Jannien van Aardt Botes: Founder of Treehouse Talks

Hi, I am Jannien and it is very special to be able to share my/our journey to parenthood with you.

Like many other working women, I have invested a great deal of time and effort into my career and after completing a Master Degree in Music Therapy at the University of Pretoria in 2002, I stayed on for several years afterwards as a Clinical Supervisor, to assess and guide the Masters Degree Music Therapy students during their training at a variety of institutions.

The remainder of the time I spent doing therapy at organisations such as including a Baby Therapy Centre, school for autistic learners, HIV orphans and pediatric oncology, children with behavioural difficulties and community outreach projects. I also attended to adult psychiatric patients in state and privately funded psychiatric institutions.

During my practical work with disadvantaged communities, I experienced the advantages of being able to communicate with individuals in their mother tongue, since I grew up on the farm and is fluent in speaking Zulu.

I also spent 3 years working in England, where I worked in close contact with their National Health System (NHS of England).

I am married to Floorie, who is my pillar of strength and the love of my life and we are sharing an amazing journey. We have two beautiful boys.

Here is to your amazing journey…

Below is our eldest Andreas' birth story. We hope that reading this will inspire couples to believe that their road into Parenthood can also be a life changing experience when you have the correct team to support your choice of birth type.

Andreas' birth story: A life changing experience against all odds!

During our first pregnancy we researched our birth options with the sincere hope that we would find something that would resonate with our outlook and our lifestyle. Initially the birth seemed really far away, just like it probably did for you, too. Pregnancy is such a new and unfamiliar experience; it takes time adjusting to the new (and rapidly changing!) you! Whenever I discussed birth with other moms, I would feel a sense of uneasiness creep up my spine. It took me a while to figure out exactly what caused my discomfort – possibly due to a severe case of pregnancy-induced pudding brain!

Eventually it struck me that I wasn’t simply feeling normal apprehension of the unknown. No, I was bothered by the fact that none of these stories resembled the dream I envisioned for the birth of my baby. You see, I didn’t simply want to hand over something as important as my child’s entrance into the world to the medical system. I didn’t like the idea that labour would be controlled by an externally imposed timetable. Deep inside me, I believed that my baby and I could work together as a team. I trusted my body to birth him normally and naturally – when the time was right.

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One day we visited one of Floorie’s (my husband) old friends. His wife had an amazing story to tell, a story about a satisfying and empowering birth experience. Something just clicked in my mind while I listened to this tiny, small-boned women talk about the birth of her baby girl. That night I went to bed knowing I had to investigate further. This was more like it – it definitely resonated with my deeply held birth wishes, even though I couldn’t articulate these clearly yet.

Luck smiled upon us when we found Stork’s Nest! It was a natural birthing unit situated right next to Femina Hospital, just a few kilometres from our home in Pretoria. We attended prenatal classes here and were finally able to make informed decisions. As we thought and talked, our birth plan took shape in our minds. We realised that we wanted a completely natural birth, preferably in water. The first time we met with our midwife, Heather, we heaved a collective sigh of relief. What a difference it made to be with a caregiver who shared your birth philosophy! I’ll never forget the moment Heather first touched my belly. She was silent for a moment, then she gently explained what she was feeling: “Here is baba’s back. This is his head … I can feel an elbow here …” Her approach, so different from what we had encountered up to that point, really inspired me to tune into my body and my baby.

As our pregnancy progressed we continued the normal preparations you are probably experiencing right now. We went to our prenatal classes and to gynae and midwife appointments (I still don’t know why we felt we had to do both, we probably thought we were covering all our bases). We decorated the nursery and packed our birth bags. I took all the required supplements, exercised regularly, and read extensively. My research certainly prepared me for the unknown journey ahead, but I felt frustrated by the often contradictory advice.

I put a lot of effort into another form of ‘mental’ preparation, too. Every day, I would set aside a small pocket of time: for me to relax, to bond with Andreas and to focus consciously on the birth I desired. Floorie joined me in this process. We practiced guided relaxation and listened to beautiful music together, especially when Andreas was awake and active. We established a nightly routine: before we went to sleep, Floorie would sing Andreas a lullaby. This was such a special experience that we made an effort to sustain it. It allowed Floorie and Andreas to bond and it became even more special when Andreas started responding to Daddy’s voice. Floorie sings beautifully, I can totally understand why Andreas felt like dancing in there!

We had many discussions with our midwife and doula around different birth scenarios. We talked through any obstacles we might encounter and we actively counteracted limiting perceptions – our own as well as those of others around us. This was such a meaningful, transformative time. The knowledge empowered us to make truly informed decisions.

One of our biggest obstacles was my almost paralysing phobia of needles. Of course, this only reinforced my commitment to natural birth with as little medical intervention as possible (especially when it involved injections). Another significant obstacle was the pervasive fear of natural birth all around us, in society in general as well as in our circle of friends and acquaintances. Like any other pregnant woman, I was bombarded by horror stories about birth. I decided to protect myself from this negativity by keeping my ideas to myself. After all, precious few individuals responded enthusiastically to our birth plan! What if something goes wrong, people would ask me. Or: Why on earth do you want to go through the pain? I suppose it is only natural that I started to question my body’s ability to birth naturally. This doubt was often subconscious, but it was there.

