“Never underestimate how hard labour is… for the man.”
So said a friend’s husband after his first child was born. Of course, we all mocked him mercilessly at the time. But I take it back. Being a birth partner IS hard – you just don’t realise until you are one.
I have now been a birth partner one and a half times. Half, because I was almost there when my first niece was born. I was with my sister, L, at the hospital for a couple of hours up until she was taken into theatre for an assisted delivery.
I know first-hand the positive difference a good birth partner can make. I was determined to appear calm, reassuring and positive at all times, masking my omnipresent fear that something might go wrong. Considering how well L knows me, this was a task in itself. I wanted to be the greatest support to her, both physically and emotionally, that I possibly could.
Before my own first labour I had written an essay in the “birth plan” sections of my maternity notes. Nothing went to plan and I felt increasingly terrified and out of control.
More than anything I had wanted to avoid that for L, but it wasn’t to be. My disappointment for her was combined with frustration that I hadn’t really been able do anything to help. Of course the important thing was that appropriate medical intervention was available where necessary and ultimately mother and baby were fine, but it was far from the birth that L had planned.
For my second labour, my birthing plan contained a single word: “epidural”. I believe L’s was similarly concise. I got my wish and had a very positive experience. When L’s second time came I headed to the hospital hoping for the same for her.
L’s partner T and I are two of the people who know her best. Each of us has a unique relationship with her, meaning we were able to provide stronger and more wide-reaching support as a team than either of us could as individuals.
T was far better than me at providing physical support. He knew, and was able to show me, the exact way L wanted her back rubbed during contractions. We took it in turns but he was more successful – I couldn’t believe how hard she wanted it done and feared hurting her. We both willingly sacrificed our hands for her to crush during the agony of ever-closer contractions, but T was the one who could provide comfort by holding her.
Emotionally, I think I had the edge.
When it came to empathy, I didn’t have to use my imagination. I know only too well how agonising labour is and how frightening it can be. I remembered what I had wanted and needed, and because L is so like me in many ways, I assumed (largely correctly) that her wants and needs would be similar. Plus, I have known her my entire life. We are so close that we know how the other’s mind works, and at times have an almost paranormal ability to read each other’s thoughts.
When the midwife tried to persuade her to use the gas and air, L kept shoving it away saying it made her feel like she was suffocating. I knew she was recalling the feeling of being unable to breathe underwater which has always terrified both of us when scuba diving. I was able to explain this to the bemused midwife, who then knew to stop pressuring her to use it.
The one thing I wish someone had done for me was help me control my breathing. As a result I became almost obsessive about it with L. Through every contraction I reminded her not only to breathe but how to breathe (“Breathe in through your nose, now breathe out through your mouth…”) A small part of me worried she would get irritated, but I figured she could always tell me to **** off. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I need not have worried – afterwards, she told me she found it incredibly helpful.
When the midwife finally accepted that gas and air wasn’t cutting it, the anaesthetist was busy elsewhere (by the time she was available it was too late.) L started to show signs of panic. T’s gentle and reassuring approach failed to calm her down so I became necessarily brutal and told her sharply to pull herself together.
I don’t think that she’d have taken it from anyone but me, and I doubt anyone but me would have known instinctively that she needed to hear it. Fair play to her – that was the last we heard about not being able to do it.
It is distressing seeing anyone suffering, let alone someone you love dearly, but in the event I was surprisingly dispassionate. Perhaps the inevitability of labour and birth made it easier to detach from L’s immediate pain and focus on helping her get through it.
For me, the worst part of either of L’s labours was when I wasn’t there. It was the 45mins when my first niece was being delivered in theatre. I was waiting outside, with no idea what was going on. Unable to offer L anything by way of support, I felt completely out of control as well as terrified something was wrong. At times of high anxiety I get eczema across the backs of my hands. By the time a midwife came to tell me that L and baby were safe and well, I was bleeding across my knuckles.
When my second niece was born, I was right there and it was incredible. Snapshop memories: the outstanding bravery my sister showed summoning up all her reserves of energy to push her daughter into the world; the sound of the baby crying when only her head was out (unusual, apparently – normally their lungs are too squashed); her perfect, tiny body as she was born; the moment when the midwife put her straight into her mother’s arms as T said “it’s a girl” and all the pain and fear of the past few hours just melted away.
The baby wasn’t the only one in the room who cried.
My advice to anyone privileged enough to be asked to be a birth partner is this: (1) Accept – you will never see anything so amazing in your whole life. (2) Be calm and positive throughout – if you are scared do not let it show. (3) Do your research: ask in advance what the expectant mother wants from you. I forgot to ask L, relying instead on instinct derived from our close relationship and my own experiences. Next time I will ask her. Oh hang on, she says there is never, ever, ever going to be a next time…