In times of crises or difficulty, people often show you who they really are and what they’re made of. As such, in a birth space, a woman can display her true colours and character. This fact could not have had a truer example than the first client I took on as a trainee doula.
When I first met the woman in question, I was quite nervous about how I would go relating to her and doing my job well. But it soon became evident when I met her that any concern for myself was completely irrelevant in helping her to navigate this process.
She explained to me upon our first meeting that having found out she was pregnant, her partner had left. He had given her the ultimatum- me or the baby. No prizes for those that guess which side she chose. My own feelings on this revelation notwithstanding, I happily took the job as she was seeking a support person so as not to be alone when going through the process of labour and birth.
As seems to be the case with many soon-to-be mums in the lead up to labour, she didn’t really know what to expect and had no specific plan except that she wanted to have as natural a labour as possible. As we broke the stages down together, her clear hopes included- no stirrups (if possible), no episiotomies (if possible), no pethidine and of course- to bring her little girl into the world as safely as possible. She also had a profound fear of having her baby in the car. She expressed that she would feel safest in a hospital setting. We put this all down into a “Birth Wish list” for her to take to our local hospital upon arriving in labour and waited for the big day.
At 36 weeks, an additional scan (organised due to close monitoring of Mum’s BMI) revealed that her baby had a lump internally. No one could tell her what it was. After the report was first made to her at her original hospital, days of excruciating waiting later, she was told by the high-risk centre that they didn’t know what it was either. When I went to see her, she expressed herself calmly and rationally. She was a total soldier, a fortress hiding her emotions. But behind those walls I can only imagine the terror and isolation she must have been feeling. She told me that they could only find out what it was after birth and would make a plan on Thursday at her next appointment. The next day- Sunday- she went into spontaneous labour.
As the local hospital was nervous about their ability to deal with a potentially unwell baby, they referred her on to the high risk centre to have her baby girl. While this was good in theory, it did present a few issues. Firstly, no one in maternity at the new hospital had any idea who she was as they had no appointments with her antenatally and only had the data sent from the other hospital. Secondly- and probably more problematic- was that the new hospital was almost a 50 minute drive from her home.
I had been in contact with her all day but as it was my first ever birth, I felt unsure of myself in my arrival time. I didn’t want to arrive at her house too early and intrude on her space. But at around 3.30pm, she rang me and was unable to speak through her contractions. This seemed like a green light to me so I drove over to her home right away. When I arrived, she was having good, strong, regular contractions and was sitting quietly with her mother. She had just come off the phone to the hospital who had invited her to come in. So almost straight away we jumped back in our cars and trekked all the way to the far away high-risk hospital.
It felt like a long journey to me, so I cannot imagine what it felt like to this woman in labour. Especially in her desperation to get to the hospital before things really kicked off. When we got to the hospital, we had to first find the maternity ward, none of us having been there before. After a few wrong turns, we finally got there, presented the wish list and waited. During this time, it seemed to me that although still outwardly strong and calm, she was becoming more nervous. Her contractions appeared to slow a fraction and she just wanted to be told how far along she was. Finally a midwife took her aside for a vaginal exam. Since that time, I have been present for a few of these but still at an early stage of labour- she seemed like she needed privacy as she was quite a private person. I stood on the other side of the curtain with her mother.
Then, something awful. The midwife declared that she was just 1cm dilated. You could just about hear her heart smash into a thousand pieces. Almost 24 hours for one lousy centimetre? How many more days until 10??! She was offered and accepted a stretch and sweep, praying that this would make some sort of difference to the crappy situation.
