The Hidden Effects of Birth Trauma


Just recently Anna Williamson, TV presenter in the UK, opened up about her traumatic birth and how it triggered her anxiety disorder, leading to a difficult few weeks after childbirth, and trouble bonding with her son during that time.  The article can be found here

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, while compiling my first book and talking to other mothers. On a regular day, as women we tend to avoid talk on fears and illnesses, preferring to get on with our days and cover things up, pretending we are OK. As mothers I feel that this happens even more often, we have other priorities, other issues that require our constant attention, so we tend to just get on with it. We talk about childbirth and laugh about it, yes it was painful, yes it was all worth it in the end, yes I had the baby blues, and yes I’m fine. Of course we are fine, how could we not be, we have just given birth to the most wonderful bundle of joy, we couldn’t complain about anything!

But in a world where we find that medical intervention is all the more prevalent, and where at the same time, we are expected to just get up and get on with our lives a couple of days after giving birth, many women tend to brush off what could be considered as traumatic birth experiences because they are afraid to talk about them. How many of us have walked into the hospital assuming that we would have that perfect birth we have all read about, and walked out a few days later broken and wide-eyed, wondering what on earth we had done in life to deserve that? How many of us have had the most uncomplicated pregnancy ever, bar some evil bouts of constipation and acid reflux, to find ourselves full of stitches and painkillers, left to fend for ourselves after 3 days of hospital time with a baby still in the NICU?

And then how many of us were asked by concerned doctors, nurses and midwives if we were OK? And how many of us were asked about our mental health a few months after birth? I think that a lot of the time we force ourselves to forget about the birth experience, so much so that we even forget to look out for our friends’ mental health when they become new mothers. No one is immune to trauma and/or depression, but we have all learnt to hide it all too well, blaming any issues on our bodies’ failure to produce the perfect experience. And unfortunately no one really asks the right questions either.

The birth of my firstborn lead to so many stitches that I was told to check in with my doctor 7 days after birth (unusual for an uneventful vaginal birth), and given the option for painkillers which I refused because I was also told “it wasn’t so bad”. It took me many months to feel “normal” again, something that would have been easier to deal with if I had been told the truth about how a third degree tear can affect you and take months to heal (and that, yes, I would be fine and back to normal at some point). An overload  of antibiotics (which my body was not used to) and Pitocin caused my milk to not come in for 6 days, something else that nobody mentioned could happen, and at the same time the nurses made me feel like a failure because of that (we figured out breastfeeding all by ourselves no thanks to the medical staff). All this lead to me feeling like a failure for a long time, incapable of being strong and maternal. That was complete BS, I know that now, but at the time I felt like I couldn’t talk about it with anyone apart from my other half, because no one would want to hear about it anyway.

I wasn’t traumatized, but I was left feeling very empty and confused, wondering what I could have changed. I did end up having my “perfect” birth experience a year later with my second, which helped me overcome some of the feelings about the first. However, something happened during my second pregnancy that I refused to acknowledge and pushed away, again. At 36 weeks I was admitted to the hospital for dangerously low amniotic fluid, and the OB on duty, someone I had never met before, told me that he was going to check me for possible dilation and that “it may be a bit uncomfortable”. I have of course had many a cervix check and Pap smear in the past, and although they are never “comfortable” they are usually not painful. This cervix check felt like the ultimate violation, and maybe because I am someone with a past of partially repressed sexual abuse it felt absolutely malicious, but I didn’t say anything. I just laid there in shock wondering if I was being a wimp. I now refuse to have a male doctor come anywhere near me, which is quite wrong, but male OBs were involved in both my first birth and that incident during my second pregnancy. Unfair, because I am sure there are wonderful male OBs around, and also many not-so-wonderful female OBs, but I cannot get past that feeling of being violated that pulled me straight back to my childhood.

That said, my experiences have not been what would necessarily be seen as traumatic. Both of my children were born healthily, although one has a heart defect which had nothing to do with the birth experience, and I have no lasting physical repercussions, although I do have a visceral hatred of cervix checks and Pap smears now. The thing is I know that there are many women who go through more or less traumatic events during pregnancy and birth that are brushed off as “normal”, and then diagnosed with PPD or PTSD months down the line. How many women are asked about a past of sexual abuse or assault during their first prenatal exam? With the current US trend of 1 in 4 or 5 women having suffered assault or abuse, shouldn’t we be looking into how certain practices may affect women? Shouldn’t we be a bit more vocal about what CAN happen during pregnancy and birth instead of relying on dream-like perfection and horror stories?

Everyone’s definition of trauma is different, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to talk about it. Can we learn as a society to make it acceptable to talk openly about fears, about pain and about depression? Can we make it acceptable to question what our medical practitioners are doing and ask for a different procedure if we feel uncomfortable? I am very grateful for the existence of forums like Mamazou where we can talk about these issues openly together and maybe one day find a better way for women to deal with the effects of birth trauma before they hit rock bottom.

PPD Moms
Postpartum Support International
Mental Health Hotlines

Pandas Foundation
NHS Info Page
The Guardian

The Mothers Who Can't Escape the Trauma of Childbirth

Jade Anna Hughes is a writer and photographer who was born in the UK, grew up in France, called NYC home for a decade before relocating to the California sun. She has two young daughters, another child on the way. and spends most of her “spare” time writing, reading and trying to change the world. Her first book, With Spring Comes Hope, is currently available on Amazon and B&N worldwide. 

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