The birth process is such an unpredictable event. We may have dreams and carry hopes and expectations for the way we envisage the birth of our babies to proceed. Birth plans are thought about and written, a spoken wish for how we would like our baby's arrival into the world to occur.
Yet, in reality, so much is outside of our control and often there are at least one or two aspects, which afterwards we may wish were different. For many women, their experience of the birth or the birth environment is so far removed from their initial hopes, it can colour their feelings not only about the means by which their babies arrived into this world but also their growing connection with their babies. Often decisions need to be made quickly to ensure not just the safe arrival of the baby, but also the mother’s wellbeing. Our dreams of a calm, intimate first meeting with our baby can be rapidly replaced with the bright lights of a surgical theatre and being prepped for an emergency caesarean with a cast of thousands. For many women, their experience of a birth that defies their hopes and wishes, can cause tremendous sadness and disappointment regarding their baby’s first moments.
Yet it is not just the pain that comes with lost hopes and dreams that impacts upon women’s emotional adjustment post birth. For some women, their experience of giving birth contains elements which were so traumatising that there are long lasting effects upon not only the mother’s relationship with her baby, but also her mental and physical health and her daily functioning. Feeling out of control and detached from the experience, whilst also experiencing intrusive medical interventions can leave many new mothers with very painful and raw feelings of grief and even shock.
Birth trauma may result when a woman’s experience of the birth was one which felt life threatening and within which the mother felt overwhelmed, helpless or some sense of fear. Experiences such as an episiotomy, the use of forceps or suturing without adequate pain relief , or the injuring of the baby during delivery can leave the new mother with intrusive feelings and imagery long after the birth. Many other mother’s report trauma following situations such as an emergency caesarean section where there was a subsequent loss of control over the experience. The delivery may have felt frightening and the experience of feeling vulnerable and exposed can leave the new mother with feelings of sadness and panic. Whilst it is hard to know the exact number of women who experience birth trauma, it has become increasingly recognised as a common experience for many women and one which requires substantial support.
The effects of trauma after childbirth are very real and may be experienced as flashbacks of the birth, nightmares and panic attacks. Memories of the event may trigger anxious feelings and may leave the new mother feeling overwhelmed and fragile. There may be a need to talk constantly about the birth as they attempt to make sense of their experience and release the fear and hurt that linger afterwards. For others there may be a complete avoidance of talking about it. Anything that reminds them of the birth is too painful. Detaching from the experience, as well as the baby may be the only way to keep these uncomfortable memories and feelings at bay.
If this has been our story, how do we heal? Women who have had this experience need a space to share their experience. Not once, or twice but as often as they feel the need to tell it. They need to allow themselves to grieve and process the event and their loss of expectations. They need a safe place and time to separate their feelings about the birth from their feelings towards their baby. An untold story of sadness, grief and guilt can do so much damage to a new mother’s fledgling feelings towards not only her baby, but her sense of self as a mother and her confidence to enter this journey. My sense is that it is incredibly important that those feelings be validated and heard. It is only through this validation that those feelings can lose their power and room for positive feelings towards the baby can grow.
And yet, we must also remember that our birth story is not the whole story.
Not the only story.
It is just one moment in what will be a lifetime of moments that we share with our baby. What matters is not the way our child came into this world but that we release any shame, guilt, and sadness regarding what did or did not happen, in whatever way we can. We owe it to ourselves and to our babies to do that.