It’s 3:36am and I’m lying in bed. As the credits roll on an episode of Girls I look down from my laptop and see my baby, 5 days old, asleep on my chest…her sweet face with big bright eyes, soft cheeks, little nose and even smaller chin. I can feel her warm body on my chest, her strong and short breaths, her little squirms and movements. The awe I am feeling is as present and tangible as her head on my heart and bottom on my belly. She is here.
I’ve wanted to write Joan’s birth story for days and haven’t gotten around to it. It’s amazing how quickly time passes when snuggling your baby or watching them sleep and feed. But I knew I should write it down. It was the most amazing experience, the best day of my life and I want to remember every detail of how our Joan Scarlett Sze entered the world. So here we go…
I spent the morning of Thursday 27th August doing normal full-term pregnant lady things. I slept-in, then made Ben and I a bowl of oats and yoghurt for breakfast. Afterwards I prepped vegetables to make a big batch of bolognaise to freeze before doing my one of three daily breech tilt inversions (all in the hope of getting bubs to flip head down and not engage butt first). I then went for a long walk (walking is encouraged to flip breech babies) and picked up some milk. On reflection I see this activity may have contributed to our baby coming early. Though honestly I think that was entirely bubs’ decision. Either way, things were very normal that morning, nothing could possibly have made me think that by the evening our baby would be born. Parsley (our baby’s womb name) was incredibly thoughtful in picking the day that Ben was home from the office to arrive. If it were the day prior or later he’d have missed the start and shock of it all, and I would have been making a panicked call to my mum. As it turns out, our last moments at home as a twosome were really special. Rushed and a little frantic, but special.
After my walk I went to prep some sweet potato for lunch. As I lowered myself down to reach the steamer from the cupboard I felt something…. a kick and pop down below. I stood and a steady trickle of liquid came out. “No way”, I thought. I knew it was amniotic fluid. I went to the toilet, which was only about 10 paces away, and as I walked the amount of fluid increased to the point of excited undeniability. It was clear-coloured with a little bit of white in it (which I later found out was the vernix bubs was shedding). Even though I was devastated, pleading to Ben “we aren’t ready yet, Parsley is still head up!!!” and wondering how this could be happening 2 weeks early, I was also incredibly buzzed because I knew this meant we’d be meeting our baby very soon. Not too soon to be a health concern for bubs, but too soon in that we were far from birth-ready! My mum was always over her due date and I assumed I’d follow suit. Plus I was adamant that bubs would flip head down during week 38 just like I did as a baby. I hadn’t even finished packing the hospital bag! My birth preferences were on my computer and we had no ink to print them, I hadn’t baked the midwives treats and our place was a mess. We weren’t ready yet! But our baby was.
Ben called the hospital. Checking-in so soon after my waters broke was never in my birth preferences. I was looking forward to laboring at home during the early stages and knew that the longer I could delay coming in to hospital, the better my chances of avoiding interventions during labour. But I knew that this was not going to happen. Our baby was not in the ideal birth position and I had no idea if he/she would even engage and whether my labour would progress. So we called the midwives and got on our way, throwing a bunch of things in the car and arriving at the hospital at 12:45, just over half an hour after my waters had broken. I was in clean clothes (though I hadn’t even showered) and wearing one of my baby’s nappies to soak up the leaking fluid (nope, I hadn’t even bought maternity pads yet. Man, was I in denial about the possibility of an early baby). I was feeling a little forlorn, but at the same time whenever I looked at Ben we couldn’t stop smiling. And although there was so much unknown ahead of us, and I knew this meant a C section was likely (as a first time mum it’s very rare to have a caregiver agree to deliver a breech baby vaginally due to increased risks during birth), we were here, this was happening and we were surrendering to our baby’s will. That was comforting and exhilarating.
As we walked into the maternity ward I saw the very first midwife who consulted with me when I was 9 weeks pregnant. I hadn’t seen her since my first or second visit, but I felt connected to her and was happy to see she was working. All the midwives were welcoming and empathetic, and put Ben and I in a room before checking mine and bubs’ heart rate, bubs’ position and my blood pressure, and confirming that the fluid was indeed amniotic fluid. Our baby’s heart rate was great and strong and never faltered, even during labour. Parsley was happy, which allowed everyone to relax. But this was something I instinctively knew, that bubs was fine and nothing was wrong.
