*Please note: this is a very long post. I have agonised over the editing, but I really feel that I need to tell it in it’s entirety. It’s less the documenting of every stage and contraction, more the emotions and impressions that have stayed with me that I want to share. This birth left me with a lot to process over the years, and it reflects what still happens in labour and delivery rooms every day in this country, so the feelings it inspired are important to me. Consider yourself warned 😉
Okay folks, let’s kick off my June series dedicated to all things birth with the birth of my first child, almost nineteen years ago in 1994.
To set the scene for you, I was nineteen, newly married, and on a very long honeymoon smack bang in the middle of a war torn country, in the midst of a harsh Winter. So in other words, an ideal time to be pregnant! We made it back home to our very excited parents and families by the time I was about sixteen weeks. Not that I knew how far along I was because I had had zero ante-natal care. In fact all I did have was one examination to confirm the pregnancy (in a medieval looking
contraption chair with metal stirrups, and keep in mind my age and the fact that I had never had any pelvic exam or pap smear ever. In a word: traumatising.) After which the doctor told me to get the hell out of the country and go back to where I had come from, what did I think I was doing contemplating having a baby there? And contemplating it we were, because if my husband had managed to secure a job as was our intention, our lives would have been very different. Sliding doors and all that…
Anyway, back to Sydney, where I spent the next month playing catch up with blood tests, ultrasounds, and an introduction to the ante-natal clinic. This was the old school type of ANC, where you showed up at a set time then waited around for an average of three hours or so to be seen by a midwife for a total of ten or fifteen minutes. Reading a bunch of very old magazines (or the copy of “American Psycho” I took along 😉 ), listening to all the frustrated toddlers drive their parents insane. Thank God the armchairs were large, old, and very comfy. This was where I was introduced to the work of midwives, and where my respect and admiration for them began.
I took it all in my usual chilled out laid-back way, enjoying the ride and very confidently not worrying about the slightest thing. Ignorance really is bliss, and this was the one pregnancy where I didn’t have a single solitary care in the world. I didn’t bother returning to work since I wouldn’t be there long, had no other children to look after, we had begun the (very long) process of building our first home, and had no financial headaches. It was a happy, carefree little bubble. All I had to do was grow a healthy baby.
What was really growing was me. After gaining only a couple of kilos (about five pounds) while on honeymoon, I sure made up for it when we got home. I reacquainted myself with all the snacks, junk, takeaway and fast food that I hadn’t had access to for the six months we were away. In the first two months at home I gained ten kilos! (Just over twenty pounds). And I was only about six months pregnant. I ballooned big time, and took on very whale-like proportions by the end. When a cousin, very unhelpfully, suggested we go swimming when I was nine months pregnant there was simply no swimsuit on this earth that I could have got over all the lumps and bumps and rolls. I think I ended up wearing a stretched out old leotard with a mens t-shirt over it. You’re welcome for the mental picture.
Naturally as I neared my due date I was well and truly ready to get the show on the road. Very conveniently, my waters broke two days before the actual day. While sleeping at my parents house in my old bed actually. My poor husband was woken by my mum feeling the mattress next to him to determine how wet it was. Probably not the way he expected to wake up. So off we went to the hospital, with instructions to breathe (was I going to forget, I wondered?), and to please call as soon as she has the baby!!!! (Um, yeah, pretty sure we wouldn’t forget to do that either).
Unluckily, all the excitement was a bit premature, because it turned out to be a case of prelabour rupture of the membranes, or PROM. This is where the waters go but are followed by no actual labour. Just lots of time spent being wet and soggy. (Which for some bizarre reason, all my older female relatives called a “dry birth”. Wtf?). I was still chilled out though, and happy to wait for my body to get with the program. But the doctors had other ideas, and after twelve hours of me happily flicking through Rolling Stone magazines and reading all about the tragic death of porn star Savannah, they decided to kick things off. Say hello to what is formally known as induction of labour. (Btw, I have all of my medical notes, which is how I know all the exact details. I have read them A LOT OF TIMES).
And let’s just say that the induction soon wiped the smile off my face. Before long I had the artificial hormones flooding my system, contractions were being increased steadily, and I was fast losing the plot. The IV went in at about 3.30 pm, and by about 7.30 pm I was deranged. No exaggeration. (My hospital notes actually say: “patient very distressed”). Every time a midwife walked in and went over to the IV pump and started touching things I would sob my sorry little heart out and pathetically plead with her to please just leave it the fuck alone. But no. Turn it up they did. I soldiered on (and scared the shit out of my husband), until 11.30 pm, when an exam gave me the rather grim news that I was still only 4 cm dilated. Naturally you quickly do the maths, and think, if it’s taken this long and this much pain to get to 4 cm and I’m not even halfway, how much worse does it have to get before I can push? Unsurprisingly, I went with the epidural.
And promptly fell asleep.
And dilated the next six cm in an hour.
While I slept.
I was very rudely awoken by one midwife holding my (very large) thigh up in the air while another midwife performed an examination to check my progress. Even hearing her say, “no more cervix”, couldn’t take away from the fact that I felt shocked at being woken this way. Your first awareness is someone holding your legs open while someone else examines you? It felt very wrong. It was also finally time to push, so the excitement of that took over everything else.
