Today I talked to a sobbing mother who like me, was experiencing postnatal post traumatic stress disorder from her birth experience. She told me that her family and friends keep telling her she was so lucky, not because she had a happy, healthy boy, but because her birth experience was so fast! Although she asked for her full name not to be revealed, I’ll be referring to her as Susan.
Almost every mother Susan spoke to had been somewhat dismissive because she had a three hour labour and was home the next day, launching into their own tales of their long drawn out experiences. I’ll be honest, I wish my labour had been quicker too (50+ hours followed by an emergency csection) but that doesn’t mean my birth experience invalidates hers in any way. It’s been hard for me to process my traumatic birth experience, but at least everyone I speak to agrees it sounds horrendous. It would be so much harder if I confided my feelings to a friend or family only to be told “Don’t be silly, that sounds pretty easy compared to me!”
Listen, but don’t compare
If someone is talking to you about their birth experience, don’t be tempted to compare too heavily. We’re all different, so let them talk about their birth experience without making comparisons to yours or your friends or your mum’s or Aunty Joan’s step-brothers ex-wife. It’s not helpful to be talking about trauma and hear “Oh but that sounds much better than x!” A sympathetic confirmation of “That must have been very difficult.” will work much better! This is one way in which support groups are helpful and how mum’s can really help each other by just listening and offering a shoulder to cry on.
From the first contraction to the birth, Susan’s labour lasted 3 hours. For her that was three hours of anxiety and confusion, with no time for painkillers, including feeling the baby crown in the car because it happened so fast. I asked her how that made her feel. “I was just so scared that I was going to give birth on the floor the car. The dirty floor filled with McDonalds wrappers and dog hair. I was thinking of all the things that could go wrong and how no one would be there to help the baby. I remember thinking about the umbilical cord and how no one would be able to cut it.” She made it to the hospital and her baby was born within 15 minutes of arrival! It’s called “precipitous delivery”, when everything happens in high speed.
“I was screaming the whole car journey, I felt like a wild animal in a trap” she told me, “afterwards I didn’t want to be congratulated. I felt broken. Now I’m terrified of doing it again, especially since it’s likely to happen a second time. I just wish people would stop making jokes and telling me how lucky I am to have it all over so quickly and talking about how he just ‘popped right out’ – like it was easy. It makes my feelings seem invalid.” Susan doesn’t talk about it online herself, but was happy for me to share her story anonymously, to help support other women. “At first I didn’t think I would be taken seriously because of how dismissive some people were when I tried to talk about it, but the GP has been lovely and I’m going to support sessions which have really helped. I still don’t feel like I can talk about it publicly or tell a lot of my family and friends. Mostly it’s just my mum and dad and my husband who know at the moment. Talking to other women in the support group has helped a lot.”
The support group has women with all types of birth experience. Emotional trauma is very different for everyone.
Never be afraid to talk about it
I couldn’t believe that people would dismiss her feelings of fear, anxiety, pain and trauma just because for her, it was over quickly and without any physical side effects. It was clearly an intense birth experience which had long-term effects on her mentally, even though she bounced back quickly physically. It doesn’t matter what your birth experience is – if you feel traumatised, uncomfortable or unhappy with how it went down in any way, talk to your midwife, health visitor or GP. The midwife can arrange a session where they have access to your notes and go over exactly what happened so you feel more in control, and can discuss what could be done differently next time.
For example in the case of precipitous delivery, some women will be induced early, or admitted into hospital before their due date. My new friend had been told to take a shower and relax when her contractions started, as her midwife hadn’t anticipated things progressing so quickly. This is usually very good advice, but in this case, wasted time and made things more difficult. Now she would know to go to the hospital immediately on the first contraction, even if she was not yet in active labour. Talking about this has helped ease her anxiety about a possible second pregnancy – although she still suffers a lot of fear. The GP can refer you for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or talk to you about group therapy and support sessions available in your area. Medication might be a possibility depending on the situation, but in many cases simply talking about it and working through the experience with an understanding and empathetic audience helps a lot.
I wanted to raise awareness that everyone’s experience is valid. It doesn’t matter if to an onlooker it seemed like an easy job, quick in and out, no complications – it’s irrelevant how it looks to us. What matters is how the experience was to the family who experienced it – dads as well as mums! Trauma and mental problems can manifest and be triggered in different ways for different people. Birth is a very traumatic experience for many. It can also be empowering and beautiful – but at it’s core it is mentally messy, and we all come away from it with our own scars. Some of us need a little help to get back to full health mentally as well as physically.