Hovering over a striped tankini, I hastily added it to my online shopping basket. I’d already bagged 10 essential oils plus a professional-grade aromatherapy diffuser and a hydrating facial mist, bringing my total to well over Dh1,000. You’d think I was preparing for a spa break. In fact, I was stocking my birthing bag for hospital. It was October 2015, I was nine months pregnant with my first child, and training for birth like it was an Olympic sport.
From the get-go, I’d planned a drug-free water birth and pictured myself meditating serenely in a hospital birthing pool, surrounded by euphoric wave sounds as I calmly ‘breathed out’ my baby. My birth plan laid out my wishes for a natural delivery with as little medical intervention as possible and detailed the oils to infuse during labour and how many minutes I wanted the umbilical cord to pulse before it was cut (preferably five). And now I was going to do it all in fancy swimwear.
In preparation for the big day, I was seeing an acupuncturist once a week for Dh200 an hour to de-stress and prime my body for labour, plus a reflexologist at Dh250 a pop to help stimulate contractions. I was also attending a hypnobirthing course costing Dh1,000 for 10 hours over five weeks. This was all on top of antenatal classes and a water-birth workshop, plus the countless natural childbirth books, relaxation tapes, herbal teas and tinctures to induce labour naturally... In total, I’d spent the best part of Dh14,000.
A few years ago, I’d have scoffed at someone like me. I’d rather have spent my money on clothes, nights out or weekends away with my husband Phil, now 39, a graphic designer from London. We met in Dubai in 2007 through work, and married four years later. Our weekends were spent catching up with friends over brunch, not sitting in a dark room listening to tinkly music and imagining my nether regions ‘opening up like a beautiful rose’.
Everything changed when Phil and I decided to start a family in 2013. After a year of trying to conceive, I discovered fertility acupuncture through an online forum and began weekly sessions at Dh200 per hour. When I found out I was pregnant in February 2015, we were ecstatic. Maybe this was the point at which, subconsciously, I began to think that splashing the cash might get me the results I wanted.
Like every new mum-to-be, I worried about labour. I’d seen enough One Born Every Minute to fear the worst, but began to read about a growing number of mothers who’d found it positive – enjoyable, even. Supermodel Gisele Bündchen famously boasted that her all-natural water birth with son Benjamin “didn’t hurt in the slightest”, while Jessica Alba described her natural birth with daughter Honor as “more like meditation”.
Online parenting forums sent me further down the natural childbirth rabbit hole. I noted a sliding scale of approval from other mums. No drugs? Legend. Water birth? Soul mamma. And bonus points for those heroes who went home from hospital on the same day. Pity the unfortunates who succumbed to drugs or (gasp!) the dreaded C-word – a caesarean section. I became so obsessed with the idea of an all-natural water birth, it didn’t register how much I was spending on classes and treatments. Phil baulked on a couple of occasions, but I reminded him you couldn’t put a price on a safe, tranquil birth, and he didn’t argue after that.
My mum warned me that labour can be unpredictable. ‘Don’t be too disappointed if it doesn’t go according to plan,’ she advised. But what did she know? She’d only had six babies. Doctors at the hospital also tried to manage my expectations. ‘You may have to be induced,’ said one when my due date of October 20 came and went.
A different reality
When my son Charlie finally arrived on October 31, the reality was very different from my serene plan. My waters broke at home around 10am the previous day, but the greenish colour signalled meconium in the water, meaning the baby had passed a bowel movement – a possible sign of distress. A water birth was ruled out as soon as we arrived at the hospital.
Disappointment was quickly replaced by fear. Within minutes of being examined, I was hooked up to a hormone drip to speed things up. The contractions came horrendously thick and fast. Twelve hours in, the buzz of the pethidine I’d been given was wearing off and I was crying out for an epidural. My meditation CD lay untouched in my bag next to the oils and tankini.
By 5am the following day, I was only 7cm dilated and exhausted. Doctors advised an emergency caesarean, and Charlie was born at 5.56am weighing 9lb 7oz (4.28kg). But he didn’t cry, and I was gripped by panic. He had a lung condition called transient tachypnea, also known as ‘wet lungs’. We were told not to worry, but he was kept in an incubator and monitored for four days. Seeing his tiny body struggling put my birth plan into perspective – the only thing that mattered was that Charlie was OK. After his full recovery, a friend commented that I hadn’t given birth ‘properly’. I thought of the fretful nights lying next to a catheter of my urine with a gaping hole stitched up across my abdomen, crying with worry for my son. A failure? Hell no, I was a she-warrior! Just like every other woman who has ever given birth.
What I’ve come to realise is that there is no right or wrong way to do it when it comes to birth and labour – as long as you and your baby come out the other side healthy and happy, surely that’s all that matters? Still, one look at online birthing forums will tell you that birth snobbery is alive and kicking – and when you are on the receiving end of it, the pain is as real as labour contractions. What’s worse, it can threaten to cast a shadow over what should be the happiest time in any new parent’s life.
Siobhan Freegard, founder of video parenting site Channelmum.com has witnessed the devastating effect birth snobbery can have. She says, “Birth should be a wonderful and empowering process – you’ve created a new life and nothing is more special than that. But unfortunately some women do feel under pressure to have the ‘perfect birth’ and feel desperately upset if it doesn’t go the way they wanted. Mums can feel disappointed or ‘robbed’ of their hoped-for birth experience, with some even suffering trauma or postnatal depression if the birth is particularly tough.”
Siobhan adds, “Birth should never be competitive and certainly shouldn’t be something to judge other women by, but sadly it can happen.” If you don’t get the birth you wanted, help is out there, urges Siobhan. Birth trauma counselling is available at the Counselling and Development Clinic (www.drmccarthypsychologyclinic.com), or you can contact Out of The Blues (www.outoftheblues.support), a Dubai-based support group for women who are affected by postnatal depression.
Instead of tearing each other down, we should be celebrating and supporting each other as mums. “Please remember birth is only the start of the journey of becoming a mother. We must remember that a good birth is one where mum and baby are healthy and happy however the baby arrived, and whatever mum needed to do to birth her baby. Every birth is different and individual and we need to celebrate birth in all its forms,” says Siobhan.
Ten months on from my own birthing experience, I do regret spending so much time and money chasing the ‘perfect’ birth. While the breathing techniques I learned helped me stay calm during labour, if I had the chance to do it all again, I’d sooner save it to cover the expense of nappies and wet wipes! Failing that, I’d splurge on a sun-soaked babymoon. Maybe then I could finally give that tankini an airing…