What is birth trauma?
Birth trauma is essentially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that can follow birth. The Birth Trauma Association estimates that over 200,000 women in the UK experience Birth Trauma and go on to develop some of the symptoms of PTSD annually.
I’ve previously blogged about my first birth with my son that ended in an emergency c-section. As a result of both the birth itself, combined with the way I was treated throughout, I suffered some birth trauma afterwards. This birth trauma was as much from the way my labour was handled by staff, as what actually happened.
I want to start out by saying I appreciate that my birth trauma was mild. Fortunately, I did not develop full blown PTSD or go on to develop postnatal depression, which many women who have severe birth trauma do. Also, my birth experience did not cause the death of my child or for him to suffer any disabilities. I have spoken to women who not only had the experiences I did but had a much worse end result. In those cases what I did isn’t going to cut it, you are going to have to speak to professionals too. Do not take it lightly, get support and lots of it.
How I felt
In the weeks following the birth I would ‘re-live’ my birth in flashbacks and nightmares where I would remember the fear and loss of control that I felt. In the months following my first birth, I would at times be overcome by sadness and be in floods of tears. I was full of regret and felt like a complete and utter failure. I felt broken as a woman and had feelings of both shame and grief. It damaged my self esteem.
Whilst rationally I knew I shouldn’t feel this way, I did feel that I had ‘failed at birth’ very strongly. I mourned the loss of seeing my son be born – on missing out on that experience. I would randomly burst into tears if I thought about it or tried to talk about it. So did my mam and partner for a while too actually. If I saw birth on tv shows I would be full of grief and cry hysterically.
I thought I was over it but then it came to a head, one day nearly a year after my experience. Someone close to me had (what to me seemed like) a great birth experience and I completely broke down and sobbed hysterically all day. I can’t actually recall a time that I have cried more uncontrollably than that. Whilst I was really happy for them and genuinely wanted that outcome for them, I also wanted that outcome for myself and I was heartbroken that I was denied it.
Well-meaning people will tell you ‘at least you had a healthy baby’ which is of course true but when people say that in essence what they are also saying is your feelings, your experience doesn’t matter. That you should stop complaining and be grateful. But both matter. I can see why people say it but it kind of goes without saying doesn’t it. That’s not the best we can hope for and it excuses poor support and experiences for women. Our women deserve better. A woman’s births change her in profound ways. Women recount their birth stories as elderly women on their death beds. Birth matters. Little matters more. It can make and unmake women. We ought to be doing everything we can to respect women and protect their choices during labour and birth.
What I did to help
I don’t think I’ll ever truly get over what happened but I did do a lot of work to come to terms with it in preparation for my second birth. Here are some of the things that I did:
- Spent a lot of time thinking about my birth and what happened. I applied for my labour notes from the hospital through a freedom of information request and read them to try and understand what happened fully. This brought to light some things that I hadn’t known previously. It helped me to understand.
- Practised letting go, being kind to myself and positive visualisation.
- Talked about it a lot with people close to me and also with people who had gone through similar things. I found the VBAC Support Group UK and Birth Trauma Association groups on Facebook really helpful. There is also a twitter chat on Mondays at 8pm if you search the #birthtraumachat.
- Educated myself around birth, I vociferously read everything I could get my hands on. Knowledge is power.
- Read loads of positive birth stories to re-learn that birth doesn’t always have to be full of trauma, fear and pain.
- Decided to go for a Home Birth for my next birth.
- Practised the VBAC Natal Hypnotherapy CDs and read the accompanying book/completed the activities in it. I couldn’t recommend this more and feel this was really key to me overcoming my trauma.
- Hired a doula who had experienced a similar first birth to me and we spoke at length about our shared experiences. Whenever I felt negatively I turned to her and she would rally me with a pep talk. You can not put a price on the value of this.
In the end the biggest thing that has helped me come to terms with the first birth was having a healing vaginal home birth with my second child. My experiences were chalk and cheese and you can read about my positive birth experience here.
My second birth gave me a fuller understanding of what birth is. Following my first birth ending in a c-section I had a niggling doubt that maybe I had ‘failed’ because I wasn’t ‘strong enough’ (I know how irrational that belief is).
My second birth showed me that I was strong enough and that labour isn’t always the same. The contractions in my first birth were way way worse due to the induction via an artificial breaking of my waters and subsequent syntocinon infusion. I didn’t ‘fail’ at my first birth. The hospital, its staff and its policies failed me, as they do thousands of women. Hospital policies and processes were applied to me rigidly, even when it was clear that it wasn’t my preference and/or it was having adverse effects.
I do wonder how I would feel today if I hadn’t experienced a healing second birth. How would I have felt about myself and my body if I felt I had ‘failed’ again. I just don’t know. I would have had more healing to do and would have had to work at it all over again.
Today, 5 years on I can see some benefits of what happened. I wonder whether I would have bonded with my child, the child I was not ready for, the way I did had I not truly thought I was about to lose him. I’ve never taken him for granted once and if I was to, I would only have to think back to the terror of that moment and it would set me straight. I will never forget the horror of that feeling that he could die.
As a result, I now understand birth trauma and have more empathy with others going through hard times. It made me become a positive birth advocate. It strengthened my feminist beliefs. I truly educated myself about birth and became informed. It has probably made me a better person. I’m not sure I would have appreciated my vaginal birth so much had I not had my c-section. I know my pelvic floor would be in a worse position for sure!
Having experienced both a C–section and a home birth though I can tell you that having a C-section is certainly not the easy way out at all. What you ‘escape’ in labour is clawed back in recovery. Opting for or not opting for a C-section is a personal choice, and ultimately that is what matters. That a woman’s informed choice is ALWAYS respected and that she is fully supported to achieve her desires. If you come across a woman who did not have her choices respected and is suffering as a result of this then just listen to her. Show her empathy and let her cry on your shoulder. Don’t tell her why she should be grateful, just tell her she is strong, beautiful and that she is enough.
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