Warning: this is a very long post. Also, if you’re not interested in the gory details, you might not want to read on.
On Saturday night, just over two weeks ago, we walked over to our friends’ place for waffles. I was bored, frustrated, more than a week overdue and tired of waiting. Waffles were just the trick. I brought some brownies too. Our friends live only five minutes away, and I insisted on walking, trundling my heavy form through the thick snow and biting cold. (The funny thing is, my friend was nearly two weeks overdue just over a year ago, and the day we went out for chocolate cake together was the day her labour started.) It was a nice evening. We walked home slowly through the cold and went to bed.
At one I woke with a dull ache in my legs. This had happened before and not meant anything. I went to the bathroom and back to bed. At two I woke again with what I soon realized were waves of pain in my lower back. Terribly excited, I crept downstairs without waking Michael. The contractions were coming every two and half minutes. If I walked up and down when they came I felt ok. After half an hour or so Mum came down. Other nights she’d come to check on me but I had just been coping with bad cases of heartburn. Tonight was different. ‘Is it anything?’ she asked. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘yes, I think so.’
I tried not to get too excited in case they went away again. They came at two and a half minute intervals from the beginning, to start with lasting only 20-30 seconds, but soon picking up to 45-60 seconds. I found I had to walk through them to manage the pain, and breathe, and count. Then I discovered that sitting on my big bouncy ball and rocking around was even better. Mum had bought me an internet subscription to a hypnotherapy birth course, and although I hadn’t listened to the meditations that much, I think they helped, along with the bits of yoga I’ve done in the past. I concentrated on breathing and relaxing my muscles. I counted slowly to ten and the pain would begin to dip away again. I ate a banana and drank a glass of milk. Mum sat with me. The hours slid past very quickly.
I would have been happy at home for several more hours, but at five I rang the hospital to see what they thought. They said to come in, as the hospital is in the next town and it would take me a while to get there. I went to wake Michael. ‘You have to wake up’, I said. He looked a bit grumpy. ‘We’re having the babbie today.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes!’ He snapped into action. I made sure he didn’t rush and had time for a shower and breakfast. I could tell the end wasn’t in sight any time soon. I asked Mum to make me a sandwich to eat in the car, while I did a final check of my maternity bag. Michael scraped the ice off the windscreen.
The drive wasn’t too bad. I was worried about not being able to move around but it was ok. It was dark. It was freezing cold. The roads were nearly empty. I had a hot water bottle in the small of my back and another one on my legs, and I had a woolen blanket. Michael was pushing the speed limit but I told him to slow down because a smooth ride was more important than getting there fast. I explained about the contractions, that I wouldn’t talk to him while I was having one. And it was ok.
We arrived at the hospital just before 7, and went up to ward B7. They have three wards for giving birth – the normal ward, the emergency ward, and the natural birthing ward. At the encouragement of my midwife, who said I was built for giving birth, I had decided to give the natural birthing ward a shot. They have baths, and acupuncture, and you can get gas there, but if you want any stronger pain relief you have to go down to the normal ward, which of course you can do at any time.
I didn’t have my heart set on a natural birth, but I thought I would give it a go, as I had heard it meant you were less likely to require interventions like forceps. I had no expectations of birth as a wonderful experience, or one that had to confirm to a set plan. I had grown up with the story of my own birth – a long labour, breech, an epidural that didn’t work properly but kept Mum chained to the bed, an episiotomy, midwives who didn’t seem to be responding to my sky-rocketing heart-beat, and finally an emergency c-section with both of us barely scraping through alive. (Ok so I hadn’t always known all the details, but I knew it was an emergency, a c-section, and that we both nearly died.) Knowing this didn’t make me terrified of giving birth, but it did mean that I knew birth often didn’t turn out how you’d like it to. I wasn’t nervous about labour because I knew there was no way I could know what I was getting myself in for, and not much I could do to change it. Like a looming exam for which the time for studying has passed.
The midwife took us to our room – a large room with a double bed, a huge bath in the corner, large windows, and a walking-frame thing with wheels. She examined me and said I was 100% effaced but only one and a half centimetres dilated. She monitered the baby’s heartbeat and my contractions. She said to take a walk around, eat some breakfast, and come back in a bit. She said the contractions would get much worse, worse than I could imagine, but that I should remember that it was good pain, it was accomplishing something. It wasn’t pain that meant that something was wrong, like appendicitis. It was pain that needed to happen, and at the end of it I would get my baby.
This was the view from our windows – across the river to the old town. I loved watching the seagulls soaring over the water.
