People often ask me how I came to be a doula and how Relax Into Birth was started. I always say it started with my son. Here is our birth story, for without Leonardo, I would never have birthed my programme.
180 turnaround: From elective caesarean in hospital to home birth with an independent midwife
When I found out I was pregnant, the very first thought I had was; “I want a caesarean.” I know, it sounds crazy coming from a birthworker, a doula, an oxytocin junkie – but there it was. In my mind, there was no way my baby was coming out of there… I wanted to plan the day and be in control of when I had my baby. Also, that was how we had babies in my family; via caesarean. I was the first of four children, all born via caesarean. I was breech and stubborn even in utero, but I could not ignore the signs that came my way, derailing my plans of an elective caesarean.
The first sign: Two men telling me to have a vaginal birth
So, I told my husband, Jeremy about my plan of action: an intentional caesarean in hospital. He frowned a little… and said disapprovingly, “Charlene, millions of women have given birth before you – what is wrong with you? You have to try.” To say I was irritated is an understatement… And so, I tried my doctor, Doctor Douglas Dumbrill at Vincent Pallotti Hospital, surely he would listen? He said the same, only a bit different; “Charlene, if you want a caesarean, then you need to go to that hospital over there (motioning with his hands in a southerly direction). I will not just give you a caesarean without a medical reason.” He added that I should go home, think about it, do more research on the topic and come back with questions.
Now, here were two men telling me to have a vaginal birth! And did they have vaginas they were willing to have a baby move through? No… I mean, what does a girl have to do to get a caesarean in this town? As I was to learn, not much! Dr Dumbrill’s response was incredibly rare – and I will be forever grateful to him, as my path would have never cumulated in the birthwork I now know and love.
Our caesarean rate in South Africa is reaching 90% in the private sector. This figure is frightening, considering that the WHO recommends only 15% for a country’s caesarean rate. I also learnt that our medical aid would not pay for a elective caesarean without a medical reason. So… somehow I had to get over myself – get over my fear of vaginal birth – and give it a go.
The second sign: Alzheimer’s and birth stories in Botswana
I laid the subject to rest for a while as we prepared to go on holiday to Botswana. There we stayed with Jeremy’s family, which included his Aunty Em, who was living with Alzheimer’s. My pregnant belly was showing and every time she saw it she would tell me the birth stories of her two sons, who are now in their fifties. She was living in the UK when she was pregnant and her gynaecologist was also a hypnotherapist.
She remembered doctor’s visits where apart from the checks on baby, he would help her prepare mentally through relaxation techniques and visualisations. She described their subsequent births as wonderful, empowering, relaxing and even painless experiences – “and if there was pain, I don’t remember it,” she said. She remembered that while in labour, near transition, her gynae guided her through a visualisation of being on a beach, while pushing her boys out. “And if he left the room and stopped talking, it would make my labour painful.”
She told me this story almost daily. She would see my belly, touch my belly, ask me how far along I was and if I was expecting a boy or a girl, and then launch into her birth stories, so that for the week that we stayed in Botswana it became a daily ritual. And after the third time of hearing this story, I knew there must be something to using hypnosis for birth and so when we got back to Cape Town, I googled the words hypnosis and birth and came across the term hypnobirthing, which I never even knew existed.
The third sign: Hypnobirthing course near home
Even more synchronous, was that there was a hypnobirthing course in my area and so, I enrolled and dragged my willing husband along with me. I gained so much from the course and it, it helped empower me with the information I needed to regain trust in my body, in my uterus and learnt that I could actually birth my baby vaginally, my body could actually do such a thing!
The fourth sign: Accosting my midwife outside her practice
The course set me on a path of investigating my options. I learnt that I could have a gynae-led birth at hospital under the care of hospital midwives, but that my gynae would only come at the end when I was pushing and not be there at all during my labour, except to check my dilation once in a while if it wasn’t an ungodly hour. Also, I couldn’t be sure which midwife would be on duty that day – a dragon or Mother Teresa; you could never be sure – and you’d get who was on the roster for that day or night or ungodly hour. I also learnt about the option of hiring independent midwives. In Cape Town we have only a handful of independent midwives and to get one for your birth you have to book yesterday already. They are able to attend homebirths with gynae or government hospital back-up, and also attend hospital births where they have permission to work.
I drove through to the Birth Options Midwifery Team practice and waited outside before it opened one morning. The first to arrive was Midwife Angela Wakeford, who was fumbling with keys to open the door, when I came up the path behind her, telling her I desperately needed to have a vaginal birth, because my medical aid wouldn’t pay for an elective caesarean without a medical reason and that I knew I needed an independent midwife to help me achieve that – all before she even opened the front door to the practice. She looked at me quizzically and motioned to the door and said, “Let me just open the door and then we can chat, ok?” I knew she would be my midwife… and she was, dear Angela Wakeford – and what and amazing midwife she is.
