When I was 20 weeks pregnant I asked my midwife if the rumours were true: "Are third births generally unpredictable?" She turned away from the computer, looked me in the eye and with every ounce of her knowing, replied: "Every birth is unpredictable."
The last few weeks of my pregnancy were hot and sticky; the humidity was stifling and I had taken to crunching cup loads of ice to maintain some semblance of cool. I swam in the ocean most days, grateful for the buoyancy, and did my best to mentally prepare for what lay ahead.
I was 39+1 weeks when I felt the distinct shift. It was a Sunday in early March and I was crying whilst doing the dishes. I didn't want to see anyone or go anywhere and the braxton hicks had become mild yet persistent contractions. I had arrived at that uncomfortable, challenging, emotional place they call "the in-between". My patience ebbed and flowed for the days that followed as I walked and squatted and danced and rested.
On Thursday morning I had an acupuncture treatment. It was my third in as many weeks and my acupuncturist confirmed what I already knew; my body was ready, I just had to wait for my baby. Later that afternoon, on the way to the hospital to see my midwife, Val, the contractions grew stronger and more frequent and whilst I didn't want to get attached to the possibility that this might be it, there was a big part of me that willed it to be so.
I went to bed that night and woke the next morning - no progression, still pregnant. I got up and made Che's school lunch and carried on with the day. But as I did the washing and made the beds there was a little inkling that demanded my attention. Something wasn't quite right and it began to unsettle me - a mother's intuition.
Saturday marked my due date according to my calendar so I took myself off for a pedicure and encouraged the beautician to firmly massage my feet, focussing on the acupressure points that encourage labour to start. That afternoon I continued to sway and swim and squat, rubbing my belly downwards to encourage baby's head to press on the cervix. My beloved midwife was officially on annual leave but she wanted to stay on call all weekend so she could be with me if I went into labour. It was with much relief that I woke at 12:45am on Sunday morning to find that my waters had broken.
We were at the hospital by 2am and whilst I was having contractions they weren't strong or productive. The midwife on duty went through the necessary steps post waters breaking, including half-an-hour of monitoring to ensure baby's heart-rate was normal. I was fine, baby was fine, but labour wasn't progressing. As I suspected, she recommended I go home and rest and wait for the contractions to start. If they hadn't by 7am on Monday, I would have to go to the main hospital for induction.
Daniel and I were curled up in bed together just as the sun was rising. I slept for a few hours before getting up to make pancakes and, more importantly, get labour going. I was exhausted and scared yet determined to come back to the idea of letting go and, ultimately, surrendering. I felt like my baby had been patient with me throughout the pregnancy and now it was my turn to repay the favour.
As I poured pancake batter into the frying pan I started thinking about acceptance. Time and time again I had talked to my pre-natal students about accepting where the birth journey takes you; because often it is completely beyond your control. I gave myself a talking to then and whilst the idea of an assisted birth or cesarean had always petrified me, I began to prepare myself for the possibility of a birth so wildly different from my past experiences.
Val visited me mid-afternoon and massaged my feet and legs, applying pressure to those points that naturally induce labour. I was contracting while she was with me and she encouraged me to squat deeply in each contraction to encourage the head to move down. Once she left I began packing a bag for Che and Poet to take to my parent's house. By 4:30pm Daniel and I were home alone so we walked the beach and I continued to squat and sway and walk and wait.
By 7pm I was in bed, resting and trying to relax. The contractions were becoming more frequent and starting to require all of my awareness so it was with much gratitude that we drove to the hospital at 9pm. Once there, the contractions slowed and weakened, and whilst Daniel was happy to rub my back and feed me ice-cubes, I encouraged him to get some sleep. Disheartened, I knew that I needed some time alone to walk the wards.
A wooden handrail conveniently featured on every wall of the maternity ward so I held onto it in each contraction and moved into a deep squat whilst exhaling. Val soon joined me and we talked about what was happening, or more precisely, what wasn't happening. "I just don't understand why this baby isn't moving down," I said. It was shortly after midnight when I gave in and told her I was going to rest. She agreed that it was the best thing to do.
