Birth stories – does our silence stop others from demanding better?
I sucked at giving birth
(Please note this blog was written in 2016)
This is the first time I have ever written a full account of the birth stories of my two children. To be fair, I am very good at listening to other women’s birth stories. However, like many women the details I share are general, like birth weight and frequently skirt over the nitty gritty.
The truth is I sucked at childbirth. I am lucky that my babies, now aged 14 and 17, were not born during the age of Instagram – because that would have further reaffirmed my belief of how a “proper” birth should be and how sadly mine worked out.
This recent research shows the frightful statistics around birth injuries… and I now know that I was not alone. However, statistics tell only part of the story…
My BS birthplan
During my first pregnancy, I was living a pretty amazing life in a very funky flat in central London. I sure could have popped some hum-dingers on social media with that… apart from one fact, my husband was a recovering drug addict. Most of my pregnancy came second place to his recovery… and if you have ever had the privilege to experience FA (Families Anonymous – the most depressing help /support group for families of drug and alcohol dependents) or know someone who is a recovering addict, then you will know the acronym HALT – it stands for Hunger, Anger, Loneliness and Tiredness – these are the 4 reasons why an addict falls off the wagon.
I worked by day as a primary school teacher in a very posh and respected London West End school and would rush home to shop and make sure there was a good meal cooked each day. I spent most waking moments at home walking on egg shells, intuitively trying to read the mental state of my husband. He was clean for just over 6 months when I went in to the hospital to be induced on Friday 17th September 1999.
There had been some ambiguity around my due date and unfortunately for me, London was experiencing one of the warmest summers on record, so the physical discomfort of the overdue pregnancy had over taken my fear of the eminent birth. I was as ready as I could be with my hired TENS machine, my specially blended aromatherapy oils to be applied and burned and of course my birth plan.
You can’t stay pregnant forever
My first dose of oxytocin worked almost immediately, just not for me – but for the Spanish woman in the bed opposite mine. We were both given the morning dose and within a few hours, she was screaming, “I can feel the baby’s head coming!”
No such luck for me. My stubborn cervix refused to open, so the Dr’s gave me more oxytocin in the afternoon, more Saturday morning and yet more on Saturday afternoon. The lower back pain was horrendous (the TENS machine was a joke, as was the water birth I had carefully outlined on my birth plan) and as nurses and doctor’s shifts came and went, I felt my self confidence ebb away. Giving birth should be the most natural thing in the world… yet I just could not seem to manage it.
The nights were the worst, heavily drugged for sleep and feeling all alone, as neither my best friend, Krissy or my husband were allowed to stay with me. All I wanted to do was go home. But pregnancy is funny like that… your baby has to exit your body somehow or some time. You can never stay pregnant forever.
On Sunday morning, a new Dr. brought a new perspective. He gave my cervix til 12 noon to dilate and if that did not happen, then I was to have a C-section. I had accidently seen a C-section on a pregnancy reality TV show that I had become addicted to watching on the BBC. I had had nightmares and panic attacks for weeks after watching the show.
I need my mum!
So I did what most women do in their time of need. I called my mum. She lives in New Zealand and had offered to come over to help with the baby. But I had naively told her not to worry – women had babies all the time! I was young, strong and extremely capable and also obviously, the first one to have a baby in my friend set. I told my mum I needed her, and she hung up the phone and booked the first flight direct to London.
But my cervix did dilate and at 12 pm on Sunday I was wheeled into the birthing unit … only a matter of time, eh? In fact, my midwife, a beautiful older woman with a very thick Carribean accent told me in no uncertain terms “Dis baby be born! Dis baby be born on my shift!” I felt completely comforted by her presence and by her prediction. But alas, her shift finished and she left me as the exhausted, blubbering and unrecognizable version that I was of myself. I was exhausted from the stress, the lack of sleep and the completely unreal situation I was now in and I could see it reflected on the faces of those around me. I was weak and pathetic and out of control.
How can you possibly fail at birth?
Weeks later I found out that I had an episiotomy because this, along with C-section, was one of my greatest fears (hence why they chose not to tell me at the time). So fearful was I about being cut, that I had even bought a book on massaging the perineum in preparation for birth.
