*This was a very difficult post to write. I wasn’t sure what angle to come in at, or even if I should publish it. But Bee’s birth story has been niggling away at me, and nothing much about the feelings and decisions for this pregnancy would make much sense without it. I believe in empowering women through positive stories of birth. But I also believe that most women only receive biased, and censored information about birth, their options and their rights. So, here is Bee’s birth story, and what the NHS didn’t tell me about birth.*
After my first pregnancy and birth I decided almost immediately that should I be so fortunate as to carry another child in the future, I would do it completely differently.
With Bee I knew no better. I trusted the NHS (after all they had gotten my pregnant in the first place) and I assumed they would have my (and the baby’s) best interest at the forefront of their care. I got all my information from the NHS. The midwives. The doctors. Leaflets and booklets. Even their antenatal classes. I didn’t look any wider. And no other information was readily available.
I was overwhelmed by the vast range of baby books and pregnancy guides, and didn’t know which one to chose – so I didn’t read any. I had no close friends or family who had given birth in the last 5 years. All I had to go on was the societal norm and the only information that was offered to me – by the NHS.
I experienced a difficult birth, but felt I should just be grateful for my healthy baby.
My transition into motherhood felt like waking up adrift and alone, in the middle of the ocean.
I didn’t feel a bond with my baby.
I suffered with post-natal anxiety.
Everything I felt seemed at odds with what society was telling me I should be – what I should be doing.
I was lost for quite a few months.
But, when Bee was about 6 months old I stumbled into a group of mamas who would change everything for me.
The breadcrumbs had been laid, I’d spotted little glimpses and made tentative connections through La Leche League meetings and a lovely baby massage class. I’d seen my people. But when I finally made that leap fully into their world, it was like seeing the other side of life. The other side of birth and mothering. Everything I had been feeling, suddenly made sense. It was normal, and valid, in this little tribe of mothers.
They were full of beautiful tales of positive healing births and gentle emergence into motherhood. Of nurturing that new identity. Creating a village. Supporting one another. If only I had met these women before I gave birth. How different my knowledge and choices would have been.
Two years on, and I know how I want my pregnancy and birth to be this time round. I know what books to read, and who to talk to. I’ve learnt what the NHS didn’t tell me about birth.
The Benefit of Seeing the Same Midwife
Bee’s pregnancy was highly medicalised. As was her conception. We were consultant-led for the first 24 weeks, scanned every fortnight, with concerns about my cervix and bicournerate uterus (scans that in this pregnancy have been refuted). In that period I never saw the same midwife/doctor twice. Even during my third trimester, back under the care of the community midwifery team, I was often seen by different midwives.
Seeing the same midwife helps build a relationship of trust. Worries and concerns are easier to raise. Signs of mental health troubles are easier to spot. Having the same midwife examine a mother and child, gives consistency to their findings. Measurements can be compared, growth can be more accurately assessed. A mother feels more confident supported by a singular midwife, someone who has taken the time to get to know them in this most important moment of their life.
I very much wanted it to be different this pregnancy. But I found myself sucked in, without being informed or asked. Jumping through consultant-led hoops – scans and appointments, that deep down I didn’t want, and knew weren’t really necessary. But it’s so easy to be dragged in. Even for someone who knew from the start she didn’t want to be. Because a concern, once voiced, is hard to ignore. Especially spoken from the mouth of a doctor.
Now I’m back with my midwife. Starting from scratch at 27 weeks. I’m being stubborn, but I no longer want to be seen by junior doctors who have read my notes just five seconds before I’ve walked in the door. I want a relationship. I want continuity of care.
The IVF Effect
Isn’t it funny how three little letters written on your notes can change how you are treated. Can change how precious your child is thought to be.
It never crossed my mind that I would be treated differently, monitored more closely, or recommended procedures based on the way we conceived. But yet I was.
My obstetric consultant also happened to be my reproductive health consultant. She recommended induction a week before my due date. The ‘risk’ of waiting wasn’t deemed worth it, because of my extra precious baby.
Since then I’ve often wondered if it was a simple statistics decision, an ensured live birth to add to their score. But actually I think it’s more than that. I really do think that, however subconsciously, some babies are seen as more precious. Their parents seen as wanting this baby more. And I guess, a recognition of the experiences parents have gone through in their journey to this pregnancy (be it fertility treatment or previous losses) is a sensitive response. But, surely it shouldn’t lead to different treatment and recommendations.
Your Birth Plan Matters
I had a birth plan for Bee. I wanted a birth centre, water delivery. The only drug I wanted was gas and air, and I definitely didn’t want a caesarean.
But throughout my pregnancy, all I heard was:
“Have you got a birth plan? Well, you’d better just throw that out the window.”
“The type of birth you have won’t matter once you have a baby in your arms.”
“The most important thing is that the baby arrives safely, it doesn’t matter how.”
But birth experience does matter. I delivered a healthy baby, but the nature of my birth adversely affected my relationship with her, and my transition into motherhood.
The birth plan I had written stayed in my bag. I didn’t even bother saying I had one, and no one asked. I didn’t have a water birth. My music wasn’t played. I was tied to monitors and drips. Nothing about Bee’s birth was empowering. It didn’t feel like it belonged to me.
This time I’ll show everyone my birth plan.
Every little detail. Nothing to small. I may not get it all, but I’m going to damn well try.
