I have thought a lot about whether I should share Ella’s birth story. It involved almost everything that I had not wanted to happen, and a few things I had long considered ‘my worst nightmare’. Despite this, I don’t consider it a negative birth story, nor was it traumatic in any way. I do not wish that it could have been any different, and I do not mourn the home birth that we had hoped for. I am proud of every single second of the marathon I endured. I was loved, cared for, respected, informed, and fully committed to every single decision we made.
I would have found it helpful to read more birth stories like mine while I was pregnant. It is easy to think that there are only two types of delivery- those that are beautiful and go to plan, and those disasters that spiral out of control. There are as many types of delivery as there are labours, and you can feel empowered and at peace with your experience of birth no matter how it unfolds.
For me, Ella’s arrival was more than just a positive birth; it was the perfect birth – the appropriate amount of effort to bring my magical daughter earth-side. All I wanted from labour (apart from a healthy baby) was to come out the other side feeling strong, and with my sense of self intact. After Ella’s birth, I felt like a warrior.
Ella’s Birth Story
I was lucky enough to have a lovely pregnancy. Despite intense morning sickness for months two, three, and four, and some serious fatigue, I escaped pretty much all of the more uncomfortable symptoms, and felt a magical bond with the tiny life inside me that sparked on the day of conception, and helped me to ride out any physical discomfort with relative ease.
I finished work early, around thirty-three weeks, and practised hypnobirthing, meditation, and yoga every day. I felt good about birth. I had been having Braxton Hicks since around twenty weeks, and around thirty-four weeks everything started to feel as though it was moving towards labour. Ella dropped into my pelvis, causing almost constant period pain, and my Braxton Hicks became more uncomfortable. I knew that Ella was in a good position for birth, and as my body began limbering up, I felt certain that it would know what to do when the time came.
I can’t really say when my labour started. It was such a gradual process. On Friday 7th June I woke in the night with painful contractions and an upset stomach. I went back to sleep and nothing else happened. The contractions continued throughout the weekend, and on Sunday I lost some of my mucus plug. Over the next week contractions became more painful, so that I would need to stop if I was walking, or breathe deeply through them. On Tuesday 11th they started to feel ‘tuggy’, like they were pulling up the bottom of my uterus. I felt excited, lost more of my mucus plug, but again each morning nothing else had happened. I couldn’t do too much, or travel far from home, and me and my husband Christian were both convinced a) that it was going to happen soon, and b) that when it did it would be quick.
On Friday 14th our midwife said it sounded as though I was in latent labour, that it could go on for a while, and that if I started to feel exhausted, I should consider a sweep to get things started more quickly. I had always believed that Ella would arrive on full moon (Monday 17th – Wednesday 19th) and opted to wait until then and trust my body in the meantime.
On Monday 17th things got more intense, and that evening I realised that I was no longer able to focus on the television, and needed to pace up and down the room. I put the TENS machine on. At this point, with all the pain in my front, the TENS was a brilliant relief. That night, for the first time, I couldn’t sleep through the contractions. I lay in the dark next to Christian and gripped his hand in his sleep each time one rolled in. They were pretty infrequent, every nine or ten minutes, but I knew something was happening. At 2am I called the home birth midwives to let them know that things might be moving along. They said to call back when my contractions were coming three every ten minutes, and lasting a minute each.
I didn’t sleep that night, and the next morning on Tuesday, our doula Maren came over to check on me and decided to stay. What followed was a whole day of getting my body into a more established pattern of contractions so that we could call the midwives to come and examine me. I walked around the local streets, hanging onto Maren or Christian when I had a contraction. By the afternoon they were coming every 3 or 4 minutes and lasting about a minute each. I could feel Ella moving down, but by this point all the pain had started to radiate through my lower back. The TENS machine was no longer helpful. With each contraction I could feel my sacrum like a white hot plate being pushed away from my body. It made me feel sick and slightly out of control, and I would need someone to press hard into my back and hips until it had subsided. Pain is an amorphous and orphaned thing though; its impact depends entirely on context, and attitude. I felt cared for and loved, and I thought that things were moving along and that I would meet my full moon baby that night, and so everything was manageable.