From elective caesarean section in hospital to a home waterbirth
We were still planning to have a hospital birth, but as the weeks of my pregnancy went by, I knew that I needed to be at home as it was a space that would be most conducive to my labour. I had learnt about fear and its impact on my uterus during labour – and I wanted to stay out of survival mode and away from fight, flight or freeze. I knew home would be my best bet. We chose to have a homebirth and hired a birth pool in case our baby was to be a waterbaby.
On September 18, 2011 I felt odd. I knew our baby was close to arriving as it was one day before our official due date. I started having surges at 6pm that evening, just as Jeremy was going to gym. I knew I should tell him to stay, but thought it might be a false alarm, so instead I decided to wash the dishes. If it was labour starting, I couldn’t have the midwives come to an untidy flat! As the surges continued for the next forty minutes, I knew I needed to call him to come home. He didn’t answer his phone – as one does when your wife is in possible labour – and so I called the gym and they called him over the intercom; “Mr Jeremy West, please proceed to reception, your wife is in labour.”
I called Angela to tell her my labour had started and she told me to rest if I could and to stay in touch. Jeremy rushed home with one energy bar in hand for me and we started getting the place ready. We shuffled things around in the bedroom, lighting tea lights and the Himalayan salt lamp and inflating the birth pool. I spent some time on the birth ball, but just couldn’t get into a rhythm and so moved to the bathroom, where I lit another candle and sat myself down on the loo. At some point, around 21h30, Jeremy asked me to hold the hosepipe (which trailed from the kitchen sink into the bedroom) into the birth pool, so that it wouldn’t snake all over the room and wet everything. I asked if he was crazy – I was in labour! I could not move from here! I didn’t move from the loo and the hosepipe did snake through the room, wetting everything!
At about 22h00 things starting heating up and getting more intense and so Jeremy called and told the Angela things were moving and that she should start making her way to us. By 23h00 she arrived with trainee midwife, doula and homoeopath, Keryn White, who held my hand and told me I was doing beautifully. I remember her gentle voice, supportive hand and warm smile. Angela checked my dilation at half-past midnight and told me I was fully dilated and that if I wanted to, we could move to the pool to birth my baby there.
Arrival on his due date: Waterbirth at 02h24, 19 September 2011
Leonardo came swimming out into our lives after five hours of active labour at 02h24. I remember his face coming up out of the water towards me – eyes wide open, soft to to the touch, covered momentarily in white vernix, which washed off in the water quickly. He didn’t cry, but his eyes moved very observantly around the room, alert and awake. The most beautiful thing I have ever seen, looking at me, looking at Jeremy as I was the one who wailed; My baby! My baby! You have come, my baby!
Angela, who was wearing a headlamp because it was so dark in the room, remembers Leonardo following her headlamp with his eyes and that she had to turn it off! I am so thankful for Angela’s faith in me and for holding the space with Keryn so beautifully. I got more than what I had set out to gain; from a planned elective caesarean to a home water birth.
A story of transformation
My birth was truly the most transforming, most empowering thing I have ever done. Leonardo gave me the gift of his birth and it was to change my life completely. Before his birth I worked as a freelance journalist, writing for women’s monthly magazines, including The Oprah Magazine, Fairlady, Longevity and currently, Life Healthcare Magazine. After his birth, I went on to become a Hypnobirthing Childbirth Educator, Hypnotherapist (Essex Institute) and WOMBS Doula and I have never looked back. I created my own hypnobirthing and other relaxation techniques course; Relax Into Birth, which also focused on empowering birth partners for the big day, giving them tools to support the mother through labour and birth.
This work has given me so much and taught me so much about myself, birth and life. Birth is deep in my heart and I believe I was called to do this work and share what I have learnt with as many women as I can. My birth story and working as a doula has taught me about resilience, flexibility, sacrifice and love and at the most basic level; that women have birth options, that women can trust their bodies and take their power back to birth their babies in the way they want to – free from fear. Birth is a non-medical event, it is about family and intimacy and bonding. It is about power and surrender and letting go. It is about transformation and empowerment and flow. It is about moving through what you never imagined could be possible. Birth is life. Life starts with birth.
The power of each surge
Flows through me
Washing off my skin,
Taking my breath away,
Bringing forth life… And
Opening me up.
Stripping away the layers and layers
Of holding back
I leave my body
Surrendering and merging with my baby’s soul
Hovering around me.
Come my love I say…
It’s time. Let’s emerge together…
As a baby is born
A mother is born also.
-By Charlene Yared West