I’ve shared my positive home birth story for my daughter but have yet to share my not so great birth story for my son, which ended in a category 1 emergency Cesarean section. So here it is – it’s really long, I guess I’m still processing this four and a half years later…
First I want to say that I firmly believe in the importance of sharing positive birth stories and sharing negative birth experiences responsibly. As women, we are hounded by dramatic birth scenes on TV and other women often share their horror stories, almost as a method of coming to terms with what happened to them. This creates fear, fear in birth causes more pain and this causes labour to be harder, labours to stall and more horror stories to abound. It becomes a never ending cycle.
Now my first birth with my son is one from which I suffered birth trauma. I made some poor choices that I now regret. I feel I was let down by our birth system. It was my experiences with this birth that led me to home birth and have such a great experience second time around. So whilst this birth story does feel a bit negative and might be scary – please go read my second experience and see how different things can be! Birth should not be as follows…
First things first I was not ready for my first pregnancy or child. Papa Ginge delights in telling people about how upon finding out that I was pregnant, I unromantically threw the pregnancy test at him and shouted ‘we’ve got a fucking problem’ and then later burst into tears. Not the stuff of rom-com movies, but the stuff of real life.
I wanted the baby but I was so afraid of what it would mean for us. Now we had our own house, we were financially secure. We weren’t (and aren’t) married but neither of us gives a toss about that. I was just scared of what it meant for us. We lived a life of parties, meals out and gallivanting. How would we manage child care and work? Would I like having a child? What if I didn’t love it? I wasn’t maternal in the slightest. I found most children highly irritating. I was a bit of a prat to be honest. So I was paralysed by fear and remained so until everything in the birth went wrong and the obstetrician said to me ‘we’ve got to get this baby out now’. Only when it felt like everything I had gone through might be for nothing did I realise how much I wanted my baby – and I had been labouring for 17 hours by that point! Crazy, I know.
Why is that an important prelude to my birth story? Well anyone who has read the fantastic Ina May Gaskin knows – if a woman has a lot of unresolved issues then her body can stall labour while you get your shit together. I think I should have got my shit together way before labour day. I was ignorant to the birth community back then and wish I had known to get a doula or to work through my fears somehow. I wasted my whole pregnancy feeling stressed and scared when I should have been enjoying my only pregnancy where I didn’t have other kids to care for too. Additionally, I felt like my mind was over capacity already, so I didn’t feel like I had much mental room left for planning for the birth. I did a bit of birth reading and felt like I was reasonably informed about birth compared to other people I knew but really I was clueless. A large part of my knowledge came from watching One Born Every Minute. A programme I now see as bloody terrible at portraying normal physiological birth. I knew about 1% of what I know now. You know better, you do better I guess. I did the best I could at the time and I have to accept that and live with that – forever.
‘Overdue’ and ‘sweeps’
I got to 41 weeks pregnant and accepted my first intervention – a sweep. Mistake one. No real harm was done but over the next week I had further 3 sweeps that achieved nothing other than get my hopes up and give me cramps. In hindsight I wish I hadn’t bothered (and why I refused them the second time around). By 42 weeks all I thought about was when would it happen, with the threat of induction looming over me like a dark cloud. I had my ‘show’ on the Monday but again, nothing really happened. I was 42 weeks on the Thursday and they wanted me in on the Wednesday night for assessment to induce me Thursday morning because I was ‘post-dates’.
I have two regrets in life, knocking my front teeth out on the pavement drunk when I was 17 and agreeing to this induction. I knew I could refuse induction (which sadly many women do not) but I was scared. The guidelines made it sound like my baby would die if I didn’t do it. I didn’t have a full understanding of the risks, or the variations in the approaches that could be taken (like expectant monitoring which can be done safely).
We went in at 9pm on the Wednesday night for assessment to do the Bishops Score and see whether I could have my waters broken in the morning or whether I would have the pessary overnight. What kind of time is that for a pregnant woman to be assessed?! What a crap procedure. They couldn’t find my notes and I didn’t get assessed for a couple of hours which irritated me greatly. Particularly because I was anxious about the results and scared of labour – would I be getting the pessary now? Was it about to start? I was checked and was dilated 3cms and therefore could go home and come back at 7am to get my waters broken. But then while on the ‘trace’ machine, the baby’s heart rate became super high. I told them he just went crazy active every night (still doesn’t sleep through at almost 5, my little night owl) but they said I would have to stay and be monitored through the night.
