Sunday, January 02, 2005

Birthing Pains

Warning: honest and slightly distressing story to follow.
But I’ve spared you the gory details.
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Once upon a time a woman about to have a baby went into ‘confinement’ and the father's only involvement with the whole process was being told: ‘Congratulations Sir, you’ve had a boy’.
Even in my dad's day (the 1970's) it was considered quite normal for a father to go to the pub when it all kicked off. In fact my dad was present at my birth and my sister's, and through the years more and more men have taken the plunge. Apparently nowadays an amazing 92% of dads attend the births of their children. It’s pretty much expected that you’ll be in the delivery room holding Mum’s hand as she pushes.

I guess it’s no bad thing. I’m very glad I was there. I think the Mrs was glad I was there too. It was an incredible experience, a huge emotional rollercoaster which left me exhausted and elated. But it wasn’t much fun along the way and there were a few things I wish I’d been told, which is why I’m writing this now.

Our first and only experience of natural childbirth was the arrival of our second child, Nancy. Our first child, Jack, was born by Elective Ceasarean. The antenatal classes we’d had the first time round were a distant memory, so we didn’t really know what to expect.

It was December 7th 2004. The Mrs had been having twinges all day. She knew she was in labour, but she wasn’t letting on to her parents, who were staying with us at the time. The day came and went without much incident. In the afternoon we went shopping to take her mind off things. But by 10pm in the evening the contractions kicked in.

Seeing your wife racked with pain is a very unnerving experience. At first it seemed to come slowly, peak after about twenty seconds, then die away gradually. Then she was left alone for a few minutes until the whole thing happens again. It was like a spell or a voodoo curse. Someone somewhere was twisting the pin once in a while.

Feeling useless, I offered verbal support and rubbed her back, which was aching badly.

At 11pm we went to bed. Neither of us slept. The pauses between contractions were shorter and shorter now and they seemed to be more intense.

At 1am we decided to call the hospital to say we were on the way, the Mrs couldn’t talk and asked me to make the call. They wanted to talk to her, but as soon as they did, they told us to come in.

The bags that were waiting for so many weeks were finally put into the car. We woke up the in-laws to let them know we were going in and off we went. It was about 1.30am.

The contractions were really building up as we drove along. By this stage I was getting really uncomfortable with the situation. My words of support didn’t seem to be getting through the pain. The Mrs was in the birth zone, a strange twilight place where men can’t go and even women see to forget afterwards.

By 2am we were in the waiting room. The Mrs couldn’t sit comfortably for long. After a few minutes we were shown into an examination room. She was hooked up to some monitoring equipment and we were left to it. It would be familiar theme.

Perhaps twenty minutes later a nurse came to examine the Mrs. What followed is among the worst moments of my life. Suffice it to say that the examination was insensitive, invasive and really hurt. I felt absolutely terrible that I couldn’t do anything to help. She was crying out in pain. Under any other circumstances, I would have stopped the nurse - or anyone - inflicting pain on my wife. But I was totally ignorant. Is this normal? Or was the nurse totally incompetent? I still don’t know.

My wife was very traumatised by this ordeal. She was crying and I felt like doing the same. We were sent via a lift to a bathroom where we were advised to fill the bath with water and lavender so that she could relax.

The bath helped enormously. I massaged her shoulders and she felt much calmer. So much so that the contractions began to ease off. After an hour or so in the bathroom, we were told that all the maternity rooms were full and that the Mrs would have to spend the night in a normal ward.
There were four beds in the ward, three of which were occupied by teenage mums-to-be in there under observation. They were wide awake and chatting inanely. We didn’t fancy sharing the business of contractions with them, so for a while we made a camp in a communal lounge area.

When the contractions came on strongly again, I asked a nurse for a TENS machine to ease the pain. Half an hour later I saw the same nurse and asked her where the machine was. She apologised and said they hadn’t been able to find one. She’d look again. Ten minutes later she came back with the TENS machine and we were shown how to put it on.

The Mrs felt some relief immediately. If nothing else, it was a useful distraction. We eventually decided to try and get some sleep in the ward. It was about 3am and the girls had stopped talking.

There was no bed for me. I found a spare pillow and laid down on the floor next to the Mrs’s bed. It was cold, hard and smelt of disinfectant. Her contractions were really strong again, but with the TENS machine the Mrs seemed to be holding it together. I held her hand for a while, then laid down and had a go at sleeping. Not for the first time, I couldn’t believe this was really happening to me. I don’t think I got more than a few minutes.