We discussed options with the midwives, including the fact that they don’t deliver breech babies at this smaller private hospital and that our baby would definitely be born today or tomorrow. Hearing these facts again made things clearer and we decided to call mum to have her reschedule her clients and come in. I knew I needed her, even though for the majority of my labour I asked her to stay out of the room. I then waited to speak to my Obstetrician on the phone (he was currently working 20 minutes away and wouldn’t get to me until 6pm) and while doing so, called a friend for some encouragement. As I waited for my OB’s call I was on all fours, hoping for a miracle that bubs would flip with contractions. Speaking of contractions, I wasn’t truly sure if I was having any… I felt a period pain-like cramp come on when I left home, but I thought I just needed to poo. And then the cramps stayed, coming every 10 minutes but they weren’t that strong, so I didn’t think much of them. When I mentioned this to Ben at around 2pm he began to time them and though they were irregular in length they were coming much faster together (about 2 or 3 in ten minutes) and they were gradually getting stronger to the point of definite, severe pain. I should say that I do have a high pain threshold, I’ve always known this. I often find myself ignoring pain and continuing with tasks only to realise that little pain I was feeling was a big deal, like me completely scratching up my leg or something. So I think this is why I wasn’t paying much attention to them. During this time I talked to our baby and asked him/her to move head down or stay safe, whatever was right. Because I still thought bubs might flip. I mean, you hear stories of babies moving during labour…I still had hope. It wasn’t until my OB called and told me that our baby wasn’t going to flip now that I woke up and felt like I could let that go. He told me what I needed to hear to move on, to focus on the reality of the situation. We discussed our options, a C section for this evening or we could wait and see what happens. He assured me he would support me in my choice. I knew it was hospital policy to not deliver breech babies, but I also knew our OB is incredibly talented and could handle a breech delivery if I really pushed for it. And because I felt so sure that going straight to a C section was not right for me, on a visceral level I knew this, I asked to wait and see what my body and my baby would do.
After hanging up I switched my game plan and started walking around. I needed bubs to engage butt first if I was going to progress and have any chance of a vaginal breech delivery. And though I was still unsure whether this was what I wanted, whether I could accept going ahead in spite of increased risks, I knew I needed to give my baby a shot at it. My goal was to labour for as long as I could before a C section, which I felt would probably be inevitable. I just wanted to get the most benefits out of labour and as much of a natural hormone release as I could. Ben agreed. This felt right. Though we were still unsure what would happen. When discussing what we should do we heard a baby squealing in the room next door. Ben turned to me and said, “I just want to hear a crying baby”. I did too.
I asked the midwives if we could do “seeding”, a new procedure where they insert gauze into your birth canal, then keep it in a sterilised container to wipe over your baby when they’re born via C section. It helps expose bubs to some of your vaginal bacteria, which they’d otherwise miss out on and which can have great health benefits in the long run. My midwife knew exactly what I meant and she was on it. I am so thankful for this lady for being supportive in letting me see what my body did. And though I had a number of midwives coming into my room at regular intervals to tell me I couldn’t deliver vaginally at this hospital, informing me of all the risks and that I would need to be transferred to Frankston if I wanted to go for a natural birth (they were totally just doing their job, but during contractions it wasn’t the greatest thing to hear), somehow I managed to block the noise out and not swear at them. Most of the midwives just let me do my thing while patiently observing and prepping as needed. And I could surrender… breathing and trusting that my body and my baby would work together to do whatever was right.
When I arrived at the hospital I was initially told I couldn’t have any food or fluids, due to the likely impending C section. “Why didn’t I drink water and have a snack in the car?!!”, I thought. I knew I needed to stay hydrated so I pushed the topic and had some water and coconut water, and after speaking to my OB he was happy for me to eat a little something for energy. I downed a banana, a date and a square of Pana Chocolate, as well as more water and coconut water, totally eating too fast and feeling really nauseated for a while. But I felt better, like I had a little something in my tank. At this point it was about 3:30pm. Time was moving quickly.
My contractions grew stronger, though I must admit, I was never totally sure that I was having contractions and that this was actually labour. Ridiculous, right? But the midwives didn’t check me in terms of dilation (which is great) and they never said “you’re in labour” so I didn’t really know. What a rookie! I assumed, after doing HypnoBirthing and seeing how the uterus contracts upwards during surges that, when labour truly hit, I would feel pain around my upper and middle belly. What I was experiencing was similar to period cramps (though severely painful, don’t get me wrong), all super low… and so I didn’t think it was the real deal. It wasn’t until I threw up in the bathroom bin that I though “huh…ok, this might be labour”. It was now getting harder and harder to feel comfortable, and the rest between the pains was minimal, perhaps only a minute or so and sometimes less. We started timing them again but after a while they came too quickly and with too little break in between so we gave up. During the breaks I’d walk around and when the contractions hit hard I tried all possible positions – on all fours, squatting, walking, leaning over the bed and even lying down, which was the worst in terms of pain (but all I wanted to do was rest!) Actually, no, the birth ball was the worst, sitting on the ball made the pains so deep and unbearable. We tried music, using our “birth of Parsley” playlist and while Regina Spektor and James Blake were welcome, when Mumford and Sons came on I wanted to step on the phone and crush it. We also tried the tens machine that my nana had lent us, but I think we put it on far too late as it did very little. At one point Ben accidentally turned it full blast instead of “off” and I swore very loudly in his face. Poor guy. But seriously, way to electrocute your laboring wife.
