by Annie Markey, WSLHD Corporate Communications
The first words tiny Tobias Christopher Cunliffe-Jones hears when he silently slips into this world, blue and floppy, his gnarly umbilical cord still pulsing blood, are these:
“Hello Tobias. I’m your dad.
“And you are very loved.”
From the corner of the dimly-lit room in the birth unit at Westmead Hospital, I catch this moment on my iPhone. The words are so simple, so open. I don’t even try to stop myself crying.
I’m here because mum Zoe and dad Simon, a young couple from Sydney’s west, have agreed to the most generous gesture imaginable: to have a virtual stranger – a childless, middle-aged stranger, whose only points of reference for childbirth are the arms-length stories of friends (edited for humour or whatever other emotion fits the moment) and the full-on theatrics of television dramas – to be at the birth of their second child.
They want people to know that, amid the many upsetting stories of difficult labours and heartbreaking outcomes, there are good births. I want to get as close to the experience of birth as I’m ever likely too.
It seems like a win-win.
But in those confusing moments after Toby has been pulled to the surface of the birthing bath and placed on his mother’s bare skin, as he lies silent and still, I wonder if we’ve both got it wrong. Is this a good birth? Is there a problem? Should I even be here?
Because this is all absolutely not what I expected.
From that first moment, about 9pm, when I knocked tentatively on the door of birth room 5 and cautiously let myself in, expecting bright lights, crowds and yelling, but finding only soft music, darkened spaces and the regular, focussed rhythm of Zoe’s breathing, I’m struck by how out of whack my expectations are with reality.
Is Toby’s silence just more of the same – or something else?
Seconds tick by. I’m fixed to the spot, tense, in this quiet, darkened bathroom, illuminated only by the steady glow of electric tealights. Hvarf-Heim by Icelandic band Sigur Ros plays softly from Simon’s phone as Zoe cradles her little boy.
“Hello little man,” she says, kissing the crown of his head softly. She doesn’t seem anxious, but all I can think is why isn’t he crying? Why isn’t he wiggling?
Midwife Lynelle King has been a quiet, reassuring coach throughout Zoe’s labour, guiding her breathing, encouraging her to work with her strong young body.
Now Lynelle is all business. She towels Toby’s head and rubs his tiny arms.
“This little boy is a bit stunned,” she says. She has one of those voices that murmur gentle authority. “Let’s turn on the light and get a good look at his colour.”
I pray that under a fluorescent lamp, he will be a rosy pink.
Please, please, please, I pray. Don’t let anything be wrong.
Toby is one of 6000 babies born at Westmead Hospital, one of the biggest in Australia, every year. Every day, a stream of mums-to-be come through its glass doors for meetings with midwives or health checks, or make their way, bag in hand, support crew by their side, to give birth in one of the hospital’s 17 birthing rooms.
Zoe is one of an increasing number of NSW mums who will choose a water birth.
She is one of about 56 per cent of NSW mums who will have normal vaginal births, according to HealthStats NSW (19.6 per have elective caesareans and 12.6 per cent will have emergency caesareans), and one of 22 per cent who will give birth without drugs.
Her birth plan stipulates her preferences for this labour: avoiding suction, use of acupressure, delayed cord clamping, Vitamin K and Hep B vaccinations for her baby, skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth.
These are decisions I’ve never had to make. I’ve never been a mum, or a mum-to-be. I am one of the 25 per cent of Australian women who will never have children. I’m not ‘childless by choice’, and don’t have an opinion on women who take that path. Each to their own.
I am what is labelled ‘childless by circumstance: I thought I’d have children, I never met Mr Right and the turkey baster was ineffective.
I am thankfully past those anxiety-inducing years where people at parties would ask me about my kids, blithely assuming I had them. I’ve rested my hand on my fair share of pregnant tummies, and laughed with delight or faux understanding as pregnant friends grimaced through what looked like an internal soccer match with Beckham on strike.
But until Zoe, that’s been it.
I meet Zoe through caseload midwife Lynelle King. Lynelle has delivered more babies than she can count since moving into midwifery from a high dependency cardio thoracic vascular unit five years ago.
“I have approached two families, the first being hesitant to participate,” she writes in an email to me as we’re setting this story up.
“The second is very keen, her name is Zoe, due 10th May. Her next antenatal appointment is 10/3 at 9am. Let me know if you can attend, if not we have plenty of time between now and Zoe’s due date to catch up.”
Caseload midwives work with 36 expectant mums each year. They provide checks, expert advice and reassurance for the duration of their pregnancy and for between two and six weeks afterward. Lynelle is one of 14 caseload midwives at Westmead.
The wellbeing of her expectant mums governs every moment of her life. This is, after all, the business of bringing little lives into the world and she never knows what might happen, or when. She’s on call 24/7, and plans her personal life months in advance to make sure none of her mums are due.
“There are occasions when I’ve missed important family get-togethers or have had to leave something early to care for one of my women,” she says.
“My family have grown to be understanding of my job. But there are times when they say they feel like I am unavailable for them, and that my women come first.
“It is a juggle, and I put a lot of thought into trying to manage personal/work time balance.
“Sometimes we fail, sometimes we succeed.”
Lynelle has many mums like Zoe – easy, breezy, light – as well as mums who need much more reassurance, who go to every birth class they can and who show up to every appointment with a long lists of questions. Almost universally, they want to know that Lynelle will be there for them when they give birth.
“I tell them ‘you are a strong woman, you have grown this beautiful baby, you will birth this beautiful baby’,” she says.
“I want the women in my care to look forward to the birth of their child with empowerment, excitement and much joy.”
For her, the outcome – a good birth – is what matters, and she never takes her eye off that particular ball.
