After two birthing experiences with epidurals, understanding how her body worked gave Bron Bates the tools to have the natural birth she'd always hoped for.
At the age of 18 I became pregnant with my first child. I was surprised, but happy and enthusiastic. I researched infant care and development and poured over safety lists and layette recommendations. Meanwhile, my baby grew, turning and stretching in my impossibly large belly.
My then-boyfriend and I attended our first antenatal class. The instructor drew an imaginary line on the floor and asked the men to stand on either side based on how well they felt their partner dealt with pain, one end meaning ‘very well’ and the other ‘not very well’. My boyfriend stood at the latter. Insulted and discouraged, I didn’t go back to the class.
When the day came for me to give birth, I was simply armed with the vague knowledge that birth was a natural process. My mother had given birth to me naturally and seemed relatively unscathed by the experience. A close family friend told me it was a strong sensation, but not what she would describe as ‘painful’. On the other hand, I’d read a few fiction books where birth was described as akin to experiencing white-hot fire through your body. Not to mention the countless movies and TV shows that portray women in absolute agony. What did I believe and did it even matter? The birth was going to happen regardless.
I arrived at the hospital with plans to hop in the bath (there was no birthing pool available), with a goldfish in a little travelling bowl for me to ‘peacefully focus on’. (Yes, that really happened.) I was induced because I was 10 days overdue, and after a few hours of labour I went from being happy and excited to feeling anxious and angry. I had to get out of the bath as it was slowing down labour, so lay flat on my back on the bed, mostly naked and unable to move. I coped by yelling through the contractions. Worst of all, people kept walking in and out of the room, talking to me and turning the fluorescent lights on. I asked for an epidural and when it came time to push I could feel the contractions, but not the baby coming out. But he did – I had done it. Just like countless women before me, I’d survived.
A decade later I was in a new relationship and preparing to embark on parenthood for the second time. It’d been so long that I felt just as nervous as the first time, and desperately wanted to have a more positive experience. I asked my trusted girlfriend to help me through labour, along with my partner. The three of us attended a full-day hypnobirthing class where we practised getting into a state of hypnosis (a meditative state, not a state where you act like a chicken). I learned how to breathe for pain relief, which is surprisingly simple, but takes practice.
We watched videos of women giving birth in water. It looked natural; it looked great. I felt I’d been socialised to try be in control of every aspect my life – but pregnancy and childbirth are natural, animal processes. I started to understand that the only parts of me I could control were my mind. And my breath.
When I was five days overdue I woke to my waters breaking. I dealt with the contractions at home, before we made our way to hospital when they were five minutes apart. We felt good about what was happening and even hi-fived. We thought we were home free.
It was not to be. The midwife asked how I was doing; I told her I was fine and breathing through the contractions. “Let’s see,” she said. I felt angry at her intrusion on my breathing pattern. While I did spend a few hours labouring in the bath, I was again asked to get out as it was slowing down the labour. The gravity was too much after the weightlessness of water and I asked for an epidural. Again I was flat on my back in bed.
There were complications after birth, the baby was fine, but (unbeknownst to me until after I woke up from surgery) I nearly died and had to stay in acute care for several days. Despite this, I’d experienced nine positive hours of labouring naturally at home where I’d felt safe and peaceful despite the discomfort. I kept this in mind when I was preparing to have my third and final child four years later. This time I was ready.
I realised that giving birth was something I was ultimately doing alone. That’s not to say the support didn’t matter – it mattered a great deal. But when it came time to ride the muscle contractions and let the baby out there were only two people engaged in that process: the baby and me.
I found a wonderful obstetrician who was supportive of natural water birth and had a warm and informative manner. She said encouraging things like, “this baby likes you,” because it was optimally positioned for travelling through the birth canal. Before now I hadn’t understood how much this affected the ease of birth, or that simply resting on all fours towards the end of pregnancy would help the baby move into this prime position.
I amped my preparations up a notch again. I’d heard how great Calmbirth courses with Peter Jackson were and convinced my partner to attend his weekend class. We were introduced to a new way of thinking. Peter explained how our bodies worked when giving birth – exactly how the muscles moved, including line diagrams of where they sat and what they did through labour and birth. It allowed me to understand the physiology behind the extremely uncomfortable sensations of labour. I started thinking of the contractions that way: as surges and sensations – words that didn’t carry negative connotations. I left the weekend feeling capable and relaxed.
Back home my partner and I prepared for birth together. In the evenings we darkened the room, put on birth music we’d chosen and I closed my eyes. I practised breathing slowly and consciously, while my partner practised the massage we learned. I visualised my muscles moving to give birth and imagined the baby moving with them. I imagined myself in a safe place. Most importantly, I imagined letting go. Two days before the baby was due I felt a contraction. For a couple of hours I lay still, breathing and timing the contractions. Near midnight I woke up my partner and called our friend to come mind the kids. I still felt calm, excited and in control.
This time my partner was prepped to intervene if the midwives tried to talk to me. The birthing pool was ready and after an internal examination to see how labour was progressing, the lights were dimmed and the midwives discretely left. Soon I dropped to all fours on a mat on the floor. I felt like my whole abdomen from my ribcage to my vagina was being grabbed and squeezed. But I knew what was happening, and even though I wasn't sure if I could take the sensations for much longer, I didn't hold on. I let go. I imagined the pure, dark earth that I was being pulled towards. I reassured myself that I could ask for an epidural if I wanted. I stayed on all fours and reminded myself that the gravity was helping me bring the baby out.
I needed to go to the bathroom, which was also where the birthing pool was. My partner helped me, and after I used the toilet I felt my muscles wanting to push. I stood up, lent on the edge of the pool and bore down. I could feel the baby's head moving down through the birth canal. In that moment I wanted to get it out more than I'd ever wanted to do anything in my life. Soon the baby’s head was out and there we were, a strange two-headed creature standing in a dark bathroom by an inflatable pool. I felt the baby's head turn. I knew we were nearly there.
My partner was dancing around trying to decide whether to come in or go get a midwife. He opted for the latter and by the time I felt the urge to bear down again, two midwives were there to catch the baby. We’d done it. Soon after the birth, the baby and I were able to get in the pool and have a warm bath together. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
Looking back I see that in all three labours there was a critical turning point where I either continued down the path that my body and the labour was taking me and gave birth naturally, or where I started to feel anxious and afraid and sought intervention. It took a lot of work to find a way to go through the birthing process peacefully, but in the end I found it.
The strange truth I learned about birth is that the only way to stay calm and in control is to let go.
This article first appeared as 'My Truth About Birth' in the June 2014 issue of CHILD mags.