We kept the room as quiet and dark as possible. Ben and I were alone, I didn’t even want my mum on the room (I just needed to know she was close). Though midwives kept coming in and turning the lights on to take blood and prep me for a likely C section, inserting things in my arms. That was hard, I admit. But while they were doing their job I’d just lean over the bed and put a pillow in my face to cover my eyes. I’d breath deeply and rhythmically while focusing on my body and not the fuss that was going on around me. They say you need to breathe, don’t they? Well, it’s true. Breathing calmly this way really helped me to get through the intense pains. And though I didn’t actively use the HypnoBirthing strategies such as the Rainbow relaxation technique, nor had I even practiced them properly for weeks as I was so focused on getting our baby to flip head down, what I took from the philosophy was a strong trust in and connection to my body and my baby.
As the afternoon progressed I noticed I was shivering, which was another “huh…maybe this is real” moment. And at one point before things got really real I felt super hot and clammy (hello transition stage!), though that didn’t last long at all and I was back to shivering. Then came the worst hour of all. I remember looking at the clock and it reading 5:06pm. Then, after what felt like half an hour, I glanced again to see 5:09pm. Up until this point everything had moved outrageously fast, but now the pains were excruciating, with hardly any break in between, and what my body was doing felt even more serious and purposeful. I was starting to grunt through the peak of my contractions, my body rocking and shaking in a primal manner. I was up on the bed, kneeling over the head, which was inclined vertically, gripping and grunting and trying my hardest to continue breathing rhythmically through the pain. I found myself visualising swimming in the sea, all the while feeling this growing heaviness down below. After 15 minutes of this new feeling something clicked in my head and I said to Ben, “I think I feel like I need to push”. He raced out to tell the midwives who came into the room to check me in some fashion (I can’t recall what they did) before returning outside to see where my OB was. Apparently they were a little shocked. We all were! I had only checked into the hospital four and a half hours ago. At this point all I could think about was seeing my OB walk through the door. I didn’t know what would happen, I just knew I wanted to see him.
Just before 6pm my OB arrived and I have never been so pleased to see someone. He was calm and kind and direct, as always, and told me he’d check me and insert the gauze for the seeding. I turned over onto my back (oh man, that sucked) and the gauze was briefly inserted (there wasn’t time to linger). Then he checked my progress. I knew I was opening, or dilating, rather, because, how do I explain this?…I felt soft and ready down there. But I was truly shocked when my OB informed me that I was fully dilated. And that he could feel my baby’s bottom. Holy heck. Well, in actual fact I let out a sigh of “Fuck”. I was just so shocked. Way to move on down, baby! Ever since I became pregnant and began to think about our baby’s birth I knew I would want to avoid early checks for dilation progress. It’s great to minimise vaginal exams in general, to help avoid infection and to allow the cervix to continue doing it’s thing, but from a mental point of view I knew I would not want to become disheartened if I found out I had laboured for hours to barely progress at all. But I never believed I would only have one check and for the announcement to be “you’re fully dilated”. I really felt like my baby and my body were telling me something. They were not messing around. His/her sweet little bottom was sure and strong, and my cervix had thinned beautifully. I was beginning to think that perhaps I would be delivering Parsley vaginally. How was there possibly time for a C section? But we then had to officially decide what to do.
My OB informed me again why a C section is recommended, the risks for the baby and their focus on getting the head out safely, which is trickier in these cases and rarely done for first time mums when you don’t really know how your body will handle birth. We also spoke about how everything was in my favour for a safe vaginal breech birth – bub’s position (Frank breech), how quickly I progressed, our baby’s size and how calm and happy baby and I were. I also found assurance in the fact that he/she chose to be born on this day by breaking my waters. Our baby had done a stellar job in wasting no time when deciding he/she was ready. And though I knew I wanted a vaginal birth and I believed my body and my baby were clearly telling me it was right, I still could not decide, and neither could Ben. The risks were in our mind and we did not want to get to the delivery of the head and have something devastating happen. I also couldn’t really function that well at that point, being a little distracted and all… I asked my OB to tell me what to do, to which he replied he couldn’t but suggested we get my mum in. This is why I needed her there. She came in calm, strong and sure and asked all the right questions that I was completely unable to at that moment – from “What would they have done 15 years ago?” (i.e. before the big breech study that changed recommendations for practitioners), to commenting on how it appeared to be very clear that my body wanted to give birth to this baby naturally. My mum made me feel like I could trust in the process. And for that Joan, Ben and I will be forever grateful. My OB agreed and my fabulous, sweet, angel of a midwife had the wheelchair ready so when we said, “yep, we’re doing this!” she raced me around to the delivery room. It was about 6:15pm.
