Our son, Cas, is the first for both Marianne and I. We are both 38 so what we lack in youthful zeal we make up for in gratitude at the chance to be parents. By the time the due date neared, we felt well prepared for the home birth. Marianne is from Holland and home births are the norm there and my initial fears about being far from the source of medical intervention had given way to a quiet confidence that things would be ok. Indeed, being a distance from medical intervention had started to seem like a plus. For this I can thank a 2-day Natal Hypnotherapy course, an NCT class and, of course, the invaluable knowledge that Viv and Marijn would be there.
Cas was due on the 27th March. At about 6pm on the evening of the 25th, with the more or less simultaneous full moon, curry, pineapple and sex having failed to shift the baby in the previous week, the labour started. Marianne had been lying down for an hour in the bedroom and I had been working on my computer. She came and stood next to me, allowed me to complain at length about something that had gone wrong, then mentioned that she thought she was in labour. I did what all good men should do at this point and left the house. I went to the supermarket and bought all the fruit, snacks, bagels, smoothies, juices chocolate and yoghurts that I could imagine us consuming. It was all stacked so high that a bottle of wine slipped off the cashier’s conveyor belt and smashed at the feet of two shoppers behind me. The man wasn’t please. ‘Calm down,’ I wanted to say, ‘My partner is in labour.’ ‘That’s £75.80’ said the cashier, not charging me for the wine. ‘You want me to pay at a time like this’ I wanted to say.
When I got back, the contractions seemed no worse. Marianne described them as like a period pain at 6 or 7 minute intervals. I cooked something, we ate and then we sat on the sofa, her with her back resting on me while I put my arms around her and stroked her belly. We’d practised this as a way for Marianne to relax and slow her breathing but in this real birth situation, it actually wasn’t relaxing for her. The sensation of touch from this point, all the way through to Cas’s birth the next morning at 7.30a.m., was unpleasant for Marianne. She seemed to want me close, but not to touch her. This didn’t, in fact, make me feel as useless as I might have thought. I had come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to negate or diminish the pain of birth for Marianne, but I wanted at least to be there in a way that was totally focused on her, as present and unconditional as possible.
Later in the evening, exact times are hard to remember but I guess it was about 10p.m, I inflated the birth pool and began to fill it with water. Until about a week before the birth, Marianne had been adamant that she didn’t want a birth pool. She felt that the bath would be fine if she wanted to be in water and anyway, she didn’t really like being in water for too long. Quite suddenly though she changed her mind when someone pointed out that during labour you may want to adopt some unusual positions and there is limited scope for this in a bath. So we ordered a birth pool online and it was a wise move. Marianne spent most of her labour in there and the only time she got out she couldn’t find a comfortable position. In some ways I wonder if it wasn’t too relaxing. For a long period of time, from 11ish to around 4 in the morning, Marianne’s contractions were at intervals between 5 and 7 minutes. I know this because I wrote them down for several hours. It felt at times as though we weren’t moving forward and during labour you can become desperate for signs of progress. But as soon as Marianne got out of the water to go to the toilet, the contractions came faster and stronger.
We called Viv and she arrived around 4a.m. This was a big relief for both of us. After she arrived I continued doing what I’d been doing since Marianne got in the bath. That was basically kneeling behind her as she lay in the pool and breathing with her as the contraction rose, peaked and subsided. In the interval I would either stay there, top up the pool with hot water or make tea. I tried not to over-fuss and be over-busy. It’s not easy for the male mentality to deal with impotence but that is essentially the situation you find yourself in. However much you are told of the importance of your presence before the event, you have to get used to the fact that it is a quiet, supportive presence rather than an active, pain-relieving one. It’s good to get your head around this early on.
Strangely, I found the time flew past. Marianne found the same. Despite literally counting the minutes and logging the duration and time between each contraction, three hours passed in a flash. After Viv arrived Marianne got out of the birth pool and we decamped to the living room, taking a large plastic sheet with us. Marianne lay, sat, got on all fours, returned to sitting then back to all fours and couldn’t find a comfortable position. The contractions seemed to be rack her body with an intensity that they hadn’t had in the birth pool. It seemed to me like being beaten up every three minutes. A real internal mugging. I hoped the end was near.
