Max’s birth story

As soon as I became pregnant with my first child a couple of years ago, I knew I wanted to give birth at home. It wasn’t something I’d particularly thought about until I needed to, but soon after discovering we were expecting, I mentioned the idea of a homebirth to my husband, Toby, and was thrilled to discover that, as a chiropractor, he shared my instinctive feeling that to bring our baby into the world in the comfort and privacy of our own home would be the most natural thing in the world.

We were amazed to discover, however, that not everybody shared our trust in natural birth. From my GP, who scolded me like a naughty schoolgirl for such a “silly” idea (“Let’s walk before we can run, shall we?”) to work colleagues (“They don’t hand out medals at the end, you know”) to well-meaning friends (“But what if something goes wrong?”) – everyone, it seemed, had this idea that giving birth at home was up there with base jumping and skydiving as the kind of activity undertaken only by complete lunatics.

Fortunately, my NHS midwife, was a keen advocate of homebirth and told me about a local Homebirth Support Group which meets once a month to help couples decide whether birthing at home would be right for them. Toby and I went to our first meeting when I was about 12 weeks and knew straight away that this group was going to be a lifeline. Run by two local NCT Antenatal Teachers, the meetings were a chance to ask questions, learn the facts about homebirth and listen to the experiences of couples who returned to tell their birth stories. It was also, crucially, a source of huge emotional support – when everyone else seemed to be raising their eyebrows at you for your decision, here was a place where people were receptive and supportive and didn’t think you a freak or selfish for wanting to give birth without drugs or unnecessary medical intervention.

Daisy was born on Valentine’s Day last year after a 24 hour labour. Between 4.16 am and 4.04am the next day, I watched two episodes of Sex and the City, drank pints of tea, ate toast and honey, bounced and swayed on the Swiss ball, climbed the stairs sideways, sank with relief into my birth pool, got quite cross when the pain really wasn’t funny anymore and tearful when, after an exhausting two-hour second stage, my beautiful, wide-eyed daughter was placed on my chest and a duvet wrapped around us both. The NHS midwives ran me a lavender bath and before long, Toby and I were left to snuggle up in bed and marvel at this little bundle between us.

When I became pregnant again a year later, I was immediately excited about another homebirth. I knew what to expect now and couldn’t wait to see how this one would compare to my last experience. The pregnancy was straight-forward and, although far more exhausting with a toddler to run around after, I’d been having regular chiropractic treatments throughout so was comfortable and full of energy as I hit 36 weeks. My NHS midwife again visited me at home to deliver the soft pack (a box containing the bits and pieces the midwives will need at the birth) and took me through the check list of things I was supposed to be aware of prior to a planned homebirth. In this list were the circumstances under which the attending midwives would want me to transfer to hospital. One of these was if my labour wasn’t “progressing”. I asked the midwife what was meant by this and she explained that “we’d want you to be dilating about a centimetre an hour”. Already feeling the pressure to perform, I was further stunned to find out that I would be “allowed” to push for an hour, after which time I would be “blue-lighted in”. I queried this and said that I’d had a perfectly safe and straight-forward two-hour second stage with Daisy and been able to stay at home, so why would I need to transfer in this time? The midwife explained what I presumed to be NHS policy – that as second births are “usually quicker”, babies should be out “within two pushes” and if they aren’t, it usually means there’s a problem. I was dumbfounded. If there was one thing I knew from the numerous birth stories I’d read and everything I’d learnt at the Homebirth Support Group, it was that each and every birth is unique, that what one woman experiences will be totally different to another. Some women have incredibly quick labours and push their babies out in a matter of minutes; others will labour on and off for days or have second stages marked by long rest periods. I was now worried that if I continued with my planned NHS homebirth, I would more than likely end up going into hospital for the simple reason that my baby was taking longer than he or she was “allowed” to. Daisy had been a healthy size – 8lbs 8oz – and I have narrow hips: there was therefore a reason she inched her way down the birth canal rather than shooting out. Instinct told me that this baby would also take his or her time to enter the world, so as soon as the midwife left, I called Toby and told him I wanted to see whether Angela Horler, who we’d come to know from the Homebirth Support Group, and who is also an Independent Midwife, could deliver our baby. He agreed that Angela was our best chance of having a birth where nature, not hospital policy, led the way. I emailed Angela and explained why I was approaching her so close to the birth and, to this day, one of the most joyful moments of my life was receiving her reply: “To my dear Charlotte, I would consider it an absolute privilege to care for you…”

