I didn’t anticipate that this post (or any of my posts) would ever include the word “pandemic”. I didn’t plan to give birth during a global heath crisis, which has challenged the world. Here in England, our legendary, but troubled, national health service has been put to the ultimate test. As I write, our PM and various of our most esteemed health advisors are themselves struck down with the “Big bad bug” as it’s known in our house. We are locked down, and not allowed to leave our house unless we have a medical appointment or urgently need groceries or have to get a short burst of fresh air. If you display symptoms you should be self-isolating to protect yourself and everyone else. I genuinely have no idea what tomorrow will bring. But here we are, and such is life as we now know it.
I am writing this as quickly as possible (avec newborn) so that any expectant mothers reading can get a flavour of what may lie ahead. I hope it brings some comfort and / or a small laugh. At the end of the day, and as I kept telling myself, if there’s a baby in your belly and s/he is ready to come earthside, then there is no avoiding that fact, pandemic or not. They are going to come. There were moments this time when I seriously thought about packing my bag back up and leaving the hospital. Let’s do this another time, when things are… nicer and more normal. Unfortunately, that’s not an option and, fortunately, we have super health care teams that will get you through this no matter what.
I can confirm we went out with a bang and the birth was a roller coaster. My third and final (emphasis) birth story is about to follow, with all the usual caveats: this is my story and my understanding of the medical procedures and the birthing process is almost certainly confused and not factually accurate. Nothing in here purports to be medical advice and this records my perception and opinion which you may or may not agree with. As I often note, but want to repeat, I appreciate how lucky I am to be in this position, to have a story to tell, and it doesn’t escape my mind that there are many people in different situations and I wish you luck and love and happiness on your journeys. Masks on, helmets ready, here we go…
Ok. Third baby. As Papa FF said, when I was bemoaning the lack of moral support and general blasée attitude towards Mama as we approached D day, “well, you’ve done it before. You know what you’re doing.” Do I? Do any of us? No matter how many times you do it, I don’t think it becomes any more predictable. It certainly doesn’t become less painful. In actual fact, in my humble opinion there are a few things which are decidedly worse third time around. But more about those shortly.
Having done it before doesn’t make it any easier. It doesn’t make it easier to plan for leaving your (other) babies and having childcare around a birth which could happen at any time within a month period. It doesn’t ease the anxiety of waters breaking in some obscure place at the most inopportune moment. It doesn’t make it less scary. Add in the pandemic, uncertainty about whether we would even be let in to the hospital, if there will be anyone there, if we would be let out, if we would take in or out any BBB…. You could go on for days. And not to mention the actual ejection: there are two ways for the babe to come out and neither of them are particularly appealing.
So we’ve established that I am not getting much sympathy or down time for this third adventure to the labour ward. That is consistent with the rest of the pregnancy which saw decidedly fewer breakfasts in bed, cups of tea, leisurely afternoon naps and almost no pampering, absent one massage kindly facilitated by a fellow mama who took charge of my sick child so that a blessed masseuse could attend to my aching, swollen limbs. Ok we have two littles already so Papa FF has been doing the lions share of the routine with them, to his credit.
Notwithstanding all this, I have done it before and that did mean that there were some things I was able to prepare for, with the benefit of my experience:
- Prepare for the unexpected. A birth is never something you can meticulously plan. Even a planned C-section can be unpredictable in its precise timing. Yes we are encouraged to do a “birth plan” but really that’s a list of your big yes and no’s before you lose the ability to speak.
- A pandemic falls quite nicely into this heading. I was thinking more 3-5 days in hospital rather that one, C section rather than vaginal delivery, but same same. Seriously, during a pandemic, prepare for some changes to “normal” procedure. There are fewer midwives and medical staff, there are more anxious patients, there will not be relatives and multiple persons present with you, there may not be a birthing partner through parts of it. This last one is particularly alarming I know. I cannot imagine it. I was incredibly fortunate that I was able to have Papa FF with me throughout. However, let’s take a moment to sense-check here. Your primary goal and focus is to get the baby out as calmly and safely as possible. That is on you. You are the magical being that created and carried this babe. You are the magical being that will eject it. There is no possibility of delegating (luckily or else the race would be extinct). Let me tell you as I went into active labour – the part where you start mooing like a cow and suddenly start to lose control of your emotions and body – Papa FF was snoozing. No joke. He had earlier complained of a headache due to lack of sleep. You can imagine my reaction. When I saw him going for a drink of water, and my mouth was so dry I couldn’t get any noise out, you can imagine my frantic hand gestures at him to give me some ****** water. This to say, I love Papa FF, but the hard work, like it or lump it, is for you. And you alone are going to get the baby out.
