As I write this, Kyle was born a week ago, following an eventful, emotional and stressful three days of labour. I want to write this story though as it is a great story with all the best elements of a classic: initial hopes, unforeseen challenges, wonderful heroes and a happy ending. I want to write it so that we as a family can retain a memory of some of the best days of our lives, share them with Kyle in time, but also share them with others who may find our experience useful in thinking about their own options for birth.
Susie had complained of backache the previous day, and as I left for work in the morning she said she had had a poor night as she couldn't get comfortable with the occasional wave of muscle pain. Early afternoon and sitting in a meeting I see my phone flash 'Susie calling'. Finding a quiet room we talk and she says that, maybe, probably, possibly the labour has begun. The muscle aches have now established themselves into regular waves coming every ten minutes or so and this is no normal backache. She sounds very calm and says it is obviously still early days. Excited though, I finish up a few key things before I leave a couple of hours later knowing I will likely not be back for a couple of weeks.
When I get home Susie is on the sofa with pen and paper beside her recording the length of the surges and how far apart they are. By early evening it is clear things are heading in the right direction: surges every five minutes or so. From the experience we had gathered in the birthing classes we were determined to stay calm, and to stay at home as long as possible before heading to the hospital. So that evening we had a good supper, and watched a final couple of episodes of The Wire on TV.
Around 11 we went and lay in bed, but did not sleep. Susie's contractions came more frequently, and we tried some of the relaxation methods we had picked up on a Hypnobirthing course. These combine visualisations and steady breathing to help put Susie into a relaxed state, and were something I could do to feel I was contributing. Shortly though the contractions were too intense for Susie to stay in bed and she was up trying to find comfortable positions to manage each one in turn. By 2 am they were stronger, and more frequent and we began to think about when to go to the hospital. I had called and spoken to the midwives several times and the guidance was "come in when the contractions are 1 minute long and 2 minutes apart". We were almost at that point now, so one final set of actions before we left: a middle of the night phone call to excited parents and siblings to say "this is it, we are going to the hospital". I think the expectation all round was that the next set of calls would be congratulations all round. How very wrong...
At 3am there was a look in Susie's eye that made me think it was definitely time to go, and fast. We both knew that logically we wanted to be at home as long as possible as we knew that was the most relaxing place, but there is always the lurking fear of not getting to the hospital on time. But in the early hours the roads were clear and we parked at the hospital and went to the birthing centre reception. A midwife examined Susie, and then came the let down: you are only one centimetre dilated, you are still in the very early stages of labour. This was a shock - the contractions had been so regular and of the 'right length' that it hadn't crossed my mind we could still be near the start line. By 4.30am we were home again.
I had a couple of hours sleep when we got home, but for Susie there was little rest as the contractions continued. Up early we continued to work on breathing and relaxation, and as the morning progressed the contractions became more intense again, much more so than at 3am. Susie also said she could feel things 'moving down', so again it was time to pile into the car and head for the hospital.
But getting to the birthing centre at 10am though was very different to getting there at 3am. Building works meant that some of the hospital car park was out of action. A queue for the few parking spaces available meant there was no option but to drop Susie outside the hospital with the big bag of stuff and then drive round to try and find somewhere, anywhere to leave the car. Eventually I just left it on some double yellow lines outside a building site: at that point the guilt of leaving your wife heaving with contractions outside a public hospital entrance outweighs any thoughts of what happens if the car gets towed. Especially as this could be 'it', the 'big moment'.
Except that it wasn't. Another examination, and the dispiriting news that Susie was just 3 cms dilated, although her waters had now 'probably broken' during the examination. How was that possible after all this time, all those contractions? The midwife offered us a choice at this point. Either to return home again, or, because they weren't busy at the moment, we could take one of the birthing rooms for a few hours and 'see what happens'. Partly because of the parking difficulties and stress of moving, we made the wrong decision: we stayed.
Time at the hospital went slowly. Susie was tired after a night of no sleep and over 24 hours of contractions. Sometimes we walked around the room which bought on stronger contractions in the hope this would help things 'to progress' (in the language of the midwives). Sometimes this was too tiring and Susie needed to lie or sit to conserve energy. For several hours she was vomiting at regular intervals and I worried about whether she would be able to stay hydrated. For most of the afternoon a less experienced midwife looked after us, and regular checks were carried out on the baby's heartrate, including an hour strapped to a machine when there was one suggestion of an irregularity. We tried to create a relaxed atmosphere, knowing that this was most likely to help Susie reach a state where labour could progress. We played some CDs we had bought, but first one hospital CD player broke, then the replacement broke. It wasn't our day.
