Suzanne Harrington meets the Irish midwife working at London’s exclusive five-star maternity hospital.
Want to celebrate your new arrival with Bollinger and oysters, providing the £995 epidural has worked for you, and your newborn is elsewhere in your deluxe suite being cared for by a nurse when you’re getting your hair done?
While most of us will have heard of the Portland — the private hospital in London dedicated to the care of (wealthy) women and children, where a suite can cost over two grand a night — not many of us have ever been there.
Security is tight, and discretion assured. Such are the Portland privacy levels that you could spend a week there and not bump into any other new mummies or their visitors, which is part of the service, given how often the new mummies are household names.
Not just Victoria Beckham, but all the Spice Girls have had their babies delivered there, as have Sarah Ferguson, Jemima Goldsmith, Katie Price, Jools Oliver, Claudia Schiffer, various Oasis-fathered babies and innumerable others who’d rather not labour in a public ward. Around 1,600 babies a year are born at the Portland; despite the existence of universal free health care in the UK, some mummies pay upto half a million for the experience.
You get what you pay for – the Portland has 130 paediatric consultants, the largest group within any hospital in the UK and Ireland, and the service offered to each mummy is bespoke and tailored to her individual needs. A recent BBC reality series, Five Star Babies, took a peek inside the Portland, and this is how we first met Irish midwife Regina Curran.
Working at the Portland since 2000 Curran has been in the room as countless celebrities gave birth.
Obviously she can’t tell me which ones – Regina’s discretion is watertight - but says that every woman who gives birth is “a real star, the process is the same wherever you are, but facilities and surroundings here are more salubrious”. When push comes to shove, however, all vaginas are equal.
Birth is birth.
Regina works with women before, during and after the arrival of their newborns, both in her own private practice in Mayfair and at the Portland.
“A lot of the work I do at the moment is around the mindset,” she says.
“Particularly around fertility-assisted conception and IVF as well as new parenthood.”
Regina’s areas of expertise are not just about being on hand as the baby emerges; she is qualified in hypnosis, massage and reflexology, homeopathy, and offers expertise in everything from hypnobirthing to nappy changing.
She is the go-to pregnancy and birthing expert for countless women whose affluent lifestyles have perhaps not always left them fully prepared for the pleasurable chaos a tiny baby can bring.
She also offers reassurance to women who are fearful of the whole process, particularly the birth.
It’s not just about being too posh to push. Tokophobia – a fear of pregnancy and /or giving birth – can result in women requesting surgical intervention, so that instead of having a normal midwife-led birth, you end up having a pre-arranged Caesarean instead.
(I did this twice, in a public hospital, because it all seemed so camel through the eye of a needle that I was scared stiff and opted for actual surgery rather than a vaginal birth. There was nothing posh about it.)
“People don’t want to admit it,” says Regina Curran.
“We’re all meant to have this maternal instinct, but it can take time to develop. I’ve seen every kind of birth – I don’t deliver the babies, the woman does that. I’m just there to empower her.” Hypnobirthing, while currently enjoying a moment, is not a new thing – French obstetrician Fernand Lamaze popularised the concept of mind-over-matter birthing after seeing how Russian women used breathing to manage their labour in the early 1950s. Many of Lamaze’s ideas – allowing labour to start naturally, moving around, not giving birth on your back, using the breath for pain management – is considered standard practice today for midwife-led births.
Regina remembers how she first witnessed the process.
“The woman was using the Lamaze breathing technique. There was no talking in the room – she was completely in her zone, and her husband was totally in tune with her – they did the whole thing together. She breathed that baby out, it was such an beautiful experience.
“My only involvement was intermittent listening via the baby monitor. Being present at that birth was such an emotional experience, it made me want to investigate further.”
She went on to study hypnosis, coaching and NLP, interested in the psychological - how our thoughts affect our reality, and the physiological - how adrenaline affects oxytocin.
In the Portland, around half of the births are C-sections, although a spokesperson says that this number continues to fall year by year – from around 800 a year closer to around 500 this year. (In Ireland, the amount of caesareans performed exceeds World Health Organisation recommendations, and vary quite dramatically from county to county.)
“Every family unit is completely different,” Regina says.
“No one book or method works for everyone – it depends on the family and what suits them individually.”
In the case of the families she works with, the main emphasis is practical support.
“Nowadays, especially in a city like London where there is so much coming and going, the first baby a couple ever holds might be their own. There is not always a family on hand to help. My clients are in high powered jobs at the top of their careers, and then a baby comes along...” Hence the nappy changing, burping and bathing services she offers, as well as walking expectant parents through their pregnancy and birth.
Regina, not a parent herself, comes from a large Dundalk family, and remembers holding her first baby when she was around seven.
She trained in Dublin at the Rotunda and Trinity College, before moving first to London, then Jeddah and Jersey, before returning to London to concentrate on midwifery.
“I help prepare women for parenthood even before they become pregnant,” she says. “A calm state of mind affects fathers too – if you’re in a high pressure job somewhere like the trading floor, learning calmness can make life easier.”
And for those who cannot afford the services of private midwives, Regina suggests getting support not just from mother and baby clinics, but from other new mothers who are going through a shared experience.
This, she says, can be deeply reassuring and comforting.
Whatever the budget, Regina is all about letting nature do its thing.
She is an advocate of homeopathy, which despite its continuous bad press (think of the Irish comic Dara O’Briain, who is married to a surgeon, shrieking, “It’s just water!”), she says changed her life.
After a serious accident in her teens, she was told she would be in long term pain and would need intense surgical intervention.
Keen to avoid this, she tried homeopathy, and after three doses of a remedy tailored for her individually, there was no more pain. “I love it!” she says. Now she offers consultations to new and expectant mothers are part of the service she provides.
She is also a fan of Michel Odent, another French obstetrician who believes that the best way for the brain to trigger its ‘foetus ejection reflex’ is for the labouring mother not to be distracted by externals.
In order for the primitive part of the brain to get on with expelling the baby, the neocortex – the thinking brain – needs to disengage.
In order for the woman to get fully into the birthing zone, Odent recommends no fathers in the room, no outside stimulation, and preferably no thinking.
Just breathing and pushing, in a state of primal ecstasy.
Regina also admires natural birth advocate Sheila Kitzinger, who famously described birth as orgasm. Which seems an awfully long way from the over- medicalised, hyper-commodified and fear-driven business that birthing has become since the mid 20 th century.
Our C-section scars attest to this – perhaps we need more Regina Currans to ease the process along naturally, rather than a panicked and painful stampede to the operating table.
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