- If you have a very strong desire to have e.g. an epidural, you need to make that very clear from the start. You need to advocate for yourself and speak up. The staff do not have the time or capacity to be as attentive as perhaps they would be normally – it’s ok to buzz for pain relief and it’s ok to ask for a check up. However don’t expect them to just keep checking. If they normally have 4 people to attend to, right now they have 12. First time mums you don’t know what to expect, but if you have birthed before, you probably remember when it’s time to call the midwife. I would imagine that now more that ever they will encourage you to wait as long as you can at home until your labour steps up. (This didn’t apply to me as I was induced).
- Linked to this PMA: positive mental attitude. No matter how uncertain everything is right now, you will have your baby. The baby you’ve been growing and loving and dreaming about for the past nearly year. Keep focussed on this. What a miracle. What luck. What an adventure. The rest, the chaos, you can’t control. So try to push it away. Every time I had a wobble, I thought about the little human, her hair, her eyes, her tiny bottom, the feet that have been prodding me, that feeling when the babe is finally earthside on your chest and you are done. That.
- Back to the things you can control – pack strategically. Assume you won’t be the one fiddling around in your bag(s). If you are lucky enough to have a birth partner with you, make it easy for them. Sorry Papa FF because you’re getting it in the neck right now but, in my experience, menfolk struggle a bit with finding things. Baby clothes for men might be comparable to a game of Dwarf Fortress for the ladies. To make life easier and minimise breakdowns during labour, I put mini piles of clothes into sandwich bags and labelled them “first outfit”, “first sleep”, “going home”, “accessories” – ok, that last one was unnecessary but you get the impression. That helped enormously with the post birth flapping around. It also helped me keep stuff together when I had to free the labour room rapidly and was on my own later.
- Try not to have too much stuff. We always do have too much and always regret it. You will not be able to carry it, especially not when you have babe in your arms (yaye!) and the midwives have better things to be doing than carrying your bags around. Pack neatly into a couple of bags max. Obviously if you know you’re in for a longer stay, you are likely to require more stuff, but some can probably stay in the car/ partner bring it when you’re ready.
- Take sustenance. Not just for you, for the troops that are working around you. This time we took in a big bag of sugary delights to hand over straight away and bring a small smile. These women and men barely get a toilet break let alone easy access to food. At a time when everything is hard to get hold of, think in advance about what you need to keep you going as well as anything you can spare for them. The meals in hospital are what they are, but remember any partner won’t be fed and they don’t serve at your leisure – if you miss mealtime, you need something to keep you (both) going.
Right so – back to the birth – after an anxious few weeks of not really knowing what’s happening, plus two other little people pretty much home because of sickness or avoiding sickness, we went from having complete childcare cover for the month, to having none. My parents were struck down with a horrible lurgy – not sure if it was the BBB but in any case it was a bad one. We agreed it wouldn’t be sensible for them to come and needed them to rest and stay safe. Very tough decisions. Papa FF’s parents were put on lockdown and all external travel plans cancelled. Nursery and school were starting to report cases of sickness and absence of staff. Luckily we have an amazing circle of local friends who were ready to support us at the drop of a hat (or indeed a huge gush of water). In the end I got induced and so we at least had some element of control over our departure to hospital. But even this wasn’t straight forward.
I was induced with Bebette and I thought I had a good handle on what was coming. Whilst I tried hard to manage my expectations in this uncertain time, the first blow to this third experience was being told I was being induced on one day, prepping, prepping the kids, standing by the door, and then finding out on that same day that it would be postponed. I tried not to get too upset about it because there are more important things and more urgent cases than mine, but it’s hard to manage so many emotions (including those of toddlers) when you are ready for a baby to come. I also didn’t know where I was in the queue. Anyway thankfully after exercising my best patience, I eventually got a call to come in one evening. This is it. I took a small moment as we left the house hoping to be coming back with a new addition and memorialising my two beautiful little people at home, waiting for their baby sister.
When we arrived at the hospital, the vibe was different to normal. The peaceful, excited walk to the ward, passing by other new parents on their way out, was replaced by a frantic waddle, head down, avoiding touching anything and avoiding getting too close to anyone. Since Bibi’s birth, there is now tape in the hospital indicating safe distances and a security guy monitoring whether you’ve disinfected your hands. When we were let into the labour ward, we had to first vigorously wash our hands. Now there is a pre-vetting process before they even let you through the doors – questions: have you been in touch with anyone with COVID-19, have you got a fever, have you got a cough etc. I watched one lady contract through the questions like a pro. Women really are superheroes.
