For those wondering why there's been such a hiatus on the blog lately - on 24th September I gave birth to my own little baby boy: Theo.
Giving birth is a strange and wonderful experience, which is going to be different for every woman and every family. As I know at least some people will be fairly interested in how mine went, the story is down below, divided up into the different stages of labour and recovery.
Stage 1: Geordie brickies and electrical shocks
During the final trimester of pregnancy, the body occasionally experiences random pains, so it took a while for me to realise that I actually was in labour. This was two weeks before the due-date - I still had six days at work planned, along with a pre-baby party and my tax returns to do. At about 11pm at night I phoned the hospital, who confirmed that it might be labour and my best plan was to get some sleep and see if it was still going on the next morning.
I did not get any sleep. Instead I stayed up and wandered around the house, hoping it would stop soon, and watching season 3 of "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" while sitting on the floor leaning forward over the piano stool.
By the morning it was clear the pains weren't going away, so I got in touch with my workplace to officially start my maternity leave, and try to ensure all the important stuff was in the shared folders. I also decided to get started on the TENS machine - which I call the "magical placebo box". You get four little electrical pads to stick on your back and a button that gives you pulses of electrical shocks every now and again. Nobody is quite sure how it works, and for some women it doesn't, which is why the NHS won't get you one and they have to be hired privately. For me, it did work, and I spent the next 9 hours being mildly electrocuted at a higher and higher level as the pains got worse.
I went to my 38-week midwife appointment that morning as planned and she sent me straight on to the birth centre. The birth centre is a midwife-run operation, rather than a doctor-run one, which where I live is conveniently attached to the hospital. As it turned out later, this was more than just convenient but actually vital.
I stayed in the birth centre for a bit, turning the TENS machine higher and higher, then they sent me home for a few hours during which I tried, and failed, to watch "Not the 9 o'clock news". Finally, at about 6pm when the TENS was on its highest setting, they let me back in to get properly started in labour.
Stage 2: Water and Gas
Once back in the birth centre, with the pain getting considerably worse, the midwife suggested running me a water bath. Pre-birth I'd been unconvinced - there didn't seem to be any obvious pain relief involved in warm water, and the idea of sitting in my own mess while giving birth did not appeal. On the other hand, I'd run out of TENS settings, so I agreed to give it a go.
It was magical.
It got me through the next lot of contractions, and if I hadn't been in random amounts of severe pain, it would have been quite pleasant; relaxing in a warm water bath with my husband stroking my back, under colourful mood lighting being fed biscuits and cold water. I stayed in there until the midwife shift changed, at which point they wanted to take a look at me because although the contractions were very strong, and the urge to push unavoidable, they were still happening very far apart.
This was kind of a warning sign actually, but not immediately obvious at the time.
They got me out the water bath (I didn't want to get out!), checked, and to everyone's surprise I was almost fully dilated and ready to go. They asked if I wanted to get back into the water bath, but at this point I was lying on the bed clinging onto my husband and not about to move anywhere. Contractions got stronger and stronger and eventually they hooked up the gas and air and let me have some.
That was also magical.
The contractions were still pretty far apart, and they started to get stronger and more intense. Everything went a bit painful, pushing got more extreme, and I was put into various positions involving circular seats and yoga balls in order to encourage the baby to come out. For the final bit I was actually in the traditional semi-propped up, on back/side, legs apart position. Lots of pushing was required to get the head out, but then once the head reaches its widest point, you're meant to stop pushing in order to let the baby slide out. This led to a rather hilarious Monty-python-esque commentary of "Push, push, push ... stop pushing, stop pushing!" from my husband and the midwife.
The contractions were still not close together, which meant that after the head came out there was this really surreal moment where me, my husband, the midwife and the student midwife were all sort of staring at this head between my legs saying things like, "Gosh, it's a head" while waiting for the next contraction to get the rest of the baby out.
Stage 3: Everything goes a bit wrong
With the final contraction the rest of my baby slid out and started crying. This, it turns out, is the one bit of childbirth that films get reliably correct. They do slide out in one go, and there is a brief moment of pause before they make their first cry.
We never really made a proper 'birth-plan' but one thing both me and my husband quite wanted to try was a physiological third stage i.e passing the placenta out naturally and then cutting the cord rather than cutting it first, or using hormones etc. to remove it.
