Prior to being pregnant, I did not have particularly strong views on where I would want to give birth nor with whom. Around the fourth month, I left a friendly but conventional gynaecologist and sought the services of the midwives from Zwanger in Brussel on the recommendation of a friend. I also decided to try for a home birth, much to the horror of the gynaecologist who hastened to caution me against the idea. Many of my friends and family at home in Canada are strong advocates of labouring outside hospitals; I wanted to join them in avoiding an institutionalized birth.
British midwife Sheila Kitzinger writes in The New Pregnancy and Childbirth: Choices and Challenges (2008, 47): “Women who have this kind of care [one-to-one midwife care] feel more positive about the birth, their own preparedness and how well they manage. In fact, most who have a personal midwife say that birth was hard work but wonderful.” I am not sure that I can say that giving birth was wonderful but the care I received from Sophie, Elke, Margriet, and Elizabeth was indeed. Their constant support and expertise was a source of comfort and reassurance throughout my pregnancy, during labour, and afterwards. Thanks to them, I was able to have the birth I wanted.
My labour took about nine hours in total but only seven were intense. I went out for a walk with my mother in the afternoon and by then the contractions had started intermittently. Around 17:00, I got Vincent to start timing and they were already two to four minutes apart. We had been told by the midwives to contact them once the contractions were consistently five minutes apart for an hour. After a solid hour, we called the midwives and spoke to Sophie, who asked if I could wait until about 20:00. I said yes tentatively, eager to minimize the pain I was already feeling. Vincent and I sat on our bed while my parents watched a film upstairs in the living room. The contractions were fairly painful and it was difficult to talk when they reached their peak. Sophie came earlier than expected at 19:30 and very apologetically informed me that I was only three centimetres dilated. She then warned us to prepare ourselves for labouring into the night or early morning while urging me to relax as much possible. How could I relax? Even my feet curled up in tension as my whole body focused on bearing the pain until the contraction would subside. It was distressing to think that there were an unknown number of hours left during which time the pain would simply get more and more acute. She left, telling us to call her when my waters broke or the pain became “substantially worse” or I felt some kind of “big change.”.
My parents went out for a dinner of fries and ate at a neighbouring bar, drinking heavy Belgian beer. Vincent and I managed to get up the stairs into the kitchen; all the literature I had read recommended moving as much as possible. I was naive enough to think that I might still find some magic position that would make the contractions feel slightly better. To no avail. The same was true for a bath. I had thought that a bath would help but unfortunately water did not particularly alleviate the pain. Perhaps it was our bathtub, perhaps it was me. In any event, I went in and out of the tub a couple of times without spectacular results.
My mother returned without my father and we three sat on the bed. I lay, wrapped around pillows, virtually sleeping between contractions. Relief from the pain was blissful. My mother caressed my hair and attempted to chat. Vincent's approach was silence. Earlier in the kitchen, I had leaned against him, arms wrapped around his neck breathing into his strong shoulders. In our darkened bedroom, Titus the cat slept quietly on his corner of the bed. We continued. I was barely aware of the time passing. Each time I looked at the clock, which Vincent eventually covered, we were an hour further on. It was as though time were suspended. At some point, probably around midnight, my waters broke in a big warm gush onto the bedroom floor. Vincent telephoned Sophie and for some reason I returned to the bathtub. At this point, the contractions were almost (always "almost") unbearable. I gripped the door of the shower and panted like mad. I also started to moan.
When Sophie arrived, she measured me in the bath and declared I was fully dilated. I was indeed feeling the urge to push every second or third contraction. Like a spasm, it was uncontrollable. The second midwife, Elke, arrived. At this point, I was entirely out of it and I barely remember what happened with any clarity. When I think on it now, it seems like a fog. But I do recall quiet and calm efficient voices, Vincent's firm and steady presence, the sound of plastic sheets being spread on the bed. Sophie and Elke got me out of the bath standing against Vincent. I must have squatted. Crouched on the floor with my arms leaning against the bed, I pushed. I did not like the pushing contractions and I could feel being spread further and further apart and then a burning sensation with every contraction. What felt like a mere 3 or 4 contractions later, the baby suddenly emerged and Elke held him up, showing him to me saying, "this is your baby." It was 2:10 on the morning of January 4. Although I had no idea at the time, the baby's shoulder had been stuck after his head was out; Sophie had to reach around under me and fish out his body.
They laid me back on the bed and put him on my chest. Vincent hovered next to me as we said his name for the first time after his birth, Sevren, a bizarre spelling of “Severin” that stems from the latin name “Severinus” meaning severe. Severin is the central character of the novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Severin falls in love with a woman he calls Wanda and willingly becomes her slave, hence the origin of the term “masochism.” The power structure between the two is far more complex than one would think. He creates her even though she ostensibly controls him. The Velvet Underground wrote a song also called Venus in Furs inspired by the novel that I have loved since I was young. Dark, threatening, thrilling and confronting. In the end, it was the only name that Vincent and I agreed upon!
On the bed, Sevren quietly lying on my chest, I shook convulsively. My mother put hot water bottles next to my legs and I held Sevren close. Vincent cut the cord. Initially, Sophie and Elke thought that I hadn't torn but once the placenta was out they revised their opinion. The tear was from vagina to anus but only the surface of the skin; the muscle was intact. Due to the length of the tear, they decided it would be best to take me to hospital. Vincent, Sevren and I were driven by Sophie. The hospital visit was fine (the nurse who was sewing me up refused to tell me how many stitches! The tear healed perfectly within two weeks and the discomfort was minimal). We were home within two hours where we tucked ourselves into bed. My mother had cleaned up and, once we returned, left for the apartment that she and my father were staying at.
The entire experience was rather different than I expected, oddly both easier and yet more difficult. I thought that there would be more of a build up of intensity and an intellectual or rather conscious dimension but in the end any meta-level analysis was impossible. Too physical, too immersive. I was not aware of being in labour but simply lived through it without any ability to think about it at the time. Elke said that it was very fast and that was probably why I found it so painful. I think that, had I been in hospital, I might well have sought pain relief. Or at least, I am not sure I would have been able to say no to an eager doctor. A few times I mumbled, "I don't think I can do this." Vincent said this was the hardest to hear and my mother later concurred. Vincent was marvellous. I could not have done it without him. No one else could hold me and eventually with each contraction I would seek out his hand to grip and he was strong enough to grip back. The idea of undergoing an experience of that nature without him is terrifying. My mother was able to relieve him when he needed to go outside for a quiet cigarette. She was a comforting presence throughout.
Common opinion dictates that in the upcoming months I will forget much about my labour. At the moment, I am amazed that anyone would want to repeat the experience. This does not, however, negate or diminish the excitement and curiosity I feel at looking forward to a life with Sevren.