I knew giving birth was going to be a challenging, life-changing experience. I was prepared to feel pain, and I expected my emotions to run high. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer shock of becoming a mother. After all, hadn’t I spent the past 9 months getting ready to meet our daughter? Hadn’t I spent my entire pregnancy obsessing about our baby? How is it possible to feel shock about meeting the soul I’d been carrying for 40 weeks?
Yet shock was the dominant emotion I felt when our baby was placed in my arms. Complete, utter shock.
Oh, hello. Wow. I can’t believe you’re my baby. I have a baby! Tom, we have a baby. It’s an actual baby. Look at her! She has ten fingers and ten toes and – wow, enormous feet – and ohmygod it’s a baby. Holy crap. I don’t know how to hold her. She’s crying so loudly. Is she okay? Am I okay? What just happened? It’s a baby. A baby. No, not ‘a’ baby. Our baby. Oh my god, I think I’m going to pass out…
As my obstetrician checked that everything was in order, er, down there, I fought to stop myself from shaking. I cradled the howling bundle in my arms and said, over and over again, “it’s okay. You’re okay. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” I think was trying not to hyperventilate.
The obstetrician gave a little chuckle and asked: “Are you talking to yourself or the baby?”
Honestly, he was so calm and collected, this was just another day in the office for him. I felt like yelling – can’t you see this baby? Isn’t this absolutely crazy?! How are you not shocked too??? Thankfully I could tell Tom shared my shock. Our tired, delighted eyes met over our baby, and I could tell we were both thinking the same thing: This is bonkers.
Zoey Isla van Roekel was born on 2 August 2017 at 11.23am. I’d imagined labour would begin gently at home, in the early hours of the morning, and Tom and I would spend a few hours timing contractions and mentally preparing for the challenge ahead. I envisaged a painful-yet-exciting dash to the hospital. I imagined Tom whispering soothing words in my ear and holding my hand as we hobbled to the birthing suite. In my mind, I was uncomfortable – but I was cool, calm, and collected. The midwives would examine me and gasp in surprise: “oh, you’re so far along, you’re doing so well! Baby will be here soon!” And I’d smile serenely and return to my deep breathing (hahaha).
I’ve always had a brilliant imagination.
Reality was a little different. I know not everyone enjoys a birth story, so I’ll try to gloss over the gory details – but let’s just say I didn’t go into labour at home and breathe through contractions listening to a yogi playlist on Spotify surrounded by vanilla bean scented candles. Instead, I arrived at Auckland Hospital at 9pm on a Tuesday evening to be induced. I was told to bring books, magazines, and plenty of snacks – that the process would be lengthy and somewhat uncomfortable, but I’d probably meet my baby within 24-36 hours. Tom downloaded Netflix shows to the iPad. We were prepared to do a lot of waiting around. My obstetrician inserted some gel to “kickstart the process” and advised me to get as much rest as I could. He said he’d be back at 7.30am to give me some more gel and reassess my progress. Apparently the first round of gel was unlikely to do much, but I could expect to feel some minor irritation that I could medicate with panadol.
Within an hour of the gel being administered I was in extreme discomfort, but I passed it off as a mild reaction to the gel. I tried to doze through what I now realise were early contractions until 3am, when it was no longer possible to pretend that nothing was happening. Pains were coming thick and fast. I woke up Tom, told him to call in a midwife, and started pacing around the room. I was in a bit of a state. I was promptly hooked up to a machine to measure baby’s heart rate and assess whether or not I was having contractions. The number on the machine is meant to soar from around 8 to 200 during a contraction. I was sure this was “it”. Yet as the waves of pain rolled in, the number reached a maximum of about 17. Tom and I exchanged looks of horror. If this wasn’t labour, what was I in for?
Thankfully, a good old-fashioned internal examination concluded that I was in labour (apparently those machines are notoriously inaccurate), and everyone sprang into action. I felt an enormous sense of relief and a surge of adrenalin. My baby was coming.
A lot of people told me that time feels different when you’re in labour – that hours would pass quickly without you watching the clock. I didn’t believe them. Yeah right, I thought, surely I’ll be counting down the seconds of each contraction. But 3am to 6am passed in a blur. I was given gas and told to breathe, to try to relax. I kept apologising for not feeling very relaxed. I apologised a lot in labour. I apologised for making strange noises, for not being “composed” – I felt like such a nuisance. This was by no means a reflection of the staff. The hospital midwives were fantastic, and my obstetrician was brilliant. And Tom was my rock throughout every single pain. I think the person I was actually apologising to was myself. Every time I lost my cool I felt slightly disappointed in myself, as if I should be feeling stronger. I should be handling this better. I shouldn’t want the drugs so bad.
I felt self-conscious and awkward. I’d spent so much time visualising myself staying cool, calm, and collected, and I was frustrated that instead I was just wailing “it hurts” over and over again. I sucked on the gas like my life depended on it, and when my obstetrician said “fancy anything stronger?” I didn’t think twice. “Yes, now, please, now, when?” Another cluster of contractions hit, one after the other, with barely any breaks in between, and I felt panic rising in my chest: “WILL I GET THE EPIDURAL IN TIME?”
I got the epidural in time. It was like magic. I stopped apologising profusely for making a racket and instead said thank you, thank you, thank you. Ironically, now I could finally tap into my inner zen. Modern medicine – what a miracle.
An epidural was not in my ideal birth plan. I didn’t want one because I wanted to feel ‘in control’. I’d heard horror stories about epidurals taking away your dignity and turning you into a passive participant in your own labour and ya-de-ya-da. Yet, the moment the pain relief kicked in was the first moment I actually felt like myself again. I could breathe. I could think clearly. I could ready myself for what was coming without giving in to pure panic and fear. I felt safe.
