baby, then got ready to plunge into a PhD. I was writing off too potential supervisors when something stopped me.

My instincts told me this is not the plan for this moment. Maybe I will come back to it one day. Deep down, for whatever reason, It is no longer what everything I have learned on my masters/ in everyday life seems to be for. I got into this track knowing that I wanted to expand my skills away from teaching. I still do know that. I still want that. Now, I want to take everything I have done and use it to head in another direction.

My littlest is fast becoming a little girl, and we are on the verge of a new phase in our family life. This will be the first time I chase a toddler around without a big pregnant belly/ marsupial baby. Unless there is a real change of heart, or a bit of a contraceptive slip up, then this is it. We are good to go on the next stage of familyhood.

So, I find myself thinking ‘I need a plan. The best plan ever. A really stonking, get-your-shit-together plan.’

Amazing. Sometimes it is as if I have learned NOTHING.

Before I start plotting my future in detail, I am going to try a different approach. Let’s face it. My track record suggests it is wasted energy anyway. I am going to believe, as Leo Babauta says, that The Best Goal is No Goal.

Instead of focussing on what I want down the road, I will consider what I know now. What I know I can work on now. The line where what I want and what I can do meet. I am talking about that deep down knowing which acts as a compass, underneath all those plans.

I want to support women in what I am calling, for want of a better expression, ‘the childbearing journey’.

I want to help women have good pregnancy and birth experiences.

I want to help women have good motherhood experiences.

I want to interact with people.

I want to write.

I want to explore new ideas.

I want to learn.

So, beyond doing the things that I do in supporting my family, that is what I am going to try to do. That is the No Plan Plan.

In view of this, I have created a super new blog to write about that circuitous path from conception, to pregnancy, to birth, into the early stages of motherhood. More than anything, I want to help women trust themselves to navigate this road in their own way.

So, I declare Mamajestic is officially online. My first post is about finding a place of peace and quiet.

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As ever, Mums are Made is coming along with me into this new territory of motherhood, which stretches over the horizon.

Lessons from Birth: Part Three

I wanted to round off my Lessons from Birth series by posting Evie’s birth story.

As I wrote in my post ‘Waiting‘ Evie’s arrival was later than I expected. I had a lot of pre-labour contractions which were very hard to tell apart from the beginning of active labour, being uncomfortable, regular, and getting stronger over time before disappearing into thin air. This went on for a whole month and though I’d love to say that I bore this wait with patience and grace that would not be exactly truthful. To give myself credit I think I handled it ok at least some of the time.

It was reasonable to expect that I might give birth early because my last two pregnancies did not exceed the 37th week gestation. I had decided it would be prudent to arrange to have extra help around from 36 weeks on. Particularly because the children were off school for the month of August and we needed back up, especially in the case of a home birth during the day. This meant that my supportive and generous parents flew out from the UK to our home in Portugal, planning to stay from then until a week after my due date. The closer I got to my due date the more foolish I felt for planning things this way, as the weeks of help with our new baby, became weeks of help with the pregnancy. This was not unwelcome by any means, but I worried about how we would cope when my mum and dad left so soon after the baby was born.

Beyond this logistical issue, I felt frustrated with my ‘are they?aren’t they? contractions. I was sick of being a watched pot that would not boil. I began to worry about how big Evie might be: after all, my body had never carried a baby to term, nor had a full term baby exit from it. The hospital scans had shown Evie to be a little bigger than her siblings in utero.

Lesson 1: Growth scans are not very accurate.

Evie wasn’t as big as her brother and in fact only weighed 2.9 kg when she was born. It is unlikely therefore that she was in the 50th percentile back at my 32 week ultrasound. I knew not to base too much stock in these numbers as Rosie had been a small baby, which was never flagged in utero either. However, I let myself get caught up in ‘what ifs’ anyway.

Lesson 2: Don’t get too wound up about growth scans when you know they are not accurate anyway.

I should have paid attention to the voice of my previous experience here, instead of letting my imagination run amock with big baby fears. More specifically, the fears that I had about sustaining another 3rd degree tear or worse and needing surgery, which I thought I had banished after Sam’s birth, returned to haunt me around week 38 or so.

