A birth story: model and blogger Jess Bowen shares an emotional account of the birth of her daughter and first child, Eliana
Images by Mark Wallis Photography
From first twinge to first cuddle, the birth of my daughter Eliana lasted 75 hours. That’s three days and almost four nights, including the postpartum clean-up operation, during which I didn’t sleep for longer than ten minutes straight. It may sound like the stuff of labour nightmares and I’m pretty certain our NCT practitioner hadn’t forewarned us that things had the potential to go on that long. But actually, surprisingly, it was the best few days of my life.
While I was in the throes of my long latent phase of labour it felt like time was suspended. It was one of those strange moments in time when you are aware of the gravity of a situation while you’re in it and I love the fact that I remember certain points of it with the pin-sharp clarity that only comes with momentous deep-feeling.
The first hints of a contraction began on a Monday evening. I’d been for a walk with an equally heavily pregnant friend earlier that day and as it turned out it was the walk that triggered both our labours; or maybe it was the Costa hot chocolate that we took with us as we traipsed Clapham Common on a chilly February morning.
I was five days off my due date and as this was my first baby, I hadn’t anticipated going into labour early – largely because I’m an habitually tardy person and had illogically expected my baby to follow suit. I was due on 7 February, so I was holding out for a Valentine’s baby and had a host of relevant middle names at the ready – Rose, Valentino, Byron, Ruby. But it wasn’t to be.
After that walk I had an inkling things were beginning. My lower back became painful and there were other indicators that I’ll let you guess at rather than going into too much detail. At this point, however, my main concern was that I was unlikely to make the manicure I’d booked to celebrate my due date, so I spent the afternoon ferociously picking away at the old shellac on my nails because (and there’s no logic to this) I wanted to look my best for my baby when Baby arrived. If only I’d thought to do something more useful, like nap.
I mentioned these developments to my husband, Simon, but it wasn’t until we went to bed and my body relaxed that I started feeling the occasional twinge. They came at regular intervals and were quite close together but weren’t particularly uncomfortable – and they were very shortlived. On realising I might actually be going into labour, Simon leaped out of bed and started frantically packing his hospital bag. Mine were ready in our spare room and waiting to go – had been for weeks.
I found it impossible to concentrate for anticipation, and impossible to sleep through the pain because, although it was mild, it was still enough to keep me awake.
The night rolled slowly on. I lay on the sofa and watched TV. It started snowing (I thought: “I’ll be able to tell our baby it snowed on the day they were born!”) and I eventually decided to get in the bath, candles aglow, and listen to a hypnobirthing soundtrack as I drifted in and out of a light sleep.
I won’t regale you with every detail of the following three days, mainly because I don’t remember them all. All normal sense of time went out of the window as we waited for things to progress. Hundreds of contractions swept through me, rarely longer than ten minutes apart, and from around Tuesday afternoon they were enough to stop me in my tracks. I braced myself against walls, the mantelpiece, the kitchen counter and breathed, my TENs machine buzzing fiercely, unable to speak for a few seconds but otherwise unperturbed.
My parents had planned a visit for the Tuesday to help me fulfil my final nesting plans, but instead they ended up being supplementary birth partners. My mum and husband took it in turns to keep me company through the night, to coach me through my contractions and massage my shoulders. For all the frustration of waiting, the air in our London flat hung heavy with suspense and excitement. Our first baby, my parents’ first grandchild, was on its way. On Wednesday morning Simon drove me to St. Thomas’ hospital on the South Bank – the one I’d chosen at my booking appointment at the beginning of my pregnancy, because I’d heard the view of London landmarks from the labour ward was impressive. I was examined, told I was only 2cm dilated, given a sweep and sent home. By this point I’d already endured two nights without sleep, but the sweep gave me hope and I convinced myself I’d be back in and giving birth before the day was out.
I walked, ate curry, drank raspberry leaf tea. I watched a Michael McIntyre stand-up show and laughed. I received a birth announcement from a friend (remember the one I went walking with on Monday?) and cried; I’d like to say out of happiness but it was actually out of frustration at this point. I drank tons of water, ate a lot of toast and had more baths. The contractions were painful now. I had to be helped in and out of the bath, on and off the toilet. When I got out of the bath someone had to have my TENs machine handy so I could reapply it immediately and be ready for the next contraction.
I was exhausted and I knew that at some point I was going to have to summon the energy to give birth, one way or another – although I doubted I’d have the reserves required for it. My waters never broke despite my Pilates ball bouncing, lunging, stompy walking and fervent wishing. You can’t imagine my joy when my mucous plug finally revealed itself.