At intervals I left Susie to keep in touch with expectant relatives in the outside world. Calls were hurried, and I didn't want to leave Susie for long. From relatives' perspectives I suspect the feeling was 'why aren't we hearing more', whereas for me, each call meant that I was able to help Susie less, leaving her alone in a clinical, stale, medical room trying to 'make things happen'. I also knew that at a subconscious level every call was a reminder to Susie that things weren't happening, that there ought to be news by now, that we weren't proceeding to expectation, and that added to the pressure.
As afternoon turned to evening I had many thoughts turning in my head. Susie was obviously getting very tired and another night would mean no sleep again. How much fatigue could she cope with? How much had the vomiting taken out of her? Could we leave the hospital now that her waters had broken? Could we stay at the hospital, and if so where? And while it was clearly so much harder for Susie, I was getting very tired too and couldn't give her the same support I had been able to 24 hours earlier.
I tried calling Katharine Graves, the teacher for the hypnobirthing course we had attended. During the course Katharine had cautioned us many times to keep control of our own destiny when faced difficulties, and not to abdicate responsibility to the doctors. She had also said she was always available to be called if there were issues. Katharine wasn't available to take the call and I left a message.>
Around 7pm Susie and I had a discussion on whether we would be better to go home, but decided we would stay for a few more hours at least. Surely after all her work, things must be progressing? To go home felt like admitting failure. A close friend, Sophie, who lived nearby dropped off much needed re-supply of food and drink.
Back in the birthing centre with Susie we had a visit from 'the doctors' for the first time, rather than just the midwife assigned to us. It was heading to dusk, and Susie was more comfortable in semi-darkness with the lights off. The doctors arrived as a delegation of four: two doctors, our midwife and the senior midwife. All the lights were turned on, and the lead doctor stood in the centre of the room barking questions. It was factual, direct and to the point. And totally lacking in sympathy, empathy or any understanding of how vulnerable we felt. Following his inquisition the doctor announced that "decisions would have to be made". My main objective was to get the lead doctor in particular away from us, so we gave no direct answer but said we would have a think and talk let the midwife know our thinking. With that he disappeared, thankfully not to return.
By 10.30pm it was clear that our baby wasn't coming any time soon, and we had to think how we going to keep going. A fantastically supportive midwife had come on duty gave us great reassurance: we were doing all the right things, we would be fine, we would be best off going home and trying to get as much rest as possible. By 11pm we had left and headed home.
I had a few hours deep sleep when we returned home and woke early to find the bed next to me empty. Expecting to find Susie relaxing in the bath, I instead found her curled up on the sofa. What amazed me though was how positive and collected she was. While I had slept during the night, she had been up and had a long bath, during which she had listened to a CD Katharine had given us during the hypno-birthing course. She said this had re-orientated her mind: everything was fine, the baby would come when it was ready. Also, stunningly: "we should ignore yesterday and pretend it didn't happen. Let's start again and pretend that I'm at the beginning of labour and this is day 1. We should have a relaxing day and allow things to take their course". Wow, I could have cried.
We also agreed to say to relatives that we weren't going to keep trying to give updates all the time. It was too wearing, and created too much pressure. It was easier to say that little was happening for now, and that we would be in touch when there was some news, but otherwise they should assume no news was good news and we were doing fine.
Mid-morning Katharine Graves called. "Sorry, I wasn't able to get back to you yesterday. I'm sure its too late now though and you have a lovely baby..." But no, it wasn't too late at all. Susie had now been in labour 48 hours and it was incredibly reassuring to talk to Katharine and hear her say we were doing all the right things, we were definitely best at home, and that Susie would be able to cope. Her advice was also clear: don't let the hospital pressure us into inducing Susie to 'encourage things along'. Her belief is that one intervention increases the probability of another, and that as far as possible it is best to have as no interventions unless medically required.
Then Katharine made a lovely offer. She was due to be in London later that evening and she was willing to come to our house to see us. "Would we like her to come?". Absolutely.
Throughout the day Susie was continuing to have contractions though less intensively than the previous day, and less frequently. Partly this was because now we were conserving energy, rather than 'trying to make things happen' as we had the previous day at the hospital. I had some much needed food as I was famished, but Susie still ate nothing. We watched some DVDs, light comedies, and waited...
