My U.K. birth story

6 Sept 2017

It is Saturday morning. 3 days past my due date. I had a membrane sweep two days ago to try and get things going naturally. Correction. The midwife came to my house and attempted the sweep but she backed out when I found it particularly uncomfortable. It is Saturday morning and it seems nothing is happening.

my UK birth story

My first pregnancy has been pretty uneventful. I have had my two scheduled fully-paid-for scans. I have had regular visits with a community midwife at my local's GP (doctor) practice. These mostly consisted of listening to the heartbeat of the baby and measuring my belly. No weighing (thankfully) except at the very first appointment. I have no comparison point at this stage as it is my first baby. So far so good, I am pretty happy with the care. I am a little surprised by the fact that I never see a doctor though. Everything is handled through the midwife. She is lovely but barely touches me. How can a medical person check everything barely ever touching the patient or even making observations of what is going on down under? In France, where I come from, a gynaecologist follows a pregnancy. I am not for medicalising pregnancy. It is not a disease after all. But to my French cultural instinct, someone with a little more medical knowledge should at least take a look once in a while. In any case, despite the last minute unexpected scan a few days before Christmas (because the midwife who doesn't touch me can't be sure baby is head down), it was all rather easy. We spent Christmas in the U.K. As we feel the due date is too close to go to either of our homes. And to be fair, even if Christmas is a little lonely with just the two of us, after over 10 years here, we feel at home.

As we joke that we may have to go for yet another long beach walk to get that baby moving, I get up from the bed, on this winter Saturday morning, and my waters break. Right there, all over the brand new carpet we installed in our brand new house.
Excited, we rush around making preparations. I take a bath. The husband rings the hospital. It is a mere 15 minutes away. Home births are legal in the U.K. But having witnessed close friends lose their baby after a normal pregnancy and a home birth, there is no way I am chancing this even if it was, sadly, a highly unusual situation. The hospital staff advise we come in even if I have no contractions yet. A quick phone call to France, to my mum, and we are off.

It is January. There is an unusual amount of snow on the streets in Northern England. The husband has been shovelling snow every day for the past week. Just in case.

At the hospital, we are ushered in a monitoring room. My contractions are too weak and too far apart. They send us home. That's right. It is really common in the U.K. for hospitals to send women home even in early stages of labour. We had been warned about this. So we head to the supermarket to get something to eat. While there, I remember joking to my husband that the contractions are really not that bad. I can do this! My birth plan is all written down. I want everything to be as natural as possible. A water birth, if a room is available, no c-section and breastfeeding, of course. I am ready.
We get home, have some lunch and a nap. I can't sleep much. I keep waking up. My mum rings surprised and worried we are back home.

The contractions become stronger so we head back to the hospital mid-afternoon. As I am still barely dilated, they put us in a monitoring room. We stay there for what seems like ages. I request gas and air as the contractions become stronger. This stuff is magic. I absolutely love it. I never felt nauseous on it as some do. Finally, after a few hours, I am dilated enough to be moved to a labour room. Unfortunately, no room with a big bath is available. This is the first thing that goes not as planned. Despite the midwives taking notice of the birth plan and discussing it with us, I am disappointed.

In the labour room, things progress fine. It is evening and I am 9 cm dilated. I am not entirely sure what happens next. It is a bit of a blur. There is some confusion about what happens and in what order. I think my memory blocked part of this phase until the actual delivery. I am told I can try to start pushing as things are not progressing anymore. There is no urge everyone talks about though. The midwife is a lovely one who puts me at ease and is amazing at explaining things. Things still don't progress. Baby is still too high and I am exhausted. They mention an epidural. I refuse.  I can do this. There is a short moment where the baby's heart rate is mentioned and everyone is aware of it and worried. The baby is getting tired too. I can feel things are not progressing. I cannot feel baby going down. Just pain. Just enormous contractions and no progress. I keep telling my husband that. I may be light headed with the gas at that time but I am 100% sure about this. Another hour or so pass by and they mention the epidural again. The husband and I talk about it with the midwife. I say yes and he agrees. The midwife asks him if he is sure after having asked me several times. He says something I will always remember and for which I am eternally grateful: "She is a strong cookie. She can take anything.   If she says yes, she means it as this is not what she wanted. Something is not right and she knows it."

