“I want a natural birth,” I said to the obstetrician, Dr M. She sighed, peering sternly at me through her moon-like glasses.
“You are going to have to accept,” she said coldly, “that if your scar ruptures it will be catastrophic, and we probably won’t be able to save your baby.”
My first child had been born by caesarean. It wasn’t an emergency; she was breech, and breech babies are now mostly born by caesarean, because that’s the safest way.
For me, however, it was devastating. The day Lily was born I lay on the operating table, removed from my body, willing it not to happen.
Afterwards I had flashbacks to the surgery, was doubled over with pain for weeks and struggled to breastfeed. I felt inadequate and jealous of other mothers who had managed to have natural births. I teetered on the brink of post-natal depression. Somehow my little girl and I made it through her first six months and life gradually became easier.
And so there I was, nearly two years later, sitting in Dr M”s office listening to her portent of doom. I went home chastened, but with a sick feeling in my stomach about the possibility of another caesarean.
My pregnancy progressed; life went on. I tried to put my desire for a natural birth out of my mind. I had learnt that there was so much I couldn’t control about pregnancy, birth and parenting. This baby could well be breech too. There could be some other medical reason for a caesarean.
But what if there isn’t? said a small voice in my head.
But there was also another, louder voice that said, What if something happens to your baby while you are in labour? Could you live with yourself if the baby died?
At about 20 weeks into my pregnancy I rang Dr M’s office to make an appointment for a check up. Her usually unflappable secretary sounded on the verge of tears. “There’s been an accident,” she said. “She’s in hospital and won’t be able to work for at least three months!”
Dr M’s accident left me in limbo. When she returned I would be 38 weeks pregnant. Could I convince her at that late stage to let me try for a natural birth?
By giving birth surgically, without even feeling one contraction, I felt I’d somehow missed something — a rite of passage into motherhood, perhaps. But most of all, I’d hated having no choice. I was told I had to have a caesarean, and that was that.
At 28 weeks I found out that my baby wasn’t breech. She was perfectly positioned. I started obsessively researching vaginal births after caesareans (VBACs). I read success stories; stories of failure resulting in another caesarean; and a few stories in which the baby had died. In one moment I’d decide I could try; in another I’d decide there was no way I could risk my baby’s life.
At 30 weeks I asked the locum standing in for Dr M whether he thought a VBAC was possible. He tried his best to dissuade me. I asked a midwife at the private hospital where I was due to give birth whether she thought I could do it. She was also doubtful, telling me not to get too ‘gung ho’ nd upset any of the obstetricians.
At 34 weeks I saw an independent birth educator whose advice changed everything.
She told me the chances of my scar rupturing were extremely rare, particularly when compared with the risks of another caesarean. She suggested I change to a public hospital and book into one of the midwifery groups, as they were more likely to be supportive of my trying for a natural birth.
The little voice in my head started to feel braver. Perhaps there was a chance.
The next day I rang my local public hospital. From my first appointment with the midwives, and the one obstetrician I saw, I was encouraged to try for a natural birth. They were still cautious, but they were at least willing to let me try.
And so I prepared. I read books on labour and birth. I did yoga. I swam. I played with my toddler on all fours to get the baby into the best position. I hired a doula and wrote a birth plan. But most of all I steeled myself mentally. Trying to give birth without medical intervention is difficult ordinarily, after a caesarean it’s twice as hard. I had to believe that my baby and I could do it.
Late in my pregnancy we went to the beach for a weekend. As I swam in the waves I pictured each surge as a contraction, willing myself through each one. But peppering my courageous thoughts were also fearful ones: What if something goes wrong? What if I don’t go into labour and I end up with another caesarean? What if? What if?
One hot night soon after I met two friends for a pre-Christmas dinner. I was 39 and a half weeks pregnant. The baby felt low and heavy. We talked about my quest for a natural birth. One friend, pregnant after a caesarean herself, didn”t think I could do it. The other was convinced I could. As she dropped me home that night she said, “You’re going to have this baby tomorrow!”
And she was right. At 1.30 am the next morning my waters broke and I proceeded to have a ‘textbook’ 10-hour labour. Without drugs or medical intervention, but with a lot of wonderful support and a hot shower, I brought my second daughter into the world. What I had thought impossible had become a reality. My baby had survived; in fact, she was in perfect condition. I lay with my beautiful daughter on my chest, exhausted, battered and bruised from her delivery, but in every other way healed.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem