Trauma after the birth of a baby is a ‘special’ kind of trauma.
It’s a bittersweet kind of trauma. It’s a silent kind of trauma. It’s an invisible kind of trauma.
And if your baby is healthy, it is usually considered an unjustified kind of trauma.
I suffered from birth trauma. It was agonising, painful, and heartbreaking. I was alone, and misunderstood. It began the first night, a few short hours after the birth of my first daughter, from the moment my partner went home for the night. I was alone in the dark in my single room with this tiny little newborn. I held this chubby baby girl in my arms, and felt nothing but sadness at the experience we had gone through together to bring her into this world. I’d feel a stab of shame every now and then, and scold myself for being so ungrateful – my baby was here, wriggling in my arms, and I had the nerve to even consider mourning the experience that brought her to me. I would quickly go back to the sadness, mourning the loss of a dream – a beautiful and empowering birth experience. That night was the beginning of a four year battle with birth trauma.
My grief was deep, and some days I felt I was drowning in it. I floundered, being hit by waves of sadness, disappointment, and anger. I replayed the labour over and over in my head. I beat myself up with ‘what if’ and ‘if only’. I felt responsible; I blamed myself. I felt cheated, let down; I blamed my partner, I blamed the midwife, I blamed everyone. I tried to pinpoint where it went ‘wrong’, where I went wrong. News about new babies had me sobbing, even watching birth scenes in movies was painful. A phone call from my sister, hours after the birth of her son, left me feeling like I’d been hit by a truck, and I hid behind shelves in the department store I was in and I just cried and cried. I bitterly wished for every woman to have a horrifying experience, and I felt an unimaginable hurt when I saw women emerging from birth empowered and ecstatic. It wasn’t that I wanted every woman to experience the pain of birth trauma, but I just wanted to them to know my pain.
I suffered terrible postnatal depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, even though my trauma largely went unacknowledged. Where it was acknowledged, it was usually deemed unwarranted. My experienced was pushed away and minimised by well-meaning but hurtful comments from others…
“Years ago, you both would have died. Thank goodness for modern medicine.”
“It’s just one day in your life.”
“You were probably never going to give birth naturally anyway.”
“It’s probably because of your birth plan. You can’t control birth, you know. If you didn’t have such high expectations, you wouldn’t be so disappointed.”
“At least you are both alive and healthy, that’s what really matters.”
The comments were so hurtful. I felt like very few people understood. What about me? I would think. How can you say I am healthy? I feel like I am falling apart. Does my mental health not matter? I should have been overwhelmed with love for this tiny little bundle of joy, but instead I would hold her, look at her, and wish that I felt something. I was numb.
Sometimes I retold my birth story. I rarely came across anyone who had a story like mine, and people would cringe and exclaim “oh my goodness that’s terrible”, and then tell me their story. Sometimes they would have their own war story to tell, and I would listen and we would joke about never doing that again… But that wasn’t what I wanted.
I craved validation. I craved acknowledgement. I just wanted to tell someone my story, have them hold me as I cry, and look me in the eye and say: “I’m so sorry. You were cheated. You deserved better. You should have been able to birth the way you wanted. Your pain is justified. You have every right to grieve, without guilt.”
Maybe your birth trauma hit you straight away, or maybe it slowly grew, beginning as a nagging feeling you didn’t quite understand and growing into a deeper pain. Maybe your plan for birth went way off course, or maybe you didn’t have a birth plan but you wished that you had. Maybe you sometimes think that you weren’t informed about your choices, or maybe you think your pain could have been eased if you knew, and expected, less.
Maybe you had a caesarean. Maybe you had an instrumental vaginal birth. Maybe you had an unmedicated birth. Maybe you birthed in a hospital. Maybe you didn’t make it to hospital. Maybe you birthed in a birth centre. Maybe you had a planned homebirth. Maybe you asked for pain medication, and didn’t get any. Maybe you asked for support in a drug-free birth but was pressured into using medication. Maybe you had an unexpectedly fast labour, or an unexpectedly slow labour. Maybe you refused a procedure, but it happened anyway. Maybe you wanted a certain procedure, but no one listened…
Or maybe, none of this happened. Maybe it’s not about how you birthed. Maybe you birthed exactly as planned – but your trauma relates to how the nurse spoke to you or looked at you or ignored you…
Maybe you feel unsupported, alone, unjustified, silly, or even selfish. Maybe you’re sad. Disappointed. Angry. Hurt. Jealous. Afraid. Ashamed. Guilty. Responsible. Maybe you don’t feel any of those things…
Birth trauma can happen to anyone, in any situation. Birth trauma can happen to you, and even to your partner. Your experience is totally unique, and it doesn’t matter how anyone else feels about their birth or what anyone else would have done. Birth trauma is about how YOU feel about YOUR birth. Birth trauma is about YOU and YOU alone.
But make no mistake, you aren’t alone. Right now, thousands are alongside you, silent in their trauma and suffering.
Birth trauma is real. And needs real support.
To the mothers out there, dealing with birth trauma, I want to offer you my empathy, and my deepest condolences. Birth trauma is real. Your pain is real. Your pain is justified. You deserved a wonderful birth experience, and it is unfair that you didn’t get that. You deserve support. You have the right to grieve without guilt.
To the partners, friends, family, midwives, doulas, doctors, nurses, acquaintances… offer your empathy, and your deepest condolences. Birth trauma is real. Their pain is real. Their pain is justified. They deserved a wonderful birth experience, and it is unfair that they didn’t get that. They deserve support. They have the right to grieve without guilt.