The following is the beginning of the story of my baby boy's birth. It took place in Amsterdam, where we live and it focuses more on the journey my partner and I went on rather than the ins and outs of labouring with a midwife at home, and finally having a hospital birth in the Netherlands. I will write more practical information about what giving birth in the Netherlands was like in a future post, but you can read about what pregnancy and Dutch antenatal care is like here. You can find Part Two of this story here.
Before the BIG day....
As I mentioned in a previous post about our experience of antenatal care in the Netherlands, our baby boy was showing up as quite a big guy in all our previous scans so at an appointment in my 34th week of pregnancy it was agreed by my midwife team that they would try to start my labour early with a "strippen", or membrane sweep in English, a week before my due date in order to try and discourage him from being a late baby. There was form in our family you see, as I was 15 days late, and I was also a huge baby at 10lb 10 ounces. (Or 4.8kg. I know. My mum is AMAZING.)
So, on the 13th July 2015, I went to my 39 week appointment and after all the necessary checks were made I was invited to lie on the bed and the sweep was carried out. You don't need me to go into great detail here - I'll let you Google it yourself! - but yes, it was uncomfortable and a little painful. After my midwife had finished poking around in a place I didn't know existed inside me, I was told that the membranes weren't yet soft enough to be cleared (are you feeling queasy yet?). An appointment was made for four days time to repeat the procedure. Because I was quite disappointed that the sweep hadn't been possible, and because I'd been experiencing some quite severe anxiety during those weeks leading up to my due date (partly related to the possible size of my boy), and because it was put forward by my midwives that it could also help start labour, the day before the second sweep, I had an acupuncture session with a woman who used to be midwife at the practice I was registered with. Inge was tall, very slim, and looked determined and yet calm in a way I find only Dutch women can achieve. She wore an Om symbol on a string around her neck and in between talking me through each small needle she placed in my back, head, arms and legs, I learned she was a yogi and had over the years taken part in a number of vipassana meditations, aka a 12-day silent meditation. To say she was a calming, soothing force was an understatement.
To cut a long story short, it was too early for them to also successfully do the sweep on the second attempt so I was booked in to try again the following week. At that appointment, my midwife explained that although the membranes had softened she couldn't quite get to them properly. She mentioned that she wanted her colleague to try because she had longer fingers... true story! The woman who walked in the door was Inge. Still a qualified midwife, Inge also provided cover during the holidays and seeing as this was the end of July and prime summer holiday season, she was scheduled to be on-call that weekend. Inge did what she had to do and she seemed confident that she had stripped my membranes and had felt the beginnings of a small opening in my cervix. That was on Thursday 23rd July.
I can't remember much detail about the twenty-four hours that followed but I know I fully expected something to happen, but it didn't. When I went to bed on Friday 24th July I was having irregular but strong Braxton Hicks contractions, but I'd actually been having them for weeks. With no other signs of pending labour, I sent out a few messages to kind but persistently curious friends explaining I was going to be switching my phone off for the weekend so I could try and relax a bit because I was finding it very hard to keep replying to people "No, no baby yet!" with an appropriately smiley face emoji.
And so it begins...
At 3am on Saturday 25th July, I was woken by the fierce tightening of my belly and a new heavy aching in my lower back and hips. I immediately could tell that the contractions I was feeling were different to the Braxton Hicks ones so I started timing them and within a few hours they were 5-6 minutes apart. While they weren't exactly painful, I certainly couldn't ignore them or go back to sleep.
So I did what I'd been advised to do in the prenatal classes we had. I stuck my head in the sand and pretended it wasn't really happening. (Yes, honestly this is the advice we were given.) I didn't wake and tell my partner, instead I got up, made some scones (how very British of me!) and tidied up the house as much as I could. While my actions may have been very head-in-the-sand, my thoughts certainly weren't. The whole time I kept thinking to myself excitedly "I'm going to meet my baby today!". As the contractions remained regular but were gaining intensity, I decided to wake NewMan up at around 7 o'clock and when I did I told him "You're going to meet your baby today!".
Just after 8am, with my contractions now very regular and verging on becoming quite painful, I went for a walk as my friend who had recently given birth told me this really helped speed things along and I wanted gravity to do as much as it could. I walked for the best part of four hours. I did laps of the park near our house where I watched a group of Chinese women do Tai-Chi and a bunch of disshevelled looking guys sit on a row of benches and open up their first beers of the day. I walked across the neighbourhood I live in and up and down shopping streets that were starting to stir with the first signs of activity. I walked up to the River Amstel and walked across one bridge and then another, occasionally stopping to catch my breath when a contraction took it away. Throughout these miles of walking, I timed each contraction and felt great relief in the fact they were coming quicker and quicker.
