Birth Story Of The Week – Charlotte and Xander

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In a new series on the blog of breaking the ‘taboo’ about elective c-sections, and embracing the positivity that can surround them, I was fascinated to hear from Charlotte Philby from Motherland on her experience of her 3rd but 1st ‘natural’ c-section earlier last month.

“You’re having a c-section with NO ANAESTHETIC?!” The response of my dear (clearly demented) friend Jess to news that I am to receive a ‘natural cesarean’ at one of London’s leading NHS hospitals is testimony to why consultant midwife Belinda Green, who is pioneering the procedure, has decided to take its other name – the ‘skin-to-skin cesarean’ – for the purpose of a new study which launches next year.

After all, the description is misleading. As Green explains, there is nothing natural about a c-section of any kind. But for some women cesarean it is the safest option; and the purpose of the trial for which I have been asked to be guinea pig – a trial which will launch at University College London Hospital (UCLH) next year with the film of my baby’s birth shown to women participating in the study to demonstrate what is involved – is to replicate as closely as possible the experience of vaginal birth for women for whom natural delivery is not a viable option.

Not currently offered on the NHS in Britain, Belinda Green and her team hope to prove through their forthcoming Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) the positive outcomes for both mother and baby this kind of ‘slowed-down section’ can offer. Outcomes including improved bonding between mother and child, more easily established breastfeeding, and calmer newborns.

When I was first approached by Green, who previously ran the birthing centre at UCLH and now works in antenatal with a clinical and research interest in Vaginal Birth After Cesarean (VBAC), if I’d like to be the model for the trial, I was immediately intrigued.

Having been born at this very hospital myself, some 32 years ago, and having had my first two children here by c-section – the first the result of a failed induction, the second as a result of not going into labour at 42-plus weeks, and showing no signs of – I had often wondered what it would be like to actually hold your baby before it is whisked off to be weighed. To experience more of my child’s birth than a quick glimpse over the paper partition that masks women from the somewhat severe clinical procedure being performed inches from their face during a standard section.

While I was eternally grateful for two healthy children who may well never have made it into this world without the grace of medical advances, I still wondered…

Dr Ruwan Wimalasundera, a Consultant Obstetrician and Fetal Medicine Specialist at UCLH, has been performing so-called natural cesareans to his private patients for the past 10 years. More common in the US, the procedure is much slower than a standard cesarean, he explains when we meet prior to my elective surgery.

Once the incision is made to the abdomen as per the standard method, he says, and the baby’s head emerges, rather than whisking the baby out as quickly as possible and taking it straight off to be cleaned and weighed under the lights – at which point both of my previous babies had screamed uncontrollably while I looked on helplessly, hoping for a glimpse and longing to soothe them myself – the newborn, I’m told, will be allowed to push and squeeze its way out into the world, as long as there are no obvious complications.

This will enable the baby to clear its own lungs, as it would during natural birth; and once it is free the surgeon will lift the baby out – with cord still attached, if it’s long enough – and pass it to the midwife who will hand it straight over to me, where it will rest for several minutes while I’m being stitched back together.

On the day, I arrive at surgery armed with a newborn hat (the greatest concern about immediate skin-to-skin is that baby will get cold in a theatre environment). Belinda Green is armed with a roll of tin foil, to lay over the towel that will rather glamorously enshrine me and the baby.

The atmosphere in theatre is one of eager anticipation, and despite the familiar array of catheters, scalpels et al (and needle to administer the spinal epidural) I find myself grinning with excitement. All goes according to plan, and watching my son’s body slowly emerge, once the screen between us has been lowered, is a moment I can still hardly believe was real. While my other children had screamed for minutes on end after first emerging, the moment my youngest son’s head is placed on my chest, still covered in mucus, he immediately calms.

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For the first time I’m able to marvel at the perfection of my bloodied, puffy-eyed newborn before anyone else. A sense of quiet elation enfolds us both as the buzz of the surgery melts away. All that remains is me, him, his father, a sense of total contentment, and the nagging joy of being one step closer to the sandwich in my hospital bag, after 16 hours nil by mouth…

A week or so later it’s impossible to say for certain quite what the impact of this delivery was, but I can honestly say that of all my three children (all equally delightful, of course) this baby has been by a long shot the most calm and content, latching onto the breast with ease and hardly ever grizzling or crying. And despite juggling three kids, and all the rest of it, I’ve never felt calmer as a new mother.

Of course this might have something to do with the reassurance of having done it all twice before, but I also believe that sense of ease is in no small way buoyed by the security provided by the memory of watching my child emerge, triumphantly, into the theatre like a small, warm and very hairy statue of liberty. Not to mention the sense of fulfilment at being the first one to welcome him, soothe and protect him from the throbbing noise and bright lights of the outside world.

Expecting The Unexpected

A few months ago Charlotte Philby from Motherland asked me if I’d like to write a reflective piece about making the most life changing decision of my young life, having a baby at 23. Here I openly discuss the highs and lows of what it really feels like to be caught somewhere in the middle of motherhood – too old for the teenage groups but too young for NCT.

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Photo by Philippa James

“September 2006: My boyfriend and I had been living in our rented flat in Bristol for just six weeks when it happened. Like all couples who had just moved in together, we found ourselves doing the obligatory trip to Ikea. We wondered around staring at all the mock kitchens and bathrooms, fantasising of what we would like our own ‘dream home’ to look like. We took the short cut through the kids’ department, heading for the checkout, when it suddenly dawned on me. I was late. Like, really late. Whether it was the Ikea nursery equipment that jogged my memory or the overwhelming smell of Ikea meatballs that made me heave, I just knew there and then I was pregnant.