The midwives came over to check me that evening. We were setting the pool up when they arrived and I was starting to feel quite shaky. Privately, I was worried about how tired I was, how many days I’d been having contractions for, and how little food and sleep I had managed. I think I knew in the back of my mind, that without fuel or rest, my uterus could only keep working this hard for so long. The midwives examined me and explained that they would need to leave and come back; I later found out I was only 1cm. At the time I asked not to know numbers, just whether they could stay or not. They started packing their bags and told me to try and get some sleep.
I felt very deflated and confused. How had my body seemingly been preparing itself for weeks, and yet I wasn’t even in established labour? How could my contractions be so powerful and not be doing anything?
That night was psychologically and physically extremely difficult. My attitude to the pain shifted once I knew I still had a long way to go. There was no way I could sleep. I tried, but each contraction rolled in every few minutes and took my breath away. I felt like my back was breaking. I had never expected labour to feel so skeletal. The contractions in my uterus felt muscular and normal; the back pain felt like something was wrong, like my bones were being pulled apart. At about midnight I crawled into the living room where Maren was resting and (we laugh about this now) asked if we could please just go to hospital and get me a caesarean? I was starting to feel trapped by the pain and like I couldn’t find a way through it with so little energy.
We discussed it, and agreed that I would try for a few more hours to see if I could get back in the zone. From that point on, I sat on my birth ball leaning on the kitchen table, listening to the PBC Freya birth app and my hypnobirthing tape from The Hypnobirthing Midwife on repeat for seven hours. Maren or Christian took it in shifts to sit behind me and squeeze my pelvis together through each contraction. In between each one my body shook uncontrollably and I drank lucozade or water, and tried to nibble flapjacks. But I did find my zone. My breathing calmed and I found I could move and soften with each contraction. I thought I could feel my body opening up, and in a strange way I started to find some bliss in the pain. It was kind of what I had expected from birth – I was taken way past my edge and asked simply to carry on, and carry on, and carry on, for hours and hours. The affirmation on my tape ‘my baby’s birth will be beautiful’ almost made me cry each time, and I surfed each wave feeling like I was getting somewhere at last.
At 7am on Wednesday, the midwives came back to examine me. Ella’s heartbeat was strong. My contractions were strong, and long, and regular. The midwives didn’t rush to examine me as I was in such strong labour, they just set about getting their things out and waiting until I could manage another examination. When they finally did look, I was still just 1cm. I had been rallying all the strength I owned up until this point, and I had nothing left. I started to worry for mine and Ella’s safety. I hadn’t eaten or slept properly since Monday morning, and had been managing contractions for over a week before that. Up until this moment being at home had felt right, but immediately I knew we needed to change our approach.
We sat down on our bed as a group to discuss the options. I could either go to the birth centre and be given a Pethidine shot, an opiate that would knock me out for a few hours so I could rest and would mean I could deliver Ella as naturally as possible in a birthing suite with a pool. I could go to Homerton delivery ward and get a painkiller drip that I could release each time I had a contraction. Or I could go straight for the epidural on the delivery ward. We opted for the pethidine, and I had to climb into an Uber at 8am and drive to Homerton hospital to get checked into the birth centre. The contractions were less manageable at this point because emotionally I was so deflated, and was also beginning to worry about Ella, and my ability to bring her out when I was so exhausted.
En route to the hospital I had a complete change of heart. It felt like a fork in the road. I think it was the clearest and best decision I could have made. It suddenly seemed ridiculous and unsafe to get dosed up on an opiate when I was so exhausted, have a strange drugged up sleep through my contractions, and then be expected to wake up and continue to labour. I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t be able to push Ella out in that scenario. As I crossed the hospital car park with Maren and Christian on either side of me, I decided to have the epidural instead and go straight to the delivery ward.
We met with the midwives and explained our change of plan. They handed us over to the hospital team. The midwife on call started to say that they couldn’t give me an epidural when I was only 1cm because I wasn’t in established labour. Then there was a flurry of activity and new people walked into the room, a midwife called Fatima and her student midwife Alex. Fatima explained that the shift was changing and she would be our midwife for the day. Immediately the atmosphere in the room shifted. She was so loving and kind and efficient. She set about getting the epidural arranged, and each time a contraction arrived she commented on how high my pain threshold was and how well I was doing. She made me feel strong again.
