When do you become a mother? I always thought it was the point at which you gave birth; the physical delivery of the child within, to then become a babe in arms. Thinking about it now, I’m not so sure. Mothering happens from the moment we see those two blue lines, from avoiding alcohol and unpasteurised cheese to attending pre-birth classes, they’re all part of mothering, or at the very least, our journey to becoming a mother. This is the story of my journey.
I was 25 weeks pregnant with Pip when I visited our local hospital and had a tour of the birth centre. I never got to see the labour ward. I’ve never had a panic attack, but, in one of those birthing suites, I felt I came pretty close to experiencing what one must feel like. A crashing, sudden wave of extreme emotion, a feeling of claustrophobia; as though the walls were closing in on me, an immediate sense of needing to leave the space I was in, right NOW.
Once I'd made a break from the intense stifling heat and reached the cool air of the concrete foyer outside, I felt marginally better. But in the days that followed, I realised that I had a problem; I was petrified of the inevitable path that lay before me. My reaction took me by surprise; I hadn’t expected to feel that way. Common sense told me that sticking my head in the sand and ignoring the issue would not be the correct course of action. I needed to address it - head on. I had already registered for NCT classes and the hospital’s ante-natal classes; a double dip attempt to ensure I was equipped with as much information as possible. Yet in this case, I realised, it wasn’t just information I needed to help me; what I needed to understand was how I was going to cope psychologically with the challenge of birthing. I had visualised Pip’s birth as a calm, positive experience, but after visiting the hospital, I didn’t feel confident that I had the self control to make that happen. It was then that I decided to enrol in hypnobirthing classes.
I hadn’t even heard of hypnobirthing before I became pregnant. One of the main theories behind hypnobirthing is that the majority of pain experienced in labour is due to fear and tension, which can be eliminated through relaxation techniques. I enrolled myself and my husband on a 2 day workshop, which we completed when I was around 30 weeks pregnant.
The course and workshops taught us relaxation and self hypnosis techniques, it dealt with my fears, and talked in detail about the various physiological stages of labour and how a woman may feel during each of these stages. Husband (who had more or less been dragged along protesting; "Do I have to come? It’ll be full of sandal wearing, lentil munchers") was brilliant. He embraced doing all the exercises with me, in fact, I think he actually quite enjoyed doing them. We watched videos of mothers hypnobirthing in real life. Calm, peaceful, drug free experiences showing the labouring mother in a state of peaceful relaxation. Watching these films was a genuine eye opener for me, my only previous experiences of watching real life birth had been watching ‘One born every minute’ on TV.
In the weeks after the course, and preceding Pip’s birth, I listened to the hypnobirthing CD we had been given and practiced the exercises every day. As Pip’s due date approached, I realised how much my viewpoint had changed. I now had no fear about labour. I saw my body as a vessel; carrying precious cargo, I saw it as my job to bring my son into the world, in as calm and pain free way as possible. I felt that any tension or stress I created in myself, would just make his journey more difficult. I felt an inner calm about the whole thing.
One day post due date, my contractions started after dinner. In true last minute.com style, I hadn’t yet put up the wall decals I had bought for Pip’s nursery, so for as long as the contractions would allow, I popped up and down the small step ladder in his room putting the final flourishing touches to his black and white ‘monkey jungle’. At midnight I took a bath and finally, as the intensity of the contractions increased and the timing between them lessened, we departed for the hospital at 3.30am.
I still remember our midwife greeting us in the birthing centre. I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I’d even seen. Half Spanish, half Welsh, olive skin, dark hair. Her eyes matched the blue of her scrubs, and she wore little turquoise earring studs that also co-ordinated. I felt at ease in her presence. She showed me into a room and we agreed that I would sit in the bath there whilst she prepared the room next door that had a birthing pool. As it was, I never left my temporary residence. A small narrow NHS bath, with husband sitting on a stool next to me, became the place my body told me was the right place to be. Gas and air helped with some strong contractions, but was otherwise my only aid. That, and the techniques I’d learnt on the course. I can still remember sitting in the bath practising the ‘rainbow‘ relaxation exercise. In second stage labour things seemed to slow and monitoring revealed that Pip was starting to get distressed. I had to be persuaded to leave the soothing water that had become my sanctuary. When I saw the midwife planned to use a birthing stool I felt apprehensive, but I put my trust in her and did as she said. Pip was delivered a few minutes later. It was just past 7am.
The umbilical cord had been wrapped tightly around his neck and was cut by the midwife during delivery. As she passed him to me, my first thought was what a mess he looked. His face was blue and swollen. It looked huge compared to the rest of his tiny body, everything about him was round, tightly curled, like a fist. I held him for a few seconds. Looking at his face, his hair. Amazed by him. A miracle. The midwife quickly took him again, rubbing him vigorously with a towel on his back and chest, trying to get him to breathe more easily. "He needs oxygen," she said. In the next moment, the door of the room was closing and she, Pip and my husband were gone.
The minutes I spent alone in that birthing room after Pip was born were possibly the longest minutes of my life. Lying prostrate, wondering; 'Is he alright?' The room seemed so quiet. A midwife I hadn't met before came in; "Everything is going to be fine," she said, "Shall we deliver the placenta whilst we are waiting?". Suddenly, my contacting uterus hurt, and all I could think about was my son somewhere else in that hospital, not knowing whether he was ok. My calm failed me, and I started to feel agitated. Delivering my now non-budging placenta naturally didn’t matter a jot to me. "But you’ve done so well doing it naturally up to now." The second midwife seemed disappointed. After a short discussion, I was given an injection to release it. No stitches or remedial work were needed, (due I’m sure, to my prolonged submersion in water) so she disappeared, placenta in a bag. Alone again. Tick. Tock. Seconds passing on a very slow clock. A paediatrician with a cheery smile poked his head around the door; "I’ve just seen your son. He’s going to be fine". Then, only then, did I start to feel reassured.
I’ll never forget my husband walking back into the room with Pip in his arms, wrapped tightly in a fresh, white towel. After what seemed an eternity of waiting, I got my first proper cuddle. In that moment, it finally felt real; I was a mother. We stayed, Pip and I, skin to skin, laid on the birthing mat, for the next two hours. The most amazing, magical two hours ever.
Our midwife came to say goodbye, her shift had finished. I was almost sad to say farewell, her uninvasive but reassuring presence throughout the night had meant a lot. For me, hers was a face I shall remember forever (even if it had just been an ordinary one, rather than the beauty it was,) but for her, within a few births we would become just another couple she had successfully delivered a baby for, our faces fading into obscurity.
She knelt beside me; “ Before I go, I just wanted to tell you - You’re an incredibly strong woman”.
I was surprised. Me? Little old me, who cries at sentimental stuff on the TV. Wow. Yes, Me. I guessed she didn’t always say that to everyone. I thought about how far I had come; in myself. How even before Pip had been born, actually, I had already started mothering, determined as I was, to overcome my fears and to give him the best journey I could into this world.
I've no doubt that hypnobirthing got me a lot of the way there. It might not be everyone's proverbial cup of tea, but it worked for me. Pip's birth was one of the most positive, life affirming experiences of my life.