This post marks 4 years to the day since I started blogging - and my 100th post! After 9 years (9 years?!!!), I have finally managed to get around to writing about our amazing firstborn's birth. But how do I even start this post? I've written about our middle child's birth, and I've written about our youngest's birth, but up until now I hadn't found it in me to tackle the birth of our first child, which involved a dangerously unwell mother and baby, and a great deal of fear and worry and stress for everybody involved.
I was reading up about trauma a while back - initially for my son, but I soon realised it was for me as well. Our oldest child ('Dragon') had a very difficult start in life, with a month on SCBU (special care baby unit) due to his low birth weight and trouble regulating his blood sugars. And me? Well, aside from worrying about my child, and not even having him with me for all those weeks, I was also very ill - without wishing to be overly dramatic, I found out later that there had been significant concerns about whether I myself would make it. Anyway, I'm not sure how this post will turn out, nor of the angle I am shooting for here, but I hope it is informative and helpful, or even just interesting, in some way to someone… Here is our story.
**Content warning: graphic shots of a caesarean birth, and mild language**
We had hoped and planned for a home birth with our first child. We knew it was the safest option, and whilst we knew there was always a chance of needing to transfer to hospital, we had done our homework and were confident in our choice. What we hadn't reckoned on, was me ending up with pre-eclampsia which was spotted at around 37 weeks. I remember the day so well - it was a bank holiday, and our midwife had visited us at home, and was a little concerned by my blood pressure and urine sample. She decided to send us off to the hospital to have further tests done. I thought I'd be home that evening, but it ended up being a much longer stay than we had anticipated. In the end, I was kept in for an incredibly stressful week and a half, which felt like a lifetime, before we welcomed our baby into the world. But the birth didn't at all go as we had hoped - and even then we still weren't all able to be together for some time to come.
That 10 days or so in hospital was incredibly hard. I remember constant worry, constant tension. And oh, the tests - the constant checks on how I was doing; how the baby was doing. I remember the sound of the baby's heartbeat which should have been reassuring but instead gives me the shivers still now if I hear anything that sounds even remotely like that strange, slightly unearthly wooshing sound. And the anxious wait every time the blood pressure cuff went on - maybe just maybe it would have come down this time?? But no, my blood pressure continued to rise over that week and a half, until it reached a worrying point. And now people were talking about induction. Induction? But we were confident in the body's ability to do its birthing thing except in extreme circumstances - surely we weren't going to have to be induced?? But I wasn't getting any better, and things were starting to look increasingly alarming. We reluctantly agreed, and it was booked in for around the 38 week mark, giving the baby the best chance to be fully developed.
But then, joy! I started having contractions the night before we were due to be induced. Could this be it? Everyone said that pre-eclampsia means that your body wants to get that baby out as soon as possible, so maybe if we were lucky it would just happen quickly for us and at least we might avoid too much intervention?? But it wasn't to be. As my body experienced each contraction, the baby's heartbeat dropped off and wasn't recovering quickly. And these were just early, relatively mild contractions - as they got stronger, there would be no way that the baby's heart would be able to cope. We were quickly told that a caesarean section would be necessary, and that it would need to be imminent.
So we went ahead with a caesarean, afraid and desperately disappointed as we were. I am thankful that I was able to be awake. I am thankful that all went broadly to plan in the operation itself. I am thankful that we chose this option - even if at the time we were unnecessarily rushed into it, as we found later.
At this point I feel I need to say how much I value the NHS and its amazing staff. And how this story isn't intended to put down the efforts made our behalf. However, as with most things in life, the NHS is by no means perfect - whilst I am hugely grateful for the resources the NHS offers, our experience with our first son's birth could have been hugely improved by a few simple actions, which mainly boil down to issues with communication, listening, respect and understanding. So please hold in mind the immense gratitude I have for the life-saving interventions which we underwent, whilst also making space for the fact that there are good reasons that we were unhappy with some of the care we received.
