This photo was taken 9 years ago, when I was 26 weeks pregnant with the Girl Child. The pregnancy was coasting along nicely, and I was anticipating that things would progress in a similar way to my previous pregnancy with the Boy Child: cruisy pregnancy, minor aches and pains, bit of pre-labour, slightly hectic labour and BANG! Baby.
Seemed like a good plan to me.
About a week after taking this picture, I was sitting in the car with Hot Husband and the Boy Child, talking about what to get for lunch, and I felt a contraction clench across my tummy, strong and sudden enough that it interrupted my speech, causing Hot Husband to look across at me with alarm in his eyes.
“You ok?” he asked. “What was that?”
“Oh, that was a bit weird” I answered, giving my belly a little rub, as the tightness subsided. “Just a Braxton-hicks contraction I think, but it caught me by surprise. I don’t remember them starting this early the first time round?”
To my surprise, that day, those tightenings persisted for an hour or so, easing off after I’d had lunch, and a big drink, and a nap with the Boy Child.
I must have been dehydrated. Maybe I was just hungry. Maybe I’m over-doing things a bit. Maybe I need some more magnesium? Slow down, Rysie.
I saw my midwife a couple of days later, and mentioned it to her. After asking me a few questions, and checking my belly, and my baby’s heartbeat, she agreed with all of the things I had thought, but made it very clear to me that if I was concerned that anything was progressing, that I should get checked out in the maternity ward.
Although my previous pregnancy had been a completely normal, term pregnancy, I myself had been born prematurely at 31 weeks. The implications of a premature labour were not lost on me. I resolved to take better care of myself, and slow down.
Nevertheless, those tightenings persisted.
When I was 31 weeks pregnant, I was at work, when I felt a big “clunk” in my pelvis, as I felt my baby drop down with a particularly strong contraction. All of a sudden, that contraction was in my back, and in my thighs.
Something felt wrong.
I felt sick.
I left work, and headed straight to the pregnancy assessment unit.
I was admitted to the ward that night for monitoring, IV fluids and observation, and some steroid injections. My pulse was up, and the Girl Child was very….quiet.
The contractions were palpable, regular, and recording on the monitor, but thankfully, I wasn’t in labour. Not yet, anyway.
The scariest part of this, for me, was that no one could tell me that I wouldn’t progress into labour. No one could assure me that these contractions wouldn’t turn into the real deal. The only option I had, was to rest, and try not to worry, oh, and to make sure that Hot Husband had bags ready in case we needed to head off to Melbourne with a premature baby.
I tried not to worry.
I tried to believe that the steroid injections that I received (one in each butt cheek, one day apart, thank you very much) would do their job and help her lungs to mature.
I googled websites about breastfeeding premature babies.
I tried to remember what sized nappies and clothes I had at home, and then I cried when I realised that if she was born this early, she wouldn’t need my clothes, because she’d be in an isolette, away from me.
My heart ached, as I realised this is the exact situation my own mother had found herself in when she was pregnant with me. Only, her waters broke, and along I came.
I tried not to think about these things.
I took the sleeping tablets and pain relief that I was offered, and tried to sleep.
I paced around the ward when the contractions made it impossible to lay down.
I tried not to cry when the Boy Child came to visit, and wanted me to come home.
I tried not to cry even more when he wouldn’t give me a cuddle because he was frightened of the hospital, and instead huddled in behind Nanny’s legs, peeking out only for Thomas the Tank on the hospital telly.
I cried with gratitude when my midwife came to see me, and sat on my bed, telling me she understood how scared I was, radiating such kindness and warmth
I prayed to the Universe and every entity possible that my waters wouldn’t break, and that the contractions would stop, and that I could go back to having a cruisy pregnancy.
I talked to the Girl Child in my head, and told her that I loved her, and I wanted to meet her, but not just yet. Even though I knew she had her own story to tell, I hoped she would stay happy in my belly. I reminded her that I didn’t want to be separated from her. And I told her that I trusted her to come when she felt safe to. And usually, during these little mother-daughter conversations, I felt like actually, we really were ok.
I stayed calm when a girl in the bed opposite me, who was having a crack at the midwives for not inducing her at 36 weeks (because she was over it), looked in my direction and said to her mother “Look at her! She’s not even that big, and she’s been admitted. She’ll probably have her kid before I do, with these idiots working here”. I sucked in a breath, and told her pointedly, “Actually, I’m trying NOT to have a baby. And at 36 weeks, you’d be best to do the same”. And I pulled the curtain around my bed and gave myself a high five for not saying all the things I really wanted to say. (She went home that day, not in labour, and extremely shirty about it. I was glad to see her go).
I stayed in hospital until I was 32 weeks, and I was sent home to continue bed-rest as much as I could do with a toddler at home, with the assurance that if things were to progress from this point on, the Special Care Nursery was equipped for 32 weekers, so at least I could birth in my own town.
It was a relief of sorts.
For the next six weeks, I had runs of contractions every night, lasting 4, 5 and sometimes 6 hours at a time; 3 minutes apart, 40 seconds long. No amount of hydration, rest or magnesium made a lick of difference.
The official term for this kind of scenario is Spurious, or False Labour, and it’s defined by Medicine Net as “intermittent non-productive muscular contractions of the uterus during pregnancy…..non-productive in the sense that they do not produce any effacement or dilation of the cervix”.
The Unofficial term for this kind of scenario is HELL ON EARTH, and it’s pretty much the key reason we decided to stop at two kids. The thought of another similar pregnancy is more than this Mama could bear.
The upside to all of these relentless contractions is that when push came to shove (literally), the Girl Child was on my chest less than three hours from being woken with the first “real” contraction. Apparently all the training I’d been doing for the marathon of birth had given me the fitness of a sprinter.
These days, when I come into work, and I’m receiving handover about women in the antenatal ward, who are admitted for premature labour and observation, I’m always a bit bemused to hear phrases like, “They’re here for observation, but they’re not really doing anything yet”. It’s reassuring as a midwife to know that there’s no one actively in premature labour, so I suppose I understand why it’s phrased that way at times.
But, it’s not accurate.
Her CERVIX might not be dilating yet, but she is DOING plenty. Her brain hasn’t stopped running over every possible scenario from the second she stepped foot in the ward, and it’s not going to stop until she knows that her baby is safe. She doesn’t need labour care and management yet, but she certainly still needs us.
And the midwives I know are incredible in this role.
I’m so thankful for the midwives who cared for me during the most terrifying experience of my life; who took the time to ask me how I was; who sat with me as I asked question after question; who explained what the monitoring meant, and what the doctors had said on the medical round, and what it all meant for me. I’m thankful for the midwives who took my phone calls from home, when I was uncertain about whether things were changing, and who never ever made me feel silly for seeking support. I’m thankful for my own midwife, who taught me the art of just sitting and talking with my baby when the worry got too much. And I’m thankful for how much all of those midwives celebrated with me when I turned up to the birth suite, in labour, at full term.
I remember their smiling faces at the desk, as I waddled in, roaring through contractions, as they ushered me to the birth room. Finally!
Nearly every one of those beautiful ladies, who had cared for me antenatally, popped in to say hello after the Girl Child was born, and to see how we were doing.
The whole experience, although absolutely terrifying at the time, was buffered and soothed so much by the care we received. And it’s played a huge part in shaping me as a mother, and as a midwife in my own right.
Because when you’ve been on the receiving end of exceptional care, through the best and the worst of things, you can’t help but feel as though you want to pay that gentle kindness forward.
In a Special Care Nursery environment.
Kindness underpins every element of care.
I hope I never forget it, and I hope you, dear readers, have been fortunate enough to receive it.