The beginning of a new life: Part 1

A little over two weeks ago now, at 4:04am on Tuesday the 6th of September, my wife Ophelia gave birth to a beautiful baby boy: Will. In this piece I want to share this extraordinary experience with you, as best as I can anyway, from my perspective – that of a partner and a father. Some of this may, I hope, be of some interest to fathers-to-be in particular. The wonder and power of birth is really beyond language.

Our Will, about 2 hours old.

We had done as much as we could to prepare ourselves for the birth itself, so when the time came I was just filled with a deep sense of excitement. We had gone to about 13 hours of classes and we had our birth plan printed out with copies enough for the midwife and our great support, Ruby, also a midwifery student. We had talked through strategies to go through the progression of labour, picked out special music, and some oils. We knew we were in good hands at the Family Birthing Centre at the Mercy so most of our written plan dealt with our preferences if things didn’t go to plan.

We basically skipped the first stage, which is usually the longest, the build-up to the main event. Within half an hour of the waters breaking we were on our way to the hospital. Driving calmly when your wife is having frequent and intense contractions was quite an experience! It was only about half an hour after we arrived that I remembered that we even had a birth plan. In a little under five hours our baby was born. Ophelia had used nothing but the TENS machine for pain management. I already knew she was strong, but witnessing her go through this labour filled me with the deepest awe for her strength and power. We were fortunate to have a great team of women supporting us, including both the midwife and the obstetrician. It felt completely right that this experience should be led by women. As a man, and a parter, I felt deeply honoured and privileged to be a part of this extraordinary event, and to have the opportunity to support the woman I love go through the trial of labour. Quietly, I was amazed how calm and focussed I was though this. I say this because it was something I was a bit anxious about. The truth is though, that I was just focussed on her, talking her through, giving her sips of drink and rubbing her back. In short, I was doing what I had hoped I would be capable of doing.

Things became intense when we started to hear our baby’s heart start to slow down. I could see the midwife’s expression change and she wasted no time in calling on the specialist Obstetrician. Will’s head had turned sideways and they needed to make an episiotomy to get him out quickly. This, and the mention of other intervention just made Ophelia that much more determined, and so just as we had skipped the first stage, we had raced through final delivery in what seemed like a few minutes. It happened so quickly in the end. When they brought him up towards Ophelia’s chest it seemed incredibly sudden. I had tears of relief and happiness. He was crying as he came out but as he came towards us he looked directly into my eyes before settling onto Ophelia.

Ophelia and Will

Apart from Will being measured and weighed on the bed, we basically spent the next 30 hours in a little cocoon of utter bliss, such that I have never experienced before. The Birthing Centre rooms are equipped with queen size beds so we could just stay together, Will wrapped up in a little blanket between us. We didn’t get a wink of sleep that night, but the next night, still together, I would intermittently wake to see this extraordinary little bundle of life. So beautiful, so wonderful. I’ve had a great life in so many ways, but nothing could ever prepare me for this. We had been given the most wonderful gift. I could feel my heart bursting with love and the deepest gratitude.

Another thing that struck me about the birth was that this is really a massive event for the baby. Physically, it’s extremely challenging and then this little life is thrust into this completely new environment full of light, new sights, and smells, hot and cold, the feel of new textures. Everything. Our little one also had a big dark bruise on his head as evidence of the struggle he had experienced. This bruise, we would later find out, gave rise to higher than usual levels of bilirubins in his blood, creating jaundice. At first I thought his colour was due to his Mediterranean heritage on my Father’s side. He was also very, very sleepy. This too, is to some extent normal. His jaundice was considered too high to be left untreated so we had to take him up to the Special Care nursery to receive phototherapy, where he would lie in an incubator under special UV lights. We were all set to return home at this point, so the shift to the intensive care environment was quite frightening, especially as we didn’t know for sure whether it was just the bruising that was causing the jaundice or something more serious.

