One morning I wake up in our Camberwell flat, my husband moves around the room getting dressed for work, while I drift contentedly in and out of dream land like a curled up Hedgehog. He kisses me goodbye and heads out of the door, to his job forty miles away. I lay in bed and snooze for a while longer, enjoying the fluttery feeling of limbs moving about inside, the two of us together, drifting in and out of sleep, floating in space. I am 39 weeks and 5 days pregnant.
Without warning there is a sudden lurch and a sharp ache, as if the baby has kicked me in the cervix. It makes me sit up in bed with a gasp. I am not a religious person, but I have a distinct sensation of something or someone in the sky pointing a finger at me and declaring “Now”, as if my ordained time had come.
I go to the toilet and find a lot of yellow gunk that has come loose. However, yellow gunk, or “the plug” as it’s known, has been coming loose for the past two weeks, so this is nothing very new. I go back to bed and wait to see if anything else will happen.
It soon does. A slow cramp begins to creep into my pelvis, exactly like a period cramp, but it keeps coming back and getting stronger each time. After twenty minutes I decide to get up and have breakfast. After a rather uncomfortable and crampy breakfast, I conclude that this is the real thing and calmly call my husband. His phone goes to voicemail. He’s probably on the train, or cycling, or just arrived at work and talking to somebody. I leave a brief voice message and a text which simply reads “LABOUR”. This is our pre-agreed shorthand communication for when the day comes. I am silently cursing his inability to pick up the phone.
I go to the bathroom cabinet and down four paracetamols in one go, knowing they won’t make any difference, but it makes me feel better just for taking them anyway.
I run a bath with some lavender oil and sink into the water. It really takes the edge off the surges and helps me to relax. I wallow in the water like a beached whale for about an hour, breathing in the steam and blowing out into the bubbles. I stare at my space hopper sized tummy, running my fingers over its tight drum surface, thinking, “You are coming, you are knocking to get out. How are you possibly going to get out through there?”. I rest my forehead on the rim of the tub, comforted by the warm water, knowing deep down that he is on his way home to me.
Just as I hear the key in the latch of the front door, I lean forward on all fours and bring my breakfast up all over the bath taps. “Are you okay?” my husband calls out, as I pull the plug on the bathwater and climb out. “No” I yell, already in a grump and throwing a towel at him, inwardly relieved that he is here. He springs into action calling a taxi, while I towel off and get dressed in the bedroom, pausing to be still through the surges.
It is at this point that I start to make noises. Moaning, crying noises like a wounded animal. It helps, to channel the intensity of it up and out. The taxi arrives and my husband shoots out of the door with the hospital bag, with me still fiddling with my shoes that I have to put on at a side angle because I’ve not been able to bend over for the past six months. I waddle out to the taxi on the road, the drive holds the door open for me and off we go, along the London streets.
It would all be very exciting if it were not for the building pressure below my waist. Every speed bump causes a yelp from me, I push my bottom off the seat with my hands and try to get comfortable in a sitting position, but I really want to be on all fours. The surges are stepping up a gear and with each one I am calling out, no longer caring about the sounds I am making. The taxi pulls into the hospital entrance and my husband walks with me to the front desk. I stop and drop to my knees in the middle of the corridor, gripped by another surge. Someone comes with a wheelchair for me and directs us to the maternity wing.
We are told that I need to produce a urine sample before they can do anything. I take my plastic cup to the toilet but try as I might I can’t produce anything. My body seems to have put all other evacuations on hold until the biggest one, i.e. baby, is out. I waddle painfully back to the desk and explain desperately to the clerk that it’s not working. “We need a urine sample” they insist. I want one of those ray guns from “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” that when you fire at people, they instantly understand exactly what you are feeling. To communicate the urgency of the situation I get vocal with the next surge, which does not require any hamming up. Soon enough, we are taken into a separate cubicle where we wait for a midwife to see us. I stare out at the tops of buildings through the window and pan around the cityscape, rocking from side to side. It is stressful, uncertain, and we sit in silent worry of what is to come next.
What comes next is a beautiful large midwife appears and examines me, before declaring in a thick Jamaican accent “You are four centimetres dilated”, and then “Are you in pain?”, “YES”, “Have you had any pain relief yet?” “NO”, “Would you like some?” “YES”. She brings the entonox. Wow. It is like a floaty cloud that lifts me up to the ceiling somewhere and sprinkles fairy dust on everything. “Ha ha, she is smiling now” laughs the midwife, before leaving us alone for a moment. My foot is tap tap tapping on the floor, and I am still rocking from side to side. My body is doing automatic things, reflexes, and responses to the sensations that are coursing through my body. “They do that” says the midwife to a medical student in the room, pointing to my tapping foot, “They all do that. You get to know”.
The next thing we know, I am being wheel chaired through to the midwife led birthing unit (MLBU). The atmosphere is instantly calmer, the walls are painted in gorgeous colours, there is even a garden room filled with plants. This feels right, this feels great. I am immediately more at ease and begin to relax, we are taken into a large room which contains a bed, a sofa, and a crash mat on the floor, with panoramic views of the river. It feels more like a hotel than a hospital. I meet my midwife and student doctor who will be looking after me. It is the student doctor’s first birth.
