Pushed to the limit: six birth stories from around the world

My mum fainted with excitement the day I gave birth. I came home from hospital to find her and my dad waiting outside our flat and, as I got out of the car and they embraced me, she collapsed into our group hug. That’s the story most of my friends and family know about my birth experience. It’s sweet, it’s censored, it deflects from the stitches, the rollercoaster emotions, the stuff that’s harder for everyone to say or to hear. Our birth stories get lost when our newborns are put into our arms. There’s no time to look back as we hurtle headfirst into caregiving. But birth is a miracle, right? Another person grows inside you and then gets out of your body and lives its own life. It is objectively, painfully, hilariously awe-inspiring. As traumatic as it is hopeful. And interesting, too. So why don’t we make more room to talk about it? And why is discussion of the topic generally confined to women who are about to give birth or have recently done so? As part of an ongoing project, I spoke to women around the world to hear different stories that were also in many ways universal. Here are six of them…

‘I wanted a caesarean’: Sima, 42, London

I opted for a caesarean section, much to the annoyance of my midwife and consultant. Up to the last minute they tried to convince me to have a vaginal birth. I resented it because they made me feel I couldn’t make decisions about my body.

I was still traumatised by my first birth three years before. I’d been two weeks overdue when I was induced and my baby didn’t react well to the drugs. Her heart rate crashed three times during labour. There were alarms going off and the crash team came in each time. I was terrified. I felt that I was failing as a woman because my body wasn’t doing what it was supposed to. After 12 stressful hours I was taken into an operating room for an emergency caesarean.

I’ve not spoken much to anyone about what happened because I blocked it out. It still upsets me.

It was early in my second pregnancy that I told my midwife I wanted to take the elective caesarean route. At every appointment someone would say, “We really want you to consider a vaginal birth.” I understood the health benefits of vaginal, but it wasn’t an off-the-cuff decision for me. I’d had a horrific experience the first time and couldn’t face repeating it.

Five weeks before my due date I was booked in for a caesarean. It was surreal to know the birth date of my unborn baby. The night before we went in, I tucked my daughter into bed and told her she’d meet her brother or sister the next day.

There was zero stress driving to the hospital the next morning. I knew what the operating theatre was going to be like and knew we weren’t going to be in the same panic. I was actually excited.

I was wheeled in at 9am. The team were chirpy and the consultant explained everything. Somebody asked which radio station I’d like on and I couldn’t believe that was even an option. Smooth FM seemed a bit cheesy so I said Heart. Even though I was numbed, I felt the consultant’s hands rooting around inside me. It was a strange sensation, but it didn’t hurt. Fifteen minutes after they started, my daughter was pulled out to Tears Dry on Their Own by Amy Winehouse. I asked to see her. She was covered in blood and mucus and still attached by the umbilical cord. She took her first breath and let out a massive cry.

I still have a scar where both my daughters came out. It doesn’t bother me. I feel like, “This is part of my life, part of my body, this is what I’ve done.”

‘My mum was with me’: Anita, 38, Ghana

Around midnight on a Sunday I started to get severe pains. My mum told me not to scream but to save my energy for when I needed to push. She helped me stay calm with deep breathing, which was hard because it felt like someone was cutting my stomach open with a knife. She put her fingers in my vagina to check how much I had dilated and discouraged me from going to the hospital just yet.

I’d travelled from Accra to the city where she lives, to be with her. She used to be a midwife and she’d helped me with the birth of my first child and I just felt so comfortable with her.

We went to the hospital at about 6am and within a few hours I was ready to push. My mum went home to get some things for me and then it was just me and the midwife.

An illustration of a woman breast-feeding her baby with the father lying next to them touching the baby

‘The midwife gave her to me and I was just so excited.’ Illustration: Stephanie Wunderlich/The Observer

Just as I started pushing, the midwife told me to cross my legs. She said that she had to go somewhere but didn’t explain where. I was so confused. She knew that I was about to give birth – I didn’t understand why she had to leave me on my own right then. But I couldn’t talk because of the pain. After a few minutes, I had to shout to a janitor outside the room to get her back as I couldn’t hold on any longer.

When she came back, I just opened my legs, my waters broke, I pushed really hard and the baby came out. The midwife gave her to me and I was just so excited. It was my daughter just staring back up at my face. My husband arrived from Accra that evening. It was his first baby and he couldn’t contain himself. He was touching her so enthusiastically all over her face that I had to warn him, “My friend, don’t be touching her like that.”

I tore during labour but the midwife said that because it was only a small tear, she wasn’t going to give me stitches. A few days later I told my mum that I was feeling uncomfortable down there. She had a look and said I clearly needed some stitches. Over the next few months I was given stitches three separate times but I continued to bleed and then I developed low blood pressure.

