When I was carrying my first pregnancy, unplanned, aged 31 years and only 18 months into a relationship – my birth preparation was more about where the baby and I would live, and how I would support us, (should my partner – suffering from acute anxiety – decide he was not ready for fatherhood) than which positions to labour in and how to breathe my way to a natural birth.
While the black hole of acute anxiety threatened to engulf my poor broken boyfriend A, who, it transpires, had suffered many similar bouts of AA before, I swallowed the pretty constant low level, less dramatic anxiety I felt due to the situation and determined to work as hard as I could to:
a) save money
b) look after him and
C) try and keep our small family together. (As a thirty-one year old woman, with a man I was in love with, there was never any question that I should not keep the baby. )
It was a time marked by determination and focus but also loneliness and fear.
As far as birth preparation went, I did manage to read a book or two, I even attended two pregnancy yoga sessions (I was not yet a yoga teacher). I also had a deep, if un-informed, trust in the efficacy of the birthing process – after all I stood in front of a long lineage of women who had given birth before me without epidurals and drips and all the complications of modern childbirth.
At 36 weeks I experienced some vaginal bleeding. Naturally alarmed, I swiftly transferred myself into hospital where I was informed that I was already 1cm dilated and that my baby was in the breech position. They did not want to perform a c-section yet, they said, but, given the dilating cervix, they would keep me in for supervision. That night, all alone, on the pre-natal ward, I got down on my hands and knees and prayed to a God I did not often call on, pleading to keep labour from me that night. That night I realised how unprepared I was to either give birth or become a mother. The breech baby seemed testament to that.
But breech, or not, this baby was ready to evacuate. One very early morning, a week later, away from boyfriend, family and my London home – at a Retreat Centre in Hampshire- I went into labour with my baby still in the breech position.
I can recall vividly sitting in disbelief at the silent breakfast table, surrounded by middle-aged retreat-ants who looked over at me in concern as I winced and worried my way through breakfast. Hours later, still in disbelief I stood outside the Closed train station and read the sign that apologised profusely for any inconvenience caused. An hour after that, now in real pain, I called A from the ambulance, en route to Portsmouth Hospital, to tell him that our baby was on its way and that I was not going to make it back to London. I felt incredibly isolated in the midst of this big scary experience as we hurtled down the M3 en route to my motherhood.
Most breech first births, if not successfully rotated by the ECV manoeuvre, are delivered by caesarean section. Being idealistic – although naive – I refused the c-section and said I wanted to birth naturally. How impressed/amused/incredulous the midwives must have been as they looked on at this young determined mother already struggling to cope with the power of the early Labour experience but saying she was going to birth her breech baby naturally. To their credit – they did not show it. I was left alone to get on with it.
I don’t remember how many hours I spent on an uncomfortable birthing ball (I’d never sat on one before), struggling to endure the discomforting pulse of the Tens Machine (also previously unused). As the day passed I fought and endured and resisted and suffered my way through hour upon hour of contractions determined that my baby should be born naturally. But as the hours crept on the contractions did not relent. they only got stronger and, gradually, my strength dissipated. I had not learned how long and intense labour can be, I had not understood that fetal positioning affects the labour’s progress. I had not learned to recognise my own fearful resistance to the process which only made it much harder. When they brought me Entonox (gas and air) I inhaled too strongly and vomited. Hopelessness set in. I felt very very sorry for myself. I was lost in a maze of suffering. It was a terrible place to be. Throughout the day various birth professionals had suggested it would be easier delivering this baby by C-section. Eventually I agreed.
At 6.30pm, five cms dilated and 12 hours after my first contraction, with tears in my eyes, I signed the consent form for a caesarean. I cried on the way up to the theatre, A now by my side. I felt frustrated by my own failure to progress, disappointed by his inability to support me at this vulnerable time, guilty that I had failed my baby in some way. That moment of the operation is deeply imprinted in my being. It has taken a lot of work for the emotional scar that I experienced that day to heal – much longer than the physical,
After they stitched me up, I remember shaking uncontrollably, teeth chattering, heart racing. The ordeal was over. They passed me my newborn son and as I stared into his huge deep brown eyes, my heart exploded and the new mother in me was born.
That baby boy is nearly 14 years of age. He is a conscientious, handsome funny young man in possession of an incredibly strong disposition. He is the only one of 4 that suffers from hay fever – a possible consequence of the caesarean – but otherwise he is a happy, healthy and much-loved child. He is also the source of everything that I do today; from attachment mothering and teaching pregnancy yoga to practising as a birth doula, and a positive birth facilitator, and developing and teaching my own Becoming Mother Mindful Birth and Parenting Course.
It has taken time and work but I have learned to let go of the pain of that first pregnancy & birth experience. I have forgiven myself for the caesarean, and have learned that all mothers are warriors and amazing – however they birth. I have learned the importance of being able to support yourself through labour and have acquired a heap of birthing skills along the way. (I went onto have a further three children; all born at home – with no birthing pools or pain relief – not even gas and air). I have let go of the hurt I felt at A’s inability to give me the support I needed and hoped he would give. I have understood he did the best he could at that time and that, in fact, he needed supporting too. But I have also understood how important it is for a woman to receive loving support at this vulnerable time and, whats more, how important it is for the mothers to take responsibility for bringing that support about. In my work as a doula I bring that deep multi-layered support to birthing couples (man and woman) all the time.
Not everyone experiences such a dramatic first pregnancy and birth. But even when babies are planned and family life is secure, the path to Motherhood is an arduous one and the experience of Labour and Birth – whatever your birth choices – a deeply dramatic and testing one. And that’s before we take the baby home and discover the challenges of parenting.
15 year of Yoga, 10 years of Meditation and Mindfulness, therapy, self-development courses, books and workshops have taught me that inner preparation is everything. It leads to outer readiness and responsiveness. A woman at ease with herself, comfortable in her body, in acceptance of her circumstances (whatever they may be, )in possession of a clear mind and a strong heart will be able to birth as effectively in the corner of a car park as in a candle-lit birthing unit and will be able to mother with the same equanimity whether she’s slept ten hours or two.
For me, the teachings of Yoga and Mindfulness have given so much that I am grateful for; a pathway to self-knowledge, self-acceptance and, at times, especially during childbirth, self-transcendence. The lessons and skills I have learned along the way have supported me through all my subsequent births and the various challenges I faced and, crucially, into parenting as well. They are teachings for happy healthy living not just for positive birthing.
This is what I wish for all women – the time and space to know themselves; to discover their strengths and weakness, to face their fears and anxieties and, through the teachings of Yoga and Mindfulness, to learn how to transcend them. My 10 Week Becoming Mother Mindful Birth and Parenting Course is an attempt to bring that about. It is the fruit of my first birth experience and the sum of my learning to date.
Nadia Raafat is the founder of Becoming Mother’s Mindful Birth and Parenting 10 Week Course which she teaches at the Thurleigh Medical Practice in Clapham, South West London.
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