Written by Anneli Strecker
I remember the last few weeks of my first pregnancy as being fairly uncomfortable and filled with anticipation and a certain amount of anxiety about life with a newborn baby. I had terrible pain and pressure in the pelvic area and couldn’t walk great distances or do too many chores without exhausting myself. My feet were swollen and I felt really overweight. Pregnancy has been a rollercoaster of emotions, both wonderful and terrifying, but I was ready for it to be over. Was I really? Hardly! I don’t think anything can really prepare you for birth and life with a baby. It’s just something that happens and you have to learn to roll with the punches. It’s a runaway train and there’s no stopping it and no turning back. I’ve been panicking about life with a baby for a while, and it turns out it was with reason, but back then in week 39 my husband told me to focus on one thing at a time and the one thing you should be focusing on in week 39 is birth.
All through the pregnancy it was the plan to give birth naturally and without any pain medication if possible. I attended ante-natal classes for 7 weeks prior to birth, 2 hour classes on Tuesday nights, and with the help of the other ladies there and the lovely midwife who presented the classes, I was confident that natural birth without pain medication was the right thing for me to do. Of course I had fears and anxiety about the pain, but I spoke to many women who had gone through this before me in an attempt to prepare myself for it. I also created a little birth booklet to up my mental game in the weeks before birth and as something to read to strengthen me in early labour. The booklet contained visuals and motivational sayings, bible verses and some personal letters from strong women in my life that encouraged me during birth. I found that all these measures I took gave me an incredible amount of courage for the act of birth – I believed I could, and I did, but boy was I unprepared for exactly how painful it would be!
During my appointment at the gynae in week 38, she said that baby was ready to make his appearance and she suggested we do a stretch and sweep. At the time I was completely unaware of what a stretch and sweep was supposed to do and even though she mentioned it could “get the hormones of labour going”, it was only after I read online about the procedure on the way home that it really hit me what could be happening, and SOON. That night after the stretch and sweep I was incredibly anxious. I still had a million things I wanted to do before baby came, so I spent that night and some days after checking off items from my to do list. Oh about the stretch and sweep – I found it to be an uncomfortable experience, not painful, but I will admit that my gynae is really gentle with her internal examinations and has never once hurt me. Afterwards I felt really uncomfortable in the pelvic region and I experienced some mild contractions with what felt like moderate period pain. The contractions were never regular though and stopped a couple of days afterwards. The worst part about the last few weeks though, and especially after a stretch and sweep, is the wait and the anticipation. You become a little ADHD – I could hardly concentrate on anything.
I was 39 weeks and 3 days pregnant when I had my next checkup at the gynae and another stretch and sweep was done. This time she said that the placenta showed signs of calcification and she doesn’t want to wait too long for baby to come. She suggested we do an induction – the next day, if I was comfortable with it, or at 40 weeks 1 day. I was caught off guard by the suggestion and being someone who likes to overthink EVERYTHING, I couldn’t handle the thought of induction the next day. I agreed to book for induction that coming Monday (40 weeks 1 day), saying that I would be happier if he decided to arrive on his own before that. I was comfortable with the idea of labour as long as it was natural. The idea of induction terrified me, because you hear from people that it makes labour so much more painful. So we went home and waited some more.
