My first child, a boy, had been born 8 years before, I was young and vulnerable but I had a very positive birth experience in my local hospital and felt euphoric after the birth. I felt like I could take on the world!! I had created life itself and whilst exclusively breastfeeding my baby I often marvelled at how wonderful I was, that all his growing had come from me. I had made something totally perfect. Of course there were ups and downs and eventually depression did creep in as my support networks were not wonderful. But I overcame the challenges and I could proudly say I was a great mum.
In contrast after my daughter was born I was convinced that I had some kind of serious illness. How I was feeling was not normal and not what I was expecting. The birth itself had been a natural one, but I had not felt supported or indeed safe during labour. I was very upset with how I had been treated, but was reminded by people that it was over now. I was healthy and so was my baby and I had not needed any surgery so I was lucky!! I didn't feel lucky I felt shocked. The birth continued to play on my mind, not just in the short term, but also over the long term. It was in fact the incident that spurred me on to become a midwife. I realised just how important birth is and I wanted to support women to have a positive experience.
For the first few days things just happened around me, I did not feel in control of caring for my daughter. She was tiny (5lb 4oz ) and did not seem to be very well, it was a difficult time and I just felt a bit numb following the birth. When we got home I thought I would feel much better, but in fact I did not. I would feel faint and ill when I was feeding her. My after pains were so strong that at times I couldn't pick her up and I generally felt sick all of the time. Over time I was having night sweats, heart palpitations, feinting episodes, insomnia, gastric pain, abdominal pain, IBS, felt sick and weak and exhausted. If anyone asked about the birth I would well up with tears of rage, i was extremely angry with how I had been treated, but did not associate this with my physical symptoms.
The first time I went to the doctor they just asked me if I was feeling depressed. I was in tears because I felt that I had a serious illness and that they were not taking me seriously. The second time I went to the doctors, armed with my husband, they gave me some antibiotics and said if I felt depressed I should come back.. I was totally incensed. How could all these physical symptoms be post natal depression? I stopped asking for help and just got on with it. I was terrified of being alone with my children in case I collapsed and couldn't look after them. My husband did not know how to handle what was happening, he felt totally lost as to how to help and just wanted things to go back to normal.
The symptoms continued for months gradually getting worse. I Googled them and found a post on a forum from a woman that had been experiencing exactly the same thing. The post read exactly like I had been feeling and she went on to explain that she had a birth trauma a kind of PTSD triggered by a birth experience where you feel out of control. I knew that i was really unwell at this point as eating and drinking had become an issue, so I went to the GP and phoned my health visitor. My daughter was about 6 months old when I realised what was wrong with me. I had fantastic support from my health visitor, who helped me to write to the hospital about my experience, and constant support from an online forum designed to help people with postnatal and antenatal illness.
Recovery was gradual, Mothering was hard... There were many days when feeding my baby (even solids) gave me heart palpitations or made me feel like I was about to feint. I was hardly there emotionally for my eldest at all, he was so worried about me, but I just had to try and rest and to try to keep them safe. Once I knew what was wrong with me and that I was not about to die, life became easier but the symptoms did not just go away. It took time. I still feel like that time in my life was stolen from me. I never had the start with my daughter that I have had with my other children. Worst of all I was ashamed that I had been unable to care for my children how I would have wanted to during that time.
So how can this happen? Birth trauma is post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that occurs after childbirth. It is actually a set of normal reactions to a traumatic or scary experience. The woman may be experiencing flash backs accompanied by genuine anxiety and fear and this is beyond her control. Often the cause of this is how the women perceives what has happened to her rather than the set of specific circumstances. Usually, but not always, the woman will have felt a loss of control or dignity during her labour or birth. It can also be triggered by difficult attitudes of the people around the mother, feelings of not being heard or the absence of informed consent during medical procedures. (Cheryl Beck, Nursing research, 2004, Volume 53). In my case I was terrified that I would die because this was a message that was repeatedly introduced during my pregnancy, due to complications that I was suffering from. I also was not listened to during my labour and I believed that my baby was put at risk due to the attitudes of the people around me. This left me in a permanent state of flight or fight as I had lost faith in the medical profession. The learning I have done since this experience has been extensive and I know that each woman will experience birth in a completely different way. I am not in the profession to save women from birth, but rather to walk with them on their journey, to bear witness and help them to gently unravel their experiences when necessary.
If you are currently suffering from a birth trauma, or know someone that is, the Birth Trauma Association is a fantastic resource. They have lots of information on their website and access to support and a list of therapists that may be able to help you. Sheila Kitzinger has written a book about this subject called Birth Crisis that is well worth a read. She also runs workshops for healthcare professionals and a helpline for women that may been in crisis and in need of someone to speak to. you can find the details of the support that she offers here. Another excellent resource is PANDAS. They are the leading UK charity for families suffering from antenatal and postnatal illness. They have a telephone helpline open from 9am -8pm Monday to Sunday and an online forum where you can receive support and speak to people in a similar situation. They also welcome donations and volunteer support to keep this valuable resource available to families in need. It can also be helpful to get hold of your maternity notes and to debrief the experience with someone impartial to the event. If you feel that you would benefit from debriefing your experience IMUK have a list of midwives that work independently that may be able to help you with this for a small fee.