Lesson 3: Talk to your midwife.

I called our midwife, Antonio, who had also delivered Sam, and told him I was feeling worried. He immediately suggested that he came over for a chat to discuss my trepidations. He sized up my bump with his expert hands and told me that Evie was not all that big. When I brought up my anxiety about going overdue he said that we could try a membrane sweep to get things going if I went to 40 weeks. If my body was ready it would work and if not, it would do no harm. We happily arranged for him to do this the day before Evie was due. I felt a lot better.

Another factor which contributed to this renewed sense of calm, or at least resignation, was that my mum and dad extended their stay with us for a few days more. They would be relieved by my in laws on their day of departure so we had plenty of hands on deck.

Lesson 4: Mum and Dad rock. That is all.

The week leading up to my due date I was having a lot of contractions and kept hoping I would finally tip over into active labour. I felt ripe and ready. I was optimistic that a sweep might step things up.

The appointed day arrived and Antonio came over in the evening after we put the kids to bed. I was excited to see the medical bag appearing from his car as a confirmation that he fully expected a baby to appear. He explained that he would try doing up to three sweeps, one every three hours, to see if labour would start.

My husband and I went off to our bedroom with Antonio and he performed the first sweep. I lay back and relaxed. It didn’t hurt. We returned to the living room and sat around chatting, me sitting on my birth ball. I could feel contractions coming and going. This could really be working! My mum and dad retired to bed. I decided to get some rest too. Antonio and husband sat up talking a bit longer, then Husband came to bed. Antonio came through to do the next sweep at 1am. He exclaimed that the contractions were doing some work as Evie’s head had engaged. I grinned. Husband remarked that I was the happiest he had seen me in weeks. I felt elated. We were going to meet our baby. She would be here. But first we should try to sleep. Husband and I turned in. Antonio lay down for a nap on the sofa.

I lay in bed for another hour or so, just feeling the contractions come and go. They started to pick up a little and I couldn’t sleep through them, so I got up and sat in our library on a comfy reclining chair. I loved that the house was dark and quiet around me. I sat with my eyes closed and listened to my Natal Hypnotherapy CD on my iPod. I visualised calm scenes that I had practised of swimming in a tropical mountainside pool. I was happy to feel the contractions coming on stronger and longer.

Antonio appeared bleary-eyed at around 4am to check on me and see if a further sweep was needed. The strength and duration of the contractions were about the same as when I’d been around 6cm dilated with my son and I was expecting to hear that I was getting to around this point again. I was gutted to hear that I was 2 or 3cm. Antonio gave me a final gentle sweep to help keep things going. Neither of us wanted the labour to stall. I decided not to get hung up on how dilated I was. I felt deep down that this was it. Disappointing as it was to have progressed less than expected, progress had occurred.

I suddenly felt tired, so I went back to bed for a lie down. I positioned myself on my side with a few pillows at my head so that the baby had space to move if needed and to keep myself comfy while allowing gravity to do its job. The contractions felt quite intense, but I relaxed as much as possible and breathed deeply through them. I went to the loo a couple of times as I was paranoid about getting a urine infection. On my second trip I felt the contractions were getting harder to cope with and decided I would wake up husband and Antonio to see about getting the pool up and filled. I suddenly couldn’t wait to feel the warm, soothing, water around me.

As soon as I woke up my sleepy husband, the contractions ramped up another level.

Lesson 5: When your instincts tell you what you need, best to follow them.

I was so glad that I had followed my urge to wake up husband then. Though I was still coping I really needed to reach out to another person now.

I stopped and breathed through another contraction while husband woke Antonio. I was beginning to make some labour noises and moan, though I held back until we were in our big kitchen/dining/living room, away from where my parents and the children were sleeping. Antonio checked me, and said I was almost 5cm and could get in the pool. I couldn’t believe I was not more dilated, and began to panic somewhat about how I would manage the rest of the labour. As the contractions were coming harder and faster, clothes didn’t seem a priority anymore. I abandoned my trousers and underwear, focussing on finding a comfy place to labour.