At 6.30am two large African nurses clattered into the ward, turned the lights on and shouted out “who wants breakfast”. I couldn’t even feel angry. It was just surreal.

We decided to ship out and I asked at the front desk if there was anywhere else we could go. This nurse was sympathetic and found (miraculously) an empty ward down the hallway. Why the hell hadn’t they put us in there before? We moved in. By now I’d lost count of how many different rooms we’d been in.

I ached all over. I was knackered, slightly spaced out. The Mrs was doing amazingly well. She’d suffered nearly twelve hours of proper contractions.

Finally we were taken to the delivery suite. We were introduced to our midwife, a man from Australia. Fortunately the Mrs was happy with this idea. She’s always been comfortable in male company. He was very reassuring, very no nonsense and she felt she could listen to what he had to say. Frankly it was good just to have someone who seemed vaguely interested in what was happening.

The Mrs was hooked up again to the monitoring machines and we heard the baby’s heartbeat pounding away. All was well. The Mrs was examined again and after about half an hour we were left alone. The gas and air seemed to be helping a little with the contractions. Suddenly the monitors went mad. The Mrs cried out in intense pain. The needles drew huge peaks on the graph paper, indicating massive contractions. After twelve hours of gradual progress, the last stage was coming on very quickly indeed.

After two or three of these epic and agonising contractions the Mrs was in despair.

For the first time, thank God, there was something I could do. I rang for the midwife, who arrived promptly and told us that either she was making a lot of fuss about nothing or the baby was coming very soon.

After a quick examination, it was clear that the second option was the case. I was hugely relieved. I couldn’t stand seeing my wife in that much pain any more.

For the next hour the Mrs worked incredibly hard to deliver the baby. More gas and air and a painkilling injection were administered. I put a cold damp flannel on her forehead and tried to offer reassurance and encouragement. It wasn’t always appreciated, but mostly it was.

An hour later our little girl was born.

It was an extraordinary moment. As the baby appeared I felt a huge rush of love and gratitude. I cried as the Mrs held the baby to her. It was no less extraordinary than the first time. If anything it was more emotional because we’d both had such a difficult night.

Don’t think for a minute, ladies, that I am comparing my minor troubles with the difficulty of childbirth. I know it hurt like hell. My wife was heroic. I can’t use any other words to describe how brilliant she was. How she kept sane throughout it all, I’ll never know. I’m really not sure I could have gone through it had the roles been reversed. I just thank God I’m not a woman.
I was glad beyond words that it was all over. The midwife offered me some surgical scissors to cut the cord, which was just weird, and I was given the baby to hold.

Baby Nancy was cleaned up a little, weighed and tagged. I think she was allowed to breastfeed a little, but I may be wrong. She was certainly put under a lamp to keep her warm.

The Mrs was not well. The baby had arrived in too much of a rush. The midwife had mentioned the need to control the last stage, but hadn’t really explained how or done much to help The Mrs actually do this when the time came. Consequently she’d been quite severely injured in the process. A consultant arrived to examine her and it was agreed she should go off for surgery.

My elation was tempered by this news. Nancy and I were directed to a recovery ward where we waited for the Mrs to return. I was told the operation would take about an hour. I stared down at my beautiful new daughter and from time to time cradled her in my arms. She was sucking the air and mewing, clearly hungry. I tried to reassure her that her mummy would be back to feed her very soon.

Finally, after almost two hours, my wife came into view, wheeled in on her trolley bed. I’d really begun to worry that something had gone wrong and it was a massive relief to see her again.

Nancy fed again and we began to come to terms with what we’d been through and the amazingly beautiful little girl we’d been given.

After a while together, I left the two of them alone to get to know each other and went out into the car park to call people with the news. I was totally blown away, an emotional wreck and cried tears of relief and joy through the first three or four phonecalls. I took a good hour to pull myself together.

I said my goodbyes back in the ward and drove to a little French style café not far from the hospital. I was absolutely starving. I ate a full breakfast and slowly, slowly came back down to Earth.

So that was natural childbirth. On paper, not even a very unusual one. No medical ‘complications’. But it was terrifying. I wouldn’t want to put the Mrs through that again. Ever. Or myself, for that matter.

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