I know the exact moment Lila was born. Or as exact as the midwives could make it. 12.35 pm on an early July day. If you asked me when her birth started though, I couldn’t tell you. Was it when we finally moved into the master bedroom, 3 days after her due date and I had my first bloody show? Because that was the first time the immediacy of it all struck me. That was the moment it went from being a slightly unreal, almost dreamlike possibility to the realisation that the most daunting journey I’d ever go through was here and despite all the preparation, nothing could ever fully prepare me for everything that was (and still is) to come. Not just labour and birth but motherhood. The day we moved into the master bedroom was the day I passed from one stage of my life to another.
I had a pretty uncomplicated pregnancy despite every expectation that my weight would be an issue. My midwife and I got off to a bit of a rocky start, however once we got to know each other better, she became one of my strongest advocates and helped put together a birth and contingency plan that prioritized my mental health. The one thing I was absolutely sure I wanted was a water birth. Obviously, I fortified myself for every eventuality including an emergency C-section because when it comes to pregnancy and birth, the unexpected crops up with more regularity than anything else. But there are some things that you just know even when you’re navigating uncharted territory, and I knew that a water birth was right for me.
I’d originally planned a home birth as that seemed to be the only way I could have access to a birthing pool. Most birthing centres across England, including the one at the RVI in Newcastle where Lila was born have a weight cutoff for using the birthing pools. Apparently it’s a safety risk in case of emergencies where they have to haul you out of the water, but when pretty much anyone is free to have a water birth at home anyway, it just feels like an arbitrary restriction that’s imposed on fat people. I did make the weight limit in the end, thanks to a combination of size privilege as a small fat and 15 solid weeks of nausea during which I could keep very little down. (It still didn’t spare me the nastiest run in I’ve had with a doctor in years, when the consultant obstetrician at the hospital told me that I had to ‘put brakes on my eating’ and then tried to get me to sign up for Slimming World.)
But let’s move on ahead to that scorcher of a summer day in July. My due date had come and gone more than a week before with not a peep from babby. At 40 weeks and 5 days, 2 days after my first bloody show, I went in for my last ever midwife appointment which concluded with a membrane sweep. Now a lot of people don’t believe that membrane sweeps work but I didn’t think it could do any harm, on top of which it sounded a lot less drastic than an induction which was the next proposed step. The actual process was far less invasive than I thought it would and took less than 30 seconds. Owen sat next to me holding my hand throughout and I even felt spry enough to get an Instagram photo with an ice lolly on my way back home!
My induction had originally been booked for 41 weeks, however I decided to postpone it to 41+5 on the day of the sweep. It was a bit of a spur of the moment decision and I’m so glad I did because those few extra days ended up making all the difference. 2 days after the membrane sweep, the first contractions began. Gentle, rolling waves at first, as I prepared to go to bed that night. When I woke up the next morning, they’d picked up in pace and intensity. It was the 4th of July and we all joked about babby’s clichéd sense of timing. By midday though, the contractions had ebbed and it all started feeling like a false alarm. I dragged Owen out of the house for a walk around the neighbourhood to try and speed things up. The sky hung low and brooding with the promise of rain as our last day as a family of two drew to a close. By midnight, the contractions were in full swing again and I was on all fours on the bedside rug trying to breathe in time to the pain. In hindsight, getting through that night was the hardest part of labour – everything that came afterwards was a breeze compared to it. My biggest regret in that first stage was not having previously made the time to look more into hypnobirthing. A few weeks before my due date, The Positive Birth Company had shared their hypnobirthing pack with me but thanks to all the organizing that I had yet to do, I never actually got the chance to look at it (best blogger ever!) There are so many positive accounts of hypnobirthing though, and so many women have benefited from it during labour, I’d definitely want to make it part of my birthing plan next time around!
Around 3am I finally caved in and asked Owen to drive me to the birthing centre. I was absolutely sure I was dilated enough for labour to be established by then – I’d have to be with all those gut wrenching contractions, right? Nope, just 2 centimeters, the midwife on duty informed me before giving me some codeine which I promptly threw up on the way back home. I’m kind to myself like that. I’m not sure how I spent the next four hours but I dimly remember being hunched up on the floor next to the bed while Owen brought me fresh ice packs to clutch against my belly at regular intervals. It was almost like being in a trance. The pain that rooted me so deeply to my body made everything else retreat into the distance. The universe was contained within the length of a contraction and with every breath, I steadied it and brought it in and held it in its place. All of creation was an ocean of pain, and nothing else had ever existed except the waves I was riding. It was oddly calming.
At 8am, I asked Owen to drive me to the birthing centre a second time. Surely those last 4 hours would have seen the onset of active labour… right? Wrong again because as it turned out, I was still at 2 centimeters even though the contractions had rendered me unable to form sentences by then. This is when the midwives offered to put me in a room with a bathtub and observe me for the next few hours. If I dilated to 4 centimeters by the end of that time, they’d transfer me to the birthing pool. If I didn’t, I’d have to be induced. I suspect they’d have been a lot less insistent on the induction had I not been 9 days overdue. Once you hit 41 weeks, most doctors and midwives in the UK are going to campaign hard for an induction. At 42 weeks, it’s all but inevitable. That morning as I lay on the examination gurney with my legs splayed open, I was 41+2 and I had an impossible choice to make. If I agreed to get into the bathtub, it could very well lead me to the induction I was desperate to avoid. If I went back home instead to sweat it out, there was no telling how long it would take for me to dilate on my own. And I was already stretching the limits of my pain threshold. In the end, I chose the bathtub. I told the midwife who was attending to me that in case I had to be induced, I’d take the epidural – something that didn’t even feature on my ideal birth plan. And this, dear reader, is how quickly birth plans change in the middle of labour. You have to be prepared for any possible scenario because if you’re not, you’ll just end up disappointing yourself.
