I was terrified to give birth, so I hired Meghan Markle’s doula

Meghan Markle in 2019, shortly before the birth of her son Archie (Getty)
Meghan Markle in 2019, shortly before the birth of her son Archie (Getty)

I’m having a C-section,” I said firmly, not even 60 seconds after I found out I was pregnant.

No sooner had those two little blue lines appeared, than my mind raced forward through 10 months of pregnancy and arrived at the birth. A birth – as I’d been led to believe by dramatised TV series, intimidating government statistics and many of my friends’ own experiences – that would undoubtedly be a bloodbath of pain, fear and possibly even worse. In fact, my imagined birth story was so visceral that I questioned whether I really wanted children via this traditional route at all. All this had pushed me toward the belief that an elective C-section was the sole way to stay in control and, crucially, stay alive.

It was only when I enlisted the help of a doula, and Meghan Markle’s doula, to be precise – better known as a world-renowned childbirth pioneer and holistic obstetrician – that I learnt how empowering birth can be. Scary? Yes. Unpredictable? Definitely. But those two things didn’t mean I was destined to endure suffering, fear and unbearable anxiety. There is another way. In fact, by the end of my journey with her – an extensive (and all-encompassing) pregnancy programme – I was actually looking forward to the birth.

The term “doula” can mean different things to different people, however, it is a term generally accepted to refer to someone who assists with everything from birth prep – such as hypnobirthing and harvesting colostrum – to being there during the birth and afterwards in the first few weeks postpartum. Crucially, doulas are not necessarily from a medical background, but rather a companion trained in supporting women through pregnancy and childbirth both physically and mentally. Statistics show that having one can help a woman do exactly that, with a 2016 report by the National Library of Medicine finding it was 56 per cent less likely a woman with a doula would end up having a C-section and were more likely to go into labour spontaneously, have a shorter labour, use less pain relief and need fewer interventions.

The process between my doula and me began long before I even so much as sniffed the maternity ward at the London hospital where I’d chosen to give birth. It was a relief to unburden myself of the angst, to let it spill out into the open to be caught and cradled by someone I implicitly trusted, and even more so when none of it, not a single word, phased her or her wonderful colleague (who I would see many times in the lead up to the birth). They nodded through my monologue, and when it was over they assured me that we would work toward my birth together.

Our seven months together included no less than 28 hour-long sessions, a midnight phone call when I went into labour, followed by 21 hours at the hospital. There, she was instrumental in the decisions I made and a steady sense of composure throughout. Finally, we shared one tired but euphoric hug on the postnatal ward when it was all over.

Sometimes she’d talk me through a birth visualisation, describing everything from the journey to the hospital to the moment I would hold my daughter in my arms. Other times I would lie in silence, on my side, breathing in the distinctive scent of the olive oil she used

But it really was “work”. It took time, effort, patience and a lot of unlearning, not to mention money. I was given an extensive programme of pregnancy guidelines, advised to follow a sugar-free diet and sent a list of things to do at each stage of my pregnancy. As with much of the programme devised by my childbirth pioneer, all elements combined science with a holistic approach. The most surprising part of it though, for me, was that some of the key pillars that guided me through were so simple it felt almost impossible that they would have any profound impact. But, of course, they did.

“I would like to start by creating a safe space,” she told me, during one of our first sessions together. “A place you can retreat to during labour. It will help induce a state of calm for you, and remove your mind from the contractions.” I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to force an image into my mind, desperately scanning for somewhere that felt anchored enough that it would be able to, when the time came, block out the fear, the sounds of the hospital room and the chatter of the midwives.

I had tried similar meditations before – finding myself in fields, on beaches and in rainforests – so was initially reticent about the concept. However, with some guidance on how to create such a space properly (“look through old photos to strengthen your visual record”, “focus not just on sight but also on sounds”, “smells, textures and even temperature”), my mind ended up drifting there of its own accord. I found myself in the holiday cottage my family would rent each year over Christmas. I basked in the warm hum of conversation around me, the honey-hued warmth from the twinkling tree lights, the clattering of glasses and plates as people prepared post-walk turkey sandwiches in the open kitchen. If I let myself (as I got better and better at it), I could while away long stretches of time within this balmy slice of my memory. “Describe it to me,” my doula would nudge every so often, in such a tone that it felt as though a far-flung friend was asking me to regale her with stories of home.

Miraculously, over the course of my pregnancy, I’d find myself in that space almost without any effort at all. In fact, the knowledge that we have the ability to head somewhere at any given time, where we feel safe and happy, is something I feel will empower me for the rest of my life.

