As women we are blessed aren’t we? We’re the ones who get to give birth and its truly an awesome privilege and an experience that is deeply personal and profound. There’s a pressure though, I think, for women to take childbirth in their stride, after all we’ve been doing it since time immemorial, doing our duty and ‘just getting on with it’.
I hadn’t heard of birth trauma until after I gave birth to my daughter and was googling what on earth might be wrong with me. I certainly had no idea its possible to suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following childbirth, that was something I’d only associated with people returning from war. However, studies from Australia and the UK indicate that between 1%-6% of women suffer symptoms of PTSD after giving birth (Creedy et al. 2000, Ayers & Pickering 2001) and in the UK up to 34% of women report their birth as traumatic (Soet et al. 2003). The real numbers may be higher though, as large scale studies in this area haven’t been carried out. Indeed, there is currently no agreed definition for birth trauma amongst the great minds in the medical world. Beck (2004) states that birth trauma is in the “eye of the beholder”, so the woman’s perception of the birth is key, and that rings true for me.
On paper my birth was straight forward, however my perception was anything but. The main characteristic of my labour was the speed of it; a roller coaster four and a half hours of constant mind numbing pain and feeling totally vulnerable, helpless, and completely out of control. I was terrified at the prospect of interventions and what the physical damage might be afterwards. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a gory ‘tell-all’ about when labour goes wrong because I don’t think that’s particularly useful. My point is to share what life was like after having a traumatic birth. There’s a stigma, I feel, around presenting childbirth and what follows in a negative way because we’re meant to be strong, instantly love our babies, and be grateful when we come out of it OK, but the reality doesn’t always match up.
After the birth I felt like I’d been hit by a train. I didn’t want to be poked, prodded, or touched anymore and the thought of anything else that might cause the slightest discomfort or pain made me panic. I refused to have stitches for my tear, a choice that would continue to haunt me even though my midwife reassured me I was healing fine, and I refused to breast feed in hospital so missed out on precious moments of bonding. At the time I thought I must be crazy, why was I reacting this way? I now know I wasn’t mad, it was a normal response to a traumatic event. Dr Georgina Clifford (Director at the London Trauma Specialists) explained to me that when women feel such a loss of control over their bodies during childbirth, pushing people away afterwards is a way of attempting to reclaim it.
I was a total mess in the days and weeks following the birth. I couldn’t find any way to relax and felt constantly on edge. Each time I remembered the birth it made me shudder, and I was so ashamed that it had been such a disappointing experience, as if I’d somehow failed. I didn’t feel worthy of being a mother. Nap times provided some relief but it was short-lived because I knew when she woke up I’d be back on duty again. The cycle was relentless and I just wanted to get off the ride. Intrusive thoughts also came every now and then and that was definitely the scariest part of dealing with birth trauma, and for me the biggest taboo. What kind of woman thinks of harming their child? Again Dr Clifford reassured me that intrusive thoughts were normal under the circumstances, but its one of those things I don’t see any other women admitting, we just seem to suffer in silence.
I believe my experience of childbirth was the catalyst to a downward spiral of Post Natal Depression (PND). I was struggling to come to terms with the birth, totally sleep deprived, and with raging hormones in a body I no longer recognised. All this plus dealing with the biggest transition I’d ever had to tackle in life, becoming a stay at home mum which in itself was isolating, another thing to throw into the mix. PND also compounded my feeling of failure; again I’d got motherhood wrong.
Nearly three years on life is so different. I emerged from that first year and slowly felt better; speaking about my experience has certainly helped me come to terms with it. There is support available out there but it takes a brave woman to admit what’s going on and ask for help especially when what we actually need to say can seem so awful to us. There are so many ways we begin our journeys as mothers, its not all about air-brushed images and ‘Facebook’ lives. I look back at my experience and try and simply accept it and embrace my own journey. Despite what happened I was and still am a ‘good enough’ mother.
Image – www.notesontheway.com