Getting the epidural was not so fun, and apparently I gripped Fatima’s hand so hard it went a bit blue (sorry Fatima!) but it was over very quickly and I felt good about my decision so the process was bearable. The doctors wanted to break my waters, and get me started on the induction drip. I asked Fatima if we could wait for the epidural to kick in so that I could think clearly, then have my waters broken, and then wait to see if I needed the drip. My contractions were so strong I wasn’t convinced that it was necessary. Fatima was amazing, consulted with the doctors, and agreed to try it.
I would just say here, that up until this point, I had always viewed epidurals as a slightly creepy, masculine, disempowering hijack of the feminine power of labour. Designed to render the labouring women numb, on her back, and – crucially – not shouting in pain, to ensure the atmosphere was easier and more sanitary for the doctors and partner in the room. Instead, in the situation we found ourselves, the epidural gave me back my power. I could think again. I was back in my own head, back in the room, and importantly, was able to dilate now that my body was not fighting against the intense pain in my sacrum. The amount that I knew and had read about birth was also vital – it gave me the knowledge I needed to ask for precisely what I wanted throughout our time in hospital (which was often slightly different from what would have been prescribed as standard – in no way a criticism; medicine needs to be standardised and it’s up to us as individuals to be as informed as possible in order to ensure we get personalised care) and meant that I never felt left out or confused by any conversations that were happening around me. The things that happen to you during childbirth are some of the most profound and deeply felt experiences you will ever have, and yet they are often overseen by somebody who has known you for five minutes. I would advise every woman to clue herself up, and have included a list of the best books I read while pregnant at the bottom of this post.
My waters were broken mid morning, and by midday I was 4-5cm. With no induction drip. I continued to labour on my back, a position I had always dreaded being in but now felt like the best way for me to conserve my energy and rest. The doctors wanted me on the drip. They were concerned about the length of my labour and the amount of time spent with no waters. I eventually agreed to test out a 10ml/hr dose at 3pm. The drip was started and quite soon after that my uterus went into spasm. My contractions were lasting around 10 minutes each with no break, or I was having six long ones every 10 minutes. Fatima sat beside me with her hand on my tummy waiting for my uterus to relax. She switched off the drip. She restarted it later at 5ml/hr and then increased it back up to 10ml. I understood the importance of time, now that my labour had been going on for so many days, but the frequency and length of my contractions while I was on it unnerved me. When I got to 8cm later that night I asked if we could now switch it off and they agreed.
Throughout these lengthy contractions, Ella’s heartbeat never dipped. Not once. At each internal examination, Fatima would tickle her head and we’d listen to her getting excited and everyone would laugh and comment about how strong she was. They named her The Warrior Princess. I felt so in love with her and so desperate to meet her. For hours Christian, Maren and I dozed in the room, Ella’s constant heartbeat on the monitor in the background, making us all feel safe.
There was a shift change at 8pm and I was gutted to say goodbye to Fatima and Alex. I felt they had transformed things for us, and listened to us, giving me half top-ups of epidural and only when I asked – I was determined to be able to move as much as possible when the time came to push.
Our new midwife Susannah was lovely, and by midnight I was fully dilated. Despite having as little of the epidural as possible, my lower body was almost completely numb, and I was tethered to the bed by various IV drips and a catheter. Everyone helped me try different positions until I found one I could push effectively in – on my back with my feet up. Literally everything I hadn’t wanted from this birth but we had to respond to where we were.
Earlier that morning, when I opted for the epidural, I was very aware that I was probably signing up for an assisted delivery or a caesarean. I had to be on nil by mouth throughout the day in case of being rushed to theatre, so the pushing stage arrived at the third sleepless and food-free night in a row- I could feel my hunger pains through the epidural, and I had some hallucinations (though they didn’t bother me at the time, and I knew they weren’t real). I said to the midwives that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get Ella out because I was so tired. They reassured me but I also overheard a conversation about it being a high-risk delivery because of how exhausted I was.
After what felt like 20 minutes of pushing, the room suddenly filled with people. A consultant/doctor, a registrar and lots of others. They explained that I had been pushing for over an hour, that I was very swollen, and that there was a risk of me bleeding heavily if I continued for much longer. I asked for another half hour and they gave me a little more time, everyone shouting at me to push harder. I wasn’t entirely numb, but I couldn’t feel my contractions clearly and couldn’t figure out how to push. In the end I opted for brute force because it was the only thing I could access and I had to get Ella out.