I don't remember a great deal about the prep, or even really about the operation itself. I remember feeling afraid, and wanting to feel excited - but the fear was too much. Things happened fast. I remember a lot of people, I remember that it was cold. I remember when our child was delivered, that he was quickly passed to me, wrapped in a towel. That at some point he needed oxygen. That my head hurt and hurt and hurt.
And then I remember that they weren't happy with him; that something wasn't right. That he was whisked away from me far, far too soon. I remember that I insisted on my other half going with our baby - and that my husband was so torn; that he didn't want to leave me or the baby. He went. I felt so alone. I didn't know what was happening, and there was no one in that room whom I had known for longer than about half an hour. I didn't know what was happening with my baby. I didn't know who to ask. I was alone.
And then? Then I too was whisked away, hooked up to all manner of machines, immobilised. I was very unwell, but it was meaningless to me at the time. I remember my other half coming to see me, then off again to the baby, then back. And I know that I didn't see my baby for the next three days. Three days where I lay in bed, extremely ill with the after effects of pre-eclampsia, painfully ill with the after effects of an unexpected and hasty caesarean. In so much pain. And why wasn't my son brought to me? He could have been. I know that now. He could have been. And there I lay, trying to ask but not really having the energy or the wherewithall to do it. And I remember half-hearted attempts from one or two staff members to get me to express some breastmilk - the equipment was left for me, but nobody showed me what to do or helped me, or even told me that it was vital that I try. How we got breastfeeding off the ground finally is a mystery to me, and once again I have cause to be thankful.
Looking back, how did I not see that this was traumatic for both of us? How did I not see that? I could have died. Our baby was inexplicably and dangerously unable to maintain his blood sugar levels. In those days we were (as I think many new parents are) very naïve, and we thought the hospital would know what to do, would help us with what was best. Not a mention did they make of attachment in the early days and weeks of life when our son was in SCBU. It was us who had to push to hold our son skin to skin; in spite of the posters advertising the importance of kangaroo care on the walls, not one staff member thought to talk with us about the importance of holding our son, of being with him as much as we possibly could. The opposite almost in fact - when we asked (asked!!) to hold our own son, it felt like a bit of an inconvenience to some of them, and we were frequently told to 'go home and get some rest' and even to 'make the most of' a good night's sleep because we wouldn't get a good night's sleep once we brought our baby home. Never mind that I was up frequently in the night expressing, nor that the only thing we really wanted right then was to have our baby with us.
Again, I have to point out that I am an ardent supporter of the NHS - I used to work for it in a clinical capacity myself, after all - and I value hugely the time and efforts that the staff in SCBU did put in for our son. I fully recognise that the issues I am raising here are much more to do with lack of time, funding, and education, than with the efforts which the staff did put in. But this is my space to tell it as I experienced it, so if you can please hold space for my tremendous gratitude for everything that was done for my son, I will continue…
A month. A month of daily visits - in the morning if you wanted to catch the doctor on ward rounds (but you had to leave again once your child was seen, so that you didn't earwig on other children's situations). At least in the afternoon you could stay for as long as you wanted. The regular binging of the machines in SCBU. The alarms that went off if you picked your child up and forgot to turn the sensor off. Replacing cannulas. Heel pricks - so many heel pricks, making our baby scream and squirm in pain. Us not always there to hold him as they did it. Endless expressing. A nasogastric (NG) tube, down through his nostril and into his stomach. Feeding him via the tube - if only someone had told me to let gravity do its work, to not push the milk through. Attempts to get our baby to latch on.
What was it like? What was it like as an inexperienced parent to have your first child taken from you, and subjected to care, about which you had no real say, nor any real information - there was no care plan, no end in sight, until we insisted. I remember feeling that this baby didn't seem to be mine (insofar as your children ever are 'yours') - it was only when we got him home that we felt he was ours, truly ours, and that we could relax and start to do things in the ways we felt were right.