my UK birth story - an expat mum's tale of breastfeeding struggles

The epidural is prepared. A doctor turns up. She tries. Several times. She cannot do it. They keep poking me unsuccessfully between contractions. A more senior doctor is called. He manages it in a few seconds. Phew! We all breathe a sigh of relief. The midwife explains I should sleep a little and we will get back to pushing when the time comes. I manage to rest. The husband sleeps in a chair by my bed. We manage a joke or two. This epidural thing is magical (but not in a nice way for me). I feel weird not being able to move freely. This is so far from what I wanted. An hour or so later, around midnight, we get back to it. I push everything I have. Still nothing. Baby doesn't budge. She is still too high enough. I remember saying every 10 minutes to my husband: "It is not going anywhere. Nothing is happening. Trust me on this." The dreaded c-section is mentioned. My body knows the baby is going nowhere down there, so I agree to it. 
The husband is wisked away to be prepped. Everything is explained. And I am wheeled into the operating theatre. The husband comes back all dressed up. I am nervous, disappointed but grateful he is by my side and ready to meet our baby. Everything goes as well as it could at this point. I remember the surgeon having to push on my belly to make her come down. She said she really was way too high and had her neck all stretched out and couldn't move. 
For the little anecdote, as she comes out, I ask if it is a girl or a boy and my husband says he doesn't know, he can't see. He says: "A boy. I think". Everyone in the theatre shouts: "No! It's a girl". And there she is. Relived, exhausted, we meet our beautiful baby girl.

Even though, the birthing process didn't go as planned, I am grateful for all of the amazing staff who took care of us. They were all really dedicated, kind and very professional. The well-being of my baby was, of course, the priority. I feel relieved, tired and happy. From then on, though, things just get worse.

After the recovery room and saying our goodbyes to the lovely labour midwife, I am moved with my baby to the ward where 5 other women and their babies will be spending the upcoming days and nights. It is now about 6 am. The next 24 hours are a blur of sleepless torture and excruciating pain. Whenever I get my baby to sleep, at least one other one is screaming in the room. Whenever I fall asleep, at least one other mum has a visitor. You see the picture. The staff is hard to come by. I get no support. I just lay there. I can barely grab her out of her crib. I am left almost entirely to my own devices. She doesn't latch on. Nobody helps. When I mention I would like help, someone pops in briefly. She says you are doing it right, she will eventually latch on. Don't worry. Yet, it doesn't feel right.

26 hours after her birth, my husband who went home to rest rings. I cry. I cannot stand any of it. I ask him to come and help. Dads are allowed in anytime, thankfully.
I feel utterly abandoned. My catheter stayed on for much longer than it should have. Nobody is helping with the baby or with me. At some point, my husband asks a passing midwife what the length of stay at the hospital is and what happens next as we feel lost. A midwife turns up an hour or so later and she announces: "You asked to go home, so the paediatrician is coming to check your baby and release you." I can barely walk and now they are shipping me out! I am not sure what is worse. To be honest, I might as well be home because at least we can sleep and get help there from our community midwife. So we agree to it. By the afternoon, I am ready to go home. I can't walk. I haven't showered in 3 days. My baby can't feed properly but I am home. 

Visitors come and visit that night, that week, having been redirected from the hospital. All are shocked we are home. For the next 5 days, a community midwife comes every day. She checks on the baby and me. I still can't feed her properly. It hurts as hell when she latches on and I know it shouldn't. I start resenting having to breastfeed her yet it is the one thing I feel I have to do as everything else went in a totally opposite direction to my wishes. The midwife is really no help. She doesn't have any tips. She keeps mentioning baby is losing weight and maybe formula... Formula is all I hear as I ask for help with breastfeeding.

