“When you wake up in the morning Lilith, you’ll meet your new sister”. The sister whom my 3-year-old Lilith had watched grow in my belly since the day I peed on a stick, through a long summer, trips to three continents, Christmas, and a month of New Year coughing, now arriving at the first spring breaths of February, crawling to bed in Daddy’s t-shirts with hips twinging under the weight of the baked bun it was finally time to meet.
It was my due date, 19th Feb, and I was wearing my best dress after a photo-interview at home, John-Wayne-legged on our sofa chair where I’d just shared a very large bowl of chicken broth noodles with Lilith. Amongst the usual digestion congestion that came after was an extra, tiny churn within, yet I was unsure it was labour, as there was no ‘fridge-like’ humming in my hips I’d come to expect from my last two births. Over the next hour its clockwork sensation told me otherwise, and to call my birthing friend (former midwife) to make her journey down. ‘Get some baggy trousers and a bed ready for me’ she said, and I sat down and watched a Wild West documentary, timing my contractions on an app, averaging 60 seconds every 10 mins. I rang my mum. This was it. I just wondered how long a journey we were in for.
I always thought I’d want Lilith active by my side as I laboured, a mini doula I fantasised, something I dearly wanted her to see, to normalise normal birth in her young psyche. But the reality was I needed every ounce of concentration even just to rest at the start, so I was relieved once she was in bed – and just as I been told, labour would ramp up once she was asleep. Matthew set about cleaning and prepping the house, and getting the camera onto a tripod to film the later stages of birth just as we’d done the last two times.
The sunny day gave way to a glowing full moon as I showered, got on a fresh T-shirt and arranged adhesive bedmats over our mattress. Once my birth friend arrived and settled into the guest room, we all tried to get some sleep. Laid in the dark, grasping Matthew’s thick hairy arm, my mounting sounds woke my friend from her snores and she now set up criss-crossed camp over the end of our bed. Now I was surrounded by my three allies, all sleeping or dozing, literally protecting me in a square formation completed by Lilith’s toddler bed on the other side, as I rocked through intermittent waves of discomfort. To save my knees and catch some Zs, for some hours I laid on my back falling into dreams between contractions till a couple of funny hard spasms brought me back to a doggie position with a high-pitched shriek. It made me wonder about those women coerced onto their back in labour, as to how much it increased their pain.
Noise, more than ever, was my ally to get through the waves that seemed somewhat rockier, edgier, ‘bummier’ in this birth. I didn’t have music playing like last time nor massage oil, instead I grasped and inhaled Lilith’s soft toys, staring into her unicorn’s little black eyes and then voraciously into the face of her long-eyelashed pink cat, intently, menacingly, grunting up and down, as if I were about to make out with it. ‘You should have one of these in your kit’ I joked to my friend as I tossed it aside upon the contraction ending. During Lilith’s birth, I’d randomly found myself using the word ‘refreshing’ to mentally get through each surge. This time, the words that came up were ‘arse power… I can do this’ (!) on hands and knees as I rocked my head into the hard bedroom wall as if acting the baby’s descent through the bony pelvis.
After years of thinking about birth, exploring it so deeply for my project Birth Undisturbed, since 4 years ago I gave birth to Lilith, now I was in the physical moment doing it for real, surreally, again. The familiarity of my two birth partners, sounds and scents; yet a new house in a new city, and the unknown quality of an entirely new birth, a new child.