But then we also had to contend with the fact that although he was born at term, he was very small (4lb 11oz) at birth. He didn't have the stores he needed in his body, so he still wasn't regulating his blood sugars as he should have been. This meant that if his blood sugars dipped too low for too long, he was at risk of brain damage. And somehow, through all the shit we went through at the hospital, we had managed to feed him expressed breast milk through his NG tube, and somehow, somehow, he had eventually managed a vaguely decent latch and I was able to breastfeed him once he came home. Which was amazing! And terrifying - before we left the hospital, we were told in no uncertain terms that we needed to 'make sure we fed him properly' otherwise he might be at risk of brain damage. No pressure then.
I remember one night, not long after we brought our son home, when he wasn't waking to feed, and we rang the hospital ward where we had an open referral. They had told us that if he was sick, or wasn't feeding at least every 4 hours, we were to ring, as if we left it too long he 'might get brain damage' - that old chestnut again. But the doctor on call wasn't available at the 4-hour mark and would 'call us back'. So we waited. And we waited. And time was ticking on. And we waited a bit more. And then we couldn't wait any longer, so we called back again, and said that we had to speak to someone straightaway as it was a time-limited issue. I don't remember the exact details thereafter, but we did speak to someone, who said to wake and feed our son, so we did and it was all fine. Of course it was fine - he was just sleeping more was all - but oh, it didn't feel fine. I remember constrictive panic in my throat, I remember rocking, I remember crying, I remember the wait seemed interminable. I remember that I just didn't know what to do.
And that was what a lot of my time felt like. Waiting, waiting, wondering, not knowing what the next thing would be - would he be sick, as he often was? How sick? Should I feed him again? Should I wake him to feed him? What if he took a bit too much then and was sick again? Then what? Should I feed him again? And so on and so on and round and round and on and on. So much worry, so much tension, so much pain.
And I didn't understand. I didn't understand that everything I felt around that time was ok. I held to the prevailing beliefs of stiff upper lip, nobody died, what's all the fuss about. We didn't know that everything we were feeling was not only normal, but acceptable. That it was ok to feel like we weren't coping. Now I know so much better, and if there's one thing I hope someone might take from this story, it is that whatever birth you have, whatever the outcome, you deserve to be allowed to feel whatever it is that you need to. Excitement at having your baby, disappointment that things didn't turn out as you would have wanted, guilt that you didn't manage to give your baby the start in life you had hoped for, fear at the idea of going through it again… Whatever it is, it is ok, and you can give yourself the grace to feel the full force of whatever is going on for you in the moment. Find an empathic listener - someone who will hold space for you with no judgement, advice, or interruptions. Someone who will know that you are doing your best, and that your feelings are valid and not to be feared. Someone who will hold that you will get through this, in your own time. And look to finding some compassion for yourself - to feel what you need to, to not be absolutely delighted with your situation, to do what you need to do to get yourself to an easier place. And through it all, love yourself like those around you love you - because you've done the very best you can, and that is enough. I wish I had known this back then.
And now? We have had many opportunities to work through our experience, and things are easier now. I don't doubt that there are elements that we haven't tackled - areas that might still be raw for us if triggered. I do ponder how much more quickly we could have worked through the trauma of our experience if we had just known how. We found some peace 10 months or so on, when we shared with our antenatal group how hard things were. And again, when we were pregnant for the second time, on meeting with the supervisor of midwives who was able to explain and help us work through what happened the first time around. Listening Partnerships have been the mainstay of our work to get past this, and surrounding ourselves with friends and family and community who would listen. But we are doing ok - and our son is amazing, and everything we could ever hope for. And, tremendous challenge that it was, we wouldn't remove this experience from our history for the world: it happened, we learnt so much, we do things so differently now because of it, and we can now accept that we can't, and wouldn't, change it. We can only alter how we think of it and experience it. Our challenge has become our gift - but it has taken nearly a decade to get here. Working through our challenges takes as long as it takes, and it is right to grant ourselves the grace to accept this. I hope that we can all find our own peace in our challenges - in our own time.
This is for everyone who has had a challenging birth experience, whatever that may mean to you - sending love and acceptance to you all.
- Have a look into Peter Levine's work (e.g. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma) for more information on working through events such as these
- For more on Listening Partnerships - what they are, and how to do them - try 10 tips for being a good listener
- And here's How to find a listening partner