Bittersweet Birthdays

I wanted to share my birth trauma story and its effects on me as I approach the first anniversary - Grace’s first birthday. It’s something that I think many women who have experienced some sort of birth trauma might struggle with and I hope that by sharing my own experience it will help others.

It's really poignant for me to talk about this today, on the 4th February as this day last year was my 'due date'. The date given to me that absolutely obliterated my chances of having the 'natural birth' I longed for. As soon as the sonographer told us this date I knew it couldn't be possible, it was 13 days too early. I was meticulous in logging everything and knew when I ovulated and when we conceived.

I argued this the entire length of my pregnancy, and desperately so in the days before I was induced. I begged my midwife one last time to take into account my calculations, but again, she rather patronisingly just said there would be no way these would be considered, as even the due dates of women who have IVF babies and therefore know the exact date of implantation are calculated only via the sonographer's interpretation of the 12 weeks scan. I felt trapped in a policy I just had to go along with, and I soon realised this was the reality of childbirth - women are routinely ignored, common sense goes out of the window and the most narrow minded approach is adhered to.

So, there started the most anxiety filled two weeks as we counted down to my induction date, doing absolutely every 'old wives tale' in the book to naturally bring on labour, as well as 3 painful, unsuccessful sweeps. By the time I was induced I was emotionally exhausted and in no fit state to fight anyone anymore.

My birth trauma began with the induction of labour at 41+5. I vehemently did not want to be induced, I knew the risks of an increased chance of needing an assisted delivery, let alone the fact that NICE guidelines recognises that an induced labour is more painful and therefore epidurals are more likely needed.

I had researched other options and tried to discuss these with anyone that would listen but every conversation ended with me feeling hugely guilty that I was putting my baby at risk and that it would all be my fault if the placenta stopped working. I asked about continuous monitoring as an alternative but this was not offered as a viable option and so I felt pushed down a route I never wanted to take – I’m still angry at myself for not fighting harder but, as a first time mum, the guilt and fear was overwhelming.

The induction lasted 47hrs, during which I was poorly treated by numerous professionals whose job it was to care for my wellbeing. There were so many instances that have contributed to my trauma it’s hard to share them all without writing pages (as my complaint letter turned out to be).

They included lack of informed and continuous consent for a particularly invasive and painful procedure during contractions in a shared ward which had me screaming in agony, desperately trying to move away from the midwives who had hold of me, which left me feeling like I had been abused; being denied any privacy due to a lack of private rooms or any form of pain relief (even paracetamol) with a delayed first stage of labour after my waters had broken; being lied to about the timing of the use of syntocinon which effected my decision on an epidural and had me bed bound for 15hrs; not being communicated with by the numerous clinicians coming in and out of the room all night to examine me and the cardiotocography, even when the fetal heart rate dropped.

And then finally, after waiting 4hrs for a theatre to become available for an emergency caesarean section, I was given the ultimatum, with a scalpel over me, of either being cut open with feeling or given general anaesthetic as it was taking too long for the epidural to take effect.

I chose to be cut open with feeling on the upper left side of my abdomen. Once Grace and my husband went to recovery I felt incredibly alone and terrified during the next 50 minutes on the operating table. In my sleep deprived state of fear I repeatedly asked if I was going to die - no one ever once answered me, instead they discussed their weekends with one another.

To top it all, the consultant who came to see me in recovery to tell me she had no idea why I ended up having a c-section as she saw no reason for needing one (I got to 10cm but the baby just didn't come down). That statement has haunted me ever since - I blamed myself for being so scared that maybe my body didn't allow me to birth a baby (you hear about it with animals in the wild, waiting until they're in a safe space and feel protected, I thought for so long that was what happened to me).

My chances of ever having the 'natural' birth I so wished for felt like they had been ruined for no reason - this fuelled so much of my anger. I have since found out that when they opened me up there was fluid in my abdominal cavity and blood in my urine which are signs of an obstructed labour, which could have been due to Grace not being in the best position.

Just having this explained to me (10months later) has made me feel so much better. We don't know exactly why, but there *was* a reason I needed a c-section. Communication and use of language is so important when talking to parents. If anyone had actually talked to us over that weekend sincerely, honestly and clearly, I feel like our experience would have been so different.

I was let down by professionals too focused on strict policies and procedures with no room for common sense, compassion, or consideration for what I needed as a human being. I was let down by an overstretched system battling on a daily basis with inadequate staffing levels and morale too low to safely and effectively care for the mothers on the ward with any type of empathy or kindness. Clinicians described the ward that night as a “war zone”.

When Grace was about 6months old I knew I needed help with the way I was feeling. My GP, who was the only person who ever sincerely asked me about my postnatal mental wellbeing helped me to access the help I needed. I was diagnosed with PTSD, with frequent flashbacks day and night of the invasive procedure and the ultimatum on the operating table.

I would replay every part of what happened and get angry at myself for 'allowing' them to treat me that way. It was constant, and felt like it was getting worse. Therapy helped me, and I felt able to put the events around her birth to the back of my mind most of the time, however, with Grace’s first birthday approaching I have more regularly had to use the strategies to try and keep them there.

Birthdays will always be evocative but with each year I hope the negative feelings will be replaced with precious memories of previous birthdays and milestones.l always be sad that I can’t look back on her birth with any sort of pride or happiness. I try to focus on when I felt safe again, back in recovery with my husband and baby and with a new shift of midwives who were so kind and caring. I hope that with time, I can remember this as when our journey began. Birthdays will always be evocative but with each year I hope the negative feelings will be replaced with precious memories of previous birthdays and milestones.

My experience has taught me so much about myself and has given me an insight into the power of our minds and memories. It’s also taught me to be kinder to myself and to recognise the warning signs and symptoms of my diagnosis in order to put in place the strategies I have learnt. The treatment in my case has been to manage my symptoms rather than to ‘cure’ them, and it might be that I need further treatment in the future. I know I'm still grieving my birth experience, and I accept that.

I urge anyone feeling in a similar way to access support and treatment – help is available, and many services can be accessed by self-referral meaning you won't have to rely on a professional to help you. The services map on the Make Birth Better website lists the support locally available to you, as will your GP. Please don't suffer in silence - Caroline xxx

© Make Birth Better CIC 2019

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