A few weeks before my older son’s third birthday, I started seeing a therapist to talk about his birth. His first two birthdays, I’d found myself going over and over and over in my head everything that happened. Approaching the third anniversary, I figured, time wasn’t enough to heal this wound. I’d had another baby since and that birth was fine, but I still feel a bodily tightness and a hot-then-cold shiver whenever I’m prompted to think of the first birth.
A traumatic experience doesn’t want to stay in the past, it pops up all over the place in the present. It’s not like a difficult experience, it doesn’t become an interesting story to tell. It feels raw. Not a scar, but a tender patch that never fully healed.
At a doctor for a kidney infection, asked to rate the pain, I get flustered remembering that I was asked that a lot during the birth.
Another mother says something dismissive about childbirth, how it’s not really that bad, and I feel my whole throat seize up.
Someone says that the baby is surely all worth it, and I fumble my words, trying to say that I need to put them on different ledgers, because if I put the baby on the same ledger it doesn’t make the birth seem better, it makes the joy in the baby seem diminished, and all I can think is other people get babies without going through that.
For a long time I used the word “traumatic” to describe the birth, but with an edge of self-deprecation. I didn’t want to claim my experience was up there with things that went super really badly wrong (like here and here).
I read this widely shared piece on the Guardian just before Mothers’ Day this year, and cried with the recognition of myself. The floppy baby rushed of to intensive care with a tiny oxygen mask. The pelvic organ prolapse. Both true for me too.
The repeated uninvited mental replay of the last ten minutes – the labour was upwards of 36 hours long, but the last ten minutes stick the most. The baby’s monitor showed that his heart rate was dropping. The hospital midwife said they needed to do an episiotomy. They made an incision, and I pushed, but the baby was still stuck. They got stirrups for me so they could see better. They cut further, but the surgical scissors slipped – and I felt the cut go wrong. The epidural meant my flesh was numb, so I felt it the way you feel a dentist poking around your mouth when getting a filling, like if the dentist accidentally cut into your gum. An episiotomy should cut into the perineum, it should not cut into the side of the vaginal wall, but they slipped. When the baby came out (and I always think of him as “the baby”, the memories seem so removed from the small boy in my life), he was not breathing. He was not moving. He was blueish and he was limp. They gave him to me to hold for a few seconds, the barest hold, and then they took him away to NICU with an oxygen mask. My husband went with him. My mother came in from the waiting room. The midwives didn’t want to let her in but she insisted. She sat with me while I was stitched up, which took over an hour.
I had no idea what was happening to the baby and no-one told me anything in that time.
My husband called and said that the baby was going to be alright. That he was going to be fine.
This should have been a happy moment but it was just surreal. I hadn’t realised he might not be fine. This bit weighs heavily in the memory. No-one told me he might not be fine!
Could I come and feed him, my husband wanted to know, could I come down yet? No, I was still being stitched up. I didn’t know how long it would take.
When I went through, the baby was so beautiful, and most of the babies in NICU were prem but he was a good size, and we felt like we were the luckiest parents in the room. We dressed him. We took a photo. We put it on Facebook. It seemed like we were past the bad bit. The rest of the day was good. He was let out of NICU that same day. We were relocated to a room together. It was an ok afternoon.
Until it was time for my husband to leave at the end of visiting hours.
I still had a catheter attached, and moving was very painful. I asked the nurses if my husband could stay but they said no. Almost as soon as he left, I called him and burst into sobs. I still feel very emotional thinking of that moment, of how alone I felt, I’d been through hell and now I was by myself with this baby and I didn’t feel remotely up to it. I sat in bed cuddling my sleeping baby to my chest, soothing myself more than him. A nurse came in to give me pain relief and berated me for holding my baby in the bed – this is against hospital policies for safe sleep for babies. After that, I didn’t want to ask the nurses for help, didn’t want to be told off again, so in the middle of the night when the baby cried, I tripped over my catheter trying to get to him and change his nappy and manoeuvre myself and the catheter bag into a position where I could feed him. I got stuck in the hospital chair unable to get up to put him in the bassinet and unable to reach the bell. I was in so much pain. I felt a huge wave of dread that having a baby had been a horrible, horrible, terrible mistake that I could never take back.
I eventually made it to the bed and rang the bell. A different nurse came, changed the baby, settled him to sleep in the perspex bassinet, and gave me more pain relief. She was lovely.
The next day we went home. The baby’s thick black hair was caked with blood, my blood, from the episotomy. No-one at the hospital had helped us wash his hair. We gave him a bath at our house and spent ages gently trying to remove the sticky hardened blood. I wanted him to smell like a baby, not like stale blood.
