Brave! Crazy! Highly irresponsible! Controversial!
These were the themes of the many responses posted when I published my son’s birth story 15 years ago on a UK mums forum.
So, what was so inflammatory about his birth, my first child, what compelled me to share it, and why would anybody birth their baby in this way?
It was a warm, sunny August morning, even in the far north of England. I had been planning my birth for months- if not years- discovering what positive birth was, refusing anything that let my mind wonder into the “what if’s” and believing in the birth wisdom that had been passed down by the women in my own family.
But now, my baby was 10 long days “late”, even later by my calculations, and I was hot, itchy and fed up.
I woke up to a strange feeling, I couldn’t quite explain. There was excitement, mixed with adrenaline and some “braxton hicks” type contractions going on. I ran myself a bath, added a couple of drops of clary sage and breathed in the strong, energy boosting scent. Just as I did so, a pain seared through my uterus, like being stabbed with a huge knife! I felt the adrenaline rush and my heart start pumping hard as the beginnings of panic set in. No, Rachel! I settled myself. If that was labour I’d have to relax to handle it, and anyway nothing else was happening, perhaps it was a muscle spasm or trapped wind…
So with that I put on my hypnobirthing relaxations there in the bathroom, and breathed. After a while I got out of the bath. I felt emotional, and irritable. I went for a walk around our tiny flat. Anger, frustration and irritation flooded my brain as I stomped around. I still don’t know why! I was feeling contractions that I was all too used to after the trillions of braxton hicks my body had prepared me with. I stamped, marched, sat on the toilet and wondered when ”proper labour” would start. All the movement made me hot, and suddenly I had the urge to fill up the sink with cold water and dip my face in it.
By now it was about 8.30 am. It took a moment to recognise the wet face and wild hair in the mirror above the sink were mine. I sat on the toilet again and heard a growl emerge from somewhere deep within my soul. What was my body doing now? I wasn’t in agony, I didn’t need help, so a quick checklist of my rational brain confirmed that this must be very early stages, if anything.
At some point during the past 2 hours, my then husband had phoned the labour ward to say that he thought labour might be starting. The home birth kit (a huge suitcase full of terrifying objects from the hospital) was already in place in the hallway, and daddy had laid out a couple of plastic shower curtains to protect the cream carpet in the rented flat from any birth related mess. We were ready… baby was just coming gently, taking his time. More growls and then a sudden urge to get off the toilet…
Seconds later, I remember squatting down and watching in amazement as my son’s head was born, turning to face my left thigh, almost frozen in time, waiting for the next surge. His hair was red. I remember laughing! There was no pain. Instinctively I dropped to the ground on my hands and knees. Labour ward was on the phone, but we still had a phone with one of those curly wires, and as daddy dropped it, the receiver bounced into the other room. “The cord” I heard myself say, “loop it off his neck”. Now from my hands and knees position I had no idea my son’s cord was around his neck, but something enabled me to know and as his dad looped the cord loosely over his neck, our son was born straight into his hands.
I turned around to see my baby, startle like a star fish, on the blue towel we had ready to receive him on. He did a huge sneeze, and then his first poo! “Give me the baby” I said and held out my arms to reach for my meconium stained, red haired, loudly wailing, beautiful, perfect son. And there we sat, on the bathroom floor, staring in total amazement at this brand new human.
Though I had made up my mind to free birth my baby (that is to birth without any medical assistance or practitioner present which is a fully legal option in the UK) I just could not, in my wildest dreams, have imagined how peaceful, healing, and yet intensely powerful the experience could be. Until…
A midwife was banging on the door and bustled into the flat bringing with her disbelief and anger at what she saw. “How did this happen?” she demanded to know “oh, and congratulations”. She asked a load of questions, cut the cord (it was thin and white) swaddled the baby, and passed him to daddy. Then she pushed me to the floor and yanked on the cord in attempt to pull out his placenta. Luckily it came away easily, then I was whisked into the bath, baby was kept in the other room where another midwife had come, and I was scrubbed fiercely by the first midwife. Every second without my baby seemed like an eternity even though he was only in the next room. Strangers rummaged through my drawers and dressed him in the most mismatched outfit they could find, completely disregarding the little yellow suit with Simba on it, laid out and ready for the baby. The midwife was rough and rude, making derogatory comments when I refused her offer of stitches… the birth might have been straight forward but a world of pain was engulfing me by that point. All I wanted was to be snuggled in my bed with my baby, and something to eat would have been amazing too!