Papa Ginge was sent home and I felt very sad and alone without him. Back then I didn’t understand that I was the boss who could choose to do whatever I wanted to do. Now, I would have said I’ll be going home thanks very much but back then I settled down for the night reading Harry Potter on the very noisy postnatal ward full of buzzers going off and babies crying. Is that how much babies cry?! Jesus this is going to be awful I thought. I was due another go on the trace machine at 2.30am. I barely slept between the checks, trace etc. The trace showed his heart rate was back to normal (surprise surprise).
After approximately a minutes sleep, I was woke to go to delivery ward to get my waters broken. Not in the best shape to begin labour whatsoever! I was also given hospital toast and a cup of tea. As you may know hospital toast is THE best toast in the entire world. Gordon Ramsey couldn’t make better. I think they use the tears of happiness collected from births in the spread or some shit. It’s great. The only thing I missed with my home birth.
Papa Ginge returned and I had my waters broken with what looked like a big crocheting hook. It was a little uncomfortable but nothing crazy. My mam arrived and I bounced on my birth ball trying to block everything out and get me going. I felt afraid of what was to come. Not good – you should feel ready for birth, not afraid. My second birth I never felt scared, I was ready and owned it. I guess that’s another draw-back of induction, you just aren’t in the right frame of mind; your mind is ahead of your body. I was getting mild contractions but nothing crazy. After 2 hours they did a vaginal check and I hadn’t progressed so it was decided I would be put on syntocinon or THE DRIP (of doom).
Firstly, who the hell progresses after only 2 hours?! Those birthing wonder women but not me. From 2 births I now know that I birth like a turtle trying to run. It takes me days, no exageration, and it’s meant to. I should not be rushed in labour because I’ve come to learn that my babies start labour posterior and need time to move into an optimal position for birth. It’s at this point I could go back and shake myself and shake the midwife, because I asked her to go and check again with the consultant to see ‘if I HAD to go on the drip’. I explained how I really didn’t want to. At this point the midwife should have told me that I didn’t HAVE to do anything that I didn’t want to because I was the goddamn boss and in the UK the birthing mother’s choice is queen.
I am allowed
Ladies let me say it loud and clear, when it comes to birth there is no ALLOWED or LET or CAN’T. It is your legal right to choose and informed consent reigns supreme. At this point in my birth I was denied informed consent, which regularly happens to women. This has to change. Why do we stand for it? In no other area of medicine do we feel we have no choice. Imagine a doctor telling you that you had to have your arm removed immediately. You wouldn’t feel like you just had to agree on the spot with no further information or taking a minute to think. I don’t know why in a time that we are our most powerful do we give up that power willingly (mostly to male consultants I might add)?! Take back your power ladies! Please read AIMS Am I Allowed for more on the topic of consent in birth.
So the midwife came back and told me that yes, I HAD to go on the drip now (bull-shit). With my hindsight hat on I wish I had said, actually I will wait another few hours and reassess thank you but I meekly and mildly gave up on my dreams of a ‘natural’ water birth and after a few botched jobs of getting an IV in, was put on ‘the drip’. The contractions ramped up rapidly. In fact, I was over-contracting almost from the start but they continued to increase the dosage regardless – something that would result in me needing a c-section later due to my son getting deprived of oxygen from no breaks in contractions. Over-contracting is one of the side effects of syntocinon.
It was December 22nd and the midwives were hectic. They apologised repeatedly for being so busy and barely being in the room. I had 3 different midwives across my Labour, all of whom I had never met before and zero continuity of care. The first encouraged me to start gas and air before I really needed it, then the second told me off for using it too soon. I felt like a small child at school constantly told what to do and that I wasn’t doing it ‘right’.
It didn’t take long for the contractions to become unbearable and I decided to have diamorphine, also a mistake. It took the edge off but it also made me drugged up and hazy. I could not get into a ‘birthing vibe’ (not that I really knew what one was back then). Even with the diamorphine and gas and air the contractions were beyond painful. It wasn’t just more painful than anything I had experienced before, it was more painful than my mind could have ever conceived. I know now that it shouldn’t have felt like that. It was not like that with my second birth but this is common with syntocinon induced labours.
