Letting the BBC film me giving birth wrecked the most precious moment of my life
Any woman who has experienced childbirth will remember how that extraordinary rollercoaster of pain and purpose feels for ever. It’s one of those seismic events in life that catapult us from agony to ecstasy in a matter of hours, with pit stops at every other emotion along the way.
Which is why we’ve been switching on in our millions to watch the heart-melting TV documentary series One Born Every Minute, which captures the drama and joy of becoming a parent.
Described by critics as some of the most emotional television ever made, the third series of this Bafta-winning reality TV series started again this week and saw the production team with its 40 cameras relocating to the labour ward at Leeds General Infirmary. Like many other viewers I sat, transfixed, as the stories of the prospective parents unfolded.
Hard labour: Shona with her newborn daughter Flo who was born with a BBC camera crew at the bedside
But when the moment came for Beth and Donna, the two mothers featured in the first episode of the new series, to finally give birth I could watch no longer.
It’s not that I’m squeamish or uncomfortable at the intimate sight of two women being exposed at their most vulnerable. Quite simply, I just found that watching them brought back memories I’d really rather forget.
You see, I know exactly how they felt to give birth on national television because, 13 years ago, I also agreed to allow a camera crew to film the birth of my first child and broadcast it to the nation as part of a documentary called Maternity — an early precursor to One Born Every Minute.
And it’s a decision I’ve regretted ever since.
Rather than having a wonderful, lasting legacy of my baby’s birth — as promised by the BBC — I found, instead, that their presence at my bedside had a hugely negative impact on my labour and also prevented me bonding properly with Florence, my new baby girl.
So what made me agree All I can say in my defence is that I was caught off-guard during a time when I wasn’t thinking straight and a whole host of hormones were raging through my body. My relationship with Keith, the baby’s father, had broken down and I was going through the pregnancy on my own.
Pregnant: Shona Sibary in the BBC Maternity series which was broadcast in 1999
I felt adrift, isolated and, looking back, I suppose I felt an overwhelming need to make sense of what I was going through.
With hindsight, what I should have done was seen a counsellor. But, as timing would have it, the opportunity to take part in a BBC documentary happened first. And with the kind of skewed logic with which I have always been blessed I decided — rightly or wrongly — that this would be the perfect vessel for my outpourings.
Really, I just wanted to talk to Keith. But, as he wasn’t listening, I opted for the rest of the UK instead.
And what started as a decision to take part in a documentary about pregnancy soon grew — like my burgeoning stomach — into a far more cumbersome situation.
Before I knew it, I had somehow agreed to have a crew at the birth filming what should have been an intensely private moment. All I can say is that oestrogen has a lot to answer for.
Keith and I had been dating for six years and living together for several months when, in January 1998, he came home from work one night and told me he wanted to end the relationship.
I was utterly devastated. But a bigger shock was around the corner. A week later, having moved out on to a friend’s sofa, I discovered I was pregnant. This was entirely unplanned and Keith, understandably, was horrified. ‘We can’t get back together just because you’re pregnant,’ he kept telling me. Countless hours of angst-ridden phone calls and meetings ensued. But stuck in this maelstrom of high emotion, neither of us seemed capable of making sense of the mess we’d found ourselves in.
One Born Every Minute: From left – Baby Elizabeth meets her father
Steven for the first time; Trish is partially paralysed and wanted to be
filmed to give hope to other disabled women
One Born Every Minute: A nurse holds a newborn baby at Leeds General Infirmary in the Channel 4 programme
Except I knew one thing above and beyond everything else — I wanted this baby with or without Keith.
So it was with this rather sad backdrop that I turned up at University College Hospital, just off London’s Tottenham Court Road, for my first antenatal appointment a few weeks later.
There was the BBC poster on the wall asking for pregnant women to take part in a sensitive documentary to be called Maternity — which, just like One Born Every Minute, was being filmed to chart the stories surrounding pregnant women at the hospital.
I have no idea what made me pick up the phone and call. But when I did, the crew were lovely. It was small team consisting of Peter, the director, cameraman Amanda, the sound technician, and Cath, the researcher.
On our first meeting they came to the new flat I was renting, brought croissants and helped me hang curtains. They were sympathetic and seemed genuinely interested in how I was feeling.
In fact, it was so remarkably easy to
open up to them that when, a few days later, Peter asked if he could
turn on the camera and start filming, I immediately agreed.