Once the fuss was over, and I lay cuddled with my son I took a moment to reflect on what had happened. I couldn’t believe how fast everything had happened and how even though I had believed birth could be this way… I also couldn’t believe it.
My longing for a simple, physiological birth had come about primarily from an intense fear of what I perceived labour and childbirth to be. That fear had led me on a quest for truth, to find out how women had ever survived such a terrible ordeal, whether all births more than 100 years ago really did result in mothers dying from the pain- as everyone seemed to say!
I secretly wondered: would triggers from my own past allow me to go through such an intimate event in front of strangers without warranting a panic attack the scale of which would have never been seen on a labour ward before and would have ended in my being sedated by general anaesthesia! Or by me, escaping the hospital setting, all gowned up, being chased by registrars wielding needles full of sedatives behind me!! The way the midwife behaved towards me after the birth further convinced me that could have actually been the case, had I gone into hospital!
Now, I’m not naive, and I had carefully kept my birth plans from anyone who knew me, so as not to be discouraged, or pressured into doing something that I didn’t feel comfortable with. Even after the birth, I was unable to share my experience with other mums for fear of causing upset. I expected an uproar when I decided to share my story on a mainstream forum a few months later, and I was not wrong.
Parents were outraged, and were suggesting that I was irresponsible with my baby’s life! A few used words like “brave” to describe what I had done and yet, I didn’t feel I had been brave at all. In fact in my mind, the idea of entering a hospital to have my child delivered by masked strangers would have required a type of bravery I imagine soldiers have to muster when being tortured in enemy prisons. If, at any point during my labour I had feared for my baby’s life or mine, I would have had to dig deep to find courage like that, and would, of course have handed over our care.
I chose to share my story because I believed there were women out there who felt like me. Women who were told that in hospital we would have no choice but to undergo examinations and monitoring that complied with the policy of the area. That our cervixes would be measured and our bodies expected to birth within a time frame that correlated to that measurement. That we’d be monitored on our backs, and if that caused us pain, we’d be quietened with medicines that took away our dignity and our ability to make decisions.
I chose to share my story because I believed there were women out there who needed to hear that they too, could birth their babies gently, in peace, fully conscious in whatever position they needed.
Controversial though my story may be, I believe it is still as true and relevant today as it was in those days. Women have a right to know what our bodies are truly capable of.
Rachel is a Doula and Hypnobirthing Instructor at Creative Birth, sharing the message that birth can and should be a positive, empowering experience for mothers. Currently on maternity leave with her fourth child and with her two eldest children now teenagers on the autistic spectrum, she has a wealth of experience of parenting and supporting other parents. Her family life has taught her that with the loving support from those around us , our toughest challenges can become our greatest achievements and she is particularly passionate about supporting women who wish to regain confidence is themselves and their bodies.
Seren’s Birth Story really begins with her sister Clara’s, who was born two years earlier by emergency Caesarean section after a classic cascade of interventions; overdue induction, epidural, failure to progress, and ultimately surgery.
After three days and nights lying on my back being constantly monitored; feeling lonely, scared and isolated as my husband wasn’t allowed to stay with me at night; desparately hungry and weak because I'd been advised not to eat or drink… surgery seemed the only option. Through the numbness I felt terribly grateful to the hospital for saving my baby from her failed mother’s body. Yes, I felt I'd failed and I wasn't ready to process my disappointment, or the shock and trauma. I didn't even recognise that it was trauma for some time. It lay buried beneath the joy and relief of finally holding our beautiful baby daughter.
The surgeon found me on the ward afterwards to tell me that 75% of women who have Caesareans go on to give birth naturally - the first time I heard the term VBAC. “Why are you telling me this?” was all I could think. Reeling from major surgery and a mother for a matter of hours, another baby was not on my horizon, let alone her manner of birth.
But her words stayed with me and I became grateful for this snatched 20-second conversation that she had bothered to come back and have with me.
Fast forward a year and a half, and my husband and I are sitting in the hospital coffee shop after our 12 week scan. Seren is officially on the horizon. I am explaining to him with some force - people are looking - that I plan to do things differently this time. That there is no question I’ll be having a Caesarean or coming near this place again. He looks bewildered. His belief was, and to some extent remains, that the doctors saved our baby.
I am surprised myself by the force of my conviction. It is coming from deep inside me.
I get home and start Googling. I found an article about a beautiful home birth helping to heal the scars of a traumatic first birth and I just begin to cry and I don’t stop for some time. This is me beginning to understand. You see, I didn’t even realise I had experienced that hospitalisation as traumatic. It’s something I unpack over the six months that follow.
