It is 1a.m when I text my girls and my family group on WhatsApp: I am in labour. Headed to hosi. Pray for us.
Today is September 4, 2020. A Friday.
There is still a country-wide curfew here in Kenya, because of Covid-19 – Government said that everyone should be at home by 10p.m, we should not be out at this hour.
The streets are deserted and the chilly night is ripe with promise. I could not have picked a better night to deliver a baby.
Our son, Njeeh, will be born later today, in a few hours, I just don’t know how many.
I cannot wait to meet the little bugger.
My medical history has been fraught with more misses than hits. I have had difficulty keeping pregnancies past the first trimester, so I feel abundantly favoured that Njeeh has made it this far.
We will bring him home.
Our baby is coming home.
At 1a.m GB and I are out the front door of our apartment and headed to the car in parking. GB woke the Help to tell her that it is time, she must have whispered me a prayer and crept back to bed. We didn’t wake our daughter Muna, we left her sleeping in her bed – the young girl would have insisted on coming with us to the hospital to see her brother being born.
GB is carrying my hospital bag, which I had packed weeks ago and put near my nightstand; it has clothes and paperwork and that thing called hope. He is also carrying my blue yoga ball, my birthing ball. It is a mammoth of a ball that can’t sit under his arm, so he carries it on his belly, as though he too is preggers.
I am trudging along behind him, stopping twice to go through the peak and fall of a contraction.
I had been labouring in our bedroom for about three hours while GB was watching TV in the living room. Muna and the Help were already asleep in their bedrooms, the household was still. It was around midnight when GB burst through the door like a raging bull, timed my surges and announced, ‘We have to go to the hospital! Now!’
If it were up to me I would have stayed on longer labouring in the bedroom – alone, in the familiarity and comfort of our home, wearing nothing but a sports bra, earphones plugged into my ears. I was labouring on my knees, on the rug at the foot of our bed, I was hugging the yoga ball and rolling back and forth. Because my earphones were plugged into my ears, I could not hear myself groaning as I had been: I must have sounded like a blue whale in the ocean, or a dolphin, that sonic sound they make in the water.
I had managed the surges thus far pretty well, if you ask me.
I also hear you ask, ‘But why were you labouring with earphones on, anyway?’
I was listening to guided affirmations for my hypnobirthing meditations.
I had heard about hypnobirthing years before but had only become greatly interested in it when a local YouTuber – Shiko Nguru of the Green Calabash – filmed the homebirth of her son. Shiko had laboured and delivered at home. She had delivered in a birth pool they had been inflated and set up in their bedroom. In front of their vlogging camera.
Shiko had managed the pressure of labour and birth using the guided meditation of hypnobirthing.
It was so beautiful, I wanted to try it as well.
How hypnobirthing works is, you listen to the guided meditations from an app, they are spoken directly into your ear. It is better if you listen to them on headphones – or earphones – so you can keep out the noise from the world around you and focus all your energy on the process of labour.
It is just you, your mind, your body and your baby.
The affirmations are positive affirmations that help you visualise the birth process.
You will hear such affirmations as ‘You are relaxed, you will remain calm and confident.’ ‘You will allow your body to flow rhythmically, like the ebb and flows of the tides.’ ‘You will not resist the pressure, you will breath into it.’ ‘Trust your body, it knows how to breath and flow with the pressure.’ ‘Inhale courage, exhale fear.’
Hypnobirthing also switches out ‘ugly’ ‘hard’ words that evoke pain and suffering for ‘beautiful’ ‘gentle’ words that hasten the body’s natural instinctive process for birth.
Contractions are referred to as surges. Labour is the birthing process. There is no pain but pressure, waves of pressure.
I would have shared the link to this beautiful home birthing video on YouTube but Shiko pulled down the channel after the split up with her then-husband. He was also her birth partner. And a fantastic one at that.
Anyway, I downloaded the hypnobirthing app on my phone when I was six months pregnant, give or take a few weeks. There are many apps in the PlayStore, I selected the one called ‘Hypnobirth’.
I didn’t feel the need to pay for the premium subscription because I didn’t intend to remain pregnant for more than nine months. I selected the free audio: Relax & Bond. It runs for 52 minutes, 48 seconds.
