2 am, and I was woken from a semi-sleep state by a text message, reading, “my waters just broke”. After a quick text exchange, I put some clothes on and got in the car to make the 20 minute drive to my client’s house. I was not at all surprised to get this message - my client had been experiencing steadily strengthening waves throughout the previous day and we had been in touch almost constantly through the build up.
I always tell people that every birth teaches me something new, or reminds me of something that is important. Trite as it may sound, I really do come away from each one having learned a lesson. This one reminded me about contingency plans and continuity of care.
Most doulas have children themselves. Not all, and having children isn’t required to be a great doula, but most doulas tend to come to doulaing after their own birth experiences. One of the big crunchy problems that needs dealing with when you are a doula with children is: what happens with your own children? What is your childcare situation? What happens if you’re out all night and then need to sleep? What happens if you are supporting one of those births that takes 3 days? It’s easy to say, “well I’d make it work” without actually considering the gritty details and logistics of school runs, groups and clubs, sleeping arrangements, etc.
I am (perhaps luckily) in the situation where my husband works from home, the children are home educated (and we therefore don’t have school runs to think about, but we do have to consider home ed groups and workshops), my parents live close by and we have a wide friend support network which we’ve been building for well over a decade. I’m incredibly grateful for the wider support network, because, while they’re not always necessary, when they are, they are invaluable.
Wind the clock back 6-7 hours. We’ve just finished dinner. That morning, as soon as I had suspected that today was The Day, I had picked out a dinner that my husband could cook by himself with ease. I drove to Asda, bought the bits that we didn’t have in, and some extra milk, and stashed them in the fridge. I took some cash out in case my eldest daughter needed to get the bus to her art class instead of having a lift. I filled the car up with petrol. When I got home, I let Himself know the dinner plan in case I wasn’t around to make it (we have an arrangement - I almost exclusively do the cooking, he almost exclusively does the laundry).
As it turned out, I was still around to do the drop off and collection for art class, and I made dinner too. I even did an additional, spontaneous trip to Asda during the early afternoon to pick up baking ingredients so that we could make chocolate pear pudding.
I’d popped my small birth pool in the boot of my car 24 hours before, in case my client decided that she needed it. She didn’t want it in her house, but she liked the idea of it being available. Available, but out of sight. During the afternoon, I’d checked my birth bag over (again), to make sure everything was in there that I might need. After dinner, while clearing the table, I nipped to the loo, planning to settle in for an evening reading and waiting.
And that’s when IT happened.
A yelp of pain, followed by, “Honey? I think I need to go to hospital…”
Now, I don’t think there’s ever a good time to hear that particular sentence. And I’ve heard variations on that sentence (along with its counterpart, the “I’m at the hospital…” phone call) a lot, over the years. It’s an occupational hazard of living with Himself, who is the kind of person who would survive the zombie apocalypse, only to die at the end of the film by tripping on uneven ground and falling off a cliff. He’s the person who breaks his wrists falling up the stairs, puts himself on crutches after tripping over a piece of furniture, falls face first over a wall that is less than 2 foot high. I’m quite used to it.
However, even allowing for the slightly ridiculous reality I live in, while waiting for The Call from a labouring client, is a spectacularly bad time to hear the phrase “I need to go to hospital”.
After a quick assessment of his injured face (while cleaning the table, he got his hair stuck in the fly paper that is suspended over our dining table, jerked his head down to unstick himself, and headbutted a pint glass on the table, resulting in an inch long gash across his forehead. The pint glass is fine, by the way.), I made a phone call to his best friend, asking if he would please come and take Himself to Minor Injuries at his earliest convenience (a role he has played multiple times in the past). I then made a second phone call to my parents and we agreed that the kids would spend the night at their house, rather than one of them coming to my house to babysit, just in case things ran over into the night.
(Cue children racing upstairs to pack their overnight bags with big grins and cheers of, “Woohoo! Sleepover at Grandma and Grandad’s!”)
After a 35 minute round trip to my parents to drop the kids off, I saw my husband and his friend off to the hospital. I put my crocheting in my birth bag, and then put the birth bag in the boot of the car next to the birth pool, and settled onto the sofa with a hot chocolate, a film, and my doula-wife on messenger who was both comforting me and laughing with me at the absurdity of the situation. I made a post on a doula group about my husband being a fucking liability and the importance of having things in place for when life chucks a curveball your way, and eventually went to bed about 11pm.
Fast forward to 2.25am. I arrived at my client’s house, met her midwife outside who was arriving at the same time, and we sat round the dining table for a bit of a chat. The midwife is someone who we both know well, both through the local birth groups, and because she was also my client’s midwife two pregnancies ago.