I throw myself into preparing for this birth in a very different way. I stand my ground when a consultant tells me “It would be safer if all babies were born by Caesarean”, that I am selfishly thinking of my own experience at the expense of my baby’s, and as a parting shot, “Well, I’m the one who sees women coming back with bladder problems in their fifties.” At the time I feel frightened to death that she might be right. She is the expert, isn’t she?
At this point, with terror dominating my experience I discover the work of Charlotte Kanyi whom I'd met recently at a baby signing class. I was inspired by how she birthed her two boys (three at the time of editing!) at home, the second without assistance as he came so fast and booked her Birth Confidence Package to unpick in depth what had gone wrong. She takes me on a deep dive and helps me to acknowledge and clear past experiences and welcome in new ones. I clear the all consuming fear, the trauma, and the underlying imprints and patterns that were actively preventing me from believing in myself and my body. I change my care providers, my birth place and I hire a doula, Jane Jennings. She listens with skill and without judgment to mine and my husbands very differing viewpoints. It helps - we’ve been at loggerheads for weeks with no progress. He now feels heard, and we realise we both want the same thing fundamentally.
On the advice of Charlotte and Jane, I surround myself with positive birth stories. I take up meditation. I read Ina May Gaskin. I eat healthily, borrow a birth pool, and arrange to go to the local midwife-led centre, Serenity, whose hands-off approach I am eternally grateful for.
On Seren’s due date, the day I expected her least, I laboured at home in the pool with the sunlight streaming in through the sunflowers on the table. Jane turned my occipital posterior baby with a Rebozo shawl in under a minute. I felt Seren turn, I could suddenly walk more easily, and the contractions changed. There was a pause while I breastfed my two year old in the pool - she still refers to this with a big smile.
Seren was keen to be born at home - I could feel her head before we embarked on the car journey to the midwife centre. I held her back till we got to Serenity and they filled a pool there. She was born seconds after I stepped in. The cord was wrapped twice around her neck, and was unhooked without drama. We were able to rest at Serenity before journeying home to be reunited with her sister, our now expanded family complete and feeling whole.
Seren’s birth has left me feeling not only healed but empowered. I hear and trust my instincts so much more. I realise that the meditation, breathing and being in the now exercises I used during birth, are vital to me in the daily challenge of parenting a toddler and newborn. I have tools including The NPA Process which I can use whenever I feel out of sorts, blocked or frightened. I feel less scared of dying. Some part of me has understood and confronted a place of inner strength where birth and death happens. This was without question the most wonderful experience of my life and taught me precious life lessons.
It makes me sad beyond words that this opportunity is becoming so hard to come by. As I reflect on why this is. I feel that our medical system is beyond wonderful when birth goes wrong, but it mostly runs on a model of intervention, and sometimes causes the emergencies it solves. I have seen so many women have similar experiences to me resulting in undermining of already fragile confidence; midwives measure bumps big, growth scans follow giving a “diagnosis” of a big baby. The seed of fear is sown, and often the woman is already well on her way to a Caesarean, believing she can’t possibly give birth to such a monster. Often there is much surprise when the enormous baby is born weighing a very average 7lb. Rather than encouragement and positivity at the moment she needs it most, a woman starts to encounter fear and an institution more concerned with covering its back than with helping her bring her baby into the world in the best possible way. “Safety” statistics don't even start to take into consideration effects on mother and baby, PND, delayed trauma, interrupted bonding, lack of transfer of beneficial bacteria and flora, and breastfeeding problems, caused by interfering with the process of birth.
For myself I needed a lot of support and education to overcome the fear and trauma from the first time, and to reassure me that it was safe to ignore the “experts” without being a potential baby murderer. I put a lot of resources into birth preparation, to clear the trauma and the roots of the imprinting and patterns that had led to me experiencing a very disemowering birth where I felt out of control and ignored, isolated and not able to voice my own desires. I also hired a doula. The healing experience of my second child has transformed me in a deep and long lasting way and I wish that all women would take heart and inspiration from this story and find their own inner strength and joyful place.
Zoe Challenor is a mother with many hats. She is also a workshop leader for Welsh National Opera, An Artist in Residence af Ark Schools, Founder and Director Of B'Opera Baby Opera which makes beautiful music for tiny ears.
You can catch up with her on Facebook at Zoe Challenor singing and Alexander Technique and B'opera.