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.