Hatch and Dispatch
Real life stories and down-to-earth advice from 35 years in the delivery suite
Expecting a baby?
Tired of being bombarded with ‘helpful’ (and often terrifying) advice and stories from friends, family, and complete strangers? ‘Hatch and Dispatch’ is the book for you.
Using real pregnancy and childbirth stories, midwife Vicki gives down-to-earth advice that has withstood over 35 years in the delivery suite.
Read about the hallucinations some women have when using nitrous for pain relief (naked skiing anyone?) and what happens to tattoos and piercings during pregnancy (clue: dolphins become whales, Bambi becomes a moose).
Vicki says, “Hatch and Dispatch is a compilation of the advice I give to expecting mums almost every day, whether it be their first or fifth babies. I use stories from my 35+ years delivery babies to show you that every woman has the same concerns, the same questions, and makes essentially the same noise when pushing a baby out."
“I am a pragmatic woman – the advice in this book is sensible. It is honest. My job is interesting and fun so there are some great stories for you to read. I don’t try to scare or sway you, just show you that pregnancy is a part of many women’s lives and need not be the guilt-ridden ride it has become."
- What happens during labour
- Options for pain relief
- Common pregnancy complaints
- How to write a realistic birth plan
- What to expect at the hospital
- What makes a good support person
- Dos and Don’ts for partners
- What the midwives will teach you once baby is born
- A preview of history’s worst pregnancy and parenting advice (it’s nice to feel smug sometimes)
On a cold evening in 1976, my boyfriend and I stepped into the smoky warmth of a club in Kings Cross, Sydney. I un-hunched my shoulders and stopped shivering – in those days I was slim and always cold. My long brown hair was curled, having spent the day hiding in rollers under my nurse’s cap, and I wore an almost non-existent skirt that only an 18-year-old could get away with. My boyfriend wore a brown cord coat (I hated that coat; thankfully it went missing a few years later though he still thinks I threw it out) and bellbottom jeans – up-to-the-minute fashion.
I haven’t been to a club in over thirty years but I imagine one thing that hasn’t changed is the volume of the music. The recently released ‘Play that Funky Music’ was true to its name, being played at a horrendous volume again and again and again. But we didn’t go to clubs to talk; we went to dance.
At 11:15pm, after two solid hours of showing off my best disco moves, I found my boyfriend lounging against the bar drinking a schooner of beer, froth catching in his black moustache (it still does when he drinks beer, but the moustache is now grey). I tapped my watch; it was time to go. Lockout was in forty-five minutes and we had to travel from Kings Cross to the North Shore. Although I was no longer a lowly blue belt, having survived my first six months of nursing training, the midnight lockout at the Royal North Shore Hospital applied regardless of whether you lived in Virgins’ Retreat or Menopause Mansion. The hierarchy must have thought they were guardians of our morality – but where do you suppose girls went if they couldn’t get into their own bed?
Dutifully, my boyfriend set down the remainder of his beer. We hopped in his silvery-grey 1963 EH Holden station wagon and set off across the Harbour Bridge. The Friday night traffic was worse than usual, trumping my more frequent concern that this car with its steering that sort of worked, touchy brakes and no heating, would splutter to death in the middle of the road.
The car survived the journey but it was a journey that took too long. I sprinted as well as I could in platform heels and a miniskirt, hopefully pushing on the large, oak doors. They did not give. I was three minutes late but we all knew one minute late was too late. Doors were locked at midnight. Tardiness was not tolerated. I was locked out.
I walked back to the car and flopped into the passenger seat, already tired and cold and knowing I had a very long night ahead. “Pancakes on the Rocks,” I sighed, and we took off south, back across the Harbour Bridge. Pancakes on the Rocks was a gem of information gleaned from the nurses well practised in lockout. Our quarters had no convenient low windows that could be left open to climb through, no spare keys or other secret entry points. Pancakes on the Rocks was the only safe, alcohol free place that stayed open all night to house the temporarily homeless such as myself.
