Birth is billed as a happy occasion full of cuddles, joy and excitement, but for some women a birth that doesn’t go to plan can leave a lasting emotional scar. We talk to Devon*, 32, about the birth of her first son and her quest to give him a sibling
One mum shares her journey with post-traumatic stress disorder
“Finding out I was pregnant was such a happy day. Even though I was only 26, my partner John* and I had been trying for a baby for three years. I have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and knew there was a chance I wouldn’t conceive naturally. It felt like a triumph, like I’d reclaimed my body. My pregnancy went very smoothly. I didn’t put on too much weight, I remained fit and healthy with only a little bit of morning sickness, and I didn’t have any complications. By the time I reached my third trimester, with the nursery set up and the babygrows folded, I felt relaxed and confident enough to suggest a home water birth. My midwife had some concerns and didn’t support home birth for first-time mums, but obstetrics checked me over and said it was a safe road to go down. I ordered my birthing pool and set the lounge up with flowers, hurricane lamps and my favourite CD ready to go. I had this really strong image of me giving birth with just John and the midwife, no medical intervention and then having time at home to bond with my baby in a familiar environment. That just seemed ideal.
Lost and alone
Around midnight on a Sunday, in early November 2010, my contractions started. I woke John up and he made me a cup of tea and rubbed my back. By 6am they were five minutes apart and by 8am four minutes apart and strong enough for me to use the TENS machine. Things seemed to be progressing nicely. But by lunchtime my contractions were still four minutes apart. John phoned the midwife. “This is natural, especially with a first pregnancy,” she told us. “It really can take a long time for contractions to establish.” My private antenatal classes hadn’t really covered the timing of pre-labour and labour, just the bit at the end. I hadn’t given much thought to how long it would all take. By 6pm my contractions had slowed right down. John got us pizza, not that I ate much, and we watched a movie on TV. He built me a nest of cushions I could lay over, with a hole in the middle for my bump to hang down, and we laughed about how absurd it all was. We were quite relaxed and by 10pm I’d dozed off upright in bed. Around 4am, though, I was woken with the strongest contractions yet. The TENS machine went back on and soon my contractions were four minutes apart but they didn’t seem to progress. As the day went on I was mad with pain and by 8pm John was driving me to the hospital where they decided to keep me in to monitor the baby’s heart rate. I had some pethadine and told myself it would all be over soon, but 24 hours later my waters still hadn’t broken and I was only 1cm dialated. Obstetrics recommended an epidural and induction, which I reluctantly agreed to. As they prepared to give me an epidural, I relaxed and let my mental guard down – even suggested to John he go home and have a shower, to give him a break, and he readily agreed. But moments later, before they had seen to me, there was some sort of emergency elsewhere and all the staff except for a midwifery student ran out. “Another mum is having some trouble,” she smiled. “They’ll be back soon.” But as the contractions hit wave after wave, even stronger than before, I felt the panic rising. Alone with a trainee and no one to support me I felt abandoned, and selfish – it was obvious someone else was in more need than me. I was so exhausted and so afraid. Eventually John came back, my own midwife arrived, and I was given my epidural. After three hours of pushing a team of doctors came in and assisted with the delivery, using foreceps, and our healthy baby boy James* was born. However, I suffered a tear in my uterus they couldn’t stitch up. I had to have an emergency blood transfusion, and was bed-ridden with a catheter for three days. It interferred with my bonding time and breastfeeding and left me feeling cheated. My birthing experience was about as far from my ideal as you could get. Back home a week later we switched to formula feeding, and I focused on the routine during the day. But I’d sit for hours at night just staring at James, unable to sleep, and John was worried. “She’s been through a huge trauma, it will take some time to recover,” the midwife said in front of me when she came to visit. That word trauma stuck in my throat – I felt like a victim, not a mum. When James was one month old I told a friend I felt like he was born perfect and I broke him a little more every day. At that point alarm bells rang – she told me I should see my GP. She thought I might have postnatal depression. I made the appointment for my doctor without telling John. I felt silly. But when I walked into the surgery I began to feel dizzy and my heart raced. The smells, the people walking around… I apologised to the receptionist and left. I told my friend I was fine. When James was four months old I had to go back to the GP again, this time for his immunisations. The few days before the appointment I was a mess. I had no appetite, I couldn’t sleep and I just didn’t understand why. Every time I thought about the appointment I felt like I wanted to scream. “It’s natural to be worried about the first jabs,” John reassured me. “How about I take him this time?” I agreed, promising myself I’d go next time, but I just couldn’t. Every time James needed to see a doctor John had to take him. I couldn’t even go to the dentist or the physio. I knew something was seriously wrong but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Meanwhile, I was enjoying being mum to James but I was very anxious. While