A week after the birth, we hit rock bottom. The midwife comes after I call her urgently. She thinks I have mastitis. I have a fever, feel flu-ish and my boobs are on fire. She calls the hospital. She sends me there and sends my husband to buy formula. I feel like an utter failure. I feel at my lowest. I could live with the c-section and the epidural but not with this. This is not me. This is not the mother I want to be. Baby girl drinks the whole bottle he gives her while we wait to be seen at the hospital. My heart sinks even further. The doctor confirms mastitis. She gives me antibiotics and a miracle cream. Nothing else. Still, nobody can help me get her to latch on properly or give me any advice with breastfeeding.
Back home, we feed her another bottle. The midwife's regular visits end the next day. She writes on my file that I really want to breastfeed! No joke! Now, a health worker will come once a week to check up on us. She is no baby specialist and even less of a breastfeeding expert. She never even holds my baby or smile at her. She is the most useless person ever. Seriously. Once, while my husband is in the kitchen, she asks if he beats me. ??!! You see, it is on her form and she has to ask! Did I have a black eye on that day? Did I look miserable? No. She just wanted to tick boxes. And even if he did, would I have told her there and then in this manner?
my breastfeeding struggles

The next few weeks are a battle. In the U.K., you cannot drive for 6 weeks after a caesarian. But I am determined. I go to mum groups, breastfeeding groups and read forums online. I finally come across nipple shields and a lady in a La Leche meeting and they save me! I apparently have flat nipples. My baby is struggling to latch on. Nipple shields can help. I keep reading about them diminishing the flow of milk and being a temporary measure. Nobody has anything good to say about the little shields but they save my boobs and she can finally feed properly. We continue mixed feeding for a while as I get mastitis once again. This time, I know the symptoms. I get myself to the doctor before it gets too bad. I manage to avoid a third bout a few weeks later again just by sheer determination. We have reduced the bottles to only once a day. I am winning at this. Finally.

But the midwives and the health visitor, at the weekly baby weigh-in, insist she is not putting on enough weight. She is too little. They keep mentioning increasing formula instead of asking about and encouraging breastfeeding. This seems so wrong to me at the time but I have little support to fight it. 
The health visitor gives us an ultimatum. My baby is over two months old. She smiles. She is very alert. She is a great sleeper. We are happy. However, she wants us to attend a special weigh-in on my birthday and insists that if she doesn't reach her target weight we will have to drop breastfeeding. She explains a new combined feeding schedule we should follow (which, of course, has a lot more bottles of formula and less breast milk). During the week leading up to my birthday, I breastfeed my baby. All the time. Whenever she cries, she is on the boob with my trusted nipple shield. Whenever she fusses, she is on the boob. On my birthday, we go to weigh her in. The husband comes for moral support. We reach her stupid target. I believe there was a high five while the health visitor was not looking!  She is happy and says something along the lines of: "See! Increasing the bottles worked." Little does she know. We won! We made it. We don't have to go to her regular weigh-ins any more as she is happy. For the next 9 months or so, we continue combined feeding with only just one bottle of formula a day my husband gives.

With hindsight, I was extremely disappointed in the health care I received post-natal in the U.K and in particular the lack of breastfeeding support.
How can anyone recover with 5 other women and babies in a single room? I had to do the whole breastfeeding thing on my own.
No information about caesarean and milk coming in later, mastitis, etc. No wonder so many mums give up. I sometimes wonder if these early days of pain and suffering for both of us meant I didn't bond quickly enough with her (now that I know what it was like with the second). I feel incredibly guilty about it even though I know it is not my fault.

Writing this, tears are streaming down my face. I have to get up and give my 7-year-old 'baby' girl an extra hug. I wish someone had been here to tell me it was okay to use the shield and she was getting enough milk. I wish someone had encouraged me instead of telling me to give up.
Writing this has been my therapy. My memory may have blocked some things. Yet, I still feel really strongly about the whole negative experience.

Come back to read about my German birth story in a next chapter. 

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