Dora was in no hurry to enter the world. Or, as I prefer to think, she was in no rush to leave the warmth of my womb. She gave me a week’s worth of pre-labour contractions before the real ones started, and the labour still took a whopping 42 hours.
On the morning of the 21st September, I awoke to find that I’d had a show. I phoned Elke who wasn’t surprised to hear from me - she’d been receiving my calls every day for the past week as I analysed my contractions. "A good sign, but it’s not necessarily imminent" she said, words I’d heard four weeks previously when she’d found our baby’s head fully engaged. Imminent or not, Nick took the day off work and we went food shopping. We bought another load of bananas (having eaten the last lot), honey and, what were to be essential, a packet of straws. Back at home we had a walk in Hackney Downs Park. Nick took a silly picture of my tummy from above, which looked like a big green balloon with tiny pink sandals beneath it, and I remember thinking this may be the last time I’ll have this bump. I visualised a green balloon being carried away in a flutter or air, and thought of our Hypnobirthing practices - "with every ‘uterine surge’ breathe in, fill the balloon, breath out, let the balloon drift away. Breathe the baby down." It all seemed so simple.
Nick and I had been practicing Hypnobirthing for some months. Nick’s soft voice carrying through me in the evening as I slumped into a state of relaxation, our cat Sealy curled up beside us on the bed. I was very calm about the coming labour, in fact I welcomed it; as far as I was concerned, it was going to be pain-free: the hypnobirthing was obviously working. I was even quite worried that because I’d had pre-labour contractions all week our baby was going to pop out too quickly for me to have time to get into the birthing pool. What I wasn’t doing was thinking about the other person who was in on this event, and I was yet to find out that this little person likes to do things in her own time.
My mother, who I’d asked to be at the birth, was a sobering voice at the end of the phone. "I’ll come whenever you want me to, darling, but it could still be days. I’ve got some sewing to do, I’ll bring that." This was at about four o’clock and my contractions were progressing - a sort of dull ache like period pain, but more regular and quicker than they’d been all week. I felt excited - things were finally beginning to happen.
I had asked my mother to be at the birth some months before, but had become increasingly unsure what role she would take. After all, Nick and I had it all under control with our various preparations, and if the labour was going to last only a couple of hours... But we were having our baby at home and mum had made a large dish of Bobotie and had bought me lots of energy bars from her local health food store and she was quite happy to be in the kitchen preparing tea. Looking back, I just couldn’t imagine how it was going to be. I was worried that mum might be a spare part, not involved in the labouring and ostracised to the kitchen. I was afraid that she wouldn’t be needed and her presence might even hinder me. However many birth stories you read, you can never predict your own labour, and no one can tell you how valuable it is to have the support of those you love and trust.
My mother arrived at about 9 o’clock, by which time Nick had prepared the birthing room, had pumped up the pool, set the candles and tea lights on the mantelpiece. We’d started to time my contractions. They varied in length and frequency, but were generally working towards being a minute long and five minutes apart. Elke told us to phone her when they got to this point. By midnight Elke was sitting in our living room, observing me and taking notes. I remember looking at her and thinking, how is this going to work? Does she just sit here, taking notes while I rock my hips to the contractions? Isn’t that going to put me off? She told Nick to turn down the lights and she told me it was too early. I was still Lily. I was too conscious of what was going on. She told us she was going to leave and we should try to get some sleep. Sleep? But what about giving birth to this baby? It was at this point that I realised my labour might take longer than I’d first thought.
What followed was a night of hypnobirthing. I sat backwards on a chair loaded with cushions and drifted in between contractions while Nick slept on the bed. Every time Annie McClue led us out of the hypnosis I told Nick to start the CD again. Each hypnosis session lasted about forty minutes, and we did this about five times. At about five in the morning I couldn’t bear it any longer - funnily enough it was my bum that was suffering the most from sitting on a chair for five hours. I threw the cushions on the floor and knocked on the spare room’s door. This was the first time I realised I needed my mum. We pulled her duvet onto the floor and I kneeled against the bed and she rubbed my lower back. She told me about her labours with my brother Ben and then with me, and I felt reassured by her experience.
My contractions were more intense and so Nick phoned Elke at about 8am. She was pleased to have had a night’s sleep. By the time Elke arrived, Nick and I were in the living room, and I was starting to make some noise. I was holding onto the back of a chair and rising with every contraction while Nick rubbed my back and made noise with me. Elke decided to stay. She and my mum got chatting in the kitchen.
Time started to disappear around now. I asked Elke to cover the digital clock on the TV box with a dishcloth. Nick and I lost ourselves in the candlelit living room, inhaling the smell of lavender essential oil; the pool was full and ready in the corner. Elke came in intermittently to suggest positions and ask if I wanted support. I had all the support I needed in Nick and I remember thinking, I’m enjoying this - it’s an intimacy that expanded what was familiar to us, taking us to a new place, giving birth to the baby that we created.
Nick and I moved from the living room to the bathroom, back to the living room, while Elke brought me water with a straw and sliced banana. Eating was not on the agenda. I kept looking at the pool. I had no way of knowing at what stage of the labour I was at, but I knew that when Elke let me in the pool, we were nearly there.
I got in the pool some time that afternoon and the relief of the warm water was incredible. I could float and take the weight off, and the edge was taken off the contractions.