Thankfully I no longer lived with my mother. What would she think? Out all night, work tomorrow, and with a man! Worse still, a man who drove a station wagon. The first time my mother met my boyfriend she also met his car. I saw a rattly old thing limping its way through the end of its days. She saw a long, double mattress-sized boot.
“Vicki!” she pulled me aside, whispering sharply, “Do you know what could happen in the back of a station wagon?”
If you’re reading this, you too have heard about – and probably partaken in – what goes on in the back of station wagons, on the beach after one too many aptly named cocktails, or in cemeteries if you’re Scottish.
You’re pregnant, and you’re (hopefully) excited.
Some of you have taken years to reach this happy event, and for others it has snuck up on you like that first grey hair quickly plucked from your scalp. You always knew it could happen, but now…?
Hormones got you here.
“A girl’s got needs you know,” I was once told while delivering a woman’s fifth baby to the fifth father.
And hormones are largely going to control this pregnancy.
In a matter of months you’ll meet a baby who will control your life for at least the next 18 years (probably longer). Now is a good time to accept that you are no longer in complete control.
If you’re still reading you may have realised this is not a conventional pregnancy advice book. Many of those already exist. If you want a step-by-step biological guide detailing every cell division and pump of progesterone, and that gives exhaustive descriptions of where, how and why you might leak in the next few months, this is not the book for you. If you want a sugar-coated, ‘Labour doesn’t really hurt’ approach to giving birth, this is not the book for you.
But, if you want some sensible advice gathered from delivering over 3,000 babies, that will make you smile and isn’t likely to go out of fashion in five years, keep reading.
I am a midwife with thirty-five years’ experience in a birthing unit, labour ward, or delivery suite. They keep changing the name but it’s essentially the same place – the place where you go to have your baby transferred from your womb to your arms.
I began my nursing training at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney in 1976. Back then you became a general nurse first, and then specialised in midwifery if desired. Career nurses became ‘triple certificate nurses’, with general nursing, midwifery and psychiatric training.
My first job as a nurse was in neuro intensive care in a time where ‘sink or swim’ was the motto. You could either cope and do your job, or you had to find another job. There were no mentors, no support and no debriefing sessions to help you cope with some very confronting situations.
For two years I took care of people in comas, resulting from activities that people do every day; driving, swimming and horse riding. I managed the respirators, IV lines and catheters, did hourly observations, and checked cardiac monitors. Most of these people would never wake up again. I felt like a sad mechanic operating machinery around a person, catching family members who fainted while confirming it was their loved one lying in that bed. Sunday morning shifts were the worst because of the Saturday night car accidents – usually alcohol related. Back then you were only breath tested after an accident and the acceptable blood alcohol level was 0.08%.
I decided a career change was necessary the week the eight bed unit contained six children, all of whom had come off horses. I was only twenty-two and couldn’t imagine spending the next thirty-five years watching people – especially children – lie on a bed, surrounded by machines, often never to wake up. And if they did, they usually had catastrophic head injuries and would never be the same again. It was so sad; I didn’t want to be this sort of mechanic so I went to the opposite end of the spectrum – bringing life in.
After doing my midwifery training and then working for a short time in the postnatal and antenatal wards I found my niche in the birthing unit. Initially, it was daunting. Delivering your first few babies is terrifying and the noises those labouring ladies could make! “How did you get used to it?” I asked an obstetrician. “You end up not hearing it,” he said. I didn’t believe him at the time but he was right. The noises of labour have become part of the job, like a jackhammer for a labourer (except they get to wear ear plugs).
Over time I have grown to love it – hatching babies into the world and dispatching them and mum to the postnatal ward. I work with couples who, most of the time, are in awe of the little human they have created.
You may think the midwife’s job is to look after babies. It is not. Our job is to look after you. We help you through labour, catch or extract baby when it leaves the safety of your womb, and teach you the basics of baby care such as changing nappies, feeding, and settling. You might not feel confident when you first leave the hospital but the confidence will come. The most nervous moment of my life to date was the first night at home with my first child, when the reality hit that this baby was mine and I was responsible for it.
