There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
Waterslides had always been my greatest fear before I had a baby. When I was really little my dad had to bribe me with a packet of jellybeans to get me to go on even the smallest kids’ one. Where I grew up in Queensland, there were two multicoloured twisted waterslides and a very scary almost vertical one nestled on a corner block near the beach. I’d stand up the top alone, holding my rubber mat, goosebumps prickling my skin, watching all the other kids push ahead of me and disappear down the tunnel. I had heard stories of razorblades, of packs of mean boys preying on the younger kids and blocking up the slides with their lanky teenage bodies so everyone would smash together. I would wait until the very end of the day and finally I’d throw myself into it with my eyes closed and just hope I’d make it.
There’s another kind of fear that has grown inside me like a new organ since I became a mum. Of course I have all the obvious ones – fear that I’ll accidentally kill the baby because I don’t know how to look after her properly, that I’ll die, literally, from lack of sleep, that my nipples will break off due to the vicious demands of a tiny, terrible mouth – but the one I wasn’t expecting was a fear about telling other people what my birthing experience was like. Even though I love telling people about everything else that has ever happened to me, this seemed to be in a different realm of sharing. Talking about how my baby got here seemed taboo: as though sharing my experience was somehow rude, boring or judgmental of other women’s experiences, simply by being different from theirs. Who cares about the story of how the baby got here, when the most important thing, as I’d heard so many times during my pregnancy, was that she was healthy?
I’m already looking back on my birth experience fondly, with nostalgia, and it only happened three months ago, but whenever the opportunity to talk about it comes up I sense something unspoken in the air and it freezes me up. Instead of going into the specificity of what happened, I turn it into a bland birth story, a chirpy, comme ci, comme ca sort of, ‘Yup, it happened! And now here’s the baby.’ It’s the worst kind of storytelling, and I feel like I’m betraying my writer’s craft by distilling it like that.
It happened the other day as I sat at home catching up with Amy, the midwife who delivered my daughter. My neighbour, Debra, who I don’t know very well, knocked on the door with her two teenage daughters for a quick visit to meet the baby. Almost immediately she asked me how the birth was and I walked directly into her trap.
‘Oh, it was good!’ I exclaimed, before I saw the look on her face and I immediately started backpedalling. ‘I mean, not good; it was bad. Well, not bad, but hard. Like, obviously it was hard, but it was also really great. I mean, it was definitely horrible. But you know, it was also the best. Well, not the best, but it was okay?’
My midwife didn’t say anything until after they’d left. ‘Why couldn’t you just say it was good?’ I looked at her, guiltily silent. ‘You seemed apologetic about it,’ Amy continued.
My baby needed to be fed, the conversation changed again, but I couldn’t shake the weirdness of what had happened.
Birth stories inherently have all the magic and narrative power of a great story. The arc of giving birth itself is a classic three-act structure: it’s literally defined in terms of first, second and third stage labour. And birth stories have built-in drama. Even before my daughter was born it seemed to me that no matter what might happen to me during the birth, whether it turned out to be traumatic and awful, or long and uneventful, I knew I would want to tell the story of it. No matter what, it was still going to be one of the greatest stories of my life. Of course I would want to tell people about it!
You’d think that birth stories would connect us as humans. We all got here that way, after all. But once I started asking about other women’s experiences, the more I discovered that everyone has been through something very different. Birth stories, rather than connecting us to each other, distance us from each other. They make us realise we are nothing alike at all. And that’s why they’re important: they teach us that we are not the same. For a woman contemplating her own future labour and childbirth experience, I think that knowledge might be really powerful. It might help her look ahead with less dread. It might help her see that her story will be hers alone. It might help her not be scared.
If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.
I hadn’t heard a lot of birth stories before I got pregnant. No one in my family had talked much about childbirth; my sisters between them had had four kids and I never bothered asking them how their kids got here. I assumed they’d been fine; all I really knew, though, was that no one died.
So I started asking when I was pregnant, which was pretty much the worst time ever to be hearing these stories for the first time. I understood that many women had traumatic, awful experiences, and they didn’t want to talk about them. I sometimes felt bad for asking. I felt weird for asking. I felt weird for wanting to know. Most women seemed to conclude their story with the chirpy reassurance of ‘It’s okay, it’s just one day of your life,’ or the familiar, dismissive ‘Healthy baby, that’s all that’s important!’ It was reassuring in a sense, but I also thought giving birth was more important than that. If it was only one day of your life, well, it was a pretty important day that would reverberate for a long time.
