[Now full disclosure before we dive in to part 2 of Han's story (you can read Part 1 here), Han is married to my brother, she is my best friend and to add to the existing in each other's pockets nature of our relationship she also lives next door to me. All of this meant I was right next door as she gave birth, and through our thin walls I could hear the pool being blown up, and as things progressed the beautiful moans, growls and roars that so many birthing women make, coming from their dining room. To me those noises are amazing - they tell us when birth is getting close, they help her navigate the sensations she is presented with. Read on for a beautiful re-telling of the day Auden joined the family (Ray).]
I can confirm that starting labour with a celebratory chippy tea and Prosecco is a wonderful way to begin the most truly epic work you’ll ever undertake. We returned home feeling calm and excited and Dave put Frankie, our 5 year old, to sleep. I wanted to keep oxytocin flowing, and prevent my body going into ‘high alert’ sogot I got in to bed and watched some Gilmore Girls (my pregnancy/new born days guilty pleasure) during which I was breathing through my rapidly increasing surges.
In between reassuring and holding me, Dave bustled about; tidying, lighting the fire and candles and blowing the pool up. A storm had picked up outside sending gusts of wind howling down the chimney and sneaking in through the gaps in the floor boards. But it felt wonderful to be cocooned inside our home in our candle lit 'birth cave’, curtains drawn against the squall. Around 9 pm I began to slowly shut down to the outside world, and go within myself. I leaned on the kitchen counter and moaned and hummed through the surges. I then moved into the lounge and laboured in front of the fire whilst leaning on the sofa. I felt relaxed and in control. Dave was secretly timing them and started talking about calling Lucy, my doula and Sue, my midwife. I wasn't convinced things had progressed enough but he informed me the surges were 2 minutes apart and lasting a minute and a half. Lucy arrived around 11 and Sue around midnight. She took one look at me, and called the second midwife. It looked like birth was imminent with the regularity and strength of my surges. It certainly felt intense but I had a niggling feeling that something wasn’t quite right and that I still had some way to go. As it turned out I was right, and in it for the long slog.
My surges continued every 1 or 2 minutes or faster, and growing in strength for the following 9 hours. Yikes.
There was enough of a gap between surges for me to catch my breath and steady myself for the next one; and a definite predictable rhythm (unlike last time where I think my panic made them disordered) but not enough to process any of it, rest or even sit. I kept needing the toilet, and found that I wanted to be private too. Consequently I found myself most comfortable labouring in the bathroom with Dave and a single lit candle, watching the silhouettes of the trees thrashing around in the storm outside.
Here's the things that supported my labour:
• Breathing. Rather than focussing on the physical sensations of labour, I focussed on keeping my breathing regular, humming, and a breathy 'ahhh' noise, depending on the strength of the surge.
• My labour ‘dance’; standing and swaying my hips in a sort of figure of 8.
• Pressure and constant rubbing on my lower back. Sue, Dave and Lucy all took turns, but Dave mostly bore the brunt of the arm ache afterwards.
• Smiling right into the face of each contraction. Sometimes I’d see a contraction building as a sort of menacing sentient thing, and I’d remind myself to breathe and hum, experience its grip on my body fade, then laugh in it’s face as it cowered.
• Using laughing as a sort of vocal technique helped to keep my face relaxed and body calm. (sounds odd but it worked!)
• My Suzy Ashworth birth affirmations which ended up being on repeat for 9 hours- my poor birth team! I zoned In and out of them but it felt calming to constantly reassure myself that I was calm, confident and safe. That my baby knew what it was doing. That my surges could not be bigger than me because because they were me. That I could do this.
• My doula, Lucy. I got a lot of strength simply knowing that she, and all she represented, was there. Her presence reminded me of all the fears we had picked apart, and the demons we slayed together. She reminded me of the confidence I had built in myself and my body. At a more bodily level, she brought snacks and water and kept the pool warm. She placed a cool flannel on me when I needed grounding in the last hour. She tidied up, fetched things we needed (often without us even having to mention it) replaced the candles and stoked the fire, all of which meant Dave could stay with me, and my birth cave still felt cosy and welcoming. She also ensured my desire to be alone was honoured by my midwives as much as safely possible.
My mindset preparation with Ray and Lucy clearly paid off. With those things my intense back labour was genuinely manageable for 90% of the time. I was focussed within, in my zone, eyes closed, riding the waves. Bear in mind my baby was (unbeknownst to me at this point) back to back which is supposed to be more painful and I thought I had a low tolerance for pain. Huh.
The wild last hour
I had deliberately not wanted to know the time or how far along I was; I just went on riding my surges. But I began to feel tired around the same time I noticed it was getting light outside. How could I have been labouring so intensely for so long?! The birth my midwife thought was imminent given the strength of my surges was still not happening 9 hours later. Sue gently informed me that she would need to leave soon to sleep which I really wanted to avoid. The second midwife had already left because it still hadn't happened. I felt exhausted and was losing heart. I was at a crossroads and decided to be checked to see how dilated I was; Sue would stay if I was close but would need to leave if I wasn't far along. I was 7 cm’s dilated, Sue said she'd stay (hurray!) and also informed me that my baby was back to back (oh no!). My world rocked around me. I- with my low pain tolerance- was calmly birthing at home with a back to back baby. Whoa.
