This is the story of my second son's birth. It's a (REALLY!) long post, so please do get comfortable before you start reading it. I wrote up my first son's birth story in two parts (here and here) and probably should have done the same with this one but to be honest, I prefer to have it all in one place. If you're here because you're preparing to give birth in the Netherlands I have some other posts that could be useful for you - this one on what antenatal care is like in the Netherlands, and what it's like to give birth in a hospital in Amsterdam - and if you've just given birth, then you may want to read my motherhood diary from the start, it's a weekly account of what the first year of motherhood looked like for me. And if you have just given birth to your second child, here are some posts about my second baby fears and reality, as well as the post I wrote on my second son's first birthday. My apologies in advance for the poor quality of the photos; most of them were taken on old phones in dark light so they didn't stand a chance!
And if none of this appeals to you, then I've got lots of blog posts about Amsterdam, family travel, and writing too!
Blood, more blood, and tears
When I was 39 weeks and three days pregnant with my second son, I was in an ambulance racing to hospital. It wasn't because of me or the baby. I was sitting in the front passenger seat; it was my partner who was being blue-lighted to hospital, as he lay on the stretcher in the back, bleeding profusely and barely conscious.
As we raced through Amsterdam with sirens blaring, past the Rijksmuseum, over the bridge that goes over Vondelpark, I sat in the front passenger seat of the ambulance, feeling the seat belt cut into my huge, hard stomach. The whole way I whispered silently to my baby. "Not now, not now, not now,". I would whisper those words to my unborn son many times for the following week.
This is not how I expected my second son's birth story to begin, but it is where it starts. It's impossible to pretend that the weeks leading up to his birth weren't among the most stressful of my life. It would do my partner and I a disservice to pretend that in the back of that ambulance he didn't come close to.... well, I don't know what. We didn't entertain how bad his haemorrage could have been then and I haven't much since.
So I won't dwell on the details of my partner's hospital admission and illness here. I will try to keep it brief because hey, he is but a supporting actor in the real show that is my giving birth to my second child (as much by his choice as anything) but here is what happened in a nutshell. Twelve days before my baby's due date, my partner was scheduled for fairly routine surgery due to sleep apnoea. It was a number of procedures and he was in hospital overnight. He came home the following day weak, croaky and in a lot of pain - which I moaned about because at 38 weeks pregnant the last thing I wanted to be doing was all the legwork with our three-year-old - but I got on with it.
My partner recovered well but slowly, sleeping upright on our couch and barely eating anything but cold custard and soup. And then, eight days after the operation, as we were all sitting together eating breakfast, my partner coughed after swallowing a spoonful of yoghurt. He told me he could taste blood. He then went into the toilet to investigate and he discovered he had started bleeding from his tonsillectomy wound. And it wasn't showing any signs of stopping...
Luck be a baby that takes it's time!
There are already so many serendipitous things I think about when I recall in remembering that morning.
Firstly, he was at home and with me, rather than on his bike with my son or alone. Secondly, it was a Thursday and our very good friend takes her son to preschool with our boy so she was able to pick up our son in minutes after I called her. And while it was worryingly close to my due date - just four days before - I felt somewhat confident my baby wasn't going to come that day.
I'd been having Braxton Hicks contractions for nearly all of the second half of my pregnancy and they hadn't intensified at all. My most recent midwife checks showed no signs of imminent delivery, and my first son had been five days late. But there were no guarantees, and on that morning, as I accompanied my partner to A&E, and later, waddling down hospital corridors beside his stretcher, we received the funniest looks. Shouldn't I be the one in the bed?
We laughed about this later. Once he was out of his second emergency surgery to seal the wound, and once he was discharged from the high dependency unit after his blood pressure dropped so severely a team from ICU were called. Once he was back home, sitting upright sipping cold soup again, we did laugh. In between asking ourselves, what the hell just happened?
The day after his haemorage, I had a midwife appointment and I went alone. My partner was still in hospital and my son was at preschool. Before I'd even opened my mouth to explain what had happened over the last 24 hours, I was crying. She listened patiently and reached out to hold my hand. I asked her what I could do to keep the baby inside me. I didn't want to give birth without my partner, but I knew that if I went into labour over the coming weekend, I would have to because it would have been too much for him to be with me.
She said all the right things. She told me that because my first was late, it was likely this one would be too. She told me that babies often wait until the mother was ready. She told me that even if it did happen, it would still be okay. Of course, I immediately thought of about stories from friends and friends of friends that proved all of her theories wrong, but I nodded and wiped my nose. Later that day I messaged a friend and asked her to by my stand-by birth partner and I spent time telling myself how that would actually be a lot of fun. Then, I booked a babysitter for the whole weekend so my son was looked after and I could focus on my partner and myself. Once he got out of hospital, we spent our time in bed together, watching things on Netflix although I honestly can't remember what.
But my baby didn't come that weekend. He didn't come the whole week that followed either. He waited until we were ready. In fact, he waited until we were more than ready...
Here he comes... I think. But wait, what about the other kid?
One day and one week after my partner was rushed to hospital, on a Tuesday morning I woke in the early hours feeling mild but regular contractions tighten my belly. I stayed in bed, alone, timing the tightenings and feeling everything they brought my way; feelings of excitement, apprehension, fear, and love.
