The Birth of Saskia Grace
"Look you're probably infertile anyway so it would be in your best interests to have a radical hysterectomy and be done with it", I was 17 and this was the advice of a gynaecologist who was preparing for my surgery to treat severe endometriosis. Even to a naive and scared teen that just didn't sound right but my objection was greeted with "well your other option would be to try to get pregnant now as that usually clears endo up".
Aside from the fact that I was in no position to have a baby at that point, this horrified me - bringing a life into the word simply to reduce my pain...no thanks. I guess this was when my somewhat vexed relationship with medical professionals began, seven batches of surgery later and endometriosis was still wreaking havoc in my life. I had patches of relief after some operations but overall I felt patronized, traumatized and violated by much of the contact I had with my specialists. Added to this over the next few years was a diagnosis of epilepsy and later still of Fibromyaliga. My body was my enemy and I had bought the line that I was a broken thing who needed to be managed by multiple doctors giving me a range of medications and often contradictory advice. Based in the opinions of my specialists I had put the idea of ever getting pregnant & becoming a mother out of my mind. I was clear that motherhood was just not for me. My life was satisfying and I had absolutely no desire to even try to have a baby...until suddenly it was all I wanted.
At 32 after another medication review where I was told that upping my meds wouldn't matter as I didn't intend to get pregnant I was flooded with intense grief and longing. I knew I had to try to get pregnant. Even if it turned out the doctors were right and I was too damaged to have a baby I had to know for sure. No one was more shocked than me by my sudden turnaround but my husband was so thrilled, he had always wanted to be a dad.
We met a great GP who was encouraging and laughed when I asked if I was too old to start trying. We had some basic tests undertaken at a fertility clinic and I had regular blood tests to help us figure out when I was ovulating - these procedures seemed frustrating at the time but two years later, just as we began to concede that more surgery for endo was probably required, I conceived naturally! The world changed for me in that moment, the depression that had been taking hold vanished and I saw potential and beauty everywhere. Even my extended morning sickness couldn’t dampen my spirit.
As Wendy finished her health check Chris came back from his quick shower (Sass had christened him with a huge helping of meconium when he first held her), and had another cuddle and she repeated her performance by peeing heartily all over his fresh clothes and the floor - he looked so proud and delighted as he said, "I'm the very first person she has weed and pooped on". While I ate the most delicious Vegemite on toast, Chris rang our families to share the wonderful news. We sat with our birth team basking in the glow of our shared experience and staring in wonder at this divine creature on my chest.
Before long Kirsten and Mel had returned to their own families and Wendy showed Chris how to change and swaddle his daughter. They tucked me into our bed with Saskia in my arms and I drifted off to sleep still feeling the rocking, flowing movement of the water around me.
My supposedly dysfunctional body had conceived, grown and given birth to a perfect little girl without any medical interventions. The journey from the start of my pregnancy through to our gentle homebirth was both healing and empowering. I have learned that my body is strong and I am capable, what a timely lesson to learn as I begin this new adventure called motherhood.
My team was wonderful. Chris held my hands when I needed his strength to give me leverage during a contraction. He stroked my hair and told me how proud he was and how much he loved me as I rested. He was so calm – I never saw doubt in his eyes, just love and confidence in me.
Mel took photos, wrote notes about what was happening (including an attempt to capture the myriad of vocalisations I made) and encouraged me. Her little one began to cry towards the end and it was an unexpected blessing, each time I heard her cry my contractions strengthened and felt more productive.
Our doula flitted about taking photos, re-filling the pool and providing practical support for the whole team - Chris was in desperate need of her massage after many hours of squatting by the pool.
Within seconds I felt the amazing sensation of my baby sliding out in one wriggly burst. No crowning, no "ring of fire", she just flew into Wendy’s hands and was swooshed up into my arms. Wendy was apparently in a bit of shock
as she had only felt a tiny bit of head before our baby was suddenly in her hands.
No one's shock could match my own at that point - our baby girl was in my shaking arms and I had brought her into this world. I looked into the teary eyes
of my husband whose arms were around us both and said " She is definitely Saskia", her name had been undecided but it felt written all over her creamy, vernix covered face. She was alert, loud and pink within seconds of being on my chest and spun her tiny head around towards her dad when he began to speak.
We planned to birth at our local hospital in Mt Barker that had a very good reputation for its maternity care. We hired a doula because I felt that with all my physical complications I would need a really good support team. I also knew that a doula’s involvement was linked with a range of positive birth outcomes. Our doula, Kirsten, felt more like an old friend right from the start and with her help, and resources, I began to explore my birthing options.
