I’m not going to lie. Giving birth was one of the most painful experiences of my life. After my firstborn arrived, I vehemently declared that I would NEVER do that again. I had been in agony for 48 hours as my baby slowly slithered out of me.
Back and forth she went with each contraction, carving her way through my birth canal. When the final, triumphant moment arrived, my anguish topped the Richter scale it was that earth-shatteringly excruciating. A daughter! Hannah Rose was finally here.
I felt like a basketball, not a baby, had just come out of me. My lady parts were unrecognizably swollen. I couldn’t sit properly, it hurt to pee and I was beyond exhausted. All I wanted to do was sleep.
But guess what? I now had this tiny, helpless wee thing and instantaneously life was no longer about me. She needed my undivided attention to survive. Sleep was now a luxury despite its necessity. Welcome to motherhood!
Being pregnant for the first time is both scary and fascinating. Each day brings a little something as a tiny seed blooms inside of you, its presence triggering phenomenal body changes that range from weight gain and stretch marks to cravings and haemorrhoids.
There is some sense of calming affirmation that all is well when you finally hear the heartbeat and see the baby bulge in your belly grow. Feeling the first kick, to the nightly soccer match is nothing short of miraculous.
The last few weeks become tiresome when the pressure on your bladder and diaphragm peaks and your walk has morphed into a waddle. Each passing day, you soak up information and prepare to welcome your very own genetic copy of you and your partner into the world.
I had chosen to have a natural birth. I’d been spooked by the possibility that I could be paralyzed, or my baby could become lethargic if I had an epidural. And how do they even insert an epidural when you are having contractions every 2–3 minutes? Wasn’t this whole birthing process meant to be natural and designed by an Almighty being to be done without medical interventions?
In the old days, women didn’t even go to the hospital and just popped a kid (or five) out at home. I had read the books, spoken to girlfriends, even watched a delivery in my nursing training, and it seemed to be pretty straightforward; legs in stirrups, some facial grimacing and guttural sounds while one bears down and, voila! A baby!
Getting this 7-pound human out of me was going to be just fine.
Um…no! Unfortunately, my brain had selectively ignored rather large chunks of the birthing process information files that I had been exposed to. Or had I read about what birth is really like? Do the books actually prepare you for labour with an honest blow by blow account of what truly happens? They are very diplomatic in my opinion!
Even my girlfriends, who had birthed several kids, didn’t mention anything about how torturous it is. It’s like the elephant in the room. You don’t dare ‘tell all’ to an expectant mother.
Maybe it’s because once you’ve conceived and passed the 20-week age of viability mark there is no turning back. It’s too late to change your mind. There’s only one natural way of getting a baby out and an artificial backup plan in place if that fails.
There is no escaping pain. Even if you electively choose to have a C Section, it will hurt. It won’t be during the procedure; you’ll either be knocked out or numbed from your breasts to your toes. It’s afterwards as you heal from having a baby cut out of you.
I laboured for a total of 49 hours with Hannah. She took her sweet time to come out and tortured me in the process. The most tolerable moments were when I was in a warm bath, moving my hips when a contraction hit, like a mermaid swimming in the sea.
I was hoarse from screaming, and pushed (wrongly) through my hands, squeezing my husband’s and best friends’ so hard I almost broke their fingers. I sat on a large ball, squatted on the bed and finally assumed that bare-all traditional on-your-back, legs spread position for her eventual entry into the world. All without any sort of analgesia.
I didn’t care that there was an audience or notice her alien cone-head that had been reshaped by the process. To me, Hannah was perfect.
I forgot to read up about what comes after delivery. It just didn’t occur to me to do so. I wanted to breastfeed but assumed (wrongly, again) it would come naturally.
Sure, babies know how to suck, it’s one of their innate reflexes. But they will suck on anything. Their toothless gums can apply powerful friction to your delicate breasts that can destroy them within minutes. It was a noticeable sensation at first, like a blister appearing on your foot as you wear a pair of gorgeous new heels. I thought that was how it was meant to feel.
Within hours, my breasts were red and cracked from her ‘chewing’ and I dreaded her going anywhere near them. Even showering was excruciating when the needles of water hit the newly tenderized parts of my body.
