“I can feel the baby shifting about in my belly, not pushing or stretching, but hands and feet moving, questing: wondering, perhaps, what’s going on. I just had a contraction – a growing sense of pressure, undefined at first, then focused on the lower curve of my bump, then moving back through my cervix and a bit into lower back/top of hips. It’s painful, but followed by a lovely feeling of relaxation and lassitude in those areas.”

People often ask “how long was your labour”, and with my third child, the official answer is about three hours of established labour before my daughter was born, as planned, in the birth pool in my bedroom. But that’s not the whole story.

My second child was born in the birth pool in the birth centre of the local public hospital. Looking back, the most unpleasant bit was being driven to the hospital, and walking (staggering!) between contractions through the hallways to the maternity ward. I initially considered having my third baby at home just to avoid the car ride, but the idea of organising a private midwife seemed like just too much effort and expense, so although the birth centre had closed in the interim, I thought I’d just go with another hospital birth. However, towards the end of my pregnancy I realised that I wasn’t happy with the hospital model of care: each (short) appointment was with a different midwife, and many of these seemed to have quite different thoughts about the risks and benefits of various interventions than my own. I was also anxious about the uncertainty of access to the hospital birthing pool. When I discussed this with my doula, Erika, she told me that I could claim medicare rebates for some private midwifery services, and gave me a list of Melbourne midwives with whom she had worked. Thus encouraged, I made an appointment for that afternoon; within a week of that appointment, after more reading and some discussion with my husband, I had decided that homebirth was the way to go. We engaged Jacqui as our primary midwife, with whom I would have most of my remaining antenatal appointments, and Jan as the secondary one, who would be present at the birth, in case both baby and I required medical attention at the same time.

It took a few more weeks and an exasperating amount of running around to make all the arrangements, and some of the paperwork requirements were truly ridiculous, but that’s a story for another time. I had finished work by that stage, and with my sons still in part-time childcare, I was able to attend extra appointments without children in tow, and also ramp up my exercise regime, attending a Preggi Bellies exercise class four or five times a week, getting my body ready for labour. The birthpool and TENS and other homebirth supplies (gloves, towels etc) were all organised. Every night I fell asleep while listening to the relaxation and birth affirmation track supplied by my doula Erika. By the time I had my blessingway at 37 weeks, I felt calm and ready.

I had been having Braxton-Hicks contractions throughout my pregnancy, with gradually increasing strength and frequency over the last couple of months. The first time I woke in the night with a cramping sort of sensation was four weeks before my due date, and then five days later things edged up again a notch. During the following weekend I felt decidedly “off”: cranky and restless, and irritable when people made a mess around the house (as the mother of two small children, I’m used to a fairly chaotic environment), but although contractions continued, they didn’t really go anywhere. Six days before my estimated due date, I noticed a small amount of bloody mucous when I went to the toilet, and contractions, although still intermittent, were making me think things could be starting to move. I told my husband, and we arranged to relocate the choir rehearsal scheduled to occur at our place the following afternoon to a friend’s house.

The next morning there was more blood, so I decided not to join the rest of the family in going for a swim at the local pool. As I had been doing for the past week, I put on my blessingway anklet as I got dressed, feeling loved and supported. I had quite a few more intense contractions during the morning, which made me wonder if baby would wait for my mother’s scheduled afternoon arrival by plane from interstate. At lunchtime I sent text messages to my doula Erika and midwife Jacqui to say things were happening, and it could be that night. Erika rang back to say she was on her way to facilitate an active birth workshop, and couldn’t come before 5pm: did I want her to call a back-up doula to be with me until then? I said no, that I didn’t think things would really kick into gear until the evening. My husband went off to the rehearsal, which I was glad we had moved out of our house, although I rather wished our sons had gone with him to play with the children in that family: my younger son seemed determined to play with every toy in the house, and the elder kept asking “what can I do now, Mummy?”, which was exasperating, because I really was not in the mood to play. I started cooking dinner, and by 5pm my contractions had increased in strength so that I had to stop what I was doing and hang on to something, swinging my hips and riding them out.