Five days before my due date, a Thursday, I attended one last Homebirth Support Group meeting. As I was leaving, Angela looked at me and said she had a sense I’d be calling her that weekend. I said that I, too, had a weird feeling something was going to happen over the next few days but that as Daisy had been 9 days past her due date this one was probably going to go over as well. On the Saturday night, having been nesting like mad all day – ironing Toby’s shirts, making a huge lasagne and vacuuming every inch of floorspace – we were putting Daisy to bed when suddenly, without warning, she threw up all over us. It turned out later that she must have caught a bug from a playmate who’d been sick all week, but at the time it seemed to come from nowhere. Once we’d cleaned her up and tucked her up in bed, we went downstairs and I started feeling decidedly queasy. Putting it down to having just dealt with Daisy, I tried to ignore my increasing nausea and made sure I ate something. By the time we got into bed later that night, however, I was lying very, very still, convinced that if I so much as turned over, I would throw up, but if I stayed motionless, I would drop off to sleep and feel better by morning. Soon after midnight, I woke up with a start and was promptly sick over the side of the bed. Praying Toby hadn’t heard me, I made it to the bathroom just in time for round two. All I could think about was how rotten the timing was. Labour was surely imminent and here I was, pale and shaky and dealing with a nasty stomach bug. How on earth could I deal with contractions if I was being so desperately sick? By 4.30am I felt safe enough to leave the bathroom and came downstairs to get a glass of water. It was then that I felt a faint griping sensation in my tummy. Thinking it was just an ache from all the vomiting, I ignored it. Then it happened again a couple of minutes later. And then again. By 4.52am they were strong enough for me to realise that these were definitely contractions. It dawned on me that what my body had been doing for the past 4 hours was expelling absolutely everything in preparation for birth. (Whether I’d caught whatever Daisy had and it had kick-started labour, or whether it was the beginning of labour itself, who knows). I paged Angela and half an hour later there was a soft tap at the door. Despite feeling so horrible, it was such an exciting moment. In the darkness and the silence, with the rest of the world asleep and unawares, here was my midwife, my friend, coming to be with me while I gave birth to my baby.

Angela was smiling and calm and reassuring. Toby had come downstairs to make tea and by this point I was needing to lean over the Swiss ball and breathe through the contractions. Angela felt my tummy and discovered that Max was still lying back to back, so suggested I get on all fours for the next couple to encourage him to turn. She then suggested I get into the bath and for some reason I felt very strongly that I didn’t want Toby there. Looking back I must have sensed that things were moving much more quickly this time and I needed to be on my own with Angela until I’d got a grip. Angela filled the bath and suggested I lie on my left side to continue to encourage Max to move round. Contractions were very intense by this stage and I remember focussing on the sensation of Angela pouring water up and down my body, first with a jug and then with the shower head. It’s amazing how your memory of labour becomes very hazy and trying to recall it now, it’s like a series of snapshots: Toby at the side of the bath with a glass of elderflower cordial and a straw; my asking for gas and air only to push it away; a massive contraction, long and brutal in its intensity, Angela asking me whether I want to get out and me snapping back, “I don’t know!”; moving from the bathroom to the bedroom, my legs heavy and trembling; hearing Angela put on her gloves and unfolding a plastic sheet and realising that she must think the baby’s about to come; kneeling at the foot of my bed and wishing it were more comfortable; feeling exhausted and climbing onto my bed, grateful to be able to collapse on my side; hearing Daisy wake up and then the voice of my mother-in-law as she came to collect her, praying to God she wouldn’t hear me mid-contraction; feeling so tired, so tired… Angela suggesting I try and go to the loo; sitting on the loo and calling out “I can feel a burn!” and Angela’s calm voice coming back, “OK” and me thinking “What do you mean, OK?! The head must be crowning!”… Leaning over the bathroom sink, gripping the taps, and as each spontaneous push surged through me, blowing across the knuckles of my right hand, just as Angela had shown me… Feeling as if I was about to split in two, telling Angela “I can’t do this, I can’t do this!” and her replying “Yes, you can”… Feeling Max’s head emerge and then, what felt like an eternity later, his body easing its way out and my body feeling so light and empty; Angela telling me to sit down and take my baby and me thinking how long he was; Toby saying, “It’s a boy”… “Hello you”, I say over and over, overwhelmed at the wonderment of him.

Sitting on the bathroom floor, I cradled my minute-old son while Angela observed me for a natural third stage. I was beginning to feel slightly light-headed and was grateful to be able to lean against Toby while being guided by Angela to push the placenta gently out. I’d suffered a tear, but thankfully it was neat enough to be left to heal naturally, so I avoided stitches this time. With sunlight now streaming in through the bathroom window, Toby helped me to bed where, with a bit of encouragement, Max latched on and had his first feed. Bliss.