Antonio and husband had got the pool out of its bag and seemed to be taking forever to start inflating it. We hadn’t covered the sofa in plastic sheets yet either, so I didn’t want to clamber onto it and sully it with an indelible stain. This consideration seemed wildly comic in a tucked away part of my brain, and I laughed at myself. Another big contraction hit. I scrabbled around with two big cushions trying to find a comfortable position leaning forward over the sofa. This contraction was huge, and long too. All I could do was cling on to a cushion as if my life depended on it, and make ‘oooooh’ noises. I thought ‘How can I possibly cope with this? I can’t do this for another few hours’. I couldn’t find the right position for my body to be in and was feeling really agitated. Antonio looked up at the sounds I was making and asked if I felt like pushing. Was the baby moving down? I really wasn’t sure, so I said I didn’t think so. Mostly because I couldn’t believe it was time yet.

Lesson 6: Hello! Transition much?

In retrospect, it is very easy to spot that I was experiencing transition at that moment, but I was confused by my apparent lack of dilation just moments earlier.

I threw the cushions on the floor, with my knees on one and my elbows on the other, in a sphinx position. Almost immediately, I gasped ‘Help!’ as another contraction came. Husband came running over and knelt in front of me. I felt like he was anchoring me, as my body flew out of control. Outwardly though, I was not moving much and not talking, so once I stopped ooing through the contraction husband ran back over to Antonio to continue assembling the pool. I summoned him back with another ‘Help!’. Antonio came over too, to see what was going on. I was still stranded astride my cushions, which afforded ease of access for a quick look at me.

Lesson 7: Sometimes it is best to ignore dilation and pay attention to what your body is doing.

Antonio told me that I was fully dilated and the baby was indeed moving down. The contractions changed, coming further apart and not so painful. I now had complete clarity in terms of what was going on and instantly felt calm and purposeful. Now that the contractions had relented, I could feel where Evie was and focus on helping her to move down the birth canal. I waited for a contraction and consciously squeezed my muscles, though really my body was already pushing, and all I had to do was provide gentle encouragement. Between contractions I thought ‘You’re stretchy. You’re going to stretch HUGE’ and visualised my body perfectly accommodating Evie’s emergence. Before I knew it she was crowning, and I tried to keep things slow, holding her at the gates for one more contraction. Husband knelt in front of me, breathing encouragements the whole time, which really helped me to stay centred. It was a lovely moment, having him close by, us both kneeling on all fours, and waiting for our daughter to be born. With the next contraction and a tiny push, Evie popped out. She had the cord wrapped twice around her neck, but was absolutely fine with a hearty little yell. It was just after 6am; around fifteen minutes since Antonio had examined me and found me at ‘almost 5cm’.

I sat up. Antonio passed Evie to me. Husband and I lent over her cooing our ‘hellos’. Antonio suggested we move onto the sofa. I protested that we needed to cover it with something first, so husband went to the birth bags and removed one of the big incontinence pads I had bought for the occasion. Between the three of us, I was hoisted onto the sofa, propped upright at my request, on top of my cushion and pad, with Evie in my arms. Wary of getting cold and delaying the placenta’s expulsion, I asked husband to get me a clean sheet I had put ready, to wrap me and Evie up. She latched onto my breast without any difficulty and we had our first feed. We continued to admire Evie, and the placenta arrived shortly with just a little push or two. Antonio examined me and found that I had no tears, just a very small graze. This was excellent news. I beamed at the perfection of our beautiful new baby, and the all round awesomeness of my perineum. What a relief!

Antonio packed up his stuff and headed home. I was sad to see the unused birth pool disappearing with him. It would have been lovely to have a go in it post-partum, seen as I had missed my third chance at the water birth I’d always fancied. Husband put the cushion covers in the wash, and cleaned up a bit, but there was surprisingly little clearing up to do. He helped me stand up and accompanied me to the bathroom. I had a quick wee, then got in the shower. I didn’t feel dizzy, so he left me to it and fetched me some clean clothes. I felt wonderful. Full of beans and totally exhilarated. My mum and dad came through and we had a quiet cup of tea and Evie appreciation. Her big sister and brother were woken up and came to meet their new sibling.

