Here at Love Mamas we share a lot as a community. With these birth stories we want to share our labour experiences, to share in the joy, awe and amazement of what women do to bring life into this world. Everyone's story is different and special.
In the fourth instalment of our Birth Story series Rebecca McMillan writes an honest account of having a caesarian section after preparing for a natural labour.
I had a beautiful pregnancy. I enjoyed a first trimester of fatigue and waves of nausea but no crippling morning sickness. I exercised regularly, I took my prenatal multivitamins, started reading Jacquie Brown's rather hilarious I’m Not Fat I'm Pregnant!, met with a midwife who had a great calm nature and natural birth approach. My second trimester was wonderful, starting to feel baby in my belly, having a belly that was growing and that I was proud to see expanding. My tests always looked good and each scan was exciting. I kept up my exercise, including preggy yoga which I was doing two to three times a week. My third trimester started as expected: the fatigue returned, I started to slow down. My husband and I were so excited at the prospect of this birth. I read more, packed and nested. We wanted a hospital birth but I wanted it as natural as possible. We made a birth plan that included no hard drugs (a bit of gas sounded nice LOL) and immediate skin-to-skin with baby after I had birthed him. We went to a weekend course run by the yoga studio and designed for natural birthing couples. We learnt about acupressure points to relieve pain, support positions for my husband to hold me when I was contracting, breathing techniques for managing the pain. I was visualising the most spiritual power mama labour. I was so ready to feel the pain and breathe my way through labour. I almost looked forward to experiencing that pain and overcoming it. My sister shipped over a vapouriser from Paris so I could have scented oils for relaxation in the birth suite. My husband worked on a playlist of music for the hospital.
The midwife didn't express too much concern at 32 weeks when baby was still positioned head up - only 3-4% of pregnancies are breech at term. 'Just start doing some exercises to encourage him to move'. I did everything I could, this is my nature. Present me with a problem and I'll seek out a solution. I'll put in the work to get the job done. 32 weeks was the beginning of my journey to understand that honestly sometimes you can't control an outcome even if you do everything right. At 34 weeks baby was still breech. We were now doing moxa stick burning two to three times a day (we have holes in the carpet to remind us), I was hanging upside down off the couch, acupuncture (which was heavenly), doing hip rotations on the Swiss ball at every opportunity. I was doing headstands in the pool. I started hydrotherapy at the Kilbirnie pool (amazing, I recommend this for everyone). My midwife had referred me so the class was free to attend.
And we were now faced with a choice: going to the hospital for a procedure called an ECV, External Cephalic Version, to manipulate baby from breech position into head down position. The other option was a planned caesarean section. We went for the ECV. I mentally prepared myself for what this meant: pressure being applied to my stomach to push baby around in my womb. The midwife was encouraging, baby wasn't too big yet, there appeared to be room for movement. Plus at night sometimes I could feel him moving into a horizontal position. He just needed further encouragement to turn properly into head down ready for launch position.
It was Christmas Eve when we went to the hospital with an overnight bag packed: the ECV procedure has a small risk of bringing on labour (or worse, but let's not focus on that). I could feel that today wasn't my labour day. Baby was going to turn and then we could go home, relax and enjoy Christmas. The ECV procedure has a success rate of over 50%. The specialist we were seeing had an even higher success rate. It sounded all very positive!
I was in a birthing suite room at Wellington hospital. A hospital midwife (as mine was on leave), the specialist, an intern and my husband stood around the bed. No calming music, no essential oils. They strapped a monitor to my belly to keep a check on baby's heartbeat. The specialist used an ultrasound to check the position (I was hopeful bubba had moved overnight and they would just send us home - no such luck). I was given medication to relax and then the Doctor using only his hands began to push on my abdomen. My yoga breathing suddenly became intensely valuable. The pain was excruciating but I breathed. I willed my baby to move, to be calm, to not be upset at what we were doing to him in his comfortable womb. The pain was unbelievable but I breathed. Tears started to roll out the corners of my eyes. The pain was real. The Doctor took a break to check baby’s position on the ultrasound. He was sweating. Baby hadn't moved. I asked him to have another go. I pleaded. I breathed and he pushed. Then he stopped. The ECV hadn't worked. I began to sob. I cried for my baby and for myself. For the natural birth I had spent every day for the last 36 weeks preparing for. The staff wouldn't release us until we committed to a date for an elective caesarean. I couldn't imagine having a caesarean! I hadn't really read those parts of the books, I’d only half listened during antenatal class. A caesarean birth wasn't my plan. I was dangerously ill-equipped for this turn of events.
Due to the Christmas holidays and the hospital staff roster they wanted to schedule the surgery at 38 weeks. With the support of my midwife I was able to negotiate an extra week.
I spent Christmas Day, which also happens to be my birthday, bruised and depressed. The ECV had left dark marks on my stomach and my soul was in turmoil. I stopped practising my 'breech baby dance moves'. Our beautiful goddaughters were visiting from Auckland and I could barely find the will to play with them. I had to find my way out of the headspace I was in. My husband was amazing. Despite also being scared and worried he reassured me and helped me process what this change of plans meant: at least we know when baby will be born / you'll be well-rested (ha!) / you'll get extra care in hospital / it's the best for your health and baby's health.
