Sunday, 17 August 2014

War wounds: coping with birth trauma

Women are amazing creatures. You realise that, no matter how the birthing experience goes, that mothers are pushed to the limits of their physical capabilities. Despite my birth not going to plan I didn't really have time to think about that amongst tackling feeding, changing nappies and an endless washing pile. I talked about my traumatic birth to those close to me but there was no time to process what I'd been through - it was a case of plodding on with the intensity of motherhood. My birth went so wrong that it almost made a good story and I didn't mind telling it, or finding the humour in it.

After the chaos of motherhood had died down and I battled through a somewhat difficult year with a feisty and very hungry baby, I found that certain situations would provoke a reaction in me. Friends would tell me of their 'easy' births (if there's ever such a thing) and I would feel all this anger in me. I would avoid hanging around with people who were blissfully enjoying motherhood because I felt like a failure compared to them. Women who found breastfeeding bonding or enjoyed waking up in the night to rock their little one or loved their new life of mums and tots groups made me run a million miles away. I found myself avoiding certain friendships or conveniently going to the toilet whenever the subject of birth came up. People would ask me "when are you having another, then?" and every time I'd feel like they may as well have said to me that my pain was not valid; that my struggles didn't count. I found the question insulting, as though they'd just asked me when I would be going to war again.

Now, I'm a very open person, but mental health issues are very difficult to talk about. There's almost a taboo about admitting you have any sort of weakness, as though one affecting your mind is less serious than one affecting your physical body. In the light of Robin Williams' death it has helped me to understand the importance of honesty about mental health. I may not be able to tell you these things in person but for some reason I can write about them here.

At a wedding, two years after my son's birth, I'd left him with his Nanan and I was looking forward to letting my hair down. Instead, I found myself sat on a table full of other mothers, mopping up dribble and talking in baby language. I was forced to talk about teething and nappy rashes and I suddenly felt physically sick (and, no, I wasn't even close to intoxication). Someone started talking about how much they were enjoying parenting and how they couldn't wait to have another child, which provoked everyone else to join in with expressing the joys of motherhood, whilst they cooed over their little ones. Feelings of anger and inadequacy rose up and I had to make a quick exit. I sobbed in the toilets for over an hour. Sobbed. For an hour. Two years after my birth. That's not normal, right?

The weird thing is I was enjoying motherhood. My screaming child had turned into an entertainment system that made me laugh everyday, gave me cuddles and was full of character. I wanted to experience that again but I how could I? How could someone willingly go to war?

My decision to have another child, nearly four years later, didn't come easy. Deep down it was what I wanted and I was so used to blocking out negative feelings about birth and avoiding other mothers (and weddings) that I just allowed myself to think of all the good times of having a child and the life we would have in the future.

And then I got pregnant.

And it was like a hurricane just blew threw my house and I couldn't see for all the dusty memories I'd swept under the carpet which were now encircling my head. I started to panic. I would literally wake in the night in a sweat. I needed to tell others of my 'joyful' news and instead I wanted to bury myself into a hole and hide. I felt really scared and overwhelmed and no one would understand me. How could you plan a pregnancy that you don't want to go through? It's the most ridiculous thing. I would either be met with expressions of extreme excitement or looks of "what the hell are you doing?" I found neither response helpful. But I wanted another child more than anything.

Thankfully, due to a previous emergency c-section, I was given the option of having another one and Neil and I had decided to grab this opportunity, knowing that I could change my mind at any point. The consultants were, of course, pushing me to have a vaginal delivery but we stuck to our guns because of my past experience. It felt like a weight had been lifted and I knew that I didn't have to deal with any feelings of uncertainty, extreme pain and failure again.

But the feelings of relief were short lived. Something was deeper.

I was referred to see a consultant midwife to discuss my feelings about the birth. She was the first person who validated what I'd been through. She looked through my pages of notes from my delivery and expressed her total understanding of me wanting a c-section. She listened to me and she made me feel like I was not the weak person I thought, but I was, in fact, extremely brave. She told me I had symptoms of post traumatic stress and referred me to a clinical psychologist who I am now seeing on a weekly basis.

I'm finding this time in my life the most intense I've ever been through. There are things that have come to light that are much deeper than childbirth or physical pain. I have deep-rooted beliefs about myself which are extremely unhelpful and affect my daily life. My life has been about avoiding failure, avoiding pain, avoiding mistakes. If you're a parent you will know that's impossible.

When I started this process I wished I had done it sooner after my birth. Now I wish I'd done this long before I'd even thought of having children. Motherhood is such an intense time and brings about all sorts of emotions which you can brush under the carpet or deal with. This is not always easy and can be very painful, but vital none the less. If you've had negative emotions connected with pregnancy or parenting (or anything, actually) I would urge you to pursue help. Please don't let your fears control you and stop you from having the life you want.

If you're struggling with birth trauma or negative feelings associated with birth or motherhood you may find these links helpful.

http://www.birthtraumaassociation.org.uk
http://www.pandasfoundation.org.uk