Three hours old.
Full disclosure: this is a post about birth. So it includes details you may normally classify as “too much information”. Just saying…
It’s a thing, in blogging world, to write up your birth story and share it with the world.
I thought I would.
I did so much preparation for Kaya’s birth. I read books, I watched youtube videos, I visited the hospital I’d be giving birth in. And we took a hypnobirthing course. I expected to be typing up the whole thing within days of the big event.
The thing is, Kaya’s birth was so entirely not what I expected, that I wasn’t sure for a long time how to tell the story. And I felt foolish in the telling. I felt like if I told the honest-to-God version, I would only look naive and weak.
But good friends have been kindly telling me that I’m basically being an idiot. I may have been a little naive but I am certainly not weak.
So here is Kaya’s story, which is really our story.
As I said, I prepared.
It was important to me from the beginning to attempt a natural birth. Without pretending to be a medical authority, it seemed to me that this was the best option for my baby, and I thought if women all over the world could do this thing without pain relief, then so could I.
We signed up for a private hypnobirthing class with a wonderful local woman. Five times, we sat on her sofa learning and talking and practising birthing meditations together. We watched videos of couples who’d followed the hypnobirthing approach and I was in awe at how calm and beautiful their births were as they seemingly breathed that baby out.
I was entirely convinced. I told everyone that pain is increased by fear and tension, so just by learning these relaxation techniques, I’d be able to avoid much of it. I went to bed many nights listening to the relaxation tracks we’d been given. I wrote out a birth plan full of all my natural birth preferences. I stopped talking about contractions, but called them waves or surges.
Two days after my due date, I went to bed a little later than normal, feeling nothing out of the ordinary. Half an hour later I attempted to roll over in our tiny bed, and felt my waters break. By the time I made it to the toilet the first contraction was wrapping me in it’s full body embrace.
So this is it, I thought.
We got back into bed and started using the relaxation techniques. Rasmus turned on the birthing meditation soundtrack and I lay on my side, trying to let the contractions – sorry, waves – wash over me. It hurt, but at first it felt manageable. Rasmus pressed against my back as each one began, to help with the pressure. And he was keeping track of the timings so I didn’t have to.
We stayed that way for the next six hours, which passed in a blur as I worked hard to stay relaxed. Already it wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped. I had increasingly horrible back pain which left me nauseas after each contraction, despite Rasmus applying counter pressure each time. And then there was the diarrhea. That didn’t really fit into my romantic idea of birth.
What was good? Rasmus. He was calm and strong and ever-present. He collected clothes for me when I suddenly realised my hospital bag contained everything for the birth and the baby and nothing for me. He was by my side through every second of each contraction. He figured out what I needed, he encouraged me when it was hard, and he was sure when I was uncertain. I relied entirely on him. If he wasn’t there when a contraction began, I started panicking, until he ran to my side again.
At some point I looked up from a contraction and noticed light coming in the window. I’d not realised how much time had passed. Rasmus told me my contractions were now five minutes apart so we decided to head to the hospital then, before the morning rush hour began. I got dressed in between contractions and then hung onto him in the lift.
It was entirely surreal driving the five minutes to the hospital. I watched the few early morning workers on the streets thinking it was so strange that they could be going about their day as normal while my baby was making its way into the world.
The maternity ward was nearly empty. We checked in to our delivery room and they started measuring my contractions. It was hurting a lot. And the nausea had kicked up a notch together with the back pain. I started throwing up after every other contraction and it destroyed my confidence. I sobbed each time leaning hard into Rasmus.
Our incredible midwife got me to sit on a pilates ball and there I stayed for a few hours, rocking back and forth in pain, trying desperately to remember to relax but feeling my dream-calm birth slipping from my grasp.
Eventually my midwife asked if I wanted to try being in the water, so they filled up the bathtub in the next room and I moved through. The water was warm and I appreciated being able to move my body around more freely through each contraction, but it wasn’t the relief I’d heard from other woman.
I felt like I was barely holding it together by then. The pain was overwhelming but I was still not fully dilated. They encouraged me to squat in the water to help move the baby down. With each contraction I shouted and cried. I’d planned to focus the sound down into breathing, but all thought of a calm birth had disappeared. The sound forced its way out of me.
I felt like a complete failure. All that preparation. All the people I’d confidently told about hypnobirthing. I was doing this all wrong. I was weak. I couldn’t control my own mind, couldn’t stay in that relaxed state. I was overwhelmed by the job in front of me and started to wonder if I could do it at all. Was it too late to ask for pain relief?
Rasmus sat behind my head as I laboured, my fingers linked through his, my elbows inside his, pressing back into him each time. Later, he emerged from the birth with bruising across his chest and down his arms, both our fingers swollen from our tight grip. He fought with me through each contraction.
He was my rock. When I forgot to breathe, when I stopped listening to anyone, his voice was there in my ear telling me what to do, telling me how good I was doing. He breathed long breaths against my cheek until I felt them and started to breathe with him.
Just once I heard him give a glimpse of his own overwhelmed heart: “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry you have to go through this.” I clutched onto this with relief. I wasn’t imagining it – this was insanely hard.
