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December 2016 - my life was changed forever with the birth of my beautiful and healthy daughter. She was tiny, precious and a surprise red-head. As Game of Thrones fans my husband and I turned to each other and both said ‘kissed by fire’. That she certainly is. Unfortunately, that was the only thing about the birth that I could compare to a large cinematic/Hollywood experience. There was not that moment of extreme, intense, heart-imploding love that I had seen for years in the movies. I didn’t instantly feel like a ‘mum’. I felt tired and battered and ultimately deeply in shock.  Here she was, this long anticipated, intensely wanted bundle of pinkness on my chest - looking up at me in the hope that I knew what I was doing, and all I wanted to do was switch off. In that moment, or maybe sometime in the hours prior to her arrival, something inside me had switched off without myself or anyone around me noticing. 

 

The details of the birth are somewhat unimportant. Someone else could have had the exact same experience with a completely different result. Just like every baby is different, every mum is different too - something that is too often lost in the pregnancy conveyer belt. But in short; it was long, it was painful, it was confusing. For me it was the single most frightening and lonely moment of my life. Ultimately I felt unheard and completely out of control. The more I felt this the more I retreated into my own head and was unable to adopt any coping mechanisms that, to be honest, I complacently never bothered to learn.


The result? Months of nightmares. Panic attacks. Inability to breast feed. Essentially an emotional shut down which I later, with help, could recognise as PTSD. To the outside world (including my mum who is a highly trained counsellor) I was fine. My baby was happy and well looked after. I was the mum that had everything under control. Never late for appointments, the first to arrive at mummy meet ups to grab the comfy seats in the coffee shop, the first to get their baby to sleep through the night and to wean. The reality though was that I needed to control everything around me and had just lucked out with a cooperative baby!


However, no matter what I did I could not erase the complete and paralysing fear of ever having to go through the birth experience again. In fact, comparing birth stories with other mums made it worse. I didn’t go through an emergency caesarean, I didn’t need an episiotomy, my baby was born healthy. How could I complain? Still the nightmares continued.   But no matter how terrified I was, I had a clear image in my head of what I wanted my family to look like. The need to give my daughter a sibling was greater than my suffering. I couldn’t imagine feeling worse.


January 2018 - I am pregnant with baby number 2. I should be excited. To some degree I am, but every night when I close my eyes I remember the harsh delivery room lights and the taste of panic. I remember the sound that echoed around the room as my baby very quickly burst from my body. I remember the feeling of being prodded while being encouraged to breast feed for the first time. Bedtime soon becomes a flash back to the night that should have been the most exciting of my life, but in reality, was one of the worst. I lie in bed and wonder what that says about me as a person; as a mother, and night after night I sink deeper until my pillow begins to feel like rock bottom.


It was sheer luck that at 24 weeks pregnant I saw a post on Facebook inviting couples to a free hypnobirthing taster evening. It ticked all the boxes - it was local, it was at a time my husband would be home, it was free.  A mum friend of mine had raved about her hypnobirthing experience and highly recommended that I tried it. I wasn’t certain that it wouldn’t be my ‘thing’ but I found myself sending a message asking to reserve a place. A few days later I found myself nervously surrounded by a group of pregnant couples with an array of bump sizes. As everyone made small talk and tucked into cake I could feel my anxiety levels climbing. The only thing scrolling through my head was, ‘just get through tonight without crying’.  Spoiler alert - I failed. Epically. As the session continued I could feel myself getting lost in my own head - the topics being discussed fizzing around me. I am the only one with my eyes open during a guided meditation. I’m still not sure how I feel about hypnobirthing but the woman running the session is certainly keeping me interested. She’s confident, experienced and incredibly down to earth. She reminds me of a friend but I can’t think who. I start to relax. Enough that after the session I ask to speak to her and then, just like opening Pandora’s box, everything tumbles out of me. I tearfully explain my experience. I tell her my fears going forward with this pregnancy. I tell her things that even my husband is surprised to hear. I know I must look like a mess. I know I dumping way too much on a stranger but she’s not looking at me the way the Health Visitor did when I spoke to her. She’s not just telling me to pull myself together and give it time. I still feel like I’ve hit rock bottom and am stuck in a cold, dark pit, but now, if I look carefully, there is a light and this stranger is standing in it offering a hand. 


That night changed everything. I could no longer pretend to be OK. My husband could not unhear what I had said and I could no longer deny how bad things were. I would like to say that everything improved from that moment but that’s not strictly true. I cried every day for a week or two but the difference was that I didn’t hide it. I spoke more freely and with confidence to friends and family and finally started putting a name to my ‘condition’. I went to counselling sessions. I opened up to my midwife and other professionals; determined to have a different experience this time. The process felt slow and mechanical and all I could think about was the ‘stranger’ from the hypnobirthing session who after numerous Facebook messages now longer felt like a stranger.  She was Charlie. 


