One thing that quickly became really clear to Laura and me was that our perspectives of the birth were starkly different. Certainly this is in a large part to do with Laura’s having access to copious nitrous oxide, but I think there’s value in sharing the night I had.
So let’s get it clear straight away: this isn’t about trying to claim I had a harder time than Laura! She gave birth. She wins. Mine didn’t involve tearing, shitting, or screaming in monstrous agony. So with caveats assumed, I’ll write honestly about my night.
Laura was five days overdue on Thursday 30th October, which is of course perfectly normal. You could argue that five days overdue is really about two days under for first-time mums. That didn’t change my impatience! I just wanted to meet the little guy. But no matter the pep-talks I gave Laura’s belly, he seemed determined to stay inside. So on Thursday afternoon, sat in a coffee shop, when Laura said she was getting odd sensations, I told myself it was nothing. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, only to have another week to wait. So mild were these sensations that we went out to a pub for dinner, as planned. By 9pm things were seeming a little more convincing, but still possibly Braxton-Hicks – there was almost no pain with them. When we got home, pain started, like strong period pains Laura reported, and at that point I was convinced it was really beginning. Laura still had doubts.
Around midnight Laura was in some considerable discomfort with what were certainly contractions, and they were coming every six minutes or so. We called the hospital, who said to wait until they were every four minutes, and then to come in. Obviously neither of us got any sleep over the two hours it took for them to reach that pace, and at four minutes I called the delivery suite to let them know we were heading in. We worried it might be too soon (still not the “3 in 10” you’re supposed to wait for), but dressed, grabbed the bags, and headed downstairs. By which point they were every two minutes. From the bedroom to the front door, Laura’s contractions had doubled in frequency, and intensity.
When I started the car, we were down to about a minute and a half. It’s a twenty minute drive to the hospital, and this acceleration was a little concerning. I instantly realised what my true role was in the whole process: to sound really convincing when expressing my hope that everything was going to be fine. Minutely contractions, very painful for Laura, as we drove down (thankfully) empty 2am roads was troubling, but I remembered what we’d learned at NCT classes, and knew that there was still to be periods of respite, other phases to go through, and so on, so was able to say with some conviction that we’d reach the hospital in plenty of time. While silently trying to think of anywhere there might be between where we were and the destination where someone could have a baby.
Of course, rapid contractions doesn’t mean imminent birth, most especially because the cervix is very unlikely to be anywhere near dilated. As was the case, with Laura quickly taken through to an admittance bed and checked – 5cm dilated – halfway there. This is, we now know, the point from which they mark the onset of established labour, and it was somewhere near to 3am. (You’ll forgive the slight discrepancies in the timing of this account – much of the night is a haze.) Laura marked this occasion by booming out at the lovely midwife, “WHEN DO I GET MY GAS AND AIR?!”
We’d asked for a room with a pool, as there seemed good evidence that labouring in water is good for preventing tearing, and offering extra comfort. We weren’t after a water birth, but didn’t mind either way. The midwife set the taps running on the enormous bath/pool thing, and Laura stood leaning over the side of her bed, roaring in discomfort, while the Entonox was switched on. Between roars she said, “I’m sorry – I think I may have peed on your floor.” She hadn’t.
When I looked below her, there was a puddle of black, which only made sense to me if I were in a horror movie. It turns out, this means the baby is in some sort of distress, and as a result has pooed itself. And since their early poo is meconium – a thick, tar-like goo – and since his head was below his bottom, this meant bad news. I’m very glad I didn’t know how bad, at the time. If breathed in, it can be enormously serious, and we’d have apparently been ambulanced to a specialist unit in Bristol. The pool was now written off, as this meant they needed to monitor the baby’s heart rate throughout the rest of the birth, and the electronics wouldn’t play nicely with the water.
Unfortunately, it also meant that Laura had to spend far more time on her back than she wanted. She was only comfortable standing or kneeling leaning forward, but the monitors didn’t work well when she did. The EKG readings weren’t proving effective. And then the midwife declared she was concerned the baby might be breach. Huh what now?
He’d never been feet-first the whole pregnancy, and it seemed weird he would be now. A scanner was brought in, but she couldn’t see what she needed. A senior midwife was brought in, and she couldn’t either. Then a doctor arrived, and he was able to find the skull in the pelvis, just facing the wrong way, with his head tipped back. Ho boy.
That proved to be the least concern of the night. Along with the struggle with the heart monitors, the midwife wasn’t happy with the readings she could get, and instead a probe was attached to the baby’s head while still deep inside Laura. Looking somewhat cyborg-like, a wire protruded, letting us hear a constant “pip-pip-pip” from the monitor. Except every time Laura had a contraction that “pip-pip-pip” became “pip… pip…… pip………. pip”. The numbers on the screen showed his heart rate dropping from around 128 to 65. At which point incredibly professional panic kicked in.
The delivery team were incredible, remaining calm and reassuring, but there was no hiding the worried glances being passed between an ever-increasing number of people in the room. Laura, thank God, was mostly unaware of what was happening. Her eyes were closed in pain or nitrous-focused relief so much of the time that she didn’t see the bustle, the whispered conversations, the machines and equipment being rushed in and out. Afterward she told me she didn’t even hear the beeping machine that filled me with non-stop terror.
