The Yin- Yang of Motherhood.
Part One-Birth Trauma.
(Originally featured in Attached Magazine in November 2011)
Sniffing your babys head and neck is one of the many exquisite pleasures afforded the new mum and dad. I love it so much that as well as accosting my own children with my ready nose I’m often found gathering up my friends children for a quick sniff. Its divine and one of the numerous delights of being a parent.
Other delights include broken sleep, engorged boobs,‘interesting’ nappy contents, getting a squirming bundle into a babygro,
understanding the variety of your babies cries and their meanings, and constantly smelling of (delete as appropriate) milky sick/sterilising fluid/poo/wee/a stale baked bean on your jumper from 2 days ago/your own unwashed hair. For many this is the right of passage you understood and expected from the minute you skipped your ‘monthlies’. But what if you are
dealing with more than that? What if, and I’m well aware that this may upset some folks who are bouncing along merrily, and I don’t want to be sensational just honest, but what if your post-birth experience is more along the lines of dealing with anxiety, terror, nightmares about the birth, obsessive behaviour, guilt, irrational fears, excessive crying,
extreme insomnia or the reverse, extreme debilitating fatigue?
For these women (and some men) the birth of their child was possibly a form of unexpected torment. They felt disempowered, out of control, feeling alone, bullied or in some documented cases women have reported feeling tortured or assaulted. They could not get the information they needed from healthcare professionals to make comfortable choices, and felt that they had little say over what was done to them physically & emotionally during the sacred birth process. Sheila Kitzinger
in her book ‘Birth Crisis’ (2006) describes the experience as being “disempowered in a very important event in
their lives. They feel terribly alone. They may fear that they are going mad”. These experiences can lead to what we know as Birth Trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
Birth Trauma can occur most often with medicalised births when the ‘menu’ of obstetric interventions like
induction (artificially speeding up the uterus with drugs to get labour ‘going’) are used. Electronic fetal monitoring often means that the woman is made to lie down and has to keep still instead of participating in an active birth with pain relieving movements. We know from many documented cases that when you are unable to move freely during birth that the pain, rather than the pain relieving breath/movement, becomes the focus in your body & mind. An episiotomy (a perineum cut), a forceps or ventouse (vacuum extraction) delivery, or an unplanned Caesarean section, may make a woman feel as if she is being treated like an object rather than as a precious wonderful human being in the middle of creating another equally precious & wonderful life.
Developing Birth Trauma can happen even with a so-called `normal’ birth. You are fine, baby is fine but you still suffer with shock like symptoms for days, weeks or months after the birth. Please remember its your trauma/your personal experience and there are no hard & fast rules about ‘who’ is ‘allowed’ to feel this way. One of the most debilitating things you can say to yourself is that “I shouldn’t be feeling like this because my baby is healthy and I only needed 2 stitches and I’m no longer in hospital and I should get a grip and………”. You have a right to feel as you feel and step one in any healing process is
acknowledging your thoughts & feelings as part of who you are at any given life stage. This is your experience and nobody elses.
So what can you do?
Its worth noting that Birth Trauma/Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is different from depression. Anti-depressant drugs do not help, and can even, in some circumstances, make it worse. Sheila Kitzinger (2006) writes that
“Many women who are haunted by what has been done to them in childbirth are treated by GPs with anti-depressant drugs. What they really need is to be able to talk with someone who understands, a person who does not try to explain or justify
the treatment they received, or to criticise them and the way they feel about what happened to them, and who knows how to listen reflectively”.
- For immediate help contact one of the specialist phone lines set up to deal with Birth Trauma. I run a helpline and endevour to assist anyone in crisis. My number is 07717 415 666.
- Sheila Kitzinger runs the Birth Crisis Network phoneline (http://www.sheilakitzinger.com/birthcrisis.htm) which has had the best feedback from my helpline using clients. I am unable to publish the number within this article at Sheilas request as the numbers change but please visit the website for an updated list of contacts.
- Contact AIMS (Association for Improvements in Maternity Services) helpline on 0300 365 0663. This phone number will connect you to an AIMS volunteer when possible, otherwise leave a message and someone will get back to you.
- Contacts PANDAS (Pre and Post Natal Depression Advice & Support) on 0843 2898 401. Their website is www.pandasfoundation.org.uk
- Talk to someone face to face who is a good listener. This may be your partner, a friend, a relative, a counsellor, group therapist, complimentary health practitioner…
- Request your birth notes from the hospital. Depending which health authority you live within and how soon you request them will dictate what the charge is. In Leeds I believe you can request them for free within 6 months of your birth but following that there may be an administrational charge of around £50. (I requested mine 10 years after the birth of my son and wasn’t charged though).
- Go through your notes with your GP, consultant or midwife. Some Independent Midwifes will be more than happy to pay you a visit at home and discuss/explain your notes without bias. For many of my clients this has been extremely useful.
- Join one of the many Facebook or local meeting groups set up to share information about specific birthing scenarios. There are VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Caesarean), HBAC (Home Birth After Caesarean) and many others. If you don’t want to contribute then certainly don’t. Sometimes just reading and knowing that there are other women out there who had a similar experience and are looking at different options helps. If you don’t like what you are reading then ‘unjoin/unlike’.
- I find writing therapy also helps my clients. Write your version of what happened in your birth space, and how you felt about it. It will probably be very different from the hospital version in your notes. Write a letter to your child explaining how you felt/feel. Write a letter back from your child to yourself sending love & healing thoughts. This can often be incredibly emotional so do prepare yourself with time, tissues, chocolate and someone to hug. Often woman with Birth Trauma feel tremendous guilt and often acknowledging this destructive, negative but all encompassing emotion within a personal letter can help alleviate these feelings.
- And please LOVE yourself. Remember what has happened to you was out of your control and not, in any way, shape or form, your fault. Being in your birthing space requires an altered state of mind. Its not normally a state of mind that can make quick, logical decisions, certainly not within an alien environment. If you were told you needed an intervention at a
challenging moment during birth then no-one can blame you for not refusing that option at the time. But learn from your experience in a healing way. Ask questions and demand understandable (non-jargon) answers. Know what you would do/ask for should you ever encounter a similar experience again. Feel empowered that you have that first hand experience and you now know how that scenario would be different in future.
- And finally, speak to a Doula about ‘next time’. Don’t let your experience put you off trying for another baby when you had planned to/when you feel ready. Doulas are a goldmine of real, practical information about birthing experiences (both positive & challenging) at home, at hospital and everywhere in between. I could write a whole article about the work of the Doula and believe that every woman should at least talk to one during their pregnancy.
Jolin, Lucy (2008). Coping with Birth Trauma & Postnatal Depression. Sheldon Press, London.
Kitzinger, Sheila (2006). Birth Crisis. Routledge, Oxen.