We met for coffee and a chat about how things were going, what I had been working on, how hypnobirthing could help me move forward. The whole time we were both aware that my past experience was a giant block in the way - one that needed to be chipped away bit by bit until it was small enough to overcome. However, unlike conversations with other people, Charlie didn’t make little of my experience. She acknowledged it, sympathised with me and not only said that things could be different next time - she made me believe it. Hearing her talk so adamantly about the possibility of a positive birth experience was like listening to a toddler describe their imaginary friend; it’s not something you have seen or experienced but their belief is strong enough that it starts to convince you too.

 

I felt conflicted. I knew the benefits of hypnobirthing. I had spoken to many people that had used it as a tool for a positive birth experience. Yet I wasn’t convinced that my overly logical, control driven brain would succumb to it and I feared that I didn’t have time to prove myself wrong. I was worried to tell Charlie this as I didn’t want her to walk away - after all she had already given me more of her time than I could reasonably expect. The more I thought about it the more I knew that I hypnobirthing wasn’t what I wanted with me while in labour - I wanted Charlie. I needed someone strong and knowledgeable. Someone able to recognise my strength and remind me of it at a time I needed it most. It dawned on me slowly; I needed a Doula. And as though all my stars aligned, Charlie was training to be a Doula and would be ready by my due date. I was so happy that for a moment I forgot my fears.

As the months passed by with increasing speed my husband and I met with Charlie on several occasions.  We discussed the usual pregnancy and birth topics and started to put together a birth plan – oddly something my midwife had never raised.  But more than that we got to know each other better.  Charlie met our daughter, she drank tea and ate cookies on our sofa, she kept me feeling calm.  While we worked on ensuring that this time around would be different from my previous experience it became clear that my son had the same plan and positioned himself firmly in a breech position.  We started planning for an elective caesarean.

If I’m completely honest, which I was not at the time, I was so pleased to have a breech baby.  I knew this meant, if he just stayed put, that I could have a birth experience completely different from my first without having to justifying or explain anything to anyone.  I began looking up ways to make your baby turn and while I didn’t go to the extent of doing the opposite (though I was tempted), I actively avoided doing any of them.  I decided to leave this decision to my unborn son. No encouragement, no intervention – just whatever he wanted to do.  No pressure!  Every morning when I woke up a waited to feel his little feet kick low and his head push into my rib and every morning when he woke up I could feel he had not moved.

Still we continued to plan for both eventualities (and more).  My husband was given homework to watch caesarean videos online to alleviate concerns regarding surgery and I continued to discuss birthing options with Charlie. There was one evening, my daughter was in bed, the house smelt of my favourite candle and I’m pretty sure there were cookies involved.  Charlie was talking about her role in a vaginal delivery.  She was talking about massage, oils, support, comfort, love… everything that was missing from my previous experience.  In that moment, I honestly didn’t mind if the baby moved.  No matter what, Charlie was going to help make this experience not only different but also positive.

Before we knew it, the leaves began changing colour and the air grew cooler.  I looked at my daughter and wondered when I had blinked and missed her growing another inch and her hair getting longer.  She grew accustomed to playing in the hospital waiting area while I had scans, sat plugged into monitors, had blood tests.  Though the baby had decided not to move but he had decided to be a pickle.  The final few weeks were spent more in hospital than at home but I was calm.  I knew the date that my son would arrive and I had my army prepped and ready.  Before I knew it, I was heading into hospital to finally meet my baby.

Charlie was waiting for us just inside the hospital.  As we entered the lift to head up to antenatal I felt like a celebrity with my entourage.  I remembered being in this lift before; already tired, already in pain, already scared.  I was none of those things this time.  I was nervous yet felt completely empowered.  The following hour was a blur of formalities – signing paperwork, meeting the team that would bring my baby into the world, and explaining why I had arrived with someone in addition to my husband.  While faced with some confusion most people we spoke to were incredibly supportive.  Yet the question still lingered – would Charlie be allowed in for the birth?

The short answer is yes – by some twist of luck, or more truthfully, thanks to my husband feeling faint and a fantastic anaesthetist that spotted this, Charlie was allowed in, playing tandem with my husband so that I had constant support.  During the extended period of time it took to insert my spinal block, while lying there numb and expectant, to the moment the screen was dropped so I could witness my son’s arrival (bottom first).  Charlie was there.    In an everyday event for the team involved, and once in a life time for me, my son was born, healthy and gorgeous.  I remember Charlie massaging my arms.  I remember words of comfort and support.  I remember her making me laugh (though we were told off for that). More importantly I remember the feeling of the weight of the past being expelled with the sound of my baby’s first cry. 

Charlie stayed with us until the night.  As feeling started coming back to my legs and my son lay on my chest, I began to commit to memory every part of him.  I felt safe.  I felt calm.  I felt so incredibly proud.  Some parts of the day are foggy in my mind but the important things will always remain.  My son was long and beautiful.  My husband made it through without fainting.  I was so well looked after.  But more than almost anything else, I will remember that Charlie was there.  Supporting us in a way that seemed so natural to her.  She was no longer a stranger. Far from it.  She was part of the family, and in my heart always will be. 

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