MAY'S BIRTH STORY
First time mum, midwife & founder of Positive Birth Jersey
Birth photography by Sophie Darwin
I’m really so excited to share my birth story as it was the most amazing experience of my life! From the outset, this is my own personal story as a pregnant woman, and not as a midwife; my own experiences below are not recommendations or advice, and some of my decisions are different from those recommended by national guidance. Please always seek support and advice from your own midwife or doctor when making decisions about your pregnancy and birth!
I had been working in midwifery for nearly 10 years when we decided that the time was right for us to have our own baby. However, on 5th June 2021, after some initial investigations with our GP and Gynaecologist, we were referred to the Assisted Reproductive Unit (ARU) in Jersey where we were told that we would likely need an advanced type of IVF called ICSI to conceive. This was a huge shock for us as you, naively, always assume it isn’t going to be you. It was my mum’s birthday and we were going out for a celebratory meal that evening, so we kept the news to ourselves and carried on as normal for much of the weekend. By the end of that week, we had told our families the news. The following Monday, 14th June, Scott went to work and I was on a day off. I felt so angry with the situation and it had been going through my head every day since. I had one last pregnancy test in the house and just thought I’d use it to get rid of it – I didn’t want any ovulation tests or pregnancy tests anywhere near me anymore. After a couple of minutes, I stared in disbelief as a second line appeared on the pregnancy test. As I’m sure most people do, I went straight to the local pharmacy and bought five more pregnancy tests – all of which came back positive (I actually went into the local optician’s first, and asked if they sold pregnancy tests; they soon told me that I had come into the wrong shop, and they were infact not a pharmacy before re-directing me to the right place!). We felt so lucky and shocked, but I also felt that I shouldn’t get too excited as I was all too aware of how much could go wrong.
I was lucky enough to have a really enjoyable pregnancy and I stayed active throughout. Apart from horrible nausea and vomiting lasting up until about 16 weeks, I had no real pregnancy complaints and it wasn’t until about 36 weeks that I started to feel a bit heavy and began to get up for a wee at night. Even my colleagues joked that I was far less whingy than they had anticipated (ha!!). I was grateful to have a ‘low risk’ pregnancy and I knew from the start that, if all was well, I would plan to give birth at home with the support of my community midwifery colleagues. I have been a community midwife for nearly 4 years now, occasionally working on labour ward too, and therefore home birth just seemed the norm to me and where I felt most safe. It is worth me saying that this is an entirely personal decision, and home birth isn’t the right choice for everyone.
However, for me, my experience as a midwife and Hypnobirthing teacher led me to have complete confidence in my body, the process of normal physiological labour and the midwives who would be supporting me. I also knew how important the environment was, and I knew that for me, being in hospital would instantly have a negative impact on my mindset and how relaxed I felt. There is also a huge amount of evidence to show that the chance of intervention is much lower for those giving birth at home, or who’s labours start at home (even if they end up transferring to hospital) – for example, the chance of c-section, assisted birth (forceps/ventouse), epidural, third-degree tears and neonatal admission to SCBU are significantly lower (The Birth Place Study, 2011). However, I tried to remain open-minded (which I will admit, I did find difficult at times!) and I knew that if medically indicated, I would give birth in hospital. Scott (my partner) would often remind me that I am very stubborn and also encouraged me to keep an open mind! He was completely supportive of home birth though, and I spent a few hours teaching him about birth, Hypnobirthing and relaxation techniques.
I had been tracking my cycles and ovulation so carefully that I knew the day I had ovulated. I was therefore pretty sure of my dates and how many weeks pregnant I was. When I went for my dating scan at 12 weeks, my due date changed by 5-6 days and my estimated due date was bought forward to 20th February. I thought it was the 25th February and evidence suggests that due dates can be inaccurate by up to 5-7 days so I kept an open mind about this (although I will admit this was harder as the 20th February came and went!). As I approached 41 weeks by the dates given at my scan, I decided to decline a ‘stretch and sweep’ as I thought I had only just reached my due date by my own dates (just to say that again this is an entirely personal decision and you have the right to accept OR decline any interventions that are offered to you – this is just what felt right for me!).