Breastfeeding was hell. The baby had a tongue tie and lip tie. My nipples were covered in blisters. Everything between my legs felt shredded and there was no way to get comfortable, not sitting, not lying down, definitely not standing. I had no bladder control or sensation of bladder fullness at all for two weeks.
We were just starting to feel like things were getting better, breastfeeding getting established, when my husband went back to work. I was alone with the baby for long long days. The weather was getting colder. And I’d noticed a definite bulging coming out of my vagina, and it was getting worse, and I had to strictly limit the amount of time I spent standing up, and the baby cried a lot going to sleep and only settled when he was walked to sleep in the baby carrier, and I didn’t know what to do all day.
He would cry and cry when I tried to settle him for sleep and I would find myself trying to be patient, so patient, and then losing the ability to keep being patient. I was terrified of screwing up. I had this idea that I’d already paid such a high price, a huge physical toll, that I had to make sure I was the best mother I could be. I had to do everything right for this baby. If I failed, I’d have nothing to show for it. Throwing myself into parenting was my only coping mechanism and I held onto it like a drowning person holding onto a raft. When my frozen fingers slipped, I panicked. When he cried and cried going to sleep, when he cried at night, my inner self battled between rage at the cries and desperate desire to comfort him, and I felt like a worthless failure when sometimes I couldn’t comfort him. Especially because I knew that what worked best was walking him in the carrier – but I couldn’t do that very much, because of the damn prolapse, which was a constant source of significant pain and discomfort. Once, I yelled “JUST STOP CRYING!”, then, horrified at myself I put him in the cot to scream, while I had a shower. I cried too in the shower, sitting on the floor and listening to the water in my ears so that I couldn’t hear the baby wail. He was asleep when I came out. I felt so much empathy, so much surprising empathy, with people who shook their babies or worse. I felt like the emotional toll of caring for a newborn was almost unbearable.
I put these feelings down to mothering at home with no other adults for many many hours each week. And that was part of it. But a lot of things make much more sense when seen through the lens of a post traumatic stress syndrome diagnosis. Being unable to sleep, for example – I’d always had trouble sleeping, and babies disturb sleep patterns, but even so, this was extreme: the baby would wake at 3am and sometimes I’d lie awake until he woke again at 5am, unable to relax.
There was screening for post-natal depression, and while post-traumatic stress can trigger depression, it wasn’t a match for my symptoms. I felt fine when I was with other people, most of the time. But I felt on edge in response to a lot of things, more emotionally fragile than I was used to – things like walking past some anti-abortion protesters and wanting to just YELL AT THEM FOR HOURS, yell at them until my vagina collapsed to my feet (yelling with prolapse is unadvisable), so filled with epic rage that people can be actively lobbying to prevent a woman’s ability to choose whether to give birth.
I felt intensely emotionally volatile and completely unable to control my responses whenever my husband was grumpy with me. The therapist has helped me identify that this is something which I perceive as an emotional threat, and the post-trauma heightened response is coming across as a fight response in my case not a flight response. There have been times when I’ve been siting cross-legged on the floor whacking myself in the legs and saying “JUST DON’T BE GRUMPY AT ME I’LL DO ANYTHING, JUST STOP BEING GRUMPY AT ME!”. I hit myself because I didn’t want to hit anything else. I didn’t want to be a threat to anyone else. I felt like my emotions simply had to be released from my body, but couldn’t be put anywhere else, so the only option was for them to come back in. This response is apparently very common in women who’ve had traumatic experiences. Not self-harm the way it is usually depicted in the media, a calculated knife, but a rage response that runs straight up against a deeply ingrained prohibition on pushing your rage onto others in any way, and so becomes re-directed at yourself.
The therapy sessions have been really really helpful. In some ways I wish of course that I’d accessed that sooner. I didn’t because it took me a long time to feel recovered enough to risk putting myself in an emotionally vulnerable position by opening up to a stranger. I always worried that people would tell me that I just needed to toughen up, that it hadn’t been that bad (“people used to die in childbirth!”), or that I should focus on the baby. At the same time, I worried that if I opened up completely, people would doubt my ability to be a capable mother. And while I felt that my mental health had suffered a knock, I didn’t know anything about trauma responses, didn’t know enough to identify them in myself.
This has been a hard post to write, and there are things in here that I haven’t discussed even with people very close to me. Writing is a million times easier than talking to people face to face, I still feel exposed when I do that, I don’t want to put this on anyone else, don’t want to have to navigate their responses. But I’m putting it out in the world because it can’t just be me who’s had this experience – it must be fairly common. So hopefully this helps someone, because we need to talk about it more.
And it does get better.