Learning to labour

Julia and Fred.

By Casey Neill

Julia Handford trained for her births.

“Women run marathons and they train for that. You’re not expected to just run,” she said.

“Labouring is exactly the same.”

The mum of three says putting in the hours paid off in spades – and rejects being labelled a ‘birthing unicorn’.

“That implies it happened magically,” she said.

“I put in the work.”

But Julia did always have an innate feeling that birthing would be easy for her.

“I guess a lot of it was from my mum,” she said.

“She had four kids and she made it sound like it wasn’t hard.

“I’ve come from a long, long line of women who have birthed many, many, many children.

“Both of my grandparents are from families of 12 kids, so my mum was the youngest of 12 and my dad was eight in 12.

“My grandparents obviously didn’t mind a birth!

“My mum always put positive birth stuff in my head.

“She never complained about the pain or birth trauma or anything like that.

“I just felt that it was a natural, easy thing to do.

“I thought it would be like that for me.”

Then she heard about hypnobirthing.

Julia was “freshly pregnant” when her friend mentioned that her cousin was becoming a hypnobirthing practitioner.

She wanted to drum up some new clients and was offering her services at half price.

“It just made so much sense,” Julia said.

“It’s just so much about how the body works.

“It’s not putting little woo-woo ideas in your head.

“It’s more about using mediation practices – breathing and calmness – in a birthing setting.

“It was more scientific than I thought it was going to be, explaining about the hormones and what’s physically happening during labour.”

There were some aspects of hypnobirthing that she didn’t gravitate towards, but visualisation really struck a chord.

“I’m really good at picturing how things are going to be and I make that happen,” she said.

“There was a lot of visualising, just imagining the calm birth.

“It was a lot about breathing, which I really found interesting.

“What I really gravitated to was a particular track – Rainbow Relaxation.

“It was a 15-minute guided hypnobirthing meditation track.

“Every night before bed I would listen to this Rainbow Relaxation track.

“It helped me go to sleep every night.”

Eliminating fear through thoughtful language choice was another technique that resonated with Julia.

The term ‘due date’ can create anxiety and impatience, and ‘contractions’ makes you think of things tightening and being restricted.

“That’s not a positive, freeing word when you’re hoping to get a baby out,” Julia said.

“We would call them ‘surges’.

“It just puts you in a different frame of mind. It felt like a wave.”

Joseph, now aged 6, was born at 40+6 following a “textbook” eight-hour labour.

Julia remembers “pulling feelings at the start” of her labour, and feeling excited and happy.

“I was so ready,” she said.

She laboured at home for the first four hours, seeking relief in the bath before leaving for the hospital about 8.30pm.

“I really wanted a water birth. I always just relax better in a bath,” she said.

“I remember being so relaxed about the whole thing.

“My eyes were closed nearly the whole labour. I had music playing.

“It was so cruisy.

“Then he came out and I remember my midwife – her name was Sue – afterwards, she asked for my number because her daughter was getting married and she found out I was a celebrant

and she was just a bit amazed by me.

“She was very impressed with how I was breathing through the whole thing.

“Of course I was making all the animal noises, all the animal noses were going on.

“As soon as he was done I was already thinking about Leon’s birth.”

Leon was also born at 40+6, but his labour definitely wasn’t textbook.

It progressed sporadically, with gaps between contractions jumping from four minutes to two minutes to 10.

“I remember just looking at the clock and I couldn’t time anything,” Julia said.

“I couldn’t concentrate.

“I didn’t know when it was going to hit, I couldn’t tell.”

She’d only been labouring for about an hour when she went to the hospital.

Leon was born within four hours.

“As soon as I got in the bath again at the hospital, it was like my body went (she clicks her fingers),” she said.

“He was born way smoother.

“I didn’t even have any tearing or anything. With Joe, I just had a little bit.

“Third time around, I was getting my home birth.”

Julia and husband Julian started saving, knowing the private experience would be expensive, and enlisted Yarra Valley-based midwife Juliana.

After mulling it over, they decided they wanted the older kids to be present for the birth.

“That way I didn’t need to find sitters for them or anything. It would just be easier having them home,” Julia said.

“But I wanted someone assigned to the kids while I was in the throws of labour.”

She teed up her former harp teacher, Alannah.

Their Heathmont living room was filled with candles, lights, pom poms, and a blow-up bathtub.

“The sun was just streaming in from these windows here,” Julia said.

“I had my music going.

“I couldn’t even look at the clock, everything was so distorted.”

The surges came thick and fast, one minute on, one minute off, for about an hour and a half.

“But they weren’t intense, they were very manageable,” Julia said.

“I was just standing up over my table.

“Julian was running around getting the bath filled up.”

Juliana arrived, soothing voice in tow.

“She just does a magical thing on my back that takes the tension away,” Julia said.

Alannah put the boys to bed, and was about to tune Julia’s harp and play through the delivery – but Fred had other ideas.

Julia’s labour started about 5pm and Fred entered the world about 8.30pm.

The newly-expanded family were alone by 10pm.

“It was very quick but it was controlled,” Julia said.

“I’m so proud of myself for organising a home birth. It was amazing.

“It was what I wanted, even more so because we were in lockdown and I knew that being in a hospital would have been even worse.

“I wouldn’t want my healthcare people in masks around me.

“I didn’t want visitors restricted with certain times and protocols.

“I felt like home birth suited me.”

So much so, Julia would birth again in a heartbeat.

“But I’m just so done with kids,” she laughed.

“It’s just taken so much out of me. If I was to do it again now, I’d be losing a bit of myself.”