So there you have it. A slow burning labour, a roller-coaster birth, and a beautiful morning. The only downside was the afterpains, which were horrid, especially when my older children were jumping on me for cuddles, but I took arnica and painkillers, which helped. Overall, this was a very positive birth experience which I shall treasure. It was a real bonus not to tear and I have felt my body get back to normal so much faster this time. Having three kids aged 4 and under isn’t always easy, but they’re my lovely children, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start to being a family of five. I also look forward to informing Evie that she was pretty much born on a kitchen floor. It has a good dramatic ring to it.

The sofa is covered in smears of peanut butter and biscuit crumbs, but otherwise continues to fare well.

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Waiting

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For the past week or so, on and off, I may or may not have been in labour. It depends who you ask. ‘False labour’ is one term that has been used, alternatives are ‘prelabour symptoms’ or ‘prodromal labour’.

Basically, every couple of days I start having mild contractions which augment, becoming stronger over a few hours until I find it hard to ignore them. With some of them, I have even felt my cervix stretching (it’s like a firm pinch). The first couple of times I had regular 3 minute apart contractions lasting for a minute each. The other night they changed and became three minutes long, coming every 8-10 minutes. They tend to start during the day, building up in the evening, then tailing off around midnight. I did have a bout of nesting and contracting at 2 in the morning, which lasted until 5am, but that came to nought too. At least the kitchen has been cleaned: I keep having unstoppable washing up urges.

Each term of diagnosis on offer signifies something different going on. False labour is just your body pretending to go into labour as a kind of warm up activity. Prelabour is a set of symptoms occurring prior to labour which may include irregular contractions, nesting, spurts of energy, as well as other lovely stuff like diarrhea, nausea, loss of mucous plug and so on. Prodromal labour is a form of actual labour where the early stages do not conform to the standard pattern of gradually mounting, far apart, contractions which eventually lead to stronger, close together contractions, and thereafter birth. Prodromal labour is characterised by contractions which stop and start, falling into diverse patterns, over a period of days or weeks. The contractions are not ‘false’ and do accomplish something, but they are not easy to time and progress is much harder to chart.

I have to say, the latter two explanations make me feel mildly less frustrated about what is going on in my body. As many other women have pointed out in the blogs that I have obsessively devoured on the subject, ‘false labour’ is just plain discouraging: ‘Here’s a lot of discomfort and confusion, but it isn’t real you understand. You are a hysterical pregnant lady. And a multigravida too. You should know better.’ I’ve been in real labour. Twice. It doesn’t feel much different to the experiences that I’ve been having this last week. Other than the bit where the contractions don’t disappear after a few hours and you get to hold your baby at the end.

I have had most of the prelabour symptoms that can be identified as spelling ‘delivery probably close’. It wasn’t. Perhaps it is now. I suspect it isn’t. I can’t exactly argue with the definition to explain much of what has been going on, but the contractions have followed a pattern, albeit a strange one, which is not consistent with ‘prelabour’ alone.

So, the next conclusion is prodromal labour. This means I may be in labour. Hurrah! However, this being the case, it is a marathon labour rather than a sprint. The stopping and starting may signify that my baby is ready to be born, but she can’t get in quite the right position, and therefore her head cannot engage. If she can’t get into the pelvis, she ain’t coming through it. Cue a visit to the Spinning Babies website.

I have started trying some Spinning Babies balancing activities and techniques to help little one get into a good place. After a spot of belly mapping, she seems to be anterior which is good, but it can’t hurt to try and improve matters. There may now be a number of unfortunate photos in our family album of me doing a ‘forward leaning inversion’ aka the ‘lean off sofa with bum in air’ manoeuvre. Also, the ‘pelvic tilt’, or ‘cat/cow pose’. I know which animal I feel I resemble more closely at present. Slumping over my birth ball is comfy and may actually be helping, so am now adopting this position for TV watching. It isn’t graceful, but it feels nice, and, besides, I am desperate.