I had lots of wires attached to me and tubes from the machine monitoring me because of the drip and the drip itself. I was finding it difficult to move around easily and stay mobile. Every time I moved the monitor lost its contact and started to alarm. I needed to keep running to the toilet. I felt much more comfortable sat on the toilet. I now know this is because the baby was posterior and this is a good birthing position for back to back babies. The midwives weren’t happy with me being on the toilet though and kept telling me to get back to the bed. It felt like they weren’t listening to me and cared more about the monitors than me.
My contractions were on top of each other from the start of the drip to the end. There was no let up. My mam was trying to support me and wanted to have a drink of water but she couldn’t even get across the small room to her glass in time between the contractions. It was relentless. I was definitely fighting the contractions and trying to get through them instead of embracing them and welcoming them in like I did in my second birth. I didn’t expect to feel the contractions in my thighs so much, I could barely stand.
When they broke my waters at 8am I was 3cm dilated. 9 hours later, after contracting painfully and constantly all day I was 6cm. Then another 4 hours later I was still 6cm. I found this devastating. I had worked so hard and endured so much pain for what felt like no progress. I did not know then (and nor did the midwives reassure me) that vaginal checks mean NOTHING. They tell you what has happened, not what will happen. I had no idea that you could go from 0-10 in a few minutes. I thought that I would have an immeasurable amount of time left and wouldn’t be able to cope once the drugs ran out. I refused vaginal checks because of this in my next birth and I much preferred that! I instinctively knew where I was in labour and was able to trust my body and instincts.
I was allowed 2 lots of diamorphine 4 hours apart and became obsessed about what I would do when they ran out. I didn’t want an epidural but thought if THIS is how painful it is WITH drugs then how painful would it be without. In hindsight I don’t think the drugs were helping me very much. The midwives kept turning the drip down then up then a shift would change and the new midwife would have a different approach to the drip. Each time it was turned up it got harder and harder. At one point the midwife tried to turn the drip up again and I stopped her and said if you turn that drip up again I will die. And I genuinely thought it to be the case. Not in a dramatic over the top way but in a practical matter of fact way. I could not take anymore.
I was told because my waters had been broken that I was ‘against the clock’ and it would be a c-section at 24 hours. Man I wish I knew then what I know now because I would have said, no, if the baby’s and my stats are good then we will continue to labour thank you very much but instead I felt I had to get the epidural so we could ‘whack the drip up’ and get the baby out vaginally before the 24 hours were up. Such a stressful and harassed way to birth. It’s no wonder it went tits up. At 9pm I had the epidural. I didn’t feel the needle go in at all. The pain of that was non-existent to the pain of the contractions.
The epidural took me from intense pain to sometimes not even registering when a contraction was happening. Then they turned the drip up to 20. Now that I have my birth notes I question why this plan was followed. It is clear, even to a layman’s eye that I was experiencing the side effects of syntocinon listed on the drugs instructions when they first put me on the drip. You can see decelerations of my son’s heartbeat on my chart for the first time shortly after it was first administered. This happened throughout the day and when the drip was turned up to 20 he became in real distress. Poor mite wasn’t getting a break from my powerful contractions and his heart rate was plummeting.
‘We’ve got to get this baby out now!’
At this point my sister was in the room with me. Bless her heart – she had been waiting in the canteen since breakfast with my dad and her nursing 3 month old because they couldn’t bear to not be there. My mam and Papa Ginge had gone to the canteen to get something to eat. The monitors started beeping and I was very blasé about it as it had been happening all day. I assumed it was nothing but we buzzed for the midwife (see, rarely a midwife in the room with me, why have a midwife when you can rely on a machine eh?!). Soon after this lots of people came in the room and it got very busy. They told me I would be put in stirrups to take some blood from the baby’s head to check his oxygen levels. I was put in the stirrups and told I was 8cm dilated now. A big gush of blood and fluids shot out of me onto the floor when the obstetrician was doing something and she jumped back and looked very worried. My mam and I are still puzzled by what happened here and haven’t figured it out despite asking a few times. There was a problem with the machine calibrating so we had to wait a while. Just what you want in an emergency.
They did two tests, the baby’s oxygen was low on the first and dropped further by the second. I was told that his oxygen levels were plummeting and the words ‘we’ve got to get this baby out now’ were stated. My world span on its axis. I thought I was going to lose my baby. I thought it was all going to be for nothing. At this precise moment I realised how much I wanted my child. Took a bit of a drama for me to get there eh?! Then the obstetrician said the most ridiculous thing to me ever ‘do you trust me to safely deliver your baby?’. Well I don’t know lady who I literally just met but wtf is the alternative?! Just leave him in there to die?