We had a quick catch up on how the day before had been for my client, as well as discussing our kids and their funny quirks and a few other light-hearted topics. At some point I made tea. Later on I made more. My client went to the loo a couple of times and rocked on her birth ball. What struck me most about the scene was that there wasn’t any “getting to know you” talk; rapport building wasn’t needed because it was already there.
We didn’t need to go through the birth plan because the midwife already knew everything my client wanted from her birth - her hopes, her fears, particular things we had agreed that would be useful to remind her of when she was away in labour land, things she really didn’t want, things that were important to her - because we had talked about it in depth at a previous appointment. It might seem like a minor thing, but that continuity of care is so vital for women. It really makes a huge difference.
There were quiet points, as there always are when three people know each other well and are comfortable in each others’ presence, and nothing actually needs saying. During those moments, my client laboured, the midwife filled in her notes, and I read some of my book. Neither of us were ignoring my client, but we also weren’t watching her. We were just there, being present, being aware of where she was in her journey, and being there in case she needed us.
At some point we put the TENS machine on; much easier when someone else does it. She moved to the floor, and we put a pram footmuff on the floor under her knees because hardwood floor + knees = ow. There was relaxing spa music and piano music in the background. My client went from being chatty to being withdrawn, a good sign that things are moving on as the neocortex switches off and the primitive brain starts to take over.
There are other signs too - the little grunts at the peak of some of the waves is one I always keep an ear out for. Words like “I can’t do this” don’t necessarily show an inability to keep going, but sometimes indicate a need for things to change - a new position that is more comfortable or a change from opening contractions to pushing contractions. Or sometimes they just mean “this bit is intense, and if it stays like this for another 12 hours then I won’t be able to deal with it”. Which is fair enough, but that intense moment rarely lasts that long.
My client’s family - her older children and husband - were all upstairs sleeping, oblivious. When the time came, her husband almost missed it - I ran upstairs to wake him, and he blinked at me for a moment, before getting up and coming to join us on the dining room floor just in the nick of time. Later on he told me he thought I was one of the older children, come to tell him they’d had a nightmare!
The children woke up at 7 am for their school day. By that point my client had moved to the sofa in the living room with her new baby daughter. I had made a nest with some oilcloth, cushions, a duvet and some towels, and she had snuggled down into it with a cup of sweet tea. One at a time, the children appeared downstairs, poked their heads in the room and grinned in excitement as they came to meet their new sibling. I took some pictures of them all together as a family, and helped herd the older ones out of the door with their book bags to be taken to school by a friend.
When I left, my client’s husband was preparing to take the younger children to nursery and playgroup, leaving my client by herself, tucked into her own bed, boobing her new tiny daughter - a far cry from a hospital postnatal ward.
I was home again well before 10 am, having diverted to my parents and picked my children back up, and grabbed a piece of toast from their kitchen while I was there - just enough to pick me up, so that I could drive home safely. Those signs on the motorway don’t lie; tiredness while driving really can kill. I’ve stopped over at friend’s houses, client’s houses, and slept in my car after births in the past. You do what you need to do.
The kids went to unpack their bags (except for the teenager, who went back to bed!) and I checked on my husband. He’d made it back home with his friend at about 1.30, I think, having had his head glued back together and been diagnosed with an unsurprising concussion. He rang in sick to work, and relayed his story to me of attending A&E, being referred to the Minor Injuries department, and then not being called for 3 hours because the receptionist didn’t transfer his paperwork to MI after telling him which corridor to take, meaning they were calling his name in the wrong department!
One more thing to do before I could go to bed. I took my keys and tiptoed into our shed, where another birth had also been happening overnight. Three weeks previously, we'd put 11 eggs under one of our hens, and 9 of them developed and made it to hatch day. Funnily enough, I’d told my client that I’d got them, saying they take 3 weeks to develop and we joked that “maybe they’ll beat baby here”. I didn’t think they’d be hatching on the same night baby arrived! When I checked, 6 out of 9 had hatched, and the others were either in the process of hatching or yet to hatch. I snapped a sneaky picture of one of them peeking out from under their mum, and then left them alone.
Finally, I crawled into bed for a couple of hours’ sleep, and my husband got up to have some breakfast. He woke me up again twenty minutes later. He frowned at me, holding a cup of tea, and said, “I made you this, but I don’t know if that was a good idea…”. I blamed the concussion, and told him to give it to one of the kids!
I wrote this in summer 2018. I didn't have a blog then so I kept it ready for when I did. I don't usually write birth stories, but I couldn't not share this one.