It’s the most amazing experience of any dad’s life: when the woman we love gives birth; the moment we guide our first-born into the world; our transformation from man to father.
And the setting for this momentous event?
In this country, we are still nearly always surrounded by health professionals not friends, in the bleached blandness of a hospital ward rather than the familiar comfort of home.
Happily, Katja had other ideas. She wanted a home birth, to keep things as normal as possible. I’d heard mums (and dads) tend to be more satisfied with birth at home, and was comforted by anecdotes from colleagues and the reassuringly ordinary NCT homebirth group.
There may also have been a desire to avoid the delivery suite where she works. She would have had great care, but there are some things even clinicians prefer not to share with colleagues…
The truth is that I basically went along with her wishes. Though it helped that we live a couple of kilometres down the hill from the John Radcliffe. Having said that, I’ve worked in plenty of hospitals, and generally they are best avoided unless you are ill (which Katja wasn’t). I decided to do a bit of swatting up myself.
In short, for some women a hospital is completely appropriate: for high-risk pregnancies or complicated labours where there’s a danger to mother or child, a delivery suite with the dedicated staff and equipment is absolutely where birth should be.
But, whilst the definition is a little vague, most pregnancies are not high-risk. In fact, many of the women who give birth in hospital delivery suites are not high risk. Thankfully, everyone agreed Katja’s risk was low.
And then, just a couple of weeks before our birth, NICE revised its guidance on place of birth. In light of new evidence that the rate of interventions is lower, and the outcome for the baby is no different, they concluded that many more women, including first time mums, should give birth at home or in midwife-led units.
If there had been any lingering doubts (there weren’t), the hateful Daily Mail’s response dispelled them: the NHS, it thundered, “with maternity wards experiencing the highest birth rate in years thanks, in part, to immigration, is exploiting the concerns of paranoid middle-class mothers to save cash”. I’m not sure if they saw my immigrant midwife wife as part of the problem or the solution (and she’s German too, which apparently is ‘different’ to Romanian). Anyway, that did it: home birth it was!
So how was it for this dad?
For me at least, it really helped that this was our home, our territory; women are meant to be offered choice whatever the setting, but it’s so much easier to have home advantage: it helps football teams, it’s well known in business negotiations – and it applies to birth too.
In practice this meant there was minimal intervention. The midwives were great, keeping back most of the time, with just the occasional check of baby’s heart rate – yet were attentive and quietly efficient when needed.
Once labour was fully underway, we began our pain relief starter menu: lashings of squatting and swaying, a sprinkling of paracetamol, bathed in relaxing hypnobirth music – a good beginning. We progressed to a main course of TENS machine accompanied by frequent glugs of gas and air (Katja claims neither were necessary, but she nearly belted me when I suggested taking them away!).
Interestingly, for us the best relief came from the simplest sources. Wrapped around Katja’s waist, the heatpack really helped, so I was kept busy topping it up in the microwave. And the pool was great, though filling it with two and a half baths worth of 37 degree womb-temperature water stretched both our ageing boiler and my wits – in itself justifying the reassuring presence of Donna our doula!
Labour lasted eleven hours, and I was also kept busy bringing cold coconut water for Katja (and catching it in the bowl when she threw it all up!). My back massages appeared to help, thought I knew when to stop as my hands were unceremoniously brushed away. And my encouragement to breathe seemed to work, though after a few hours I was boring even myself (and irritating Katja, who informed me we’d now entered the pushing stage!).
Overall it was great: rather than stressing about when to go to hospital, I spent much of the labour with the cat on my lap next to the pool! But it wasn’t all relaxation for dad – my biggest challenge of all was to repeatedly change the music as Venga Boys kept creeping onto the playlist...
Only occasionally did I did get a bit wobbly: as the baby approached, Katja asked the midwife to cut through the remaining membranes with a rusty coathanger (in my mind – actually a perfectly sterile and expertly-applied ‘amni-hook’). Then the head appeared but quickly decided to go back inside; and moments later the calming blue water turned a worrying red. A glance from our kindly doula and a quiet word from the chilled midwives reassured me all was well.
After hours of labour, the moment of birth happened quickly, and was wonderful. Baby emerged with her hand by her face (‘waving’), so needed a gentle nudge from the midwife, who then guided her into Katja’s hands – so it was proud new mum herself who lifted our baby from the water; what a special moment.
Suddenly, after nine months of patting a bump, I was holding my pink, gurgling, bright-eyed daughter. I’ve no idea where her long dark hair comes from, but her eyebrows and frown looked dad-like to me, and I was predictably smitten.
That wasn’t quite the end of it. After a while to get all the goodness, we clamped the cord and I was allowed to ceremonially snip (hack) it apart. She weighed in at a hefty 4kg, making me even more respectful of her amazing mum – who at that moment was quietly delivering the placenta on the sofa! Baby’s waving on entry had left mum with a bit of a tear, so the no-nonsense midwives quickly stitched her up on the kitchen table – how cool is that?
So as dawn approached, and after a celebratory sip of champagne with our doula and the midwives, we were left alone – tired, delighted, holding our beautiful, healthy baby girl – and happily in our own home.