Four am. As I stumbled around my flat in Scotland, it took a while for my sleep induced brain to realise what was going on – my waters had broken. I breathed deeply and felt adrenaline kicking in. Within half an hour I could feel mild surges reverberating throughout my whole body. I was instantly grateful for the fact that I was already in the place I planned to give birth – right here at home. As labour took hold, all I could do was pace up and down and focus – things were getting serious and fast!
This feeling must have lasted a couple of hours but it didn’t seem like long at all. My mind was hyper alert and the force of the surges was literally pulling my body to the ground. I was buckling at the knees and shaking with the adrenaline. What a bizarre feeling! Not painful, just intense and all consuming. Suddenly my body seemed to be contorting with the downward pressure. Surely this couldn’t be the baby coming so soon?
Instinctively I got onto the bed on all fours while my husband was on the phone to the midwife. I felt immense pressure and the head came out with one surge and the body eased out with the next. My husband caught the baby as he entered into the world in a hurry. Two midwifes arrived shortly after, checked the baby and confirmed he was well. Unfortunately the placenta was stuck and I had to be transferred to hospital to have it removed in surgery. It was a difficult end to what had been a straightforward birth but in the end all was well with healthy mother and baby.
So that’s my story. Leaving aside the post-delivery part in hospital, it was a four hour homebirth that I’d describe as ‘intense but manageable’. With no drugs, interventions or clock watching, I had what I later learned is called an undisturbed birth – the kind of experience I now know is very uncommon, especially for a first-time mother. And ever since I’ve been reflecting on why women’s experience of labour varies so widely. I don’t agree with the midwife who suggested I must have a high pain threshold – I cry when I have heartburn!
Before I set out to learn about birth, I struggled with the dominant narrative from mainstream film and television, the media and friends’ birth stories: birth was scary, dramatic and something that women needed to be ‘saved’ from. For me, thinking about the female body as a passive object subject to interventions rather than an active agent was disempowering. Fortunately, I started reading works by midwifes and birth activists such as Ina May Gaskin, Sara Wickham, Janet Balaskas and Sheila Kitzinger. These well-respected women wrote about the benefits of active birth and building a positive mind-set in preparing for labour. It was then that I became interested in the power of positive birth stories.
I first came across these stories in Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth. Half of her book is dedicated to real birth stories and it was the first time I’d read about calm births – these stories stood out as they didn’t involve screaming or panic. Then I came across more amazing collections of stories compiled by midwifes such as Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent and The Baby’s Coming by Virginia Howes – I was addicted!
Don’t get me wrong, these births weren’t all rose-tinted spectacles. They described women soldiering through long and challenging labours. But what they had in common was they all portrayed strong women in charge of their birthing decisions. The Positive Birth Movement is an example of these stories being lifted from the page to real life: women come together in person to collectively tell their stories, in towns and cities across the world. This is what feminist organiser Gloria Steinem calls ‘talking circles’. She believes these consciousness-raising groups have the power to change the way people live through sitting down with each other eye-to eye and really listening.
The website Tell Me a Good Birth Story could be seen as a positive birth movement for the digital age. It’s a repository for birth stories and a matching service to link up pregnant women with mothers depending on the type of birth they’re planning. After being matched with four women, I was able to ask specific questions about home births. As the responses popped into my inbox, I felt part of something bigger and my excitement and confidence about the upcoming birth grew.
It might sound strange, but I actually believed that a pain free birth was a possibility. A light-bulb moment for me was learning that there was a good biological reason that mammals experience pain at the onset of labour – it acts as a signal to get to a safe and private place to give birth. And learning about labour hormones was fascinating. I found out that if I respected the natural labour process, my body would give me what it needed at the very moment it was required – pain relief, relaxation, alertness and bonding. Set against the obstetric model of birth where there’s a procedure or drug for every stage of labour, and women are often seen as passive participants of birth, it’s easy to see why we mistakenly think that a woman’s body is inadequate.
I will never know for sure, but I think a big factor in my birth experience was my feeling of confidence and self-efficacy. Thanks to the women who shared their positive birth stories with me, I could so clearly visualise a calm, positive birth of my own. I’d played it out in my mind that many times, is it so surprising that the reality was just that?