Mother’s Day is the perfect opportunity to start spreading the word that, in childbirth, “Mums matter, too!” Those who have known me for a while would be aware that this is a fairly common mantra for me; but I would like to explain how this has come to mean so much to me, and why I think mums matter. In answering these questions, I am going to share some of my personal experiences of birth and birth trauma.
So many women are entering motherhood amidst a range of negative comments: “You can’t make good decisions for your baby! Your body can’t birth your baby! We don’t care what you want! Just do what the doctor / midwife says! All that matters to us is the baby – you don’t matter anymore.”
As someone who has been a new mother on the receiving end of many such comments, I would like to share a small part of my journey through birth trauma and the impact that it had on me.
When I found out I was pregnant with my first baby, I desperately hoped for a natural vaginal birth. Not because I necessarily thought that experience would be better or safer, but because I was terrified. However, my fear was not of birth – I was excited about the prospect of labouring and birthing my baby. The idea of pushing or even tearing never bothered me at all. I was actually terrified of the hospital, of interventions and of the staff. A previous experience in hospital had left me with the feeling that hospitals are a place where doctors and nurses frighten you into accepting tests and procedures that are risky, painful and maybe not even necessary.
My birth plan was to labour at home until I was pushing, go to the hospital birth centre to push the baby out (because my partner was opposed to homebirth), and then be home four hours later. I ensured that every midwife I spoke to was made aware that I was terrified of hospital… and yet not a single person offered a kind word or support of any kind.
The birth that I got was a very traumatic experience – I was bullied into a lengthy induction process culminating in a caesarean surgery followed by separation from my baby and a six day hospital stay. The first thing my midwife said to me when she came to see me (she hadn’t been present at the surgery due to shift change) was: “At least you have a healthy baby.” Here I was lying in a hospital bed, exhausted and in pain, in shock, feeling incredibly disconnected and drugged, unable to even pick up and take care of my baby and that was all she could say. There was no: “Sorry that you needed surgery”, or even a simple: “Hope you have a speedy recovery.” There was no question about how I was feeling or even any acknowledgement that I might possibly have feelings about what had happened. In fact, nothing she said acknowledged what *I* had just been through or even that I had been involved in the birth of this baby at all.
While that was the last time I ever saw that particular midwife, I encountered this sentiment everywhere. The child health nurse who came to see me at home cut me off as I started to talk about being upset by my experience by saying, “Well…at least your baby is alive.” In amongst all the congratulations from family and friends, there were many comments about the baby – how beautiful she was, how tiny she was, how blessed we were to have her and a few comments for me to remember that, “All that matters is a healthy baby.” I don’t remember any of my friends or family asking how I was feeling after unexpectedly having major surgery. There were no questions about whether baby and I were alright after “needing” an emergency caesarean. I’d had a hole cut in my abdomen big enough to get a baby through and no-one even thought to ask if I was feeling well.
I learned pretty quickly that, in becoming a mother, people had ceased to be interested in my wellbeing. And, I learned not to bother sharing my story or experiences. Women who had been through it thought I was nuts: “My induction was great! I loved my epidural! I’d much prefer a caesarean over a vaginal delivery! Really? That’s not so bad I laboured for 50 hours!” Alternatively, I didn’t want to scare women who were yet to experience the joys of pregnancy and birth in the medical system. So, I kept as quiet as I could, wondering what was wrong with me. Why did *I* want more from my birth than other women wanted from theirs?
As I started researching my options for my next birth I discovered something phenomenal. Guess what? There was nothing wrong with me!! I wasn’t crazy, or ungrateful or a “bad mum”. Turns out I was in good company – I joined groups of women online who were embarking on journeys to overcome birth trauma and plan positive experiences for their next births. While it was sad to see so many other women feeling as I did, the support I found and friendships I have made have been invaluable. I also attended a few Birthtalk “Healing from Birth” meetings. And, oh my, were they powerful! Gradually I started to realise that I had nothing to be ashamed of. The ones who should be ashamed were those who bullied me, coerced me, manipulated me, abandoned me and dishonoured me (and so many others like me) during the birth of my child.
I don’t know anyone who has gotten pregnant just so they can have a positive, beautiful, vaginal birth. We do get pregnant because we want a baby in our lives. But, we also want to connect with, love and care for our babies, and that is hard to do when your birth experience leaves you:
– Suffering flashbacks every day that leave you crying and shaking
– Crying yourself to sleep at night, reliving the trauma of fear and isolation.
– Hurrying back to work before you are ready in the hopes of “escaping” from the experience.
– Pouring all your spare time and energy into researching and learning, so that you can have a positive experience next time.
Add to these consequences the usual sleep deprivation and challenges of motherhood, and a new mum who is suffering from birth trauma is not left with much time or emotional space to connect with her baby, learn who they are and just enjoy being a mum.
Women are aware that we will need to make sacrifices for the wellbeing of our children. We know that we will have to forego sleeping in, lazy Sunday breakfasts, reading a book all the way through on a rainy afternoon, partying until 3am and we know that we may never again pee in peace. However, we don’t expect that in becoming mothers, we will need to give up our human rights, such as our right to bodily autonomy. We don’t realise that, from the moment we see those two little lines on the stick, we are no longer entitled to think about ourselves – at all.
Every step of the way we are told: “Think of the baby!” You can’t complain about morning sickness because you should “Think of the baby!” If you don’t really want to do the GTT, you have to because, “Think of the baby!” If you don’t want a vaginal exam at 38 weeks, you again have to “Think of the baby!” What this standard practice really says is: Your baby is more important than you and we don’t think that you are able to make competent decisions regarding his/her wellbeing. Sure you have a universal human right to decline medical procedures – but if you do that during pregnancy or birth it can only mean one thing: you don’t love your baby.
So, this Mother’s Day, how can we honour the mothers in our lives in a meaningful way? How do we show mothers that they really matter? Does a cooked breakfast one Sunday a year really acknowledge all that mothers go through?
How about this – the next time a friend or relative makes a birth announcement, instead of simply sending your congratulations and your love, also ASK HER HOW SHE IS FEELING. Don’t tell her how she should feel (Just be grateful you have a healthy baby!) or assume that you know (Golly – 50 hours of labour? That must have been horrifying!). Just ask her how she is doing. Listen to her story. Witness her tears and triumphs. Acknowledge that her feelings are valid rather than fobbing any sense of disappointment off as simply being a case of the “baby blues”. Reassure her that negative feelings don’t mean she is a bad mum. And don’t assume that she will feel the same every day. And, the next time you see her, ask her again: How are you doing today? Acknowledge that her feelings about the birth may change over time. Some days she may feel awesome, and some days she may feel like crap. But, whatever you do, just keep asking because suffering from birth trauma can be so very isolating.
So, the next time someone tells you that “All that matters is a healthy baby” feel free to remind them that “mums matter, too!” Or, if you hear of a friend’s birth resulting in unexpected outcomes, remind her that she’s important and that her feelings matter. Ask her how she’s feeling or if she needs anything. Wish her a speedy and safe recovery. Acknowledge that she didn’t “just give birth” – she underwent a major transformation from woman to mother… and that is actually a big deal.
Here are some links to additional information, resources and support for women suffering from birth trauma and their loved ones.
Please feel free to comment with your experiences or advice for mums suffering from birth trauma and their loved ones.