We went for a walk outside, stepping very carefully on the icy footpaths. I was wearing my ugg boots. We found a park and walked around it. The contractions were still coming every two and a half minutes, but I could walk through them. It was very cold, I guess around minus eight.
When we got back from the walk we met the midwife who had taken over the next shift. All the midwives were just brilliant, and they kindly assigned me the ones who were best at English. She checked me again and I was still only one and a half centimetres, but she moved her finger a bit and pushed me to two with no effort at all as I was so effaced. She said as I was so far overdue they were prepared to be a little more interventionist than usual. I guess it was about half past eight at this point.
I didn’t get to five centimetres dilated until about four pm. During this time I walked about on the walker, which was great for managing pain because you could lean into it and grip the handles and move slowly. They also brought me another ball to sit on. I ate lunch and looked out of the windows. At the midwife’s urging I had a bit of a rest, lying sideways on the bed and even drifting off slightly between contractions, which were still coming every two to three minutes. During contractions I breathed and relaxed. I concentrated on relaxing my face muscles and felt it helped a bit. Between contractions I chatted with Michael. The midwives were impressed by how calm I was. My memory of these contractions is greatly dimmed by how incredibly worse they got later. So I remember them as not too bad. But they actually were quite painful.
Around three, the midwives swapped shifts again. The new midwife offered me acupuncture, so I decided to give it a shot. It felt pretty strange lying on the bed with pins sticking into me for half an hour. They did dull the pain a little – I can only describe it as a sort of deepening, a heavy feeling, so that the peaks of the contractions were not quite so strong.
When she took them out, though, things really started happening. My dinner had arrived (Norwegians eat dinner around four), so I sent Michael off to find something for himself to eat while I perched on my ball and tried to attack my fish and potatoes. I could hardly manage a thing because the contractions had stepped up a notch and were making me feel quite ill. I was just about to stagger to the other side of the room to pull the cord to call the midwife when Michael got back and pulled it for me.
When she arrived I told her the pain was much worse and I wanted to get into the bath. She examined me again and I was five centimetres, and she said yes, it was the right time to get into the bath. The relief was immediate. I felt warm and weightless. The contractions kept getting stronger but I could arch my back and stretch and float. I would lift my body up during contractions, and let it relax between them. Michael used the showerhead to spray the small of my back during the contractions, and this felt good too. They made me sip water between contractions. But they were getting worse and worse, and I found I needed to moan to get through them. Just like in the movies. So strange! The pain was really bad now. I can only describe it as having a raging beast within you, twisting and writhing – like a Chinese dragon with scales and spikes and a face like a lion and claws that stretched up your back. And then there was no break between the contractions – they would begin to ebb only to surge again with a vengeance.
After a while the midwife suggested I get out. She said sometimes the bath did this, meant that you didn’t get a break. I was hesitant, because I had read somewhere that the pain gets worse when you get out, but I decided to trust her. I had been in there about an hour and a half. They dried me off and gave me a hospital gown and I staggered over to the bed, kneeling up against a big beanbag. And she was right. The pain was the same, but at least I had breaks between. During the breaks I collapsed against the beanbag, trying to regain my strength. They fed me sips of apple juice through a straw.
She checked me again and I was still only six and a half centimetres.
The next bit was hard. It went on and on. In between contractions I started shaking uncontrollably. During contractions Michael massaged the small of my back. I asked for the gas. The couple of times I used it correctly it did dull the pain a little but I didn’t like it – I needed to breath and pant my way through the contractions and I hated having the thing over my face. Plus I was already feeling nauseous and the gas just made it worse. I vomited all over Michael. I gave up on the gas. My waters broke at around eight centimetres – I felt them dripping down my legs. After a while the midwife told me I should go to the toilet. I wasn’t keen on the idea but I managed it, clutching the side of the wall during contractions. I was about at the end of my endurance. I couldn’t see how I could keep going for much longer. She had kept telling me that I would have a baby soon. I didn’t want a baby. I wanted to lie on the bed and be pain-free and sleep for twelve hours. I heard Michael asking the midwife if I was ok, if I should go to the other floor for an epidural.
But I came out, and she examined me again, and I was nine centimetres. Nine centimetres, so close! I could do it. The pain during the last centimetre was bad, but possibly not quite so bad as it had been before. Or maybe it was because I knew the end was in sight. It still went on for quite a while. She told me sometime soon I would feel the need to push. And I didn’t, and I didn’t, and finally I did.
