A lot of women find that giving birth is not the experience for which they had hoped. During pregnancy, you're reminded on a regular basis that labour is unpredictable, and your carefully written birth plan will probably be given no more than a cursory glance. I'd planned a home birth for my second baby, with the support of midwives and my husband, and while I got the location right – there was no transfer to hospital – it ended up being a little more dramatic than the calm, low-lit affair I'd wanted.
My second-born daughter, Lois, has a time of birth taken from a 999 call log and is marked on her official records as "BBA" – Born Before [medical] Assistance. From my first call to the hospital to her arrival, just 35 minutes elapsed. No time to marshal midwives or for my husband to get home – I gave birth entirely alone, unmedicated and relying only on instinct... on the bathroom floor.
The day – a week from my due date – began unremarkably. While I'm on maternity leave, our 21-month-old daughter goes to her excellent childminder one day a week, to give her continuity and me a much-needed break from her joyful toddler tyranny. My husband dropped her off before catching the train to work in west London, about an hour away. I waved them both off happily with a day of light nesting planned.
It would be inaccurate to say I hadn't had a twinge at this point, but by late pregnancy there are twinges everywhere, in places you never consider and hope to forget. I'd had an uneventful pregnancy, but nonetheless, lowered immunity meant I'd been horribly ill with a stomach bug over Christmas, then developed a severe cold with a lingering hacking cough. Constant pressure on my bladder had me up several times a night for weeks on end, often waking the toddler, too. So it's fair to say that perhaps my eye was not on the ball when it came to analysing every ache and pain.
I spent the morning relaxing – a leisurely breakfast on the sofa in front of One Born Every Minute (which my husband refuses to watch, on the grounds that it's bad enough seeing your own partner go through it) and then an hour-long wallow in a nice hot bath. I felt... normal. Finally up and dressed, I went about some chores.
At that point I began to feel some very irregular light pains. By 1pm I was considering the possibility that I would be in established labour at some point later that day – but currently there was no need to stop what I was doing, except to vaguely glance at the clock to reassure myself that the pains were irregular and far apart. As it was lunchtime in the working world, I called my husband. When he told me he was heading home early, I mentioned the slight discomfort I was experiencing. Then I resumed my pottering about the house.
An hour later I was on the verge of letting our childminder know that she might need to keep our daughter overnight because the pains weren't going away. With my first labour my waters broke in the middle of the night and I'd known without a doubt the baby was on its way.
Mindful of all the stories from other mothers I knew who had been in "early" labour for days on end, contracting irregularly, I thought it would be hours yet. I was wrong. My waters broke at 2pm. I grabbed the phone and my medical notes en route to the bathroom and called my husband, getting his voicemail. Then I dialled the pager number for the community midwife team, only to be told that the code written in large letters on the front of the notes was invalid. Frustrated, I called the delivery suite at the hospital. Between conversations I had a contraction that was much stronger than anything beforehand, but it was over quickly. I gave my details, telling the receptionist that I was alone. She told me a midwife would call me back. I felt reassured. All the sheets, towels and waterproofing – B&Q value shower curtains – required for a successful home birth were in the spare room, along with a packed bag just in case we needed to transfer to hospital. I got up from the toilet, intending to move everything down to the living room, where we had planned to have the birth... and was poleaxed by pain.
I sat on the edge of the bath to ride out the next contraction, which was strong, intense and breathtaking – unlike anything I'd experienced before. As soon as the pain subsided, another contraction swept in to take its place, leaving me gripping the rim of the bath, unable to move. I began to worry. I had the uncomfortable thought that even if the midwife turned up now, she wouldn't be able to get in unless I made it downstairs and unlocked the front door. But I couldn't move, there was blood everywhere, I didn't have any trousers or underwear on – and our front door is made of clear glass.
The phone rang in the middle of another huge contraction. The midwife! I answered, gritting my teeth, ready to beg her to come NOW... but it was my husband, calling to tell me he was 20 minutes away, waiting for a connecting train. He asked if I was OK, and I sobbed that I was not OK and getting a bit scared now. I quickly got off the phone as another contraction rushed in and I couldn't talk through the pain. That was 2.15pm, only a quarter of an hour since my waters had broken.
I began shaking and sweating heavily. In hindsight, I guess this was transition, where the cervix is fully dilated and you are ready to push. I ripped off my clothes to try to cool down, then grabbed a dressing gown from the bathroom door so I could make another attempt to head downstairs. But then I had the most overwhelming "urge to push". It was an action that overtook me completely – the pressure in my pelvis was unbearable unless I bore down. With my first daughter I had arrived at hospital fully dilated, but it took two hours of teeth-gritting effort to push her out. I had never experienced this intense, primal force and it blindsided me.
