I'm not present
I'm a drug
that makes you dream
I'm an aerostar
I'm a cutlass supreme
In the wrong lane
Trying to turn
against the flow
I'm the ocean
I'm the giant undertow
Neil Young – The Ocean
Keep calm: write it down.
The notes at the back of my black moleskin writing book are carefully printed. Saturday 13th December 2008. 2.10 – 3.00 am: every 8 minutes, 3.00 am – 3.50 am: every 10-12 minutes. Order imposed on a situation in flux. Because we are moving ladies and gentlemen, at long last we are on our way! In response; Man does what man do. Chart it. Record it. Predict it and in doing so, try to bluff your pale and scared rational self, presently nail biting in a cool corner of your steadily heating mind that maybe, just maybe you can actually control it. (4.00 – 5.15 am: every 12-15 minutes).
Mind you, I don’t think that I can really be blamed for my precise and excited detailing of Sacha’s contractions. I had been waiting for the real thing to start for a very long time. As early as Monday 1st December I am on Camcorder (take note; not the last time this gizmo features) before heading out to work, video diary style and looking every bit a man on the edge. Still no sign of baby Jack. My facial hair had taken a turn for the manicured Mid-west which is always a bad sign. Man does what man do. Even then Jack had been anticipated ANY TIME NOW! for as much as a fortnight because there was no way, simply no way that Sacha had another three weeks in her. The baby was due on December 5th, but that was the sort of scientific pin pointing which the doctors, the mid wives and the revolving chart brandishing medical community invested their faith in.
Me and Sacha knew better because we had done this before. Our Leila was born at 37 and a half weeks, plucked untimely through the sun roof with a look of enraged horror which she still gets on the precipice of a good sized tantrum. Her mix of Irish and Persian/Polish Jewish genes resulted in Leila being built to last but as we found out not to last full term. Poor Sacha developed late onset preeclampsia, preceded by months of painful swelling and exhausting immobility. To make matters worse Leila (ever the wriggler) got the cord wrapped round her neck so that when they broke Sacha’s waters in an attempt to allow her to have a normal birth the poor wee thing basically got lynched as the subsiding waters fell and gave her a first harsh lesson on the law of gravity. I feel like I am digressing but I suppose I am really not. Jack’s birth and the run up took place in the context of our experience of Leila’s birth. Though ever thankful for a healthy baby, a C section was never really the plan and Sacha’s recovery was difficult and painful. This time, though Sacha was not as water logged and swollen she was heaving around one big bump for a fairly little woman. Marijn described Jack as ample during a pre-natal check up. She was absolutely correct. In the same way that the Emirates Stadium has ample seating or Jordan has ample… You get where I’m taking you on this I think.
So it seemed simple to conclude that Jack would be early, maybe earlier than Leila. But we were wrong. Wrong to try to impose a plan on something that would find its own rhythm, just as surely as the ocean finds the line of the shore, and wrong to believe that what one child teaches you is a pre-packaged truth for the next. Jack was always going to do it his way, as all children will, and if you ever meet him you will no doubt agree that he is a little dude for whom hurry up and press the panic button just have no place in the proper order of things. Oh yeah, I was wrong about something else. I should have had a bit more faith that one chain of difficult events does not in any way mean that they will be repeated. I was wrong because I underestimated what amazing things my wife would achieve when the going got tough. The lion’s share of that strength came from within. But I know that Sacha was buoyed up by the expertise and belief that Viv and Marijn provided every single step of the way. This birth story would have been very different if not them and it is as much their story as it is our own.
I was going to say at this point that I at least kept calm and reasonably dignified under mounting pressure, affording Sacha a cool marble pillar of strength to salve her during the heat of labour. I actually remember this being true (sad). Men, we have to carve a niche in these situations. It really does not do to be as we are (Man does what man do) and feel that we might be in a place where it’s out of our hands, where we might not really have a place. Sacha reminded me last night that she let me doze through most of the troughs of the labour. She also said that I freaked out at one point about work and time off, complaining that her giving birth was not timed correctly with my scheduled paternity and that I would have to return before the Christmas break, thus wasting valuable baby interface time. Yes, this is true but the former point I strongly contest. Anyway, you can only be yourself in these situations and my tight buttocked time watching was an anxiety born of concern and love. Plus, if I do say so, my demand that we set a time and stick to it re: opting for the dreaded C section sort of brought matters to a head. Without it, she might still be propped up on a levee of pillows, methodically eating jelly babies (though not the green ones!). Basically, it was all down to me, honestly. I am getting ahead of myself now, so let’s draw it back.
I soon gave up on the careful documenting of Sacha’s contraction times. The astute among you will already have noticed that those I did record in my little black book were becoming steadily further apart as the small hours of that December Saturday dawned into pale daytime. Not the pattern of predictable progress that Mr Monitor ideally hopes for. I have to say that while once so fresh in my mind some of the finer points of what went on now evade me. Thankfully we have the scrupulous notes of Viv and Marijn to fall back on to fill in gaps where my accuracy is lacking. The fact that Sacha was also suffering from a flu the week of the birth is another detail that slipped away on the wind, though at the time I now remember it being a source of such added discomfort and frustration.
