Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Katrina Soper, Newport, Wales, UK
“If absolutely everything you didn’t want happens to you, or even if your birth just isn’t what you hoped, this was still your story and nobody else’s. It’s a story that you will probably want to tell in detail someday to a caring friend or maybe even to your child. At some point—even years later—it can help to write it down. The good parts and the bad parts, what you saw and did, and how you felt. Your story will become precious to you for exactly what it is—the beginning of your life with your child.” The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding 8th revised edition, Schaumburg, IL: La Leche League International, 2010; 61.
Katrina relates the story of her fourth baby’s birth and how it turned out to be a positive experience, though it did not go the way she planned.
There’s a lot to be said for preparation, but birth can be unpredictable. Some things happen whatever you do to get ready for the birth you want. I think it’s important to work out what’s really important to us if our birth isn’t the one we ‘planned.’ My first three births were all normal, natural births with no pain relief. The first was more traumatic, due to a failed ventouse (vacuum extraction) and the anguish of not being able to latch my baby on to breastfeed, followed by six months of using nipple shields. Not what I’d expected, in spite of months of reading, birth-plan writing and attendance at prenatal classes. Our next two babies (both daughters) were born at home and the start to our lives together was seamless and blissful.
We were all expecting much the same sort of birth for baby number four—at home with little intervention. We were delighted to have the same lovely midwife who had been there for the other births. She is known locally for being a wonderful supporter at home births, and she was equally thrilled to have the chance to be there for all four babies from one family—a first for her. I re-read the books (and a few new ones), did yoga, avoided scans or tests, enjoyed the pregnancy and was so confident I didn’t even pack a bag for a hospital transfer. I was looking forward to labor. I felt confident and powerful.
However, things didn’t quite work out as we’d expected in spite of all our preparation. During the final five weeks of my pregnancy, a much-loved friend was diagnosed with cancer. He died on my baby’s due date. I spent the final weeks of the pregnancy (and his life) with adrenalin flowing through my body. I was constantly stressed. Will I get to see him before he dies? (I didn’t.) Will I make the funeral? (I didn’t.) Will I be able to support his wife and children? (I did my best, but not as much as I’d have liked to.)
My baby was big and posterior (the back of her head was against my spine, rather than my abdomen). I read articles about turning babies. I scrubbed the floor, had reflexology and sat on an upright chair for weeks. Baby number three had been posterior but had turned as she was born. I wasn’t worried as I’d done my research and felt confident. Labor started 11 days after my due date and almost immediately my waters broke. I felt panicky throughout the three hours of pushing, fearing I might die.
My emergency cesarean
My lovely midwife said she really needed to transfer me to hospital, and I agreed because I knew I couldn’t feel any progress. The cesarean section that followed wasn’t too bad, in spite of it being one of my most feared eventualities.The anesthetists were exceptionally careful and kind, and the staff answered my endless questions with good humor. Our community midwife sat with us and cried as the surgeon made the first cut. She really was ‘with woman’ and sad things had turned out this way.
I didn’t hold Tilly for almost an hour, but she nuzzled her daddy’s furry chest all that time while he sat next to me, which is something he’ll always treasure. Tilly was 9 lb 11 oz and had been twisted as well as posterior. Due to the early break of the waters she was unable to turn. She had been wedged like a cork in a bottle. She had the mark of the failed ventouse on her eyebrow—the evidence of her malpresentation was pretty obvious.
While the birth was taken out of my control (if it ever was in my control!) I was resolved to regain some element of what I needed from the situation.
In the recovery room she latched on for her first breastfeed by herself while I just allowed her to find her way. The recovery midwife had never seen a baby do this and was amazed. She used what she saw to help a mother the very next day, one who hadn’t planned to breastfeed. The midwife suggested the mother just try skin to skin for a little cuddle, and when the baby spontaneously latched on, the mother was so delighted that she actually resolved to continue with breastfeeding. Maybe Tilly and I were meant to be there to teach that midwife something that would help other mothers! Who knows what the grand plan is?
I was amused to read my notes the next day where the staff had recorded feedings until about 2am, when they finally put a line through the table and wrote underneath “fed all night.” Although I hated to be separated from my husband and other children, it did feel a little indulgent to have three uninterrupted days with Tilly—something I didn’t expect to have with baby number four and quite enjoyed!
Side rails for the bed meant we could co-sleep safely and we were left pretty much alone. We practiced our breastfeeding and got to know each other. The cesarean didn’t get in the way of that. Being unable to get around much, I really did focus on rest and my baby. I still would have preferred to have been at home, but I was able to control much of what happened. I didn’t feel that the cesarean had robbed us of what was important—nurturing my baby at the breast.
I went to a local La Leche League workshop when Tilly was seven days old. As always, I had a lovely time with lots of other mothers and a great lunch! I’ve kept a comment close to my heart from one Leader. She said how lovely my baby was and however I’d birthed her, how wonderful it was that I’d had a healthy baby. That was what mattered to me. I don’t feel any resentment now. Tilly and I went through that birth together and I was glad that all my preparation left me with the determination to salvage what I could, which was a full and wonderful breastfeeding relationship, which was to last some years.
I don’t mean to diminish women’s need for support when they feel traumatised after a birth that isn’t what they expected. But birth can be full of surprises, and if it doesn’t go the way we want it to, there’s lots we can do afterwards to make peace with the experience (without feeling a failure) and make the joy of successfully breastfeeding even more worth the effort.