Around 5am I messaged my partner (who was still sleeping upright on the sofa downstairs to reduce his risk of haemorrhage) and he came up to see how I was and if I needed anything. I shook my head. "I just need you to get our boy ready for daycare and save all your energy in case this happens. Oh, and please don't haemorrhage again today."
Unfortunately, our son had other ideas for this seemingly simple plan and he vomited in his bed not long after he woke and so we couldn't take him in to daycare. Some phone-calls and creative thinking later, we dropped him at a friend's house where a babysitter he knew was already looking after his buddy. He left with the overnight bag I had packed weeks before, and with a few of my tears drying in his hair. I felt overwhelmed for his little three-year-old self; how much change was lying ahead of him. It was dizzying.
I honestly can't remember much of what followed. I know the contractions were stop and start, but they still stuck around nearly all of the day and for much of it I was alone in my bedroom, lying in bed, or bouncing on my gym ball.
I was very aware of my previous experience of these early stages of labour
. It took me a long, LONG time to dilate beyond 3cm, in fact, I was having contractions for nearly two days before we even went to hospital. Despite many people telling me how different this labour could be, I was all too aware of how disheartening that time had been, waiting and waiting and riding out contraction after contraction. How much energy I put into staying relaxed (ironic but true) during that time. So much so that I was exhausted by the time we decided to take further action to keep things moving.
This time I did things very differently. I didn't go for a long walk, I stayed off my feet as much as I could, I kept myself horizontal a lot, and I just tried to think positive thoughts. But even so, my contractions didn't speed up enough to be close enough or long enough that I should call the midwife. I was determined not to be checked until real progress had been made, so by the time it was early evening and I felt the contractions ease off again and lose their regularity, I felt disheartened and confused. I also felt full of dread. I didn't want to be in labour for another 24 hours.
Do, doula or don't?
My first son's birth had taught me how much more relaxed and how well I progressed once I was under the hospital's care. Labouring at home with just my partner was fine, but it took a long time and my partner grew tired too. Neither of us slept much for two nights before we'd even stepped foot into the maternity ward. I needed to know that if history was going to repeat itself, someone else would be available to offer support and relief to both me and him. I will possibly write about my experience hiring a doula in another post, but to keep this post as succinct as possible (which already isn't going to be short!) after interviewing a few different women, we hired a very experienced Dutch doula who lived close to us in Amsterdam.
I had been in contact with her since my contractions had started early that first morning. That evening with my contractions receding, I told her about my disappointment but she encouraged me to stay positive and to just enjoy what was most likely the figurative calm before the storm. She suggested I have a glass of wine, a nice dinner with my partner and an early night if possible. I did all the above apart from the early night. During the meal and the Adam Sandler (of all things!) Netflix comedy special we watched on Netflix, the contractions came back and quickly showed me they weren't going anywhere. I'm not sure when I went up to lie in bed but I have kept the contraction timer records from the night and I was awake counting them all night. I closed my eyes a lot and rested as much as possible, but I didn't sleep a wink.
My doula did get the early night I should have had so when I messaged her around 5 o'clock in the morning with an update - "regular contractions all night, speeding up, going to call midwife soon" - she replied immediately. She offered to come around and keep me company during the contractions and midwife appointment, but I explained how comfortable I was - tired, yes, but comfortable and very calm in my own little zone.
Curiosity killed the contraction...?
I actually have strangely fond memories of that night, which hasn't happened about a sleepless night since the peak of my clubbing days (or nights!) back in my mid-20s. When I think back to that night, I feel a strong fondness for how calm it all felt. How present I was, and weirdly, how much I enjoyed feeling my body progress closer to active labour.
In the evening, as I watched Adam Sandler sing the strangest songs about Phone, Wallet, Keys (Google it), I remember feeling excited that the contractions were back with some regularity. As I brushed my teeth and got into my pyjamas, I remember feeling relaxed that my eldest son was safe for the next 24 hours (our friend would take him to daycare in the morning) and later when I realised they were too close and too intense for me to sleep, I remember sitting up supported by cushions and finding a rhythm and breathing that helped me not only get through each contraction but also actually enjoy them.
I stun myself every time I read that sentence. I enjoyed contractions? How can that be? I'm honestly not sure.
As with my first baby's birth and with perhaps every single birth story that I've ever read or heard, I think about the luck that always plays a part in childbirth. Some people have a ton of luck, others have less, and some have none or even a ton of bad luck. I think I have been extraordinarily lucky with both my birth experiences, but this one especially, thanks to the one thing you will never have in your first labour, felt more fortuitous because I had the reassurance of experience; I knew I could survive what was happening.
With this hindsight, I felt I could be something that I definitely wasn't in my first son's birth; curious. Last time I felt only pain and my body put up a very quick wall to try and almost resist or beat the pain. This culminated in my feeling like the pain was bigger than myself and so I felt out of control and at their mercy, to the point where I felt quite sure they would kill me.