This turned out to be a really bad idea.
My contractions were still not close together so were hanging around for a while waiting for the placenta (not that I particularly cared, I had a newborn baby on my chest and was still high on gas and air) during which I was loosing blood. When the placenta finally slithered out I lost even more, in total loosing about two and a half litres.
At this point I was ready to stop. I had a baby, everything was finished off, I was completely exhausted and starting to shiver. I wanted to curl up with husband and baby and get some sleep. Unfortunately, what actually happened was I went white as a sheet and my body started to panic.
In what seemed like a few seconds everything changed. One minute I was in semi-darkness, holding a baby and congratulating myself on getting it out, the next all the lights went on, buzzers were pressed, and people started arriving from everywhere. One of the things they stress in the NHS is communication skills - before doing anything to a patient a doctor is encouraged to introduce themselves and explain what they are about to do. This meant that in the course of about five minutes I got a whole procession of people saying things like "Hello I'm Sarah and I'm the haematologist, we're just going to put this drip in you, is that alright?" while I was still trying to process what the hell was going on. They pretty much threw the baby at my husband, and then stuck me on a trolley and wheeled me away into the hospital.
Stage 4: In the hospital
The time in the hospital is still a bit confused for me. I was shivering uncontrollably, unsure what was happening, and a little worried that I didn't feel more anxious about the fact that I was no longer holding a baby. I'd been insisting that I was too cold, and as a result I'd been covered in blankets which, combined with the various drugs I'd been given, sent my temperature through the roof. I was surrounded by about three people working on me at any one time - putting in drips and catheters and sewing me up below where the blood loss had occurred. I'd been worried about needing stitches beforehand, but between the gas and air, and local aesthetic, there wasn't much pain going on. Also whenever I said "Ow" all three people responded with "sorry".
It took a while for my temperature to come down, during which baby Theo was in a cot in the room with us and would not settle. My husband spent most of the night trying to get him to sleep in some way, and eventually we put him in the bed next to me, got him to feed (not an easy task given I couldn't really move, or use my hands) and then let him sleep next to me, which he was happy to do. I felt a bit smug actually, that my mere presence was enough to send babies to sleep. Unfortunately this effect stopped working by the second night.
They finally gave me the blood transfusion the next morning and, that evening, transferred me onto the post-natal ward of the hospital to recover.
Stage 5: Looking after baby
It's a strange and wonderful paradox of human evolution that post giving-birth, the time in your life when you are at your most vulnerable, tired, pained and defenceless, is also the time when you are suddenly responsible for what feels like the only creature in the world less capable of taking care of themselves than you.
I spent four days on the ward before they let me go home, which was really useful as they taught me what I actually needed to do to look after my baby. For the first few days, the various cannulae sticking out my hands meant that I couldn't really lift the baby up, so changing him was impossible and feeding a major chore. Without the help and support of the midwives, and the absolute life-saving support of my husband turning up every morning to feed me pastries and take over the baby-care, I would not have been able to manage. Even after returning home, my husband has been doing pretty much everything other than feeding the baby while I sleep and try not to overdose on iron pills - not to mention my mother-in-law coming down to do the cleaning and cooking, and the continuous support from my own parents (who will be coming down to visit shortly and who will also be handed a pile of ironing :p).
This isn't a scientific post - and I don't like using my own anecdotal evidence to make points - but the whole experience has entrenched more fully in my mind the certainty that the idea that human behaviour is somehow based on a "selfish gene" model is complete rubbish. To survive pregnancy and the first few weeks of childbirth alone is almost impossible. And yes, Theo is genetically related to me, my husband, and my mother in law, but he's not related to the midwives, or all of the other mothers on the ward offering advice and support. He's not related to the child-benefit services, the La Leche League members, the friends who have been sending enthusiastic facebook support, the cafe waiter who brought me a huge jug of water when I collapsed down after our first successful outdoor outing yesterday. I might have given birth, but there will be a huge number of other people throughout Theo's life who will give him the support, help, and encouragement that he needs to grow and develop.
It may be possible for a single adult to survive alone. It may be possible to argue that all humans are so related via genetic bottleneck that any act of altruism is an act of genetic selfishness. But humans are a social animal, it's what makes us human, and there is no time where that becomes more vital, more obvious, and more necessary than in the act of giving birth.