The birth of your first child is something that, for better or worse, will stay with you forever. Before that it is a totally unknown arena. You can prepare, but you don’t really know what you are preparing for, which I think has its advantages. Going into it a second time was very different, but my main focus was to relax, rest and avoid the exhaustion that plagued me in the second half of my first labour. In the end I was so relaxed that I forgot to go to hospital and ended up having an unplanned and unassisted home birth on our bathroom floor. It was a truly magical experience.
Both of my births were incredible experiences, which was partly down to luck and partly down to the way I prepared for them, because there are definitely things you can do to make your labour and birth the best that it can be. The first and most important decision that I made when I got pregnant was not to talk to anyone if they had a negative birth story to share. I understand that not all births go smoothly and that some women face significant challenges in labour, but when you are pregnant for the first time this is not the sort of conversation that you need to indulge yourself in. There are so many wonderfully positive stories out there and these are the ones you need to be soaking up. I certainly found it useful to speak with my midwife about the practicalities of what would happen if anything did go wrong, but this is not something that needs to be dwelled upon. Quite the opposite.
In fact I find it massively disappointing how many women revel in the supposed horrors of labour and birth. Yes, it can be long and drawn out. Yes, it is laborious (literally) and at (many) times intensely painful, but in most instances it is not horrific. I would even go as far as to say that i enjoyed parts of it. I wonder if the endless posturing about who’s birth was longest / most painful / most harrowing has anything at all to do with one upmanship over men. Here is one field that they can’t beat us in, so let’s make the most of it eh? But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many things you can do to manage the pain and make it the best experience possible. And that’s before you even think about drugs.
First off, get nesting. For most women the longest bit of labour is the latent phase. The bit where you have to stay at home and are technically not in established labour at all, although it certainly doesn’t feel that way. It says a lot about me that I wrote my husband a list of things to do when I went into labour, the first being to hoover the bedroom, because I did not want to labour looking at a dirty carpet. You might not be as anal about carpet cleanliness as me, but do make yourself a nest for your latent phase and get comfy. Light candles, play soothing music, do some yoga and get into your breathing. During this phase I also took 2 incredibly long showers while sitting on my birthing ball (AMAZING and my top labour tip), and eventually strapped on a TENS machine, which is a great drug free option to the edge off the contractions as they get stronger.
I also recommend practicing how you might manage each contraction. I was either on all fours or on a birth ball for many of mine and I tried to take long deep breaths in and then make low, controlled sounds as I breathed out, (meaning that I sounded something like a mooing cow, to the amusement of the taxi driver who took me to hospital). My antenatal yoga teacher used to talk us through a practice contraction at the start of each class and we would count how many deep breaths we could take in a minute. It really helped to know that however much they hurt you’re only 4 breaths away from some respite.
It also helps to discuss in advance about what your partner’s role might be. Do you want them to tell you how amazing you are after each contraction, or to sway with you as you breath, or to squeeze your hands? I think it helps birth partners to have a few things that they can do to help, or even to know that you just want to be left alone, just so they don’t feel like a spare part.
As far as drugs go, I think again it pays to know what’s available and what the pros and cons of each drug are. Beyond that I don’t think it’s really worth making many plans as you don’t want to feel as if you failed if you end up taking drugs that you didn’t plan to. About 18 hours into my labour I remember being offered pethadine as I was totally exhausted, and was very adamant that I didn’t want it, as I was afraid it might make my baby drowsy. That was just a personal choice, but I’m glad I had made an informed decision before hand, so I didn’t have to do too much thinking when I was in the thick of it all.
Eve if you are planning a totally natural birth, there may be times when all you can think about is an epidural, a lovely epidural that will make it all go away. But then suddenly, just when you think you literally can’t take any more, you hit transition and all of that breathing and swaying and mooing goes out of the window as you become this completely primal entity. A wild animal. For me this delivered another surge of complete empowerment and all thoughts of drugs went out of the window. I dragged myself back onto all fours and just pushed. Do not plan for this stage. I’d love to have been one of those stoic, silent types, but I can still hear the guttural groans, nay roars, that I made echoing in my ears. Your dignity is gone and you are at the mercy of the midwife, almost childlike yourself. Yes it is painful. I will not lie, this bit is excruciatingly painful. But who cares! It’s your baby, it’s nearly with you and all you want to do is to push and push into the pain and get it out.
And then they are out.
After that the memory of it all becomes dulled, instantly replaced by emotions that I will not even try to put into words. Unbridled joy does not even come close.
And so ultimately it doesn’t matter what your experience of birth is like. It’s not about the journey, it is very much the destination. If it’s in water or on land, totally natural or chock full of drugs, vaginal or Caesarian, it is all worth it. So plan (but not too much), prepare, nest, sway, breath, and push push push. It is worth every. single. second.