I wasn’t particularly keen on a sweep as the evidence is pretty ‘grey’ when it comes to whether or not they really do much. They can also increase the length of early labour, which I was obviously very keen to avoid! As 41 weeks came and went based on my scan dates, I knew that induction would be offered to me and I had decided that I would avoid this until I reached 42 weeks by my own original dates and then I would reconsider (I was still pretty undecided about what I would do though, so I just took each day as it came and went – although it was hard as I was so excited to meet her!). I had a wobble when I was 41+2 which resulted in my manager Catherine coming to my house with Sara Wickham’s new book, ‘In Your Own Time,’ (along with some strong words of encouragement to remain sane!!) which I read and would highly recommend to all women! It was actually just what I needed at that moment in time.
I had been having strong but painless Braxton Hicks (‘practice contractions’) for about 2 weeks. They would usually start around 7-8pm in the evening and continue until I went to bed, and I would then sleep soundly all night and then wake up the next morning to find I was still pregnant! I read a lot of research by Sara Wickham about the benefits of waiting for babies to choose their own birth day – and this encouraged me to remember that she really would choose the right day to be born. On the morning of Wednesday 2nd March, I woke up after sleeping well and noticed that I was having what I assumed to be Braxton Hicks tightenings – I had never had them during the day (only the evening) so I thought my body may be gearing up towards labour in the next few days. They were painless and irregular, I was just aware of my tummy going tight every now and then. I decided to use up the left-over pancake batter from the day before (Pancake Day!) and my mum cooked me 5 (yes, 5!) lemon and sugar pancakes for breakfast (it is worth me adding here that we currently live with my parents whilst we wait to move into our new home!). My lovely midwife, colleague and friend Carina came to the house at 11am to do my routine 41-week antenatal check as it was due. I was 41+3 (by hospital dates) and Carina and I again discussed having a sweep and induction. I declined both and instead opted to have a scan at 41+5 to check on baby’s wellbeing (again, this is not medical advice – but my own personal decision that felt right for me). I told Carina that I thought she would be here by the weekend so I probably wouldn’t need the scan anyway! Carina and I decided to go for tea and cake, so we walked to a local café; on the walk home at about 1pm I think Carina realised I was having some strong-ish tightenings and said she would get some Entonox (gas and air) incase I needed it overnight! I laughed as I really didn’t think much of the tightenings; I was trying to ignore them as long as possible.
When I got home from having tea and cake, me and my mum decided to go to a local shop to have a wander. I said to mum that maybe I should stay home in case I was in early labour – mum said no, keep distracted – and encouraged me to go with her, which I did. We had a lovely wander and I actually tried on a few pairs of sandals and bought a pair! My manager Catherine rang me at about 3pm and asked how I was – she said she would be on-call for me too, along with Carina, in case anything happened overnight. I laughed and said I don’t think it will! At 3.30pm, we left the shop and headed to M&S to buy dinner. By this point, I was having some tightenings every 10-15 minutes and I stayed in the car whilst mum went to buy food. I rang Scott and asked if he wanted anything from M&S, and told him that I was still having some tightenings (by the way, we were going to have fish and chips but we never got round to eating them!). The journey home from M&S was interesting – it was at this point I realised I probably was in early labour as suddenly I was having to breathe through the tightenings. Sometimes I had to lift my bum off the seat and mum would say “don’t hold your breath!” and encourage me to breathe through slowly. We got home at 5pm and I went straight upstairs to see Scott. It was amazing because as soon as I got home, things ramped up within minutes – I’m sure it’s because I was back where I felt safe and where I knew I wanted to give birth. By 5.20pm, 20 minutes after being home, Scott asked me if he should call Carina – he said “May, you’ve had 3 contractions in 8 minutes” but I said “NO! I can’t be the midwife in labour who calls the midwife and is 2cm dilated!” – ha, I had no idea! Mum suggested I put on the TENS machine but again I said no because I thought it was too early.
