“How was it for you?” Why childbirth stories need to be heard

Trigger warning: detailed description of labour and childbirth

Being a mother is a lonely venture. Sometimes you are lucky enough to gauge another new mum on a similar wavelength and a conversation strikes up. And when it does you are never far from the question; “how was the birth?”

The first sign of my daughter taking after her mother was her reluctance to leave, despite it being the best thing for her. Perhaps not wanting to insult her host of 40 plus weeks, she stayed in uterine confinement until the hint of hormonal assistance jump-started her into the world.

(The second sign is her self-frustration at missing her first attempt to latch at feeds – leading to mother and daughter both taking the blame onto their shoulders, red-faced but determined to stick the landing on the fourth attempt.)

Even going into my third trimester, I had been determined not to have a birth plan, but some research and my fantastic fifth midwife (who made sure I’d get to see her again rather than be passed on to whoever was available) convinced me to seek a referral to the King’s College Hospital home birth unit. A birth pool was ordered and remained parcelled up in a corner of the bedroom, home birth being a possibility, not a certainty.

Christmas, then my baby’s due date – 26th December – came and went. I saw in 2022 with “nosecco” and a friend’s dinner party, Jools Holland on the telly. I knew she wasn’t coming anytime soon; I would have to be induced.

On the morning of January 5th I couldn’t reach the hospital for two hours. I rage bashed through unsatisfactory missions in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla wondering when I could start what could be a three-day process. A try on my husband Lacey’s phone saw us put through straight away, although a promise of a callback was never met – the hospital was clearly understaffed and exceptionally busy. Eventually I was admitted at lunchtime, monitored for two hours and told my high blood pressure readings meant I would be an inpatient. A positive covid test result the day before meant this would be on an isolated ward for pre and post natal parents.

We arrived on the dark ward at 6pm and that’s when the realisation set in; this was it now. I might not have felt the need for a tightly planned birth but I certainly hadn’t planned for this. Two pregnant women were already resident, one due to have an early C section the following day at 35 weeks pregnant, the other in for observation. My bedside call button did not work and I was instead instructed to ring a number if I needed help.

When the prostaglandin hormone (for encouraging my cervix to ripen and open) was administered earlier that afternoon we were given a speech indicating a it would be process that took place over a few days and stages of treatment, so I sent Lacey home to sleep not realising the backache I’d developed were contractions; within an hour I would be experiencing four every ten minutes, some overlapping and lasting over three minutes; I was experiencing uterine hyperstimulation.

Other women I have spoken to who experienced a rush of contractions during their induction were given an injection to calm the process down. I was not. The pessary was removed and I was told the contractions would simmer down and we’d “revisit it in the morning” as I was only two centimetres dilated. I was given a bowl the texture of an egg box, which I later urgently vomited into and over. My water jug failed to provide respite post sickness, as it wasn’t refilled on request.

My partner had returned to me but my labour still felt like a lonely one. In the throes of consistent and constant pain I retreated into delirium. My bladder had declined to work in the bathroom, but when my waters broke I questioned this key moment of labour as perhaps my bladder finally kicking into gear. The midwife seemed to agree that I had simply wet myself, albeit in a spectacular fashion that required me to sniff my own amnoitic fluid and have a change of bedsheets. A bleed in the bathroom I led her to shortly after was a definite sign that my baby was on the move, but it too was seemingly ignored.

A moment of clemency seemed to arrive when I was asked if I’d like a pethidine injection (morphine). My sense of time had become hazy but I believe an hour later I was told a doctor who had never met me had declined to prescribe it, but I was now eligible for a second dose of paracetamol and codeine if I would like it.

Due to being “only two centimetres” during my examination earlier in the evening I was denied an epidural. I was not allowed gas and air.

I was also not examined again even though my contractions did not subside.

Despite my TENS machine getting disrupted by the CTG (trace) monitoring bands leading to frequent electrocutions, I had to keep putting the bands back on. In NCT classes you are encouraged to practice positions to help ease the pain of contractions. None of them involve lying on your back, but with the placement of the trace monitors on my baby and my uterus, I had no other option.

Earlier in the night I had tried to remain quiet for fear of upsetting the other women on the ward, but by the start of the new day I was pathetically crying out for help, openly questioning the lack of help. Exhausted from the six hours of unstoppable contractions, I started to drift off in the seconds between them.

Then my baby’s heart rate started to drop.

“I’m going to shit myself and I don’t even care anymore” I drowsily declared to my partner as I was told I would finally be moving upstairs to a delivery room, feeling the pushes of my baby trying to make an exit. The midwives were still none the wiser. No porter was called and I was made to walk, contacting in the corridor twice en route to the lift, leaving a discussion of me potentially needing a C section in my wake.

In the dark delivery room I met a midwife who made me lie back on a gurney for examination; I was fully ready to push and had a hairy headed baby. I also had gas and air stationed above my head and would I like some?

It’s an incredible source of motivation, finally being believed. I knew my baby girl needed to be born quickly due to her heart rate dropping on the trace. I breathed in the gas and air and forced it back out with my pushes, holding her in place with my pelvic floor between each burst of effort to avoid my relaxing muscles taking her backwards. I roared with the effort, but found a sense of focus as the trauma of the past six hours faded into the background.

Six minutes later a wailing baby, long and bloody, was placed on my body. We already knew her name: Aoife.

The benefit of being on a covid ward for mums is that you may have the only baby requiring attention. Due to Aoife being born jaundice the attention was needed and the care was better than we had imagined possible. To get it I had to return to the same ward in which I’d writhed helplessly in pain, but this time to the empty bay beside my previous bed. This one had a call button that worked (until it was accidentally ripped from the wall by a midwife during my stay.)

After four nights my husband, my baby and I left the hospital. My legs threatened to giveaway but somehow stayed firm enough to reach the car. I’d been up all night feeding Aoife to clear her jaundice and somehow had succeeded. As a midwife did a 2am check she brought a sense of vindication; “I was on shift that night, heard about your bleed and knew you were good to go.”

When I have the “how was it for you” conversation with other mums, I am struck by how desperate we are to be heard. How the words tumble out and fresh memories are remembered. An empty water jug. The lack of call button. Dinner and breakfast requests never taken and food not forthcoming. A lack of examinations. Vomit everywhere. Crouching in tears behind the locked door of a bathroom.

I have heard so many tales of unnecessary pain. Of the trauma of not being believed. Sudden rushes to the operating theatre. Speedy discharges with successful breastfeeding boxes signed off despite evidence to the contrary. Cesarean scars opening. Cesarean stitches becoming infected. A private obstetrician making no attempt to hide their irritation at their patient’s inconvenient desire to not go voluntarily under the knife. Babies losing weight because their parents weren’t given comprehensible feeding information and didn’t know how much formula to bottle feed.

We are hasty in sharing our stories for the relief of finally being listened to. And we believe each other without reservation.

I don’t know where my mind would be otherwise.

I still get YouTube videos advertising “raw, totally natural, drug-free birth vlogs”, but denying oneself pain relief shouldn’t be applauded. It is a personal choice, not a trend. Yet, with personal beliefs making their way into labour wards and being imposed onto pregnant people, there will never cease to be labouring women on their own, screaming into the night.