From the moment I was in the delivery room things felt right. There was no impending decision to make and no negativity or uncertainty to tune out. All I felt was trust and strength and assurance that this was right. I was up on the bed on my knees, leaning against the head, which, again, was inclined vertically. At last I could finally push. Or “breathe my baby down” as my midwife encouraged me, in perfect HypnoBirthing terminology without prompting. I had forgotten to think of “pushing” in this way, and the image of breathing bubs down and out through the birth canal was truly helpful. She had me relax my shoulders between surges and, during them, she encouraged me to hold my grunting in, instead focusing that energy towards breathing my baby down. And it really worked. Ben would pass me sips of water when I opened my mouth towards him, and in between breathing bubs down he’d massage my right hip (which was starting to cramp), before pressing down super hard on my lower back (a pressure point to relieve pain – another HypnoBirthing technique which really helped!) But honestly this stage was not that painful or tiresome. At least, it was nothing in comparison to the pain I experienced in the hour between 5 and 6pm. Bubs was small, which allowed for an easy exit (I have no doubt birthing an 8 plus pounder would feel very different!), and honestly the 45 minutes spent pushing were the most pleasant of my whole labour experience. I could feel my body opening, I could feel our baby coming down and I could feel our baby coming out. I felt like I was burning down there, and the surges and pushes took all of my strength and focus… but it was a very smooth and fluid process. It wasn’t super fast, but it didn’t take long either.
As per breech deliveries, my OB was quite hands off. We waited for bubs’ bottom to come out, which it did, with a decent amount of meconium (baby’s first poo!) that my midwife wiped and showed me. Parsley was nearly here! My OB then wanted me to turn over into the reclined birthing position (you know, the one you commonly see in the movies). I didn’t feel like I could do it myself at that point so I told the midwives to “just move me”, which they did and I resumed breathing bubs down. After a little while I felt something slip out (the legs and body!!) and now it was clear whether bubs was a boy or girl. Ben sweetly said in my ear that he knew our baby’s gender, and asked if I wanted to know. But I didn’t, not yet. I needed bubs out first. So I closed my eyes tighter (which he read correctly as “no”) and kept focusing on breathing. Then it was time for my OB to let our baby “hang” in the typical breech delivery style. A few months ago I was at home, curled up on the couch, watching an episode of Call The Midwife. I saw the character, “Chummy”, deliver a breech baby in this fashion and remember thinking how wild it was. I would never have thought my birthing experience would be similar. But here I was… My OB told me to go ahead and push now, to not wait for another surge. “Yes”, I remember thinking, “I’ve got this”. After a few intense breaths, while squeezing Ben’s hands, our baby’s head was out and a wide-eyed babe was lifted into my arms. I don’t remember who announced the gender, I just remember holding my daughter and hearing her sweet little voice cry out. She was real and alive and beautiful and ours.
Ben was as wide eyed as our baby during and after the birth. I could feel his energy even with my eyes closed. I’ll never forget his smile when looking at our baby girl on my chest, so utterly full of joy. He was radiant. Meanwhile I was in complete shock. Shock that we did this, that at 7:04pm, just over 6 hours after arriving at the hospital and 7 hours after my waters had broken, our baby was born. A natural, vaginal birth, at that. My mum and midwife said it was a very moving birth, and really special to see a breech delivery. To my Obstetrician, midwives and mum who supported us in making this happen I will be forever grateful. And to my beautiful baby Joan, you braveheart warrior, I promise to continue listening to you, trusting and protecting and loving you forever more.
Joan was born right on 38 weeks gestation, weighing 2.765kg (6 pounds 1 ounce) and with a head circumference of 33cm. We don’t know her length because we forgot to measure her before her Pavlik harness was fitted. Joan has a hip dysplasia issue that needs correcting and has been in a brace since she was 20 hours old. Initially we were heartbroken but you adapt, she’s absolutely fine, a very happy and content baby, and we’re hopeful that the brace will be off in a few months. Other than that there are no issues! She feeds really well (she’s an efficient little sucker!), putting on 280grams in four days after coming home from the hospital. Her cheeks are getting sweetly plump, and so is her belly. Oh, and the name “Joan”? It was high on our list, Ben and I both loving how classic, strong and pretty it was. I had met a number of elderly ladies at work who were the sweetest things, and all happened to be named Joan. I’m also a huge fan of the series, Mad Men, which again brought the name to my attention. And then there’s Joan of Arc… After her entry into the world, it seemed appropriate.
Our days with our babe are spent nursing, sleeping, filling nappies, changing, snuggling and staring into her big, bright eyes. Baby Joan, we adore you. Thank you for being ours.