A midwife cannot labour for you and nor does she go home with you, so we’re of no value to you if we completely look after your baby. Hence we teach, we show, we try to make you feel at least a little more relaxed about the prospect of caring for the tiny human who’s just popped into the world.
If that means formula over breast milk, use formula (this is discussed more in Chapter 10). It might mean your mum staying with you for a little while (sorry guys; sometimes she may need that extra help). It will probably mean tag-teaming with nappy changing and night settling because you both need to sleep at some stage, and occasionally sleeping in separate rooms. If it works, stick with it.
Midwives are, for the most part, a tolerant group of people. We are not easily flustered or embarrassed (a learned skill I assure you – we rarely start out so thick skinned), and you can discuss just about anything with us. But preferably not your sex life, as one man once did. For some reason he felt the need to tell me how often he would like it and what she should be doing. I lamented his lack of creativity, but this is one conversation we need not be involved in.
Hopefully, very early on in our career we learn to keep our foot firmly on the floor and out of our mouth. For some midwives it takes a bit longer. Please don’t feel too offended if you have a young midwife who makes awkward assumptions like “Your father has just arrived,” when your father turns out to be your partner. When I was younger I announced to a lady that her son had arrived; only to find out her ‘son’ was her very good-looking and much younger partner.
As a junior midwife in 1980, my eyes nearly popped when a woman presented with two men accompanying her. Back then, it was still a very new concept to have one man (other than a doctor) in the delivery room at all, and she had two! The scandal! Who were they? Was one the brother, or perhaps the brother-in-law? It turned out one was the father of the baby and the other was for good sex. Upon learning this, many, many thoughts ran through my mind but I was too young to ask or say anything, which as it turns out, was the right move. What question could I possibly ask? I confirmed the only useful piece of information I could – which one of them was the father (not questioning at the time how she could be so sure). Both men managed to work together to help the woman in labour, providing excellent support in what I had thought would surely be a very uncomfortable situation. This taught me that if it works for you, who am I to judge?
The 1980s was also before Brazilian wax or laser hair removal was the norm, so we shaved the ladies nether regions before they gave birth. I was never quite sure of the reason – it was what was done and you never argued with what you were told to do. Maybe it was because you might need some stitches after the baby was born, but hair doesn’t usually grow where the sutures go. Most women today are either waxed or lasered – again, trends of the times. They do some landscaping work because they want to be neat and tidy for when their goods are on display. Midwives don’t mind either way, and a silky smooth area or not won’t impress or disgust us. Although, if your nether regions resemble a state forest, a little trim is ideal once you’ve had the baby (you will leak, which can get messy). Vajazzle or tattoos with directions on where to find your fancy are also unnecessary.
About thirty years ago, I lifted the gown on a newly admitted girl, disposable razor in hand, and was shocked to see she was already shaved. “Who shaved you?” I asked, knowing it’s very difficult to work a razor around such a sensitive area, particularly when there’s a nine-month belly obscuring the view.
“My brother-in-law,” she beamed, proud of her hair-free lady bits. “He’s a barber.”
Writing a step-by-step guide to pregnancy is difficult because everyone is different, and every pregnancy you have will be different. You may get morning sickness this time, but not next time. Maybe your first baby was one week overdue, and the next one is a month early. The deeper you dig into pregnancy, the more you’ll find yourself in an Alice-in-Wonderland type world of things that might or could happen, of strange dreams, odd food cravings, and a distinct lack of predictability.
As one observer has said, “telling mothers and fathers how to bring up their children in books is arguably as silly as sending false teeth through the post and hoping they fit.” There is no one-size-fits-all in this game, yet we still search for the perfect pregnancy and childrearing instruction manuals. Today, with the double-edged sword that is the internet, we trawl for hours, our poorly defined searches dredging up pages and pages of ‘what can go wrong’ advertorials that try to mitigate your terror by selling you stuff you just don’t need. Like a baby change table. I assure you, you will end up changing baby on the kitchen bench or even the lounge, because when baby is screaming while poop fills its nappy like a soft serve machine stuck in the ‘on’ position, you won’t be calmly putting together the baby change table. You’ll be using the closest flat(ish) surface.
