Want a home birth? My advice is, ‘Be prepared!’ The news that Patricia Hewitt wants more women to be able to opt for a home birth came as music to my ears. It is almost one year ago to the day that I gave birth to our daughter, standing - quite literally - in a birthing pool, squeezed into what is now her bedroom along with my boyfriend and our two midwives.
It had been a brisk, nineteen hour labour and though extremely tough at times, it hadn’t been unendurable. Aside from a glass of wine, a tens machine and the pool, I had not needed any pain relief. No stitches were required, the baby was healthy and relaxed. Two hours later, the midwives tucked us all into our bed and left for the night. “You’re so brave,” people had said to me before the birth, when I told them I was planning a home birth. “You’re so lucky,” they said afterwards when I told them my birth story. Actually, I don’t think I was particularly brave or lucky: in fact, I think I got the birth I deserved.
That may sound rather smug, but rather like an athlete training for a competition, I had spent a great deal of time and effort preparing for this important day. As soon as I found out I was pregnant I had started to ask friends and acquaintances about their birth experiences. A pretty clear split soon emerged: basically, hospital births bad, home births good. I was alarmed by the huge number of caesareans that seemed to be going on: in my particular circle, for those that had gone into hospital, more had had ‘emergency’ caesareans than vaginal births. Endless tales of tearing, epidurals that hadn’t worked properly, and unpleasant, unhelpful aftercare – not to mention one baby that had left hospital with MRSA - did little to encourage me to take the conventional, hospital path. By contrast, all the home-birthers, several husbands and even a mother-in-law all waxed lyrical about what a positive, enriching experience the natural, home route had proved.
Still undecided as to whether I would actually bite the bullet and do it at home, but knowing that I wanted it to remain an option, I started to look for an independent midwife, and quickly chose Jacqui Tompkins from the London Birth Practice. Not only had Jacqui been highly recommended but she had an air of brisk assuredness that I immediately took to; she was experienced (she reckons she has delivered over 500 babies) and was extremely well informed – she filled me with confidence. At just over £3000, her services do not come cheap, but I felt that it was worth it.
Over the next few months Jacqui and Kylie Wallace, one of the other two midwives in the practice, took it in turns to visit Giles and I at our house every few weeks. Each time they would check the baby, answer any queries and stay for a chat. They had endless tips and remedies for the many delightful ailments that pregnancy triggers - a different one each week, it felt like - and as the weeks went by we all got to know one other, and to be pretty comfortable in each other’s company.
I continued working throughout my pregnancy but was careful not to stay late, to do plenty of walking each day and to attend my weekly yoga class. I also, along with my boyfriend, did a weekend hypnobirthing course (I loved it, he detested it) and had several acupuncture sessions (‘I give you smooth birth’, promised Dr Zhu). And, on my midwives’ instructions I spent the last trimester leaning forward in chairs or flopping over a birthing ball at every opportunity so that the baby had the best possible chance of getting into a good position.
In the end all the preparation paid off. As labour started I was in good physical health - the pregnancy had had no major complications and the baby was in the perfect position. Crucially, I was also in an excellent place mentally and despite having the odd lingering doubt that I wouldn’t be able to cope, I did feel utterly confident in my midwives’ hands and trusted them completely to lead me through the journey that lay ahead. At no time had we actually ruled out going into hospital, but as the labour progressed, it just became clear that we weren’t going to need to. The result was an 8lb 4oz baby and two very happy, if slightly stunned parents.
Yes, of course I admit that in one respect I was lucky: I was able to afford to spend three grand on two of the best midwives in the business. I am aware that many women don’t have this luxury and are left to join the lottery that is the NHS system. From my experience – and I was seeing hospital midwives and my GP throughout my pregnancy - it’s a system which takes the responsibility of giving birth away from the women and their midwives and places it instead with the consultants and the surgeons. It seemed to me that the care I received from the hospital was completely focused on what could go wrong with the labour, with absolutely no mention of preparation, either physically or mentally for a good birth. It’s a system which allows women to enter the labour ward unprepared, under-informed, and often extremely frightened - no wonder, then, so many of them have a thoroughly horrible time of it as a consequence. But if Patricia Hewitt is true to her word then perhaps childbirth can be given back to the midwives and to the home, it can be treated as a natural event which women can anticipate and prepare for actively and positively. Perhaps then many many more women will be able to have a life-enhancing, confidence-giving experience of birth, as I did.