When my husband got home I suggested to him that he give the boys their bath before dinner, as I was starting to feel anxious and eager to set up my space and focus on birthing my baby. At 5:30pm, I drove to the station to collect my mother, which may have been a bad idea: an impromptu decision to pull into the convenience store for some jubes turned into a sideswipe collision with the car in my blind spot. It was low-speed, and a glancing blow, with neither of us hurt, fortunately, but a nuisance nonetheless. With Mum home and the boys focused on her, I finished the dinner, including making a chocolate pudding. It was the last meal I would cook for two weeks.

At 7 o’clock, with contractions becoming more frequent, although still irregular, I texted Erika and asked her to come over at 8.30, and also texted Jacqui to tell her things were moving along. Erika said she would get some dinner and then be on her way; Jacqui replied to say that I should call her once contractions were regular or “untalkable”. We finished our dinner and started getting the boys ready for bed.

At 8 o’clock, with contractions 4-7 minutes apart and getting longer, I rang Jacqui and found that it required significant concentration to talk through the contraction. Jacqui asked if I wanted her to come over, and I initially said no, but then accepted her offer to come over and set up: she said she could always go away again if it turned out to be too soon. I kissed my older boy goodnight before sitting down with the younger one to read him a story and listen to Hoot the Chicken together on the sofa before he latched on for his mummy milk, curled around my baby bump for the last time.

While he was feeding, I wrote some notes: “I can feel the baby shifting about in my belly, not pushing or stretching, but hands and feet moving, questing: wondering, perhaps, what’s going on. I just had a contraction – a growing sense of pressure, undefined at first, then focused on the lower curve of my bump, then moving back through my cervix and a bit into lower back/top of hips. It’s painful, but followed by a lovely feeling of relaxation and lassitude in those areas.”

My son fell asleep on my lap, and my husband carried him to his bed. I came out to find Erika had arrived, followed a few minutes later by Jacqui with two suitcases-worth of the medical stuff, including an oxygen cylinder; the drugs that might be needed had been in my fridge since the birth plan meeting at my house a week earlier. The birth pool was already mostly inflated: we topped it up with the pump, then laid out plastic sheets over the carpet at the foot of the bed, covered by towels to make a pathway between pool and bathroom. Jacqui and Erika remade the bed with an old curtain (purchased from the Salvos the previous week) between the sheet and the mattress protector, and a couple of blueys making a cross under where my hips would go. I lit the candle in the bedroom, enjoying the warm glow and the subtle scent of lavender and vanilla.

The first stage of this labour was easier than with the previous two: the sensations were intense, but I rode the waves, dancing my baby down. Movement helped a lot: swinging and circling my hips, mostly propped on something – my husband, the bench, the bookshelf, the wall. I always felt I could relax between contractions, and that I still had mental and physical energy to continue. I don’t remember ever dreading the next contraction.

After a while my sense of time went a bit fuzzy. I remember moments, images: a quiet hug with my mum; Erika offering sips of water through a straw, and stroking my back during contractions; my husband filling the bath; Jacqui writing notes. I remember roaring, feeling powerful and strong. I remember the tingling sensation in my back making me dance on my toes as Jacqui turned on the TENS for the first time. The TENS stopped the pain in my back, but didn’t affect sensation in the front and I was able to ride a contraction while lying on my side on the bed, my head on my husband’s shoulder. I remember shivering and shaking after taking my leggings off; in hindsight, I suspect that was transition. I remember Jacqui saying “if you want to get in the bath, now’s the time”, and I felt a pang of loss as I took off my blessingway anklet before getting in the bath. It felt a bit weird to be naked in a room full of people, but I didn’t really care. I did care that the water wasn’t as warm as I wanted, and I wished my husband weren’t so cautious about adding hot water.

After only a couple of contractions, I realised I was feeling an urge to push, which surprised me, because I didn’t think I was that far along. I said “that felt pushy. Is it okay to be pushing?” and Jacqui said that I should do whatever I felt I needed to do. I started pushing, but kept making sounds which felt good to me: roaring and growling. After a while I said “right baby, enough of this, it’s time to be born”. I put a finger inside to try to feel the head, and was discouraged to find that I could not.