And while I’m on the subject, think about the pram. Does it fit into the boot of your car, and can you collapse it while holding a baby?
My advice – take a breath, forget the horror stories you’ve read and been told, and realise that to get through this pregnancy there are only two things that need to happen:
1. You bake this baby, ideally, anywhere between 37 and 42 weeks.
2. Your baby exits your body.
That’s it. That’s pregnancy and birth in 16 words.
If this is your first pregnancy, your head probably resembles a cloud of thought-gnats, buzzing around and obscuring other useful thoughts such as ‘I should remember to put on pants today,’ or ‘the TV remote is not a wooden spoon to stir the soup.’
You’re so excited about this pending baby that by the time this child is born you will have decided which school you would like it to go to and which cake you will bake for the caterpillar-themed fourth birthday party. Unless they don’t like caterpillars, then so much for that plan. Then, as you kiss Uncle Fred hello for his eightieth birthday, a horrifying thought grips you. What if baby’s ears stick out as much as Uncle Fred’s? What if they’re as hairy? At least I can wax off the hair, you think, and if I start saving now I can pay for the ear pinning surgery.
One lady preparing for birth a few years ago confided to me through gentle sobs, “I hope he doesn’t have red hair,” sniff, “then he’ll never get a girlfriend.” Now that’s thinking unhelpfully ahead.
A first pregnancy can be terrifying. The morning sickness doesn’t seem to want to go away and for some it doesn’t. Everyone is telling you what you must eat, which isn’t remotely helpful because you might not be able to keep anything down for a while – as long as you stay hydrated you will be fine. Your body changes, and parts of you that you didn’t know could get bigger seem to swell in size. You have strange aches, outrageous dreams and at the end of it all you have to care for a tiny baby.
At times you will be scared, worried, confused, nervous – maybe even all at once.
Breathe. You didn’t do your final year of school before completing the others. This is the same process – step by step – with the added bonus of no pass or fail. All you need to do is get to the end of the pregnancy and then have the baby. Most of the other chatter is largely irrelevant.
A modern pregnancy is full of experts, advice, products, and guilt. Oh, the guilt! We live in the information age but I don’t think we have empowered women with all this (often contradictory) advice. Most pregnant women question their every move, and if they don’t, someone else will – their mother-in-law, colleagues, strangers at the cinema. Anything to do with pregnancy and child rearing tends to elicit a strong emotional response from people who are not afraid to share their opinion. Remember that it is their opinion and not necessarily the right thing for you to do.
After thirty-five years in this game, I can tell you that advice changes, and the ‘right’ thing now will probably be wrong in a decade or so. The only certainty is change.
Until I started writing this book I had never read a pregnancy book and I am very pleased I didn’t. I would have been terrified. Some of the horrors I’ve read in the last few months: “If you have pain relief in labour your child might be a drug addict.” “If you don’t get skin-to-skin you won’t bond with your baby.” “If you don’t breastfeed you lower your baby’s IQ, and you’ll also probably get post-natal depression.” It’s really ‘let’s blame mum’ for everything. Plus, it’s largely nonsense. While skin-to skin is lovely and has benefits for you and baby, it is not required to bond. If it was truly necessary, only the babies born in the last ten years have bonded with their mothers, because a decade ago ‘skin-to-skin’ wasn’t part of mainstream vocabulary. And almost no-one has bonded with their father, because the fathers don’t usually do skin-to-skin. You might be sad if you can’t breastfeed but that’s probably because everyone else is making you feel like a failure. Now that is depressing.
Much advice is based on current trends, and trends come and go. When I first started midwifery, delayed cord clamping was the norm. We waited for the cord to stop pulsating – about a minute – before clamping and cutting. Then that went out of fashion for a while, and now delayed cord clamping is the correct thing to do again.
Advice on smoking, alcohol, drugs and SIDS, however, is proven, so please adhere to that. Otherwise it is just current thinking. I’m sure in two hundred years people will wonder what we were doing and how on earth we survived. For a good giggle, turn to Chapter 11 where I’ve compiled some of history’s more interesting pregnancy and childrearing advice.