Thank goodness that we had such a brilliant birth team. Our midwife, Heather, and doula, Marie-Louise helped quell our fears. They encouraged us to consciously cocoon ourselves and our little one against scary stories and other forms of negativity. This empowered us even more. We felt we were making the best decisions, decisions that would make our birth dreams come true. Parenting was more than a future event for us; we were already parenting Andreas.

Numerous final obstacles surfaced close to our due date. I contracted flu two weeks before the birth. Of course I couldn’t take any medication. My energy levels were also severely depleted, which made me feel pretty vulnerable. I consulted an osteopath, who told me that my “alignment” needed adjusting to ensure a safe natural birth. We set up a few urgent sessions. I’ll never forget driving to Johannesburg through peak hour traffic for my last appointment. What a stressful experience!

To add insult to injury, a major overhaul of the birth unit was planned right around my expected due date. I knew that if I went into labour during the day, there would be lots of noisy drilling and hammering happening!

And then I went for my last gynae visit. According to the scan the baby was big – very big! The doctor predicted that he would top 3.6kgs at birth. According to her, this bumped us into a high risk category. That was the final straw! I was 38 weeks pregnant. I felt (and looked!) like a mini-whale. I was battling exhaustion while trying to recover from the flu before I went into labour … The news that my envisioned birth plan was ‘high-risk’ sent me over the edge. I sobbed all the way home. My husband – gentleman that he is – tried to console me, but to no avail. Luckily he thought of phoning our midwife. She suggested we pop in at the birth unit. There she sat us down and talked us through some reassuring facts. She explained that ultrasound could only offer an estimate of baby’s weight. It could be spot on, or it could be completely out of the ball park. The other thing that really made me think was this: She said it was crucial to sort out all my doubts and fears before going into labour. Her experience in midwifery has taught her that a woman’s worst fears have the nasty habit of materialising during labour if she didn’t deal with them earlier. She gave us ‘homework’ and asked us to book a few consultations with our doula to explore these issues further. Our doula’s visit was filled with understanding, tears, laughter, and a serious discussion of our dilemma. Then there were some more tears, but when she left we had no doubt that we would honour our initial wishes and birth plan.

A few days later, I awoke at 2 am with contractions. An hour later, I woke hubby. He took out his notes from the antenatal classes, read a paragraph, and advised me to go back to sleep. I needed to rest since I was going to need my strength to get through the birth later (probably sometime tomorrow). We started timing the contractions and the intervals between them. By 05h00 they were a mere 4 minutes apart and lasted anything from 30 seconds to more than a minute. We called our doula.

When she arrived, she suggested leaving for the birth unit immediately. We got there by 06h30 and started to make the space our own. Daddy lit some candles and unpacked his toolbox of pain relief measures. He had come prepared!

When our midwife examined me, I was fully dilated! Our doula assisted Daddy, guiding him on ways to relieve the pain. We used heat packs, movement, counter-pressure on my back and even tennis balls (for massage). To block out the construction noise, I used cordless earphones with specially selected music. As a music therapist, I understood the positive influence it could have on my pain coping skills during the first stage.

The best part of the birth experience was that Daddy was involved all the way. Our support team was brilliant! Our doula assisted him and encouraged both of us. Our midwife brought so much calmness to the situation. Her words of wisdom guided and comforted me throughout the birthing process. As we had already established a bond before the birth, I trusted her unconditionally.

Although I was fully dilated, progress seemed to stall. The contractions dragged on and I was getting exhausted. Heather regularly listened to Andreas’s heartbeat and assured us that he was doing well. By 10h00 we had made no real progress. Heather advised us to do some introspection to determine what was keeping me back.

The next 10-15 minutes were the turning point for me. Heather invited me to lean forward to rest in her arms and gather my strength. She encouraged me to tap into the strength of all those women who had given birth before me. She suggested I claim their wisdom and power for myself. Marie-Louise assured me that my body was ready to birth our baby. I just had to surrender whatever was holding me back. With their help, I regained my focus and my belief in my body’s ability to give birth.

At 11h45, our “little” Andreas was born. I still remember the exact moment he left my body and slid into the water. We had beaten the odds! I had given birth naturally, without any pain medication to a strapping 4.1kg baby boy.

Daddy caught Andreas and put him to my chest. I could hardly believe it: there was the most beautiful baby boy you could ever imagine, and he was ours! He opened his eyes slowly – the room was sun-lit by then – and he looked at us as if to say: “I know you …” When the cord stopped pulsating, Floorie cut it.

Straight after birth, our team gave us the incredible gift of unhurried, uninterrupted time alone. A very special moment was when Andreas started crying and Floorie sang him his ‘bedtime song’. To our surprise he immediately quietened to listen to the tune he knew so well.

There was an immediate bond between the three of us. Breastfeeding got off to a great start with our doula and lactation consultant at hand. I was so relieved that I didn’t require any medication either!

Andreas’ birth was a truly life changing experience. It empowered me immensely, preparing me well for the challenges and joys that lay ahead. It was so beautiful and it is engraved in my memory and on my heart forever!


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