The first 30 minutes are about your relaxation. The second 30 minutes are about bonding with your baby and managing the surges, invoking the natural anaesthesia.
I would listen to the hypnobirthing audio every night before I went to sleep. I listened in bed – under the covers, from my earphones. I would sometimes fall asleep before the 52 minutes were over, other days I would listen twice, or one and half times. I had listened so many times that I now knew some of the lines by heart.
I wanted everything to remain the same so I didn’t upgrade my phone or my out-dated earphones: these are the exact tools I would use during Njeeh’s birth.
Another reason I listened to the hypnobirthing audio is because I want to try for a natural birth.
I am attempting what is called a VBAC: Vaginal Birth After C-section. Operative word here is ‘attempting’ because there are about a million and one things that could not go as planned, and my Doc will need to make the call on whether to let me carry on with a vaginal birth or whether we will detour to an emergency CS.
Muna’s birth in November 2015 was an emergency CS. I had wanted a natural vaginal birth but two things happened.
One. I was neither mentally nor physically prepared for a natural birth, especially mentally. I had spent those final crucial weeks focussed on whether she had enough clothes and beddings, whether the cot and chest of drawers were as cute and white and matchy as we had been promised. (Spoiler alert: They were not!)
This time I didn’t even care for clothes or baby furniture or a maternity shoot. (OK, I cared about the maternity shoot.) I focussed my energy inward, to the little man.
Two. I developed a complication while labouring with Muna, something called placenta abruption.
The placenta separated from the uterus too early into the birth process. Muna could not get her oxygen supply and could go any moment into distress. I was also bleeding with each surge. The CS was such an emergency that my own doctor did not make it to the hospital in time – he did not make the first incision, some young in-house doctor did. He made a jagged panicked cut that has since threatened my late-in-life career to be a bikini model. He-he.
I could not help the second event but I could help the first.
Thus listening to the guided meditation of hypnobirthing.
Thus the yoga ball.
Thus the regular swimming and climbing stairs, the daily stretches and evening walks I’d take with GB.
On this Thursday night of September 3, I do what I do every night at bedtime – I take a long hot shower, and then lie under the covers with my earphones in my ear. I hit play. But unlike other nights, something has shifted tonight and my body calls the siren. This is not a drill, we are in labour. We are in labour!
I check the time. It is 10.03p.m.
It starts here.
My body prepares for labour and birth. First, I take a big shit to empty my bowels. Then I throw up all the food I ate earlier at supper: ugali, cabbage and those delicious chicken cubes only the Help knows how to make. (Every time I have this meal every Thursday after, I will remember this Thursday when I threw it all up.)
I am also sweating like a tomato in the sun. I am hot. I am clammy. I have stripped down to my sports bra, a purple sports bra which will be elevated to a new status once I am done with this birthing business.
This is not a drill.
At a little after 1a.m, GB and I are in the car driving towards Aga Khan Hospital.
I tell him to drive slowly, to be gentle on the bumps. I don’t sit in the front because the surges are now coming in steady and strong. I squat in the back seat and muscle my way through two surges.
We don’t meet any cops or barriers along the way.
We reach Aga Khan in Parklands.
I had booked a room in the private ward but tonight is full house, a busy night.
September is not a good month to have a baby because everyone you know is having a baby. Hell, you must have someone in your circle that was born in September. I can count at least seven.
Do the math – September babies were conceived in December, when folk are drunk off the mystic madness of the festivities. A YOLO kind of approach to life. An anything-goes laissez faire. Everyone at this time is getting drunk then banging afterwards. Or banging then getting drunk after, doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is a lot of banging in December and come September, on a night like this, there is no room at the hospital for me.
I had booked a room for the 9th but our baby has come earlier than expected.
We make our way to the private wing of the general ward, there are no rooms available here either.
After some roaming around the halls and labouring in the corridors, we are lucky to get a bed in the general labour ward. There are two other women here in labour, one of whom is also waiting on my Doc to arrive.
Something about all this reminds me of that story of that baby born under a starry night and amongst sheep chewing on hay.
I am changing into my hospital gown, those flimsy ones that are open at the ass, the ones that are the colour of faded green Rosy tissue, when I throw up again.
I am now emptied of all food and drink, my body will not squander resources digesting ugali, everything will now be focussed on sustaining me through labour and birth.