This time I was led by my curiosity. I wanted to feel contractions begin, build and hit their peak. Then I wanted to feel them dying down, disappearing. I wanted to see if I could really find a pause in between because last time I really didn't. Would I even be able to rest waiting for the next? Something that felt impossible throughout my first birth. Much to my surprise it was possible. I did rest in between contractions, and even though I didn't sleep I felt drowsy - almost drugged up at times (in a good way!) - and I remember messaging my doula and asking if this "natural high" feeling was normal. "Yes!" She replied enthusiastically "This is what your body is supposed to do. They're hormones and your bodies natural painkillers."
Oh how I hated hearing such words in birth stories following the birth of my first baby, when my body hadn't wanted to do anything it was supposed to do - at least not quickly or efficiently! - so I prickled a bit when she messaged this but I couldn't deny, I still felt good.
Feeling good, bad and ugly
I kept feeling pretty good all night but no, I didn't sleep. I stayed in bed and listened to the playlist I'd made and I used cushions to prop myself up or to squeeze between my legs once I shifted to lie down. The gym ball was also in the bedroom so I also spent some time bouncing on that when I felt the need. But mostly I stayed in bed and I just focused on feeling comfortable. On my bedside table was a stone that my eldest son had found for me in the street one day a few months earlier. It was roughly heart-shaped. At times, I would pick it up and rub it between my fingers
I called the midwife and she arrived shortly after 5am. She was one of my favourites from the practice and I was feeling relaxed and hopeful despite my other attempts to keep my expectations low, which I was right to do as after examining me, she told me I was only 2cm dilated and so would need to stay at home and let more contractions do more work.
She agreed to return at 7 o'clock to check me again. She told me that then I could try a sweep or breaking my waters to speed things up. Having experienced both of those things in my first labour, I had already told myself this would be what I wanted if I didn't progress much quicker, so I smiled and nodded when this was explained. I actually found comfort in knowing these options were available and feeling in control of my own experience.
In the two hours that followed, I didn't do much differently, but I did ask my partner to get a few things ready in case it was time to go to hospital.
After he left the room, I got up and had a quick shower, wondering if the next time I stood under the water like this in my bathroom the baby in my body would be in arms. I felt so excited but still I tried to put those feelings on ice. I was aware that there was still a long way to go and lot more work to do. As I got dressed, pausing to wriggle my hips and deep breathe through a contraction, I gave more focus to a number of affirmations I'd been repeating on and off since the contractions had started.
In the beginning I was saying proactive positive statements like: "I am ready to meet my baby", My baby is on his way." "My body is opening up to birth my baby." "My body and mind are strong." And when the contractions slowed or paused I turned to more calming and reassuring affirmations. "My baby will come when he's ready." "I rest now so I can save my physical and mental energy" "I am surrounded by love waiting for my baby." Then once everything really kicked off and sleep was impossible, I made my affirmations really short and really simple. I repeated them over and over and over during my contractions; "I can do difficult things" "I am not afraid of pain." "I am strong and able."
Slow and steady. Ish.
After sending an update to my doula, she again offered to come over for the 7'o'clock appointment with my midwife, but despite feeling greater pressure and discomfort during the contractions, and feeling a little disheartened by the slow progress, I said I would prefer to stay in the calmer and quiet "zone" I was in. The contractions intensified and I did as much visualisation as I could - imagining my cervix softening and opening... and I only lost this thread, ending up scrolling social media or refreshing my emails, a couple of times. But I have to be honest, sometimes it was nice to let my mind wander and escape the intensity of what was happening, both physically and emotionally.
The midwife came again, looking a bit more awake this time! She checked me and said there hadn't been much more progress. Maybe half a centimetre and a bit more thinning. I waited for the blow of feeling devastated but it was actually more of a slight prod or poke. I didn't feel like a failure; I knew this was how my body did things! It was going to be okay... it was going to be utterly exhausting again, apparently, but it was going to be okay!
"How do you feel?" My midwife asked.
"I'm getting tired," I said. "I haven't slept all night. I want to get things moving. I want to save my energy for what's still to come."
She nodded, not at all surprised to hear this. "We can try another sweep, and we can also try to break your waters."
"Let's just break my waters and get on with it," I said, or at least I said something very similar. I was ready. I had been having contractions for over 24 hours and I knew I didn't have another 24 hours in me. I wanted more to happen, and soon.
"Okay, so I think the best plan is to go to the hospital and do it there, so you're comfortable."
This was a genius plan as I'd done a taxi ride just after my waters had been broken last time and while it wasn't the worst taxi ride of my life, it was far from the best. The midwife rang my first choice hospital and we were told the ward was full. She got on the phone to my second choice and they had space for me in the birth centre - one half of the labour ward where non-medicalised births took place with their midwives from the clinic they'd been with throughout their pregnancy, as opposed to hospital midwives (you can read more about antenatal care in the Netherlands here
). This was the hospital my partner had stayed in just over a week ago following his haemorrhage. We shared a knowing smile about this. I then messaged my doula the plan and asked her to meet us there. I think she was halfway out the door before she hit send back on her message saying she'd be there. My midwife left to drive there by herself and we called a taxi.
Let's go to hospital. Again.
I don't remember much of the taxi ride other than thinking how surreal it was that we were making this journey to the same hospital my partner had had his recent emergency visit and surgery. I commented on how the journey was slightly slower than our previous ambulance ride, and my partner responded about how much more pleasant the ride was for him. Again we laughed our nervous laughter together.
