The birth of your baby is a time of great change, both emotionally and mentally. It is a time when you see your partner at her most vulnerable and pushed to her biological boundaries.
As a father, it can be difficult to appreciate the discomfort and pain your partner experiences. Early preparation and pre-birth reading can help in understanding the theory of childbirth, but the practicalities of labour can be surprising and at times overwhelming. The experience can be unexpected, with events changing your original ideas and from your birth plan. This unpredictability is at times disconcerting, leaving a father feeling intimidated and unable to help.
This was definitely the case with the birth of my son. From the start, he had been a highly sought-after baby, created via ICSI because of fertility issues on both mine and my wife’s side of the equation, and he was our only embryo to survive to implantation. Therefore, we had a lot emotionally riding on him joining our family safely and so come the birth, we were eager and nervous in equal measure.
It’s worth at this point explaining more about my wife’s situation too. She has a congenital heart defect known as Transposition of the Great Arteries, which means that at a very young age she required open heart surgery as a corrective measure and to save her life. For most of our years together this hasn’t affected much and not a lot has changed, other than a blip where she required a pacemaker to aid with her beats. The rest of the time she lives a normal life and it doesn’t restrict her, until it comes to exercise, which hurts the area of her chest where it was wired shut.
During pregnancy, we weren’t sure how the additional pressure of a new life would affect her heart as changes can vary from case to case, although her cardiologist had given us some advice and help with what to expect. We had regular hospital check-ups, both mother and baby were monitored thoroughly throughout the pregnancy, and the only issue that arose was a need for medication due to intermittently having episodes of atrial tachycardia; A fast heartbeat. From there we were recommended to have an early induction at around 38 weeks to ensure the safety of my wife.
After weeks of anticipation, the time finally came. We grabbed our packed birth bags and got in the car, heading to Leeds to have our baby. You may ask why we didn’t have the birth in our hometown of Sheffield, and the answer is that all my wife’s cardiology team are based in Leeds, therefore they felt it would be safer for her and for baby, to have the birth where they could keep a closer eye on things. We arrived and were talked through the intricacies of induction and then at 2.30pm, began the induction process via pessary.
After being told that the process could take a while, we prepped for the long haul. We went for a walk around the hospital, attempting to kill time and hoping that would speed things up. Sufficed to say, the contractions hit quicker than I expected. All the reading that I did prior to that point came flooding back into my head and I attempted to be the best possible birth partner I could be, despite having absolutely zero real life experience. However, by the time the more intense contractions began, all the reading in the world meant nothing.
The midwife suggested a bath may help the pain and I sat by the bath side, massaging and spouting any words I could muster to offer some comfort. These fell on deaf ears though, since I was no longer comforting my wife, I was in fact massaging a woman I was yet to meet; a growling woman, unable to concentrate on anything and with no sense of what she wanted – a stark difference from the woman I married. This was a huge shock to the system, I didn’t know how to help this new woman, I only knew how to help my wife.
At that point we went to be examined and she was 8cm dilated, tired and ready to start releasing our baby into the world. Under strict instructions from her cardiologist, my wife was only able to push naturally for an hour before they would introduce an epidural, to prevent undue strain on her heart. She was a warrior. She lunged at the task ahead with a strength I had never seen before and a sense of pure determination to do the best she could before the drugs came.
Eventually though, despite all the pushing and will in the world, the inevitable happened and in came the anaesthetist. Here came one of the tests of my patience and a challenge for the way in which I would be required to take control of the situation. Trying to keep her still for the epidural to enter her spine was similar to attempting to tame a wild animal, no matter how much you talk in an assertive way, they don’t really pay attention to what you’re trying to achieve and almost eat you alive.
Despite this struggle, the pain relief was administered successfully and we could focus on getting our baby out, without the background concerns of her heart strain. Once again, there was pushing, pushing and more pushing, but with no real result. The midwife was positive and supportive, but it didn’t move our baby any closer to freedom and my wife was exhausted and exasperated. It then got to the stage where a doctor needed to be called to discuss the possible next steps to help retrieve baby in the safest possible way – that way was by forceps. Out came these cold looking instruments that reminded me of salad servers, reaching to grab my child and gently pull him into the world.
That was it, he was here. Whilst my wife was being stitched up from the episiotomy, I was handed this tiny little life that I had helped to create and my world changed. I was unbelievably happy and utterly terrified. The one thought that grounded me was that I wasn’t alone and I had the support of the mother of my child. Little did I know, or was I able to prepare for what came next.
At one moment I was holding Isaac, then suddenly my wife looked unwell and began feeling extremely sick and faint. Her blood pressure had dropped and pulse shot up, which prompted the doctors to introduce a bag of fluid and she began to become more alert. During the next few days, she was connected to heart monitors to ensure she was okay, which was tough to see a loved one go through.
She tried her best to carry on regardless, but with her still numb from the waist down from the epidural and connected to heart monitors and a pulse/oxygen monitors, it meant any attempt to pick up our baby, to feed and change him became increasingly difficult.
On the first night, her oxygen levels dropped and pulse rose, meaning she became visually breathless. Luckily, I had been given permission to stay in the hospital longer than the usual father visiting period, due to the distance between our home and the hospital. That night was our first real contact with the Cardiology team, who assured us that it was normal and that before giving birth the fluid in her system had been circulating between her and Isaac, but now that fluid became solely her responsibility to deal with. This all sounded under control and they suggested it could take approximately 6-8 weeks before things returned to normal, but the fear and anxiety were running strong.
The next day she was given a diuretic to help her body get rid of the excess fluid and oxygen was delivered via a mask, which was even more frightening when combined with the array of wires and monitors around her. When she felt any better and made attempts to move around and grasp some reality, she would once again become breathless and require attention from a nurse to aid in settling this back down.
Here was a very low point in this early period. My wife felt sad to not be able to care for her baby properly and felt a burden on me in that I now had taken main responsibility in the overall care.
From then on, we saw the Cardiology team regularly, to talk about outcomes and answer any concerns that we may have had. Our time was spent flitting between the quiet side room on the ward, to the more daunting maternity HDU, which was normally only used for short term stays. When on the ward, we felt normal, we were in the same environment as the other parents and we could focus on the happier side of being a new mother and father. We had friends and family over to meet our new addition and the bliss of parenthood began to creep in.
However, later that evening her oxygen changed again and we were sent back to maternity HDU. This amount of regular uncertainty was slowly depleting both of our energy reserves. She was incredibly tired and needed to rest as much as possible, therefore my role had become almost sole carer for our son’s needs. Taking care of all the nights took its toll. I would walk around the small side room, with a crying baby with which I had no idea how to soothe and a wife that I also had to support the next day, and I felt overwhelmed. The only saving grace was that my body seemed to work on autopilot before my brain had chance to realise how much was on my shoulders, and I tackled the responsibility head on.
The next day the Cardiologist came and transferred her onto oral tablets to control the fluid, which could be taken as an outpatient and then re-evaluated at her heart check-up, around 4-6 weeks later. This was the light at the end of the tunnel that we were desperately hoping for.
Following this 5-day stint in hospital, the ending to this story is a happy one. We went home, my wife’s issues gradually reduced, with only a need for medication going forward and we have our son. Despite all the concern, the stress, the intensity of our birth story, he is what made it all worthwhile.
A birth could be straightforward or traumatic, either way preparation can be key to understanding any eventuality. However, alongside this preparation, pre and post birth support is vital to helping a father cope with the events.