Mark, Susie's brother texted me to say he was outside and could I come down. He had arrived armed with flowers, and a huge fish pie to keep us going. It was a both a thoughtful gesture and just what I needed. After so much activity and lack of sleep you really do need food to keep going - or at least, I do!
Katharine arrived around 7. She is endowed with a beautifully calm grace, and brings immediate serenity wherever she is. As when I had spoken to her on the phone in the morning, she continued to tell us we were doing everything right: that obviously the hospital had been difficult the previous day, that we were right to leave, that the baby would come when it was ready. She offered to do some of her relaxation methods with Susie, and over the next hour or so we stayed in the sitting room (Susie kneeling over a birthing ball). In between contractions, sometimes we talked, and occasionally Susie dozed as Katharine helped her relax more. It was a beautiful summers evening, and as the late sun ebbed I think we both had a strong sense that all was well, we would calmly deal with whatever happened.
At one point we said to Katharine that having spent a day at the hospital we now understood exactly why she was so supportive of home births, and that if we were to start again we might think about things differently. It was an hour or so later that Katharine fixed us with her eyes and said in a deliberate voice "were you serious when you said earlier that you would consider a home birth? You know it's not too late..." This was something that had never crossed our minds - that at this stage, after 2 1/2 days of labour we could have such a radical change of course.
Susie and I looked at each other. "Yes. Yes. Let's do it". Normally we are both very analytical people who calmly weigh options and their implications before making a decision. But this was one that required no discussion, it felt so intuitively and obviously right. We both knew deeply that it was the right thing to do.
Partly this was because home was where we felt good. We had bought the house 2 years previously and had poured a year of our lives into renovating and creating a home for us to live in. Every decision about every room had been ours. The kitchen was where I had proposed to Susie, and we had had our wedding reception here with friends and family. It felt entirely appropriate that something so woven into our lives should be the stage for such a key event.
So at 8.30pm I began hitting the phone, trying to find an independent midwife to come and help us. Using the internet I found a list of independent midwives in London and started trying to explain our situation. "My wife is 2 1/2 days into labour, and we have now decided that we want a home birth. Tonight. Are you free?" Some were stunned, some pleaded other commitments, some said they couldn't help but would call their contacts to see if there was anyone else who could help. All wished us the best of luck.
At 9.15pm I spoke to Viv Grey. Like the other midwives I had spoken to she was surprised, but then thankfully "Well I don't see why not. I'll call my partner Andy and we will try and be with you in an hour ". Andy turned out to be Andrea, and at 10.30pm they arrived on the doorstep, our angels in the night.
By this time Susie was in the bath upstairs, so thinking she was resting I decided not to disturb her and introduced Katharine to Viv and Andy. Feeling this was going to be a long night, and in need of fresh air I took advantage to go to the corner shop and get some milk for teas and coffees. By the time I was back, Viv and Andy were in the bathroom with Susie. It turned out she hadn't in fact been dozing but instead was lying in the bath wondering why no-one was coming to see her. What was immediately clear was that Viv and Andy had swung into action and were here to stay and help. Gently and calmly they talked to Susie about how she felt, and gave her reassurance. There was no drama, no need for 'decisions' (in contrast to the hospital), just Viv smiling and saying Susie was doing "really well" and they were here to help.
Katharine was still with us, continuing to be incredibly generous with her time and spirit. Unobtrusively she offered to either stay with us if her relaxation methods were useful to Susie, or to leave if we felt there were now too many people. I saw no sense of ego, just a willingness to do whatever would help most. Viv and Andy had set up camp with Susie in our bathroom, and seeing how relaxed Susie now was I told Katharine that she could go, but desperately didn't want her to feel pushed out, or in any way rejected. She had done an incredible thing to make us aware of our options and to challenge us, and to bring such a calm, positive attitude. I told her the baton had been passed to Viv and Andy now, but that we would be forever indebted to her.
Turning back to working with Viv and Andy it now hit me that we had done no thinking or preparation at all about a home birth and what was required. Viv's reply was just that we would need a plentiful supply of towels, and little else. Susie had always been keen to try for a water birth, even when we were in the hospital, and Viv responded positively to this. They didn't have a pool with them, but a friend could deliver one. The call was made and from someone, somewhere started headed over to us with a pool. Viv also said she needed to set up an 'emergency station' in a room near to where the baby would be delivered. There was no fuss, and it was actually reassuring, not frightening to see Viv set up an area in case there was a problem.