I was faintly aware that you had either a natural birth or one that involved ‘interventions’, and the two seemed inveterately opposed to each other. I also thought you could choose which one you wanted. The stories that seemed to be going round, the ones that were most gleefully told, were fear-inducing horror stories, labours that turned unexpectedly awful, which became messy and painful and surgical and required weeks of recovery. The need to tell war stories as therapy is one thing, but I wondered if there were any ‘good’ birth stories, and if so why weren’t those women talking about their experiences too?
I’m not really a scared sort of person usually, so I was shocked by the real fear that kept buzzing around my pregnancy like an annoying fly. I had the common fear of losing the baby before 12 weeks. Then of losing her after 12 weeks. I read a story published in the New Yorker called ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’ by Ariel Levy, of how she lost her baby at 20 weeks when I was around the same time in my pregnancy, and I was thrown into despair. It felt like I would never be in the clear, that I should never not be scared. It became such a permeating thing that I found I could divide the roots of my fear into individual categories, like Trivial Pursuit wedges.
Here’s what these reasons for feeling scared came down to: Arts and Entertainment (how I’d seen birth represented on TV and in movies – in short, it was always dramatic, painful and horrible), History (there must have been a good reason why they used to knock women out completely with chloroform during labour, right?), Science and Nature (how does a baby actually get out?) and even Sports and Leisure (am I fit enough to give birth? Do I have the endurance?) But strangely enough, it was the pink topic, People and Places, that finally released me from my fear. In birth terms this meant: where will I give birth and who will be there to support me? Once my partner Jeremy and I had worked this wedge out, the other wedges didn’t seem to matter anymore.
A few months after we started dating, Jeremy and I went to the water theme park Wet and Wild; traffic was bad and we arrived half an hour before closing time. You don’t drive three hours to Wet and Wild to then not go into Wet and Wild, so we paid the exorbitant entry price anyway and spent twenty-five minutes racing around in hyper-speed, running around going on every ride once. There were no queues because it was so late in the day, the sun was almost down and we ran up the stairs in our bare feet. I was braver now, but I still didn’t want to go on the really steep waterslide. I followed Jeremy and found myself at the top of an almost vertical drop. He went ahead of me without hesitating.
‘Was it okay?’ I called down to him.
‘Come on!’ he yelled.
‘It’s great!’ I didn’t want to do it. The siren was ringing, announcing the closing of the park and I stood there while Jeremy hovered, confused and shivering, at the bottom, then finally I did it. I didn’t have time to think about it once I was on it, inside it. I was at the bottom in five seconds. I stood up wobblingly and held my rubber mat to my chest. I could still hear my heart thumping loudly, but I had made it!
A year later when I was pregnant, I called down to my friends who had been there before me, in labour. ‘Was it okay?’ And the reports from three of my friends came back affirmative. They all had natural births in hospitals. I didn’t know until later how rare that was, how only about one to five per cent of births in hospitals are what childbirth educator Rhea Dempsey calls ‘normal physiological births’: that is, births that are initiated and driven by the natural interplay of the body’s birth hormones, rather than by other interventions.
In alignment with the unspoken rule, they only told me their birth stories because I asked, and as they opened up I could hear their happiness in telling them to me. Their individual stories, the strange twists and turns and details, worked magic on me: they made me less scared. Each woman’s story was so specific to her body and her individual situation. I started to trust what they said, that birth could be good. Or at least, what I began to trust was that every birth was so different. And that was good enough.
Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.
George RR Martin
I used to imagine that women who choose home birth must come to it in a radical way. Perhaps they’d had terrible hospital experiences, or they were rebelling against something, or they came from a family of home birthers. I didn’t know anyone personally who’d ever had one.
Jeremy and I had spent a lot of time thinking about that pink Trivial Pursuit wedge. Everything we’d read suggested that you had the best chance of having a natural, intervention-free birth by making good choices about People and Places. Ninety-seven per cent of births in Australia happen in hospitals, so that’s obviously where I assumed I’d give birth too. But we’d recently moved out to the country and I wasn’t sure about the small, rusty-looking rural hospital near us. Unless I was high-risk, which I wasn’t, I had no other choice of Place, though, because of the zoning rules. So the hospital was chosen for us. Now we just had to find our People.