This explained the fast contractions vs slow progress, constant toilet trips and agonising lower back. I had a little panic but I gave myself a talking too. I reminded myself of the journey i’d taken, and the confident, calm mindset I had slowly pieced together for myself. I would just keep riding it. My baby was close now and there was no way I was going to hospital. I set my jaw, took a deep breath, and readied myself to carry on.
My waters broke during this check and when the next surge came, it came like sudden thunder. I climbed back in the pool and what I now know as transition, hit. Really fucking hard. It took only one hour from the point my waters broke at 7cm to him coming out so it was fast, plus he came out facing the right way up which means he did all his turning in that last hour. Ouch. It felt like my pelvis was trying to break free of my spine. My breathy 'ahhh's became shouts and the surges were much longer too. I remember saying 'whoooaaaa' through one of them and asking 'what was THAT?!' afterwards. There wasn't time for an answer before another thunderous surge hit. I felt like I’d transported to another place, alone; it was frightening and actually quite trippy. My body entirely took over. It raged and thundered, clenched and shuddered, screamed and roared. I panicked. I remembered some advice from a friend who wished she’d asked for gas and air at her home birth, and I promptly asked for it. (a detour from birth plan A). This helped me to stop the panic, control my breathing again and took the edge off the pain. I needed Dave to rub my back really hard, constantly. Lucy repeatedly placed a cool flannel on my face and neck, whilst Sue sat close, held my hand, and reminded me to relax my face and breathe. Lucy and Dave's hands on my body and Sue's voice pierced the fog to reach 'the place' I was in, in an eerily disembodied way. I remember saying to them 'don't stop!’I was so grateful for those gentle touches and words that led me back in the room, back to reality: I wasn't alone. I was loved and supported. I could do this. This was normal. Everything was ok.
I am still amazed at the unknown and involuntary strength I experienced in my own body. I suddenly began to bear down; the most overwhelming and powerful instinct. I didn't push at any point. My 'aahhh's were ending in low guttural growling sounds that emerged from a part of me I didn't know existed. I felt my baby slowly descend through my birth canal, crown and emerge. (I felt that! I mean, whoa!) When Sue told me to stop and breathe his head out, I was miraculously somehow able to stop that powerful bearing down instinct, and do it. It's one of the proudest, most defining moments of my life. My baby came out in two enormous surges whilst I was on my hands and knees in the water and I immediately turned, did a bit of birth pool gymnastics to disentangle his cord, and pulled him to my chest in disbelief.
It was OVER! I DID IT! He was HERE!
Dave was sobbing and utterly in awe. I was shaking and crying and babbling 'my baby, my baby, my baby!’ just like I greeted Frankie-Rose. To finally have my slippery wriggly squawking babe on my chest was so very sweet. He was here! He calmed immediately and lay on me with hisbeautiful dark eyes open; blinking and staring at his new world. (Here! He was here!)
If I was indeed somewhere else during that wild last hour, then I returned a different woman. I had managed to birth my baby at home, free from intervention. In those moments I was triumphant. Fearless. Free of demons.
After an hour and a half of fruitless pushing I opted to have the injection to birth my placenta which gave immediate relief. Lucy wrapped us up in blankets on the sofa and brought me tea and some fresh mango (divine!) whilst my baby- whom we later named Auden- and I breastfed and snuggled, and I basked in the glow of my newfound strength and the sweet relief of it being over.
Frankie was heart-rendingly sweet when meeting her brother; 'Hi baby, this is your big sister. I talked to you in mummy's tummy!' It felt incredibly luxurious to climb into our freshly made bed with my whole family shortly afterwards where we just looked and looked at our baby. I remember us all wallowing in our duvet; me taking turns breathing each of my children in, in a decidedly feline way; body almost vibrating with oxytocin and love hormones. Blessedly, Lucy cleared up downstairs, put the pool away, prepared my placenta and brought us food- meaning our house felt peaceful, clean and tidy.
Lots of people who have home births talk about feeling invincible afterwards but I didn't. I felt glowy, triumphant, relieved and so glad to hold my baby, but I was bone weary. My labour, by all accounts, was hard. I also initially felt disappointed about that last hour of my labour. I didn't expect it’s wildness or pain. I thought I had really lost control, but my team told me I held it together ‘beautifully' considering the back to back labour, and even smiled and laughed through some of the last surges too. They talked of feeling honoured to witness me, which stupefied me initially, how could THAT be an honour?! But I now see that it was. It just felt so much more intense, so much more animal, than I anticipated it would.
It felt like I was somewhere else, maybe even someone else for that last hour, like I journeyed into some primal female place to bring forth my baby. I didn't know I could make noises that sounded like that, or that my body was capable of such involuntary strength. Now I've had time to debrief and process it all I actually feel honoured that I experienced it. Like my midwife later said, there is always an element of wildness, of loss of control in birthing, and that’s what makes birth the raw, beautiful, life changing thing that it is. I tapped into the same primal mammalian instinct that millions of women have tapped into before me. In my lack of control I was actually my strongest, my most profound womanly self.
The day my second baby was born was the most surreal, exhausting, transcendent day of my life.