I felt angry with the nurse. I told my husband that I wouldn’t be giving birth again. But that has changed as time passed. I’m expecting my third child next month.

Anita has been supported by WaCHAG, an organisation that works to reduce maternal mortality in Ghana

‘Our baby was stillborn’: Jessica, 32, Southampton

It was a quiet, slow realisation. The midwife couldn’t find a heartbeat so she tried another machine, then she got a doctor who got a second doctor who confirmed there wasn’t one. I sat there looking at my wife’s face not knowing what to do. I was waiting for somebody to snap their fingers and everything to start moving again.

We were taken to a private room for families who experience the loss of a child and the midwife gave me a tablet to start the labour induction process. We were to go home and wait two days.

I was 37 weeks pregnant and hadn’t had any major complications. I took my whole pregnancy day-by-day, because we’d been through five rounds of IVF to get there. I was on maternity leave when I’d woken up from a nap and realised the baby wasn’t moving. When I felt for his feet and pressed against them, where I would normally get a swift kick back, nothing happened.

Those two days waiting at home were terrifying. I was still carrying our son, Leo. He was still digging in my ribs and getting in the way, but I could feel that he was dead. Our families came over, but there was a lot of staring at the floor. Everything was so unknown and it created a lot of fear in me.

Returning to the hospital was a relief because we knew we were going to meet Leo. He was still our son and this was still our birth. The drugs used to induce me were stronger than in a live birth induction. People talk about peaks and troughs in contractions, but I just remember contracting nonstop. I had gas and air and asked for an epidural.

I was high as a kite and making lots of inappropriate jokes with the midwives. My wife and I made each other laugh. It wasn’t that we saw the funny side of it, because there isn’t one, but to keep each other going. We managed to find dark humour in the situation.

After 12 hours of labour, Leo was born. The midwives wrapped him up and asked if I wanted to hold him. The second I did, all my fear went. I knew he was dead, but he was with us and safe now. We could concentrate on him. I remember telling my mum that I felt happy. I think she thought I was mad.

Our hospital had a cold cot [a device for stillborn babies] so we stayed with Leo for a few days. Being offered choices to do things like that was really important to us because these were moments that we weren’t going to get back. The midwives dressed him because he was fragile and we hugged and kissed and talked to him. One of the things I was looking forward to was taking photos, so I did that anyway. I must have 400. The hospital gave us his hand and footprints – and that really shaped our grief.

I look back and can see his birth without his death. We have anecdotes that other people have about labour – the stitches, the big knickers, the annoying anaesthetist. It was us meeting our son. He was born. His death doesn’t change that.

It can be hard to know when and whether to share our birth story, but I’d like other people to be comfortable enough to let us tell our truth. We all have awful things happen to us at different points in our lives. The dialogue of it plays in our heads – it’s healing to release it. For support and information about stillbirth and neonatal death, visit Sands charity (

‘At 10pm, we had kebabs’: Sophie, 31, London

I was six months pregnant when I found out I was having a baby and it was not the plan. I was 20 and working as a receptionist to save money to start uni. I’d become estranged from my family and my husband’s family said I’d ruin my baby’s life if I still went on to study. We had to move house and work really hard.

I didn’t really talk to anyone about birth. I watched a video about it at an antenatal class but a midwife took me out of the room because I went so pale. My boss at work was supportive, but when it came to birth, she said just stay calm and that it was different for everyone.

I was home when my contractions started. I was sure it was a false alarm. I had a shower to ease the pain and watched The Hills on MTV. I called the birth centre when the contractions intensified and they said to come and get checked. My husband worked in a shop back then and got paid by the hour, so I didn’t text him but asked his aunt to take me in. We really needed the money.

When we got there, the midwife who I’d been seeing throughout said I wasn’t dilated enough but that they’d check me and I could go home. That’s when things got hectic. The contractions started every three minutes. I texted my husband that it was time to come.

I got in the birthing pool and my aunt panicked, saying, “She’s going to drown!” but the midwife understood me and reassured her I was fine. With the gas and air and the midwife’s support I felt pretty chilled despite the pain.

An illustration of a pregnant woman in water

‘With the gas and air and the midwife’s support I felt pretty chilled despite the pain.’ Illustration: Stephanie Wunderlich/The Observer

Around 10pm, my husband went and got us kebabs. I ate one and immediately felt the need to go to the toilet. I tried every few minutes but nothing came. Then the nurse said she could see the baby’s head and it was time to push. She saw the panic on my face and told me I’d be all right. I had no idea I was so close.

It took 27 minutes of being on my knees and pushing and there she was, our baby. I felt all this love come down on me. I was just like, “I’m going to love this girl forever.” My husband couldn’t even talk.

