With the emotional rollercoaster of my first caesarean birth (due to IUGR) experience behind me, four years later, I was determined to have a gentle empowering positive birth experience. But things took a shaky turn in the final weeks with another growth restriction diagnosis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s my second birth story.
It took me four years to feel ready for another baby.
When Clara was born, I was running two businesses on top of the juggle of full-time care for her with no help, and the mental load that comes with managing a household and family. In modern society, we’re asked to never stop and keep the candle burning at both ends. I wanted it all but the cost of it was my health and mental wellbeing. By the end of the first year, I was diagnosed with exhaustion. I thought that always being tired was part of the norm of having a baby but I later discovered that I had a lot of mineral deficiencies and I was on the verge of chronic fatigue. As an accidental overachiever, I wanted to be a supermum but I was completely blindsided by postnatal depletion.
At my lowest point, I was battling two episodes of Uveitis. After trying too hard to avoid it, I finally heard my physical body screaming for my attention.
The years that followed, I learned to slow down, tune in and surrender to motherhood. I sought the expertise of a naturopath and a clinical psychologist who provided me with a new lens on life and self-care. I started to challenge my demanding inner critic. I followed the lead of my velcro baby who to my surprise, became my greatest teacher. She taught me patience, wonder, and the true meaning of living in the present.
With true acceptance for this season of my life, I decided that I wanted to do this second chapter of motherhood differently. I didn’t want to be pulled in all directions at the same time; I didn’t want to always feel like I had to choose between business or baby. After being in business for 11 years — juggling it with a baby for the last 4 years — I decided that I had learned everything I could and that it was time to pass on the baton. It was 12 months in the making but I eventually found the perfect buyers for both businesses and just like that, it felt like the heaviest weight was lifted off my shoulders.
During that time, at three years old, Clara finally weaned off breastfeeding and my body became my own possession again.
The last piece of the puzzle to be slotted into place was my clearance from the ophthalmologist as I had been prescribed medication to stabilise my eye pressure (a side effect of long-term use of steroids which I needed to treat the Uveitis) which wasn’t pregnancy safe. I was given the all clear in late December and in serendipitous alignment with my ovulation cycle and the Chinese gender prediction chart, we fell pregnant immediately.
As soon as we found out we were pregnant, my GP and OB confirmed that I needed to start taking a low-dose of aspirin daily as blood thinners to prevent another case of intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). It seamlessly became part of my morning routine.
In reflection, I’m so glad I took the time to give myself and this baby a strong foundation to thrive physically, mentally and spiritually because the first trimester was more testing than I could have ever imagined.
My nausea and first trimester fatigue was so much tougher on the body than what I remember of the first pregnancy. Feeling queasy and so revolted by food all day long made me miserable. The permanent metallic taste in my mouth turned me off even drinking water.
I’m naturally a high achiever and not being able to function without a nap was seen as unproductive by my demanding inner critic. I had to remind myself that I was making a baby—the most productive and miraculous thing my body could do.
I had no doubt Clara was nurturing and empathetic, although clingy by nature. It was impossible to predict how she’d cope with my new tired and nauseous state. But she quickly learned to give me space. She fetched me coconut water whenever I was thirsty, and my Kindle whenever I needed it. To my delight, her relationship with her Daddy has blossomed in my absence, and her independence has flourished!
Having emerged from the other side of all this, the second trimester was thankfully kinder and gentler.
With the support of the same OB as my first pregnancy, I made an informed decision to have an elective caesarean.
As the COVID case numbers rose, restrictions were tightened at the OB and ultrasound clinic. I attended all the appointments alone. It wasn’t ideal but I easily accepted the rule. I just couldn’t imagine what it was like for all the first-time mothers out there and I was grateful to have experienced my first pregnancy before the world turned upside down.
At one stage, I had a sliding doors encounter with a positive COVID case who attended the ultrasound clinic several hours prior to my appointment. As a possible casual contact, I was advised to get tested immediately. The ultrasound clinic closed for two weeks and I transferred to one of their other locations. Soon after, it became a requirement at both the OB and ultrasound clinic to show a negative COVID test no less than 72 hours old. As annoying as this process was, it was put into place to protect us and I welcomed the peace of mind.
By week 30, I was in positive spirits that the baby had comfortably maintained his position on the 50th percentile curve on the growth chart. However, by week 32, his weight plummeted down to the 8th percentile. Suddenly, that sinking feeling from my first pregnancy came flooding back to me. I received a familiar call from the OB immediately after the ultrasound where she delivered the news I didn’t want, but knew to expect. It was all happening again. My hopes to have my baby with me from birth (and skip the special care nursery) instantly faded away.
My conversation with the OB was déjà vu all over again. Same plan, different baby. I slowly repeated the plan after the OB, trying to take it all in. “OK, I’ll call the hospital after this call to book in an ECG for tomorrow, then I’ll schedule in another growth scan for next Wednesday. And I’ll see you on Monday.” I said. “We’ll monitor this baby closely with scans every second day” said the OB reassuringly.