We had been so focused on getting pregnant I had not thought much about what would happen next. I was amazed to discover how many medical procedures & tests that I had taken for granted were actually quite controversial and often not supported by up to date evidence. As a children’s mental health worker I knew that the way a child is born is significant for the future emotional well being of both the mother and the child. For this reason I had already decided I wanted to avoid unnecessary interventions or drugs if possible but I didn't really understand what natural birth was or how difficult it would be to have a birth like this in a hospital.
We had attended birth classes at the hospital with a lovely midwife who seemed very supportive of natural birth. We had expected a tour of the hospital and a list of all the available drugs so we were both surprised and thrilled by how helpful the class was. This Midwife taught us about the female body’s wonderful capacity to birth without interference.
We learned about the hormones and chemicals that are released in the body that enable it to do this seemingly impossible task. What stayed with me was the role that the hormones associated with fear played- the way that adrenalin and cortisol could block the body’s natural painkillers and slow labour down or make it harder. I tend to be an anxious person and I wondered how I would manage to keep my fear at bay so that my body could do what it needed to.
Our main GP obstetrician was supportive and relaxed but she became ill midway through my pregnancy and I began to have to meet with whoever was available at the clinic. I was measured, poked, tested, lectured then hurried out the door by doctors who barely made eye contact with me. When I questioned certain tests or refused interventions I was often treated like an irritating child rather than someone who believed in informed consent and wanted the best for her baby. I came away from these appointments teary, discouraged and back to believing my body was a ticking time bomb. My joy and excitement about being pregnant was being eaten away rapidly.
It was then that I met Wendy. My best friend Mel had already given birth at home once and had extended me the great honour of allowing me to be present at the birth of her second child. Baby Olive was due about a month before our own baby girl was expected. I was visiting Mel’s house when I met her independent midwife Wendy. This woman had a gift, she didn't even know me but over the next few occasions that I met her she managed to restore my excitement and help me grow genuine faith in my body and its ability to birth my baby.
After sharing Mel's birth experience with Wendy I was struck by the beauty and power of a birth supported gently at home - it bore very little resemblance to the harsh, frightening birth stories I had been told by many friends and seen on TV. I think at this point I knew deep down that I wanted to birth at home but I was fighting many fears about what my family and friends might say. I also think part of me didn't feel I deserved such a beautiful experience, my body had always failed me and maybe that’s all I could expect. It took one more awful clinic visit with an insensitive doctor and panicky midwife to cement my resolve. I stopped by to visit Mel and Wendy on my way home and burst into tears, "I don't want to go to hospital " I sobbed, to which they both gently replied, "we know".
We met with and hired Wendy soon after (it turned out my husband had been far more open to the idea than I thought) and my excitement and confidence began to grow each day. After each visit with Wendy I felt strong, confident, beautiful and, as she said, "built to birth".
I had been noticing Braxton Hicks contractions for about two weeks before my estimated date but the 17th of December passed without any action. Christmas day began to approach and I began to get antsy - I didn't want our child to have birthday that would be overshadowed by Christmas each year. The cramps came and went with no discernible pattern but were starting to intensify by the 21st. I thought the contractions would stop if I paid them too much attention so I tried to ignore them but I couldn't suppress a flicker of excitement.
On the 22nd I got up at about 1:30am when it had become too uncomfortable to stay in bed. I knew this was it. I was still feeling ok so I wandered around house in the dark. I wanted to cherish this last quiet time, just me and my bump. By 2:30 I decided I needed to wake Chris and let our doula know what was happening - she had over an hour to travel and I wanted her to have time to wake up and drive carefully
As Chris woke up I texted Mel, "this is getting really hard - can you come?". She lived just down the road thankfully so I knew I would have her support quickly.
The contractions were never regular for me, the timing and intensity of them had no rhythm and at this stage they were still manageable if I focused on my breathing. It felt like a tight band around my lower abdomen that would tighten& squeeze me - not a sharp or scary pain just deep, intense pressure. As uncomfortable as the contractions were I was quietly thrilled at this point - we had waited so long for this moment.
I felt so glad we had decided to stay home where I felt safe and relaxed for the birth. I would have been terrified if I was facing a trip to the hospital - complete with internal exams, strange smells, needles, bright lights, rotating staff and the pressure of a ticking clock measuring my "progress". With my history of painful surgical experiences there was no way I could get into the right emotional space for birthing in a hospital, no matter how lovely the midwifery staff were.
