Labour and the days that followed were a stark reminder to me that ultimately we have no control over the moments that most dramatically shape our lives.
I could prepare endlessly for those events – and I did – but I couldn’t determine how they would unfold.
Life does its own thing
My contractions began on a Sunday morning and I was in pre-labour for three days, mostly at home, with contractions every 5 to 20 minutes. The baby was posterior and contractions never built into a regular rhythm.
On the second day we went into hospital for a check-up and I got a drug (that I can’t remember the name of) which helped me to sleep for two hours at home, so that we could pretty much ‘hit the reset’ button and start again.
But things progressed the same for the rest of that day and the next. When we returned to the hospital on Tuesday evening we discovered I was 3cm dilated.
For those not familiar with labour terminology, ‘three centimetres’ is a dreaded term. You’re hoping to hear ‘eight’ or ‘nine and a half’ because ten is the golden number that means your baby is about to arrive.
So things were progressing very slowly and I was getting exhausted. To get things moving, we opted for an induction, which meant getting hooked up to a drug called syntocinon that strengthened contractions and made them come more regularly.
I also opted for an epidural. It doesn’t work for some people but the pain relief kicked in quickly for me and it was heavenly.
Before long I was sitting up in bed, all hyper and full of chat while I watched my contractions pitching on a monitor, not feeling a thing.
This was Tuesday night and we were sure that by Wednesday morning (Valentine’s Day) we’d be on our way, but things still progressed slowly. By 4am I was 4cm.
Labour continued through the full of the next day and at 10pm my pain relief was pulled so that I could feel contractions again and we began pushing.
The pain hit like a ton of bricks but I thought we were so close to meeting our baby, that it initially seemed manageable.
Christy Moore’s Beeswing was playing, a song I love, and I thought, ‘oh the baby will be born to this’. Then our wedding song came on, Etta James’ At Last and I thought, ‘how fitting for the baby to be born during this’.
But it wasn’t to be. I pushed for about 90 minutes (it actually only seemed like 10) but the baby wasn’t coming out.
She had been monitored throughout the induction process and at this point, for the first time, she began showing signs of distress, so an emergency c-section was quickly deemed our best option.
And so it was in theatre at 1am on Thursday 15th February 2018 that we finally got to meet our amazing Grace, all 9lbs of her. The surgeons laughed at her size, and my heart melted with relief when I heard her wailing behind me.
The labour could have been traumatic, but it wasn’t. I had really been hoping for a natural birth so we’d attended a brilliant birthing course called She Births, which taught us a lot of tricks and tools for natural pain relief and staying calm – massage, breathing techniques etc.
It also educated us about the process of labour – I thought I knew how babies were born, turns out I hadn’t a clue!! – and it left me feeling fearless, even excited about going into labour.
So I was relaxed during those first three days at home. I watched the sun rising behind Sydney’s city skyline and binged on an entire series of Downton Abbey; I drank herbal tea and ate pizza, all while moving through various positions and techniques to ease the contractions.
I’ll always look back on those few days as being very peaceful and beautiful.
As things progressed in the hospital and obstacles arose at every turn, it was really helpful to us that we understood what was going on and talked through our options with our amazing midwife. I knew why I needed to go for a caesarean in the end and I was comfortable with that.
It wasn’t the water birth I’d been hoping for – but it was fine!
A scarier turn
However, the rollercoaster didn’t end with delivery. By Thursday afternoon we noticed that Grace had pinkish lumps on her arms and her beautiful little hands were limp.
Before long she was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and a frightening week followed in which we waited for test results to establish what was going on.
The doctors had seen her symptoms before but never in both hands, so specialists from every department of the hospital were called in to assess Grace.
The most obvious diagnosis was that she had ‘fat necrosis’ in her arms and bilateral Erb’s palsy – a condition caused by nerve damage sustained during birth or in the womb and one that often heals fully in time, depending on the severity of the damage.
This was the diagnosis we were hoping for and thankfully, as the test results came in day by day, nothing contradicted it or suggested anything more serious.
We got home a week after Grace was born, but were readmitted a week later when infection appeared to have set in.
After another week of testing (in isolation, because Grace had come into contact with a health professional who had shingles) we were sent home with a few months of weekly follow-up appointments.
We were elated. It had been a hugely emotional month of highs and lows.
The lowest moment
I remember at one point sitting under a tree outside the hospital with my husband, both of us in stunned silence. We’d just been told by one doctor that Grace might never ‘walk, run or kick a ball’.
As I looked up through the branches of the tree to a beautiful blue sky, I thought, “our lives can go in one of two vastly different directions right now”.
Either we’d proceed on track with the luxury that good health brings a family, being able to freely navigate the world with all its possibilities and opportunities. Or our lives would take a more challenging path.
The decision was not ours to make. Life just does its thing.
It’s mind-blowing to me that every moment of every day, there are people behind hospital walls facing these life-defining moments – while the rest of the world casually goes about its daily business, taking everything for granted.
A walk by the river. Coffee. Getting the train to work.
We will forever be grateful to the incredible people who helped us during those days.
To our midwife at Westmead Hospital who slept there for days as she guided us through that protracted labour. You’re a hero. (We were in the public health system and it was outstanding).
To all the midwives in the Birth Unit and Maternity Ward. Thank you.
To the dedicated nurses, doctors and consultants who left no stone unturned as they cared for Grace and worked toward a diagnosis in the NICU and at Westmead Children’s Hospital. The work you do is unparalleled.
To all the volunteers at the Children’s Hospital; wonderful, kind people who nursed Grace in her room while I ran for a coffee or food and who filled the building with colour and cake sales. The comfort you bring families is so much appreciated.
And to our families at home, praying through sleepless nights as they waited for updates. I’m sorry we were so far away when you wanted to help.
Every baby’s birth is so precious and – like everything in life – so unpredictable.
Good care and kindness were our good fortune when the going got tough.