Me and my new son, just hours after birth.

This was the beginning of what was probably the longest and most challenging week of our lives. Will responded well to the phototherapy, but on the second night in the nursery we arrived for his feed to find the pediatric consultant at his incubator with the nurses. His breathing had stopped and his heart was slowing intermittently also. It was only momentarily but it gave the doctors real cause for concern. Their main fear was that it might be infection, so within minutes he was put onto an IV and given antibiotics. It was all quite surreal. Adding to this was the fact that we had pretty much no sleep for 3 days already. I just wanted to stay close to Will, so I sat down next to his crib, pulled out my journal and started to make my record of his first days. I had the clearest sense that this whole experience was of immense importance for him, just as it was for us.

Over the next 24 hours, Will’s condition stabilised and the next night the concern had left the nurses faces, replaced by the loving care that was their default. It seemed as if he might be have been responding to the antibiotics, but after another three days and night of waiting it was determined that he did not have any infection. He must have stabilised naturally and in response to the loving care that we were able to give him by feeding him, holding him, talking to him. In fact, we observed a subtle but definite improvement in his demeanor with this contact which was reflected in the stabilising of his heart rate.

Will in his incubator receiving phototherapy. Note the especially stylish cloth eye protectors.

It’s now about ten days since we arrived home, and already this time seems like a strange dream. There is so much of it that we will be very happy to forget, but there are also a few things that are really very important to remember.

Ophelia and I learned that we are so much stronger than we ever imagined, both as independent people as well as a couple, and this was brought out as we had to step up to meet the challenges as they came. Under extraordinary stress and fatigue, we simply did what needed to be done in a completely loving and supportive way, all hours of the day and night – in fact, this distinction lost much meaning in the way it does on a long-haul flight.

Another really important thing to take from this was just how much support came to us when we really needed it. We were inundated with the most amazing outpourings of love and support from our family and friends who came to offer company and practical assistance, as well as bringing wonderful fresh food. Hospital food has come a long way, but there is still a long way to go! We also found wonderful support from all the different professionals who worked with us and with Will. All brought the ideal blend of professionalism and caring. It was important to be able to ask for assistance, and to accept it from those who were already offering, mainly so we could focus on that which required our attention and so that we could stay healthy ourselves.

In fact, by the end of the week, managing our health had become a serious priority. We couldn’t sleep, but we could get rest and we could take turns spending time with Will rather than being there together each time. Simply getting outside and walking around, getting some sunlight and fresh air, and drinking lots of clean water, made a very big difference. Our wonderful Network chiropractor and friend, Dr Ari Diskin, even came to entrain us and brought us bags full of lovely fresh food and homemade chicken soup. To complement this, in the evenings I could practice SRI, or Somato Respiratory Integration exercises.

At about midnight on the Saturday, we were told that Will could join us in our room again. This was just the most exciting and fantastic news. We had been given a small family room just meters away from the Neonatal Intensive Care nursery where he had been cared for so if or when we needed help or if his condition changed help was right there, but basically he was in our hands again. The sense of relief was extraordinary.

Sure enough, with the dawn of a new week we were given the green light to go home together finally as a family. Leaving the hospital felt quite strange. There were cars and lots of people and lots of sunlight! When we got back home we were reminded of just how beautiful our home is and how fortunate we all are. The air was clean and full of the fragrance of spring. Even the freesias that were there when we had rushed off a week earlier, were still giving the home a gentle sweet perfume. It was good to be home. Now our life could really begin where we left off, in that bubble of bliss where it all began.

Will at home, getting some natural morning light.

So that’s a brief account of the adventure that unfolded. It was unbelievably tough at times, but we have all learned and grown in the most incredible ways through this experience. While we are still relaxing into this new life, I believe that we’re even better prepared for the trials that we’ll almost inevitably face down the road. We can move ahead with greater confidence and belief rather than less, in ourselves and each other and that is a wonderful thing.

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