I was the fainter at school. Injections, check. Biology lessons, check. Always flat on my face, and always resulting in chipping my front teeth that little bit more. So when I found out I was pregnant I knew it would take a little more than a positive mindset to get through the plethora of tests, scans and the birth.
For me, pregnancy wasn’t the ‘glowing’ experience that is too often pictured. I was in and out of hospital and this uncertainty led to anxiety that lasted until the baby was far enough along to have a good chance of surviving, should anything happen.
To help me feel more prepared I dutifully signed up to all of the antenatal offerings. I was hoping for a natural, intervention-free experience in the birthing centre. Learning about how the hospital helped women through a variety of births was reassuring and all of the midwives were very understanding of my circumstances. Through hypnobirthing I actually started to look forward to the birth, despite all of my fears, and I really bought into the mantra that my body was designed to do this. I trusted it, and I knew that the NHS would provide me with the best possible care.
At no point did anyone tell me that my cervix might not open, in fact that was never mentioned by anyone. The heartbeat, no one said anything about not be able to find a heartbeat either.
Call us if you have any fresh bleeding they said. So I did, several times, in the weeks leading up to my due date. Triage scared the shit out of me but after being there a handful of times I got used to the beeps, the straps and the ‘we’ll give it half and hour.’ I told myself that this would help me feel safer when it actually kicked off.
The kick off woke me at 1am on a Thursday morning and I was surprised at how excited I was. But something wasn’t right; there was blood again and so commenced our first trip to the hospital.
I was in labour for almost two days before they let us in. All of the pain I experienced was in my back, and I didn’t want any kind of intervention as long as neither of us were in trauma.
Saturday arrived and 2.5 days after it started, my cervix was only at 4cm and my contractions were 5–10 seconds apart. Every time someone new came into the room I insisted on hearing that they’d read my birth plan, however it started to become clear that 4cm might be as far as I’d get on my own. I was determined to keep going and after being allowed in the pool and using gas and air for 4 hours, I had a glimmer of hope when I heard 6cm.
After nearly 3 days of not sleeping, eating the occasional sweet and experiencing excruciating pain, I broke down when I was told a little later that I was still only 6cm dilated. I started sobbing uncontrollably and apologising to my partner, my amazing midwife and the consultant.
I felt that I had let everyone down, that my body had let everyone down.
I was trying my best and yet it wasn’t good enough.
They could feel enough of the baby’s skull plates to recognise that he was back to back. At this point I was advised that given the length of my labour and his position, my best options were to receive hormones via an IV to speed things up, or to go to theatre. What surprises me to this day is that I chose the caesarean. I figured that if I didn’t want any intervention, I’d be foolish to choose the option that strung it out and could result in an operation anyway.
It turns out that it was a good decision; minutes after I started to get prepped for theatre, the baby went into distress, a lot of meconium was released and the emergency button was pressed.
Everything that happened next was a blur. It felt like 15 people ran into the room as if they’d been patiently waiting outside for it to happen. While they were opening another theatre and trying to monitor the baby, they couldn’t find his heartbeat. It took me two months to say that last sentence without crying. There is always a part of you that thinks the worst could happen, but I didn’t ever let myself properly consider it. I became so calm, I don’t even remember the pain of contractions. It was so odd; maybe I was numb, maybe I had given up, maybe I just thought it wasn’t really happening to me.
It was faint, but they found it.
The strip light disco happened next as I was being pushed to the theatre, still clinging onto the gas and air. Then the spinal. I’m still amazed that women manage to have one of these while having intense contractions, knowing the complications they may face if they move.
My freak out finally came when the anaesthetist asked if the sensation I felt as she pinched my leg was pain. I realised that if I answered incorrectly then I’d feel more of the slicing and tugging to come, all of the things I had planned so desperately not to be faced with. I don’t know how many attempts we made but after what felt like someone rummaging around for a hairpin in my stomach we finally heard a cry; we had a baby, a son, and he was alive.
I got to see him briefly before he was taken to NICU to be hooked up to antibiotics. My partner went with him of course and I was taken to a recovery ward. I felt fortunate but I did not feel like a mother.
If I was a mother then where was my child?
If I was a mother then why couldn’t I give my baby his first feed?
If I was a mother then why didn’t my body work?
Morphine was doing its job and I should have welcomed its message to sleep. Instead, I was sat up in bed frantically trying to ensure I could produce milk and listening to the other new parents on the ward who had their children with them.
The importance of skin-to-skin is something that is hammered home at every antenatal class, alongside the bonding experience of the first feed. I didn’t get to experience either of those things. My son was fifty metres down the corridor, alone, and this compounded my feeling of failure.
After 3 days in hospital under the wonderful care of the midwives, doctors and nurses of the NHS, our son’s canula was removed and we were allowed home.
In the first few months I found it incredibly distressing to discuss the birth, we both did. Our son was struggling to feed and remain settled, and with hindsight I can see that I put a lot of my energy into getting to the root of this to the detriment of my mental health. I didn’t feel depressed but I did feel traumatised and this has become clearer with distance.
Nobody told me that I could have post-traumatic stress linked to my birth experience, it wasn’t a term that I’d heard discussed. Time has helped to heal some of the wounds but writing this has made me realise just how much of a burden my birth experience created.
I’m proud of my body for creating a human but I’m still trying to rebuild trust in it. If we go on to have more children, despite the anxiety I know I would experience leading up to the date, I’m likely to opt for a planned C-section. That is never something I thought I would say, however I believe that the effect on my mental health would be a whole lot worse if I planned for a natural birth and my body failed me again.
I’m still the fainter, just a slightly more weathered one.