At some point, Elke got her equipment ready and told me that Nina, our second midwife, was on her way. Nick brought down a nappy and baby clothes and I had a rush of excitement. I had been labouring for almost 24 hours; the delivery must be imminent. The baby would be here soon.
It’s hard to pin point what happened from now as I only remember glimpses. I spent a lot of time in Nick’s arms in the water, and on the toilet, gripping onto Nick with the increasingly intense contractions. I became obsessed with peeing, a constant need that was never really satisfied. Elke, Nina and my mum became obsessed with feeding me, thrusting water and Lucozade in my mouth, fruity bars and slices of ‘magic’ banana as Nick called it in an attempt to make me eat it. I held onto Elke’s soft arms in the kitchen; I hung from Nick’s neck in the hall; I was sick (Elke was incredibly quick with the bowl); I started to make mooing noises. The baby was coming. It had to be.
Then I remember it was dark. I was in the bedroom and Elke was sitting on the bed. She was concerned about how long things were taking. She asked if she could give me an internal examination. I said yes and she determined that I was only 7cms dilated. The baby had not been making its way down my birth canal as I’d imagined; she hadn’t even made it out of my cervix. Elke was worried that she’d turned into a posterior position and suggested that I spend some time on the bed, with my head down and my bottom in the air to try and bring the baby out of my pelvis to help her turn, and to try and get some rest. I did this for about an hour, leaning forwards over a pile of duvet and cushions, Nick beside me rubbing my back. Having my hips higher than my head eased some of the intensity of the contractions, but they were coming so quickly now, and for the first time I was finding it hard to manage them. Something in me had changed. I had been labouring for 26 hours and relying on positivity. Now we had a problem and I struggled hard not to let it overcome me. I didn’t think I could turn this baby. I didn’t think this baby was going to come out. I was suddenly scared. My bed, where Nick and I had had so many peaceful nights, so much intimacy, was now just a reminder of my exhaustion and my inability to stop the contractions, to switch them off. It suddenly wasn’t about the baby anymore it was about me, and I felt I needed help. I turned to Nick and said: "I think I have to go to hospital". He told me that if I stuck with it he’d buy me a new pair of trousers, a jumper and a jacket from my favourite Paris designer. "Do you promise?" I asked. "Yes," he said. I remember thinking how shallow I can be. But in my mind I was already there, in that hospital bed, having an emergency cesarean. "You won’t go to hospital," Nick said. I got up suddenly, rushed to the toilet and vomited mashed banana and milk that Mum had made me eat just before I had to put my head down and stick my bottom in the air.
I didn’t tell Elke I wanted to go to hospital. When I next saw her I asked: "Do you think we can do this?" and she said, "Yes." And I wondered whether that was enough for me. What were the reasons I didn’t tell her? I wanted to give it one last chance. After so much hard work I had to have my baby at home. I wanted to do it. I wanted her to see that I could do it. I was scared of going outside, getting in an ambulance; I didn’t know how I would manage in the real world with the intensity of the contractions.
Elke suggested we do another internal examination and she put pressure on the baby’s head through a contraction. She did it twice. The first time the baby shifted slightly, the second time no movement. She wasn’t sure it was going to work. I didn’t let myself think about what it meant if it didn’t. But one good sign was that my waters broke. Elke had a rethink. The baby wasn’t in posterior position, but had her hand up by her face and so her head was titled at an awkward angle.
Although I wasn’t aware of it, Elke awoke from a sleep some hours later to hear me making ‘expulsion’ noises. Things had changed. I had entered second stage. Whatever Elke had done had worked.
I’d been told or I’d read somewhere that second stage lasts up to two hours. Mine seemed to go on forever. In fact it lasted about eight hours. I spent most of these hours in the hallway, doing drop squats from the banister and in the pool squatting and gripping onto my mum’s or Elke’s hands and lying back on Nick between contractions. The drop squats were possibly the most intense thing I’d ever done. Elke stood beside me saying, "Just two more," again and again and again.
I started to feel the baby move. There was a pressure in my back and then my bum as she slowly made her way around my coccyx. It really did feel like I was trying to pooh a melon. At one point, Elke told me to feel for the head. She’d told me that the baby had hair, but there was a part of me that was too scared to feel it: somehow it was too frightening to imagine the baby; all I wanted to do was focus on the now. But I did feel something, and it was far nearer than I’d imagined. It made me laugh.
Dora was delivered in the pool at 4.16 on Saturday afternoon. Somehow Elke saw her way through the murky water to guide me through the final moments. Nick was behind me and didn’t even realise she’d come out until Elke fished her muscley pink body out of the water and passed her to me. Nick burst into tears and again I laughed. I knew she was a girl before I looked between her legs and I couldn’t believe it. Throughout my pregnancy I’d convinced myself I was having a boy and it wasn’t until that moment that I realised how much I’d wanted a girl. I remember her ear, small and delicate like a shell. I had my gift, and she was perfect. We sat there in the dark, the three of us, while I held our daughter, snuffling and crying at my breast. Her eyes were open and alert, and staring up at us. Nick cut the cord and was able to hold her while I had a cup of tea. As the adrenaline subsided my exhaustion set in and I looked on and thought what sense it made that you would have to work so hard for one of the most precious things in life.