The nurse does her thing: I am four centimetres dilated already. Four centimetres out of 10.
This is good, dilating by a centimetre every hour. This is very good.
They take me into a labour room.
The second part begins here.
They tell me it is a labour room but it is not actually a labour room, not from the equipment that is strewn all around the room, the mindlessness of clutter. It feels like a store.
I even peep a Kenpoly lunch box in the overhead cabinets with what looks like someone’s leftovers from dinner, some rice and ndengu, perhaps, abandoned in haste, the soiled spoon sitting pitifully on the lid, a meal planned to be finished later. I wonder about the nurse who was eating that rice and ndengu, what crossed her mind when she was summoned mid-dinner to check in on someone’s personal emergency.
I am attempting a VBAC, I have told you this already. I have also written it on my admission forms and told the nurse before she even asks.
Because of this VBAC plan, my nurse tells me that the baby’s heartbeat must be monitored all through. They belt me with the heart monitor strap – I look like an elephant wearing a waist belt. She also tells me that I can only labour on the bed because… actually I don’t know why I am told to do this.
This worries me because it upsets my planning – this is not how I had been practising at home.
Besides, lying on your side while you labour is never a good idea because all the pressure will be concentrated to the spot you lay.
Here is the thing, labouring on your knees and while you pace about is better because you are taking advantage of gravity, to push the baby down with each surge. When you are on your knees, your patellas absorb some of the pressure from the surge, and your back has the strength to contain and distribute that pain.
Pacing about takes your mind off the pressure. When you sit on the mammoth yoga ball and roll around it, the rolling slides the baby down as well. Plus you can practise your breathing as you had in your meditation.
You need your knees and back and to be active, is what I am saying.
My sister is to be my birth partner but we can’t reach her on phone, so I am here with GB, who is unprepared and out of his depth. He is like the hapless gardener who was pulled into battle and lived to tell the story.
I protest to the nurse. ‘I can’t labour on the bed. Surely, I will be in so much pain.’
She shakes her head, ‘We have no choice here, mama. Those are the hospital’s rules.’
No sense in arguing, I quickly adjust to the circumstances.
With the heart monitor belted around my belly, I lie on my left on the bed and I focus on the meditation playing into my ears and repeating them in a whisper, eyes shut, visualising my cervix opening and Njeeh’s big head sliding down into the birth canal, engaged to be pushed out and him being birthed.
I am aligned, in every sense of the word.
I am aware of every surge that is rising and falling as a wave in the sea, to bring my baby to the shore and to me. I can visualise it all. I am present, my body is present. I am in control. I am participating in my own birth.
I am regulating my breathing and affirming the words to myself – inhale courage, exhale fear. Inhale strength, exhale exhaustion. Inhale through your nose, count to 10, exhale through your mouth.
The surges are strong and regular – three to five minutes apart. This means I have three to five minutes to catch my breath, gather my strength and prepare for the next peak of pressure.
It is all rhythmic and choreographed . Purposeful.
A poetry of pain.
It is now 4a.m. It has been seven intense hours of surges and meditation.
Doc tells me that I am now fully dilated to 10 centimetres.
It is time.
I am on my back, knees bent, one earphone off.
The steady thump of Njeeh’s heartbeats fills the room.
I can feel his big head between my legs, he is crowning.
GB is still standing to my side. He is exasperated, overwhelmed. The gardener who went to battle. The look on his face says, Can we get this over with already?
My Doc, the nurses are at the foot of the bed, looking into my wide-open thighs.
I am being told to push.
And I am pushing.
I am pushing very well, they tell me.
I wish I could change position, though, and be on all fours, doggy style, so I can draw strength from my back and knees.
I close my eyes and keep pushing strong when I am told to.
I can’t believe this!
We are at the end. We made it.
Hypnobirthing actually works.
We did it!
Dear Lord, we did it.
I am present as I push.
I am in control.
I am triumphant.
But something is wrong.
I am bleeding. A lot.
No one can tell where the bleed is coming from.
Each push comes with a push of blood.
There is a shift in the energy in the room. A lull. A pause to the rhythm.
Now I am being told not to push.
My doc looks up and says, ‘You are bleeding and it’s getting worse. We can’t risk this. We have to go into the theatre for a Caesarean now.’
