This post was most recently updated on April 26th, 2021
“At least you have a healthy baby”
“It’s over now, focus on your lovely baby”
“It’s horrific isn’t it? You’ll soon forget the pain and want another baby, LOL”
“Chin up, try not to let it get to you”
“All that matters is a healthy baby”
“Why are you crying?”
“You didn’t really think you could do it without pain relief did you?!”
Some of these phrases might be familiar to you. Do you feel upset when you think about the birth of your baby? Does the story play in a loop in your head? Do you wish you could stop thinking about it, or conversely, do you find yourself wanting to tell the story over and over? Do you discover a lump in your throat and hot tears prickling when you speak about what happened? Do you find your heart beating more quickly and your palms becoming sweaty when something triggers memories of your birth? Are you or did you find it hard to bond with your baby?
- Did you feel ignored or abandoned when you were having your baby?
- Did you feel like people weren’t listening to you?
- Did things feel out of control or going too fast for you to understand what was happening?
- Were you fearful for the safety of yourself or your baby?
- Was someone rough or rude to you?
- Did you say or indicate NO, yet something was done to you anyway?
If you can answer yes to a few of these questions, you may have been traumatised by your birth experience. And contrary to the subtext of many of the phrases at the beginning of this article, it matters. Let me say that slowly and clearly: Your. Feelings. Matter.
I know the prevailing message in our culture is that birth is always and completely, unrelentingly horrific – an event to be endured. But allow me to share a secret with you. It’s not true. Many, many women have birth experiences that they exalt in, that leave them feeling higher than any class A drug.
And here comes the next secret. It’s not a throw of the dice or a lottery that chooses who has a ‘good’ birth and who is left feeling crushed, physically and emotionally. No, what makes the difference is how you’re treated during the process.
Sex becomes making love when the person you are doing it with treats you tenderly and with respect. But it becomes a living hell if they don’t. And so with birth. For her body to surrender, her hormones to flow, her body to open, her mind to float out of the way in the bed and in the birthroom, she must feel safe, and loved, and unobserved.
Trauma has nothing to do with the way your baby is born. Where, how and when is immaterial. It is the way you are treated that counts.
So if your birth has left painful ripples, it’s not your fault. You didn’t fail. Honestly, I can’t stress that enough. Something shit happened to you. You deserve to feel upset about it. It is your right to have those feelings acknowledged. You have the right to be treated with dignity. You have the right to have your choices and preferences respected. You have the right to say no. You have the right to individualised care. You have the right to be told all the pros and cons of any intervention on offer and not coerced or persuaded to do what is being suggested by your caregivers. Watch this video on what consent in maternity care means:
Whatever the reasons for your feelings, if you’re distressed and finding life difficult, where can you go for help? That will depend on you and what you feel is appropriate for yourself and how you wish to honour your story. Here, in no particular order, is a list of things that other parents have found useful and if you are feeling very down, here is the website of the PANDAS Foundation which focuses on perinatal mental health.
Tell Your story
Speaking to someone – a friend who ‘gets it’, a doula, a midwife, a counsellor or a GP can be really cathartic. You may need to tell it over and over until it begins to lose it’s power over you. Some people prefer to write their story down. Having it down on paper can be enough, others need to do something ceremonial like burning or burying it.
Don’t Tell Your Story
Conversely, some people find that telling the story just serves to re-traumatise them. There is a big difference between birth trauma and PTSD and something that can be profoundly helpful for one, may be anything but to another. See here and here for descriptions of PTSD after childbirth and tips for coping.
Answer Questions And Fill in Gaps
Many hospitals will have a ‘Birth Afterthoughts’ service. This can be useful and usually comprises of a meeting with a midwife who has your maternity notes. You can talk through the birth and with the aid of the notes, the midwife can help you make sense of the story, put things in chronological order and perhaps understand a little more about why things happened the way they did. It can also be an opportunity to feedback your feelings about the way you were treated or the way your labour was handled. However, some people find going back to the ‘scene of the crime’ way too traumatic. Others find these sessions seem only to be a chance for the hospital to defend their actions.
