I didn’t get the birth I wanted, but I did get the baby I wanted. I wanted a natural birth, drug free, and a minimum of time in hospital. I had done yoga classes, read all the books and written a detailed birth plan. I got an emergency caesarean, no labour, and five days in hospital.
In week 37 of what had been a very enjoyable pregnancy, I started getting pain in my upper back. I was strapping a hot water bottle to my back, and walking the streets at 5am because I couldn’t sleep. But I just thought it was an end of pregnancy ache. None of the books had flagged it up as a danger sign. My waters broke on Saturday, and we went to the Simpson for a check-up. I wasn’t getting contractions, but my upper back was still sore, as was the area under my ribs. I mentioned this to the midwives, who looked at the electronic fetal monitor, and my blood pressure and all the other bits of scientific kit, and told me to come back tomorrow, in case I developed an infection now my waters were broken.
On Sunday we were very distressed to learn that if labour hadn’t started in 24 hours, they wanted to induce me. I really didn’t want this, as it would make using water impossible, and was could be the start of a cascade of intervention that might end in a caesarean. I phoned Nadine and Debs Purdue for advice, and they said I could safely refuse induction for at least another couple of days, and they suggested practical ways of bringing labour on, like curry and nipple stimulation.
However the next day, there was blood in my water. So we got to the Simpson long before our appointment, and before I knew it, I was strapped up again to the electronic fetal monitor. This time they thought they detected fetal distress, and they found some anomalies in my blood count – my platelet count seemed low. Now they didn’t want an induction – they wanted to do a caesarean. I asked for a bit of time to calm down, hoping that if I could relax and breathe, maybe my baby would be able to calm down too. They gave us 15 minutes to ourselves and then came back in and said ‘that’s it we have to go’.
Ironically as they were wheeling me to the operating theatre, I had my first contraction.
I don’t remember an awful lot about the operation. I had an epidural, and once my legs were numb, they operated. I felt a pulling sensation as they pulled a wee, red, offended looking person out of my tummy and there she was – Mary. They took her away, and I think they had to give her a bit of help initially, but there was certainly no panic transmitted to me. I was feeling very disconnected though and don’t even remember the first time she was put to my breast.
The next few days are a bit of a blur. Eventually it turned out that I had HELLP syndrome – a type of pre-eclampsia, which meant that my liver was at risk of failure and my platelet count was collapsing. (It very nearly reached single figures at one point, which is rather dangerous, as that platelets make your blood clot.)The condition is reversed as soon as the baby is delivered, hence the urgency. But the liver problem was probably what had caused my back pain earlier on. I think I was a bit of a medical celebrity briefly, as I was poked and prodded and asked by an awful lot of different specialists.
I wasn’t allowed into the maternity ward, but was kept in High Dependency for four days, with my blood pressure and other vital signs being checked, at least at first, every fifteen minutes. I think I would have found all this terrifying if I hadn’t just had a baby, but I simply let if all flow round me and concentrated on the only thing that mattered – establishing breastfeeding. I had drips in both hands, and wee electrical sensors on my chest, and a blood pressure cuff permanently on one arm, and I joked that it was like trying to learn to breastfeed and knit at the same time.
Mary wasn’t tiny, but she was small – just over 6lb (Intrauterine Growth Retardation can be caused by pre-eclampsia), and she didn’t really seem to want to feed. She slept lots and was very hard to latch on when she was awake. The paediatrician decided she was getting jittery, and wanted to give her supplementary feeds. Now comes my only really vivid memory of that first couple of days. Some young female doctor was sitting reading my file, and not even looking at me, and she announced they were going to give my wee one a bottle because, and she quoted, ‘the mother doesn’t want to express’. I had expressed a tiny bit of colostrum that morning, and given it to Mary in a syringe, and asked the midwives to tell me when I should do it again. No one had said I should, so I hadn’t. But when the doctor said that, I suddenly stopped being a patient and switched back into assertive woman mode, stating I had said nothing of the sort, I would do anything to breastfeed my child, and no one told me I should be expressing, so let’s get on with it. She was sceptical that anything but a bottle would work, but my determination must have penetrated, because they brought me a few syringes and sterile cups, and we got down to work.
My birth partners were my husband James and best friend Trina. They could only stand and watch in the operating theatre, but now they came into their own. I sat up in bed, expressing miniscule amounts of colostrum from both breasts, while they caught the drips in syringes. It seems surreal now, but at the time, it seemed perfectly sensible. We did it for hours, until we had a good supply built up, and then we could give a bit to Mary while she slept to supplement the tiny amounts she was getting when I got her on the breast. And they stopped mentioning bottles.
I know some mums feel they don’t get enough help when breastfeeding, but I think I suffered from too much. There was always a midwife hovering about the unit, so I got the benefit of all their advice, which was often completely contradictory, and I was never left to get to know my baby in peace. But there was one midwife who just sat with me one night, chatting, and commenting gently on how I was feeding Mary. Not interfering, just answering questions, and that really helped. At the other extreme, a midwife appeared when I had a wee yelling girl refusing to latch on, took her out of my arms and walked away with her to try to calm her down. She didn’t ask. She just took her out of my arms. I just wanted to go home. I hated being in hospital. I know if I am being melodramatic I could say that they saved my life, but I really did hate spending the first few days of Mary’s life in a hospital ward. As soon as they said I could move to the postnatal ward, I started asking to go home, and as soon as my platelet count reached a respectable level, they let me go. I actually hugged the nurse who told me I was free to go.
Coming home was like the real birth. I was drug free, no one was intervening between me and Mary, and we could go at our own pace. We established breastfeeding with few problems (I had very sore nipples for while, but a long call to Karla of the La Leche League pinned down the problem). But it took a long time to recover from the operation – I couldn’t carry Mary up and downstairs for days. I couldn’t push the buggy down our cobbled street for weeks. I didn’t carry her in the sling for a couple of months. And I believe that the yoga, and the optimistic birth plan weren’t wasted. I channelled the frustration at not getting the birth I dreamed of into getting breastfeeding right and getting out of hospital. So whatever kind of birth you end up with, an optimistic pregnancy and a positive birth plan can help you feel more in control.
And Mary is fine. We are still enjoying breastfeeding (two and a half years on). She is still small, but then her granny was less than five foot, and I’m not a supermodel (in any way). And she thinks she’s a gibbon. (‘I’m a gibbon. A little girl gibbon.’) But I don’t think that’s a common side effect of caesarean birth!