Is The ‘Birth Experience’ Really Important?

The phrase ‘positive birth experience’ conjours up two images: one of treating birth as a spiritual experience, peacefully wallowing in a birth pool with candles and new age music playing and dining on the placenta afterwards, the other approaching it as some sort of athletic endurance event with no medication allowed and a fair amount of blood, sweat and tears.  In my opinion, what is important about the birth experience is not necessarily what happened, but how you feel about what happened, whether you gave birth at on a labour ward, in a midwife-led unit, or at home, whether you had a vaginal birth or a c-section.

There is also the school of thought that ‘a healthy baby is all that matters’.  Well, no, getting pregnant does not make you a vessel for your unborn child.  A pregnant woman is still a human being with rights and feelings.  Being pregnant doesn’t give anyone the right to bully you, frighten you, or do things to you without your consent.  You still have the right to make decisions and choices about what happens during pregnancy, labour and birth.  And what mum would knowingly make a decision that harms her baby anyway?  Other people say that it is just one day of your life and so it doesn’t really matter what happens – but I would argue that it is a momentous occasion and what happens can affect you for a long time afterwards.

Adjusting to life as a new mum can be a challenge.  There is a steep learning curve involved.  There is a lot to come to terms with; suddenly going from one being to two, lack of sleep, learning how to take care of a newborn, and the physical healing process from the birth.  Getting off to a good start, and feeling happy and positive makes it much easier.  Or, to put it another way, if you start of full of negative feelings, anxiety, fear or unhappiness, it makes it much harder.

I’ve had one negative and one positive birth experience.  The negative one (my first birth) left me feeling very anxious, like my body was stuck on ‘high alert’ all the time, and this affected how I felt about myself as a mother, and how I dealt with the day-to-day challenges of looking after a tiny person who has very limited communication.  I jumped every time my baby made a sound and dreaded her waking up, I felt like a terrible mother and went into a panic when my baby cried because I felt like I wasn’t good enough.  I remember people asking me ‘are you enjoying it?’ (being a mum) and although I smiled and said yes, inside I was thinking ‘What??? Are you mad???’.  I was exhausted not just from the disturbed nights but from being anxious and angry all the time, and trying to process and come to terms with what had happened.  It took me over a year before I felt anything like  ‘normal’ again, and it was over two years (and some counselling) before I felt ready to face another pregnancy.

The positive birth, on the other hand, left me on a high.  It was a planned home VBAC that ended in hospital (click for the full story).  When they placed my baby on my chest I felt like I could take on the world, I was totally relaxed and happy.  I would willingly do it all again, and I actually feel a bit sad that we don’t plan to have any more children.  This time I feel full of energy and love (although exhausted at the end of the day of course!).  I think it is telling that my second baby has started smiling two weeks earlier than my first, because I am smiling at her all day!  I expected life with two small children to be a case of grit your teeth and get through it, but if you asked me now ‘are you enjoying it?’ the answer would be a resounding ‘Yes!’.

Coming back to the phrase ‘birth experience’ – I don’t think a positive birth is dependent on a checklist of what you should or should not do.  It is possible to find a home birth traumatic, and a c-section wonderful.  I think really it comes down to knowing what you want, and making the right choices to make it happen.  Obviously sometimes there are special circumstances, and things don’t go to plan, but if you feel calm and in control of what is happening then you will feel strong and empowered rather than frightened or even traumatised.   The ripple effect of how you feel about your birth can affect your life, and your whole family, for a long time afterwards.


My VBAC Success Story

Things have been a bit quiet on the blog lately, because our baby girl finally arrived!  Here is the story of how she came into the world… My first birth was an emergency c-section after a failed induction.  This time I had planned a home water birth (HWBAC) with an independent midwife.  My partner and I also had HypnoBirthing classes during the pregnancy (I used the self-hypnosis CDs in my first pregnancy which didn’t help me at all).

It was about 2am and my 3-year-old woke up, needing to be tucked back into bed, and I realised I was having contractions about 10-15 minutes apart.  They just felt like my belly was going hard and tight and I practised my hypnobirthing breathing with each one.  I tried to go back to sleep but I was too excited so I came downstairs and started listening to my hypnobirthing CD so that I was at least resting.  About 4.30 in the morning I went to the loo and felt a pop as my waters released.  After that the contractions started coming every 4-5 minutes, but they were still easily manageable.  I woke my husband up so that he could help me time the contractions and because I was hoping things would move along quickly!  About 5.30am he decided we should call the midwife but she said that I was too happy and chatty and that she would phone back later.

