Sally MacLeod lives in Brighton with her husband and son, and is part of the Mummyshock team. Here she shares some more of her own experiences as a new Mum...
It’s taken me a while to write this, and even longer to process it but I was prompted to write about my birth story (and maybe more about how I felt after the birth) because of Birth Trauma Awareness Week a few weeks ago. It’s been hard to start writing this because partly I’m not sure who will be reading it – I remember scaring myself silly when I was pregnant the first time around (and this time) by reading horror stories. But as much as I don’t want to scare expectant mums I also want to offer my experience to mums who may have had similar experiences to me, that may not be as extreme as some of the stories in the news recently and are maybe more nuanced and difficult to label, in the hope that that will help them recognise the impact their experience of labour may have had on their experience of motherhood.
I don’t want to go into too much of the nitty gritty of the actual labour – as I think I want to focus more on how I’ve started to rrecognise and process the experience. But the headlines are that things started to happen in the evening and were progressing well at home (the midwives put us off going in because I sounded too calm as I wasn’t crying or swearing for it to be actual labour) but by 6am we decided it was time to head in. Things happened quickly from there, baby’s heart rate was dipping dangerously so the decision to get him out as quick as possible was made. During the c-section one of the surgeons cut himself which added to the drama of the situation. Then my little boy emerged and we were told the cord had been wrapped around his neck 5 times but miraculously he was a good colour and cried straight away. We spent 2 nights in hospital, which was a blur of strong pain killers and a baby clamped to my boob pretty much 24-7, I remember hearing other mums talking about how sleepy their babies were but not mine – from the moment he was born he was wide awake.
So not as dramatic as some birth stories but as Ellen says during Mummyshock each story is unique to each mother and baby, and there is no need to compare mine to anyone elses. And I think the main point I want to make about birth trauma is that just as everyone’s birth experience is different how we respond to that experience is different too. I didn’t fully develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but I’m starting to realise that I was traumatised by the labour, and as a result struggled with anxiety and depression – which may have happened regardless of the experience I had during labour but I think it makes sense that it fed into it.
One of the articles during BTAW, that was written from a male perspective which was really insightful, talked about how his partner was treated really coldly during their emergency and didn’t have things explained properly and he thought that was the main contributor to her PTSD. Thankfully that wasn’t my experience of the medical staff – although I remember being so out of it on gas and air, with my back to the wall that when I heard the whole team running into the room I thought it was a pack of dogs!?! (That gas and air is some strong shit!) The anaesthetist in particular was great at explaingn what was going to happen and what I would feel during the surgery, helping me to stay calm on the 5th attempt at an epidural and explaining the severe shaking I had in recovery. I think I have a lot to be thankful for to her.
When I got home I remember being terrified and totally uncertain about how to cope with a new born. And looking back I think there were signs I wasn’t coping. But as a new- first- time -mum you don’t have anything to compare it to and assume that it’s how every new mum feels – and to a certain extent that’s probably true. I had a lot of visits from the midwife team in the first couple of weeks which was reassuring in some ways but it leads me to my other reason for writing this. Looking back I realise that there was a bit of an expectation that I would be able to self-diagnose, that I would be able to vocalise that I wasn’t coping and that it felt a bit more than just sleep deprivation. I remember breaking down in tears in front of one of the midwives, and instantly feeling like I needed to scoop myself up and apologise – so when she offered exhaustion as the reason I took it, because that was easier than admitting it felt more than that, because I didn’t know what the result of saying that out loud would be.
And it was only when my boy had reached the 3 month mark that I was able to share that I hadn’t felt a strong bond to him for the first 6 weeks. It was actually at Mummyshock where I felt safe enough to say it, and was instantly reassured to hear that it’s normal for bonding to be interrupted as a result of a trauma. But for those first 3 months I lived under the guilt of feeling like I didn’t love my baby enough or like other mums felt about their newborns, and to be honest I still feel that guilt sometimes (ahh the joys of that maternal guilt!!)
It was also through being part of Mummyshock that I realised that I struggled with really high anxiety in those first few weeks of motherhood, which I’ve learned is also part of the impact trauma can have. I remember lying in bed trying to sleep, and as soon as I would finally drop off I would sit bolt upright convinced my baby was crying and was somewhere under the duvet – only to realise that my husband had taken him out for a walk!
Another thing that I carried around for a long time was guilt that I could have done something to avoid things going wrong during the labour. In the week leading up to it I felt like baby;s movements had dropped off, I went to the GP who listened to his heartbeat and said it was fine but didn’t want to bother the over-stretched maternity triage unit so didn’t go to hospital where they might have picked up on a scan that the cord was so tangled. And it was actually through being pregnant again and having to go to a Birth Options appointment where I was able to share that guilt which had been hanging over me. The midwife was great, she talked me through the notes and said that my baby’s oxygen saturation and that the fact he didn’t need resuscitation showed that he hadn’t been in distress for as long as a week, that it was only something that happened during the labour itself. Instantly all that guilt and worry was able to drop, there was nothing I could have done. I would really really encourage any mum who feels there are things that were traumatic about their labour to see if you can talk through your maternity notes with a midwife – I wish I had done it sooner.
It’s only in the last 6 months (and my little boy is almost 3) that I’ve been able to articulate how I felt/still feel in able to get support. There’s a bit in the TV series Humans when one of the characters stands in front of a mirror and screams silently, because she doesn’t want to be discovered – and I think that is a perfect picture of how it feels to struggle with any kind of post-natal mental health struggles.
And it would be easy to finish on a note of, “well if the professionals had done more early on then maybe my motherhood journey would have been different and a little bit easier.” And I do think there needs to be more debate about how maternal mental health is dealt with (Mummyshock should be available for all mothers for starters!!!) But I want to be more forward focused as well! For me personally as I prepare for number 2 I’m determined to be pro-active in building a support network for myself, which includes a pre-natal art therapy group I’m going to join in a few weeks and some counselling. We’ll see how it goes, and maybe I’ll share what that experience is like.
So I think I want to finish on a note of encouragement, and encourage any mums that if you feel like your experience of labour has had a negative impact on your mental health then firstly you are not alone (even though it can feel very lonely) and secondly if you haven’t been offered support it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve or need it, and that sometimes as hard as it is we have to find the words to ask for it for ourselves.