“I’d Be Better Off In The Pub” – Giving Birth Alone In The Pandemic

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
When Stacey, 29, went into labour, she had no idea when her partner would be able to join her. After attending scans and appointments alone thanks to the pandemic restrictions, the pregnancy had already felt lonely. This loneliness was exacerbated when her water broke on Thursday and it took until Saturday night for her boyfriend to be allowed to come into the hospital. In the interim, he waited in the car park during the day and drove home at night.
"It was horrible mentally because you've got no family, no friends, nobody to talk to. I was lucky that there was a lady in the bed next to me to comfort me. She was pregnant with her third child and she was in for some tests but she kept saying to the doctors and midwives that they needed to help me because I was in so much pain, I didn't know what was going on. It was a bit distressing really."
Knowing that her boyfriend couldn’t come into the hospital until she was in established labour, Stacey kept asking to be checked, despite being told they couldn't do it regularly for risk of infection. But she kept insisting they see how many centimetres dilated she was. "It was a lot of asking, because I just wanted my partner there. I [kept saying] 'I need it I need it I need it'. I just wanted him there with me."
Stacey with her boyfriend George and baby Harrison
By the time he was allowed in on the Saturday, her boyfriend had been sitting in the car for seven and a half hours and was shattered from a day of worrying. "By the time I'd delivered our child, [my boyfriend] was just absolutely dead – he looked like he'd done a four-day bloody session or something." He was so exhausted that he had to cut short the time they could spend together after the birth – he was scared he’d fall asleep at the wheel otherwise.
At this stage in the lockdown we can go to the pub, to the gym, back to work and into each other's houses (though only in groups of six, as per new regulations). So why are there still restrictions on maternity services which leave many new parents separated during one of the biggest moments of their lives?
As it stands, birth partners have not been allowed to be present during scans, join the mother during childbirth until they are in what is called 'established labour' (at least 4cm dilated) and then can only visit during restricted hours, depending on the hospital. Some partners have missed births. The restrictions have meant that some mothers have been forced to go through traumatic births alone.
Despite pubs in England reopening on 4th July, it was only on Tuesday 8th September that NHS England published guidance for trusts on how to reintroduce birth partners, visitors and other supporters of pregnant women in English maternity services. This was after significant pressure from the Royal College of Midwives and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, as well as the human rights charity Birthrights, Pregnant Then Screwed and Make Birth Better
Individual NHS trusts are now recommended to "tailor your policies to your local situation and be innovative in the way you reintroduce visiting." How they choose to reintroduce visitors, then, is down to them. These guidelines will be reviewed in November 2020.
When I ask Stacey if she thinks the restrictions are fair, she scoffs. "I'd have been better off giving birth in the pub because at least my mum could have been there. I would have been better off taking one of my friends who's a midwife, another friend who's a nurse, my boyfriend and my mum. At least then I would have had the help I needed and I would have had the support I wanted. It's obviously not the hospital's fault but it's absolutely ridiculous that you can go and get drunk with people, go and have a haircut but you can't have your partner with you [during childbirth]."
The monumental impact that these restrictions can have on new parents cannot be understated. This was brought into sharper focus with the recent campaign #butnotmaternity, launched at the beginning of September by the BirthBliss Academy. In their press release, they said: "We believe that the restrictions currently in place due to the Covid-19 outbreak are not necessary, not based on scientific evidence, are disrespecting human rights and are not proportionate to achieve the objective of limiting the spread of the virus." Enquiries to the human rights charity Birthrights had been showing "growing frustration with the situation where individuals can go to the pub, the shops, the hairdresser or the casino and yet a woman’s partner is not allowed to support her during pregnancy and birth."
Maria Brooker, programmes director at Birthrights, told R29 that maternity services are well behind the curve in adapting to the changes that have been made in other areas of society. "As the #butnotmaternity campaign demonstrates, women have had enough. Partners have a right to be involved in the birth of their baby and the research clearly backs the benefits of women being supported by companions of choice."
Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, echoes these concerns. "Forcing pregnant women to attend these appointments and endure early labour on their own is having a monstrous impact on their anxiety and stress levels. We have heard from women who are attending scans in the same room where they last discovered they were miscarrying, women who are pregnant with twins where one of the twins has tragically died but they are still being forced to attend all monitoring appointments on their own." She continues: "Research has shown that stress is incredibly damaging for an unborn baby’s development, and there is a link between stress in pregnancy and severe postnatal depression. We are creating a future epidemic of poor mental health among mothers by not lifting these restrictions."
Shanna, 27, is due to have her first child in December. Not knowing what the restrictions will look like when she goes into labour is causing her serious concern. "I'm a first-time mum so I've never experienced labour or birth before. I think it's gonna be an anxious time for anyone that's going through that, but you need a support system with you."
She continues: "Before I thought that I’d be fine because I'm going to have my husband there, whereas now I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know whether I'll be able to give birth naturally, I don't know if I'm going to be on my own for days. It's all the unknown that's just making it more worrying."
Shanna hopes that her local NHS trust will be allowing partners into the hospital in time for her birth. However the impact of the worry and stress has already been felt by many, and the guidelines are just that: guidelines. There is no guarantee that she will be able to have her partner with her come December.
More than 300,000 people have signed a petition calling for partners to be allowed to be present for the entirety of labour/birth in all hospitals, which you can sign here.

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