The rest of my labour passed in a tranquil, drug-induced state of peace and quiet (who knew that was even possible?) I rested and chatted to Tom. My body did everything without any active participation on my part. It was incredible.
Well, my body did everything until it came time to push.
I wish I could say the tranquility continued, and that I pushed elegantly and expertly without much of a fuss (gosh, I really had high expectations of myself). But although I wasn’t in intense pain, I was in intense discomfort. I felt terrified. I was so frightened of ‘doing it wrong’, that somehow I wouldn’t be able to get this baby out. That somehow I’d push wrong and put her in danger. I was petrified that she wouldn’t make it. I tried to think soothing thoughts like trust your body and isn’t the human body amazing and you were designed to do this, but all I could think was WHAT A LOAD OF HOGWASH, THIS DOESN’T FEEL NATURAL AT ALL. I was acutely aware that the longer I took to push, the higher the chances of something going wrong. But the harder I tried to push, the more frightened I felt. I over-analysed every expression on my obstetrician’s face. Was he worried? Was I about to be rushed to theatre? Was the baby’s heart still beating? Was she in distress?
It was the scariest experience of my life.
Afterwards, I felt disappointed in myself for feeling such fear. Wasn’t birth meant to be a natural, beautiful, empowering experience? Why did I give in to panic? Why did I let my mind wander to the worst possible scenario instead of just trusting that everything was okay?
Hindsight has softened the experience around the edges, and now I feel a touch of pride and awe when I think about it. But I’d be lying if I said I felt anything but fear at the time. For the next week or so, I replayed the pushing over and over in my mind as I tried to fall asleep, and I felt gripped with anxiety. Never again, I said to myself. I am not putting myself through that again. But as the weeks go by, I already know I will.
I’m sharing this not to sound like a fear-monger or a drama queen – but because I initially felt ashamed about feeling afraid, and I think it’s because I’d filled my head with positive, fear-free birth stories. Of course, I’m a glass-half-full kind of person and I wanted to go in with the best attitude. But, if I could turn back the clock, this is what I’d tell myself before I went into labour:
Giving birth for the first time might be a little scary. But it’s okay if you feel afraid. It doesn’t make you any less strong. Your body is doing something it’s never done before. Yes, your body will know what to do – but that doesn’t mean it won’t feel strange or scary. Women give birth every day, but this will be your first time – and so the experience will be unique to you. Don’t judge yourself harshly for feeling whatever you need to feel. Don’t fear fear itself. Fear is just your mind and body’s way of saying: I care. I care deeply about the wellbeing of my baby, and I want everything to be okay. You can be afraid and strong at the same time. And you will be.
Just like no amount of reading or talking to other mothers or watching Call the Midwife can prepare you for birth, no amount of research can prepare you for becoming a parent. Hence, the shock.
I spent the first two weeks of Zoey’s life in deep physical and emotional shock. I knew having a baby would be challenging, but nothing could prepare me for the cascade of emotions I felt. In a matter of moments, I went from being an autonomous, independent, and – let’s be honest – relatively selfish adult, to having a tiny person who is entirely dependent on me for their survival. The responsibility is enormous. I was utterly overwhelmed. I felt like my heart had been smashed into a million little pieces. All the madness and sadness in the world no longer felt like an abstract concept – not now that I had a child. I couldn’t read the news or watch a sad movie. I felt an intense pressure to protect her from every possible threat. I thought the love would crush me. Some moments, it did. Some moments, all I could do was cry. I never knew love could hurt so much.
I also felt grief and loss. Like fear, these emotions are often seen as negative. And at first I resisted them. But with any major life change, some grief is healthy. I grieved the carefree person I was before it felt like my heart existed outside my chest. I grieved being able to sleep whenever I wanted. I grieved for when I felt in control of my body.
Having a newborn is often portrayed as a golden time. A time of soft coos and sweet cuddles and beautiful vulnerability. Of tiny fingers and toes and perfect nostrils and love – so much love. It’s all of those things. But it’s also terrifying and shocking and exhausting and overwhelming. It’s a steep learning curve (don’t even get me started on breastfeeding) and it’s everything I expected and yet nothing like I expected. It’s a tangled mess of contradictions. Peace and stress. Energy and exhaustion. Selflessness and a yearning to be selfish. Fear and love. A little voice in the back of your mind that whispers I have no idea what I’m doing, but somehow you ‘just do it’ and make it work.
In my first weeks as a mother, I felt like a small child. I needed to be fed and cuddled and nurtured and constantly reassured. I remember falling asleep in the foetal position, exhausted and vulnerable. I’d never felt smaller, and yet to my baby – I was larger than life.
Zoey is four weeks now, and already these intense emotions are fading. The bittersweet, beautiful shock of becoming a mother is fading as my confidence grows with each feed and nappy change. Sleep deprivation is becoming the new normal and I’m learning to adjust to my new life. Our new life.
Writing is my way of trying to capture these intense feelings before they pass – which I know they will. Two weeks ago, I was a hot mess of tears at 5pm every day. I couldn’t sit through an episode of Game of Thrones without being gripped by fear (even though I know white walkers aren’t real). I felt a deep anxiety as soon as the sun set because I was scared of what nightfall might bring – long, lonely awake hours of clumsy breastfeeding in the dark and worrying about everything that could go wrong in this crazy, beautiful world.
Now, just two weeks on, the 5pm tears have stopped (for the most part) and I don’t feel like a shell-shocked zombie. I almost look forward to the night feeds, snuggled up with Zoey on the couch. With each passing hour, I feel a little more like myself again – my new self. Stronger, yet somehow softer. Scared, but full of more hope and love than ever before. Hello, motherhood. I think I’m ready now.