Once the new plan had sunk in, my protective mama bear instincts kicked in. I approached this methodically, like I would with a work project.
To throw another spanner in the works, the COVID-19 vaccine eligibility criteria was finally changed to include pregnant women, however, it was near impossible to get an appointment at a vaccination hub or GP due to a shortage Australia-wide. I stalked Facebook groups; I used all the medical booking apps; I called all the GPs. My OB continued to keep me informed about the latest research on the vaccine and I remained motivated to be fully vaxxed before my scheduled C-section date to ensure I was giving the baby the greatest chance at receiving the antibodies. It shouldn’t have been this hard but it was frustratingly so. After several days of detective work, I finally tracked down my two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
By week 34, the baby surpassed Clara’s IUGR birth weight of 1760grams which was a huge milestone for us. But his weight continued to yo-yo and my consistently high uterine artery PI indicated increased risk of developing preeclampsia.
I packed my hospital bag at week 35, knowing that we could be meeting our baby any day now. With every triweekly scan came the possibility of bringing forward the delivery date. And as part of looking after my future-self, I kept myself busy batch cooking nutritious wholesome meals for the freezer.
Unfortunately, with just under two weeks to go until the planned c-section date, Clara’s pre-school had a positive COVID case which meant that she was considered a close contact and would have to self-isolate. Since a four-year old can’t self-isolate by themselves, it essentially meant our family had to self-isolate. Days later, we’re advised that because Zen did the drop-off on the date of the exposure, he would also be classified as a close contact. I spent many frustrating hours on the phone with NSW Health authorities discussing the implications of this on my birth plans. Conflicting information from different authorities and the hospital made it all the more complicated and infuriating. On the flip side, I was eternally grateful for all this uninterrupted time with my firstborn.
Five days prior to the planned c-section date, I had my last growth scan and with everything looking stable, the day was set.
I spent the next few days preparing for the transition to becoming a family of four. I wrote a letter to Clara. I wrote a letter to my baby. I also wrote five love letters/cards to Clara for each of the five nights that I’d be in hospital, and I paired each card with a little scavenger hunt around the house. Clara has never spent a night without me so it was important to me that she didn’t feel abandoned or emotionally neglected during this time.
With under 48 hours to go until the planned c-section, I finally let out my breath when I received an email from the hospital confirming that we have been given an exemption for Zen to be present at the birth. He would have to return home to serve out the remainder of the isolation period (48 hours) and thus wouldn’t be able to support me in the hospital room.
DAY OF PLANNED CAESAREAN
There was a calmness in the air from knowing that we’ve been through this before. The morning played out exactly as planned. I was up at 4:30am to allow myself the time and space to be present. I listened to my positive caesarean hypnobirthing affirmations and at 5am, I gently woke Clara and Zen. We’d packed Clara’s bags together the night before so it was already waiting for her at the door. I placed my five love letters on the table and reminded her that she’ll see me on the sixth day, after she opens one letter per day. I gave her a tight hug and we said our goodbyes. She was excited to be spending the day with her favourite auntie.
After dropping Clara off at my sister’s place, Zen returned to pick me up and we made the short drive to the hospital. Due to being close contacts with the COVID outbreak at Clara’s daycare, there were strict procedures put into place at the hospital. I called the delivery suite on arrival and had to be escorted upstairs. Due to some internal miscommunication, I was left to wait outside for over 20 minutes. It felt like the longest 20 minutes of my life. However, soon enough, we’re in. Staff and cleaners, all dressed in PPE waited at every touchpoint as a safety precaution. We were led away from the main maternity rooms and through double sets of doors. The door to my room would remain closed at all times and I had a dedicated midwife to reduce her risk of transmission amongst other patients and staff. Of course I’d already tested negative everyday but they took no chances and both Zen and I had to take another COVID test on arrival.
I showered and changed into my hospital gown. Patient identification bands were tied around my wrist and ankle, and I settled into the bed to wait for further instruction.
As I anticipated the next course of action, a man entered the room to take my blood. I’d completely forgotten about this step and it took me by surprise. I tried my best to hide my needle phobia as my blood was drawn. I was reminded that this was a standard procedure to ensure they have a complete blood count and to check my blood type in case I needed a blood transfusion during or after the c-section.
By 7:30am, we were still sitting around, waiting.
I originally had a birth photographer booked but due to the lockdown restrictions, they were no longer permitted so I armed Zen with my DSLR. While we waited, I took the opportunity to give him another crash course on the basic functions of my camera.
However, much to our devastation, as a team arrived to wheel me down to the operating theatre, we were advised that no phones or cameras will be allowed as specified by the hospital’s COVID response team. I felt robbed and I wanted to protest but there was no time to dwell or respond to this news. Deep down, I was gutted that we wouldn’t be able to capture our baby’s entrance to the world, but my hospital bed was already on the move. My mind quickly caught up to my body and I focused on gratitude. I was grateful that despite the circumstances, Zen was able to be here with me. I was grateful that we made it to 38 weeks + 5 days which was the original date we had pencilled in on my first OB appointment. I was grateful that I was in the best of care. I took a deep breath and visualised that I was breathing love down to my baby.