I shook and sweated heavily throughout. Perhaps my mind was too full, for I had to dig deep, very deep, with Ina May’s quote on mental repeat: ‘Relax, breathe and do nothing extra’, just to get a break between thick and fast rolling shudders of adrenalin. After the heatwave of a contraction I would curl back up upon the tetrus of pillows, clammy and shivering. ‘This is the sweatiest labour I’ve ever HAD!’ I groaned loudly. ‘Because you’ve had soooo many’, my friend tittered, and I laugh with her too, watching retrospectively on video. I watch myself and how I was: grumpy, grunting, growling, even more than I thought I was, this labour more than ever felt raw, primal, anything but orgasmic. I just wanted to sleep, I couldn’t melt into the contractions, I was in battle, gently but defiantly, thrusting my body through a host of techniques and sounds, trying to just be rhythmic enough to keep calm. I would hold my bum in the air, delaying the onset of a contraction; strangely, in a way I have never read in another birth story, it was like I was steering labour, holding it in limbo for the extra 20 seconds I needed to be ready, and by lowering my back that tiny bit I would make contact to trigger the next inch of the animal travelling through my pelvis, the next bolt of body lightning to send it through.
Such kind of bodily intuition adds more weight to why it wouldn’t make sense to me to dull or hand over these sensations to a needle, I need to feel it, so I can be in control of it, able to prickily command my 3 ‘birth servants’ to pass me water, get the potty for the 15th tiny trickle of wee, and have nothing but pin-drop silence as I heeee-hoooo through a hard surf contraction or breathe like Darth Vadar through a not-so-bad-one. And that is why being at home in my own space is so fundamental to that ability to respond as openly and freely to a contraction as it fills around me like a deep sea, always that slight threat of being pulled head under, but the silence and darkness and autonomy of a home environment keeps the powerful friction of birth’s thick grinding ropes in check. If I were to be inhibited by an alien environment, swathed by others’ sounds and rules, I might find myself reaching out to other, less natural ways to keep that equilibrium. There did come a point where I needed the hard stuff: ‘Open that top drawer and get me out two fizzy bubblegum bottles!’ I prescribed.
I described my first two births as ‘not painful, more like powerful pressure’, but this one, I can say with a smile, was a ’12 hour pain in the bum’. Why do some women feel ashamed of calling it pain? You surely call it what it honestly was: painless or painful, proud either way. But pain is still a shit word, it tells us nothing. There was no pain of suffering, no pain of humiliation or fear, no pain of trauma. Only pure and ephemeral birth itself, that began with blood saved and pooled from my menses to be magnificently, miraculously knitted into pulse, bones and organs of a new sentient life over a long but short 40 weeks, now ‘due’, matured, ready to hatch and shed, a mansion of flesh ready to collapse down and out through that small crack of me that becomes an unfathomable, naturally numbed portal, in sensations that straight afterwards have me reflect, thank god it’s over, and takes 48 hours to even entertain the idea of ever doing it again.
In pre-visualising birth during the quiet hours of pregnancy, I most fear the last part, where I succumb to the primal howl of the crowning moment – the part on my Lilith birth video I could barely watch on full volume. It’s a moment utterly useless to pre-fret about, because in labour you become a relay race of several women, where the last one is a woman you cannot imagine being until you are her, built and created by the hands of time leading up to it, hours blurred magically by hormones.
So you take it moment by moment, never worrying about the last surge or the next. We monitored the baby by heartbeat and movements throughout; all was good. No-one knew at any time how dilated I was, I never checked. Our clues were outward visual. First came bloody show, in watery red drops – along with my mucus plug, like a bludgeoned slug. Then, a squirt of water as the amniotic sac punctured slowly on a couple more contractions. My ‘pink line of dilatation’ was observed, as the first morning bird was heard. I felt encouraged. Then I heard, ‘I could see a dot of the head on that one!’ Yes. We were there. I was willing on the fetal ejection reflex, not sure exactly when it was coming. My contractions were still 5 mins apart – something that normally signals there’s time to go yet – possibly also because I still intermittently held my bum in the air. Yet to the surprise of my friend, my sounds suddenly accelerated, in a way even Matthew knows so well now, into ‘that final tenor note’ and animal grunts, that signalled the coming. My noise was deafening, right next to Lilith – who hilariously slept on calmly, unstirring, without a peep – unable to be woken even by my apocalyptic roaring, screaming almost into her face. I just wanted her out now, ‘off and out of my ass’ as I joked later, so I pushed down, determined to be through, with the longest loudest primal scream to pop out the head – still encased in a shiny sac – hanging like a huge resplendent grape, a fish egg containing a mini compressed Elvis. The contraction stopped, and I shrieked, what do I do? I didn’t want to hang round waiting for another contraction with this thing sticking out of me! Push – and so I did – and the second bit, the body, came out. Push again! – and the third and final part, the legs and cord, all came tumbling down and out, with such relief, my birth canal vacated, it was done, what utter relief.
