A card-carrying hippie, I was bursting with ideas about how Sprout’s birth would be. I read the unfortunately-named Grantley Dick-Read’s work on why most women find childbirth excruciating, and how it need not be so. I bought the hypno-birthing books. I practiced deep breathing, and diligently attended pregnancy yoga. I went to the antenatal classes that pushed the drug-free birth agenda, one into which I wholeheartedly bought. I travelled from seeing childbirth as a necessary evil, to actively looking forward to the spiritual experience it would be. I was encouraged to write detailed birth ‘preferences'; mine could be summarised as get the fuck away from me unless there’s a medical necessity. I saw unicorns and rainbows, and heard angels’ voices float gently from undulating cloudscapes.
Three days before Sprout’s ‘due’ date I had a few stomach grumbles during the night, which I attributed to K-man’s poor-quality cooking. At precisely 5.30am the following morning, a gush of fluid woke me up and I found myself reaching in an undignified manner for the incontinence pads and the telephone. Joy of joys, the hospital voice said, I needed to be ‘assessed’. Hospital is a 20 minute drive away in clear traffic.
There is little more frustrating than knowing that you’re about to make a pointless drive through rush hour traffic only to be sent away again. Apparently, I needed to sit in a waiting room for an eternity to have my incontinence pad examined and it confirmed that my waters had indeed broken. Then, I needed to wait again for a woman who looked like she finished school last week to carry out an internal examination and proclaim that I would need to go home and come back later.
At about midday I commenced my unicorn-hunting using soothing music, candles, and dimmed lights. I started using the TENS machine. Things proceeded nicely until about 6pm, when I met the Go To Hospital criteria of three contractions in ten minutes. At hospital I went to triage to wait for a second eternity. Triage was the tenth circle of hell: heated to nuclear temperatures and full of people with non-labour-related baby fears. The TV was tuned to one of those competition shows where the contestants can’t sing and the judges reach for superlatives strong enough to disguise their disgust. Eventually, I was examined in a be-curtained area and told I had made minimal progress but couldn’t leave before seeing the registrar. I should return to triage for a third eternity. Forty minutes later I succumbed to rage and went outside to find out why the hell I wasn’t being seen. After all, as far as I knew I was the only person in triage in actual labour, and I was sick of being stared at.
The registrar revealed himself to be an arrogant nonchalant tool whose evening mission was to give himself something to do by getting me to consent to an immediate hormone drip to ‘speed things up’. Ha! I thought. I’ve read the books and been to the classes. I know what that drip does and I want no part of it. I lobbied to go to the midwife unit, to no avail. My choices were to stay in hospital and accept the drip in the consultant’s unit or to go home. He also kept telling me I wasn’t in labour according to the medical definition, and I kept sitting on my hands so I wouldn’t punch him. I oscillated, until the registrar uttered the fateful words ‘You can leave if you want, but you won’t make it through the night with the pain.’
Well. Well. I politely told him he could shove his opinions about my fortitude up his backside, and left on the condition that I would reappear early the following morning to have the drip. Doctors get twitchy when patients want to colour outside the guidelines, and by morning I would be doing so and my infection risk would double from infinitesimal to extremely unlikely.
And thus began the longest night I’ve ever experienced. Neither K-man or I could sleep, and I had a shower at 3am. The warm water was revolutionary pain relief and so I made Stupid Decision Number One: why not have a bath! The bath was so blissful that I saw a unicorn, and my contractions virtually stopped. A fourth eternity later, we went back to the hospital.
By this time I was 3cm dilated so now suddenly it was my ‘choice‘ whether to have the drip. Hello? Everything that happens to me is my choice, unless you wish to be prosecuted for assaulting me. Obviously, I pointed out, I didn’t want the drip in the first place so if I could just stay here and quietly birth my baby in my own time that would be dandy. Can’t you see the rainbow?
A fifth eternity later I was deemed to have made ‘inadequate progress’ despite some fairly serious pain – with which I coped using paracetamol, gas and air and the TENS cranked up to 11 – and a few splurts of blood. I was ‘strongly advised’ to consent to the drip and finally, beaten down, I agreed.
Did I want the epidural? The midwife asked. Hell no, I said, because I am stubborn as a mule and was confident I could butch it out. After all, how much worse could it get?
Somewhere in the ether, a unicorn snorted derisively in my direction and the words Stupid Decision Number Two were written in rainbow colours.
I was attached to the hormone drip, and every physiological monitor known to medical science. There followed six hours of progressively worse agony, a quite spectacular vomiting episode, my causing a chair to look like it had been a prop in a Quentin Tarantino film, and doctors determining there was a problem with Sprout’s heart rate. It was dropping too far and not recovering quickly enough. They thought he was reacting to increases in the hormone drip rate so they turned it off and progress stalled. Anxiety tweaked at the edges of my consciousness.
A few hours later, doctors were satisfied the problem was not the drip, and it was recommenced. This was when all hell broke loose.
I was contracting every minute and a half, sobbing, and telling K-man I thought I might die when I finally accepted that I needed the epidural. Blinded by feelings of massive failure, I mentally hurled the hypno-birthing books and the antenatal teacher against a wall.
The poor anaesthetist. By this time, he had approximately 30 seconds to get the needle into my spine without paralysing me, a flailing tear-stained emotional wreck. Admirably, when I screamed that I needed to move NOW! just as he was about to pierce my skin he merely explained that it was very important that I stay completely still, and was incredibly quick. That’s the first moment I flash back to. He returned later to check on me, and I could have kissed him. The epidural was both magical and extremely freaky.
During my subsequent sleepy state, Sprout’s heart rate continued to cause concern. Every so often I would wake up and enquire whether the baby was OK and I was still contracting. At one point, there was significant midwifery debate about what to do because the heart rate was not OK and the chief midwife leaned into my ear and whispered to me not to worry but she was going to press a button and in ten seconds there would be 15 people in the room.
Yeah, whatever, I thought, and before my brain could articulate anything further I heard the sound of people pelting down the corridor. The door flew open, and someone jammed an oxygen mask over my face asking me to breathe deeply. Panic jolted through me: either Sprout or I was in serious trouble, and neither eventuality was acceptable. That’s the second moment I flash back to.
The crash team quickly realised they were superfluous to requirements: the midwife, frustrated that her requests for a doctor were not being heeded, had done the one thing that guaranteed attendance. I think K-man’s blood pressure is still recovering.
Assorted medical procedures later (the in utero foetal blood sample being particularly memorable) it was determined that Sprout’s oxygen levels were OK and we could all relax. Well, except for me. The obstetrician arrived, and I cannot say enough good things about her. She was calm, reassuring, authoritative, gentle, and expert. She explained that it was now urgent that Sprout be removed from me, and somehow did it without causing alarm (though it probably helps if your patient is exhausted and past caring about her own bodily integrity). I may as well have been holding a sign saying do what you like as long as it’s over soon.
I pushed. The attendants exclaimed that I was good at pushing. Hell, I said, nobody wants this kid out of me faster than I do. A midwife explained that I would be unable to have the natural third stage of labour I preferred. Look at me, I said, I gave up on my preferences hours ago. I’m delightful in a stressful situation.
A total of 47 hours, one hormone drip, one epidural, an episiotomy and some gentle forceps action later Sprout was eased reluctantly into the world. Unicorns and rainbows it was not, and he had the cord wrapped around his neck. 7lb13oz of completely fine, healthy screaming baby entered our world.
I will never be the same again, but it was a small price to pay.