I can't quite recall how we got up to the labour ward - with my first son's birth I can perfectly summon the way I was swooped up in a wheelchair by a jolly, grey-haired porter - but I do remember walking into the room we were assigned. My first impression was that it looked like a room in a sex hotel! Not that I've ever been in one! It's just it was quite dark and pokey, with a scarletty-brown pleather covering the couch, bed and some of the other furnishings. The lights were dimmed and a small en-suite bathroom had a huge round tub with up-lighting. There was a car radio built into one wall and all the surfaces you could see were wipe clean... obviously, because giving birth is a messy business, but also, I guess like a sex hotel might be!
Anyway, I was introduced to a member of the birth centre staff who showed us around the room, but I clearly remember another contraction kicking in and after a moment's panic, not knowing a safe or comfortable place for me to zone out in, I bent over the bed and breathed through it as it rose up and then faded away. As I came back to what was going on, my body sore and heavy, I asked if they could fill the tub in the bathroom. I suddenly desperately wanted to be submerged in warm, warm water.
A few minutes later, with the taps running in the tub, everyone else was there. My doula arrived laden with a huge birthing ball and a bag containing other tools, and my midwife briefed her on where we were at. Then it was time to break my waters.
Just before my midwife did this she mentioned how if there was meconium (baby's first poo) in my waters, we would need to transfer my care to the medical wing in the hospital. I stole a glance at the bathroom where the water was filling up loudly. "There is a risk of infection so they will need to monitor the baby's heartbeat throughout the labour so it's unlikely you'll be able to get in the water."
"So I'd be handed over to the hospital midwives?"
My midwife, who I so keenly wanted to be at my birth, nodded.
"And no water birth?"
"I'm afraid not," she said, and I think that was the first really hard moment for me, to be so close to getting into that big tub of water, and yet, so far.
As she set about breaking my waters, I nodded for my partner to be close to me. Suddenly I needed a hand to hold and a reassuring voice to be close by just in case it hurt. As it happened, breaking my waters wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as I had remembered it being last time. But it also didn't provide quite the same rush of relief and ease of pressure as it had last time. In fact, it took a number of pokes before the midwife was sure they'd been fully pierced through.
Once I felt the liquid flooding between my legs, I heard my midwife's gentle voice. "I'm afraid there is sign of poop in the water," she said.
"So no water birth?" I asked, squeezing my partner's hand.
"I don't think so. We need to move you over to the medical wing,"
"Or maybe, yes, still a water birth!" My doula stepped in. "There's one room where you can have a medicalised water birth. I am going to see if it's available." And she was off. That was essentially what my doula did throughout my birthing experience; she problem-solved and liaised between us and the hospital so our needs and wishes were taken care of. But more about that in another blog post, if you are interested.
Just after the room's door closed on my doula, I asked the midwife how bad the poop was. I was somewhat aware of the risk of meconium to a baby, so I wanted to be informed.
"It was like pea soup," she said and we all laughed at this. But then she reassured us that risks to the baby were low, but required monitoring nonetheless.
Another room, another tub
In what seemed to happen very quickly, I was told that the room my doula wanted us to have was indeed available and it was ours, and then we were there. Along the way, moving barely 30 metres down a corridor, I had two big contractions that stopped me in my tracks. With them, I knew that things were really going to happen now and I felt confident and reassured in my decision to have my waters broken.
And as the contractions did increase in length and intensity, the gaps between them became shorter, which was suddenly harder to adjust to as I wasn't getting as much of my natural painkillers. Still, I managed to stay calm and confident through the first forty minutes or so after my stomach was covered in tight straps and heartbeat monitors were attached in various places.
During this I was introduced to the on-duty midwife who would be delivering my baby. The midwife who had come with me to the hospital was also changing shifts with her colleague who had also arrived at the hospital. At one point there were three midwives in the room watching my breathe through my contractions and all were silent and kept their distance standing at the back of the room. Once I was eyes open and trying to enjoy the dip in between, I heard them whispering so quietly I couldn't quite hear them, presumably doing some kind of hand over.
In a strange twist of fate, my partner then left my side to go to a follow-up appointment upstairs. It was an outpatient appointment made after his hospital stay ten days ago, and when it had been made we'd joked about how maybe he would be going there from the labour ward if our baby chose to show up that day. And here he was heading up a few floors to see them while I rode out contractions in a hospital bed a small distance away.
By the time he returned the contractions were so intense that I was craving water again. At this point I'd not taken any pain medication and while I had tried the TENS machine throughout the contractions I was experiencing at home, I have to be honest and say that I had left it off most of the time because turning it on and off had been more of a disruption to my sense of calm (yet another cynical me can't quite believe I'm typing such a phrase about LABOUR!). But now I was ready for something else. I wanted to try the water. As the midwife attached the monitor to my baby's head she told me I had progressed even more to 4cm. I wasn't surprised, and I was relieved, but I also remember feeling cautious, like I shouldn't get my hopes up. I could still have many hours ahead of me.