F*%K THAT, I hardly knew my name when in the early hours of Monday morning the obstetrician put my feet up in stirrups, cut me open, used glorified salad servers to yank my baby from my body and then sewed me back up. My husband told me that the force the Dr. applied to get Millie out, he honestly thought her head would be pulled off. The Dr. needed to brace his pull with one foot against my bed. There was a blood bath on the floor.
Never in my life did I believe that her entry to the world would be so undignified.
I was not given any rehabilitation advice, apart from it would be best to wee in the shower. And I went home with my mum and my husband with my very beautiful, blonde, blue eyed girl, Millie.
She was perfect.
But I was left in shock. My body that was simply a vessel to deliver a healthy child.
I need all my placenta, thanks…
Much to the hospital staff’s disgust, I asked for my placenta – for it is the way of our indigenous people, the Maori, to return this part of ourselves to the earth. It came home with me in a plastic bag and was popped into the freezer for a time when I could bury it under a tree (in the dead of night for fear of being arrested!) in Eel Brook Common.
Well, that’s not the full story. Not all of my placenta came home in that plastic bag. A big chunk of it, was left up inside me. The crippling stomach cramps, that were reminiscent of labour contractions, sent me back to the hospital a few days later where they demanded to perform a D & C. I had not yet been able to look at my battered vulva and vagina, but my husband had told me bluntly that it looked like a steak had been stitched between my legs. All I knew was that NO-ONE was going near it for ANY reason.
I was sent home with heavy-duty antibiotics for the infection and a couple of days later I painfully delivered small to medium sized pieces of what looked like cooked pork. When the last one passed, I felt my body breath a sigh of relief and finally start to heal.
My mother cooked for me and we managed small walks and my husband stayed clean (my mother was blissfully unaware). After my mum left and my husband returned to work, I did not join a gym or boot camp (I don’t even recall such a thing existing). But I did walk each day, as we had no car and we lived on the 4th floor with no lift, so I suppose you could call it the original functional fitness program! With restricting my calories and breast-feeding, I soon got back to the number that pleased me on the scales.
Fast forward 2 and a half years – together with my husband and toddler, we moved from London to Melbourne to create a home that we believed would blend the cultural privileges of London, with the outdoor living of New Zealand.
Surely my second birth will be ok?
Within a year of arriving in Melbourne we bought a house and I got pregnant with our second child. My husband remained clean and continue to attend NA. This child was desperately wanted and particularly for me, I wanted a second chance at a normal pregnancy, where my belly was the focus rather than my husbands addiction and we were just a “normal” family. An opportunity to have a proper birth, where both my cervix and me, were a lot wiser. The hospital system was so much nicer in Melbourne and we booked the birthing suite – which looked more like a 3 star hotel, but certainly not a hospital ward.
However, I was being plagued by anxiety attacks. What if I failed at birth again? I knew I was having a boy. I also knew there was a good chance that he was going to bigger than my first born, (who weighed in at nearly 4kg) and after the ordeal of my first birth, I honestly thought C-section would be a better way to go. But the hospital saw no reason for me to go down that route and had much greater confidence in my cervix than I did. They dismissed my fears around the first birth and assured me that this time my body would know what to do.
So I started to see a private therapist, who specialized in trauma and we worked on strategies on how I was going to deal with the birth.
Divorce and pregnancy don’t mix well…
But alas, my husband again made my pregnancy about him, as he announced to me when I was nearly 8 months pregnant, that he had found his soul mate (it use to be me, he said, but he was … mistaken!) If only on the way to putting out the bins on a typical Sunday night, he had mentioned that he a) no longer found me attractive or b) wanted to be married to me. Huh… go figure? …it must have slipped his mind. Being unable to see my toes, I certainly didn’t feel very attractive.
In a half renovated, heavily mortgaged house, heavily pregnant, with no family and very few friends – no hospital or therapist was going to make me come good for a natural birth. So I was booked for a C-section 2 weeks prior to my due date. The hospital were now concerned that from the stress of my husband leaving and (I imagined having frequent and fantastic sex), that I would go into spontaneous labour.
I was put under extra monitoring. Friends took turns to stay with me. I struggled to eat and sleep and walked around life like a zombie. I lost 5 kgs in the last weeks, yet my belly continued to grow. Max, as he is outside my womb, is a die-hard optimist and enjoys his food no matter what.