And push I did. But the epidural made it very difficult. I also didn’t realise at the time that I had a catheter left in place in my spine, and was still getting a fairly large dose of numbing drugs. I was completely and utterly numb from the waist down, and I am pretty sure I could have had surgery without needing any further anaesthetic. So after two hours of pushing they started talking forceps. They also suggested a top up of the epidural since I would need an episiotomy. The one word no woman wants to get to know, and at nineteen it felt like nothing short of mutilation. Any shred of excitement I had felt twenty-four hours earlier evaporated under the surgical lights, the stirrups being set up, and about 64 people being invited in to watch. The gleaming tray of instruments and the forceps themselves wiped from my mind the fact that I was having a baby at all, and my husband looked positively green by this time. He was very helpfully informed he could leave the room if he wanted to, which he did, needing a cigarette badly by now. So that left me with a room full of masked, green-gowned strangers, some shouting at me to push, others shouting at me to hold my breath, while two strange men standing between my far flung legs pulled my son out by his head with metal tongs. Yippee, welcome to the modern hospital birth.
Despite my joy at seeing my son, the baby I had wanted and waited to meet, after an initial glimpse before he was whisked away to be checked out, I remember sitting there thinking, “what the fuck was that?” That was what so many women have endured? That was what I thought I could handle? I have never forgotten the hollow feeling that he could have been produced from anywhere, for how little I felt that I had actually given birth to him. The doctors themselves never said a word to me, the midwives were busy with either the baby, the placenta, or cleaning up. And even when my baby was finally given to me, and my husband invited back into the room, I was shell shocked. Spent. I felt beaten, physically and mentally. I then had to sit patiently through at least half an hour of suturing, with the occasional nurse taking a look and wincing. Yeah, thanks for that. Real nice of you.
To all the obstetricians who perform an episiotomy on a woman so you can get back to bed fifteen minutes earlier: I was only nineteen. I couldn’t sit comfortably for six weeks. I tore that episiotomy scar with every subsequent birth. Having you come and look at it the next day, only to tell me how nasty it looked, was fucking disgraceful.
Through it all I stayed cool, calm and collected. That’s what I do. Keep a chilled out appearance while on the inside I felt shock, horror, and disbelief. I felt almost betrayed, that no-one had truly told me what to expect. Least of all the “What To Expect” type of books. I wanted to do violent things to those books.
Being told that I had a very big baby, with a very big head, was the nugget of information I held onto. I kept reminding myself that he was in fact a very big first baby, 4.23 kgs, or 9 lb 5 oz. And I kept reminding myself that at least I had got the “first birth” out of the way, and that it would surely be easier next time. Please God because I couldn’t go through that again.
What I didn’t understand, what it would take me a decade to learn, was that I never stood a chance. I walked into the hospital thinking I was an individual having her first baby, that the experience would be unique to me. My body, my baby. But I was just another number passing through, a statistic. As soon as I showed up with ruptured membranes and didn’t begin having contractions, the script had already been written. Knowing what I know now, I realise how close I was to having a cesarean section. The clock was ticking, and all the other boxes had been ticked except for that one. (No lie, on the NSW Midwives Data Collection summary almost every box was actually ticked off: PROM, induction, gas & air, epidural, pethidine, and forceps). Knowing what I know now, I should have stayed home.
But at the end of the day it is what it is. I have accepted that, knowing what I knew then, there couldn’t have really been a different outcome. And far from feeling saddened, I was over the moon that I had a healthy baby, lots of support, and a very loving and helpful husband. What I still find difficult to accept is the way some of the staff treated me. It was only a few, and I don’t blame the hospital itself. The nurse who scolded my husband because I was refusing the epidural and asking her to show me other ways to cope. “It’s 1994 not 1894 Mr P, you should tell your wife to just get it already”. She obviously had more important things to do than support a labouring woman, and pushed me into accepting the gas & air as well as pethidine before agreeing to an epidural. The two obstetricians who delivered my son: neither one so much as introduced themselves, addressed me by name, or said anything in parting. They walked in masked and gowned, did their job of delivering a baby and damaging then repairing a perineum, and walked out. I would like to name and shame them so badly, but I won’t because one has passed away and the other is a very popular OB/GYN in this area. The c-section rate at the hospital he now practices at is around 45%. I call him Dr Slice and Dice.
But the most bizarre thing is that as I sit here typing these words, remembering it all, that baby, now a soon-to-be-nineteen-year-old man who towers over me, is making himself lunch and walking around chatting to his brother. I look at his beautiful face (and the head he grew into very nicely), and know all of it was worth it. Every second. The good and the not so good. All of it and so much more. And I marvel that if offered the chance to go back and repeat every little thing, I would.
Thankfully it did in fact get a whole lot better for my subsequent babies.
Although never in a million years did I think I would be back on the same labour ward twelve short months later…
…popping out baby number two a week after my twenty-first birthday.
Til next time,