At 5.30pm, Scott called Carina without me knowing – and it’s a good job he did! Carina arrived at 5.45pm and I suddenly felt like I was losing control – I said to mum “I don’t think this is early labour” and she agreed, and put the TENS machine on me (which was amazing up until just before birth, I would highly recommend!). Carina suggested we see how things go for a while and said she would wait before doing a vaginal examination – but I asked (begged!) her to do one straight away as I thought if it was early labour I would need to re-consider my pain relief options and perhaps go to hospital. When Carina examined me at about 6.15pm, she started smiling and laughing – I thought oh no, I really am 2cm dilated! But she then said “you’re 9cm dilated!” and I was sooo relieved. I got off the sofa and told Scott the news – he hurried downstairs and began preparing the sitting room and pool with my dad, whilst I stayed upstairs with Carina and my mum. Carina called Catherine as second midwife who arrived shortly after. I texted my friend Sophie Darwin, who will you know as the local photographer extraordinaire, who was on-call to come and take photographs of the birth – she said she would get there as quickly as she could.
My poor dad came to the door and gently asked “May, shall I start filling the pool for you?” to which I replied “will you stop f*cking talking to me!” (transition, much?! I apologised a lot afterwards!!). We all went downstairs and Scott and dad had transformed the room into such a beautiful relaxing space, with the pool in the middle of the room and tealights and candles dotted around. We had my music playlist playing which Scott had put together in pregnancy – it was mostly a mix of folk music with the occasional Natasha Beddingfield and Fleetwood Mac song thrown in for good measure! One of my strongest memories was being in the pool just before Flora was born and Ben Howard’s song ‘Keep Your Head Up’ playing – I sang the lyrics to myself “keep your head up, keep your heart strong” and it really helped me to refocus and find the last bit of determination. Flora was actually born to Jack Johnson.
My mum and dad went out for dinner to El Tico at 6.30pm under my demanding instruction; everything was feeling so intense at this point and I remember kneeling on the floor and feeling panicked at how quickly everything was happening. This was definitely transition and I told Carina I just couldn’t do it any longer – I really did wonder how I was going to get through it.
The pool was filling (slowly) and we ran out of hot water (obviously!) so Scott and Catherine worked hard with kettles and pans of boiling water to fill it for me. I started the Entonox (gas and air) at around 6.40pm and I remember Carina running around trying to set everything up as quickly as possible because things were moving fast. Carina and Catherine were both amazing and just what I needed – I really didn’t want people fussing around me, talking too much or being too intrusive. I also wanted to be told to get a grip when I needed to hear it. I did write some birth preferences but I knew that they both just knew what I wanted! I got into the pool at 6.50pm and it was the most instant amazing relief. The pressure was just overwhelming at this point and my waters broke shortly after this at around 7pm – I felt a small amount of relief for about 10 seconds before then realising that this release meant her head moved down very quickly, and then the pressure was indescribable. I can’t explain the urge to push – it was just there, and my body knew what to do. I absolutely did not breathe Flora down but instead made very loud roaring sounds and directed all my energy into pushing. I told myself that the more energy I gave it, the quicker it would be over. I felt relaxed and calm between contractions – it was almost like moving between two words of peace and normality between them, and then becoming totally animalistic and overwhelmed during them. It really is like no feeling I could ever describe.
At about 7.15pm, Sophie (my friend and birth photographer) arrived and I remember calmly stopping the Entonox and saying “Hi Sophie, thanks for coming”! She started taking photos immediately and arrived just in time – 6 minutes before Flora was born, to be precise! I know birth photography isn’t for everyone, but I just felt so comfortable with Sophie being there and she was actually another incredible support person to me. I looked her in the eye and said “Sophie, I can’t do this” and she said “you are doing it! I can see her head!” It was amazing having Sophie there because I actually was her midwife at her homebirth for her son Frankie in 2018 – and as she said after the birth, it feels like we will be forever connected through our presence at each other’s births. The photos she took are absolutely INCREDIBLE and I will cherish them forever – I would definitely recommend anyone planning a homebirth in Jersey to consider having Sophie come as a birth photographer!