I didn’t feel awkward at all. And the more Peter filmed the more
therapeutic the process became. I was able to articulate my inner
thoughts without the risk of anyone giving their opinion or saying:
‘Shona, what the hell do you think you’re doing’
you were cynical, you might surmise that the crew were cleverly gaining
my trust so that I would reveal more and eventually agree to them
filming the birth. All I can say is that it didn’t feel that way.
Or perhaps I was just so desperate for support I didn’t care what form it came in.
Filming: The heart-melting TV documentary has been recorded in the maternity unit at Leeds General Infirmary
Certainly, the crew accompanied me to every scan, every hospital appointment. When I found out I was carrying a girl, it wasn’t Keith, or my mother, who knew first — it was the BBC. Of course, when I was four months pregnant and Keith discovered I was airing our dirty laundry in public, he hit the roof.
Peter, the director, tried to reassure him — even attempting to coax him to take part because, that way, he was more likely to gain sympathy from the viewers. At this point Keith completely lost his rag, told the BBC where they could shove their documentary and even threatened to sue them if they proceeded without his consent.
Another two months went by and there was no reconciliation with Keith in sight.
When I found out it was a girl, the BBC knew first
He was being supportive about the pregnancy but still adamant that it would be wrong to resume a flawed relationship. It was at this point that the subject of filming the birth cropped up. I was promised it would be sensitively and discreetly handled — no graphic gynaecological shots and nothing that would compromise my dignity.
I had already exposed my most intimate thoughts and feelings on camera. Being filmed pushing a baby out of my body didn’t seem a huge step further, so I agreed. But how wrong I was. What I failed to see while being caught in this terrible battle of wills with Keith was that all I was doing was pushing him further away.
If I hadn’t been so focused on the documentary, I might have noticed — much earlier — that he had actually started thinking about the possibility of coming back and bringing up our baby together.
As it was, I was nine months pregnant when we, not before time, began to resolve our feud. Keith, having thought about things for almost 36 weeks, felt we should try and make a go of it.
He acknowledged he was terrified of commitment but, despite this, the last thing he wanted was to be a peripheral part of his child’s life.
But it was too late to pull out of the documentary. I wanted Keith to be at the birth, but he still didn’t want to be filmed and all of the crew’s footage told the story of my single-mum status.
They were going to be there whether I liked it or not and the father of my baby — still uncomfortable about the filming, but not willing to risk another confrontation — would have to wait outside while I gave birth.
My mother, shaking her head in disbelief at the whole circus my pregnancy had become, agreed to be by my side on camera (But I couldn’t help noticing her popping out several times to re-apply her lipstick).
Now: Shona Sibary whose daughter Flo, born on the BBC documentary, is now 13
Looking back, it’s hardly surprising I ended up having a difficult 18-hour delivery resulting in my baby being yanked out by forceps.
You can picture the scene. Lying there, legs in stirrups, I should have been worrying about the baby’s heart rate and my weakening contractions.
Instead, I’m yelling at the cameraman: ‘Stay at the head end! Don’t you dare get my cervix in the shot!’
I felt weirdly disconnected from the whole experience, as I was constantly worried about bits of my body that might be exposed to the camera — and whether the camera crew were getting bored.
It wasn’t just the birth that was ruined by being filmed. I found it hard to bond with Florence immediately afterwards because —apart from the medical team who had helped — the room was full of people I suddenly realised had no right to be there. And the one person I wanted to be there, Keith, was still outside wondering whether the cameras had stopped rolling.
The legacy of sharing your birth with the nation lingers for years to come. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been recognised.
An example Ten months after Flo’s birth, Keith and I got married. It was a gorgeous August day as we stepped out of a North Devon church with the bells pealing and everybody throwing confetti and wishing us luck.
As I turned to kiss my new husband — still in shock at the happy ending we had somehow managed to achieve — a stranger pushed through the throng shouting: ‘Here, weren’t you two on telly a few months back’
It was yet another pivotal moment in my life marred.
Even today, I’m still paying the price. Flo, now 13 and pathologically averse to standing out from her peers in any way, is speechless with horror at any mention of the documentary. So far, she has steadfastly refused to watch it.
The only upside, I keep reminding her, is that nothing I do in the future can possibly top that in the embarrassment stakes.
As for the women taking part in One Born Every Minute, I really hope they know what they’re doing. I wish I had.
Because the enduring memory I have of bringing my wonderful girl into the world is the fact I shared her birth with two million other people. And what, I ask you, is so special about that