There are some certainties. The basic function of getting a baby in and getting a baby out hasn’t changed much over the centuries, although science is evolving. IVF, with the help of donor eggs and donor sperm, has helped many women who would never have been mothers now fulfil that desire.
Expectant fathers will probably keep their access pass to the delivery room. Until the mid-18th century all males were banned from being anywhere near a woman having a baby. It was considered immoral to have a male in the room when a woman was giving birth, for childbirth was secret women’s business.
In 1522, German Dr. Wert had the brave idea of dressing up in women’s clothing to gain entry to a labour room and actually see what went on. Unfortunately, the reality beneath Dr. Wurt’s skirt was discovered and he was burnt at the stake for his valiant self-education efforts.
Men eventually found their way into delivery rooms as doctors. Until fairly recently, most obstetricians were male, but this is rapidly changing. Many female obstetricians have children of their own so they know pregnancy from both sides of the sheets.
In Australia, it wasn’t until the 1970s that husbands were allowed in labour rooms. Before that they were sent to the pub where they wouldn’t get in the way. They could see their wife during visiting hours and view their baby in the nursery through a glass window. Husbands could not stay overnight in the hospital to be with their wife. Even when I had my children this was not allowed, though visiting hours for husbands and siblings were beginning to relax.
I was a midwife before I had children and I can tell you that labour is a great equaliser. Although I had helped hundreds of ladies through labour and delivered all those babies, giving birth is something you need to experience to fully understand. It didn’t matter that I knew that once you can see the baby’s head the job is almost done, and that it usually takes an hour plus to push a first baby out. I just wanted him out. It was hard work, I was frustrated, and I felt like he was never going to be born.
The other two were born very quickly. This was great for me, but not so great for the babies. Babies that come out quickly often look like they’ve been bashed around the head a bit. Nothing permanent of course, but the black eyes and contused face can be a little confronting.
Some days it feels like there’s a serious design flaw in the way we have to labour and deliver our children, particularly when other species in the animal kingdom have much better ideas. Kangaroos have a tiny thing that crawls into a pouch, suckles without assistance, and in time becomes a joey. If only. Those marsupials really got the better deal, except for the part of always being pregnant. Imagine if you had a pouch – you could pop it open, show your girlfriend the newly growing offspring, check out whether it’s a boy or a girl, and then go shopping.
Elephants can stop their labour when they get tired or are in danger, and start again when they’re ready. Unfortunately, we can’t, but thankfully we also don’t gestate for twenty-two months.
Although we didn’t get these biological advantages, we do have the benefit of a higher functioning brain, so use it to decide how you are going to manage this part of your life.
This book contains stories and advice, which you may or may not choose to follow. The stories are all real, taking place over the last thirty-five years. Where a name is used I’ve called the women Tasmin, because not one of the women from these stories was actually called Tasmin – at least that I can remember. I have done this over three thousand times so I tend to forget names, faces and vaginas.
The stories are funny, sometimes serious, a bit odd, and will occasionally make you squeamish. They are here to show you that what you’re about to do is done every single day, almost everywhere in the world. Women have been giving birth since the beginning of human existence, long before the advent of books, birthing classes, and bassinettes. The next few months do not have to be terrifyingly full of advice, direction, misdirection, rules, more rules, then more rules, fear, hope and tears – although these are going to happen anyway so stock up on tissues, or toilet paper which is usually cheaper. If everyone thought of every ‘What if’ there probably wouldn’t be any babies, and if the men had to give birth there definitely wouldn’t be any. Many men comment, “Thank God I’m male,” when they see their partner in active labour.
Hopefully by the end of this book you will have gathered enough information to make choices that are right for you, and are not governed by what you think someone else wants you to do. The pressure to do the ‘right’ thing will be enormous. What is right is what works for your family.
Pregnancy, labour, and raising the child are fluid movements. You take a step, see what happens, judge the situation and move forward. Like life, there isn’t a control+z function when you make a mistake, so you just keep moving, hoping you get it mostly right.
This book, like your pregnancy, is a journey.
Here we have the facts, and some stories…