Suddenly I am being covered up and being wheeled out and every plan is upset and the next thing I am in the lift hearing the ding! of a button pressed. I don’t know where we left GB.
The reality of it hits me like a ton of cement.
‘I am going in for an emergency CS while at 10 centimetres fully dilated and Njeeh is crowning.’
How do I feel in this moment? I feel defeated, let down.
I feel that my Doc has let me down. I feel that he took the ‘easy’ way out of this. Granted, he gave me a chance to labour until the end but he didn’t give me a chance to push to the end. I mean, Njeeh was right there, he was right there! I could feel his big head, the Doc could see the top of his head from his side of the room.
The Doc will later tell me, ‘You are a strong woman with a strong mind, and calling the CS was a very difficult decision for me to make.’
I feel that my sis, Maggie, has let me down. She should have been in labour room with me, giving me the support sourly I needed, raising her voice to stand up for me when the ‘men’ in the room were going left. (It is only weeks from today that I will learn that they would not have allowed her in, anyway, she did not have a Covid certificate with a negative result. Plus it was one partner for one labouring mum.)
I feel that GB has let me down. He has not honoured my wishes for a natural birth, never mind the smart way I have managed the surges and progress of labour.
I don’t feel that my body has let me down. Or Njeeh. Or my meditated mind. No. We were all aligned in those moments leading up to full dilation. There was no duck that was not in row: every one of us was focused on this one goal and one goal only. We were going to make it. We were going to be fine.
I feel, though, that I let myself down at those final moments. At some point there, as we approached the critical 10-centimetre mark, the nurse asked me whether I want some medicated gas to relieve the pain and I said sawa. She put the mask over my nose and I inhaled.
Inhaling that gas is like smoking shisha. I got lightheaded. Woozy. I lost control and awareness. Maybe, maybe… maybe if I was not intoxicated, I would have had the presence of mind to ask the Doc to let me change positions to doggy and push to the end.
When I wake up next, it is Friday morning, the time is maybe 7, 8a.m. – I am not sure – and I am in the general maternity ward. I am in the bed next to the window. It is noisy, busy, like a farmer’s market, and it smells of a new day and placentas.
New-borns are squealing everywhere. The mum in the bed next to mine is asking about some delivery of sand.
I can feel the slicing pain on my pelvis, where I was sliced open for the CS. They have sliced the exact same spot where they sliced me when they were getting Muna out, so it is pain times pain compounded with pain, an old wound becoming a new wound.
It hurts. It fucking hurts. This is not what I wanted for myself.
Njeeh is brought to me. Garrr. He is a big boy with a body as solid as a Russian tanker. A whooping 3.8 kilos of a little man with hair as little as mine, the poor thing, he-he. He is pink in the cheeks and green in the bum, and he does some adorable thing with his top lip, I can’t get enough of it. He has Muna’s stubby fingers and toes, GB’s nose.
He is beautiful. And perfect. Njeeh is a beautiful boy.
‘Hi, Njeeh. It’s me. I’m your Mummy.’
I lie him on my bare chest, we are skin to skin and my heart bursts with love.
We lie like this until the nurse comes to help me stand. I am in so much pain, Christ, a two-time CS is madness.
I am later moved to the private wing, to the room where I had initially been booked. It is luxuriously quiet and cosy here, no one is making a racket about the M-Pesa for the sand.
Guests come, guests go. They are few, because of Covid restrictions. Masked and few. Thank God, I am glad that I can sleep in and catch up on my much-needed rest, I am knackered. There is nothing as draining to a new mum as entertaining guests.
Njeeh is wheeled in and out of my room. He is asleep in his crib most of the time, when he is not sleeping we are trying to breastfeed. Can you believe that I forgot how to breastfeed?! Ha-ha.
My baby Njeeh. My Baba. Each time I look at him, I think back to what happened in those wee hours in the labour room and I feel bad for myself. Really really bad.
I don’t allow myself to cry that Friday.
I don’t cry on Saturday either, though the skies hang low and there is a light drizzle through the evening into the night.
I allow myself to cry on Sunday morning.
I am using the words ‘allow myself’ quite purposely.