As I was being wheeled into lifts and through tight corridors, my baby’s kicks continued to be strong and fierce, as they had been all through the pregnancy. “I’m so sorry for forcing you out before you’re ready” I whispered beneath my N95 mask to him. “But I can’t wait to meet you”.
The funny thing is, when Clara was born at 37 weeks, I felt so much guilt for delivering her early. Although it was well justified for her safety, I had always hoped that I’d be able to extend the due date for my next baby. And yet, the last week wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Whilst there was a sense of relief that we’d reached full term, I’d spent the last week in angst, hoping that I wouldn’t go into labour naturally before the scheduled c-section date. My baby was so active; he felt happy and healthy. But by contrast, the tri-weekly scans were wearing me down. I couldn’t wait for heartburn to be a thing of the past. I couldn’t wait to hold my baby. Today was the day.
It turned out that the COVID response team had organised for me to be taken to a designated operating theatre, tucked away like a hidden dungeon. Nobody was allowed to freely enter or exit the room and everything was wrapped in plastic. All the staff were shielded in PPE. The air was cold but calm. As though I had been rehearsing for this my entire life, it felt like my time to shine and my body kicked into auto-pilot.
I met the anaesthetist and I instantly recognised his reassuring voice. He had carefully talked me through the process over the phone just yesterday and now, with only his eyes to go by, I trusted him with my body.
He asked me to sit up, lean forward and curve my back so my spine would stick out. Knowing about my needle phobia, I liked that he over-communicated at every move. “What you’re about to feel is just a marker” he said in a relaxed but focused tone.
When it was time for the local anaesthetic to go in, I clenched my jaws and I trusted the process. I repeated my affirmations:
“Every moment here is a moment closer to meeting my baby”
“I’ve done this before; my body was made for this”
“My baby and I are safe”
There was a slight sting, similar to that of a mosquito bite or bee sting but it only lasted a few seconds. Before I knew it, the spinal block was done. A warm tingling sensation ran through my body and numbness took over. They used ice cubes to assess the level of the spinal block and at that point, I knew I was minutes away from meeting my baby.
I remember a great big tug followed immediately by the high pitched cry of my baby. A wave of tears flooded over me as I looked back at Zen. Despite not having our cameras, this moment will forever be etched in my memory.
Zen cut his cord and he was placed on me for skin-to-skin, and for a moment, time stood still. His cries softened as he opened his beautiful dark brown eyes and gazed back at me. I said to him — “Hello Atticus. I’m your mama.”
He weighed 2570g, just 165g off the estimate weight from my last scan which would have placed him on the 9th percentile.
Visitors had long been banned from hospitals, however, one support person was permitted. It varied across hospitals as to whether or not the support person was allowed to come and go. Regardless, due to our unique COVID situation, I spent the first three nights alone. The double set of doors to my room remained closed at all times. Every midwife had to be carefully shielded in PPE which included a surgical gown, goggles and a face mask. And so for the first 72 hours, the only human contact Atticus had (aside from myself and his first few hours with Zen) were with these masked faces. That was all he knew. What a strange state of the world to be born in.
My earlier anxieties about being without support on the first night while I was still recovering from the anaesthesia quickly subsided once Zen left the hospital. My tenacious drive naturally kicked in.
Some of the friendlier midwives stayed around to chat after they’d performed the routine checks on the baby and I. I greatly welcomed the conversations in what otherwise was going to be a lonely few days.
By 6:30am on the morning after the c-section, I had my first shower and was back on my feet. According to my FitBit, I only slept two hours on the first night.
The second and third nights were the hardest and they’d easily go down as one of the toughest moments of my life. While mothers are often reminded to go slow and to take it easy after a caesarean birth, without my partner by my side to help, it was a gruelling solo marathon of feeding, burping, nappy changing and settling. My body had become comfortable with the luxury of sleep ever since my four-year old begun sleeping through the night, several years ago. I’d forgotten about the true torture and relentlessness of sleep deprivation.
Atticus’s cluster feeding worked in synchronisation with my body and my milk came in at 48 hours (which is something to celebrate as I was told that this normally doesn’t happen until 72 hours for caesarean births). I had to re-learn how to breastfeed a newborn and my confidence shattered a little with each painful latch. I thought that after breastfeeding Clara for three years, my nipples would be as tough as leather but these four days of cluster feeding left them raw and sore. We spent a total of 21 hours breastfeeding in the first four days and by day six, on the day of discharge, Atticus was only 100 grams off his birth weight! (For context, a maximum weight loss of 7-10% in the first week is considered normal.)
Each time I looked down at my baby, all the mental hurdles and physical pain dissipated. I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be. I was relieved, joyous and in disbelief that he was finally here. Atticus Kai Huang, the fourth corner to our square — our family is now complete.
P.S. Here’s a little video of us during the newborn bubble.