‘I learnt how empowering birth can be. Scary? Yes. Unpredictable? Definitely.’ (iStock)
‘I learnt how empowering birth can be. Scary? Yes. Unpredictable? Definitely.’ (iStock)

After several soothing sessions of intense discussion around my understanding of birth and how the process was going to work, we added reflexology into the mix. Once a fortnight throughout my second and third trimester I would turn up for reflexology and massage sessions (with a twist, as with everything my doula carried out), where I’d drift in and out of awareness as she worked on my feet, my legs and, crucially, my abdomen. As my belly began to swell, I’d notice the baby’s gentle kicks as my doula worked her way around the stretched skin on the outside of my womb. Sometimes she’d talk me through a birth visualisation (describing everything from the journey to the hospital to the moment I would hold my daughter in my arms). Other times I would lie in silence, on my side, breathing in the distinctive scent of the olive oil she used, gently releasing the deep sighs that forced their way up into my mouth. In fact, my doula used reflexology throughout my labour too, to keep me as relaxed as possible, promote a greater overall sense of wellbeing and give me much-needed gentle lifts of energy.

I was intrigued to find that several studies have shown that reflexology in pregnancy significantly reduced pain during labour, and reduced the length of the first stage of labour. Another study shows that weekly treatments of reflexology prior to giving birth for women who experienced low back and/or pelvic girdle pain during their pregnancy significantly reduced the second stage of labour by 44.3 minutes, too.

When I hit 32 weeks, my husband and I joined a collection of other couples on my doula’s hypnobirthing programme (again with her signature sprinkling of modern and traditional techniques). It allowed us to learn about how the power of breath and meditation – in short: self-hypnosis – can help with some of the heavy lifting during labour. Propped up on pillows, our curtains drawn, we were guided through a complete reframing of how we viewed our bodies, particularly our pregnant bodies, and a stripping away of the subconscious fears that for many of us had become woven into our understanding of biology and birth. This included breathing exercises (“control your exhale”, “hold your breath and count”, “make an ‘ah’ sound and let it linger for as long as you can”) and long guided meditations where we were talked through the three stages of labour in a way I had never heard before. The best way I can describe the course was as a magical mixture of scientific explanations coupled with a deeply intuitive knowledge about the human psyche.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2019 (Getty)
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2019 (Getty)

The two hour classes were certainly hypnotic, and we’d often leave feeling euphoric, keen to tell friends about all we had learned and to bask in the deeper sense of connection we were encouraged to explore during them. But they were also tiring. They required a lot of effort and energy – in fact some of my deepest sleeps during my pregnancy came post-hypnobirthing session.

“You must practice,” came the reminder at the end of each session, after which we would receive an email with a set of visualisations for the week, each read in my doula’s own voice, ranging from just a few minutes to hour-long monologues to chaperone us deeper and deeper into a state of conscious calm. I would listen to these each night as I gently inhaled and exhaled, or while practicing “down breathing” – it’s a form of breathing we were recommended to use during the pushing stage of labour, where you breathe as deep into your stomach as you can so you can feel your diaphragm moving down and pushing your stomach with every inhale.

So immersed was I in this proven formula of one-to-one sessions, workshops, at-home exercises and guidance over the phone, that my overpowering fear around childbirth slipped away without me even really noticing. I began to notice I had fewer and fewer questions at each session, trusting enough of myself to just show up and let the session unfurl in whatever way it did. It was only when my mother responded with surprise at my insistence that I was going to try for a completely holistic birth that I realised just how far I had come. From first turning up at the clinic, fearful and disempowered, certain that I was going to elect for a C-section, I was – several months before my due date – resolute (and dare I say excited) about my commitment to an unmedicated labour experience.

After all that work, all that knowledge and the pervading sense of assurance that my journey had bestowed upon me, did my birth go as planned? Absolutely not. No matter how many visualisations I’d worked through beforehand, I didn’t just “breathe the baby out”, in fact I ended up delivering my daughter via forceps in surgery. But when I look back on it – my newly one-year-old babbling to herself beside me – I feel the specifics are immaterial. Unlike so many other women, I am able to look back on the experience as positive, empowering and built upon a steady stream of my own informed, and supported, decisions. Perhaps my doula would never have needed to help save my life (as I’d assumed when first pregnant), but she certainly helped give my daughter the smoothest entrance into hers. For that, I will be forever grateful.