Stepping into the tub - with considerable assistance thanks to the straps on my belly and the wire hanging out of me that was attached to my baby's head - was like an instant shot of pain relief. It provided a new warm and weightless environment for me to move around in. It took a while to find a position that was comfortable for me and only a few contractions later I would feel the need to change again, but this in itself provided me with a new rhythm to ride out the contractions that were getting longer and longer, and closer and closer together. I seemed to flip-flop from being on all fours, my head resting against a towel on the tub's side, to lying on my back, spreadeagled and trying to let my belly float up as much as it would.
It didn't take me long to find the water's heat a bit too much for my face and head, so I asked for some cool flannels which my doula and partner provided and would remove, re-wet and replace with slick professionalism. The water was still the best thing for my body and I wanted to stay there, and even though the contractions and even the "rest" time in between were feeling increasingly overwhelming, I remember thinking almost every single minute how lucky I was to be in the tub.
And then time starts to slow down... or speed up. Or both.
It felt like I was in the water for a long time but in reality it was just over a couple of hours. I have heard it said, and I did indeed say it myself with my first childbirth experience, that when you feel completely safe and ready to give birth, labour will accelerate suddenly. Last time that was my getting to hospital after over 36 hours labouring at home, and on this occasion it was getting in the water. But I also have to add that on both occasions this time also coincided with the immediate hours following my waters being broken so it's more likely that played a part!! It's funny how we can frame things however we want to suit ourselves - or something someone else has said.
Whatever it was that made my body progress quickly through, I don't really care. The point was I was getting closer to the point of holding my baby, something I was suddenly obsessed about and in the very, very brief moments in between contractions I would try to conjure up that feeling of holding my baby boy, of getting to see his face for the very first time. However, as the contractions started to crash into one another leaving me very little time to recover, I had to banish this thought from my mind and instead the ultimate reward became something else; no longer being in labour.
Somewhere in the middle of this increasing intensity I saw my partner on his phone.
"Do you want some good news?" He asked.
I looked at him and tried to smile. I think at this point talking felt like too much for me.
"We have got a buying contract for our house!"
Our house. What house? Oh yes, that house we've been trying to buy since July. We'd been promised a contract nearly every week or two since then. And now, in the middle of birthing my baby, a contract has landed in our inboxes, a contract I'd been hoping for every day for nearly six months. And I couldn't give a damn.
So I told my partner that.
"Fair enough," he said, and he fetched me the glass of water I was taking sips from.
It didn't take long for my comfort at being in the water seemed to wash away. In fact, it very quickly got to the point where my visualisations, my affirmations, my breathing and my moving and swaying was feeling more and more useless. There came a moment where both my partner and the doula were outside the bathroom and talking so casually, about things so normal and different from my present very abnormal and uncomfortable situation that I shouted out to them, saying how alone I felt. They both came running in and I told them I was getting close to my limit. I wanted to discuss pain relief and see what my options were because I didn't want to carry on like this much longer.
I already knew that the hospital midwife was very busy so I didn't expect her to arrive immediately to check me, but I found waiting very, very hard. The handful of contractions I had to experience while waiting were easily the worst I'd ever felt. I felt so incredibly hot and yet the thought of getting out of the water was terrifying. The pressure between my legs was unbearable and no amount of swaying or arching my back seemed to relieve it. I felt the heat and pain sort of bubble into my brain and my thoughts became rushed and irrational. I began moaning as the contraction's intensity peaked, and I lost my breath far too quickly and easily. I felt close to that point I knew was inevitable - feeling utterly overwhelmed and wanting it all to stop immediately regardless of the consequences. Wanting it to all be over. Wanting any and all help available to take the pain and the pressure away. Being completely convinced that I would not be able to survive many more contractions. Feeling quite certain that if the physical pain didn't kill me, then the mental clusterfuck alone would knock me out.
But of course, at the time, I didn't have any words to even begin to explain this. At times, just opening my eyes felt too much like hard work. Yet somehow I held on and finally the midwife was there. She checked me to see my progress and I was dismayed to hear I was only 8cm. I did the maths and realised this could mean another two hours labouring like this. I didn't even entertain the thought, wouldn't, couldn't. I remember looking searchingly around the room from my partner to my doula to my midwife, begging for suggestions with my eyes and when none came I began to ask about pain relief options, surrendering that I would then need to get out of the water.
Don't stop me now. Like, seriously.
Then my doula interrupted. She asked the midwife if she could maybe sweep away what was remaining. Was I soft enough for that to happen?
Upon hearing that yes, she would give this a go I felt a new rush of energy and focus. I knew that if I got to 10cm I could start pushing. Of everything I expected in my second pregnancy, the pushing was strangely the part I feared less. With pushing I had some input and control. With pushing I didn't have to simply "survive" what was happening to me. With pushing I could be part of it. I could use my body actively rather than passively. I could potentially directly influence how much longer this would go on for.
We had to wait for another contraction and as is the case when you actually need a contraction, the next one was unusually slow in coming. I was warned I would feel pain as she tried to wipe away the remaining two centimetres of my cervix but honestly, I didn't feel anything more uncomfortable than the floods of pressure and pain burning my stomach, back, hips and upper legs by this point.