Because bubba was in breech position we were also on alert in case I went into labour. An ambulance would be required and I wasn't to walk if my waters broke because of the risk of the umbilical cord prolapsing. Thankfully that didn’t happen and at 39 weeks we checked into Wellington hospital at 7am in early January. The night before was the weirdest sleep: going to bed knowing that you'll meet your baby the next day was like the night before Christmas. But I was so nervous about the surgery, and in particular about having needles put into my spine...
My parents arrived at the hospital at 7:30am. Gosh they were excited. It must be like the best Christmas ever for first time grandparents.
Only my husband was allowed into surgery though. We both got ready. Hubby got to wear the red cap - apparently all the staff in surgery know the red cap is the support person: don't hand him any instruments or give him orders, and watch for fainting. I had to have one final toilet stop and a change into my surgical gown. The midwife asked me a couple of times if I was tidy 'down there'. If you’re not then they shave you in theatre. I'd done a special salon trip a week prior (most painful Brazilian ever, that’s another story for another time!) so was confident I was ready for my moment in the spotlight. 8am and we were taken into theatre.
I was sat on the bed and introduced to the anaesthetist with my midwife and the hospital midwife present. The anaesthetist instructed me to lean forward away from her, arching my back as if I was leaning over a Swiss ball, as she prepped me for the epidural needle to go into my lower spine. My midwife calmly explained everything that was happening. My yoga breathing returned. I looked at Hubby sitting against the wall. I wondered if he might faint. One attempt 'pop', no luck. Second attempt 'pop' no joy. My spine wasn't allowing space for the epidural needle. I held my midwife's hand so tightly as she told me how well I was doing. I went to a calm place within myself, away from the reality of needles and the pressure in my back. They were able to fit the spinal block successfully, but no epidural for me (the positive aspect to this would later mean oral pain relief as the spinal block wore off and reduced side effects from not having an epidural). I was laid down on the table as my legs started to tingle and I lost sensation in my feet. My left arm was stretched out and strapped to the table beside me. The spinal block started to work rapidly until I couldn't feel anything from my collarbone down. I started to shake, a side effect I'm told. It was like a nervous shake. I was nervous. Hubby could now stand beside me. As they put the curtain up at my waist I looked up at the theatre lights. I could see the reflection of my lower half and I knew I didn't want to look there again. Hubby and I locked eyes: this had been part of our revised plan. We were in this together and neither of us wanted to see the gory bits. We kept eyes on each other throughout the procedure.
The next bit is a rapid blur: I recall the surgeon providing instruction to his assistant about the best way to cut for a breech presentation 'you have to cut a longer line because you might need more room'. Gulp. What they do is cut a horizontal line at your pubic hairline. They then separate the abdominal muscles and cut a vertical line up inside to open the womb. There's probably other stuff that happens but I never wanted to really know, until about one year post-partum. I now wish I had a video of the whole procedure. What did it look like inside? What did they do exactly? I’m fascinated, in hindsight.
Then the midwives said 'you're going to hear a gushing sound and then you're going to feel a lot of pressure and then a pulling sensation’. My experience felt so powerful and so memorable. The ocean waves crashed into me, tugged at me and then pulled at me as they washed away.
Harry was born at 9:01am with a beautiful cry. He was a frank breech presentation which meant his feet were tucked up and he came out bottom first. The Doctor grabbed him by the hips to pull him out. They held him up for us to see (black hair, long body, red skin, a wonderful big-lung cry) before whisking him to the table for checks and weigh-in. Hubby got to hold him first. He showed him to me as I lay on the table (still strapped down) and the surgeons did their magic putting my stomach back together. The midwife then lay him on my chest and assisted him in latching for the first time. I still couldn't feel anything from the chest down.
I was in recovery for a couple of hours (I think) with Harry on my chest. The lemonade ice block they give you in recovery is the most refreshing snack after 12 hours no food.
We had three nights in hospital. I had a catheter for a day, and a lot of dressing over the wound of my major abdominal surgery. For the first day it wasn't easy to get out of bed, let alone reach over to pick up baby so I had to call the nurse any time he needed a feed or changing when my husband wasn't there. I was dealing with a newborn baby and recovery and it was a delicate period.
Thankfully my physical recovery was straight forward. My mental recovery took much longer.
I was the only one in my antenatal group to have a caesarean. Whenever the group conversation would naturally move to labour stories I listened with longing. I now wish I hadn't been so envious but I had continued to grieve for the natural labour I had planned. What did it feel like to give birth? I would cry myself to sleep most nights in those first weeks thinking about how they had to cut my baby out of me. I was too hard on myself, it was so completely unnecessary! I couldn't bring myself to talk about my caesarean experience for at least four months. Then slowly I was able to talk about it one-on-one, or in small groups at our regular antenatal catch-ups. I started to take pride in my point of difference. I owned my story, explaining what it was like to have a c-section. Even showing my scar. Everyone was fascinated, as we all are with everyone's birth stories. Every story is amazing and important. I started to see the benefits of my labour: a healthy baby boy with a beautiful round head (no cone head here!), no physical damage to my lady bits, and an appreciation of my incredible strength to undergo and recover from major surgery while looking after a newborn! I have also learnt a great deal about myself, my own expectations and ability to adapt to changing situations.
Every labour has an amazing common thread: an amazing mother wanting the absolute best for her baby. Every labour is hard in its own way. Every labour is special.
This is the first time I've told the full birth story. It’s been two years now and I love my scars. I think they’ve healed beautifully.
— Rebecca McMillan