By 9am they’d transferred us to the room where we’d later spend our first night as a family of three. Owen put on our ambient birthing playlist and I lowered myself into the tub. The moment I hit the water, I knew everything was going to be okay. I’d never been in any doubt that I’d be able to get through labour, even during during those wee hours of the morning when pain relief was a distant dream. The moment I lowered myself into the bathtub, my entire body relaxed and I just knew that everything would be fine, no matter what. When the midwife came to check in on me a quarter of an hour later, not only had I regained my ability to speak in whole sentences, I was smiling as well. Every time I felt a contraction coming on, I’d grab the handles on either side of the tub and submerge myself completely with only my nose and mouth above the level of water. And then I’d breathe. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. And then I started pushing. Except it wasn’t me at all, in that it was a completely involuntary response.
After about an hour in the tub my body started pushing, with absolutely zero input on my part. It was nothing like how it’s portrayed in movies, no one had to hold my hand and exhort me to push while I screamed bloody murder – my body figured out when the time was right and started pushing on its own. The first couple of times, I tried to resist mostly because of the unfamiliarity of the feeling. And then I let go because the time for control and free will was over, millenia upon millenia of evolution had taken over my body and unlike me, it knew exactly what to do. All that was left for me was to hang on tight for the ride. When the midwife came back half an hour later, I told her I was involuntarily pushing. She helped me out of the bathtub and onto the examination table, and after one quick look up my cervix, she announced that I wouldn’t be needing an induction after all. The 2 hours I’d spent in the bathtub had dilated me from 2 centimeters to 8, and I was now in active labour. At a time when I needed it the most, water – healing, nurturing, life-giving water – had worked its magic, as I knew deep down that it would.
I somehow managed to pull on my robe and hobble over to the room next door – for all its majesty, labour is not a particularly dignified activity – and stepped into the birthing pool. So much space, so much freedom! I relaxed into the embrace of the water, steam rising from its surface as Owen dotted the tea lights we’d brought with us all around the pool. The midwife passed me the entonox nozzle and advised me to keep breathing it in as steadily as I could. The gas made me lightheaded, like the first few puffs of a particularly potent joint. Cocooned in the steaming water with the nitrous oxide coursing through my blood, I passed into a dreamlike state where time was meaningless and the world beyond the pool a dim, hushed haze. I floated and rolled, I squatted on all fours, I paddled, I pooped a lot a lot a lot and the midwife fished it out with a net. Did I mention that birth is not a dignified experience? Somewhere in between, sucking on the gas and air nozzle became too much of an effort so I waved it away. And then came the final few pushes, the biggest so far. Three of them where I could feel the head emerging even though in the absence of my glasses, I couldn’t see. But there definitely was something between my legs that hadn’t been there before, something that just needed one more push before it could come through. The midwife told me I was almost there, all I had to do was keep pushing gently and steadily and not give up. I nodded, took a deep breath and let it rip. And in one giant, screaming push, my daughter slid right out of me and into the water. I opened my eyes to see her huge, dark eyes looking right back at me. A little frown on her face, just the tiniest puckering of the skin between her eyebrows. My daughter, my baby, my life and heart and soul, my little Lila Oona. She hardly even cried as the midwife scooped her out of the water and placed her in my arms. Just the tiniest little hiccups to accompany her frown. The first thing I thought was that she has my eyes. My first words to her were, ‘henlo fren’. Ridiculous, so ridiculous.
There’s little to tell after that. I held Lila to my breast as Owen cut the umbilical cord in his first act of fatherhood. The midwife gave me a shot in the arm to release the placenta and out it came with the final push of my labour. In all, I’d spent 2 hours in the bathtub and an hour and a half in the birthing pool. No one ever saw my waters break so it’s assumed that they went only after I was in active labour. We’d honestly expected the process to be way more protracted and, well, laborious. The midwives kept marveling for days afterwards at how quick and easy it had been for a first time birth. I was surprised at how little pain relief I needed once I was in the water and how it almost magically turned things around after the excruciatingly slow start. The postpartum examination also revealed that I’d managed to avoid tearing and gotten away with just some light grazing that didn’t call for stitches. In the days to come, I’d have trouble breastfeeding and our first 2 weeks would be riddled with midwife visits and trips to the lactation clinic but that’s another story for another day. In those first few hours after birth, everything was perfect.
We’d originally planned for Owen to take photos of the birth but all those plans vanished into the ether the moment I got into the pool. In a way I’m glad that we only have unphotogenic phone camera photos of those first impossibly precious moments. There are some things that you guard obsessively, selfishly, memories etched indelibly in your psyche that would only be marred by trying to force them into a stylised representation of that ubiquitous new mum touchstone: the birth photo. I don’t have any birth photos with Lila that aren’t oddly framed, ill lit and blurry and where my lips aren’t cracked and my hair isn’t sticking out in odd angles, but I’m surprisingly okay with that considering how a good portion of my life involves photographing it in aesthetically pleasing ways. Some things (not many but some, nevertheless) are much more important than that, they’re raw and emotional and bursting with meaning, and they’re private, they’re personal.
Or it could just be me trying to justify the absence of blogworthy birth photos, who knows?
Lila Oona was born at 12.35pm on the 5th of July, weighing in at 7lbs and 9oz. She was born in the water with her eyes wide open. She had one wonky ear that’s still righting itself and a full head of hair. She never cried in the first 24 hours of her life. She’s our entire universe and so, so beloved. Life with her has been a wild ride of ups and downs but with so much joy at every step. Our Lila, our little Bab Bab, you’ve made it all worthwhile. How on earth did we ever live without you?