We had left university three months previously. My boyfriend had a degree in Business Management and was working in recruitment; I was a newly qualified midwife about to start my first job. We were doing what most 22 and 24 year olds would be doing… going out, having fun, planning our future together. It was just the start of our lives.

Once I did a test later that evening, my suspicions were confirmed. Two bright red lines standing side by side staring at me on that plastic stick. I felt devastated, and really angry. Devastated because I knew from that moment on, my life with this man who I was madly in love with was going to change forever. And angry because I thought we were being careful. As a newly qualified midwife I should have known better. I had to tell him, he knew something was wrong the moment I came out of the bathroom. He turned a ghastly shade of white, sat down and said ‘what do you want to do?’

I didn’t want to be pregnant but I didn’t want to make the decision not to be pregnant. It was eating us alive, this huge secret neither of us seemed able to face.

I had no idea, I didn’t want to make either decision, I didn’t want to be pregnant but I didn’t want to make the decision not to be pregnant. We carried on for another week, not really talking about it, acting as if everything was fine. But it was eating us alive, this huge secret neither of us seemed able to face. Until one evening I said “I’m going to see the girls” and walked out. The ‘girls’ were in their final year at uni and lived around the corner from us. He knew I would tell them, I needed someone else to know, to share this heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

The girls were amazing, they hugged me which is exactly what I needed; I don’t think since I had found out I was pregnant my boyfriend and I had hugged once. They all reassured me that whatever decision I made they would support me and be there for me. I suddenly didn’t feel so alone and was able to talk about it openly and honestly.

I booked an appointment at the Marie Stopes clinic for the following week, just to have something to aim towards. Not really knowing if I would even go, I think my boyfriend was relieved that I had made the decision and not him. In all honestly I hadn’t made any decision.

Two days before the appointment I started bleeding, quite heavily. I called my boyfriend from work and we went to the early pregnancy unit, a place where I had spent many weeks during my midwifery training. And here I was on the other side. I felt really guilty, I kept thinking ‘maybe the baby knows it wasn’t meant to be here so that’s why my body was trying to get rid of it’. I was being punished. We asked for the monitor to be turned around so we couldn’t see. We both felt it would be better that way. I had already decided I was having a miscarriage, so when the sonographer said the baby was still alive, I couldn’t believe it. My boyfriend and I just looked at each other, we were both crying.

We drove home via his parent’s house to tell them. I’ve never seen my boyfriend look so scared. There were more tears, lots of hugs and his Dad opened a bottle of champagne. It finally felt like we could celebrate this pregnancy, it also felt so surreal. We were going to be parents.

It took longer for my family to accept what was happening, I think they were more protective of me – their youngest daughter of three – but the decision was made. I asked my Mum to tell the extended family before we planned to spend Christmas together. I was already beginning to show by then and I didn’t want to make anyone feel awkward. I’m sure deep down they thought it was a bad idea and probably thought my boyfriend and I wouldn’t last. Not because we weren’t right for each other, but more realistically that the odds were stacked against us.

I had a relatively easy pregnancy, maybe being young helped. I continued to work 12-hour shifts on the labour ward right up until 37 weeks. I actually found being a midwife somewhat reassuring whilst pregnant. It made me feel totally normal, as I was surrounded by other pregnant women of all ages and background. I think that’s what I yearned for throughout this whole period: normality. I was a woman and my boyfriend and I were having a baby together.

We had some help with buying things for the baby from family; it’s funny looking back on that time as we hardly had any money yet it didn’t seem to matter. I was so focused on meeting our baby and making everything be OK.

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I went into labour five days after my estimated due date and gave birth in a midwife-led suite where I had been working prior to finishing for maternity leave. I had a natural birth with the help of some gas and air and lots of help from two amazing midwives and, of course, my wonderful boyfriend.

We moved to London six weeks after our daughter was born and my husband took a new job which meant he travelled to Holland four days a week, leaving me holding the baby. All my friends were living their lives to the max, living together in London, starting new jobs and earning their first real income since graduating. I felt so out of the loop, joining baby groups trying to meet other mums, but everyone was in their late 30’s and I never really felt like I fitted in – too old for the teenage groups but too young for NCT groups.

I longed for the life I should have been having as I watched my girlfriends having what seemed to be the best time of their lives, but on the other hand I adored my baby daughter so much I never wanted to contemplate her not being here. I almost felt that because I had made this huge decision to have a baby in my early twenties, I had to do it right and I should never appear to not be coping or enjoying it.

Eventually, I met a few great mums, who to this day I still consider some of my best friends. And it really is thanks to meeting these mums which have got me through some of the best and worst times of being a mother. It’s made me realise it doesn’t matter what age you are when you become a mum or how much money you’ve got in the bank, because we’re all in this together. Broken sleep, teething, weaning, potty training and toddler demands, we all know how amazing it feels one minute and how shit the next.

That baby girl turned 8 two months ago, we now have another daughter who is four and have just found out we’re expecting twins early next year! And I’m now proud to call my wonderful boyfriend my wonderful husband. If someone had told me I would be a married mother-of-two at the age of 30, I would have laughed in their face. But sometimes laughing in the face of it all is the only way to get through the weekly Sainsbury’s shop with two kids, scraping dried porridge off the ridiculously expensive wooden high chair you fell for buying because it looks nice, and the lack of sleep, which never gets any easier.

I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved. We certainly had doubts about the choices we made along the way, but we made choices that felt right at the time and we made them work. People often say having a baby changes your life no matter what. But weirdly for us we didn’t really have that life, we only had a year and a half together before our daughter was born. Maybe that made it easier somehow.”

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Check out who Motherland who featured Gas&Air in their best parenting blogs online!