When we meet, Zoe is 31 weeks pregnant and as described – a relaxed, pragmatic bubble of optimism possessed of a smile that puts Julia Roberts in the shade. This is good news for Toby: research has shown babies take on the emotions of their mum. A calm mum means a calm bub.
But being calm doesn’t mean life hasn’t changed as Zoe’s pregnancy has progressed.
It is, she says laughing, difficult to do the washing up because it’s hard to lean forward. She can’t eat much at a time (pregnancy hormones slow down digestion).
“It’s a myth, this ‘stuff your face because you’re pregnant’ thing,” Zoe says. “There’s just no room.
Driving a car at 31 weeks is no picnic either.
“My stomach is so big, there’s really only one spot I can fit the steering wheel.”
She’s already followed the lead of so many pregnant women, relinquishing ownership of her body to the many eager hands that want to feel her baby kick, and is happy for me to press her swollen tummy when she’s known me a grand total of 15 minutes.
Even with my friends, I’ve never been quite this intimate. I’ve never laid my hand on a tummy for so long, never so firmly and never guided by someone with the obvious skill of Lynelle (“That will be a limb. Feel over here, that smooth plane – that’s his back. And down here, you can feel the shape of the head.”)
Zoe’s husband Simon is a coffee roaster who’s 195cm tall (6’5” in pre-decimal terms) – in other words, TALL, and the cause of many predictable jokes about the size of this bub.
This pregnancy is Zoe’s second; her son Ezra is just 18 months old, and was breastfed until he was 14 months – and Zoe was well-and-truly pregnant with Toby.
To someone who has only ever shared their body for pleasure, this is eye-popping – one baby being nurtured from the inside, the other from without.
I was once told having children makes you less selfish. Maybe this is what that meant.
Zoe is now two hours into ‘established’ labour. She’s leaning on all fours in the 37 degree bath. Beads of sweat have formed on her back.
A random thought pops into my head: wow, Zoe’s waist from behind is quite slender. Next thought: I wonder how many calories you burn giving birth? Next thought: Only someone who’s never had a baby would think that. Next thought: I am the most shallow person in history.
Lynelle pulls on a pair of long rubber gloves. They remind me of a vet. She positions herself behind Zoe, who is moaning softly. Simon kisses Zoe’s arm and forehead.
“You can do this,” he says softly. “You’re so strong and doing such a good job.
“You’re doing the most incredible thing.”
Next thought: If Zoe ever divorces this man, I will marry him.
Next thought: I wonder what the baby is thinking?
Next thought: Do babies think?
By 10.05pm, Zoe’s membrane has burst. A purple line streaks down her bottom – a good sign, Lynelle says. It means there’s a lot of pressure. The baby will be here soon.
At 10.20pm, the room goes very, very quiet. Zoe’s breathing has slowed. She’s completely within herself. Lynelle tells her to rest while she can: this is the calm before the storm.
Next thought: Do midwives get bored when mums are as together as Zoe is?
Next thought: Zoe just said ‘ow’. Seriously Zoe – ‘ow’? Just once?
Then she gives a long, loud, primal moan.
I’m given the very important duty of holding Lynelle’s mobile phone for light. Simon is crouching next to Lynelle, ready to catch Toby on Zoe’s final surge. His little head is already outside Zoe’s body, but the rest of him remains within. I am having lots and lots of thoughts about how long he can hang suspended in the water like that and if it feels tight around his neck and what it feels like for Zoe and whether Simon will be able to do as directed and push Toby up and onto Zoe’s chest and how much wider my eyes can possibly get.
And then, with one almighty guttural yell, Zoe pushes hard and Toby slithers into the waiting hands of his dad and onto his mum’s still swollen belly.
“Zoe, you are an amazing person,” Simon tells his exhausted wife as he brushes back her hair. “I’m in awe of what you just did.”
Next thought: Whoa. So am I.
And then those anxious seconds start to tick by.
I stand still.
Simon leans in to stroke the wrinkled arm of the newest member of his family.
Zoe closes her eyes.
Lynelle turns on the light.
In the brightness, Toby gives a tiny gurgle. He is pink and perfect, slumped like an Anne Geddes baby model against his 26-year-old mum. Zoe cradles him. She reminds me of a Madonna.
And then? Well, then Toby gives a little sob that quickly gives way to a full-throttle cry.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a beautiful noise. Zoe tips her head back and closes her eyes. It might just be exhaustion, but it looks like relief.
I hear you, Zoe. I hear you.
Later, Simon tells us his heart was racing in the moments after Toby’s birth. But Zoe says she was never concerned.
“I knew that it’s not unusual for babies to take a little bit to come to and make noise,” she tells me by email. “Also, I was exhausted from the birthing so I was probably a little bit out of it.”
For Lynelle, Toby’s arrival has been hassle-free.
“All my mamas are amazing and beautiful in their own special way, and some are very blessed to have exceptional experiences. I would put Zoe in that category,” she says.
In the next seven days, Lynelle bring another five little people into the world. She describes the time as “crazy busy, but wonderful”.
For those who need to know such things, Tobias Christopher Cunliffe-Jones was born at 10.45pm on Monday, May 8, two days before he was due. He weighed 4kg and was very unhappy when Lynelle and Simon straightened him out to measure his length – 53cm. Head circumference: 37cm, which is, apparently, big and makes Zoe’s controlled natural birth an even more amazing feat. His APGAR score (a measure of skin colour, heart rate, reflexes and responsiveness, muscle tone and breathing rate) was an impressive 9 out of 10.
He is blonde and smooth and alert, and – with apologies to my productive friends and especially my godchildren – very possibly the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen.
But then, after my miracle night in the Westmead birth unit, I would say that, wouldn’t I?