As she pulled the latex gloves off her hands, she gave me a nod. "You're at 10cm," she said. And I couldn't for the life understand why she wasn't smiling. This was the best news I'd had in years! I looked at my doula and my partner. They got it. They were both smiling.
It was time to push.
Push it real good... but wait, not that good!
Truth be told I'd felt the urge to push for a long time. So much so that I'd let my muscles apply a little extra pressure during contractions, giving me a focus, and I enjoyed reconnecting with them. Now I was ready to go and there were people there waiting to see what happened, and this gave me hope that we were nearing the end of the journey. Again, I have to be honest and say that at this stage this didn't mean anything to do with a baby. What was more motivation than anything was the realisation that I would soon no longer be in labour. That these body throttling and mind spinning contractions would soon be over, gone, stopped, forever more.
It took a couple of contractions for me to find my rhythm with pushing. I was so used to breathing deeply and as slowly as I could to manage the pain of contractions that I found it hard to suddenly change to holding my breath, bearing down with my chin against my chest, pushing, pushing, pushing, and then blowing all the air out of my body once my physical push was gone. With each contraction I managed 3-4 big pushes like this. On some I could physically feel the baby move down inside me. It was suddenly fascinating and exciting, and I was much more aware of how wide my legs were now spread in the water, and how little I could move in terms of closing them or changing my position. Partly I didn't want to as I didn't want to risk the baby moving back up but it was also just that I could tell my body wasn't what it normally was - and nor should it be - I was pushing a human through it and out of it.
With this new awareness, during some contractions I also felt him move back up a bit. I knew enough about birth to know that this is "normal", but that didn't make it any less disheartening. After maybe nine or ten contractions I expressed concern about not feeling like I was making any progress. Because I was still in the water, and the water had become dirtied with my pea-soup (!) waters and some blood from that last sweep the midwife did, it was almost impossible to see through the water to check where the baby was, if he was visible at all. It was also difficult for me to get in a position where they could even feel for him as I had turned to have my body face the wall and my head at the end where my partner and doula were close to me, holding my hands and saying encouraging words in my ears. A couple of times I was asked to move, but I just couldn't. I really couldn't fathom how to move.
After a few more contractions, I opened my mouth to say I felt like his head was just about to push through and crown. I wanted to explain how stretched I felt and that was why my legs were so locked in place, but I didn't. Instead I just pushed on and on and on and on, reminding myself that if I've learned one thing from both these birthing experiences, my babies always take a bit longer than I think to arrive!
This is not how it's supposed to happen...
Before that contraction was over, I noticed that my midwife began talking and her voice was louder than before. I wasn't sure if it was to me or to her assistant or to my doula, but suddenly I was being told to get out of the water by several voices.
"The baby's heartbeat is dropping and we want to get you out so we can see what's going on." Of all the things said to me during labour, these are the ones I remember most clearly of all.
The idea of moving still seemed an impossibility and I almost said so but I didn't want to waste any time. Suddenly, this birth had gone from my feeling very in control and very safe, to inviting all manner of worries or problems into the room. I felt then, and still do now, that rightly or wrongly, the welfare of my baby hadn't even crossed my mind. I trusted he was where he needed to be. I trusted that I was doing what I had to do and that my body could deliver him safely into the world. But of course, that is not a cast iron truth. I knew only too well the many, many things that can go suddenly wrong in childbirth but I'd deliberately closed that door throughout this whole experience... apart from in that moment. But with these words, the door flew open again.
All this being said, even with frightening new possibilities in my mind, I wasn't scared. I remember seeing my partner's face and thinking "Wow, he looks really worried," but I honestly wasn't. I was just focusing on trying to get out of the water. That was challenge enough.
"I can't move," I finally admitted after trying to roll over from my back to my front so I could stand up. I tried again but failed to move. "I don't think I can move my legs."
Branches of hands reached out to hold and pivot me. Once I was on all fours, I tried to raise up but pushing with my arms felt useless. I told them again, that I really didn't think I could stand up. "It feels like he's right there," I explained.
And then a contraction came and I jolted upright in one move and then bent in the middle the next; my body now all out of the water from just above my knees. I was mooing through this contraction, as I had been the last few and I heard the midwife tell me she was going to touch me. I nodded as I pushed, as I had every time she had asked permission. And before I had released the breath I held and finished that push, I heard her announce that the baby's head was there.
The baby's head was right there. He was beginning to crown.
That was when I felt the energy in the room change. I wouldn't say there was an air of panic or concern, but there was definitely a shift in the way people were doing things.
Someone asked me if I could get out of the water. I forget who.
I said very firmly that I didn't think I could. I don't remember the words I used but I remember so vividly the feeling that that was the only answer I could give.
My doula and the hospital staff all started speaking in Dutch and I had no clue what they were saying. They could have been speaking English, and I suspect I still would have had no clue.
At that moment I was just focusing on holding onto the handles of the steps I was supposed to be climbing out of, and also keeping my legs sturdy and strong enough in that one position so I wouldn't risk.... what? Wouldn't risk falling apart as that was how I should have been feeling with my baby's head at the stage where he is about to literally tear me open.