Jeremy is American, and his upbringing and sensibilities dictated we’d get a specialist, but we didn’t know what kind. Maybe an obstetrician? We both admit to being on the neurotic side of paranoid, and we just wanted the safest option available. We were also clueless about how to go about planning how we’d give birth – the only thing we knew was that we wanted extra support on the day because neither of us had any family in Victoria. And that’s how we discovered the existence of independent midwives.
When Amy came for our introductory appointment at 16 weeks, our dog Levi gravitated to her immediately, curling up next to her like a little fawn. Amy had started her career as a nurse, and had worked in hospital emergency for two years before doing her post-grad in midwifery. She then worked in hospitals – private, public and birth centres – before becoming an independent midwife four years ago.
I instinctively wanted a natural birth, but I often struggled to justify my decision to others. Amy articulated what I was unable to. ‘We wouldn’t be here as a species if birth was inherently flawed,’ Amy said. ‘And that’s what we teach women. I think women believe that birth is inherently flawed, that things are probably going to go wrong, that most women can’t do it. How would we even be here if that was the case?’ I wasn’t trying to be a ‘superwoman’, but I agreed with her; the closest I could come to explaining it to myself was that I wanted to feel and know what my body could do. ‘If you think you can, you’re halfway there,’ said Amy, and that was the most hippie-ish thing I’d ever heard her say.
Because, if I am honest with myself, that was my worst fear about having a home birth: that I would be judged as being some kind of hippie: perhaps an anti-vaccinator or, worse, someone who fire-twirls. But now, halfway through our pregnancy, it was the cold hard statistics, rather than any airy-fairy hippie stuff, that suddenly made the decision easy for Jeremy and me: considering I was a low-risk, normal pregnancy, the safest option for us was to have the baby at home with two qualified, professional midwives.
Once we’d committed to the home birth, I started to relax. I still had fears, but they weren’t left hovering unacknowledged and growing bigger each day like the ones I’d had before. Having Amy by my side for the last three months of pregnancy cut out all of the white noise of the internet and the pregnancy books and DVDs, and made me feel safe. We were relieved to be able to default to just one person, to have just one voice to listen to that we trusted. I still worried about whether I’d be able to give birth naturally: whether I had the stamina, the pain threshold, the courage, the magic ‘thing’ that was needed. But I felt safe.
As a test, I’d driven to the hospital from our house at different times of day to find out how long it would take us to get there if we needed to transfer our home birth. It was between 7 and 12 minutes. We’d also asked about the medical supplies the midwives would bring to the home birth.
‘People think I’m just going to carry a couple of crystals and wave them over the top of you as you give birth,’ Amy said. ‘But for every birth we come with dopplers for listening to your baby’s heart rate, and blood pressure equipment.’ She continued, listing item after item: ‘We have oxygen for resuscitating babies if they need it. We have oxytocin drugs, the same drugs you’d use in hospital to stop excessive bleeding after birth – we leave it in your fridge at 36 weeks because it needs to be refrigerated. We carry IV equipment to be able to put a drip up to rehydrate you if you need it; we carry catheter equipment in case you have any trauma or damage to your bladder; we have equipment for taking blood in case you’re a negative blood group and we need to take blood from mum and the cord after the baby’s born.’ She paused. ‘What else do I have? I’m trying to picture my kit. Oh, IV fluid, so a couple of litres of saline in case we need it. We have suture equipment, so if you need to have some suturing done and if we feel comfortable doing it we can, plus local anaesthetics and needles and all that sort of stuff.’
Of all the babies born in Australia, only 0.3 per cent are home births. During my pregnancy, in conversation with my friends, I didn’t want to be the one who said, ‘I’m totally gonna nail this thing’, and then have it all fall apart because of something unforeseen, which I was fully aware happens often during labour. I couldn’t even use the words ‘home birth’; I couldn’t use those words in that order. I had to say ‘we’re doing it at home’, and it was always tempered with ‘we hope’ or ‘we’re thinking about it’, non-committal, just in case it didn’t work out. I wanted to make sure people knew I wasn’t sure either. That I wasn’t stupid, or endangering my baby’s life. That I knew the risks.
‘And it is always a possibility,’ Amy said during one of our appointments. ‘It isn’t possible to avoid risk if one chooses to have a baby.’ I had never heard anyone tell the truth so bluntly, and instead of scaring me it made me feel more confident in our decision. ‘In home birth, we don’t think that everybody is just going to birth safely. The majority of women’s bodies can safely and adequately birth babies, but there are instances where they can’t and that’s where hospitals are really important. We’re not against hospitals and we’re not against doctors because they absolutely save women’s and babies’ lives.’