The next day we were experiencing an electricity blackout due to maintenance in the area, so I didn’t start my usual morning routine working. Instead I had the sudden urge to take the pictures of the nursery as I’ve been meaning to do for the longest time (Some context – I’m a photographer in my free time). Not having photographed anything in the last 9 months, or having done any form of exercise for that matter, I had some difficulty getting the shots I wanted. I was heavily pregnant and sweating, getting into awkward positions to get just the right angle of the crib (LOL!) and when I was done with this particularly strenuous workout, my contractions started for real! It was around 9am that I started having regular contractions – hardening of the entire tummy, combined with mild period pain – every 6 to 10 minutes. I was really excited about the fact that this might be the real thing, but I was also unsure if it was. Everyone always said that you won’t wonder if you’re in labour when it starts. From my personal experience, you might wonder during the early stages of labour (that could last many hours), but you won’t wonder once active labour starts. So since I had no idea whether or not it was the real thing or not, I kept doing things around the house, I had a shower, I had a colleague over for lunch and kept walking up and down in the yard with my mother-in-law – hoping to bring the contractions closer together and get things started for real. In retrospect, what I should’ve done at this point was sleep. But, I didn’t, I kept going. All the while I kept hubby and my mom updated about the state of the contractions. It was hardly uncomfortable at this point. Completely bearable. It was around 2pm when I called the doctor’s office to ask how I’ll know when I should go to the hospital. I told the receptionist – who told the doctor – that I was having contractions and that I THINK it might be early labour. The doctor didn’t even want to know how far apart the contractions were, she told me to come to the hospital immediately. So I let my husband and my mom know, and off my mother-in-law and I went to the hospital – with all my bags in tow.
We met my husband at the hospital around 3pm and I was taken to the maternity ward for monitoring – to establish whether or not real labour has started. I remember joking with the nurse on duty that perhaps my pain threshold is much higher than I thought, because the contractions I was experiencing at that stage was hardly painful. I was very adamant that the nurse should remember that I don’t want any pain medication during labour and she seemed surprised. She then did an internal examination to determine if I was dilating and said my cervix was still very posterior but she tried pulling it forward. The nurse was a very small lady with small hands though, and she hurt me terribly during the internal examination. This was certainly the most pain I’ve experienced throughout the pregnancy and it was breaking my emotional game a bit – I was close to tears. My gynae stopped by and did the internal examination herself this time, determining I was only 2cm dilated. The gynae must have longer fingers or something for she never hurt me during an internal examination.
It was around 4pm that I was admitted to the labour ward. I took off that awful hospital gown, put on my own clothes and accompanied my husband to the lobby to admit myself. The nurses were surprised to see me dressed and carrying my handbag and thought I was going home – we laughed and I told them I was just going to get myself admitted. Once admitted I got into my own pyjamas and night gown. At first they put us in a smaller room tucked away in a corner of the hospital, telling us that once I was 4cm dilated they would move us to the real labour room. My parents were also in the waiting room outside (only the husband is allowed in the room during labour at Femina) and since I wanted to see them for a while, we decided to meet them outside the hospital for a walk in the parking lot to see if we can get things going. My folks ordered something for themselves to eat at the Restaurant and my moms and I started walking up and down in the
parking lot. I was in high spirits – it was good to see my family and I was excited about the birth of our little boy. I was walking arm-in-arm with my moms and sometimes even did a little dance – to the amusement of many a passer-by. It was around 6pm that walking became uncomfortable and I was tired and wanted to go back to the room. Back in the room my husband and I listened to some music, I paged through my birth book and I sat on the ball for a while. Dinner was served and I was hungry. The night-shift nurse monitored the contractions and baby’s heartbeat some more and also did another internal examination. I remembered the pain from the earlier examination and joked with the nurse, asking if she has longer fingers because the other nurse really hurt me. Unfortunately, as the nurse explained, my cervix being posterior still didn’t help with the pain of the examination, and she tried to pull it forward again. I was still only 2cm dilated and nothing has changed in the last 2/3 hours. They told me that they would monitor it and decide later if they will break my waters to try and speed things up or not. The nurse also promised that the pain of the internal examination will subside once the cervix is in the right place, but I was crying after this second examination. My mental game was now shaky at best and I felt like I just really wanted to cry it out, but I tried to gulp down the tears. The night nurse tried to talk to me as I cried, telling me about the pain meds she has prepared for if I should need them and I remember that I kept telling her I don’t want them, that the contractions are still bearable – it’s just the internal examination that really hurt that has me crying. She said that she’ll still keep the pain meds there as an option for me, should I want it. At around 8pm she checked my cervix again – this time things have sped up a bit and I was 4cm dilated. As promised and to my relief, this time the examination didn’t hurt as much.
