I am 58 years of age. I have a 33 year-old stepson and a 24 year-old daughter from my first marriage.
In 1997 I married again – to a woman who is 22 years younger than me. We never discussed having children because my wife, Laura, has pulmonary hypertension. I knew children were off the agenda until one day in 1998 out of the blue Laura announced: “I want a baby.”
I was surprised, worried for her and perplexed about what had brought this sudden determination to turn the tables on medical advice. At the back of my mind, not only was there the risk to mother and baby, but also I was unprepared for the thought of going through the parenting process again. The second child from my first marriage had arrived when my stepson was nine and although the first nine years had been rewarding, I remember reflecting that it did seem to be an inefficient way to parent!
Additional fears went through my mind: was I still fertile; what would my stepson and daughter say; what would other family, friends and colleagues say; how would my wife’s family, who had faced headon the health warnings from consultants in the USA, respond to this new aspiration and threat?
That was in March; by April Laura was pregnant! No time now to be fearful, the challenge was to make sure it was a successful birth; healthy baby and mother.
The pregnancy experience could not have been more different third time round.
I became stepfather to William when he was four weeks old following a surreal courtship. Nine years later my wife became pregnant with Louise, which came as a wonderful surprise. My wife continued to work full-time as a teacher and as far as I can now recall, except for the threat posed by the need for an amniocentesis, her pregnancy went without a murmur. We even managed a calm, late night drive to the hospital before I was ordered out of the birthing room, to wait and ponder so that she could get on with the important job. I did pace the waiting room on my own, tormented by every fear imaginable but at last the news was good. I was very happy, a beautiful girl and it was so easy!
The third pregnancy almost twenty years later was very different for me. From the outset I sensed an expectation that this was our pregnancy. We both changed our eating habits; I was there to hear the first heartbeat, every ultrasound, and meet with heart specialists. I attended each pre-natal check-up, met with midwives; and attended a birthing course for six weeks, wrote a drug-free, non-invasive birthing plan, ordered a birthing pool, and I’m sure there was more. We proudly showed the remarkable ultrasound images and Laura left books on natural birthing next to my side of the bed and I became a devoted and knowledgeable pregnant father, aware of the terror of van tous and the benefits of yoga, squatting and TENS machines.
The last few weeks of our pregnancy seemed to last forever. At two weeks late and no sign of a contraction we went to see the obstetrician again who by now was like a family friend. She looked, listened, and felt Laura and the baby – position was good, healthy heart but no real activity. If she didn’t start contractions within 48 hours they would need to start the process for her and to help this on its way she gave her a very invasive sweep!
It worked and that night contractions began, albeit very lightly and between long intervals. Throughout the next day they speeded up and I recorded the intervals, much to the amusement of my mother-in-law. By the early evening they were coming more rapidly and we decided to call the midwife. When she arrived it became apparent that something was giving the midwife serious concern. After each contraction, rather than the baby’s heartbeat speeding up as it reacted, it was slowing down.
We hurried to the hospital (birthing plan in hand) and within minutes Laura was attached to monitoring equipment, attended by staff we had not met before. Her cervix was 2-3 centimetres dilated and they needed to advance the process. They decided to break her waters to check whether there was meconium and evidence of distress; we had little choice and Laura had still not cottoned on to the risk which now surrounded the birth. I tried to keep the external face of calm but inside I felt alarm and sensed the body language of concerned staff. Their suspicions were confirmed and the baby was still taking too long to recover following a contraction, Laura was in acute pain and she was still only 3 centimetres dilated. It was decided to give her an epidural and I reflected momentarily on the no drug, birthing pool, squatting birth that we had in mind before giving more words and squeezes of encouragement.
I couldn’t help but see the monitor revealing the problem.
More people and equipment arrived but now we were in no position to make a calculated or rational decision as Laura held my hand as though she was suspended over a 100-metre ravine. Seven centimetres more and another expert arrived. By this time Laura was asking for a caesarean and telling me that she was going to die. But there was no time for this, the ultimate alternative was offered: “do it yourself in the next three minutes or van tous”. With time running out, one final push saw a baby girl fly out between Laura’s legs to be fielded brilliantly by one of the mass of attending staff, who in a split second snipped and clamped the umbilical cord and carried her instantly to have suction treatment to mouth and nose. She was back on Laura’s breast in a few seconds, looking stunningly bright-eyed and very beautiful – they were both alive, intact and, so far as I could see, going to survive.
Laura’s mother came in joyous and relieved. I sat there numb with emotion as staff calmly tidied up, stitched Laura and put a towel over the baby’s shoulders. They then told us about the knot in the umbilical cord that, with every contraction, had been cutting her off from the placenta. We reflected on our birth plan – we had avoided the after-birth drug, and it was a magnificent natural birth.
I still feel exhausted as I write and just two weeks later, Laura was back in hospital for major surgery on fibroids and I was fathering our new baby from the chair next to her bed. I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony of our aspiration for a calm, drug free natural birth, denied by our acrobatic umbilical knotting daughter, and now Laura was about to have the equivalent, as far as I could see, of a Caesarean section. So, step-by-step, we began to confront this and other new challenges. Laura was determined to do whatever was required to keep feeding from the breast every two to three hours on demand and was emphatic that ‘her baby’ should not learn to drink from the bottle except in the direst of emergencies. Yes, the anaesthetist was delighted to oblige but some of the nursing staff were alarmed and sceptical about the desirability of doing this through the first stages of her recovery.
With little time to spare we expressed, for the first time, a paltry amount of breast milk. As she went off to the theatre I mused on whether our baby would take the expressed milk from a teaspoon, and by the time Laura returned the baby was clearly showing signs of hunger and resistance to spoons. Laura could not move and somehow I managed to support myself across the bed without touching her and suspend our baby over her breast in such a way that she could locate the nipple. It was excruciating but it worked, and for the next three days we perfected this approach. I became public enemy number one to the more severe nurses and to a small number who admired Laura’s determination, a proud older father.
It is five years on now and in the intervening time I have learned a lot as an older father, not least how important my whole family is to my personal process. Will we do it again?
First published in issue 2 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.