I’d seen two different GPs since I’d made my choice to home birth, and both had asked where I was going to have the baby. When I’d told them, they scolded me as if I was a child. ‘You know we can’t support that decision,’ they’d both said. ‘We see all the things that go wrong with home birth.’ It made me furious to be spoken to as if I hadn’t done the research. Why didn’t they make an effort to see all the times home birth goes right then? Everyone knows there is always a solitary, awful home-birth tragedy in the news. But tragedies happen in hospitals too.
When I left the hospital system, the obstetrician there asked me to come back in and speak to her so she could inform me of the risks I was taking in deciding to have a home birth. At 29 weeks, I was feeling vulnerable. I had been on such a journey to arrive at the decision to have a home birth, and I didn’t want to be told that I was making a terrible mistake. I asked Amy what she thought. Midwives and obstetricians, coming from two deeply different approaches, are frequently pitted against each other. I had started to see the obstetrician as the symbol of evil at this stage, forcing healthy women into labour through unnecessary inductions, to hurry them up, and ultimately leave them with epidurals and caesareans. ‘Just go and talk to her,’ Amy advised. ‘It might make you feel better. I’ll come with you.’
I went in to the appointment feeling defensive, ready to fight for my choice and throw all my carefully researched statistics back at her. But the obstetrician surprised me. She said I obviously knew what I was doing, that I had the proper, qualified support, and then she did a quick check of me and the baby. She confirmed I was a perfect candidate for a home birth, that I would probably be fine, but that if I did end up in hospital I should be prepared for an emergency medical procedure. I said that I was, and that I was extremely grateful they were close by in case something unexpected did happen.
The obstetrician wished us well. ‘I really hope I don’t see you again!’ she said as we left. I was shocked by how supportive she was. I’d been led to believe that the two different philosophies of birth – that of the surgically minded obstetricians and the midwives who believed in a more natural, woman-centred approach to birth – were always in opposition. But Amy had also said this to me: ‘If the option to transfer to hospital and have a caesarean wasn’t there, then we couldn’t do home birth.’
A little later on I found out that the obstetrician had had two home births herself. She was one of us, I realised with astonishment.
Every great story seems to begin with a snake.
When I was 37 weeks pregnant, we had a reptile party for our baby shower. My in-laws were worried the reptiles would give the unborn baby a disease if I touched any of them, and I felt my fears rise up again. We had come so far and were almost there. ‘Just use common sense and wash your hands after handling any of the reptiles,’ Amy said after I called slightly hysterically, asking if we should cancel. ‘It’s more dangerous having a cat in the house when you’re pregnant (due to the risk of toxoplasmosis) than it is to touch a lizard.’
Jeremy and I stood side by side and the reptile handler wrapped the python around our shoulders. It started strangling Jeremy ever so slightly, and with a bit of a struggle was eventually disentangled. We took photos, the food ran out, our friends left, and I had never been more exhausted in my life. I lay in bed that night and realised my hands were shaking. I had turned scared again. Something about the day, all the people in the house, the heavy feeling in my body. An exhaustion set in. I stayed very quiet and close to home for the rest of the pregnancy, and two weeks after the python almost-but-not-really strangled her daddy, our daughter was born.
From 9am on Friday when I had the mucus show, my contractions started coming regularly but on and off, intense just for an hour or two and then disappearing again. We called Amy and excitedly reported what was happening and she said, ‘That’s great, keep me posted!’ On Saturday I rang her again, saying the contractions were definitely more intense, that they had woken me up three times during the night, that sometimes they were two minutes apart, that I was sure we’d be meeting our baby soon. ‘Have they settled into a pattern yet?’ she asked kindly, and I said not really. ‘I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news,’ she told us, ‘but these spurious contractions might go on for a week.’ I got off the phone and burst
into tears. I couldn’t bear the thought of doing this for a whole week.
I pulled myself together and finished writing a review for publication and sent it in. I walked the dog, watched Borgen, cooked soup. Jeremy rearranged the entire house, moved things downstairs and went to the Baby Expo ,where he bought a baby sling and a cot. On Sunday morning I drove to the shops to get more Zooper Doopers, stopping in the grocery aisle to breathe through an intense contraction. When I came home they had petered off again and I had another cry, and started reading Jane Austen to distract myself. I changed my mind and called my mum instead. ‘I’ve been in labour for two and a half days,’ I told her, sobbing. ‘I don’t understand why it’s taking so long.’
