I came across an article recently that listed things that only women who have actually given birth understand or know.
The list, for me, fell short a tad. I didn’t have a weird zen expectation of birth, nor did I go in with the hope of scented candles and Mozart on a play list. I didn’t even have a play list.
For my last birth, the biggest planning worry I had was finding someone to look after my older child whilst I went in to have the baby.
My first experience of birth was very traumatic. I was in labour on and off for a week as the medical teams around me fought tirelessly to hold off labour in order to give my very premature twin daughters a chance.
The birth itself, when it did happen, was both beautiful and tragic all at once.
Then, my final birth was last year to my first term-plus baby as she was five days over.
I’ve spoken over the years to some new mums-to-be and frankly, they just don’t get it. I think the presumptions and expectations of the birthing experience can be very different to how you expected it to be. I think the vibe I’ve always got is people expected it to be either much worse or much easier than it actually is. The truth is a mixture of both.
Some things are much worse than you think they will be and other bits are much easier. Then there are things that you didn’t even think of that come along and shape your experience of labour and birth.
With my own experiences in mind, here is my list of things I found after having given birth. Maybe you will understand… But not necessarily!
Every moment is important and will stay with you over time. The weather outside your labour room window (during my last birth, it rained hard all day long), the time of day you arrived, how you arrived, the name of the midwife who delivered your baby, the lights, the room layout, the smells, the people… it is amazing how the memories of a day or two can imprint themselves into your memory, even more so than your wedding or other significant events. What is more important than becoming a mum?
What you expect it to be like and what you actually get, are generally two different things. With my second birth, I had a plan. I wanted to avoid pethadine and have an epidural to ensure a lovely, controlled, calm birth. Fat chance. Instead, I was on gas and air all the way through delivery as an epidural failed twice. I also hadn’t entertained the notion that there might be severe complications this time and that I would need emergency life-saving surgery immediately after delivery. Then with my next birth, I didn’t expect it to go so well. There is no formula and don’t expect it. Just go with your babies needs and your bodies.
You have no idea what gratitude is until you get in there and have your baby. The midwives are (at least in my case) wonderful human beings in the delivery suite. Their calmly delivered instructions, their raw belief in you and their empathy with your experience is breathtaking. But it isn’t just the midwives you feel overwhelmingly grateful to. The student midwives who are sometimes as new to this as you are and despite their own fears, act amazingly. The Health Care Assistants who give you a bed bath after the birth (I couldn’t stop apologising and thanking mine!). Your partner/husband/birth partner for putting their own fear and insecurities to one side to hold your hand and reassure you that you’re doing okay, that you are loved and that you are amazing – especially when you don’t think you are and that you cannot go on with exhaustion. Then the big gratitude goes to your baby, for just being born so beautiful and for being yours.
As the midwife who delivered my youngest said to me: “what happens on Delivery, stays on Delivery”. Neglected hairy legs akimbo, a midwife holding a flash light whilst a doctor or fellow midwife have a jolly good poke about down there – there isn’t much left to the imagination by the time you end up on the post-natal ward. There will even be a team of people hovering around the business end of your babies arrival, all hands on deck as it were. Do you care? Not by that point, no. Leave embarrassment and dignity at the door! Even bodily functions decide not to work properly anymore. If your body wants to remove matter from one end or another without your control, it simply will, whether you like it or not. I actually found that aspect much more embarrassing than the whole entire birth!
You have no idea how much you are capable of loving until you meet your baby. You have no concept of the word love until you become a parent – promise. The love from my husband for my baby and me is also a sustaining, soulfully nourishing substance that also shines like a new star. The love in the delivery room is second to none and there is nothing like it in this world.
You have no idea how bloody painful labour is, until it arrives. When I had my precious identical twins that were born at 24 weeks and 5 days, I was genuinely shocked at how painful it was to deliver them. One of them was 1lb 10oz and the other was 460g and it really hurt. So, when I gave birth to a full term baby for the first time, on her due date no less, it really, really hurt. There is no braving it out and thinking “I’ll cope, women have been giving birth for thousands of years without pain relief”, but I promise, if the pain relief we have today was available back then – they’d have snatched it up! Even Queen Victoria who had nine children had pain relief administered. No amount of hypno birthing or birth pools or mind over matter is going to stop the simple fact that something weighing 7lbs or so is going to come out of an impossibly small space and your contractions are going to hurt! Just be practical about pain relief. No woman is an island and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. A calmer you is more helpful to your baby than a screaming-in-pain (which does still happen I’m afraid) you. But… each to their own. Remember, this is just my perspective and I’m not judging anyone. It’s more a general heads up.
You have no idea how strong you are, or that you are capable of such strength. You won’t have slept well for ages before the birth as you get big and uncomfortable, so finding the strength to complete hours of labour (unless you are one of those lucky ladies who have mercifully quick births!) and then go through a birth process is remarkable. But you do. You go through pain and discomfort and terrible worry and anxiety – but the reward at the end is this gorgeous baby who I promise makes everything worthwhile. You’d gladly go through a million births and labours for that beautiful baby, so one seems like a great bargain! A piece of advice a friend gave me before I had my last was this: “each contraction is one less you have to do and one closer to the end”. Wise words.