We were told that Papa Ginge would follow me in and I was wheeled along the corridor with the midwife next to me. I remember seeing the operating theatre on our hospital tour and commenting how scary and clinical it was. Being laid there on a bed naked bar my Leeds Festival t-shirt around my neck surrounded by a hectic team of medical staff all doing things to me without telling me what they were doing or asking me if it was ok was the most horrific and terrifying experience of my life.
Someone was pressing on my legs and asking if I could feel it, I could. Another man was asking if I had any dental work in my mouth. I was so scared. A mask was put over my mouth and nose while someone was putting something into my arm. I was telling them I wasn’t ready yet, we needed to wait for my partner. They said he wasn’t coming in. I was fraught, and trying to explain they said he could and telling the midwife to help me. She told them that they said he could come in. They told her that the epidural wasn’t working properly (I couldn’t feel any pain anymore so who knows what one that works properly does!) and I needed to have a general anaesthetic so he couldn’t come in.
Now would someone like to explain to me why a general means that women can’t have their partners with them? It would have made the world of difference to me to have him there – for support for me and also, so one of us was there when our son was born. Neither of us heard his first cry, saw what he looked like when he came out. I had always harboured a secret tiny worry in the back of my mind that we wouldn’t know if he was ours or not if there had been a mix up (its ok now though as we saw my daughter come out and she’s his doppelgänger).
I know it’s a bit of a gore fest in there and they are moving quickly but this is the biggest ever life event someone experiences, it has a life changing impact on families – surely a compromise can be reached?! I would definitely have experienced less birth trauma had I not gone through the most traumatic experience of my life alone, if I had known I had someone who knew all my wishes and who would advocate with my interests at heart while I was you know, naked, cut open and unconscious! If the system was fixed and we had continuity of care and a midwife who the birthing woman knew and had a relationship with that would also work.
So after being devastated that Mark couldn’t come in with me I looked at the midwife and saw the sympathy in her eyes, she held my hand and told me she wouldn’t leave me. That made me feel better and I will always be grateful to her for that small kind act. Then everything went black. I remember opening my eyes and seeing the midwife by my side, where she promised me she would be. She said ‘you’ve had your baby’ and I replied ‘have I? Where is he? Give him to me.’ Which she did. I’ve no idea how long he had been born for and how long I had been unconscious. My son was born at close to 1am on the Friday morning. I was wheeled through into the room where my partner and mother waited for me, with my baby son on my chest.
Unbeknownst to me my mam and partner had been going through their own trauma while I was being operated on, no one had gone back and told my partner that he could no longer come in so they were waiting and crying in each other’s arms thinking the worst had happened. It was a mistake on the part of the staff who had obviously forgotten but it had a huge impact on my partner who was really upset whenever he remembered it over the coming weeks.
Recovery room with my baby
Once back in the room it was a bit of a blur. By this time I had laboured for 17 hours, had gas and air, diamorphine twice, a general anaesthetic and been catheterised twice. The tubes in my hands were getting in the way of me nursing so I demanded they be removed. I wanted to nurse as soon as possible. The staff were too busy and in and out but they let my sister and dad in the room and my sister helped me get my baby latched for the first time and showed my partner how to help me going forward. I’ll always be indebted to her staying in that canteen with her 3 month old and helping me in such an intimate way like that. Without it, I may not have successfully nursed my son as the staff were not quick in coming to help me.
It was the middle of the night so we stayed in the delivery room. I had these mechanical tube things on my legs that kept inflating and deflating which made it hard to sleep. Arlo just laid and stayed at us in the see through cot. We thought what a good baby but he was just clearly off his face on drugs bless him. In the morning someone was sent in to help me clean up and go upstairs to the post natal ward. Here I got some pretty rubbish treatment. The woman who came didn’t help me clean up but she did give me stuff so I could clean myself up. When I stood up to attempt this a lot of blood came out of me onto the floor and I said I thought I was going to faint and was told to ‘hold on a minute, I’m busy with this’. Which is super helpful when you are about to faint. Fortunately my partner helped me instead. Then I went up to the postnatal ward in a wheelchair. A midwife on the postnatal ward was surprised I had come up in a wheelchair and I thought she was being critical because she expected me to walk but she told me that actually most people come up on a bed after the c-section I had.