About three hours into my walk I texted my partner and told him I was switching my phone into airplane mode so as to save my battery which was quickly depleting thanks to the contraction timing app I was using. Unbeknowst to me a code red storm was approaching Amsterdam and knowing this he started to try and call me but couldn't get through. Thankfully I was on my way home when I noticed a change in the wind and a very dark cloud looming above. I remember standing at my front door breathing through a contraction and thanking my friend for her advice about walking because with my contractions now less than four minutes apart I could call my midwife and we could get this show on the road. While I was frightened by the force of the contractions I was surprisingly calm about what lay ahead of me. I felt ready to give birth.
Once inside, I decided to have a shower before we made the call. As I did, I shouted out "Start!" and "Stop!" to NewMan as the contractions hit so he could keep timing them. By the time I was out of the shower, I already knew that they had slowed down. I could also feel how considerably less intense they were.
"Should we still call?" NewMan asked.
"No," I said feeling quite dejected. "There's no point now."
And so it stops...
As the storm picked up outside, I did what I could to take my own mind of the new irregularity and mildness of the contractions. this involved watching Modern Family on Netflix and trying to read a couple of books I was plodding through. Nothing worked. I ended up confiding my situation and disappointment with messages to a good friend who I knew would have words of support and encouragement no matter how rude and sweary I was about the situation. I also messaged my mum and gave her an update.
Needless to say, nothing took my mind off the slow progress I was making, and in hindsight I think this was incredibly draining and damaging to how my labour progressed. I was stressed and upset, two things you ideally want to avoid once labour has begun. Again I can't remember that afternoon as clearly as I can remember the walk in the morning although I know at some point the contractions picked up a little speed and intensity, but by 5 o'clock in the afternoon they still weren't back to less than 4 mins apart. NewMan and I discussed our possible next steps and we agreed to call the midwife anyway to let her know I'd been having contractions for over 12 hours and I was feeling a little worried about their slowing. Much to my great surprise, it was Inge and she came over very quickly to see how I was. She checked my cervix and told me I was only 1cm dilated. She listened to my concern that all my hard work walking and standing had done little to progress the labour, and she offered to do some more acupuncture to help me relax, which she did. She then advised me to rest as much as I could as she was confident they would start up again soon and I would need my strength.
"So I'm not going to meet my baby today?" I asked.
"Maybe today, maybe tomorrow. Either way I'm sure you'll be seeing him before the end of the weekend."
I can't really remember much about the evening that followed other than I was very grateful when I felt tired enough to crawl into bed not long after ten o'clock. Under the duvet, I remember holding my belly and not counting the contractions, trying to let go of the fact they were still irregular and still not as strong as they had been earlier. I just let them come and I did what I could to let them go again. At some point, thankfully, I let go completely and fell asleep.
And so it begins... again.
After a few hours sleep, at just after 2'o'clock in the morning on Sunday 26th July I woke up feeling the same intense contractions I'd felt at the end of my walk. I stayed in bed as long as the discomfort would allow but by 6am I was up and doing some of the yoga stretches I'd learned to try ease the back pain. I woke NewMan shortly after and with contractions again under four minutes apart and coming harder than ever, we called the midwife at seven o'clock. A different midwife came, but she was one I'd met several times during my appointments so she was still a friendly face. She rubbed my back as I leaned against the wall to work through a contraction and she applauded me for being so calm and collected through the pain. Eventually we made it to the bedroom and she checked my cervix. The pain alone was telling me that surely I was further progressed from last night, however, I was utterly devastated to hear that I was still only 1cm.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I do think it's going to happen today, it just may still take some time."
She left telling me that she was going to hand over to Inge again in the following hour and that she would come and see me later in the morning.
The hours that followed were extremely painful. I couldn't find a position I was comfortable in and even getting in the bath or the shower didn't take the edge off the contractions. In fact, sitting in the bath experiencing minute-long contractions every three minutes was torturous, which I remember feeling very upset by because at the time I was still hoping for a water birth.
Inge arrived around 11 o'clock and by this point I was moaning or groaning through each contraction, it seemed the only way to slow my breath down and also relieve some of the fear I was feeling. I couldn't quite believe how intense the contractions had become and I was convinced that I must be progressing.
What does a contraction feel like anyway?