I thought that Marijn arrived early Saturday morning but I was wrong (again!). Sacha called Viv when the contractions had subsided. The high fiving and bustle of excitement that we shared after the initial pains in the early hours had given way to a sense of waiting and wondering. ‘Impression: Early labour’, Viv has commented on the Sunday afternoon when she came over. My impression at the time was closer to What’s Happening!!?? Viv had another chance to answer that question; one of several late night calls which would see her rousted from sleep by my phone call, requesting that she come quick. ‘Called by Gary and 01.20’. Viv was relieved by Marijn at about 3am, but so seamlessly that again it had gone from my memory. Sacha continued to contract, cope well and sip coke as the strange time of the early hours rushed slowly on. I was clearly awake and on red alert. ’03.00: Viv has assiduously recorded, ‘coping well with excellent support from Gary’. I do have snippets of colour in that half light of memory from the Sunday night. Sacha starting to get a taste of what a real contraction could feel like and not loving it at all. Sacha, my wife, beginning to build a nest of pillows and cushions and transmogrify; breathing more slowly, deeply and becoming more elemental, animal and mythical. But also more frightened. I could feel it too, like a big black ocean of energy that was sending powerful tremors of deep pain into the room, so immense and timeless that to think about besting it would send you insane, tempting you to despair. Just take each one as it comes, I recall whispering, that’s all that matters, it is all that is real in this moment. Don’t worry about the rest of the waves, cope with each one as it arrives. Maybe that advice was what prompted Viv to give me the gold star.
Sacha’s waters broke with a ‘distinct pop and a small amount of clear liquid’ at 05.15. This was a mini victory, another milestone that surely announced the beginning of the end of what was now nearly 36 hours of on and off labour. The stomach challenging gush that heralded Leila’s hasty birth made this a bit of an anti climax but at least the end was surely in sight!
Not exactly. 5am bled into 7am and the contractions continued but did not intensify. I went for a doze and when I got up Sacha opted for some sleep around 8am. It was clear to me that Marijn’s experienced eye had already judged a no-show for Baby Jack that Monday morning and sure enough, Marijn left at noon, ‘for a short while whilst labour is becoming more established’, with comforting reassurances that she would return at any time.
The stop start labour was taking its toll and beginning to collect a lake of questions and concerns for everyone. Sacha’s iron resolve to have a natural birth at home, as hoped for was causing me worry. Her waters had broken and though Viv patiently explained that the risk of bacterial infection was minimal as we were in our own home environment and at low risk of contamination we were also approaching a point when if in hospital they would be legally obliged to get the baby out. I was suddenly ready to doubt the skills and experience of Viv and Marijn, albeit some time after the cock had crowed three times that Monday morning. I wanted a bit of order and predictability thanks all the same. The rat of fear was running round my mind secreting worries that Baby Jack was in danger and that Sacha might be kneeling on a yoga mat and persevering as we burned the proverbial incense sticks to kingdom come. As a man who was at the business end of Leila’s emergency C section I was determined not to pass over qualms and hope for the best. I need not have anguished so.
Viv and Marijn were there, though between the lines I can read their worry too. Options are outlined to explain the juttering progress, one of which included the possibility that he was in the breach position. Options to move us on were clearly there too. Really it boiled down to awaiting events with careful monitoring or getting up to the Wittington Hospital. One was the option of hope and the other the option of fear. Both could have been the right option under the circumstances. In the end a compromise was reached. I wanted a definite line in the sand and it was agreed that all else being equal we would take a trip up to the hospital no later than Wednesday lunch time unless Baby Jack made an appearance. As I mentioned before maybe the ultimatum was what got things going. Maybe. But it was Sacha who did the hard work.
I made the last of the late night calls to Marijn at 3am on Tuesday morning. The story was very similar to nights that had preceded it. Regular, though now strong contractions. Marijn arrived at about 3.30am only to be sent downstairs an hour later! Sacha felt that the presence of the midwives had the effect of ‘clicking her into rational mode’. Marijn spent a few very patchy hours on our settee while I stayed with Sacha in the bedroom. She left us at 5.15am with no changes to speak of. Here we go again, or not as the case seemed to be. I went to bed in the spare room, more out of despondency than exhaustion, expecting another morning of stop start contractions and an unavoidable trip to the Wittington. A C section would bring an end to the pain and the uncertainty but after all that had happened, all the sleepless effort and stoic determination from Sacha it also felt like a cruel cheat. Then Sacha woke me up.
’07.00: Phone call from Sacha, requesting me to attend as in ‘excruciating pain’’. Marijn goes on to say that Sacha felt ‘locked’ with contractions from 6.30am and was experiencing increased drainage of clear liquid. This was different. I knew it, Marijn knew it (she noted with satisfaction that the ‘line between buttocks now 2cm flattened’) and by God Sacha definitely knew it. She was sounding out the contractions in long, deep sigh moans that sparsely did justice to the waves of transforming agony she was starting to experience. If a man had been given even a half of it, I am sure he could have vocalised it much more succinctly (and punctuated with more complaints). By 9am I could tell the magnitude of the task ahead, Sacha had not even started the pushing stage, the real work of the labour. I expressed concern to Marijn that Sacha might be too exhausted to do it. It seemed reasonable, but Marijn was in no doubt at all; Sacha was in established labour and, ‘Women (including Sacha) will find the strength’.
