Birth of Freya – 6 months on

I wasn’t sure if I’d ever write Freya’s birth story, but here I am 6 months down the line, feeling compelled to put pen to paper. In many ways her exit from my womb on 16 February 2021 was largely uneventful. In other ways it was difficult, magical and the toughest lesson of my life.

Waiting at Southmead Hospital

Throughout my pregnancy I did everything in my power to prepare for the birth I wanted. An all-natural water birth at a midwife-led unit. No medication, no tubes, no bright lights, no strangers, no hurry. In a pool, in the dark, with my ethereal music on, the aroma of lavender – just me, Harv and my breath to get me through. So I read the books, took a hypnobirthing course, learnt all my options, meditated, visualised, did pregnancy yoga, Pilates, sat on a birth ball, practiced partner massage, wrote my birth plan, did my pelvic floor exercises, quite literally prepared my body and mind in every way possible. I even massaged my perineum with almond oil. All for my dream birth. People spend months planning their weddings, so why not do the same for the birth of my baby?

At 32 weeks pregnant a scan showed our baby was in a breech position, sitting happily on her bum. No worries – there was time for her to turn. At 34 weeks I could still feel her head pressing up into my ribs, and the midwife confirmed she was still breech. Most babies had turned by now. Panic set in. I really didn’t want a cesarean. I felt a mixture of shame and determination. Was it somehow my fault she wasn’t in the right position, with her head down. Had I been lazy? I’d been out walking nearly every day, doing yoga, Pilates, but it clearly wasn’t enough. ‘Breech babies are due to sedentary lifestyles’ they say, ‘bad posture’ they say. People recommended a website called Spinning Babies. It’s full of dozens – if not hundreds – of exercises you need to do that will turn your baby. Do headstands, it said, lie upside down off the sofa. Get down on the floor and your partner can pull your hips back with a scarf. Talk to your baby, ask it to turn. My midwife said crawl around the flat on all fours as much as you can. Friends said drink coffee, eat chocolate. Go for a drive. See an osteopath. Try moxibustion. The latter is an acupuncture technique which involves your partner burning poker hot sticks of mugwort leaves near your little toes for 20 minutes a day to stimulate the downwards energy meridian.

Experiments with Moxibustion

I did it all. Literally everything. I went insane. The moxibustion felt the most ridiculous. The image of Harv burning hot sticks on a tealight then holding them by my little toes for the most awkward 20 minutes a day for about 7 days in a row will be etched in my retina forever. Me saying ‘too hot move away’, ‘no can’t feel anything’, ‘come closer’, ‘light it again’… while the flat’s full of stinky black smoke and we’ve manoeuvred in to a deeply uncomfortable position – me on the sofa, him kneeling at my feet at the only angle that enables us both to watch an episode of Friday Night Dinner whilst we reluctantly complete the task (chosen because it’s a handy 20 mins long). Amazingly this technique does work for about 60% of people (although I do wonder if you can ever know exactly what caused your baby to turn!). It didn’t work for us. My shame compounded. Maybe I wasn’t doing enough headstands? I’d been talking to the baby in the bath, hadn’t she heard me? Surely there was something I could do? 

At 36 weeks I went to hospital for a procedure called ECV. A last desperate attempt at turning her. Two consultants prodded my womb with immense pressure and tried to make her somersault. One of them jabbed in so hard the pain made me instantly cry. It worked for my Mum when I was breech (hers sounded far more gentle) but it didn’t work for us. Freya was too big, my womb was too narrow. She was happy where she was. I had two options, breech delivery or a c section. The consultant said given her size a breech delivery presented a number of risks. The cord getting wrapped around her, head stuck, lack of oxygen. Broken bones. Shudder. The staff aren’t experienced with breech delivery because most people don’t opt for it. Did I really want to take that risk? The fear alone would be enough to stop my labour flowing naturally. 

There was nothing I could do now. I had to do what was best for Freya. I swallowed my pride and booked in for a c section there and then. They sent me the date by text message. Unlike many mums, I knew exactly when I was going to meet my baby. I felt disappointment. All my plans were for nothing. I’d reached the point where I had been genuinely excited about giving birth. About writhing around on all fours, roaring like a sweaty cave woman as the earth moves through me. Peering down at the baby I’ve squeezed out, letting the cord pulsate for as long as we can. I may not ever know what that feels like – although I’m sure my imagination is far more romantic than the reality. I also felt relief. Finally I could stop this ridiculous obsession with turning her and enjoy the last week of my pregnancy. It was out of my hands now. 