Finally I was told it was safe to start pushing and I entered a whole new level of hard. Our doctor came in and after a few contractions they caught my attention – they were concerned I was about to tear badly and thought they might need to make a small cut. That was when I finally said it outloud – I’m scared.
I’d reached down and felt my baby’s head inside me, but I had no understanding of just how close I was. It was all consuming. But with that next push, suddenly she came out all in one go.
“Look, your baby is here!” I heard. I opened my eyes and saw this curled body floating under the water. She was placed on my chest, the warm towel wrapped over her, all grey and sticky and chubby and ours.
It was all I could say. “This is our baby. This is our baby.” The weight of her in my arms was so incredibly real, she was so overwhelmingly here.
She was very calm, none of the wailing I was expecting. She just lay close to me, looking confused and a little startled.
They drained the tub and helped me back into our room across the hall – handing her to Rasmus, skin to skin, for those few metres before I got her back again. I delivered the placenta and they wrapped us up and left the three of us to it.
There we stayed for the next two hours, my girl warm against my skin, calm and sleepy, not at all hungry, although she suckled a little.
“What’s her name?” our midwife asked. “Kaya. Her name is Kaya.”
Later we weighed her and dressed her and they wheeled us upstairs to our bedroom where we’d spend the next three days getting to know each other. Amazingly, I’d not needed an episiotimy in the end and I’d not torn either.
The next day, as we sat watching our wee girl sleeping, it all came tumbling out.
“I’m sorry,” I told him, “I’m sorry I wasn’t braver. I’m sorry I was such a failure. I was so loud, I couldn’t relax, forgot to breathe…”
He interrupted me. “You were brave. You were fierce. You’re a warrior!”
It’s taken me a lot of time to realise he was right. As I confided in friends, they told me off for thinking I was weak, for imagining I had failed. They retold the birth to me: I had a natural water birth, in twelve hours, without any tearing and no pain relief. “You’re a superwoman!” one friend exclaimed.
The problem, as always, was my expectations. And for that I felt naive, and then misled. I started googling and found whole message boards filled with confused women who’d attempted a hypnobirth and felt like they’d failed. I was angry for a while, mostly because I felt ashamed of having fallen for it.
Now, I have a more nuanced view. The hypnobirthing classes we took had some big benefits. We understood the birthing process so well. Rasmus felt empowered to be my partner through the birth and his confidence was absolutely vital for me. And those first six hours at home – I don’t think I’d have made it so long without the relaxation exercises, even if it was hard work.
And crucially, I was not afraid during my pregnancy. So many of the pregnant women I met in prenatal yoga or church were fearful of how hard it would be. And maybe it was naivety, but I am grateful for that protection.
I found some other voices online that gave me comfort and a better perspective, and helped me reclaim our birth experience as good.
“One windy April day, our daughter was born; or rather, I birthed her. Of course, Chris helped me. But my doula friend pointed out to me that we often say, “my child was born.” Birth deserves more than passive language because it is not a passive act. It deserves all the animal sounds that emerge from a woman when she has to open and push a baby into the world.” – Molly Caro May
“But let me tell you – I’ve seen babies being born, and I’ve tried to live out a dream, and none of them come into being without labor. There are contractions, and there is what seems an impossibility, and there is blood. Just when the birth is closest, the fear is greatest. Just when you think it will never happen, the midwife says those words…“Give us another good push,” she says, and I wonder where that calm voice is coming from – another world, perhaps. Another universe. Maile responds, and out slips a bundle of bones and displaced joints and skin and then it’s coming together into the form of a child. The cord is purple and red and the consistency of rubber. They are attached, the mother and the baby. They always will be.” – Shawn Smucker
“One friend is an experienced midwife whose home water birth felt like she was being torn apart in the process and she worried that she wouldn’t be able to handle being with labouring women ever again. It took some time, but she was able to process her experience and it increased her capacity for empathy when her clients were in the throes of labour. She knew how close they felt to death in those moments, how they were not being dramatic or weak but were facing some of the greatest pain that humans can experience.” – Becca at Exile Fertility
These voices, these stories, they helped me re-experience Kaya’s birth as a good experience. Incredibly hard, and so intense, but good.
Here’s what I hope: I hope that more women might be empowered to try for a natural birth without fear like I was. But I hope that we can find the language, the approach, that creates true expectations. Some women do get that incredible calm, pain-free birth. Most don’t. And I think that needs to be ok.
I think we need to be able to tell each other, you can do this, you were created to do this incredibly hard thing, you and your baby. It will require incredible effort and you will draw on every ounce of strength you possess. But you will come through it somehow, by the grace of God and the wonders of your own body.
Giving birth is a defining moment, one that is made only more precious because not every woman who desires it gets to experience it. And not every birth goes to plan. I believe that birth is always “natural”, even if it comes with the help of an epidural or c-section. But I also believe it must be possible to be realistic about how hard it is without becoming fearful and giving up before we’ve even begun.
Last week a wise person told me, God is eternal, and therefore he is still present in our past. The last six months he’s been calling to me from that incredible day last June, telling my story a different way, calling me Brave, and Warrior, and Fierce.
And my memories have been redeemed. I don’t apologise any more. I’m banishing the fear and the shame. Instead, I remember love – Rasmus’ love for me, my love for my girl – that love that carried me through to the moment I first said, “This is our baby”.