For the next few hours we all huddled into our second floor bathroom. Susie lay in our bath, Andy sat by the bath and poured water constantly over Susie's tummy between contractions to ease the discomfort. During the contractions themselves I held a wet flannel to Susie's forehead. Throughout, there was a sense of calmness: the lights were low, voices were low. Susie played a CD from Katharine's hypnobirthing course with hypnotic restful music. Whereas the hospital had felt awkward and unnatural, there was now a sense that this was how things were meant to be. As proof of that, Susie's contractions were definitely becoming more intense.
At around 1.15 am a driver arrived with the water pool. We discussed setting it up in the kitchen: plenty of room, near the taps. However Susie was clear that she wanted it upstairs in the bathroom if at all possible. That was where she was now comfortable and established and her intuition was to stay there. It was a tight squeeze but there was just room for the pool, and Andy and I each took a bucket and began filling the pool with hot water from the sinks.
An hour later the pool was ready and Susie moved from the bath into the pool. Each contraction now really gripped her. Between each contraction we could talk calmly and occasionally encourage Susie to drink - after so long in a hot bath it was important that she drank enough to stay hydrated. But during the contractions there was nothing to do but hold a cold-water soaked flannel to her forehead.
Any thoughts though that the baby was going to come immediately were wrong though. This had been a slow process throughout and this was to be no exception. One of the mantras that Katharine had given us during her course was that the baby would come when it was ready, and it was that thought that we had clung to throughout our time at the hospital and then back at home. And even now, as we knew we were reaching the end it was still the thought we used. In between contractions I gave Susie all the support and encouragement I could. It didn't need any loud urging, everything was in whispers as I kept saying "you are doing really well, everything is going great, the baby will come when it is ready".
By 3am Susie was getting tired, the contractions seemed to be wearing her out and we encouraged her to eat some banana. At the same time it was clear the baby was moving down, slowly but surely, and around 3.15 Susie was able to feel the babies head. Still we continued, Andy pouring water over Susie's tummy, me applying a cold flannel during any contraction. Every so often Viv or Andy would use a portable heart rate monitor to keep a check on the baby. By now we were also getting to be experts on listening to the heartbeat and it was reassuring that even after the long birth the heart rate stayed steady every time. We just had to keep going. Another mantra from the birth classes: each contraction done was another one that wasn't coming back, and another one that took us closer to the birth of our baby.
By 4.30am light was beginning to appear through the blinds and the dawn chorus could be heard. A new day, and new life: corny, but it worked for us and seemed to fit the mood. At one point I saw Viv turn to Andy and say discretely "Are you happy?". Andy's reply was a smile and "Oh yeah". It wasn't done for our benefit and we weren't supposed to hear, but it was gratifying and reassuring to have two people who were so intuitively committed to what they did to help us through this.
The baby's head was now beginning to emerge, and Susie knew she was close. A few more pushes and we would be there. And ironically at that point her contractions slowed right down. This baby was surely taking its time. And then suddenly as Susie crouched on her knees and leant on the side of the pool, a final push, and Viv said "reach down and take your baby". Calmly and gently he had been born into the water, and it was an amazing sight to see Susie pick him up and pull him from the water. A few seconds later and one eye blearily opened, the mouth opened, and our purple, wrinkly baby began to breathe. To me it seemed too fragile, too little to sustain him and he lay with little movement. It probably wasn't for long, but to me it seemed an age. Viv's notes of the birth record: 5.14am spontaneous waterbirth. 5.19am cried lustily. And with that cry I knew he was fine.
The next hour is a blur of lovely memories: Susie holding Kyle tight, Viv and Andy doing a superb job of helping Susie from the pool and making her comfortable, Kyle gently nuzzling Susie already comforted by being held by her. And a short while later, Andy arriving back in the bathroom with a tray of hot toast and cups of tea. Everything and anything felt possible.
Within a couple of hours, Viv and Andy were able to leave and Susie and I fell into bed, tired by incredibly happy, with Kyle sleeping soundly next to us.
As I said at the beginning, this is a story with a happy ending. But we learnt much on the way and are indebted to those who gave us so much generous help - it won't be quickly forgotten.