Another theory about prodromal labour is that it is caused by a psychological blockage: the mother does not want to give birth for some reason. I cannot come up with anything that would be bothering me enough. I do not have a great fear of birth. I am confidant that I can look after a newborn babe. I am excited at the prospect of meeting our new daughter. I don’t think this diagnosis applies to me.

Besides the difficulty in deciding what is going on, there’s another thing that is bothering me. I am still only 37 weeks and 4 days into pregnancy. My previous two children were born at 36 weeks and 6 days, and 37 weeks on the dot. Both appeared quite ready to enter the world. I had my first set of serious feeling contractions at 36 and 1, so assumed that something might have happened by now. I did expect a few days of these shenanigans, but only days. I may have to continue in this ‘could it be today’ mode for several more weeks. Not a comforting thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to have got to ‘full term’ status. I know that the most important thing is that my lovely baby girl be born in the safest circumstances, at the right time, which is why I am not going to start taking blue cohosh, stimulate my nipples, or beg my doctor to sweep my membranes. Maybe she just needs a bit longer than her brother and sister to be ‘done’. I really am trying to accept this moment in my life, this slow burning labour, for what it is. Sometimes I manage it, sometimes I don’t.

On the other hand, I am finding that my patience wears thin with this ‘is it? Isn’t it?’ routine. I can try to ignore the twinges and contractions, but it is hard not to get my hopes up. I have the wonderful support of my husband, parents, and midwife on hand, poised for action and I would love to oblige. I am so looking forward to holding our baby. Given my birth history, the fact that crèche/ nursery holidays begin tomorrow, and family are only able to visit and help out at our home in Portugal for a finite time, I feel a greater sense of urgency for an expedient birth than I otherwise might. My midwife told me that now is the time to ‘enjoy’ my pregnancy because soon it will be over. I would like to agree, but now rather feels like the time to head butt the next person who can see me, yet still says ‘so, have you had your baby yet?’. People in the virtual world who are unable to examine my pregnant countenance, you are excused. For now.

Pam England, the midwife and author of ‘Birthing From Within’, likens labour and birth to a hero’s journey. In the manner of Theseus, a labouring woman must negotiate her own ‘Laborinth’. When her labour begins, she is thrown, ready or not, over the threshold of the labyrinth. Feeling her way, she must follow the path round and around until she reaches the centre and birth happens. There are no markers to tell her how far she has come or how far she has yet to go. There are challenges to be met along the way, decisions to be made. Things may not alway be as they seem and she must watch out for surprises. All she can do is take the next step and the next, until her journey is complete. Read more here. I wonder what Theseus would conclude about losing his mucous plug and whether he would decide to have his waters broken if it meant killing the Minotaur sooner.

I am unsure whether I have been ‘catapulted’ into my personal labyrinth or not yet. Is this the first challenge? On both a physical and psychological level, I would say I have begun the work of this birth, albeit without a definite starting point. Just like me, to have wandered into a labyrinth without even noticing the door.

I am trying so hard to go about my daily life, to enjoy this time, to remember that soon I will be running round trying to balance a newborn’s needs with those of my other kids. This is not normal life though. There is the part of me that is getting on with everyday activities, and the part of me that is feeling along the wall of the labyrinth, looking for a door to the next stage.

There won’t be resolution to this post just yet. As one wise blogger pointed out- labour is a retrospective diagnosis. After you have a baby, you can say ‘Yep. That was labour’. To conclude, here is her article, and below are some other links relating to this kind of, maybe, sort of labour:

http://belladolcebirths.blogspot.pt/2012/01/prodromal-labor-what-is-it.html

http://birthingbeautifulideas.com/?p=4428

http://adventuresinjuggling.me/2011/11/15/a-dummies-guide-to-prodromal-labor/

http://www.glorialemay.com/blog/?p=368

Lessons from Birth: Part One

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Picture: labour 1, by Alexis EBP, copyright 2013

I’m expecting our third child, second daughter, at some point soonish. My official date is 16th August. Preparing myself for this birth has been an entirely different, and more relaxed experience than the last two. I hope that it will my finale of child bearing: smooth, straightforward, and positive. It’s comforting knowing that stats are on my side, showing that birth is easier for many women by the time they are on their third and I have never been so well informed or experienced. Fingers crossed.