I literally had no idea how to prepare myself for the surgery that would be my second birth. But first, I had to get through the epidural. I was so distraught, that they allowed my best friend and birth partner, Rachel into the normally sterile room to hold me still while I sobbed.
Don’t look down!
Rachael, unlike myself, was totally fascinated by the prospect of watching me being cut open like a ripe watermelon and extracting my baby for me. Unfortunately, every time she looked over the curtain to the deadened lower part of body, I could see what was happening reflected in her surgical glasses. I demanded that she look me in the eyes, while I went over point by point, the essay that I had just written. I was studying at the time my husband left, and it was my last assignment I was to ever do, as I never had the fortitude or the money to finish the qualification.
Again, I saw the reflected look in the hospital staff, that I was crazy and failing at birth even when my body did not have to push. This was reaffirmed with my bizarre birth strategy of talking in depth about my written assignment. I was beyond giving a shit. This was possibly the hardest thing I had ever had to do in my life. You know when you have to reach down really deep inside and grab something and then clutch on to it for dear life?
That is what I had to do in order to get through it.
When they wheeled me back to the ward after my time in recovery, Rach was there, with Max in her arms. She looked up at me and said, “Mish, he is perfect.”
And he was.
C-section vs. Natural birth
Surprisingly, my body healed quicker from the C-section than from my natural birth.
Why was that surprising? Because we are constantly told that a natural birth is best. But best for whom?
Certainly not best for me.
Giving birth naturally was, quite literally, the closest I have ever been to dying. My mum again came over from New Zealand and took me home from the hospital and cooked, cleaned and held my baby when I couldn’t.
And knowing the shocking statistics around forceps use and birth injuries… I count my lucky stars that I did demand a C-section, second time around in Victoria.
Getting fit saved my life
Healing from the emotional trauma took much longer. I was unable to look at babies or young families. It was difficult to explain that I was a single mother with a newborn, was in the process of filing for divorce. Some days I would tell random shop keepers about my situation. Other times I stayed quiet, knowing that no one would ever be able to assume the truth of my life.
Getting fit, quite literally, SAVED my life. It gave me an excuse to get out of the house and for 2 hours every week day the ladies from the crèche at the gym held my babies, so I didn’t have to.
The rest… you can say… is history.
What I have learned from my birthing experiences:
- If your birth plan turns out to be not worth the paper it is written on, you are not alone. It is an activity given to first mothers to think they will have a measure of control over a process that often do not. Ask a midwife about birth plans and watch them smirk
- If your birth is not the fantastic experience that you think it should be, you are not alone. Birth injuries (that represents only the physical injuries, not the mental ones) are common
- Negative birth experiences are marginalized, and often by our health care providers. Your body is treated like a vessel that ensures the safety of child’s voyage to the world. Embrace your crazy and demand more for you
- If you can’t hold your baby, for whatever reason… it’s ok, find someone else who will. Your baby will know it is loved and this might just save your life
- Like all traumatic life events, get help to pass through it safely. Do something good for you, every day. Time might not actually heal all things, but certainly will take the edge off it
My reluctance in ever writing about my birthing experiences was in part, a worry that my children will think that they were neither wanted or loved. I recognise this as “mother guilt” – something I actively try not to entertain.
And I did not want to shatter any illusions that they had about their father. They have always known that we were apart when Max was born, but it was not my place to tell them about their father’s addiction. He has now shared this with both of them, when the time was right.
They continue to love, as they rightly should, their father regardless of these revelations.
Why do we keep the secrets of birth?
The second reason is more complicated and something I recognise in other women.
We all keep the secrets of birth.
We do not want to scare women or have them believe that they will not have the fantastic birth experience that they deserve. However, in an age when we have the most advanced medical conditions, episiotomy is performed on around 20% of Australian women, another 26% will have a perineal tear that may need to be stitched. Some data suggests that 95% of women had no tearing in the 1800’s.
This then suggests that our staying quiet, does not empower women, it impedes us.
We need to actively demand better care during our birth and better advice and care postnatally. From our GP’s to our Personal Trainers.
We deserve better.
We do not have to incite fear in our expectant mums, they will be fearful enough. But we can ask them the real questions and encourage them to paint the real picture… and not just the one that will end up on Instagram.
Me and my baby now… (taken in 2017)
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