Then Marianne’s waters broke. This was a good sign and indeed it all seemed to be going well in many ways. I had feared the waters breaking before labour started and then us coming under pressure to have an induction but now, with the waters breaking during labour, everything was going smoothly. But somehow it was so much more intense than anything we could have prepared for. On the two-day natal-hypnotherapy course the woman leading the course showed us a video of her giving birth to her third child. Four minutes before birth, she was in a pool in an apparent state of deep calm, just raising a finger when the contraction was in progress and lowering it when it finished. This video gave me hope that the whole experience would be within my own and Marianne’s comfort zone. But it wasn’t turning out that way. Marianne and I later discussed this video and our expectations and our conclusion was that different women experience different levels of pain during childbirth. Though there is a lot you can do to deal with it, we decided it was best not to expect birth to be a particular way and it is certainly not useful to compare the way you deal with it to other women. It’s a unique, non-comparable experience and if you come out the other side with a baby and your mental health, then you have every right to declare it a success.
While Marianne was outside the pool, she started to want to know how much longer it would be. Viv offered her an examination and we found that Marianne was 5cm dilated. This was very hard for Marianne to hear. To discover that you are only half way through dilation when you thought you were close to pushing is not good news. This was about 5 o’clock in the morning. With reserves of strength I doubted I could find in myself, Marianne got up and got back in the pool. If it was going to be longer then it may as well be longer in the most comfortable environment. The contractions continued and I started to hold Marianne under her hips with a towel so that she could lie back instead of being upright against the wall of the pool. Two hours later, when the birth happened, I was still in this position. I liked the focus of supporting her. At times Marianne lost awareness of the fact that I was there at all. She seemed surprised to discover that I was still there supporting her weight in the water. At one point she even lost her bearings completely and didn’t know where she was. This unsettled her a lot but I found it not surprising in the least. To zone out completely for a few seconds under that intensity was surely natural.
Here is perhaps my most surprising admission. All the things that happened during birth, the involuntary pooing, the crying, the low growling, the blood, they did nothing to affect my desire for Marianne at the time or after. Quite the opposite. I actually found the experience of her giving birth quite sexual (at times at least). As she lay in the pool, her body shaking, muscles taught, moaning, crying, I couldn’t help but find it so. OK, sex might not have been on the cards at that particular moment (or for some time after) but I felt happy that this degree intimacy held its own desire and wasn’t so separate from the act of conception as I’d assumed. Somebody had said that the ideal conditions to give birth in are similar to the conditions in which the baby was made, and there is something in this.
At around 7 o’clock Marianne said she felt ready to push and Viv encouraged her to do what her body was telling her. The contractions continued but this time Marianne could do something about them and this, apparently, was a relief. For twenty minutes I praised her each time a contraction ended. The words sounded hollow, not really adequate for the situation, but I kept saying them. Then suddenly the words stuck in my throat. I held on to the towel under Marianne as I cried. Ten minutes later Viv said she could see a head. With the next contraction she saw a face. “He’s looking around,” she told us. I held on tighter. Then Cas was out. I caught a glimpse of a baby with dark matted hair in the pool. The strangest thing seemed to be that he was all there. He was 3-D, alive, aware, responding to his environment, like a toy brought to life. It’s a stupid analogy how can you explain the enormity of being there for the birth of my son.
Viv took Cas from the water and laid him on Marianne’s chest. I was holding them both from behind. Cas cried a bit but not too much. I probably cried more but managed not to lose it altogether. Then Marianne got out because Viv was a bit concerned about Marianne’s blood loss. We sat there together, Marianne leaning against me, Cas in Marianne’s arms. It was early morning and a dawn light was coming through the kitchen window. After the noise and intensity of the birth, a kind of peace had descended. Those moment already have another other worldly quality to them. That scene, with Marianne and Cas and I, is the one I hope to remember on my deathbed.
There is another story to child birth which is the story of what happens after. It’s the story of putting your baby to bed on the first night and waking every 30 minutes because you’re sure you’ve done something wrong and he will have fallen out / slid under the covers / stopped breathing, etc. It’s the story of what you do when your baby vomits blood on the first day (quite normal apparently, as long as it’s old blood). It’s the story of handing your first baby to his grandmother for the first time. But these stories are for another place. It’s enough to say that if I found Viv and Marijn useful and reassuring before the birth, then I found them indispensable during it, but the time when they reached sainthood for me was after the birth. The questions and worries were so numerous but they were always there on the phone and more often than not popped over to check all was OK. They came every day initially and taught us about breast-feeding, clothing, sleeping, and more. This allowed our confidence to grow and us to relax. Looking at Cas now, quietly asleep in the corner of the room, we like to think that he is a calm, relaxed little baby enjoying a good start in life. If that’s at all true then a significant part of it is down to Viv and Marijn.