During all this time I’d sort of gone into my own little world. I was aware of what the midwife and Michael were doing, but I hardly spoke to them. If the midwife told me to do something I complied. I have read that some women get irritable or angry but I didn’t. I just focused. I used my hands to signal if I needed a massage or not. I sipped the juice and the water. I didn’t worry about whatever funny sounds I felt like making. I didn’t think about how long it was taking. I wasn’t aware of time at all.
The pushing stage was strange. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I couldn’t see how it was going to work. The midwife told me not to vocalize so much but use the energy to push down. I tried hard. We tried three different positions in all: leaning my back up against the beanbag in the bed; on my hands and knees in the bed, and then standing up on the walker. At some point I looked down to see my entire body beaded over with sweat. My hair was drenched. By the time we’d got to standing in the walker there were two more midwives around. They kept shoving sugar pills in my mouth and giving me sips of apple juice. They told me I was doing well. They told me to push harder. Eventually they got me back in the first position, leaning back against the beanbag. I think I’d made some progress on the walker but not enough. ‘Come on!’ they said, ‘you have to get really angry now.’ ‘Come on!’ said Michael. ‘I can’t!’ I said. I gripped his hand and the midwife’s hand. Just like the movies. They said to stick out my chin. I tried to do it but what they really meant was to point my chin down so I was curling over myself. Another midwife put my leg on her shoulder. Then they knotted a sheet and told me to pull hard during contractions and whatever I did not to let go because the midwife holding the other end would go flying across the room. I did as they told me.
They said to take a deep breath at the beginning of the contraction and then to push as hard as I could, and to use all of the contraction, not give up half way through. It was getting harder to tell when I was having a contraction – partly because the contractions themselves weren’t quite as painful, and partly because I was beginning to be in pain the whole time. ‘He’s so close now!’ they said. ‘We can see the top of his head – dark hair!’ And I remember thinking – ‘dark hair – how can he have dark hair? I never expected dark hair!’ The top of his head would emerge and disappear again. But I suppose it must have been getting ever closer. ‘Ok’, said one of the midwives, ‘very soon I will tell you to stop pushing. And it will be hard but you must do it.’ ‘Ok,’ I said. ‘But now, do I keep pushing now?’ ‘Yes during the contractions push as hard as you can until I tell you not to. You need to push through the pain barrier. It will hurt and make you want to stop but you need to keep pushing anyway.’ And it did hurt and it felt so wrong, like I would break myself, but I pushed anyway. And eventually she said ‘stop pushing!’ And I didn’t realize it but after an hour and a half of pushing the head was out. And I panted and panted and stopped pushing, and the next second the rest of him slid out like a wet slug. I sort of felt it and saw him shooting out onto the bed. I couldn’t believe it.
Michael watched his head come out. He said he was bright purple like a doll made from plastic. And then he turned his head and twitched his lip and looked straight at him. And the rest of him came out and they put him on my belly, and in no time at all he was bright pink and screaming his lungs out.
I was still shaking uncontrollably. I held my child on my chest. He was here. Michael cut the cord. It was just the most surreal experience. I checked the clock to see if was today or tomorrow. It was 11pm, February 13. Norwegian mother’s day. He had just escaped being a Valentines babe.
And really that should be the end of the story but it wasn’t quite, because he’d given me a bit of a tear coming out and they had to stitch me up. So they moved me over to a hospital stretcher thing with stirrups, and gave Felix to Michael to hold, and made him take his shirt off and lay him on his chest. A doctor came to check to make sure the tear wasn’t too bad, and then went away again. I guess they must have waited until I stopped shaking. I didn’t feel like asking about it at that point, and I assumed it was much worse than it was, as it took two midwives three quarters of an hour to stitch it up. (I also understood enough Norwegian to hear them discussing amongst themselves: ‘this bit goes here!’ ‘no, this bit goes with this bit’, which wasn’t exactly reassuring but almost made me laugh at the absurdity of the situation.) Later I discovered it was only a mild second degree rupture, so not bad at all. But at that point I was completely done with pain, and couldn’t believe I had to endure more! They gave me a local anaesthetic but it still hurt.
At last it was over. They wheeled me to another room, and Michael followed with the baby. We cuddled and cooed over him. I think they tried to get me breastfeeding but I don’t really remember. They brought me some bread and jam on a tray with a little Norwegian flag for Felix’s birthday. After two hours they weighed him, and made me use the bathroom, and then Michael held Felix while I was finally allowed to sleep. Not for twelve hours, but four hours was just fine.