Jacqui told me to stop letting the energy out with the sound and to use it to push the baby down. I started doing that with the next contraction, but it hurt so much more, an intolerable feeling of pressure, as though my hips were slowly tearing apart. During the first stage of labour, I could relax and let it happen; now I had to not only manage the pain, but also create it, which seemed completely unfair. I stopped making lovely open roars and started making these terrible strangled squeaks, squeezing my husband’s hand. I had been kneeling forward, when I rocked up onto my heels in a squat I felt a pop and a gush midway through the next contraction as my waters broke.

Baby kept coming down and then sliding up again: Jacqui told me to use my muscles to hold her there between contractions, and we started to make progress. It seemed to take forever, and yet each contraction also lasted so much longer than I wanted it to. I changed my thoughts from attempting to birth a baby to imagining I was trying to pass a bowel motion, and the next time I put my fingers inside I could feel her head.

Crowning hurt, much worse than contractions: the incredible pain in my hips and pelvis as well as the stretching. I wailed “it hurts, it hurts”, and squeezed two of my husband’s fingers tight, tight. I reached down and felt her head, soft with hair, and I tried to hold her there to give my perineum a chance to stretch, but the contraction just kept going, her head soft but inexorable, pushing my fingers apart. I pushed and pushed, and found myself chanting “I can do it, I can do it”, and then all at once her head was past the widest point, and as I looked down, there she was, with Jacqui already starting to lift her out. I wanted to cry “wait”, to see her under the water, but the moment was already gone, so I helped to lift her up and onto my chest. She was purple, covered in vernix, and somehow smaller than I expected. Her cord was wrapped around her neck: Jacqui had her fingers under the cord, holding it clear of her throat. I slid a bit lower in the water, to reduce the tension on the cord, and Jacqui lifted the cord over her head.

She made a few squeaky noises, but didn’t take a breath immediately, although I could see her looking around and moving her mouth. Jan said to blow in her face, so I gave a gentle puff, and after a few seconds she started to cry. My husband leaned in to meet our daughter and give me a kiss. The time was 11pm.

We stayed in the pool, baby curled on my chest, her eyes newborn dark and her expression tending to the grumpy. I used the towel to gently rub away some of the vernix. There were more contractions; I braced my feet against the side of the pool. Then Jacqui and Erika helped us to climb into the bed, wrapped in towels, and covered with more towels and then the sheet and doona.

Someone made me tea and toast, and I rested in bed for a while, baby bumping her head on my chest. I birthed the placenta. I would have liked baby to attach herself, but she couldn’t seem to find the nipple. It might have been easier for her if I’d been able to sit up more, but my muscles didn’t seem to work enough to get in the right position, and I was concerned about jostling her too much, and also that her post-birth hormones would wear off and we’d miss the window for newborn alertness. So I moved her into position and she latched on: slow suck, pause, suck, pause, suck, swallow. Long pause. So different to nursing a toddler! Having established the new connection, I was ready to cut the white, rubbery cord. My older son woke up and came in for a cuddle, then my mum resettled him back in his bed. Jacqui set up the scales on the bathroom floor and weighed the baby, then she and Jan checked my perineum and said that if I could keep my legs together for a few days, the small tear would heal without stitches. I had no intention of moving out of bed if I could help it, so that sounded fine to me. I dressed the baby and myself, and we rested in bed while others cleaned up around us: draining and deflating the birth pool, putting towels in the washing machine, taking away the medical paraphernalia and then leaving for their own homes. By 2am all was quiet, and my husband joined me in our bed with our new daughter.

As we lay there, talking quietly, my mum came to tell us that both our sons were awake: first one and then another small figure appeared in the bedroom doorway. They clambered onto the bed, and snuggled in to meet their sister: the older one excited and chatty and the younger surprisingly solemn. We had a lovely cuddle, all five of us, then my mother took the two boys back to their beds, and my husband and I lay down in our bed to sleep, our newborn warm and safe between us. Welcome, little one, welcome.

By Ruth