They then moved us to a very fancy labour room with the most incredible bath tub. My husband drew me a bath and I got in, dealing with the contractions in the tub for quite some time while hubby got on my hospital bed for a nap. At this point, the contractions became increasingly painful, but the warm water helped quite a bit with pain relief. This was now active labour and I now understand why they say you won’t wonder if you’re in labour once active labour starts. I stayed in the tub until I thought hubby had a good rest and I heard him stir – I then asked him to help me out of the tub. As I got out the nurse came back to check how I was doing. I then got into another hospital gown and got in bed. The contractions were now quite painful. Before and while I was pregnant, I would always ask women to explain labour pains to me and very few could. I now understand why it’s so hard to explain. Your mind is so out of it while you experience the pain, that you can hardly fathom what is happening to your body or form a picture or words to explain what it is you are feeling. But I will at least try to recall that pain and explain it here. Early labour pains, for me at least, was just a hardening of the tummy combined with moderate to bad period-like pains – a dull ache in your lower back, lower abdomen and in my case, thighs. But active labour pain is much, much different. It really feels similar to a muscle cramp – like the type you get in your leg – and it also feels similar to a very bad tummy cramp – like the type you get when you have severe diarrhoea and you’re about to lose your bowel contents in an explosive storm. Combine those two types of pain, place them in your lower abdomen/groin and imagine it’s a pain that builds to a climax for several seconds/minutes before it subsides. That’s the best I can do to explain what it feels like. At first, whenever I felt the contraction coming on, all I could think of was (randomly) Tony Horton’s voice from the P90X videos as he encourages you to push through the workout saying “you can do anything for 60 seconds!”. In this case though I just changed it to 90 seconds – that’s more or less how long the contractions lasted at this point. In my mind, this was the only motivation I had – gone were the encouraging words in my birth booklet hahaha! At some point during the evening – I think it must’ve been around 10 or 11pm, the contractions started to
hurt too much for me to handle. So much so that I asked, perhaps begged, the nurse for the pethidine and atarax injection. She did an internal examination, determining that I was now 8 cm dilated and administered the pain meds and some additional intra-vein fluids. I remember asking her shortly afterwards how long it would take to kick in, as I was now crying from the pain. Once it did kick in, I told my husband and the nurse that I was, in these exact words, “tripping”. I had known that the meds would make me feel drugged, but I had no idea how much. I also knew that the meds would not take the pain away completely, but I had no idea that I would simply be in a sedated state of mind with the exact same amount of pain as before. I honestly don’t know if I would’ve done things differently if I knew, because perhaps being sedated did help with coping to some extent. I cannot really say for sure, because “coping” at this stage consisted of a lot of tears, moaning and groaning during contractions and desperately trying to just make it through each of them by making use of the gas as well. I tried the gas once before succumbing to the temptation of the pethadine and atarax injection, but found it entirely unhelpful. The mask was this puffy plastic thing that you had to push hard onto your face for it to seal and then you’d have to breathe really hard to access the gas. In short, it was hard work to use and I could feel my entire body tense up just by trying to get it onto my face and the gas activated. So even though I used the gas at times even while I was tripping after the injection, I can’t say it brought any pain relief – instead it was something to clench my grip onto and focus my breathing and moaning into. I know that before I went through this experience, I was told by the midwife to relax and focus on my breathing during these painful contractions. That tension would make you experience more pain. But to me, I could find NO WAY to relax my body during these contractions – which were now coupling – meaning I was having several contractions following each other directly one after the other instead of the usual reprieve in between. I could not relax and found that gripping something or someone really hard and tensing my entire body into a tight little ball helped me more. I really felt like I was dying and I knew there was no turning back even though I wished it a couple of times. One of the only things that REALLY helped me cope with the pain was my husband rubbing my lower back in circles really fast until I’m sure he thought they would fall off. Without the rubbing of my lower back, I was in agony.