There was an expectation from the nurses that I knew everything; I was a nurse after all. I didn’t. I felt lost. I was so tired I could barely function.
When she finally fell asleep, I would curl up and crash out, only to be woken by plaintiff cries an hour later. What was I doing wrong? Why did she need to be fed AGAIN? Please, just let me sleep!
Once home, the realities of motherhood kicked in. There was still housework and laundry to be done. I wanted to be an environmentally friendly mum and use cloth diapers, so there were more mountains to wash than necessary.
I was always hungry. And tired. My family lived at the other end of the country and I was useless at asking for help from my friends. I felt like that was an admission of failure.
I persisted with breastfeeding, only once trying to shove a bottle into Hannah’s mouth because I had had enough. She wasn’t having a bar of that! I had no choice.
Somehow, I survived. I juggled motherhood with womanhood and domesticity. And when she was 5 months old, I moved to the other side of the world.
‘Never say never’, right? Three years later, I did it all again. The brain has a cunning way of parking an experience, often unpleasant, then with a lightning bolt, slamming it back into your consciousness when a reminiscent trigger occurs.
The moment I felt the initial contractions my mind went instantaneously racing back to Hannah’s birth. Their presence sharply reminded me of what I was about to experience for a second time, despite my declaration of not wanting to do so, ever.
But it was too late.
The good news is the second time around was much easier. My body seemed to know what to do, or perhaps Hannah had paved the road for her brother. Knowing what to expect also helped, not just labouring but caring for a newborn. It’s like riding a bike; you can still do it years later even if out of practice.
I stayed at home for as long as I could in the early stage of labour and asked for the drugs the minute I arrived at the delivery suite. After all, I didn’t get a medal for bravery the last time I pushed a baby out.
It was frightening trying to suppress a contraction as the epidural was being inserted, but I did. Wiggling my toes is my way of transferring and coping with pain and it helped me through. Once the anaesthesia was infusing, I could still feel pressure, but the pain was significantly dulled and bearable.
I reached the magic 10-centimetre dilated mark much quicker, and my doctor (ironically a male) directed my pushing efforts to be more effective.
Essentially, it’s the exact same action as having a bowel movement. If only I had been told that the first time around! Despite his ginormous 9-pound 14-ounce size, giving birth to James was a breeze.
So much so, that I did it all over again 22 months later, welcoming baby Thomas into the world.
Fast forward 26 years. I finally returned to my nursing career and have spent the last few years working in a postpartum unit before switching to training practical nurses.
What I loved most about working with new mum’s was that I could relate to them. I often shared my experiences to help them navigate their new world and to reassure them that what they were experiencing was perfectly normal.
Although each of us has unique birthing stories, we have some common dilemma’s during and afterwards. The feeling of a let-down if the experience you had so carefully planned out didn’t turn out the way you anticipated.
The unrelenting and overwhelming tiredness. The fear that there is something wrong with your baby because it won’t stop crying despite every possible intervention. The challenges of establishing breastfeeding and the unspoken notion that asking for help is a failure.
I’ve learned a lot both from being a mum and nursing new mums after delivery. I’m no expert, but I have three pieces of advice for mums-to-be that I believe is the key to surviving the experience:
1. If you make a birthing plan, be mindful that things may not go the way anticipated. The safety of you and your baby is paramount.
2. Ask for help, especially to establish breastfeeding. You have 24-hour access to assistance while in the hospital but once you get home you are on your own. If visitors come to check out the baby, make sure they come armed with a meal or two!
3. Sleep when the baby sleeps. You never know when they will be demanding your attention. Again.
I am so glad that for all my pregnancies I kept a journal. Although each milestone is memorable at the time, you quickly forget some smaller details or muddle which kid did what if you have more than one.
As well, your child(ren) will appreciate one day reading all about themselves, even if the idea of being inside your tummy is unimaginable and gross!
Regardless of your education or upbringing, delivering and raising children is one of the most life-changing, challenging and rewarding experiences of womanhood.
We were given the ability to do so for a reason. Our protective mother-bear instincts persist, even when your kids are old enough to have their own. Although our bodies are never quite the same afterwards, every lingering stretch mark is totally worth it.
Oh, and disposable diapers are the best invention!