I was grateful they could get her out safely, but at the same time the idea of being incapacitated and hopeless was the opposite of how I wanted to feel. I’d wanted no medication, no tubes, no bright lights, no strangers, no hurry – and that was exactly what I was getting. I’d also cared so much about the tiny details, like delayed cord clamping and the microbiome, which I had to forget about now, and I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed.

I Googled ‘how to accept your planned c section’ and found solace reading posts on online forums by women going through similar emotions over a decade ago. I grieved what felt like a small but not insignificant loss. I sat there on the bean bag at 3am and cried. I’m grateful I had a chance to do this before the event itself.  I grieved for the perfectionist in me who had failed to create the perfect space or right level of ambience for my baby to rotate. The perfectionist who now wouldn’t get a chance to make use of all the mental, physical & emotional preparation that I’d invested huge time & effort in for the magical finale. On the flip side, Freya would be safe. No broken bones. I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for her though. Her home was about to be raided and she’d be wrestled out by force. I knew it, but she didn’t. I kept telling her what was about to happen in the hope she may understand.

Being driven to hospital knowing I’d come back with my baby was exciting and incredibly nerve-wracking. I listened to hypnobirthing audios religiously to keep me calm that morning, and in the days before. The cesarean procedure itself was very straightforward. After a short consultation with the anaesthatist I was taken into theatre and given a spinal anaesthetic which made me numb from the chest down. They let me put relaxing music on in theatre which was a welcome distraction to whatever was going on behind the curtain. The anaesthetic numbs your abdominal pain receptors but not your sense of touch so I could feel people rummaging around inside me for about 20 minutes. It’s all surprisingly quick. Freya was born at 11.20am on Tuesday 16th February 2021. She weighed 9lb. The song Ong Namo by Snatam Kaur was playing while they operated (one of my favourite bath-time listens and one which helped me accept the c section with the lyrics ‘this is your way, this is your grace’).

We meet for the first time

Freya had trouble breathing so wasn’t brought around the curtain straight away. We had what felt like the longest 5-10 minutes of my life when extra pediatric staff were rushed in to help her breathe. At that point I still hadn’t seen her. There was initial mention of a trip to ICU but thankfully she let out her first cry and the whole theatre sighed with relief. We cried. Harv went over to see her. I couldn’t stop asking everyone if she was ok. They said she was just a bit stunned and a bit cold. The poor darling. Mirror ball by Elbow was now on the birth playlist (Harv’s choice). She was placed on my chest wrapped in blankets and our eyes met for the first time. We gazed deeply into each other’s eyes for what felt like an eternity. She was so beautiful. 

Our hospital stay was intense but thankfully very short. Harv was asked to leave shortly after the procedure due to Covid restrictions -we were still in full lockdown. Waiting for his visiting windows felt like an eternity. I also couldn’t wait to escape the woman in the bed next to me who kept shouting at her newborn to shut up and making inappropriately loud phone calls about her ASBO and court hearings to everyone in her phone book. I was very thankful not to stay longer, but missed the button-operated bed when I got home.

Recovering from major surgery was hard. I think it always is. But after a C section you’re doing it on no sleep with a tiny vulnerable human drinking whatever vital energy you have. I was on painkillers every 4 hours (round the clock) for about 6 weeks. And I’m not somebody who medicates unless absolutely necessary. I had to learn how to walk again. How to carry my baby. How to drive. Even how to breathe again. For months my breath felt shallow and empty. I saw a brilliant woman’s health osteopath who helped get my rib cage moving properly. She said it’s common to have breathing difficulties after a planned C section because you don’t get the traction needed to pull your organs back into place. For weeks I was utterly exhausted, tearful, ravenously starving, but overwhelmed with love and gratitude for Harv, perfect little Freya and everyone who helped us stay afloat. 

My scar healed well physically, but emotionally it took much longer to come to terms with the procedure. My mind kept wandering back to what was going on behind that curtain. The sound of chainsaws triggered images of being sliced open. My nerve endings were also affected. My belly felt freezing cold to touch, and I still had daily aching & cramps in my womb for up to four months after. I felt a swirling sinking aching feeling whenever I had a chance to rest on my own, like take a solo bath. I enjoyed taking baths with Freya though – sharing watery cuddles in candlelight to the sound of her birth playlist, paying homage to the water birth that never was. I think she appreciated it as much as I did!