The contractions punctuated the passing of the morning hours. At some point around 10.45am Sacha was encouraged to relax, empty her mind and rest between the waves. The jelly babies were on the scene and seemed to be working. Sacha didn’t even ask for a paracetamol, let alone an epidural. She was in the zone. The transformation of my wife which was apparent from the early hours of Sunday morning was almost complete. She was a panting, powerful sphinx, calm and commanding as the eye of a hurricane. She was taking on the might of the ocean and blowing it away with a composed fury that was beautiful and humbling to behold. Naturally I thought it would be a good idea to take a break at this point and let Sacha’s mum get in on the action.
Geri had been kindly looking after Leila round the corner for the past 2 days. On balance, immersing back into the real world was a bit daft. Once there I was distracted and constantly checking my phone for updates. Leila and I returned to our flat and by 14.10 I was back in the room, leaving Geri with Leila downstairs. Brilliantly, the fact that they were ‘watching DVDs’ has been recorded by Viv! The notes recount that Sacha was taking sips of water throughout, whooping the contractions with, ‘explosive noises’ and I noted with less horror than you might expect that there was a bit of ‘anal gaping’ happening. As I’ve said, by this stage I felt like I was watching a force of nature in action, rather than the gorgeous woman who gazed at me from the bottom of the aisle a few years previously. With both mid-wives back in the room it was game on. Kneeling in an all fours position Sacha is cited as doing ‘extremely well’ and, ‘following her own urge to push beautifully’. She really was a legend. The surreal, strange beauty of the birth was intensified by the fact that Marijn was at the bottom of the bed, taking the notes I have been reading, and wearing a head lamp like some dangerously lost caver. The red light cast a softening hue on Sacha upon whom all eyes were fixed.
’15.15: One last jelly baby eaten; the last one is a green one and Sacha does not eat green jelly babies! Dolly mixture to the rescue.’ With every push I could see more and more of the crown of Baby Jack’s head. My wife was accomplishing what had appeared impossible and she was doing it on nothing more than jelly babies and belief. For some reason I decided to go for a wee. I was gone just long enough to miss Sacha’s monumental thrust that squeezed baby jack’s forehead into the world. I picked up the camcorder that Geri bought us the previous summer and started to record. It seemed like the only thing to do. Jack’s face appeared, ’winking and grimacing’, toward the ceiling. Unbelievable. Then the rollercoaster went too fast down a dangerously steep precipice.
Viv and Marijn started to talk in terms of restitution and time limits. I knew what was missing too. Jack was not breathing. One hand was visible near his face and he looked like a disgruntled baby stuck improbably in a pipe. That Jack had come down the birth canal with his left hand on his fore head in a ‘doh!’ gesture probably accounted for the stuttering, protracted nature of the labour. That and the fact that he turned out to be a very ample 9 pounds 10 and a half ounces (4.36kg) in weight and endowed with an off the chart sized Irish head into the bargain probably did not help poor Sacha. In the moment of restitution (question mark?) however, all this was still very far away. Jack was still an idea really, a little stranger trying hard to make it into the world to join our family, and he was maybe in danger. In the gap of that moment, when for an instant all was uncertain; words of prayer filled my mind. What you have after all the writing down and monitoring and pissing and planning is done is faith. Whatever your faith is I suggest you keep it and do not despair or crumble during the arduous and scary journey of child birth. Home birth, hospital birth, planned or emergency C section: I have no value judgement for you on that. The value is your belief in the birth and riding those waves. Never let the giant undertow of pain or despair, suck you away. Birth is bigger.
Prayers are ok but few things ever got done without a bit of team work. In an instant Sacha was unceremoniously hoisted and turned 180 degrees from her position by Marijn, Viv and me. Now in what I know was the Mc Robert’s position Sacha’s pelvis was more malleable and the emerging Jack Patrick was swiftly repositioned to allow for an easier arrival to the world. ’15.43: Birth of baby.... in good condition, colour good, muscle tone good... Breathing ok... 1 minute of age’. Wow, one minute of age. That will never cease to be an amazing thing in my life. Good things followed. Tea and toast in bed, a bottle of bubbly opened, calls to family and friends and finger painting with Leila (life goes on Daddy). Sacha didn’t come through all this completely unscathed. She had a few stitches courtesy of Jack’s hand on head antics on the way out and lost a lot of blood during the delivery of the afterbirth. And she was exhausted, in a way that no man will ever experience and we can only hope to appreciate. At the end of that long day Sacha and I had a home cooked meal and a Guinness in our own cleaned and turned bed. The pain and the tiredness were replaced with awe and happiness for the pudgy little bundle of love sandwiched between us. Happy days, shall we have another one?