Ten more minutes and the registrar, Alice, came back and explained she would try to use the suction cup on Ella’s head, but that I needed to push hard or it wouldn’t work. She attached the ventouse and helped me push as hard as I possibly could. I could feel myself being damaged, but I needed to make sure Ella was okay. Suddenly one of the other doctors, Jess I think, said ‘there she is, reach down and hold her head, hold her head’. I looked down and there was my baby! My beautiful baby girl. Looking exactly as I knew she would. Wonderful and perfect and like I’d known her all my life. Jess told me to keep my hands on her head and keep my eyes open as they got her out and onto my chest. I hadn’t asked for this in my birth preferences, but I am so grateful to Jess for making it happen. It connected me to the lower half of my body, to Ella, and to the delivery, which at that point felt like a far-off anaesthetised foreign land. It made me feel whole and present, like it was happening to me; embodied when I couldn’t feel my body. In an environment where things were being taken away from me, it was a huge gift. It was the best moment of my entire life. Ella was here.
The doctors were right to be worried about potential blood loss. I haemorrhaged as I delivered Ella, and people set about preparing a bed for theatre while still allowing me and Ella skin to skin, and Alice even waited for the cord to stop pulsing before asking Christian to cut it. These moments on their own are the cure to the potential trauma of a difficult labour, but more than that, the personal care shown by the doctors to ensure they happened filled me with warmth and light through an experience that could so easily have felt dark and lonely.
After this things sped up pretty quickly. I heard Alice say to me that in addition to the episiotomy they’d had to do (I had no idea this had happened) I had also sustained a third degree tear (front to back) and had lost a litre of blood. She filled me with absorbent paper, Ella was handed to Christian, and I was wheeled straight down to theatre.
I was given a full spinal block on the operating table. I couldn’t feel anything but my arms and head. I was also given diamorphine. I was a bit delirious at this point. I remember making jokes with the doctors while in the back of my very blurry mind wondering where Ella was and feeling ripped apart from her. My uterus was still contracting strongly and I kept thinking it was her still inside me. They stitched me up and wheeled me round to recovery. I couldn’t close my eyes because I didn’t have a body and I was worried I was going to float away. This was the only moment throughout the whole experience where I panicked. The doctor I was with put the radio on for me and told me to focus on the music. (Unfortunately ‘Bad Day’ by Daniel Powter was playing. Fortunately, this was hilarious.) My lungs felt heavy from the drugs. I asked the doctor to please get my husband, my baby, and my doula.
After what felt like an age (Christian says it was twenty minutes) Christian and Maren brought Ella to me. She had spent the first moments of her life on Christian’s chest, skin to skin with her daddy. I was so happy that this was where she had been, safe and warm with him. I fed her immediately and I could feel all the drama melt away and something deep being healed. I couldn’t believe how strong she was to have stayed calm and safe through such a long and intense labour. She was a chunky 8lbs7oz and she came out sleeping. My angel.
It is a mark of how brilliant the team was that day, that I feel only huge positivity and strength as a result of what we went through. The registrar Alice who had delivered Ella and sewn me up, came to my room the following evening to check I was okay, and to let me know I couldn’t have done anything differently. She said that it was perhaps not right to consider any first-time pregnancy as ‘low-risk’ when it came to birth; first-time mothers are simply of ‘undetermined risk’. This rang so true to me, and made me feel conflicted about some of the things I had read while pregnant. Certainly I had bought into an idea that childbirth usually proceeds naturally if left alone, and that interventions are the enemy. I feel very strongly that if left alone, either Ella or I – or both- would not have survived; it was interventions that saved us.
It is only a negative birth if you are traumatised or psychologically affected by an aspect of it. I feel only gratitude, luck, and strength. We took a lot of photographs during labour and I insisted on looking through them while still in hospital. Christian was concerned that they would upset me, and I haven’t shared them here because I do think that to an outsider disconnected from the event itself, they probably do look upsetting. But to me, to see myself grey with exhaustion on the fourth sleepless day, dopey with drugs, fluid-swollen from the epidurals, and to know that I still managed to deliver my daughter after all of that, I feel incredibly proud and I know more than ever that I am ready to be Ella’s mum.
My mum cried when she came to take me from hospital back home. She had a similar experience with my birth and was devastated that I had been through the same thing. My mum is strong, and after this experience I know that so am I. Ella is just the next in a line of strong women who had to work hard to get here.