The cheeky little bean

I initially felt like because I had a planned cesarean I had failed, like I somehow didn’t ‘give birth’ or that my birth was of lower value. Some people say c sections are the ‘easy way out’. This couldn’t be further from how it felt. Emotionally it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was everything I didn’t want for her entry to the world, and I laid myself down to a team of strangers to be cut open for Freya whilst wide awake. I sacrificed myself for her – my body, my energy, my breath. 

Freya’s birth story has taught me some things are just completely out of my control, and no amount of preparation, headstands or shamanic mugwort leaves will change it. It’s reminded me to be grateful even if your entire plan is thrown under a bus. It could’ve been so much worse. At least I had the huge gift of preparing for the cesarean before it happened, rather than during a labour emergency. I’m also thankful that our breastfeeding journey started well and is still going strong.

There was one line on the online forum about cesarean acceptance that I’d been reading which stuck with me. Freya can’t talk yet but I imagine it’s what she’s saying behind that playful gummy smile at 5am as yet another mustard yellow poo seeps through her clothes. It said ‘Welcome to motherhood. There’s nothing more zen than learning to roll with the punches’.

It may not have been the birth I wanted but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. Why? Because this was the only path that led me to her. This will always be our story.

You are not a drop in the ocean.

I had the recent fortune of watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean from the west coast of Sri Lanka. The sun was pink and benevolent, the waves crisp and strong; the water a boundless muscle of infinite might.

I felt humbled as I always do at these moments. The power of nature was staring me in the face and reminding me of my own insignificance.

Sometimes in life my insignificance bothers me. I work for an environmental charity and at times my career feels like an uphill battle against the stupidity of human ignorance. Working day after day on issues like tropical deforestation, plummeting biodiversity, diet-related ill health, and the factory farming of sentient beings, can make you feel powerless – like a drop in the ocean. There’s so much sadness in the world that is out of my control. I probably wouldn’t have continued this line of work if it wasn’t for yoga.

In India they have a prayer called the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra. It’s a nourishing mantra which reminds us of our immortality. In the West the notion of immortality is often misunderstood. Although it’s true that one day my body will cease to receive life, the great ocean of consciousness – which I am part of – will remain. Others will receive life from it after me. This mantra is a prayer to Lord Shiva, the creator and destroyer of all things. Its final verse – ‘urvārukam-iva bandhanān mṛtyormukṣīya amṛtāt’ – asks that Shiva may sever us from our bondage to worldly life, like a cucumber being severed from bondage to its creeper; and thus liberate us from any fear of death, by reminding us of our immortal nature.

It’s a lesson in non-attachment. Sometimes we are so attached to our worldly pursuits that we suffer. We forget the bigger picture. We forget that we’re part of something so much greater than ourselves. The reality is each of us is just a little cucumber through which the creeper of consciousness experiences itself for a while.

To bring this to life I like to think about all the people who have ever lived and died before me. Their efforts and their part in the world we live in now. I allow myself to feel overwhelmed by the gravity of this. Then I stop thinking about that and I think about how I am here now. Right now. Right now each of us are at a pinnacle of the evolution of consciousness. With every new breath we take, we receive a fresh gift of life. Why is it so easy to forget this? The more we tune back in to this magic, and give thanks to each breath, the more we can detach from worldly troubles. Ultimately this is what meditation is all about.

The more time I spent meditating by the river Ganges in 2017, the more I understood. Up in the Himalayas the roaring sound of the Ganges – snaking and slicing its way through towns and villages – is a backdrop to daily life for millions of people. It’s also where I did my yoga teacher training. The sheer volume of water and relentless sound of the beast, as we chanted this mantra, served a constant reminder that I’m nothing but a witness to forces greater than myself. I soon realised my past is nothing but a story, my future unwritten. The thoughts in my head are just a soundtrack to the dance of life. We are infinitely insignificant. Just fireflies blowing in the wind.

The power in this is transformative. If life is nothing but a gift to be experienced, then for your short time on Earth what kind of life do you want to witness? What will be your attitude to the ever changing currents? How will you dance, and what will be your soundtrack?

These days, when I feel like a drop in the ocean, I tune in to my breath and give thanks for my part in the play. I give thanks that I am here to take part, experience life despite its struggles, that I can share love, joy, peace, and insights and see how things unfold in my lifetime. And that’s the best I can ever do.

As I stood there in Sri Lanka, watching the sinking sun become engulfed by the ocean I was reminded of the great Rumi quote: ‘You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean, in a drop’. And I smiled.

Outside nearly every Hindu temple in north India you can find a small table where a man or woman sells flowers and cucumbers.