Rite of Passage, or: An Ideal Labour

It is true what they say, everything changes, your life as you knew it has gone. You’re constantly improvising, like writing for example with a nursing baby on your lap as I am now. I never would’ve thought it was possible to do that: writing, the clicks on the keyboard accompanied by some snorting noises of the “wee one” as they would say up here in Scotland.


Five weeks ago today my daughter Aemilia Ylva was born on my late grandmothers birthday. I would like to tell everybody of the perfect waterbirth, candles and sounds of chiming windpipes and gurgling streams enveloping me while I had some out-of-body experience. The truth is I have never been more “in-my-body” than when I was giving birth, hardly was I ever more aware of what was going on right there and then.

As it is, “ideal” labour can perhaps be looked upon as a gradual variance on a long graph either end representing the two extremes, one of them the almost effortless “popping-out” of the baby and the other the long, arduous, medicated birth we are now told to fear and avoid at all costs (which, by the way is an attitude very different from just one or two generations ago).

In fact, it’s a long way from scenario no. 1 to scenario no. 2.

These could be described as no. 1 being: a homebirth, the midwife who just arrives when you are already 9 cm dilated, then just looks on and quietly leaves after a cup of tea and a biscuit.  Other possibilities are where you get something like this.

No. 2 being: the phalanx of midwives, obstetricians, nurses and anaesthetists helping a severe shoulder dystocia along, a screaming mother’s failure to progress while being tied to monitors, Syntocinon/Pitocin drips, and baby being delivered either by forceps or an emergency caesarean and the whimpering, exhausted mum-to-be begging for an epidural.

The result of scenario no. 1 is the happy family serenely snuggled up in bed while baby is breastfeeding like a dream the other one the bruised mother and traumatised father looking on to a baby drowsy from the painkillers too tired to nurse, formula feeding is the only alternative (of course there are scenarios far worse than this, sadly, but we wouldn’t want to dwell on that just now).

Both of these can be described as “ideal” as being ideal doesn’t necessarily have a positive connotation. Basically, it is what we make up in our minds, what we most fear or hope for instead. Most likely, however, you’re going to get something in between and it certainly can’t be predicted. The questions that occurred to me afterwards were:

  • Does Hypnobirthing work at all?
  • Does it lead to the straightforward, swift delivery we hope for and which as a female mammal we should be capable of?
  • Moreover, do I still believe that Grantly Dick-Read’s theory holds true and lives up to reality?

The main thing to bear in mind is: there are situations when important decisions are required of you. And I think that is what it is all about. During the last week or two before my daughter arrived, I was reading a book by Pam England, who dismisses Grantly Dick-Read’s theory of the “fear-tension-pain”-complex as simplistic. Instead, amongst other things, she advised practising with ice-cubes to feel what it is like to get through a contraction. On the whole, her book “Ancient Map for Modern Birth” was special, albeit quite eclectic, in that it drew on examples from lots of different cultures, both ancient and contemporary (from ancient Sumer to present day Mexico)  to describe the experience as a rite of passage. Which it is.

Like so many women these days, I set out reading stacks of books with the word “natural” and “childbirth” in their titles. I practised the relaxation techniques faithfully, paid privately for a course at home and made my husband attend everything with me. He read out the practices every morning and night, which I sometimes found very hard to do as my legs were twitching every night for about the past two months of my pregnancy, which is something called the Restless Legs Syndrome.

Nonetheless, I believe that my preparation helped greatly towards an understanding of the whole process, also to the knowledge, that I am the one giving birth, not the midwife or the doctor. This might sound strange initially, but you do hear incredulous comments, in its aftermath, as for example our neighbour’s first comment was: and, was it a forceps? Granted, this was by a quite old-fashioned retired GP (no offence intended) who probably finds it hard to believe how any baby can be born without the intervention of a doctor.

So what did I think would happen? All I thought was: as natural as possible, with as little intervention as possible. But what does that mean?

What it meant was: trusting my own body to do what it is genetically fit to do as a female mammal. Be that. Let the process take over. Don’t let your neo-cortex interfere. While that sounds so earth-motherly, perfect and all, I can only say that it all changed when my baby’s due date had passed. Of course, one could start right there and blame exactly that for all the complications. There was still no sign of her emerging and I was having mild contractions for about 48 hours, not painful, not really knowing what was going on, still waddling up and down the stairs, thinking I had already been leaking some amniotic fluid. The stress descended after multiple examinations to ascertain whether I had been leaking fluid or not and fear as the dreaded word “induction” was mentioned for the first time. Apart from a caesarean, that was the worst I thought could happen to me. And then, finally, eight days after her due date, the waters had gone, a sensation like a water-filled balloon suddenly going pop and a big gush emptying itself on the carpet.

I ended up on a drip with Syntocinon/Pitocin. Now, one could argue that I would have got there in the end without it and that it is hospital protocol to get me through the system as quickly as possible. Then, on the other hand, I had been overdue, although the due date’s validity is subject to debate, there were other factors which did justify some intervention in the end. Not only had my waters gone which increases the risk of infection and the little one had passed some meconium. All the stress must have had an effect on her along with the fact that she was very mature with a birthweight of 8lb15oz. Facing that, and the fact that I hadn’t progressed much further after another four hours, there was only one step I could take. Once you know about possible consequences when this happens, I truly believe that nobody in their sane mind would still stick to their planned water birth. In this, I absolutely agree with Pam England in that you perhaps should consider not even writing a birth plan because it can’t be planned.

And to be honest: that is where all the preparation did help. I knew what was going on. I and my husband made the decision. I was aware at what point it was right to relinquish some of the ideas or a notion of an ideal birth. The intended sequence had to be altered but I knew what the medical personnel were talking about, I did not feel that I was being manhandled. And I went through it, despite the augmentation with just gas and air, until I did indeed ask for some morphine after four more hours.

The positive outcome is a very healthy baby who has been breastfeeding like a pro and a mum with only minor physical trauma and the knowledge that the best was done for me and my baby and also my husband by the way. These poor chaps sometimes get forgotten about, don’t they?

With hindsight, I believe there is no such thing as ideal labour which can be planned but we can do a lot to prepare ourselves to make informed decisions should that be required of us. As it is, a child is born and a mother is born. However one enters this new chapter of one’s life is unique and one should never be made to feel a failure if the labour hasn’t been what one has hoped for. This is where the journey begins!

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