When I told her about the woman downstairs she told me she thinks she didn’t realise that I had a category one emergency c-section but a normal vaginal birth. Regardless her attitude and treatment of me was unacceptable and still annoys me and my partner to this day. There was a much nicer woman upstairs who asked if I needed help with my shower. I told her I didn’t and went in but then realised I couldn’t bend down far enough to get dressed afterwards. Fortunately she realised this would be the case and gave me a knock on the door to see if I wanted a hand which I gratefully accepted. It’s a hard life when someone you’ve just met has to help you put your knickers on – what a gem she was. I wish the other woman had been like her.
Another thing that I find barbaric about hospital births is the men being sent home afterwards. I was so sad when my partner was sent home and I was left alone, exhausted, traumatised, in a huge amount of pain and looking after a tiny baby for the first time in my life. I just wanted him to stay. The toilet was at the end of the corridor and trying to hobble down there after surgery and go to the toilet (peeing in a bedpan so they could measure my fluids) was a lengthy process and I had to leave my son alone on the ward to do it which was really stressful for me.
All of the private rooms were available so I could have been placed in one of those and he could have stayed but hospital rules were applied rigidly. I know that there are issues with costs for the NHS but where we can be flexible we should. Our women and families deserve better.
An incident that still upsets me now when I think about it was where on the ward, I pulled the curtain around my bed for some privacy while learning to breastfeed. It was visiting times so the woman opposite had her family there and I felt self-conscious as a new mam who had never nursed before. I felt like I need to get my entire breast out to help him latch properly. One midwife kept opening my curtain whenever I closed it and told me off saying closing it was a safety risk because they couldn’t see me easily. Ridiculous. My dignity and wishes were ignored because of that woman. I was at my most vulnerable ever and she made it harder for me than she needed to. I still regret not making some of these complaints to the hospital. How will they know to change and that it’s unacceptable if we don’t let them know.
I hated being on the ward with every fibre of my being. I barely slept that night, while my baby wasn’t too bad the other babies were crying a lot and there were lots of women buzzing the midwives. At one point my son started to choke and vomit up thick black meconium. I panicked and buzzed the midwives, I didn’t know what was happening to him. Apparently it’s really common with c-section babies – I wish someone could have warned me about it so I could have been both prepared and vigilant.
Recovery at home
In the UK you are meant to stay in hospital for 4 days after an emergency c-section but I begged the midwives to discharge me the next day. It was Christmas Eve and I couldn’t bear staying on that ward a second longer. I wanted to go home so I did. I’m not sure I’ve had a full night’s sleep since…
The recovery was pretty rough I’m not going to lie. Any other surgery like this you have bed rest for a long time afterwards but a c–section you have to immediately take care of a newborn – and all I was allowed to take for pain relief was paracetemol and ibuprofen because I was breastfeeding. I would take that for stubbing my toe!
Getting in and out of bed was the hardest. I realised that my bed and sofa were both very low and it was very painful to try and get off them. I don’t think people realise that they cut through your flesh, fat, muscles, and uterus. It hurts. Apparently a category 1 EMCS is the worst for recovery as they take less time doing it. It took them 3 minutes to get Arlo out from making the first incision so you can imagine how that felt afterwards. I spend more time making a brew!
C-sections are NOT the easy option! I needed my partners help to put my knickers and trousers on – oh and those hideous anti-embolism socks that you have to wear for ages afterwards too. I’m sure he thought I was gorgeous. You also have to inject yourself in the stomach every day for a week afterwards after the surgery so you don’t get a blood clot too. I found breastfeeding hard afterwards as holding the baby put pressure on the incision – my brestfriend nursing pillow really helped with that once I bought one.
Recovery long term
I did recover though, now I no longer experience any pain from the scar – although it did take a few years. The incision has caused some ‘pouching’ on one side of my stomach where the incision was stitched oddly. A minor cosmetic inconvenience. Most importantly though it caused no problems with my next pregnancy and birth. I went on to have a hugely positive, empowering and healing natural home birth 3 years later. So learn from my mistakes and take it from me, birth shouldn’t be like this and doesn’t have to be! Your body is not a lemon. You are stronger than you realise. Don’t ever forget how powerful you are. You should be a queen in labour if nowhere else!
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