A positive belly birth: Andrea’s story
I didn’t know Andrea before she hired me. As someone who tends to leave things to the last minute (and get away with it) I laughed to myself when I read her email – “I blinked and now I’m in my third trimester! I’d love to meet you and sign a (doula) contract next week if you’re still available?” Fast-forward a few months, and we now share a lovely bond on the other side of her birth. Yes, it’s important to have boundaries in this line of work, but taking the time beforehand to ensure your clients are a strong match means that you’ll rarely need to enforce them. In my opinion, friendships are a hazard of the profession.
I want to say straight up that Andrea had an incredible birth, which I was immensely proud to be a part of – It’s why I asked her postpartum if she’d be willing to share her experience and tip the scale in favour of more positive birth stories. Second or third-hand tales of longer labours (particularly those that deviate from an initial birth plan or evolve into a cesarean) have a tendency to find their way to us; at worst, as horror stories from which the mother is recovering (thanks to therapy and her own mental and physical resolve), or at best, framed as a patronizing consolation prize, coupled with a justification of that birth’s validity “Unfortunately she ended up having a c-section… But at least xyz.” Andrea’s birth story is crucial to me, not only because I think there is a lot to be learned from how I witnessed her and her partner navigate labour, but because the first text I received after hugging her goodbye for surgery, read “Thank you so much for my dream birth”. Those three words reverberated through me in a profound way. My dream birth. As doulas, our job is to protect the birth space; to bolster confidence and protect the right to informed consent when the going gets tough. It’s also to create a healthy, non-toxic understanding of what truly constitutes a positive birthing experience.
Before I became a doula, I naively assumed that birth trauma was primarily linked to physical procedures and the duration or intensity of labour. Surely an exhausting labour coupled with unwanted interventions or complications would feel the most “disappointing”? I’m not too proud to admit how wrong I had it. The more I listened, the more I learned. All of the women I spoke to had been more than strong enough to handle the physical and mental demands of birthing their baby in whichever form required – their anguish and disappointment lay specifically in how they were treated. Were they taken seriously as the authority on their own body? Were procedures done for them, or to them? Were they given options and unbiased, evidenced information, delivered with empathy? These are the types of questions that we should be asking when seeking to understand someone else’s birth experience. All that to be said, I chose to interview Andrea because she crushes some of those harmful misconceptions into dust: her story not only included, but required difficult decisions, as well as an immense amount of courage to achieve her happily ever after. Her baby’s arrival meant changing gears, and her ability to do so afforded her not only an experience she is proud of, but one of my favourite birth stories to date.
Without further ado, here are Andrea’s reflections in her own words on becoming a mother to her delightful daughter, Alana Lily.
Z: Lets work backwards: in our most recent conversation, you said to me that you yourself have been “reborn” through Lani’s birth. What did becoming a mother change in you? Is it strange looking back at the woman you see in our prenatal photographs just a short time ago?
A: Becoming a mother is a strange thing. I feel both the same and yet fundamentally different from the woman I see in our prenatal photographs. That woman was one person, but since giving birth I feel like I’ve been split into two. My daughter, my whole heart, now exists outside of me and yet I feel that we are forever connected. My life that was once just my own is no longer. It’s a beautiful and yet strange thing to feel. I feel like I’m both mourning parts of the woman I was, and also celebrating all these new facets of the woman I’ve become / am becoming as I go through the journey of motherhood.
Z: I’m so glad your birth experience was a positive one. In saying that, I don’t want to gloss over the parts that were really hard – some of which you called the hardest moments in your life thus far. Would you be willing to share some of those tough moments, as well as what got you through them?
A: I left the hospital feeling really amazing and grateful for my birth experience. Although it ended up quite literally the opposite of what I had “planned”, I was so grateful for my birth team and felt supported the whole way through.