Make a Complaint
If you know what happened to you was wrong, or your attempts at feedback meet deaf ears, you may like to make a complaint. You can do this through the PALS office at your NHS Trust. Contact AIMS if you need help making your complaint. They can support you, provide template letters and other useful information. Contact the helpline either by phone or email for personal, one-to-one support You can also contact Birthrights if you feel your legal, or human, rights have been violated. Their factsheets are a useful resource and a clear reminder of your rights.
Consider a Technique or Therapy
There are various therapies and techniques available that may, or may not, involve recounting the story or analysing your feelings. Three techniques that are commonly and effectively used with people who have experienced trauma are described here. One of them, the Rewind, is fast becoming popular with midwives and doulas as a way to support parents to feel less distressed. You can find your local doulas here. Just ask one if she knows anyone trained in the Rewind technique. It is quick, simple and can yield profound results.
Get Support From the Health Service
Some parents may feel it appropriate to talk to their doctors. There are various medications and talking therapies available on the NHS. Some people find that PTSD can be misdiagnosed as depression, so it can help to make sure your diagnosis is sound and ask lots of questions about the benefits and risks of any medications on offer. Non-pharmacological therapies on the NHS are most commonly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and EMDR
Own Your Feelings
As the phrases at the beginning of this article attest, it is common for people to feel like their emotions are being ignored, denied or dampened down by those around them. Whether you feel sad, angry, anxious or any other emotions, your feelings are important, and valid, and necessary as you process what happened to you. Never feel guilty about feeling the way you do. You don’t have to apologise for anything.
Try Not To Get Caught Up In Debates
Maternity Services is a battleground for ‘factions’ fighting over whether birth should be intervention free or full of machines that go ping. Trauma, or the lack of it, transcends choices; in other words, it matters not a jot whether you wanted a home water birth with candles and whale music or you preferred an epidural or elective cesarean. These things, and the vehement debate over how birth should be managed, is irrelevant. You, and your choices, are not responsible for what happened or how you now feel. Do not let anyone tell you that if you’d not done X, or if only you’d chosen Y, that all would have been well. They don’t get to pass judgement on your choices and they don’t have a crystal ball.
Get Everyone On Board
Explain to your loved ones that, whilst you are overjoyed at the birth of a healthy child, there are elements to your birth that you feel were not appropriate, or not handled well or that have left you feeling wounded or upset. Ask for their patience and love as you process what happened and deal with it in your own time. Remind everyone that humans are complex and can be experiencing happiness at the birth of a child and deep distress simultaneously.
It might be helpful to be able to share how you feel with others in a similar boat. The Birth Trauma Association has a peer support group on facebook which can be hugely helpful for some. Sometimes, however, it can descend into an echo chamber of trauma, each story triggering more big emotions in everyone else. Dip your toe in and see how it feels.
Practical Help and Emotional Support
While you heal in body and mind, many people find the support of a postnatal doula invaluable. Hands to keep the house in order and to keep tasty food and drink flowing, arms to comfort a baby while you sleep, wide shoulders and big ears to listen if you want to talk. A mother, a friend or auntie can do this too. If you don’t have friends or family or the finances for paid help, look up Homestart or investigate a cheap or volunteer doula.
Know that, whichever parent you are, your feelings are equally valid. It’s not just the birthing parent that suffers from Birth Trauma. In fact it is equally likely to happen to partners and loved ones witnessing proceedings. You should not be ignored and if you have intrusive feelings or thoughts or are experiencing distress, you deserve help too.
The day of your child’s birth is more than just one day. It’s not like having your appendix out. It’s not a ‘procedure’. It should be a joyful event. All women deserve the memory to be full of warmth and pride. If you’re feeling shitty, I’m reaching out a hand and hoping that some of the information and links in this article will be of use to you. I won’t tell you to keep your chin up, but I will say I believe in you. You might be feeling alone and lonely, but there are thousands of people out there who know how you’re feeling and thousands more ready and willing to offer a helping hand.