Thing is, I no longer believe in tears. Crying does not solve any problem. It actually adds to my existing problems because I am left with a splitting migraine and bloodshot red eyes. It does not matter what time of the day I cry, I will spend the rest of that day recovering from my red eyes and migraine. I must always pop a Panadol after crying because the migraine won’t let me proceed with my day.
So crying does not only not solve any of my problems, it also wastes my time.
Crying is useless.
Tears are futile.
Stoicism is applauded.
So today, I allow myself to cry because I am feeling quite shitty on the insides and there is no one who will tell me what I need to hear. Not by a long shot. The only person who can tell me what I need to hear is myself.
I have a heart-to-heart with myself that goes something like this:
‘I am really sorry that you didn’t get the birth experience you wanted, Bett.’
Sigh. Yeah, me too.
‘You did good, though. Very good. You managed that pain like a bad boss bitch and you handled yourself like a lady. You meditated through labour, who would have thought?’
I know, ha-ha. I am pretty badass, aren’t I?
‘You are! Hypnobirthing works. VBAC is possible. I rate you an eight out ten.’
‘And to think that you laboured on the bed, without Maggie there and with GB only. So technically you laboured on your own. Ha-ha.’
‘And you fully dilated in decent time, 10 centimetres in, what, seven hours? Atta girl.’
GB is traumatised, isn’t he?
‘Ha-ha. He is, we’re going to have to deal with that.’
‘Look, Bett, I am sorry that you didn’t push as you wanted. And that you were not the first one to hold Njeeh. I am sorry that you weren’t present when he breathed his first.’
‘That sucks for you, it bloody sucks. I know.’
Voice cracking. Tears welling up in my eyes, face breaking the composure of stoicism.
‘I am going to allow you one cry and one cry only, OK? Bett, look at me. Because all what has happened is in the past and there is nothing you can do to change it, you have to accept it, Bett, and I am sorry for that too.
‘Mourn the loss of the birth experience you really wanted but you didn’t have. Mourn the closure you didn’t get to have with the pregnancy. I don’t need to tell you this, but you already know that you can never have a natural birth, like never ever, mourn that as well. So have this one cry and one cry only.’
Pause. I carry on speaking to myself, ‘We have a lot of work to do now. I need you to… Bett? I need you to be focused and present, you must gather all your strength to breastfeed and express milk for Njeeh. I cannot have you squandering energy fixating on an event from the past you cannot change.’
‘Come here, Love. Let me hold you for a minute.’
Sunday morning, when I am in the shower, I allow myself one good long cry. It is an ugly cry – snort, growls, shoulders shuddering, hot water mixing with my tears, a threatening migraine.
It does not help that my CS wound is plastered and sealed shut, as though I am some Amazon package to be shipped off to the delivery address.
I cry for myself. I cry for those thoughtless observations everyone keeps throwing at me. They throw them with good intention but it invalidates my mourning: ‘At least you delivered a healthy baby.’ ‘At least you woke up and you were fine.’ ‘At least your Doctor was there with you.’ ‘At least you were in a modern hospital with facilities that could address the emergency.’ ‘At least you have a medical cover that can afford the CS.’
I am grateful for all the ‘at leasts’ but I am also feeling shitty as fuck.
Let me be.
I lie on the bed afterwards looking out the window. I imagine my feelings to exist in two separate rooms in the attic of my mind.
Behind door A, there is the grand feeling of utter joy and gratitude. Wonderment. Humility to have been chosen. We have been blessed with a healthy baby boy with his big head and dark eyes that peek into my soul. He is a beautiful boy.
Behind door B is my messy feelings of loss and disrepair. Bitterness. Grief. Some regret, mostly anger. A resistance to forgive everyone who ‘let me down’. These feelings are cluttered behind that door. I just crack it open slightly and fling all my ugly energy in there, not caring where the feelings will land.
No one tells me that it is not I, but time, that will sift through the feelings behind door B and sort them out for me. Sifting, identifying, categorising and labelling them until they are also sorted.
No one tells me that I will have another big cry later, at home, in my alone moments.
No one tells me that it will not be until later – much much later, when Njeeh is a year and half old – when I will go into the attic of my mind and will be surprised to find not two doors but one. And when I open this door, the beautiful feelings of gratitude will be neatly shelved next to the ugly feelings of loss.
And it is then that I will find the closure I desperately sought.6