We were escorted back to the waiting area and offered the opportunity to turn around and go home. Mumma bear was horrified. Round trip was almost two hours. The 50 minute drive we had just completed was utter torture. What if she didn’t get back in time?? Her mother expressed rather firmly to the midwife that this really wasn’t an option. At this stage, the midwife offered pethidine as she had not read the wish list and as mum was at this point exhausted, defeated and in quite a lot of discomfort. Although she had definitely decided against this before going into labour (and had her own reasons for doing so), being offered this at this point really put a chink in the armour for this woman. If the midwife was offering it- did that mean she needed it? And more to the point- were they the only two options- pethidine or going home? Her mother felt that pethidine would be a good option. She felt it may enable her daughter to get some sleep and wake up refreshed and ready to tackle more established labour. Despite being a respiratory suppressant for the baby- it seemed it would be hours yet before bubba was born. I quietly and pretty nervously asked mum what she wanted to do and was presented with a response that exuded doubt, frustration and unhappiness at the current situation. I hinted to the midwife that it would be great if she could now go and read the wish list we had presented with. Mercifully, she returned and did not mention drugs again. She instead suggested a walk around the hospital for a few hours.
So off we hobbled downstairs, She was basically in tears at this point, feeling as if the light at the end of the tunnel was nowhere in sight and there was very little she could do about it. Still, we wandered around, bought a few bottles of water, tried a TENS machine (to no avail), climbed some stairs and after about 1.5 hours we returned to the maternity ward. Mum-to-be was plopped back into a chair to wait as it was figured she would not have progressed too far in that time. She dozed between contractions which were again becoming much stronger and more regular.
It was not long after this, that a midwife popped her head in and (hearing the beautiful, deep noises being made) reluctantly offered another exam. I say ‘reluctantly’ really because they didn’t want to get any hopes up and dash them away again. But it was a good call in the end because- success! It was around 7.30pm and she had reached the 4cm mark and mumma could now be admitted to birth suite.
I have to tell you, from the moment we entered that room, things just jetted off. It was as if- now in her safe space, a place she was happy to give birth- mum’s body just took over and started to really move this baby. She nervously paced the room, not totally sure what was going to happen but realising that her contractions had changed and were becoming quite painful. In the space of around 45 minutes, she was fully dilated and despite her amazing calmness, courage and strength up to that point- the sheer speed of her labour was truly terrifying for this mother. The enormous changes and transitions over that period were so outside of her expectations. Her mind and body just totally struggled to keep in step with one another. She was frightened for herself and more so for her baby. She stated that she was really scared, that she didn’t know if what she was doing was right. Her mother and I reassured her that she was doing an incredible job, which she absolutely was. She soon made a quick stop in the bathroom after a big bout of nausea and mentioned a real sense of pressure and a need to possibly push.
And it was in second stage that I really saw what this woman- this gorgeous new mother- was made of. Baby’s heart rate suddenly dropped as the downward pushing sensation quickly became extremely intense and mumma started to really panic. The room was flooded with medical staff and she was put on the bed, up in stirrups and informed that they wanted to deliver this baby as quickly as possible now. Mum was now screaming, partly from pain but more clearly from fear. A wonderful midwife directed her to use that voice to instead push down as the obstetrician attached a ventouse (vacuum) and assisted her in bringing her baby into the world. I stood beside her as her mother took the other side and we hugged her and gave her all the love and support we could at that moment. But truly, she faced this feat head on and independently. It was incredible to be there, and to hold this woman at this all-changing juncture in her life. She had nothing left. She was exhausted, terrified, doubt-filled and spent. But in those last moments of pushing, she put all of that aside and just worked. She worked and loved that beautiful little girl into the world. A tired and shocked teeny-tiny bubba went straight onto her chest at 8.45pm and stayed there. I was so blessed to be there as the brand new mum looked at me, awash with relief and accomplishment. She was blown away by all she had achieved- overcoming the biggest challenges in her life, without drugs and only with her own internal resources.
What’s more- in the days that followed (as baby needed to be monitored due to what turned out to be a hemangioma on her little liver), mumma walked multiple times the long way over to the adjacent children’s hospital where her new daughter was. She insisted on breastfeeding, changing and cuddling her little girl herself.
Fortunately, a week later, after an awful lot of stuffing around- they were allowed to go home together.
This was the first woman I ever helped before, during and after the birth of her little person. And she was and still is a true warrior. I was so privileged to know her and be there for her, she taught me so much in that short time. The champion that she was that day- for herself and her daughter- is the champion she has continued to be every day since. I am still in total awe of her cool, composed exterior. How she overcomes her greatest fears and trials with such strength and in many ways- all by herself.