Accept, in all honesty, it wasn't like that. I didn't feel that way. I didn't feel that sharp, soaring and searing pain that I felt when I gave birth to my first son, the so-called ring of fire so incredibly apt to describe how it felt. I could feel him there, and I could feel the beginning of that new and different kind of pain - a shift from a bruise to a cut - and I felt my body tense even more than it already was in anticipation of it. All of sudden staying tense, still, strong, in one piece felt like the most important of things, because I knew this was it. My baby was nearly here.
High five, world.
And then someone was talking louder and more clearly and in English to me. "You're baby is going to be born very soon. You can't go back in the water now, so you have to stay where you are, and your baby needs to be born outside of the water."
"But I can't move from here..." I began, my voice quivering.
"I know. It's okay. You can stay there and we will help you."
I knew this. I knew this, and yet I whimpered and felt more fear wash in. I spared a flippant, silly thought for how silly I must have looked, bent over the side of the tub, my hands gripping the steps I couldn't climb out of, and a baby's head beginning to push his way through.
But an all-important contraction came and I had to push. I pushed with everything I had, I sent all the neurons I could to the centre of me, urging myself to open up as much as it could. I grunted and groaned and made noises that I couldn't imitate right now if you paid me. And I braced myself again for the ring of fire, but it didn't come, and weirdly, so very strangely, in the most beautiful of ways, I felt my baby's head emerge from inside me to outside me, his features sliding through me and into the world, and I knew it was out before they told me. Someone told me to start panting, but I was already doing it anyway, as the contraction eased off.
I heard my partner's voice then, saying - "His head is out, Frankie, his head is out."
And then I heard a Dutch word I absolutely knew "handje" - little hand - but I didn't know what that meant.
While I wasn't feeling the stinging pain I expected I did feel deeply uncomfortable and my legs began to shake. I wasn't sure I could hold on with my arms any longer. I was suddenly petrified that my body would just give way and I would collapse into the water in the way that I was told not to do. But my strength of mind had returned. Just breathe, just breathe, just breathe, I said. And I took a moment to fully absorb what was about to happen. My baby was about to be born, all I needed was one or two more contractions.
And again, as is the way at this stage of birth, the contractions slowed right down.
I think I even made a joke about it and there was some nervous laughter, but I could tell that laughing or even listening to me wasn't anyone's priority right now. All eyes were on the baby about to be born. Amazingly, nobody's hands touched me at any stage during this wait. It was the most empowering of hands-off experiences.
Suddenly there was a twinge, and something seemed to change down there. I made a yelp-like sound.
"It's okay, it's just the baby moving," my doula explained.
Before I had time to ask more or even give it more thought, the contraction I'd been waiting the longest time for came. And it was almost like I didn't feel any pain. I almost didn't feel anything. It was the only out-of-body experience I had in the whole labouring and birthing of my second baby. It was like I wasn't there, or maybe I was so centrally there that I was everything and everywhere.
I felt him slither out. First his shoulders, then his big bulk of a body, and finally oh so very quickly, the soft lengths of his legs, the knuckles of his knees, and the angles of his ankles and heels knocking against me on their way out. There was a flood of liquid into the water and a rush of people talking over one another. Someone was hyperventilating and squealing (me). Someone was saying "He's here, he's here," (my partner). And other people were rushing to untangle the umbilical cord that was wrapped around his neck. All the while I'm standing there reaching my arms down and out to him.
I half-grabbed, half caught him and I scooped him up in such a hurried, frenzied way that I didn't know where his face or arms or legs were. Someone told me to move back and sit on the raised seat inside the water and so I shuffled back, holding my baby. When I was there, I gathered him up in some kind of order, checking I'd got him safe, secure, quickly glancing over his body; two legs, two arms, a head full of hair. Yes, he's here! I didn't even look at his face, I just checked he was here and that he was alive, awake.
At the same time, someone reached over and put a hat on my boy. At the same time, my partner was moving to be by my side I heard him telling me how proud he was of me, but I didn't even look up at him, didn't even smile... I just looked at my baby, my baby, my baby.
Filling in the gaps
Later, I would watch the video my doula made of that final contraction and the moment my son is born, and all the rushing in the seconds after he's here, and I would hear my first words to him. "Hello baby, hello baby." And then so bizarrely, as I kiss his head and hold him as close as I can, I tell him I'm sorry. I tell him I'm so sorry. I say it over and over again. I think I say this because of what he has been through, getting pushed through such a tight space, for leaving the only home he has ever known, for not being delivered into the warmth of water like I wanted, or straight into my arms like I'd maybe hoped. I also think I'm saying sorry for all the things to come. This world isn't going to be half as cosy as the place he grew from nothing to everything in. I also hope he knows that in those apologies and hugs and messy forehead kisses he can also hear the love I'm ready to give him that will carry him through all the many other mistakes I will make.
Also on that video I can see the "handje", the little hand, they were talking about; a nuchal hand, coming out next to his head. I can see it pushed up against the side of his face in a fist as he waits to be born. He is also puckering his lips and smacking them lightly, ready to take his first breath. And I see his head turn at the moment I yelp, positioning himself better to come Earth-side.