Throughout all the challenges the day presented me with I can honestly say I didn’t feel afraid. I was nervous and anxious at times (like I was about to jump on a rollercoaster) but I didn’t have that sense of dread or fear. It seemed like only minutes before the whole team was there; my gorgeous husband filling the birth pool, our doula pressing on my hips as the contractions came, Wendy unpacking her equipment and Mel encouraging me with baby Olive in her arms.
We had chosen some video clips from a dance show to play during labor and Chris put these on now. The powerful music and rhythms helped me move in order to help baby descend. I have vivid memories of swaying my hips to a Bollywood tune surrounded by candles and Christmas lights. We were burning my favourite citrus oil and I was sipping on energy drinks in between contractions. I still can't imagine a more perfect setting.
As soon as the pool was set up I asked when I could get in without slowing labour. I knew that my fibromyalgia could make it hard for me to keep moving but the water would support my body. Slipping into that warm water was pure bliss and I knew my decision to have a water birth had been absolutely right. I began to twist, turn and rock in the water during contractions, and often in between them as well, I felt like my baby needed me to just keep gently moving.
Wendy seemed to know exactly what I needed, and didn't need. I didn't want any internal exams or to be told what stage I was at or to be micro managed. She used the Doppler every hour to ensure bub was doing well, she administered homeopathic drops when I began to feel hopeless or overwhelmed but most of all she kept assuring me that I was doing a great job and our baby was doing a great job too – we were working together just as we needed to, “what a great team you are!”. With 20+ years of experience and the serenity Wendy radiated I felt safe and reassured despite the pain.
As the afternoon approached I began to struggle with low energy and some feelings of despondency. I hoped I wasn’t going to be one of those women who laboured for 3days – I didn’t feel I had that in me. Wendy assured me that I would be meeting my precious child today. I worked hard to hold onto that thought as the day wore on. I tried to rest between contractions to conserve my energy but it made it harder when I was suddenly woken by the approaching pain. I was so very tired.
Later that afternoon I was hit with a sudden rush of energy and excitement, I rose up on my knees out of the water and exclaimed “I feel strong!”. This wonderful burst of power gave me my second wind and helped me work through a few more hours of contractions.
After labouring for most of the day in the pool evening approached and I began to lose confidence that there would ever be an end. It wasn't the intensity of the pain, the contractions were not too dissimilar to the pain I had with endometriosis, it was the duration that I struggled with. I remember bursting into tears at one point when I looked at baby Olive and saying "when will I have my baby? There is no baby!". I didn't mind having more pain but I wanted a different kind of pain, just a change in the type or intensity to give me hope that I was actually getting somewhere.
This change came when my waters finally broke. About 17 hrs after active labour began, they broke with a strong popping sensation and ripple in the water around me. I sat bolt upright and beamed as I informed everyone what had just happened. It was all action from this point as the intensity of each contraction increased significantly. I had to focus on keeping my vocalizations low as I knew high pitched sounds would work against the dilation but it wasn’t easy. Painful as they were, I preferred these contractions - I felt like they were going somewhere. I could see an image in my mind of a thick rubber band wrapped around my pelvis that I could S-T-R-E-T-C-H open each time a contraction came.
I was on my knees holding Chris' hands as I rocked backwards pushing my hips towards the sky and roaring loudly. I noticed little pushy feelings and grunts at this point but because the pressure I felt was all in my bottom I assumed baby was still a long way off. Wendy asked if I felt burning in my vagina and if she could support my perineum to help avoid tearing. I said no because I felt very little sensation in my vagina, there couldn’t be a baby down there yet. Luckily I relented the next time Wendy suggested she just put her hand down to check. Her wisdom and experience were spot on, the moment she put her hand down she said firmly, "Narelle you need to just breathe now", the others began echoing with, "breathe breathe breathe!".
We pulled a towel over her to keep her warm as I birthed the placenta into the water. These contractions were stronger than I expected but I was happy to have it dealt with so quickly and was reassured when Wendy explained that the after pains I kept feeling were a gift that would help prevent haemorrhaging.
By this point I was quite shaky and wanted to get out of the water in case I slipped with Saskia in my arms. Kirsten scooped the placenta into a bucket and Wendy handed Sass over to Chris for his first cuddle. I felt a sudden pang of loss - she was no longer physically connected to me. I was helped onto the couch and handed my perfect little girl, we were wrapped in warmed towels and began to gaze at each other in delight. Saskia crawled from my tummy to my breast and began to feed. I was amazed that she knew exactly what to do - I certainly wouldn't have known how to get the feeding started but she showed me. She fed for over an hour before Wendy examined and weighed her on my lap.