My daughter, Rosie, was born in a hospital in the UK, with interventions in the form of epidural, oxytocin drip, and forceps. I ended up with a 3rd degree tear. That is, quite a big one.

My son, Sam, was born at home in Portugal. It was a drug free birth attended by a private midwife. I used Natal Hypnotherapy. I had a small tear and a few stitches.

This is not going to be a short post. Birth stories take time. So, this is not for everyone. I wanted to write about my births because I have learnt a lot and derived a lot of comfort from reading other people’s stories. Here, I add my own to the canon, just in case it does the same for someone else.

    Rosie’s birth

The first time I wasn’t so much worried as apprehensive. I read the relevant chapter in ‘what to expect when you’re expecting’ and leafed through some other tomes on the subject. I did prenatal yoga and tried to work out how warrior position would actually apply to birth. I did kegel exercises to strengthen my then, rock solid, pelvic floor. I watched some DVDs with titles like ‘Holy Crap! I’m having a baby!’ I skipped over the stuff about inductions, forceps, ventouse, and c- sections as it made me feel panicky and I felt optimistic about my body’s ability to push out a bub, hopefully in a lavender scented bath. I decided to keep an open mind about epidurals. Friend’s birth stories took on a new fascination and I listened to their encouraging tones. The ones who had had a fairly crap time were sensitive enough to not scare me. I flew to England at 32 weeks, to stay at my mum and dad’s in Middlesbrough, while my husband was working in London. He planned to join us when I reached a spherical and splendiferous 38 weeks. As we know, first babies are always late.

Lesson 1: first babies are not always late.
As with many other things in life, there are no guarantees that you will make it to your due date. In a way, I am glad to be spared the waiting and watching as due date comes and goes. I had no warning signs that Rosie would show up early, so it was a bit of a shock.

I woke up at 1am on week 36, day 6 of my pregnancy to discover I was lying in a puddle of water. I stumbled, somewhat dazed, into my mum and dad’s room rousing them with a call of ‘I think my water just broke’. We phoned the hospital and they said we should come in, though there was a chance I had ‘had an accident’. I pulled on clothes, jumped in the car, and crampy feelings started up. On arrival at hospital I was found to be 4 cm dilated and in established labour. Got my dad to phone husband, as just couldn’t muster the words ‘hi honey, I’m in labour’. Dad passed me the phone and we had a shaky ‘are you ok honey? Yes, I think so’ conversation. Husband started packing and heading for car, I headed for a birthing ball. I had to go to the high dependency unit because daughter was 24 hrs away from being classed as full term. No bath and no lavender. Boo.

As the contractions got stronger I held my mum’s hand and squeezed with each one. She managed not to squeal in pain. My dad read the posters on the delivery room wall advising birth partners what to do. He made eye contact with me and said slowly and clearly ‘you’re doing very well’. We all fervently hoped husband would arrive.

Lesson 2: Relaxation is ALL
The trouble of preparing for something you have never done is that you can miss glaring details which turn out to be very important. I had been told to welcome, not fight my contractions and to relax my body through them. I had also seen hundreds of images of birthing women in soap operas, TV shows, and movies doing the opposite. I modelled what I was doing on the latter approach. After my second birth, where I took option 1 and relaxed my body as much as possible, I realised how much this helps manage pain. No hand squeezing at all. Now, when I have to do anything uncomfortable, like dental work, I relax and focus on breathing slow, calm, breaths. It really does work.

