It took almost a year for me to be able to tell my birth story without bursting into tears. Now, I get a little choked up and there is a small tremble in my voice as the story progresses, but I am able to largely hold it together. And dare I say even laugh, a little. I've been in two minds about whether to even tell my story. I fear that the horror of it all might scare an expectant mother who is already terrified of childbirth. I don't know if writing this will be cathartic for me or if it will just permanently record what I still consider one of the worst experiences of my life. I don't know if this is will be a trigger for some who have had even worse experiences or for those who have suffered losses and would go through what I went through ten times over just to hold their precious baby in their arms at the end of it. But this is my story and I will share it, come what may.
Like many (or at least some) expectant mothers, I had an idea of what my birth story would be - lots of pain, possibly some drugs, and the final beautiful moment when I saw my baby and all my pain faded away. The reality was nowhere near this rosy. My due date came and went, with no sign of little Ellie making her appearance. A couple of days before my scheduled induction date, I woke up in the middle of the night and suddenly felt a rush of water coming out my body. I jumped out of bed and ran to the bathroom, shouting the whole way for my husband to wake up. My water had broken and I was in a panic.
After making the call to my parents and waking up my mother-in-law, we made our way to RIPAS hospital with bags in tow. Once at the hospital, I was shown to a small room and my husband was asked to wait in the waiting area outside. I was quickly examined and strapped to a monitor (around my belly) and then the nurse left the room. Thinking that this wouldn't take too long, I didn't bother to put my handbag (with my phone inside) near me. Little did I know that no one would come into the room for about an hour. So I was left, my phone out of reach, staring at the ceiling and the little heart and contraction monitor for what felt like a very time. My husband and the rest of the family, in the meantime, where in the waiting room freaking out a little having not heard from me at all.
When someone finally came into the room, I was told that I was only 1cm dilated and that I would be warded. For those that have read the website on giving birth at RIPAS, you will know that this means that I would not be allowed visitors (including my husband) outside of the very limited visiting hours which was a couple of hours during lunch and a couple of hours in the early evening. Though it was not ideal being alone, I was prepared for this so just went along with it. I was told I was having fairly strong contractions but I felt nothing so I thought “maybe I'll be super lucky and it won't be as bad as I feared”. I laugh at the thought now.
This part of the story is boring so I shall just say over the next 18 hours (though my recollection of actual timings is super fuzzy) I barely progressed, even with multiple attempts at inducing the birth. I was then given the “hard core” induction stuff and put on an epidural. At the 24 hour mark I was told that I needed an emergency c section. They didn't want to risk the baby being in there for much more than 24 hours after my water had broken and she was pushing down and getting some head swelling. I was obviously upset. There goes my vision of a natural birth (though technically the epidural meant it wasn’t a “natural” birth anyway). Trying not to cry, I asked about whether we had booked our first class room. At least I could look forward to being with my husband and baby soon... I was told that for the first night after a c section I would have to be in the general ward alone, without my husband or mother. This is when I lost it and was no longer able to hold myself together. I was about to go into major surgery alone and would come out and have to spend the night alone in a hospital ward with my new baby.
After lots of tears and attempted reassurances from my husband and staff, I finally said goodbye to my husband and was wheeled away into the pre-op room. This is when the fun really began. Once in pre-op, they placed an additional IV in my hand (I already had an IV on my other hand) and began prepping for surgery. This took a few minutes at least, with the doctor and nurses talking to each other but largely ignoring me. They asked if I had eaten in the last few hours and I told them that I had a date (after getting approval from a nurse) and they tutted disapprovingly. They then wheeled me into the operating theatre where they moved me to the operating table and proceeded to spread my arms out to my sides - in a kind of crucifixion pose. A checkered red and white cloth was placed vertically just inches from my face. Not much was explained to me and I don’t recall many kind words or reassurances. Of course they were busy, but I was getting increasingly scared.
Then the operation began. It was fine at first, I felt some pressure and some “cutting” but no pain. Then the pain came. The pain began to increase and I began to voice this to the medical team. I was reassured that this was normal and that it wouldn’t be much. But the pain kept on getting worse and worse and I began to really feel them cutting me open. I began to scream. I screamed for more drugs, I screamed for them to knock me out, I screamed for help. I remember feeling like I was being a baby. Looking back now I don’t know if the pain was heightened by the panic I felt and the lack of communication by the medical team, but I’m sure it didn’t help.