Our daughter woke up at around 6.30am as usual and came downstairs.  My husband got her dressed and made her breakfast.  I was still quite happy breathing through the contractions at this point and we explained that the baby was coming today!  She was very excited to hear this!  Over the next few hours things gradually got more intense and I started making quite a lot of noise with each contraction (apologies to the neighbours!).  We had explained previously that mummy might make some funny noises and we laughed about how I sounded like a dinosaur.  The midwife came over at around 10.30am and examined me but said that it was still early (later I found out I was still only 1cm!) and that she would be back later that afternoon.  I was quite disappointed as I felt like I’d already been going for ages!

As things progressed I was finding it more difficult to focus, I was getting noisier and couldn’t find any comfortable  position, even between contractions.  At about 1pm we decided to send my daughter to a friend’s house, thinking it would only be a few more hours, as I felt I needed more support from my husband, and she was beginning to get a bit upset by the noise.  We also phoned my hypnobirthing teacher and asked her to come over.  When she arrived she helped me focus on getting into a rhythm with each contraction, and we all ended up chanting ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1, relax’ together which helped me immensely.  She also made me repeat over and over ‘I can do it, I will do it’ which really helped me to find some more strength from somewhere.  We also tried a few different things to help speed things along and try to ensure baby was in a good position and to get me more comfortable, like walking up and down the  stairs.  I also got in the pool for a while but I was surprised to find that it didn’t help at all!

Then my midwife arrived (timings are a bit hazy by this point!) and said she would stay this time.  I checked myself and realised that I could feel the head coming down!  I also started having a massive urge to push with each contraction.  It was like nothing I had ever imagined.  My hypnobirthing training had led me to expect that I could gently breathe down the baby with each surge, but it was like my whole body just decided it was time to PUSH!!!!! and there was nothing I could do about it.  So instead of breathing the baby down I just tried to let go and not resist the pushing, and let my body get on with it.  I was determined to get the baby out before my daughter’s bedtime so that she could come home.   I kept expecting the midwife to say she could see the head at any moment but nothing happened.  After about 2 hours I checked myself again and realised that the head hadn’t moved at all.  Not one tiny bit! I was devastated!  My midwife examined me to confirm and we tried a few different things to try and help baby move down, but she wasn’t budging.  After another half an hour I realised we were getting nowhere fast and asked to go to hospital.  My midwife agreed that we had tried everything and hadn’t made any progress, and that we did need medical intervention.

My midwife called an ambulance and we transferred to hospital.  When we arrived I started using gas and air because I was exhausted from all the pushing and I really wanted to stop.  A doctor came and said that they would try ventouse, otherwise it would be a c-section.  I was scared at the prospect of another c-section (I have a *huge* phobia of hospitals and surgery) but thanks to the hypnobirthing I was able to stay calm and relaxed, I also realised that there really wasn’t much choice at this point.  However we had a massive delay because there was one emergency after another, and only one theatre, and so we ended up waiting a further 4 HOURS before it was my turn to go into theatre, all the while pushing and trying not to!  So in total I was pushing for 7 hours – luckily it didn’t feel like that long, and I stayed calm the whole time, which I think is down to hypnobirthing again.

Once I got into theatre I had a spinal block which was blessed relief after all that pushing.  I was relieved that things were finally coming to an end and was even able to laugh and joke with the hospital staff.  They did an episiotomy and used the ventouse, and with 2 massive pushes/pulls the baby was out.  I couldn’t believe it! I had done it!  It wasn’t quite the lovely peaceful home water birth I had imagined but I was still over the moon!  I felt like the strongest woman in the world, like I could do anything now.  When they put my baby on my chest I was so happy, it was the best feeling in the whole world.  It was amazing.  In fact I’d say I’m still on a high now, 4 weeks later.

I am so thankful to my husband for being there and supporting me, my hypnobirthing teacher for going over and above the call of duty and helping me out on the day, and my fantastic midwife for being completely respectful and making me feel like every decision was my decision.  Between the three of them I felt calm and relaxed throughout the whole experience, even when we transferred to hospital, and although things didn’t quite go to plan it was still a really positive experience which has helped to heal a lot of the hurt from my first birth.