Then we were guided through to our induction bed, to get comfortable. Here we waited for nearly 3 hours for any further interaction with anyone. At this point it was past 9pm which, for a pregnant lady with two little people that needed amusing all day, is getting quite late. When the flustered midwife eventually made it to our bed, we had to get the basics sorted, bracelet on, and then do some baby monitoring to see how she-in-the-belly was doing. This would then be reviewed, I would have an internal assessment and then a decision about which method of induction was required. In the early hours of the morning the midwife inserted the pessary, which is like a little tampon, and which would hopefully encourage my contractions. There was some more monitoring to check bebe was ok with that intervention. The midwife advised that we rest, in preparation for the contractions. With Bebette we had a good few hours of nothing before I got moving and the contractions kicked in. So we rested. In a manner of speaking. Like any other time, being induced you’re on a ward with other ladies in the same boat. Some have had their waters break before labour started and need to speed up the process. Some are overdue. Some need to be induced early for medical reasons like diabetes. Last time we had the whole ward to ourselves. This time it was full. So around us were women and their partners in various stages of induction. It’s quite off-putting to hear someone else in pain, and for this I do credit the partners that have to watch us go through this because it’s not easy.
Headphones on, I launched into a series I had long since forgotten to watch (in the 1 hour of downtime we get in the evening). I also had a book on the kindle so I switched between the two, along with lots of sprays of Neom pillow spray (so delicious), and sips of water. Our snack supply rapidly depleted as we replaced sleep with sugar. In the later morning I had irregular contractions and was told I would be checked again in the early hours of the next morning. This is standard to leave you for 24h, but I was hoping that my body would take over and we would be done before then, as was the case with Bebette. I almost chortled. We will be long gone. Alas, no two births are the same and whilst my contractions increased in intensity, the Tens machine came out, and paracetamol was consumed, they didn’t seem to pick up a nice rapid pace. The babe in my belly was riding right up to my lungs with each contraction. She wasn’t properly locked into my pelvis and it turned out this was due to a big pocket of fluid and her cord blocking her route. Fast forward through a long day of contractions, eating, moving, managing anxious relative enquiries with no news, watching Papa FF fidget (he doesn’t do sitting still….) listening to others moo, and negotiate their position in the queue (I overheard a midwife saying there were 4 people ahead of a lady to get a bed on the labour ward, and the lady asked her to explain why, in each case, that person was ahead of her….) then finally at 2am a kind doctor came to check on me. After the usual fiddle around to examine my progress (never a joy) she confirmed I was ready to have my waters broken, or “ARM” in secret medical code, but because the head was not in quite the right place, she wanted to do it in a controlled environment with a doctor present. Fast forward again another 7/8 hours, fewer snacks, less sleep and more fidgeting, and a midwife appears at our blue curtain and whispers “pack up, we’ve got you a bed. Try not to make too much fuss about it!”. No doubt she didn’t fancy the Spanish Inquisition again. “JÉRÉMIE quick!!” I whisper-scream at the semi-comatose, coat-wearing, floor-sleeping fella next to me. Bless him he was confused, but he packed everything up in record speed and we hobbled down the corridor to the labour room.
Now this part is the little chapter of joy in my story. We walk in to a clean room with light streaming in, a shower, and a kindly midwife who is dedicated just to us. Feeling very fortunate, I offer up our depleted snacks and ask if it’s ok to take a quick shower and Papa FF follows suit. The midwife is slightly bemused by my lack of obvious active labour because, well I’m not there yet. I need the huge volume of liquid out of my belly first and then I know we will be speedy. So I don’t feel bad about having a moment of calm. Papa FF puts on some lovely tunes, I’ve got my pillows and my smells, and our baby-birthing environment is set.
Then comes the water breaking which is quite alarming. Bebe’s cord is near her head and the concern was as they get the water out, her head would suction in and onto the cord and stop Bebe getting her essential supplies. In order to prevent this I had one doctor pushing Bebe down, one midwife on leg duty and one doctor carefully rupturing the membranes. The next bit is a bit graphic: there was a LOT of liquid. Gallons. The midwife -of 25 years experience- said she had never seen so much. Once the liquids eventually slowed, I got a clue each time a contraction was coming because there was another gush of water liquid. It honestly almost didn’t stop the whole time.