I was given more drugs. Then the craziest thing happened. The checkered cloth in front of me began to spin and I was transported. I felt like I was having an out of body experience. Though I don’t really recall what I saw exactly, I remember seeing many scenes from my life flashing in front of me. I believed I was dying and that this was my journey into death. It was emotional and horrifying. All the while, in the background, I could hear things happening in the operating room. I could feel them pushing down on my belly to get the baby out. Towards the end of my hallucinations, I remember all the scenes of my life coming together and forming a patchwork of images. The images were like videos and they soon began to swirl together and form one “code” (like a computer code) which to me formed the meaning of life. I suddenly felt at peace and like I could let go of life. In that moment, I believed I had let go and died.
Of course, I did not die. Instead, I began to come to and realised where I was. My baby had just come out and I began to ask desperately how she was. She was brought to me and put by my face. I looked at her and felt… underwhelmed. I saw a small cut above her eye and a red mark on her forehead and asked what that was. They told me they had to use forceps. I then shouted again because I could feel the stitches and they took my baby away to be cleaned up. That was my first introduction to my baby. There was no overwhelming rush of emotion. I looked at her and still felt the pain of the stitches. Instead I asked the nurse to recite the Doa to me as I was being stitched up.
Suffice to say, I was a wreck after the surgery. The hospital allowed my mother and husband to come and see me and the baby for a short while before they had to leave (I was in the general ward after all) and I totally broke down. I was hysterical. I thought I had died. My mother took it the hardest and it was hard to part with them when they had to go. The one shining light was the nurse assigned to me in the ward. She was an amazing Filipino nurse whose presence was so calming that I finally felt safe and I was able to rest for a little while. Ellie lay next to me in a separate see-through cart as I watched her sleeping. Whenever she woke up and cried, I would call for the nurse to bring her to me (as I couldn’t get up or reach her myself) and I would hold her and nurse her. Ellie then threw up and I called for the nurse. She took one look at the vomit and took Ellie away to be examined. It turns out that Ellie had swallowed lots of blood. Her tiny stomach had to be pumped and she was put on a course of antibiotics. The pediatrician came in several times to explain everything to me. My amazing nurse managed to expedite my transfer to the first class ward so that I could be with my family.
We ended up staying in the hospital for a week because of Ellie’s infection. In that time I had to have a blood transfusion as I had lost almost 2 litres of blood during the surgery. Despite the horror of the birth, the care we received after the birth was amazing. The nursing and other staff, both in the general ward and the first class ward, were kind, knowledgeable and accommodating. The maternity and pediatric doctors would come in to check on us daily and keep us updated on everything that was happening. They were quick to call in a specialist doctor to see me when I developed a crazy rash all over my legs. They taught my husband how to wash the baby, change the baby and take care of the umbilical cord. They helped me with breastfeeding and recording how often she nursed. The room itself was very comfortable and I really felt calm and at ease. Though I barely slept, I look back on that period fondly. In that week, I fell head-over-heels in love with my baby.
It took me a long time to come to grips with what happened. I was so conflicted. On the one hand, I felt a real sense of loss. I had “lost” the opportunity to have a natural birth. I had “lost” out on not feeling the rush of love that a mother should feel when she first sees her baby. I had lost the ability to say anything good about my birth story. For me, what should have been the best experience of my life turned out to be the worst experience of my life. On the other hand, I felt ungrateful. Didn’t I have a beautiful baby who I loved so much because of the experience? She is healthy and happy and the biggest joy in my life. How can I complain?
For a long time after, I felt sad every time I heard that someone I knew had a good (albeit painful) birth. If someone mentioned on Facebook that they had an “easy” birth… well that sent me into a bit of a depression. How was this fair? How come they get to have an amazing birth? I did everything I could. I ate healthy, I exercised regularly, I went to a birth class, I read birthing books, I read childcare books, I trawled the internet for information. Then came the second round of guilt - I have a healthy baby who breastfeeds like a champ. I should not feel this way.
Over time, I have come to realise that this conflict is really the duality of motherhood. That, as a mother, you can feel two conflicting emotions at the same time. That you can be exhausted but still have an almost endless reserve of energy. It has also taught me that no two experiences are the same. I can’t measure my pain against someone else’s pain. That it is not fair on myself or on the other person to make such a comparison. I hope that this experience has made me kinder and more understanding. But one thing is for sure - it has given me one hell of a story.