Memory becomes hazy, but I think at this point my blood pressure was found to be a bit high, so the midwives moved me through to another room where I and baby’s head could be attached to monitors. I changed into a hospital gown and sat on the bed. My contractions kept going steadily. I was encouraged to try gas and air, but wasn’t really sucking it in hard enough to have an effect. I started feeling nauseous. A midwife appeared to check me and said ‘oh you’re almost there’. What! But my husband isn’t here. Besides I couldn’t be possibly be about to have a baby- it’s just not the kind of thing I do. There must be some sort of mistake. Unfortunately this turned out to be the case. She had another look and gave a ‘silly me’ sort of laugh and then said ‘oops, no I was wrong. You’re actually five centimetres.’ What? So I’ve been doing all this work for one lousy centimetre.

This was the point that I freaked out. Yes, I was in pain, but the thing that was really getting to me was the lack of control and the nausea. I couldn’t leave the bed easily because of the monitor, and I don’t know why, but I just would not let myself be sick. I didn’t ask for a bowl. It was as if I thought, by controlling that I was controlling my body.

Lesson 3: if you need to be sick, be sick
I know now that this is part of the body’s mission to expel a baby and void everything else in the process. It can also be a sign that labour is progressing well. By the time I had my second birth I was fine with yelling for a bowl and accepting this as another part of the process.

Lesson 4: don’t be a control freak
I realise now that all one can do in labour is go with it. There is no time when going against the flow is less productive. Accepting that it is happening and a baby is coming out one way or another is another big lesson I took onto my second birth. Not only did this speed up the whole process A LOT, it also helped with lesson 2. By just letting things happen, I could let go of tension and anxiety associated with futile control attempts.

I said ‘I want an epidural’. An anaesthetist arrived presently and explained the process of injecting drugs into my spine, and the potential things that could go wrong. I wasn’t really able to wrap my brain around a conversation anyway, so didn’t take in much of this. He looked at me with pity in his eyes. ‘Do you still want one?’ Yup. As the drugs kicked in, I felt a new sense of calm and control. Things were looking up.

Even better, my wild eyed husband showed up after his invigorating 265 mile drive. I filled him in, he told me about the drive. This was surreal time: a civilised unreality. We chatted and waited to be pronounced fully dilated. I couldn’t believe that i would be pushing a baby out today. I could no longer make a connection between myself and the images of childbirth which I’d only a short time ago been enacting.

The midwife eventually told me it was time to try pushing. I could still feel contractions, but they weren’t painful, so I sat on the bed with my legs up to either side of me and pushed with the sensations. And pushed. And pushed. Nothing seemed to be happening. The attending staff said they thought the contractions were not strong enough and they started me on an oxytocin drip to rev things up. The contractions picked up. Rosie was still ok and didn’t seem stressed by the change of pace, but neither did she seem to be moving. We kept going. Still nothing. The obstetrician said that she needed to be born NOW and it was time to assist her with forceps.

Lesson 5: Learn about typical medical interventions and hospital policy before giving birth, so you can have an informed discussion about them if recommended
Many UK hospitals have a policy of intervening if the second stage of labour has gone beyond an hour in a first birth. Rosie’s heartrate was fine, so the decision to go for an assisted birth may or may not have been essential at that moment. Had we been better informed it would have been possible to have some sort of dialogue about why and whether the intervention was needed immediately. Each birth intervention has risks as well as benefits, and you have a right to understand how they apply in your situation. If delay poses no threat to mother and baby, it may make for a better, safer, birth to wait. Having a discussion will at least reassure you that it was absolutely necessary to have something done. Ideally, birth partners would be prepared well for this, because they are not in the middle of giving birth and therefore, are better able to talk through options and try to make your wishes felt. I wish we had been in a position to do this when Rosie was born because I am not totally confident that we needed the forceps. Rosie might have started moving down on her own with a little more time.

I was laid down and my legs put in stirrups. The obstetrician gave Rosie a little tug with the forceps, then retreated. I was prepared for an episiotomy so they could get better access. By now there were several people gathered around my nethers and it seemed that, to them, everything from the waist up ceased to exist, including my husband who was standing by my head. Because of this lack of dialogue and my muddled mental state, I did not communicate to anyone my perspective on what was happening. The contractions were quite violent. Though I felt only a subdued pain, they must have been huge, moved up a notch or 5 by the oxytocin drip. I suddenly felt pressure, as if I needed a big poo. On some level, I realised this was Rosie moving down, but this was still a bit too abstract, and I was more concentrated on getting the whole thing over and done with. I pushed as hard as I could and felt her budge. Her head shot out of me. My husband remembers the collective expression of surprise on the hospital staff’s faces, followed by a flurry of activity as she turned and exited my body.