Once my waters are broken, active labour is close. With Bebette, my memory is blurry but it felt like my waters went and then she was en route rather rapidly. So I had a feeling it wouldn’t take long. My kindly midwife explained that usually when they do the membrane rupture, ladies need some additional help to get the contractions going and I should prepare to have the drip. I did not want to go that route, and this was when I took matters into my own hands as much as possible. I was uncomfortable at this stage but still not contracting regularly. I knew I needed to get this bebe into drive mode by squatting and wiggling my hips as much as possible. Every wiggle hurt, each time I sat on the ball and then stood up it prompted a contraction. So I did that over and over again. Cue Papa FF taking a snooze. After a few rounds, and as my midwife came in to say she was heading off and her replacement was coming, the gears switched and it was action time. The replacement midwife had been briefed that I wasn’t contracting and was likely to be in for the long haul, but she walked into me in a compromising position having a moo. I gesticulated to Papa FF that we were in action (read: woke him from his snooze) and grunted to the midwife that I would be having a baby soon and I knew because I have done it before. She raised an eyebrow but started to ready the equipment nonetheless. What felt like moments later I was on my back and at the screaming stage, There comes a point where even the gas and air isn’t quite enough and the careful breathing 2 in, 4 out no longer does the job. This is when I know I’m on the final lap. However, my two midwives (one legend phasing back in from retirement) weren’t so sure. “You’ve still got a bit of cervix to go!” “But can I push?” I actually asked am I “allowed” to push. Classic. Please can I push??! I decided that my body knew best and I pushed and pushed and what was apparently 10 minutes of pushing and baby V was here.
Now this is where the rollercoaster didn’t stop. The after pains. In my previous experience Bebe comes out and almost instantly you feel like you again. Contractions stop, pain subsides for euphoria, and subject to any repair works down below, you relax. This time, my belly kept contracting, the cord was pulsating, so much so that everyone stopped to have a look. In a short video Papa FF took soon after the birth I’m still trying to control my breathing some time after Violet is in my arms. Ouch! Then I felt the pain in my nethers. Upon quick examination (the last thing you want but critically important) I didn’t need stitches but ejecting a human is always going to be traumatic in some way. I suffered a lot with hip and pelvis pain this time and the necessary ejection position had not helped this. So I lay there, babe on belly, euphoric but with a generally large side of pain, and breathed out. Would I be able to move again?
This is where the crash back to reality happens. We are in a pandemic and others need this room quickly. What felt like 5 minutes later, but was more like an hour, I was just about in a sitting up position, contemplating another go in the shower – the magical post partum shower- when the midwives came in and, apologising profusely, asked us to pack up and leave the room. At this point I’m covered in everything, and Papa FF had literally just taken baby V for some skin on skin. It’s recommended to do this for as long as possible, so less than 5 minutes wasn’t enough. Somewhat dismayed, I gesticulated I would like to put some pants on before seeing other humans and it might also be wise to see if my legs still work. The midwife really was apologetic and told me not to worry as they would wheel me to the maternity ward. Poor Papa FF was discombobulated again and had to gather up our belongings which this time had spread around the larger room, and gallop after me and bebe, being wheeled along with a trail of lochia no doubt behind us. I barely managed to get my pants to desired location and there we are being congratulated in the corridor. Not exactly how I envisaged my final labour experience, but again, pandemic times, I focussed on how lucky I was to be holding my baby in my arms and that I could go home very soon.
Papa FF was crevée by this point, jokes aside it is hard to hear your loved one squeal and scream in agony (there was a bit of that), and so he set me up in the maternity ward and then headed off to kiss the big kids goodnight and get a good nights’ sleep. I found myself in the familiar warm, blue-curtained room, with a new bebe I needed to get to know, and still limited ability to walk or really move. In contrast to the induction room, this room was almost empty, obviously everyone was keen to get out quickly if they could. Over the next hours I gently navigated my ‘new’ body around the bed, attended to baby V and got her familiar with her food source, requested a lot of paracetamol and was reminded of the most glorious and crazy feeling of having a tiny new person that you don’t quite know what to do with. Would I ever be able to shower? Once she was settled, baby V entered into a lovely newborn snooze and off I waddled to the shower room, finally, to wash away the remnants of my final labour experience.
So for you mamas-to-be heading out on the journey to labour and birth your babes at this difficult time, know this: you have got this, you can do it and the people around you will do everything humanly possible to help you get the baby into the world safely. They would do this anyway, but now, with extra attention, with ultra speed and limited resources. I am sorry that you have to go through this now, an experience that is already fraught with uncertainty and worry, but I am confident that no pandemic can detract from the ultimate magic that is bringing a baby into the world.
The staff at the PRU worked quickly and tirelessly to ensure we new mums were ok, but also with this extra pressure of speeding up the conveyor belt to keep everyone safe. I want to thank the NHS staff that made all this possible, the lady that brought me food, and tea, the lady that kept ensuring every bed was clean and ready for a new patient, the midwife that took the time to clearly explain what could happen once we had ARM’d, the midwife duo that caught Vivi on her ejection, and all the caring midwives and staff that saw me through the first night and morning, measuring wee and sourcing pain relief. Thanks to the friends and family that were ready to assist us, that have been checking in on us, helping us source eggs and nappies for mum and for babe. Thanks for the postal love (and thank you posties!). It would also be remiss of me not to say thank you to Papa FF. Without you we literally wouldn’t be here 💕