Risk is Biased
Induction was presented as the best course of action for me. No one mentioned any risks. No one pointed out the implications. And we didn’t think to ask.
After several false starts with busy wards and short staffing, it was finally discovered that I was already 4cm dilated and didn’t need standard induction. Instead they broke my waters.
And with that my hopes of a water birth disappeared. I was hooked up to a fetal heart rate monitor, and after 4 hours of nothing, a syntocinon drip.
I was now on the conveyor belt. The hospitals timeline. So many hours waiting for contractions after the artificial rupturing of membranes. So many hours on the syntocinon drip before talk turned towards that of caesareans. I realised thats why I hadn’t been allowed to eat or drink, despite my hospital bag packed full of high-energy snacks. But no body had told me that induction increases the chances of a caesarean birth. Yet it was something they were preparing me for.
After 6 hours on the drip and still no contractions the midwives told me that the doctors (in a separate room, and having never met me) were discussing whether I should have a cesarean. I refused. They hadn’t warned me that this was the induction pathways ultimate destination. They hadn’t shared that risk.
Yet, in this pregnancy, risks have been at the forefront of many of my appointments. A focus that was lacking when I simply went along with every medical procedure and recommendation presented to me. I’ve been told the risks of home birth, the risk of not having diagnostic tests, the risks of not having vaccinations, the risks of refusing extra scans. Where was this risk awareness when I was recommended to have an induction, to have my waters broken, to set sail down a path that would very quickly take me where I didn’t want to go.
The Importance of the Mother’s Instinct
After another hour I moved very quickly from zero contractions into transition. It took me by surprise. I instinctively knelt on all fours on the floor as the urge to push flooded through me. The midwife didn’t believe I was ready. I guess she thought I was being dramatic. But as she helped me onto the bed (I couldn’t possibly stay on the floor), she took a quick look, and was amazed that she could see the head.
I fought the sensation for as long as I could. I completely panicked.
Knelt over the head of the bed, I shivered and shook with every wave. But after just 2 hours it was nearly time. And I was made to move on to my back. I didn’t want to. My instinct told me not to. But on my back I ended up.
Bee arrived rather abruptly into the world after that. Swollen and screaming. I was in shock. Hazy on gas and air, I felt her placed on my chest for an instant, before the cord was cut and she was whisked away to be weighed.
The Importance of Oxytocin
I’d never heard of oxytocin until I attended La Leche League meetings. The love hormone. Released when we breastfeed, and released when we give birth. The hormone vital for forming bonds and attachments. For falling in love.
I had no oxytocin during Bee’s birth. It was suppressed by the syntocinon drip (a synthetic form of oxytocin).
No wonder I struggled to bond with my baby. No wonder my hormones were such a mess post-birth. That I hated breastfeeding. That I pushed with all my might against motherhood. My body needed oxytocin. It needed that natural flood that happens during birth. But it wasn’t there.
Maybe it’s also why my placenta got stuck.
Dan was given the baby and I was hauled into several undignified positions, as different people tugged on the umbilical cord. The placenta wasn’t budging. I was told I’d need a spinal block and to have my placenta removed in theatre. It was all a blur. The anethetitist gave me a form to sign, I scribbled something unrecognisable – I’d lost my glasses at some point during the delivery. Then I was wheeled away.
As I looked back I could see the vague outline of Dan holding Bee to his chest wrapped in a blanket, gently singing David Bowie’s Starman.
I drifted in and out as the doctor removed my placenta. But I distinctly remember being both alarmed and amazed when I saw her remove her gloves, bloodied to the elbow, like a vet shoulder deep in a cow.
Several hours had passed when I was finally reunited with Dan and Bee. Both asleep, the former lying rather uncomfortable across two hard chairs, and Bee, perfectly swaddled in a little plastic crib.
She felt so separate from me.
The Postnatal Period Is Sacred
I spent the remainder of the day on the ward, connected to a drip because of dehydration, and catheterised. Bee slept and slept in her little plastic box. I didn’t sleep. I was too hot, it was too bright and noisy. That evening I was unhooked and allowed to get out of bed and have a bath. I felt broken – a stranger in my own body, utterly lost in this new life. I sat and cried in that cold hospital bathroom.
Dan went home and I begun what was to be, a very long and lonely night. Bee woke a lot. Breastfeeding hurt. She cried every time I tried to lay her back in her plastic box. There was no one but me and Bee in our airless cubicle. When she finally settled and I lay down to sleep, the midwives woke me to take some observations, and the hustle and bustle of the ward awakening signalled a new day.
We waited around to be discharged for most of that day. An auxiliary nurse came and bathed Bee. A woman from Bounty took some awful photographs of her, and then she tried her hardest to sell them to us. Midwives came and went, checking this and that. A doctor examined Bee in much detail, and someone measured her hearing. I asked for breastfeeding support, but no one was ever free when Bee was feeding, only arriving after we had struggled through. We were finally allowed home at tea time. Relieved, excited and completely terrified.
And I wonder why those first few months were so very hard for us.
I thought my hospital experience was normal. That my birth had been relatively straightforward, that this was what birth was.
But it could have been so different.
If I had just known, what the NHS didn’t tell me about birth.
*This is based on my personal experience. Many women are happy with their hospital births and feel well informed by the NHS. This was simply not the case for me.*