Lesson 6: Try to communicate
Communication is something which I have found tricky during both my births and this is a well documented part of the natural labour state. The huge dose of drugs I had had may well have been more to blame the first time round. If I had said that I could feel something, the birth attendants might have been able to help me clarify what was happening and to better control the birth of my daughter’s head.

The good, nay wonderful news at this point was that Rosie was born and pronounced in good health. She was only 2.4 kg, but otherwise there were no concerns. Every cliche about holding your baby for the first time was true. We admired the miraculous child we had produced, while I was given a shot to move along the third stage. We managed a first, brief, breastfeed. Wonderful!

The bad news was that I had a third degree tear. I was given a spinal block and taken off to surgery, while my shellshocked husband cuddled up with Rosie. The stitching up took a long time, but it went well. I was totally out of it at this point and exhausted. I was wheeled to a recovery ward and reunited with husband, daughter, mum and dad. I was so glad to see everyone again and to have another cuddle with Rosie.

After this, I don’t remember anything until waking up after everyone had gone home for the night, which makes me sad. I can see that I was ‘awake’ at some points from the truly horrendous photos but it’s just a blank. That night I remember staring at Rosie as she slept, chatting to the midwives while trying and failing to breast feed. Someone brought me a cup of tea. Finally!

Lesson 7: Drugs do not necessarily lead to ‘pain free’ ease
I don’t know how things would have gone if I hadn’t opted for an epidural with Rosie’s birth. Third and fourth degree tears happen with natural births too, albeit less frequently. There were other factors like it being my first birth, and not having Husband around from the beginning, which complicated things. However, looking at statistics, I would have been less likely to sustain serious damage had I not opted for this kind of pain relief. I do believe that epidurals are a blessing in some cases. In this particular instance though, I suspect that having drugs did complicate a straightforward birth. Had I been up and moving during labour gravity would have assisted more, and my contractions may not have lost their momentum so much. Things would probably have progressed more quickly and I would have been a bit more with it. Ironically, the epidural had given me a sense of control, but actually removed my ability to birth Rosie’s head with control. Luck also plays a part in these things, so I’ll never know for sure how things might have gone.

With hindsight, a nasty perineal tear and longer recovery time, wasn’t the best trade off for a bit of pain relief during labour, and left me with greater sense of doubt and fear when it came to my next birth. I know plenty of people have uncomplicated, positive births using this intervention. So, I would not discourage people from making use of the epidural option where necessary, but I think it should be used advisedly rather than automatically. Fear of what is to come is not the best reason to have one and neither is the illusion of control.

In the morning, another midwife came and removed my catheter, helped me to sit up, then I could finally wash and have something to eat. I wasn’t in much pain thanks to ibuprofen, but still was at a bit of a loss to understand what had happened the day before. A doctor appeared at some point and told me I had had a 3rd degree tear. She gave me a leaflet to read. Really, this was just part of the blur of tests and visits from various staff in between more frustrating attempts to breastfeed. I didn’t have time to digest any information until much later, and by then I just wanted to forget about birth and focus on my little girl. After three days i was pronounced fit to leave, but we stayed an extra two days to get extra support with breastfeeding. Learning to breastfeed was a much bigger deal at the time and I am pleased to say that we did get there in the end and Rosie breastfed for 11 months.

So, overall, this birth and the immediate postpartum period was a real rollercoaster with definite highs and lows. Reading other people’s accounts leads me to believe this is quite a common experience the first time, as there is so much that is new. Any negative feelings I had were eclipsed by the absolute joy of meeting Rosie and becoming a mother. It was a mad, special time, and I have a lot of happy memories to offset the difficult moments. I knew, though, that I wanted my next birth to be different, so I took forward all these lessons when Sam was born. See part 2.