I laid back in the pool and said out loud: “I just need to get a grip, I really do” and I would describe this now as me having a word with myself! At this point, I knew it was too late to go to hospital for an epidural, too late to have a c-section and too late to do anything else than just admit I had to push her out. These are all typical ‘transition thoughts’ and although I knew it at the time, it didn’t stop me feeling like I just couldn’t do it – but then I just gave it my all and pushed when my body told me to. Flora’s head and body were born in quick succession, and she entered the world at 7.21pm. I caught her myself as Carina and Catherine stood back, and lifted her out of the water and on to my chest. In this moment, I felt so proud and in awe of my body – I couldn’t believe that I had done it! I was shocked by Flora’s amazing head of hair as we thought she would be blonde, or bald! She was quite mucousy due to the speed of her birth, so I instinctively gave her a pat on the back and she cried straight away. I loved seeing Scott meet her for the first time. We had about 10 minutes of skin-to-skin contact in the pool before I got out (with her still attached to her umbilical cord) as I was losing a fair amount of blood, which can be expected when you have had a rapid labour.
I moved to the sofa (which was very well protected with plastic sheets and towels!) and waited about 15 minutes to see if my placenta would separate naturally. I tried standing, squatting and giving some little pushes. I was undecided about the third stage of labour but after a bit of time, I knew my blood loss was quite heavy and I just wanted it over with, so I asked Catherine and Carina to give me the injection to help my placenta deliver (also known as an ‘active’ third stage). Scott cut the cord after Flora’s cord had turned white (delayed cord clamping). The placenta came shortly after, although I had lost a higher than average amount of blood so I had another injection to help stop any further blood loss. Even though I knew I was having a heavier blood loss, I did not feel scared or anxious at any point because I had complete trust and faith in Carina and Catherine. The bleeding stopped soon after and I felt really well and in total disbelief that just 3 hours earlier I had been at M&S! I needed stitches for a second-degree tear (the ‘average’ tear that is often expected after birth) and Catherine sutured this on the sofa, with my legs propped up on chairs! (Note to dads and birth partners: do not start FaceTiming friends and family whilst your partner is being stitched, like Scott did!!). I did try perineal massage in pregnancy but I found it quite tricky and uncomfortable – although I’d definitely recommend all women give it a go. My mum and dad arrived home shortly after with a bottle of champagne, which we popped open and all enjoyed a glass! I also had some marmite toast but was secretly a bit disappointed we never got round to eating the fish and chips we bought from M&S(!).
The next couple of hours were spent on the sofa having skin-to-skin and breastfeeding Flora; she initially latched and fed really well after birth. Carina and Catherine cleared up and emptied the pool and the room was almost back to normal in no time – like magic really, and contrary to popular belief, home birth is not messy! Flora was weighed, measured and checked over by Carina. I then had a shower and a wee, got changed into clean pyjamas and I felt so happy with how everything had gone. I stood in the shower in total disbelief at what had happened, and thanked my body for all that it had done. In fact, I felt so lucky to have had such an amazing home birth experience and that everything had gone exactly as I had hoped for throughout my pregnancy. From start to finish, my labour was a total of about 3-4 hours which is amazing but also quite a shock for both mind and body – but overall, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
People have asked how it feels being on the other side as a midwife and Hypnobirthing teacher – it has made me even more in awe of both women and midwives, and I am forever grateful that I have been lucky enough to experience pregnancy and birth. Although I had a few wobbles and questioned my decisions as I approached 42 weeks of pregnancy, deep down I had complete faith in my body and knew I had to trust the process – easier said than done I know, but I really did never fear birth or worry about it. People asked me reguilarly if I was scared about birth – and the truth is, I wasn’t - I had faith that it would be okay. I know that not everyone feels this way, and I suppose I am lucky to have witnessed hundreds of births (many of them being home births) in my career as a midwife. My own birth has made me love midwifery and birth more than I already did, and as I sit writing this now at 5 weeks postpartum, I cannot describe the wonder of the female body and what it can achieve.