Birth was the easy bit. The day after it went downhill. I didn’t know how to change a nappy. I was given conflicting advice about breast and bottle feeding. And then there was the exhaustion.

My main memories from the day are of being content. I was surprised giving birth could be so good. I started uni a few months later and our daughter went to a childminder. One day at a playgroup I mentioned how amazing I found birth and the other mums dismissed me, saying it was because I was young. I took it on the chin, but I thought, “I’m a mum, I went through the process, too. Why does my age matter?” I don’t talk about birth now, unless I’m really comfortable.

‘We were homeless’: Leslie, 29, America

I was 14 years old the first time I gave birth. I’d got pregnant because I wanted to find a committed relationship and get out of my family home, which was always chaotic. My mother was using drugs and she would get me to drive her around to pick them up. When I ran away and the courts found out what was going on, I was put in a maternity home.

I realised that I might be in labour when I was watching my cousins’ softball practice. I was 7cm dilated when we got to the hospital and the baby was in the birth canal. The doctor said I had probably been in labour for three days without realising. I told the staff I didn’t want an anaesthetic because I wasn’t in pain, but they were like, “Oh honey, you’re going to want it,” and gave me a spinal tap. Noone really talked or listened to me.

I was on my back when I gave birth – I wish I’d known there are easier positions. When the baby came out I laughed and cried uncontrollably. He had a pointed head because he had been in the birth canal for so long. They reassured me that it would flatten back down but he looked like a tiny alien to me. My aunt, who’s always looked down on us, ended up adopting him.

My next two births I was older but still felt out of control. People around me made decisions against my will and when I asked what they were injecting my baby with, they weren’t clear. It made me so uncomfortable and I don’t vaccinate my kids now.

For my fourth pregnancy, I decided to give birth unassisted at home with my husband. I obviously had fears about what could go wrong but I did a lot of research. After weeks of waiting and lots of reading Lord of the Rings together to pass the time, we did it in the bath tub of his grandmother’s house and, for me, it was the best birth experience I’ve had. I felt confident and my husband followed my instructions and we worked together.

But, along with my second and third child, the state took the baby away from me even though I didn’t believe they had the legal authority to do so.

When I got pregnant again, I had no trust in doctors, children’s services and authority in general. I decided to leave the state and we started travelling because I didn’t want my child taken from me again.

I had my last child last month in a tent in a park in Texas. It was a super-hot day. We were relatively prepared but the baby was early and the contractions weren’t usual. We wanted to call an ambulance but were afraid of drawing attention to being homeless with children. When the baby’s head came out, my husband didn’t think he was OK. But I got him to latch on and even though he’s tiny, he’s doing well so far.

‘30 students watched’: Nimisha, 33, Mumbai

I knew I wanted a natural, midwife-led birth, but it wasn’t an option where I lived. Whenever I told anyone I was going to Kerala to have my baby they were shocked. “You live in Mumbai and you have the best facilities right here,” they’d say.

At 36 weeks, my husband and I flew 800 miles to a natural birth centre. We were excited and relaxed. And I was proud of my decision, especially when I met my midwife. But on the second day, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. It was devastating to be told the risks to the baby were so serious that a hospital birth was an option I’d have to consider.

But I wasn’t ready to give up on the birth I wanted. I tried to improve my insulin levels. The midwives supported me and became like family. I was put on insulin and a strict diet and increased my exercise. Nothing helped though.

We had been in Kerala a month when my waters broke. My midwife and I were still hopeful that I could have a natural birth. But after three days of waiting for labour to start, there was meconium in my discharge that became very green. The birth centre told me that I needed a caesarean section as soon as possible. My heart was still not accepting it though. I wanted to stay where I had planned to have my baby and where I felt safe. I really fought with myself.

The drive to the hospital took an hour, and was extremely painful. My midwife came. I had become used to being asked for my consent when anyone did anything to my body but when we got to the hospital a nurse inserted her fingers in me without any warning. It was a teaching hospital and as I lay on the operating table, 30 to 40 students watched. No one asked me if they could be there.

Within minutes of the anaesthetic, everything went hazy. I couldn’t feel but I could hear. I saw a vague image of my baby being held up and the doctor saying, “Nimisha, you delivered a boy.”

Two hours later a nurse brought our son to me. With an IV in my hand and just having had a surgical procedure, it was painful to even try to feed him. I felt so flat. Even though I wanted to, I couldn’t feel happiness. That was four months ago. Now, when I look back at my birth, I don’t think so much about the hospital. I focus on my time at the birth centre as it’s such a positive memory. If I do have another baby, I’ll try for a natural birth again.


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