Prior to giving birth, I did what most pregnant women surely do and I became obsessed with finding out what a contraction felt like. Now I've experienced them I can perfectly recall the sensation, albeit a much more blurry version. Yet still I lack the right words to explain it. Yes, it's like a period pain but it's also not the same at all. It's a very consuming, intense rush of both stabbing and aching pains that grips your whole stomach - your womb of course - but also crushes your lower back and upper thighs from the inside out. I remember feeling the shock of a sort of electrifying pain and yet there was also a very detectable build up of tension and finally a release of the grip on your body. What I found most surprising was that even though the contractions came and went, by Sunday morning, when I felt they were really in full flow, I honestly felt pain all the time, even between contractions. I appreciate that this still doesn't quite pinpoint the kind of pain I felt, but I know that at the time, at its worse, I remember feeling that it was the kind of ripping, tearing, destructive pain that surely my body couldn't cope with. I believe that this is exactly why many women have a moment during labour when they do question their mortality very seriously.
Inge could see how hard I was finding the contractions and she and my partner each applied pressure to my lower back and held my hands during the contraction I had as we walked to the bedroom where she checked me again. I looked up and over my belly at her hopefully. I could tell from her face that I was about to be disappointed.
I was between 1-2cm dilated. I felt like crying but I didn't have much time to put any effort into this as another contraction came crashing in. I remember at this point I called out for a bag or a bucket as I was beginning to feel sick. At the end of this contraction I remember opening my eyes to a very worried looking expression on my partner's face and a very earnest look on Inge's.
"Okay," she said in her calm, warm voice. "You've been going a long time. The contractions are very strong. You're very tired. I think you need some help."
At hearing those words, my defences went up.
"I don't want to have any medication," I said.
"You don't have to," Inge explained. "Let's just talk about your options."
"Okay," I said, but I had to wait until another contraction passed before I could listen properly.
Because I'd had less than five hours sleep over the last two nights, Inge thought that although my contractions were getting stronger, they were actually becoming less effective and what I needed more than anything was rest if I was going to push the baby out naturally. She suggested I go to hospital and get an epidural to take away some of the pain and give me time to gather some strength to push. I looked over at my partner who was on the opposite side of the bed, his face a little paler than usual, and he was nodding.
"I think you should do it, Frankie," he said.
Decisions, decisions... and contractions, contractions.
When I thought about the hospital all I could think about was being in a strange, sterile environment. I was already dreading the journey to the hospital - I get car sick on the best of days - and I knew that having an epidural meant I would have to stay in one position on the bed. I was also terrified at the thought of having a needle put in my back. Rather naively, because I'd been so keen to have a medication-free birth, I'd done very little research about epidurals and this made me feel uninformed. It was all very frightening.
"Do I have any other options?" I asked Inge.
She nodded and explained that she could try breaking my waters. She said this would certainly speed up the process, but that in turn would mean even more intense contractions. If they were too much for me after my waters were broken, we could still get the epidural.
A few seconds later I was back lying on my bed watching Inge remove what looked like a knitting needle from its plastic wrapping. By this point I'd felt so many things go up me, I was beginning to feel a little numb to it. But it still felt incredibly uncomfortable and I rolled my head over to my partner as I felt a sort of scratch deep inside me. Just as he took my hand in his, I felt an immediate release of pressure between my legs and sure enough, a gush of liquid flowed onto the protective mattress and towels we'd put down.
"Okay, now we wait and see what happens next," Inge said and she suggested I get in the shower as the hot water may be soothing and also I didn't have to worry about all of the liquid that was still dripping out of me. I did as she said but less than a minute after getting under the water I felt a contraction approach and it got bigger and bigger and bigger, blowing all previous contractions out of the water. While the previous ones had felt fairly brutal and full-on, this one had even more violence and pace. It felt totally uncompromising. I groaned through it and as it finally subsided I started to do some simple maths. They say that when you're in active labour (which according to some medical definitions I wasn't even in yet!) it takes an hour for you to dilate one centimetre and so on. If I wasn't yet 2 centimetres, I still had at least eight hours of this until I was ready to push. Eight hours of contractions like the one I'd just had... my mind started to spin and I reached for the bathroom bin and started heaving into it though nothing came up.
Out of the shower but still in the bathroom as my waters were still leaking out of me, I asked Inge if I would still be able to push naturally if I had an epidural.
"Of course," she said. "In fact, I think you have a much better chance of pushing if you have an epidural. You'll only get more tired if you keep going like this. You need your energy to push."
Over her shoulder I looked at my partner. I was longing for somebody else to take this decision out of my hands, but I also knew I couldn't let anyone else make it for me because it was my body and my mind. At that moment, both felt like they were teetering on the edge of a cliff and below me were deep waters, the kind you know in theory are fine to dive into, but you've never done it before, so what if... what if... There were so many "what ifs" they interrupted and overlapped each other.
"You know I think you should have an epidural so you can rest, but it is your decision," my partner said. "It's completely your decision, Frankie..."
Find out what decision I made, and what happened next in the Part Two...
Frances M. Thompson
Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before putting down some roots with her Australian partner and having a baby boy in July 2015. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her son around Amsterdam.
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Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.