I didn’t make it back into the hospital that day. In fact, if anything my contractions started to slow down. I spent that night in a stupefied state, moving between the sofa and my position at the mantelpiece, trying to catch a few seconds of sleep in between the contractions.
Finally, on Thursday morning, I went into the antenatal ward to be checked and someone took pity on me. I was displaying some unsightly bovine behaviour – mooing and swaying on all fours in the corridor – then turned on the waterworks. Despite the fact I’d only dilated to 3cm, I was admitted to the Home from Home midwife-led birthing centre.
What a relief that was. More than that. I felt like I’d walked into a luxury hotel, been given a glass of champagne and pointed in the direction of the spa. It was actually a bottle of Lucozade and a birthing pool but it was blissful to know I was on the home run. No hotel could have competed with the view from my room either. It had wall-to-wall windows showing off a panorama of Westminster and Big Ben. The sort of view that would cost hundreds of pounds ordinarily and yet here was the NHS, obligingly footing the bill.
I got into the pool and spent a good hour or so in there but my contractions ebbed away again and the midwives suggested a more active approach might move things along. I was offered aromatherapy oils and Simon was advised to give me a back massage, then I used gas and air to help manage the pain.
We transferred to the garden room – a room at the corner of the hospital decked out in greenery, with two walls of glass overlooking Big Ben, Westminster Bridge and the London Eye. The room was quiet and calm and the afternoon winter sun slanted in as I moved around with my tank of Entonox following me like a pet on a leash. It was surreal watching all those thousands of people at street level hurrying about their business, while we watched silently from above. Since giving birth, every time I find myself on the South Bank or inching across that bridge in a taxi, I look up at the hospital and wonder if there’s a mum-to-be looking down while waiting for her baby to arrive.
By this point, my contractions were strong and regular and I was told that, judging by the heartbeat, baby was happy. “Baby’s happy, Baby’s happy”. I heard that a lot that day. The baby’s pulse was taken every 15 minutes and every time the same thing. Knowing that she was tolerating this process gave me the strength to carry on.
At around 6pm I was given an internal examination and told, devastatingly, that I was still only 4cm dilated. I took up the offer from my midwife, Maeve – a new one as I was onto the second shift now – to break my waters. It was only then that she realised my baby was lying back-on-back, in a posterior position, which was the reason for the excruciatingly slow progress.
I panicked, having heard that “stargazers” are notoriously hard to deliver, and enquired after an epidural. Maeve left the room but things must have gathered speed quickly from that point, as I don’t remember her coming back. All my focus had turned inward as I knelt on all fours and circled my hips trying to get my baby to swivel.
I eventually transferred back to the bed, although still on all fours and still with my gas-and-air mouthpiece locked in my jaw. Simon massaged my lower back continuously and I was completely oblivious to anything else in the room – another change in the midwife shift occurred without me registering and it was only when the new midwife suggested I go to the toilet that I acknowledged her arrival. I hobbled to the bathroom and couldn’t pee but felt the need to push. I told the midwife, Katherine, and after checking she confirmed I was fully dilated and ready to deliver my baby. I asked how long I would have to push for and she said no longer than two hours. In my Entonox-addled mind I thought “that’s two hours until I get the drugs to take this pain away”, because by this point I was completely delirious and didn’t really believe I was going to deliver my baby.
One hour and 58 minutes later, a misshapen head was hanging between my legs and I suddenly regained some clarity as I realised I’d done it. Our baby had turned and made this birth possible. I was on all fours with my back to everyone and with the final push her body slipped out and was caught by the midwives. They passed her between my legs for me to hold and my husband, half laughing, half crying, told me: “It’s a girl, it’s a girl”.
Eliana arrived at 12.46am on 6 February. After delivering my placenta and being stitched back together I was given an hour of recovery sleep before being woken by the midwife while it was still dark. She gently encouraged me to try breastfeeding again, as both me and Eliana had been too exhausted to make it work immediately after the birth. We still struggled (and I didn’t get the hang of it for another 48 hours after that), but I held her and sat in bed watching the hands of Big Ben make their rounds until the sun came up on a cloudless winter’s day.
“I held her and watched the hands of big ben make their rounds until the sun came up on a cloudless winter’s day”
I mentioned that these were the best few days of my life, which might be hard to believe given the way they unfolded. They weren’t the best days because they were when I met my daughter for the first time – although that of course was the main highlight. They were the best because I defied my own expectations of myself. I felt invincible in the aftermath of the birth. I’ve never been more overcome with self-belief than when the oxytocin was coursing through my veins over those next few days.
If I could take on that feat of endurance and still have the birth I’d hoped for, then I could take on the world, right?
All I’d need was a few consecutive hours’ sleep…