It’s okay to be afraid and, to be honest, it’s natural. I’m not saying you will be afraid, but for your first one you might well be. It is basically that basic human fear of the unknown. My introduction into the world of birthing was not a great one or run-of-the-mill. It was tragic, traumatic and the most sorrowful experience as I knew in advance I was going to give birth too soon to a baby that would be alive but fighting for her life and another who I knew would be a stillbirth. I was understandably terrified and then for each of my subsequent births, absolutely terrified about something going wrong again. It was horrifying and I went in expecting the worst each time and being pleasantly surprised when it turned out okay for my babies. It’s okay though to be afraid about the future and of the pain and of everything really that will happen to you. You just need to listen to your midwife and your other half to find love support and guidance to make it through. You will do it!
Like the experience of love at first sight when you see your baby, the joy and euphoria you feel at the end of the birth is second to none. Little things you find joy in, like the moment the pain ends or the first time you can get a shower and properly wash yourself after the birth. The joy in watching your newborn sleep or latch on for the first time or seeing how much love your other half feels when they hold that baby for the first time is immeasurable. The wonder and emotion all encased in the joy you feel for really unexpected things is crazy, but all part of the experience.
Giving birth is a type of exhaustion you undergo as a woman that you cannot honestly understand until you’re there going through it. There is nothing like it. Finding energy out of nowhere is a very hard thing indeed and shows just how extremely amazing you are. Its okay to cry and feel like rubbish through the tiredness of dealing with wave after wave of contractions for a long period of time, or in the aftermath of the birth.
Think about things from the baby’s point of view and from that of our body in a biological sense. Your baby is going to need a snug, small sleep suit (don’t assume you’ll have a big baby because you were or you’re both tall. Pack newborn sized stuff! If you are having a big baby, your midwife will be able to measure you and tell you), hat, blanket, nappies, nappy sacks for the first icky poop, wipes or cotton wool, vests and a car seat. They are not going to need armfuls of toys and endless paraphernalia. A newborns needs are very, very basic indeed. You have the rest of your life to spoil them rotten! Being safe, warm and clean and fed are pretty much all they want and need.
Basically, on the post natal ward, you’re a sick person, looking after another sick person in a hospital where pretty much no-one has any time to help you. And you just have to crack on. You’re not sick per se, but it’s like the equivalent, especially if you are genuinely ill after giving birth. Your body is all over the place, you are beyond tired and need help your self to even go the loo, especially if you’ve had an epidural. Yet, you have to try and look after a brand new person who hasn’t begun figuring out how everything works yet. You just have to put that little, wriggling bundle before even your most basic needs – welcome to motherhood!
All that stuff you think you know about having babies and looking after them because you used to help your Auntie Sandra out when you were fifteen? It’s not even close to having your own. Not. Even. Close. No amount of parenting classes, books or your Mum telling you about how it was in her day is going to prepare you for the enormity of it. You have to find it out for yourself with the help of the midwifery team who will come out to you for the first week or two and the Health Visitor team who will look after you from then onwards. Honestly, it is daunting, but you will be okay. Even those of us who have had a few kids always find there is something our own vast knowledge and experience doesn’t contain. We are all still learning!
You’ll have a delightful birth plan, I’m sure, especially if you are new to it or you had a bad birth the last time and this time, you are hell-bent on it being perfect this time. It is good having a plan (research pain relief and positions and speak to people who have used them and if it works), but babies are babies and are very unpredictable. Turning up with Beethoven on your iPod might be nice in theory, but sometimes, it might not quite do the trick!
If you’ve given birth, only you will understand that strange feeling you get when that baby exits your body. It’s like you’ve been balancing several leather-bound volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on your diaphragm for hours and then someone takes them off. Your belly just goes thwump – collapsing right down and then seconds later, you are presented with your beautiful, raw and gunky little miracle.
The enormity of the whole thing starts to sink in when you are holding your new baby for that first, precious skin to skin cuddle. You know in that moment that this is forever and that the love you feel will well up in you like a river flooding a valley. There is no feeling like it and this little, tiny, gorgeous creature is yours and you are theirs – forever. Basically, welcome to the rest of your life.
I could go on and on and on about what to expect and the stuff that you feel when you have a baby… but ultimately, it is a very unique, personal experience. I hope I’ve made it plain in the above that none of it is carved in stone. Giving birth is as unique as the human being you are about to deliver. What works for one Mum, might not work for another. Just don’t be dismissive or idealistic. The best advice will come from your health care professionals rather than gossip from friends and family. The people who work in the world of birthing are the experts who see thousands of people like you in similar situations to you each week. Just trust their expertise. If something should go wrong they and a huge team of other professionals are nearby to help.
To quote one of my favourite books of all time: “Don’t Panic!”
Thus ends the lesson and, if you are reading this and are having a baby, best of luck to you and your babba.