12 months ago, I would have presumed the title of this post was referring to something very different.
However, since then the word ‘labour’ has come to mean only one thing in my mind. And so instead of a post revealing the truth about Jeremy Corbyn’s policies, I decided it might be useful/entertaining to debunk some myths about the birthing process, especially for any prospective fathers who are as clueless as I was.
It’s worth saying at this point that one thing which isn’t a myth is the fact that your partner will not want to relive any aspect of the labour experience in the immediate aftermath. Therefore, as an addendum to Dan’s post on what not to say during labour, I’d advise against any description that goes into even moderate detail when family members and friends ask how it went. Now that our son is six months, I’m just about on safe ground going public with what’s below.
Myths About Labour
Myth #1: There is always a distinct and dramatic moment when contractions begin
In my head, there was going to be a moment during a mundane, everyday activity when my wife gasped, looked at me with a mixture of panic and excitement, and declared ‘it’s starting…!’ Instead, there were a few days of twinges, which became more regular on a Thursday night. Blissfully unaware, I woke up to this news on Friday morning and we had a brief discussion about whether I’d go to work or not. I did, and my wife enjoyed a relatively normal day, including tea and cake with a friend in the afternoon. I think the first distinctly recognisable contraction came during the first half of England v Scotland that Friday night. Even then, we carried on watching, with my wife enduring fairly irregular moments of breathlessness and discomfort. I never imagined a Gary Cahill header to be the backdrop to the beginning of our labour experience…
Myth #2: The wild rush to the hospital
Fast forward about 7 hours. (Another thing I hadn’t imagined was that my main contribution during this time would be to adopt some kind of weird official timekeeper role, measuring length of contractions and time between each one). After a second phone call to the Labour Ward, it became clear that we needed to make our way to hospital.
Until this point, my main reference point for journeys in the light of an imminent birth was an episode of Gavin and Stacey where Gavin and Smithy floor it down the M4. Fortunately you’ll be glad to know that we didn’t have to encounter traffic, toll bridges or unfathomably chatty policemen in the 0.9 miles between our house and the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. Instead, there was a definite lack of wild rushing about. Yes, my wife was in a lot of pain. However, besides that the experience was a bit like a bleary eyed journey to the airport for an early morning flight, where you have the nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten something.
Myth #3: Husbands mill around in a waiting room drinking coffee
I’m pretty sure that a common scene in films/hospital-based TV dramas is that of nervous husbands gathered around the coffee machine, drinking out of cheap plastic cups and making conversation in solidarity. I’m also pretty sure that this never happens in real life. I might be wrong, but I never even got the chance to find out if the Labour Ward has a coffee machine. I did leave the bedside to go to the toilet, but even then there was an en-suite. In hindsight, it may not have been a bad idea to go and get some food as the cereal bars/bananas I’d packed didn’t quite do the job of keeping my energy levels up over the course of 15 hours.
(Although actually, on reflection, those 15 hours may not have been the time to comment on my energy levels).
Myth #4: Your partner will be grunting/yelling/screaming throughout
Of course, there was agonising pushing towards the end, but I think what surprised me most was that for the vast majority of the 15 hours or so that we were in our room on Labour Ward, there was an almost eerily quiet, serene atmosphere. (It’s possible my wife wouldn’t use the word serene). Gas and air was arguably the major factor in creating this atmosphere, which my wife described – in a tone not dissimilar to Ron Weasley – as ‘bloody brilliant’.
I think it’s fair to say that this atmosphere wasn’t replicated inside my head, where every time the monitor indicated that my wife’s pulse was slightly too high, or our baby’s slightly too low, I was internally shouting at the midwife that something was wrong. In truth, I think we would have liked a slightly livelier atmosphere, or at least a more talkative one, which I’d initiate in the future. Perhaps I could bring that policeman from Gavin and Stacey along…
Myth #5: You will regularly refer to, and follow, the birth plan
Birth what, sorry?
(More seriously, it is valuable to create one. Just be prepared for it to change).
Myth #6: Holding/swaddling/dressing your new born baby comes naturally
I remember during our antenatal course learning about the importance of skin-to-skin contact for the baby, as soon as possible after birth. As the mum is often otherwise engaged, it often falls to the dad to do this. I also remember feeling distinctly confused when being told that this could be done by holding the baby under your t-shirt; how would manoeuvring a new born baby into this position be possible? However, I assumed that nature would take over and all would become clear. I even wore a loose fitting t-short in anticipation.
I’m still none the wiser. After a very brief and clumsy attempt (and not really wanting to disturb the doctor and midwife who were attending to my wife), I went with the simpler option of laying baby down and taking t-shirt off, before picking him back up. This episode was only matched by my attempt to swaddle our new son in blankets and change his first nappy. Meanwhile, I remain in awe of midwifes’ abilities to handle and dress babies in a way that I’d only have the confidence to do with a teddy bear.
Despite unearthing the truth behind a number of myths, the experience of going through (ok, watching someone else go through) labour did prove to me that there are a number of conceptions about labour which are not false. Midwifes and doctors really are exceptionally calm under pressure. Gas and air is surprisingly effective. The birthing partner’s hand is squeezed to its limits. My wife is a hero. Watching your baby being born is a surreal and incredible experience.
Nothing could have fully prepared me for the experience of labour. The antenatal course (Parentwise) that we attended certainly set me in good stead, enabling us to go on the journey with a great group of people and ensuring that my biological knowledge at least was up to scratch. However, I think I experienced more emotions in 24 long hours of last November than I previously knew existed. I’ve certainly learned a lot.
I guess there’s no excuse for not acting like a seasoned pro if there’s a next time…