I began to panic. I remember staring at the front of my medical notes where heavy black type said: "Having a baby is not an emergency for most women, and does not require an ambulance." I was pretty sure by now that this was an emergency. But my whole focus was on trying to hold back the tide. Desperately trying to recall anything I knew about slowing labour, I dropped to my knees, put my bottom in the air and tried to pant.
But I was helpless to stop my body from pushing. Feeling enormous pressure now, I put one hand between my legs and was pretty sure that I could feel the baby's head. Then I knew I was going to have to finish this alone – there was no chance anyone would be here in time. I threw the bath mat on the tiles and decided that if this was really happening, there was no way on earth that the baby was getting stuck – I needed to get it out as quickly as possible. In only a few pushes, my baby was born.
Delivering Lois is a bit of a blur. Most people want to know if I caught her or dropped her on the floor – exactly how did it happen? I'm a bit stuck for an answer. I suppose I must have caught her, putting my hands behind me from my low squat on all fours, but I can't really remember. In those moments I was preoccupied with whether the umbilical cord was around her neck. But she immediately cried loudly, and as I gathered her sticky wet body to me I could tell she was healthy. I grabbed the phone and shakily dialled 999. As I was giving my details I heard my husband's key in the lock downstairs. The paramedics followed swiftly – one ambulance for me, one for the baby; in the end, neither used – and the midwife finally arrived from another home birth round the corner from our house, full of apologies for missing it all. After a long wait to deliver the placenta, and a lot of stitching up, everyone left us with our healthy new baby girl.
My overriding sense of this birth is one of enormous luck. We were extremely fortunate that it was straightforward, that nothing went wrong for either of us. I was lucky our elder daughter was out of the house. It was even very lucky that the paramedics didn't need to break the front door down. Our bodies and minds are amazing – for weeks afterwards I monitored myself carefully, waiting for the post-traumatic shock to kick in, but it hasn't. Lois is a delight – healthy, happy, putting on weight like a champion and, despite her dramatic and hurried entrance, a very calm character. Every baby feels like a gift, but I know we're particularly blessed to have her.
The father's story
"Nothing I went through can compare with my wife's experience, but I doubt I will ever get as great a shock as seeing her sitting on the bathroom floor, a pool of blood around her legs, cradling our minty-fresh baby girl in her arms.
Childbirth is already an abstract experience for a father – you will never feel more impotent, unable to take any of the heft besides weathering the abuse thrown your way – but missing Lois's birth reinforced all the reasons that I wanted to be there. And I missed it by only a couple of minutes.
Upon entering a silent house – panting after running from the station – I expected midwives to be bustling around Debbie in the living room, so I ran upstairs to find her. At first I couldn't process what greeted me. I didn't see Lois for a good 30 seconds, asking, "where are the midwives?" before, "you've... got... a baby". Then I was in shock, which made my communications with the 999 chap somewhat clumsy. But as Lois gave a long cry, I knew that she and Debbie were OK.
Then came the guilt for not being there (I had stopped for 10 minutes to get a sandwich so I would have "energy for the birth"; with hindsight, I know that not doing that wouldn't have changed the train timetable, but still...). I began to imagine how Debbie must have felt but couldn't conceive how she had done it all alone – I would have lost the plot and created a new breed of super-panic if the roles had been reversed.
The paramedics swept in, the cord was cut and I was handed our daughter as Debbie was transferred to the bed. The guilt left me as I was filled with awe at what my wife had done, how strong she had been.
Once all the medics and midwives had left, we had a brief period alone with our newest arrival, marvelling at how she had entered the world, before the childminder dropped off our whirling-dervish elder daughter, who simply shouted "baby, baby!" for a few minutes. And that was it – our new family dynamic was in place. My daughter's experience mirrored mine: we went out in the morning and there was no baby; we came home and there she was.
While I wish I could have held Debbie's hand and shouted down the phone at medical professionals to hurry up, I know we're still amazingly lucky. Nature did its job and reminded us that our bodies are supposed to do these things. Everything has become so medicalised that we're programmed to see it as a potential hazard – Lois is proof that it doesn't have to be that way. It does seem that when childbirth is at its most natural, it can take you by surprise. But I still get cold sweats when I think that if I had got back in time, I would have had to deliver the baby."