From the moment I discovered I was pregnant again, I knew wanted to try for a natural birth. My son was born in 2012 by Caesarean section, after two days of induction failed to jump-start my uterus into anything even vaguely resembling labour.
I found the c-section process pretty brutal and the recovery incredibly hard; it was not something I wanted to do again if I could help it, especially now I had a toddler full of beans and full of love, who would want to leap into my arms for cuddles the moment I got home from hospital. I decided pretty early on that I would try to bring my daughter into the world by VBAC – also known as Vaginal Birth After Caesarean.
While pregnant, I chatted to my midwife and read a book about VBAC, I Googled a bit, I sought the experiences of those who had tried, and learned that while my chances were pretty slim due to my age, and the fact that I hadn’t gone into labour the first time, it was possible. I desperately wanted to deliver naturally, partly to experience it, but mainly because I could hardly bear the thought of recovering from major abdominal surgery with a newborn AND a very active toddler. Weeks of barely being able to walk anywhere, no driving, and at first no cuddles with the little boy who was to become a big brother.
As my due date drew closer, I learned that there would be no induction this time, as my scarred uterus might not withstand the stronger, faster contractions that it could bring – and anyway, as the induction process had precisely zero effect the first time around, there was every chance this would be the same. There was also another factor which could hold me back; women who are attempting a VBAC might not be allowed to go past their due date. Given that most babies don’t give a toss about due dates, and quite a few like to come out after that date has passed, my odds seemed to get narrower.
From around 37 weeks, I did what I could to encourage labour: walking, being as active as I could despite being completely knackered, and bouncing incessantly on my birthing ball. And the sweeps – so-called because they make you feel like a hand-puppet – so many sweeps that I lost count. Any medic only had to mention it and I’d be in there for another wince-inducing forage. But still nothing. My due date approached and serious discussions were held with the consultant – I fully expected to be booked in for a c-section on the big day, but was given an extra week. Another week of bouncing and walking and curry.
I was booked in for a caesarean on January 26th. That was my deadline. Go into labour spontaneously by then, or go back under the knife. On January the 25th, I had some twinges and decided a walk up Alexandra Palace hill in north London (see photo) might help things along. It worked! By the evening, I was having regular, but fairly spaced out contractions. That night I didn’t sleep a wink – the contractions were coming too regularly for me to fall asleep. I was in labour! I could do this! I was so excited, but I kept my contractions a secret between me and my baby and didn’t tell my husband or my mum until the morning. We rang the hospital and headed in to get checked over.
I was just 1 centimetre dilated by 8am and was told I could keep on labouring and they would check how I was progressing in 5 hours. I bounced on my ball some more, the contractions getting stronger and closer harder to breathe through. I threw up my painkillers and peppermint tea. I was checked over again at 2pm and was still only 1-2cm dilated. I was told I could opt for a c-section, or try a bit longer. I was still confident I could do it, so I headed up to the labour ward where I could use gas and air for pain relief. The contractions were coming thick and fast and I felt like things had to be progressing. I hardly had any time to recover between them. But 5pm came and I was still only 1-2cm dilated. I knew what was coming, and I was heartbroken. I had been having contractions for 36 hours – regular ones for 18 hours and yet I was barely out of the starting blocks.
After talking to my consultant – between excruciating contractions – it became clear that the natural birth I had so hoped for wasn’t going to happen. The tears coursed down my cheeks as I said that I would have a Caesarean – it was my choice but really, there was no choice. I felt absolutely gutted to have come so close – to have gone into labour spontaneously, to have contractions so strong and close together – but to have endured hours of pain for nothing. The disappointment was crushing and I felt like a total failure.
I was reassured that my baby was fine, and because there was no distress, I would have to wait to go to the operating theatre. I decided to have an epidural; if the pain was fruitless, I didn’t want to feel it. Unfortunately, the epidural didn’t work and I had another 4 hours of contractions – they were so strong they overpowered me most of the time, and it was hard to believe that they were achieving nothing. They didn’t stop until the spinal block went in (it’s very hard to stay relaxed and still for that when you are wracked with pain). I vomited and felt really unwell throughout the surgery. I was so out of it that I don’t remember much of the birth of my baby. I remember the relief that she was okay, and that she got poo on her special birthday hat.
So was it worth trying? Well, I didn’t get to experience giving birth, but I did experience labour – a kind midwife said I did everything but the pushing part (which I know is a pretty crucial part, but it did make me feel better). The c-section I’d been desperate to dodge happened anyway, but it got my baby out safely. The surgery was harder, possibly because my body had been through the rigours of labour, but the recovery was better
because I had learned a lot from the first time when I got everything wrong. Even though I was crushed and heartbroken when I realised that a natural birth was slipping from my grasp, If I had to go back and make the decision about whether to try for a VBAC again, I would do the same again, in a heartbeat. My VBAC mission ended in failure, but I’ll never regret it.
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About Alison McGarragh-Murphy
Alison is the Editor of The Motherload®, and is also a radio producer and broadcast journalist, a mum of two and a wife of one. Since becoming a mother she has (mostly) gladly swapped a busy social life of gigs, pubs, art galleries and museums for dancing in the kitchen, drinking on the sofa, finger painting and hanging out at the park. She talks incessantly about not having slept for four and a half years.
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Image credit: Alison McGarragh-Murphy