he was a babe in arms I did a lot of playgroups and baby singing classes, but when he started walking I stopped going – whenever I saw James toddling off I’d feel the anxiety rise. Before long I didn’t leave the house unless James was locked firmly into the buggy, and at the park he was only allowed on the swings. Ashamed, I lied to John about the things we got up to while he was at work, and I felt a wedge growing between us. Truth be told, we hadn’t made love since James was born and John was still on the spare bed. We never discussed if there would be a ‘number two’. Then, when James was approaching his second birthday, something happened. I was walking to the hairdressers alone one Saturday, when I tripped on a loose paving slab and fell. I hit the ground hard, smashing my forehead against the floor and ripping a big gash in my right arm. Seeing the blood pouring out of me I froze, just sat and stared. A woman approached and said, “Oh my goodness, who can I call?” but my mind was blank, I couldn’t find any words. Assuming I had a concussion she bundled me in her car and took me to the local White Cross weekend doctor’s service. Inside, I
“When James was ONE MONTH OLD I told a friend I FELT LIKE he was born
perfect and I BROKE HIM a little more EVERY DAY. At that point
alarm bells rang
was ushered through to a back room where they tried to take down my details. I felt like I was in a swimming pool. The doctor’s voice seemed too far away, everything was so bright and I felt like I didn’t know which way was up. “We’re going to have to clean up that arm,” the doctor said, having finally got my name and John’s phone number from me. He produced a syringe and said, “this will sting but it’s a local aneasethic.” I watched as he moved the syringe toward me. It was like slow motion, or an out of body experience. Then suddenly I began screaming and sobbing, pushing the doctor away. Thank goodness John arrived at that point, he was the only one who could calm me down. Later, the doctor explained that I had no signs of concussion, my behaviour couldn’t be explained away by a head injury. I said, “My friend thinks I have postnatal depression,” and he replied, “I think you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”.
When you think about PTSD, you think of soliders in battle or children who witnessed a disaster. How could giving birth, the most natural thing in the world, cause PTSD? But it made sense – the anxiety around control, the fear of going to the GP, the physical symptoms like the raised heartbeat and the irrational way I reacted when I needed invasive medical treatment. I was referred to a trauma psychologist who explained to me this wasn’t that unusual. She told me studies** have shown as many as a third of women have mild PTSD symptoms after giving birth, with between three to seven per cent suffering full-blown PTSD. “You suffered a genuine threat to yourself and to your baby during birth,” she explained. “Your birth was far from what you expected, you hadn’t anticipated having problems.” Having a C-section, needing assistance to give birth vaginally, having to have a blood transfusion or emergency spinal block – these are all ‘normal’ hazards of childbirth, but they don’t fit the picture we’re sold on TV. Plus, many mums don’t talk about the reality of child birth because they don’t want to put their friends off, or scare people who are already pregnant. I realised that part of what had led to my PTSD was being so poorly prepared. I underwent months of talking therapy and NLP – neuro-linguistic programming. It’s a common situational therapy used with trauma victims, and it helps ‘re-wire’ the brain to remove those associations that cause the anxiety and panic. John and I also had couples therapy, and on session three John described for the first time how he thought he was going to lose me and James during labour, the shame he felt when he came back from home to find I’d been left alone and in pain. He admitted he desperately wanted another child, but didn’t feel it was his place to suggest it. “How could I ask you to put yourself through that again?” he said. I couldn’t believe we’d both bottled these feelings up for two years.
When James was three and a half, I gave birth to our daughter, India. Despite all the therapy I was very anxious, and the delivery was planned to the letter. I was induced on a specific date in hospital with full pain relief – a far cry from that natural water birth I’d craved, but I knew the only way I could do it was to have the pregnancy, labour and birth managed from start to finish. That need for structure is characteristic of PTSD. My labour lasted 10 hours, and I was handed a perfectly healthy little girl who latched on to my breast first time. James adored her, and I admit I had the ‘babymoon’ everyone talks about – helped by John taking extended parental leave to take James out for ‘boys adventures’. The therapy helped us both get to a point where we felt we could cope with a second pregnancy, but in all honesty, it was having a second child that exorcised our demons. I’d just encourage any other parent who is not feeling 100 per cent happy about the way their birth went to seek help sooner rather than later. Chances are you don’t have PTSD, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need help processing your experience. Birth doesn’t always go to plan and you should not be ashamed of your feelings afterward if that’s the case. Getting support will help you be the best parents you can be.”
“Many mums DON’T TALK about the REALITY OF CHILD
birth because they don’t want to PUT THEIR FRIENDS OFF, or scare people who are already
If you are struggling to recover from birth trauma, even if your symtoms are mild, seek help. Visit tabs.org.nz for more info on groups and services, or see your GP.