New mum Emma Bartley finds out more about the idea behind the Mermaid Retreat and realises there's no shame in wanting a bit of help after birth. If Kate needs a hand in the next few weeks, it might very well be the perfect place.
When I heard about the launch of the Mermaid Maternity Retreat , I really disliked the idea. A sort of spa-cum-hotel for mothers and their newborn babies, it costs around £600 a night. For this you’re offered smart accommodation, full catering, round-the-clock childcare, daily visits from midwives and breastfeeding counsellors and – this is the part that chimed particularly badly – exercise classes and beauty treatments.
While the mothers’ partners are welcome, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was for the Gordon Ramsays of the world, who don’t attend their children’s births because “I don’t want to see my wife like that”. Now the wealthy chauvinist can ship his babymama off for those tricky first few days (three are recommended after a normal delivery; five after a C-section) until she can be returned to him looking flawless, feeding beautifully and past the worst of the hormonal fallout.
Predictably, one national newspaper picked up on the story of the opening and gave its founder, Nick Balfour, a bit of a monstering – “Women don’t need to be rescued after giving birth”, said its headline. Speaking to a then heavily pregnant Get the Gloss, Balfour was at pains to point out that there’s nothing “wrong” with new mothers – but his business model does assume that they have it quite tough. “Nowadays on the NHS you’re sent home within hours, not days, of giving birth. This is about providing a safe place to stay for a few days so you can recover without having to worry about the household,” he said. “The best gift I could give my wife was to take away all her worries so she could look after the baby. That’s what our team at Mermaid will do.”
With the support staff trained by midwives, he explains, the retreat also offers antenatal classes and brings together experts in everything from osteopathy to acupuncture at one address. Those who choose to stay after giving birth will be picked up from hospital by a car, brought to the retreat for as long as they wish, and are welcome to return several weeks later to get a decent night’s sleep.
“I recommend that you book a couple of nights more than you really need and store them up, because eight to twelve weeks in, when things start to get really tough at home, the baby’s not sleeping, your husband hates you, very often that’s when a mother is at her lowest. Mermaid offers a haven where a mother can go and be picked up and put on her feet,” said Balfour, adding that the retreat is particularly popular with women who don’t have family nearby.
By this point, he’d won me over and I promised to write the interview up within the first few weeks after I gave birth. “Quite how you’re going to manage that I don’t know,” he said, putting my back up a little bit – of course I was going to be able to work. My life would be much as before, only with a baby in it.
And then I gave birth.
Shall we do the birth story? After all my nervous preparation I did manage a natural, active labour. Two days after my due date I woke up at 7am and found a little blood. My contractions built steadily throughout the morning as I pottered about doing chores. When we got to Homerton Hospital at 3.20pm, I was assessed as being 4cm dilated and taken to the fantastic birthing centre. All I wanted was to kneel on the bed, leaning over a big beanbag and rocking back and forth as the contractions surged.
After a few hours (I’m hazy on the times by this stage) my waters broke and the pain got a lot more intense, so I started using gas and air. Just before 8pm I was found to be 8cm dilated and the midwife let me go into the birthing pool, where I almost immediately felt the urge to push.
Unfortunately, at the same time, the midwives shift changed over. My new midwife, who was about 70 years younger than my ideal midwife, told me not to but said I could if I really had to, which I found confusing.
Fear is a part of the transition stage of labour – when contractions are coming almost back to back – and it’s believed that the adrenaline helps the body to eject the baby. But at this point I went into a bit of a panic. I told everyone to f*** off. I cried that I didn’t want the student midwife present. I started making a lot of noise and could not be persuaded to shut up and “channel that energy into your pushing”.
And so it was that at 8.50pm the first sound my daughter heard – hopefully muffled by the water – was a blood-curdling scream from her mother as I pushed her head out. The baby’s shoulders are supposed to appear on the next contraction but, perhaps because I felt I couldn’t do it, or perhaps just because she was a 9lb 3oz whopper, I couldn’t get them out and the midwife had to give her head a bit of a yank. I was allowed to hold her briefly, but she was quickly taken away to be seen by a paediatrician in case the yanking had damaged her (she seems fine).
Every midwife and health visitor I’ve seen since has made a fuss of me for having such a big baby so quickly, and using minimal pain relief. They mean well, but I find it difficult to take a pride in my supposed toughness, remembering how scared I was.
Now I’m out here in the world, responsible for a tiny person I’ve never met before, whose needs I can’t yet understand or interpret, and whose cries wrench my heart. I have a second-degree tear and a haemorrhoid the size of France. My pelvic floor is constantly clenched, as if it’s still trying to push, to finish the job, and I can’t seem to relax it. People are coming to visit, and as we chat part of me is thinking, “Do you have any idea what I’ve just been through? I will never be the same again!”
So having done it the hard way, I’ve come around to Nick Balfour’s way of thinking. Having a baby is bloody tough and there’s no shame in getting help to make it easier. If you need it, and you can afford it, go to Mermaid and let them look after you. Being a tough girl is overrated.
Week 1AB (after-baby)
Waist: too weirdly shaped now to measure
Ankles: normal-sized again, yay
Haemorrhoid: 674,843 km²
Membership of Mermaid Maternity Retreat (including access to facilities and use of the Baby Zone) is £300. Accommodation is from £595 per night. See mermaid.co.uk.