Whilst my back was still turned, the sac was pulled from Skye’s head, as she was born in the caul, and then I heard them say ‘it’s a very short cord’, so we carefully manoeuvred my knees back round her and pushed her wriggling pink wet body upwards between my knees so I could finally see her, hold her first with my own hands, finally meet the exquisite product of my labour! And there she was, born 4.25am, a brand new baby, dark hair like Lilith, but someone mysteriously new, my utter joy hidden temporarily behind the remains of my nonchalant, stentorian-voiced birthing self, as it fell away to high-pitched relief: ‘oh, my baby! Come here, come here’, her lusty cries clearing her airways as I lifted her to my chest and gaped with relief that she was here!
The cord drained, and more length came down in the next few moments, followed by a big blood clot, but no placenta yet. So I said to cut the cord before the placenta was out, enabling me to hand Skye to Matthew, and get on my hands and knees for gravity and pushing to help it down, always wanting to avoid injection where unnecessary. It reliably emerged like a bloody steak, taken away to my fridge for the encapsulation lady to collect the next morning. Pleased that was sorted, I laid back, ‘bring me that baby!’ Skye, now wrapped in the same red towel of her two siblings, let me enjoy her, kiss her, mother her with the confidence of a second-timer! Rested back on the pillows with a trophy cup of tea, grinning like a Cheshire Cat who got the cream – in the shape of a second rainbow child, or what they call ‘the pot of gold’ – feeling even more gleeful than ever, too high to sleep now, only deterred by the first afterpain that crosses over my face with a wincing frown.
We didn’t wake Lilith, but let her rouse herself. As daylight filled the room she stirred at around 7am, look, Lilith, I whispered to her as her eyes opened. She sat up, looked over and smiled coyly. Climbing over, I said ‘Meet your new sister, Skye is here!’ She smiled again and touched her. Then she noticed the blood on my foot, and a blood handprint on the white rail of her bed. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll clean it off’, I smiled. But I’d wanted her to see it. She hadn’t seen my labour, so I wanted her to see the blood, the powerful red of new life, of the morning she met her sister. And I wanted her to remember it with something else – ‘today is a very special day, so we’re having sweets for breakfast’, as we both bit happily into a fizzy bubblegum bottle whilst baby sucked on colostrum.
What was surprising is that, unlike my past 2 births we filmed the birth from a graphic angle to see Skye emerging, and I was eager to watch and listen to it as soon as I got onto a computer (the screenshot image further above is from the video). A new desensitisation to see and hear myself, without the intimidation I’d felt previous times.
Reflecting on Skye’s birth brought many thoughts both personal and universal. Much of it was classic to the style of my last two births, but as in the way of many third labours, there were also unpredictable irregularities. The way my contractions were spaced till the end, the way I ‘steered’ labour, never checked dilation and went all by sounds and sights; more than ever we were feeling our way, observing, waiting, just being.
If there were a universal message for other birthing women that I’d wish to be taken from Skye’s birth, is to know that birth has personality. Of course it does, for it involves two personalities entwined: two people, interacting in a dance together, away from each other, an untangling of flesh and bone. Wherever birth takes place, be it home or otherwise (for medication does not wipe out our personalities), birth behaves in ways that often can’t be pinned to a chart, algorithm or formula… ways that are idiosyncratic to both the woman’s personality and to the personality of that unique birth, and the baby she is having, a dance we do better to embrace, and let the mother lead.