I am not sure in which order things happened once I was tripping, but I know that at some point my waters were broken and the doctor was on her way and she arrived – I cannot remember who broke my waters or at what stage. I remember the water breaking to be a wonderfully warm gush – it was a nice feeling strangely enough, but the contractions were even worse afterwards. I remember being incredibly sad about the fact that I was so vocal during labour, even though I never yelled or screamed, I was moaning high-pitched wails during each set of contractions. I always thought I would be rather quiet during labour and that all the fuss and noise women made was entirely unnecessary. I was so wrong! The vocalisation certainly helped. It was definitely a new day when the doctor arrived, somewhere in the early morning hours of the 11th of September 2015, and I was ready to push. It was strangely quiet in the hospital room. I always imagined there being quite a lot of staff around to help with a delivery, but it was just my husband and I, one night nurse and the gynae. My legs were put in stirrup-looking things at the end of the bed, while the nurse and the gynae instructed me on how to push. Before this day I was told it was easier to push a baby out in any other position than lying flat on your back, and I think it is probably true, but when you’re in so much pain you just do what the doctor asks of you. So there I was, flat on my back, legs in the air, doing sit-ups while hanging onto my legs for dear life. Deep breath and hold while pushing down there, you know, like you’re pooping! I couldn’t do the pushing part right for a long time though. I wasn’t breathing deeply enough, not holding the breath long enough, not
pushing with the right parts. I find it really funny now that I think about it, but it’s really harder than you’d think to do. I will say one other thing about pushing though – it brought more relief during the painful contractions than anything else. Pushing was a huge relief, but it was also hard work – physically. You have to pull yourself into a very intense sit-up type of position, holding onto these metal bars behind your legs for grip. It didn’t occur to me then that this exercise would have severe repercussions in the form of intense body pain a day or two later!
At some point the doctor told me that she was going to perform an episiotomy and that the baby would have to be delivered vacuum-assisted. I was okay with anything at this point, as long as the baby was healthy and alive and the labour pains over. I don’t remember feeling the cut and I doubt I would’ve even if I wasn’t high as a kite because they do inject you with something to numb the area beforehand. After the episiotomy there was some more pushing and I could hear in the doctor and nurse’s voices that what I was doing now was working and that it would be over soon. Baby was crowning and it felt glorious. I’m sure it would’ve felt more uncomfortable were it not for the cut, but I felt no pain pushing the baby through and out the birth canal.
Throughout the birth process my husband was standing next to me, supporting me, telling me that I can do it when I was saying I can’t, telling me to breathe, telling me to push harder, to breathe deeper and to hold that breath a little longer. He was an absolute rock star! Before I knew it, our little boy was born and he came into the world crying. It was a beautiful sound. Once he was out, the pain stopped immediately and I felt so relieved. The nurse took Juwan away quickly and I asked my husband to take a picture and a video of him. A few minutes later he was placed naked on my chest. These moments are a little blurry, almost dream-like now and I suppose it has a lot to do with the fact that I was drugged up, but also that it was 2am and I was exhausted. My eyes were mostly closed through it all as well, so says my husband. I remember the doctor told me that there would be a small little scar down there, as she started stitching me up and that I cracked a joke saying “Don’t worry, I don’t plan on showing it off” – we all chuckled! The nurse then suggested Niekie go inform the grandparents in the waiting room while the doctor stitched me up – yes they held vigil all through the night with me, which is so incredibly special to me.
If there’s anything I regret, it’s taking the pethadine and atarax injection, if only because I didn’t experience the moment our little boy came into the world with more clarity. I wish I could’ve seen my husband’s reaction to all of this. Only afterwards did I hear about how emotional he became in the waiting room with my parents when he showed them the video of our little one’s first cries. The vague memories of those early morning moments are fond ones though, however dreamy they may feel.
Baby Juwan Strecker is a healthy little bundle of joy, born on the 11th of September 2015 at 1:55am. He weighed 3.41kg and measured 49cm in length, with an Apgar score of 9. We were released from the hospital 3 days after the birth. He had jaundice for about 3 weeks, but it resolved on its own and was never dangerously high. A perfect little blessing was given to us on that day, which makes all the pain and drama so so worth it!