After this everything seems to calm down. My temperature is taken at intervals. My husband brings me water when I ask for it. I suck on my entonox and focus on getting through each surge. As each one approaches my breathing quickens, I shut my eyes and go into myself. My surroundings become far away, I am only aware of my body, of riding the waves. I keep this image in my mind of waves on an ocean, and me in my boat, a strong boat with strong sails that can ride through a storm. When the cramp ends I come back to the surface and into the room, aware of the people with me, quietly watching and waiting.
I do not say much, I only make increasingly primal noises, but my midwife is an expert at reading my thoughts. She says things like “Probably you think you can’t do this, but you can, you are”. She looks at my heart rate and comments how fit I am, and how well I am doing. She gives time estimates, like “Only a couple more hours to go”, and then “It will be minutes rather than hours now”. It is like having a coach running alongside me during a marathon, giving me goal posts and markers, telling me what to focus on.
I start to peel off clothes and the student doctor puts a hospital gown around me that totally flashes my bum at the back. I lean over the bed by the window in my flasher hospital gown, giving parliament across the river the ultimate moony. In between surges I say “I’ve got my bum to the sun” and everyone laughs. The midwife says my moony to parliament must be some kind of political statement. I catch my husband’s eye and we stare in each other’s faces. He looks worried.
With my latest howl I start to push downwards, channelling the surges down my body, instead of up and out, and I become silent on the outside, while a storm rages on the inside. I am standing up with my legs spread, bending my knees and literally feeling the baby start to come down between my hips. Then at some point I am on a crash mat on the floor between the bed and the window, like a little nest in the corner of the room, on all fours. The midwife tells me to walk around the room, but I am routed to the spot, this is the place, it’s going to happen here.
I lean forward and pull on the metal bars below the bed, my fingers wrap around them and I concentrate on them. I like their solidness and their permanence, like a rock to hold onto. I get the sensation of needing to pooh, and my whole bum hurts like it’s never hurt before. In the next moment I get a rising stinging sensation, like water rising up to the neck of a milk bottle. My vagina is on fire, I feel everything, the solidness of the head as it passes through me, crowning, my flesh stretching around it, stretching to breaking point. The old song “oranges and lemons say the bells of Saint Clements” pops into my head, like a surreal distraction to what is happening.
As quickly as the stinging comes it is gone, and for a moment I feel a fuzzy head and two warm little ears against my thighs, which feels rather nice. With the next push I feel the shoulders come free, and the rest of her body slither out in a gush. I roll over onto my back and rest my head on my husband’s lap, who is sitting just behind me. The relief and the wonder is immense.
A baby is in the room. I stare at her, incredulous; my brain is unable to take in what just happened. “She must have come in through the door” I think. Within seconds she is wrapped in a towel, a cotton hat put on her head and placed on my chest. The midwife takes a photo of us, capturing us the moment we became a family. Our eyes are glazed with emotion, my hair is matted and a strand covers my forehead, my husband has the biggest grin on his face, and our pink little girl lays serenely on my chest, her eyes open, blankly staring at the cosmos. She smells amazing; I can’t get over her hands, her feet, her face.
About half an hour later, our midwife is doing a placenta show and tell, which I have to admit, is very interesting. It is as big as a dinner plate, with huge veins that spin down the umbilical cord and then fan out across the surface. My daughter looks the other way, seemingly unimpressed with the placenta.
Our touch and our smell are everything. I feel her heartbeat, she feels mine, our bodies press together, flesh born out of flesh. I am not only in awe of her, but of my own body and of what it is capable of. Today we did something incredible together.
“I can’t believe she’s here”. These are the first words I say to my mother when we speak on the phone, within hours of my daughter’s birth. I feel serene and floaty, watching the sunset over the river Thames and all the London lights slowly come up like a glitter ball, while the Union Jack flag flaps gently in the evening wind. It is the dawn of a new life, she has arrived on the Earth and I feel the presence of heaven all around me. Everything is in vivid focus, even the air is tender with emotion. “I bet you can’t stop looking at her” my mother replies, linking this moment back to thirty years before when she had her own moment with me.
Suddenly I see myself as the latest in a long line of mothers and daughters, strung out across the centuries like beads on a necklace. All those women standing behind me, knowing
and understanding, quietly supporting me with a silent knowledge that I was always aware of and has now come to the fore. Today my first born arrived, and today I became a mother. We both cry together, unable to contain the emotion, and I put down the phone smiling.
I listen to my daughter sleeping in the darkness, a contented tiredness washing over me. Everything is magical as the dawn of a new day approaches and her life begins.
Sarah Vanstone-Howe is a freelance writer specializing in travel and lifestyle, including running her blog www.moleandhedgehog.com, which is a collection of anecdotes and wisdom about life with two toddlers, aka Mole and Hedgehog. In a previous life she was a Travel Consultant in London. She now lives in Bedfordshire with her husband and two children.