At 5.30am I was a wreck. Between contractions I was smiling at Laura, reassuring her, feeding back information we were being given during her contractions, and telling her how everything was being taken care of. During contractions I was burying my face into the side of the bed and alternating between freaking out and frantic praying. It was at this point I said I needed the toilet and nipped out, called my poor parents and sobbed down the phone at them, and then pulled myself together and went back in. The doctor was going to do a test of the baby’s blood to see if there was enough oxygen, which involved scratching the kid’s head while he was inside, taking blood samples, and running them through a machine in another room. They would do it twice, because, they said, the machine can be temperamental. Oh good grief.
A pet fear I’d had about the birth was that he’d somehow be starved of oxygen and get brain damage. It happened to a friend’s brother, and it stuck in my mind during the pregnancy in the way personal pet fears will. And oh God, oh God, it seemed like it might actually be happening. Two tiny vials of blood were taken, and a nurse told me that it takes less than a minute to get the results. They’d run it twice, and then we’d know what to do.
Those two minutes.
The first result came back – I’ve no idea what it was, because all I heard was, “perfect – exactly what it should be”. Another two minutes. Then the second came back, exactly the same. The looks on the faces of the midwives switched from professional calm to obvious relief, as it meant that – for now at least – enough oxygen was getting to my baby’s brain.
Despite this, they didn’t want to hang around. They wanted to hold off on a caesarian if they could, but made it clear that if he didn’t come flying out, they’d likely want to do a ventouse – attaching essentially a toilet plunger to the baby’s head, and dragging him out. As the contractions got stronger, the heart rate was dipping ever lower, a couple of times dropping into the 50s. And finally Laura was dilated enough to be able to embrace the pushing.
Pushing is extraordinary. Laura pulled a face of which I’d never have thought her head capable, as she seemed to draw on every joule of energy from her body into these terrifying-looking exertions. I confess that within my abject terror, I wasn’t able not to laugh at her funny faces. Quietly, though – she didn’t notice. And in time, I was able to see the white of my boy’s head. The pushing lasted about forty-five minutes, finishing with the ventouse. As he emerged, it revealed that the contractions had corkscrewed him around from the “back to back” position he shouldn’t have been in, to a perfect one. But he was also a purple, perfectly still creature, a quantum baby, equally alive and dead in my mind. Then he coughed. 6.48am, 6lb 4oz.
I wept. It was unreal, and wonderful, and terrifying, and so much relief. Relief that he was apparently alive and well, and relief that the worst was over for Laura. The now-enormous team of professionals in the room quickly cleaned him of the meconium, while leaving as much of the good goo on him, and he was plonked onto Laura’s chest. And it was extraordinary.
(Ventouse left an amusing cone-head on the boy, his head about half as big again. They hid this with a hat. I spent much of the next day taking the hat off to horrify people. The swelling was all but gone in an extraordinary two days.)
There are all these clichés about how your feelings for someone change after watching them give birth. They appear to be rather true. The phrase “fell in love with all over again” is trite, but annoyingly close to accurate. There was something about watching Laura go through so much pain, so much fear, and yet be so astonishingly strong and powerful, that gave me a new awe for her. I adored her more in those moments, both in my fear of something going wrong, and my respect for what she was doing. I still see her differently now, this person who did this incredible thing, loving her baby. I’ve never loved her more. Sorry.
The first few days were pretty rough. Because labour started at night, we obviously didn’t sleep at all Thursday night. We then had a pretty dreadful day in the hospital, with no communication from anyone as to what was going on (midwives walking away mid-sentence, no details on when they might come back, hours going by with no one speaking to us), why we were there, what we should be doing, ignored requests for help, and a tedious flow of contradictory information on everything from paediatrician availability to whether I was allowed to eat in the dining room next door. (I wasn’t.) It was abysmal, and we wanted out of there as soon as possible. By 10pm we were on our way home, to spend another night with a screaming, furious ball of baby. At 5am we slept for an hour and a half, and that was it until the early hours of Saturday morning. I think, between Thursday and Sunday, we got a total of four hours’ sleep.
He lost 0.4% more bodyweight than average, and therefore the midwives decided we had to be on a feeding programme, that involved feeding every three hours. With each feed taking about an hour and a half to get maybe a couple of mls of colostrum into the boy, then nappies, expressing more milk, sterilising things, and trying to function (eat, drink, etc), it was a brutal, stupid schedule that left us even more shattered. Of course, as soon as Laura’s milk came in, Toby feasted and quickly packed the weight back on, making a farce of the entire paranoid nonsense.
But now, two weeks in, we have something of a routine. We’re blessed with a boy that has taken to sleeping for decent blocks at night (for now), and we’ve managed things like leaving the house (every day this week, I think, to coffee shops, shops, even out for lunch), and things are gradually coming together. We’re still exhausted, terrified, exhilarated and delighted. We still regularly look at each other and say, with genuine confusion, “We have a baby?” We stare at each other in desperation as he squawls and bawls despite our every effort, or in abject relief as he mysteriously falls asleep mid-screech. We stare at him in wonder, broken in half by the power of his eye contact, bemused beyond reason by the detail of his fingers, delighted by the unbearable cuteness of his pouting bottom lip. And we stare at him in frustration and annoyance, as he defies all sense and makes things as difficult for himself and us as he maddeningly can. And we stare like slack-jawed imbeciles at the backwoods gibberish that makes up daytime TV, the remote out of reach as he sleeps on us, not daring to move in case the cycle of scream/feed/nappy starts up again so soon.
It’s brilliant and dreadful. Life-changing and life-sucking. He’s incredible, and he’s infuriating. He’s real, and it’s amazing.