At 3am we surrendered to the fact that labour wasn't going to happen on its own so we drove to the main hospital to commence induction. I sobbed in the car, so full of fear and worry for the safety of my baby. Regardless of the strong heartbeat that I heard every time the doppler was placed on my belly, I knew that there was something not quite right.
The hours that followed were painful and tiring - I had only slept for five hours in the past two days. The canula pumped syntocin into my system and slowly, slowly, I started having strong, productive contractions. I had two wireless monitors on my belly - one to monitor baby's heartbeat and the other to monitor the contractions - and I watched the numbers on the screen beside me. By 6am we began to notice baby's heartbeat dropping with each contraction but as soon as the contraction eased, the heartbeat recovered nicely. Val mentioned "cord compression" and whilst the midwives were keeping an eye on the numbers, they weren't overly concerned.
By 7:30am Val said goodbye - she had been with us all night and needed to rest. As she left the room, baby's heartbeat soon dropped and didn't recover for two contractions. One of the midwives conveniently moved the screen so I could no longer see the numbers but as my contractions were getting more intense, there was a growing sense of unease amongst those supporting me.
I was lying on my side at this stage and felt the urge to push. Every single cell in my body wanted to push but when Kate, the obstetrician, checked me, she told me I couldn't - I was only 6cm and had a cervical lip. It was the most challenging place I had ever been - trying not to push when that's all my body wanted to do and attempting to breathe through the most painful contractions I had ever experienced. I did what I had taught hundreds of my students to do; I lifted my chin to relieve the pressure in my pelvis and I breathed short, sharp exhalations out of my mouth, focussing my gaze directly into Daniel's eyes.
The events that followed are a blur, but they go something like this:
After a monitor had been placed on baby's head to get a more accurate reading of his heartbeat, Kate told me that they were going to take a sample of his blood to read his lactic acid levels. We all knew that he was distressed and I knew, with all my being, that he needed to be born - quickly. Any fear I once harboured about a caesarean birth soon dissipated and I fell into the most vulnerable place I have ever been. I was rocking on the bed, breathing through a contraction, while one midwife took off my clothes and dressed me in a hospital gown, another covered my jewellery in tape, Daniel reassured and encouraged me and Kate attempted to move the cervical lip. They were preparing me for a cesarean but Kate wanted to attempt a vaginal delivery first. If successful, it was going to be much quicker than the alternative.
I said out loud: "I'm so scared for my baby, I just want my baby" - the fear coupled with the pain was overwhelming and yet there was also an element of calm; I knew that the best thing I could do was breathe deep and listen to the OB, so I did. Kate looked me in the eye at this stage and took me through what we needed to do to get baby out. My legs were in stirrups and she placed the vacuum on his head and for the next contraction I pushed with all my might. His head was born and we finally knew why he resisted moving into the pelvis: "Cord around the neck once, twice, three times". Minutes later he was born and placed on my chest; he was blue but then he cried and I exhaled. He was here and he was safe.
He stayed on my chest for half-an-hour and I smelt him, kissed him, calmed him. He was quite stressed after the birth and his breathing was shallow and fast so the Paediatrician took him to Special Care to be monitored and Daniel followed, camera in hand.
I stayed behind, drank tea and cried.
Every midwife, doctor and specialist that was present in the room during delivery was a stranger to Daniel and I. And yet individually and collectively they expressed a deep sense of respect to me as the birthing mother and to Daniel as the supportive, yet concerned, partner. Perhaps it was just another day in birthing suite for them but I'll always be thankful for what they did for us. I'll always remember the kind words that were spoken and, more distinctly, the gentle way I was touched and held during the delivery.
When Daniel returned from Special Care he got me into the shower and stood beside me as I let the water fall onto my lower back. I was sore and exhausted and the canula rendered my right hand unusable so, once I was clean, he wrapped me in a towel, walked me towards the bed and dressed me. And then he held my hand and walked me down to the nursery and together we sat beside Percy's cot and gazed at him; proud, relieved parents falling deeply in love - with each other and our newborn son.
Percy's birth was nothing like I envisioned yet it was no less beautiful than I expected.