I never imagined having a video of my baby's birth would be something I would watch again (and again and again), but it is so much more than that. It is a memory that I couldn't keep hold of with the same clarity because of all the pain, all the fear, all the exhaustion clouding my brain and body. I honestly believe when a woman gives birth all of her energy, ALL of it goes to the task in hand. There is no brain space left for capturing moments seamlessly. She is in survival mode, and yet, as she is in the place, she is the person she perhaps needs to be reminded of most often for the rest of her life. So I am forever grateful for that jumpy video recorded on my doula's old iPhone.
What happened next...
What happened next was comparatively less eventful!
I was helped out of the water, while still holding my baby, and I lay on the bed to birth the placenta, which took quite a bit longer and was far more painful than I remembered from my first son's birth. I was relieved when it was out but I wasn't interested in it remotely, even when someone said it looked heart-shaped. I was only focused on the soft, seemingly small bundle in my arms.
I kept holding my baby to my breast but he wasn't interested in nursing for quite some time, so instead I just stared at him, noticing how different he looked from his brother, stroking his full head of black hair, blinking at how big and blue his eyes were. I began shaking and feeling cold, and so I asked for more blankets. I covered them over his body too and only broke my gaze on him to look up and smile at my partner or the doula who was arranging cushions behind me and asking what I wanted to drink.
At some point he did suckle on my breast and I felt the reassurance of previous experience guiding me through the motions, checking his lips and mouth, trying to feel if it was a good latch. Then he was taken away to be cleaned up and for his checks, while I was also checked by the midwife. No stitches required. I smiled with relief, even though I already sensed that would be the case. My doula gave me a high five and exclaimed that that was a huge result; "A nuchal hand and no stitches?! Wow!"
At this point I let my head fall back into a pillow and I smiled as wide as I could: "I am a fucking rockstar!" I said and I felt that to be the truest thing in the world.
We found out his weight - 3.8 kg - and did the conversion so we could tell our family in the UK - 8lbs 4oz - and when they brought him back to me in a nappy they said he was a little cold so would need warming up. I threw off all my blankets, placed him on my chest and then covered him up again, rearranging his hat several times. I then closed my eyes and blocked everything out. I knew that I would remember forever the weight of him in my arms, that exact way, with a mountain of blankets cuddling us together, and the busy, busy world happening outside us. I can still recall it perfectly with my first boy, and now I have matching blissful memories with his brother. I will never, ever underestimate how lucky I am to have those moments.
Not long after that, when I was sure he was warming up, I asked for food. A dry cheese sandwich emerged from somewhere and it was both terrible and wonderful. I devoured it.
Once his temperature had been checked as normal, I finally let him go and his father went with him to dress him and then have his turn holding him. I watched them meeting each other properly for the first time and as well as feeling a flood of love, I felt a new wave of exhaustion roll in. I wished I was all cleaned up and in my pyjamas. I wished I could just roll up next to my baby boy and stare at him until I slept or he did. But I knew I had to get home before I did that, so when my partner asked me if I felt okay to go home soon - and this was possibly not much more than an hour after my son had been born - I said, yep, let's go home.
And so, less than three hours after giving birth, we went home.
Heading home so soon after giving birth in the Netherlands is not that uncommon at all. This is made possible thanks to the arrival of maternity nurses in people's homes either the day of the baby's birth (if it's in the morning) or the day after. Even with my first son's birth, we were home within five hours of giving birth, and this time it was under three hours. They essentially want to see you have a shower and pee unaided, check you haven't lost too much blood and yours' and the babies' pulse and temperature are all okay, and you're good to go.
There was a moment, as I sat back down on the bed to catch my breath once I was showered and dressed again, that I felt the temptation to say, wait a minute, maybe I could stay here and rest a bit more, but I knew all I really wanted was my own bed, and my baby lying in it with me.
So that's where we went in a taxi journey that saw our son, Jackson John, scream his heart out the entire way. I remember my eyes widening a little as his crying continued; uh oh, was this a sign of things to come? But I shrugged it off with the reminder; I did it. I survived labour and childbirth a second time. A crying baby is no big deal at all.
Actually, if I can, I want to rephrase that; I thrived through labour and childbirth a second time.
This is a feeling I believe all women should feel regardless of what their birth experience is like, but I know it's so very far from being that simple, and as I mentioned before, luck plays a huge role, and for this experience it played all the right cards. However, I just want to put it out there, not only because I'm proud of myself, but also because I want mothers-to-be to entertain the thought - and of course, let it be just a thought - that maybe, just maybe their own birth will be positive, and empowering, and even enjoyable at times.
I don't want to appear insulting to those who have very different birth experiences, but I do want the positive ones to be out there in the ether, because it is only in reading other positive birth stories - of all variations! - that I too gave myself permission to believe I could have one such similar experience.
When I think about how this journey started - an ambulance ride with my partner bleeding out - and all the fear and uncertainty I felt buried by as we waited for him to recover, I would never have imagined the day my boy was born to have played out the way it did. But I am no fool. Yes, luck played the biggest part by a long distance, but I also believe that the work I did for months, if not years, in the run up to my second baby's birth - affirmation, positive thinking, breathing exercises, digging deep into the person I am through therapy - all these things had something to do with the way it evolved.
All that and my brilliant, big-eyed baby boy who waited for when we were ready for him and then he came bursting out, with a high five ready for the world.