‘Oh darling,’ she said with the sympathy of a woman who’s been in labour four times herself, and as it turned out that’s all I needed. Within an hour, established labour had started.
There was a song I loved as a kid, based on a poem by Shel Silverstein, that Peter, Paul and Mary recorded on their kids’ album Peter, Paul and Mommy. It’s called ‘Boa Constrictor’. ‘I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor,’ sings Mary Travers on the scratched LP I still have from my childhood. She then lists all the body parts the snake has swallowed. ‘Oh gee, it’s up to my knee! Oh heck, it’s up to my neck!’ The final line is ‘Oh dread, it’s swallowed my…[gulp!]’
It’s how I felt as labour progressed, each part of my body being engulfed inside something greater than me, this gradual subsuming, swallowing, in slow motion. That feeling was how I knew my story was starting.
People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell.
I’m on all fours on the living room floor yelling to Jeremy to bring more heat packs for my back. He’s running back and forth from the kitchen, pulling them out of the microwave and more Zooper Doopers out of the freezer. My two midwives arrive and after four hours I finally move into the birthing pool that we’ve set up in front of the big floor-to-ceiling windows. The warm water changes everything. I feel amazing and two more hours slide by. I have no idea what is happening inside me, all I really know is that I am breathing and the breathing sounds like singing.
Things are taking a long time, so someone brings me a towel and I get dry and go to our bedroom where Jeremy and I try to rest. My contractions continue to come regularly in the other world we are suspended inside within the room. Another two hours go by and then I’m holding Amy’s hand tightly; I have a faint awareness that this must be transition because it hurts more than I could ever describe and I think I’m going to die. I look into her eyes, I have to keep focus; I know that if I look away I won’t make it. Finally, after I sing myself over four of these mountains, each higher than the last, I’m told I’m ready to push.
I’m back in the bath. I feel elated; I recall reading something that the second stage doesn’t usually last much longer than half an hour. The visual I have of the route the baby has to take is that of a foot exiting a gumboot, though, and it’s not until now that I realise how difficult that is in practice. I’m working so hard and nothing seems to be happening. Levi peeks out from upstairs to see what’s going on, but I’m moaning louder than ever now and he sprints nimbly back up and hides himself until morning. It’s already been another two hours; whoever said half an hour lied. We are all falling asleep in between my contractions, Jeremy, the midwives and me. I’m surprised I can doze off in the break between them; I hear one of the midwives is snoring too. It feels like it’s all taking too long, and I briefly wonder if I’ll be one of the women who gets too exhausted and ends up in hospital after all. But I force myself not to think, just to get through the next contraction. I’m encouraged to get up and move around, which is difficult but I eventually do, and finally, as the sun rises and the dawn chorus of kookaburras crescendos, I can feel the top of her head with my finger which, I remember thinking, makes no sense and all sense.
I’m back on the living room floor and I hear the midwives telling me to push, then not to push, and then to cough. And with that, she’s here, she’s real, falling into her daddy’s arms amidst a gush of liquid like she’s riding a waterslide.
Her name is Winifred. She looks scrawny and purple when she’s passed back to me through my legs, and I can hear the midwives telling me, softly but urgently, to blow air onto her face. Suddenly she splutters awake, and throws her arms up to the sky like Evita on the balcony of the Casa Rosada. I barely see her in those first few minutes, though; all of my senses are taken up with the slow comprehension that this feeling, of holding this warm shape in my arms, must mean it’s over. I made it.
She knows what to do better than me, and so I lie down on the couch that has been covered in new plastic tablecloths and old clean sheets and let her find her way to my breast to discover food like an animal forager. Her eyes are closed and she concentrates, faint grooves of effort showing in the space between her feathery eyebrows. I know I still need to push out the placenta and I’m dreading it; in all the most horrific birth stories this is the moment when the Bad Thing happens, a haemorrhage or some placenta left stuck inside. I just want it to be finished so I can live the rest of my life here with her. But Amy is there guiding me through it again, and she tells me to give a small push, and the placenta comes out easily and whole. Amy inspects me and I’m given the all-clear. The midwives clean up the house in twenty minutes, like The Wolf in Pulp Fiction, and Jeremy and I just lie there and stare at our baby. We are tucked into our bed and it’s just us now, and forever.
‘This is the way my birth experience went,’ we should be able to say to other people if we want to, and then confidently throw ourselves into our stories with our eyes closed, with the knowledge that the story – the child – is ours and no one else’s.
Header image credit: Flickr/sabianmaggy