That being said, birth is tough. Period. It’s just a fact! It’s not an easy thing to do. You can plan all you want, but at the end of the day you really don’t know how things will end up. Your baby will arrive in the way they want to. I did everything in my power to prepare for a non-medicated vaginal birth: prenatal exercises, Spinning Babies, pelvic floor physiotherapy, perineal massage, using midwives and hiring a doula who I knew would help advocate for me and my desired birth plan, you name it… and I ended up with nearly every intervention in order to bring my girl earthside.
Some of the toughest moments for me included feeling defeated when my labour wasn’t progressing (almost 24 hours in – with contractions so strong and so close together) and realizing that I just had no more energy for transition and pushing. I’m also terrified of needles and had to get an IV once admitted to the hospital as well as the epidural. I really just went through the whole gamut of things. Several COVID swabs, breaking of my waters, Pitocin… I’ve never had major surgery before, and after all of my efforts I ended up with a C-section.
What got me through all of the really really tough parts was having the best birth team ever. My partner (the love of my life and real MVP), YOU my doula (special shout out to “Comb” and the TENS machine!) and my midwife were the trifecta that got me through every step from my labour, to c-section, and even those first few weeks postpartum.
Although nothing went quite as planned, having my team in my corner made me feel informed, supported, and overall positive about my experience.
Z: Before I check my ego, I have to say the biggest compliment I’ve received to date was hearing you turn to your midwife some 30 hours into your labour and saying “getting a doula was the best decision I ever made”. For expecting parents reading who might be thinking whether or not to have one, how did having a doula impact your labour, and additionally, your third trimester?
A: Don’t check your ego! I can’t imagine what my birth would have been like without you by my side. My partner is amazing, but you made this experience for us 10000% better.
At first I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to hire a doula. I didn’t fully understand how much value one would add to my pregnancy and birth, but as I approached my third trimester I started to feel some anxiety around giving birth and decided it would be nice to have the extra support. I’m so glad I went for it.
Not only did I end up with some amazing third trimester photos (you’re the best!), having a doula also helped us wrap our heads around what to generally expect for our baby’s birth. Understanding the impact of interventions as well as different pain relief options during labour was extremely helpful and helped us mentally prepare for what was to come.
Once in labour, having a doula was the ultimate support. Not only for me but for my partner as well. You came prepared with epic playlists, snacks, and stayed up all through the night with me as I went through my contractions, which also allowed my partner to have an hour or two of rest so that he could be the best support to me as my labour progressed. You counted me down through each contraction, and when we got to the hospital you turned my birth room into a calm, dimly lit space with essential oils diffusing into the air. So much was done to help keep me in a relaxed state despite the turn of events and the experience was just amazing.
Z: I love all of that and I felt so privileged to be with you both. One thing we have to talk about is your partner Lennard. I was in awe of his support and at one time I even came to check on you with tears in your eyes, only to be told they were “happy tears” as you asked me how you got so lucky. I’m only guessing, but has this birth deepened your connection?
A: Yes it absolutely has. Lennard and I already have such a deep connection but going through the experience of birth with him is something I’ll never forget.
I really felt that he was with me every single step of the way. Slow dancing with me through my contractions, holding me together when I started falling apart, wiping my tears and reminding me how strong I am just when I thought that I couldn’t go any further… I always feel so lucky to have him in my life but at that moment it really hit me that I was going through this life-changing experience with my best friend in the whole world. There’s no one else I’d rather have by my side. I think my heart grew 10x bigger right then and there; I just felt so ready to take on everything that was coming next.
Z: What would you say to other parents preparing for or reflecting on a belly birth?
A: C-sections or belly births are often talked about with a negative connotation. Like, as a birthing person you “failed” in some way or you took the “easy way out”.
You are not a failure and nothing about birth (vaginal or belly) is easy! Birth can be so beautiful and part of that beauty is in its unpredictability. Having a birth team by your side that you trust to support you, keep you informed, and advocate for you is what makes the biggest difference between a positive experience and a negative one.
Zoe Elkington is a doula and perinatal photographer, and divides her time between downtown Toronto & her hometown of Sydney, Australia. Photography captured by Zoe in the third trimester on 35mm film.
Special thanks to Andrea @yuknodis for contributing her story.