CLARE STEPHENS: 'I did everything to avoid a traumatic birth. Then I had one.'

I vividly remember being a little girl and being afraid of childbirth.

I’m not sure if it was the dramatised depictions on television that did it, scenes of primal screams and unbridled panic, where the women sweat and moan and the men watch on with haunted, pale faces. Or perhaps it was a story I saw once on Oprah, about a doctor who treated women in Africa with childbirth injuries so severe they leaked urine and faeces. Or maybe it was the tiny details I’d pieced together from the women around me, whose fleeting accounts involved stitches and blood and vomiting and body parts being not where they should be.

But the fear also seemed to come from somewhere deeper. A fundamental understanding that the experience of giving birth — the labour, the delivery, the intervention — is the only time in human life where your body is, by definition, not entirely your own. It’s unlike anything else because there’s a profound lack of control, but also an intrinsic willingness to sacrifice your own body, your own dignity, for the person you’re birthing.

Then I was 32, and I got pregnant, and I decided I would not be having a traumatic birth. I would do everything ‘right,’ if there was such a thing. I have a degree in psychology and I know about trauma and there are risk factors and protective factors and I would simply be following all the rules to ensure nothing bad happened.

I read books on calm birth and hypnobirthing. I made a conscious effort to avoid fear and negativity. If you had a scary birth story, I didn’t want to hear it. I focused on the idea that we can reframe what birth looks like and feels like because fear is fundamentally counterproductive during labour. Our bodies, the philosophy goes, know what they’re doing. They know how to do this. There is nothing to be afraid of.


I repeated affirmations. I practised my breathing. As someone without a woo-woo bone in my body, this went against all my instincts. I am fiercely pro-science. I am logical and rational and occasionally too cynical, but still, I laid in the bath in the weeks before my birth and said out loud:

My body knows exactly how to birth this baby.

My contractions are not bigger than me because they are a part of me.

I breathe deeply and slowly, allowing my baby to descend.

Each surge of my body brings my baby closer to me.

I saw a pelvic floor physio. I did perineal massage, and I learnt how to push. I was seeing a psychologist. I chose to give birth through the private system, even though I couldn’t really afford it. I knew about the birth trauma inquiry, and I knew about the benefits of continuity of care. I made a brief, informed birth plan and I held it loosely, and all I wanted was a healthy baby and I told myself that so long as I got that I’d be okay.

And then I went into labour.

Well. That’s not actually how the story starts. My waters broke before labour had started, and because I’d read all the things, and listened to countless (positively framed) birth stories, I knew what that meant. Once your water has broken, the risk of infection means you’re on a timeline. No matter what happened, I’d be meeting my daughter within 48 hours. I told myself I truly didn’t care what happened between now and then.


When my waters broke, it was 5am, and I hadn’t slept yet — a mixture of pregnancy insomnia and a sixth sense that something was happening. We went to the hospital, where they checked me and advised me to continue to labour at home, and we didn’t return for another 24 hours.

In those hours, I lit candles. I bounced on an exercise ball. I had a bath. I read and I ate, and I did not sleep. The contractions were intensifying, and by the time we returned to the hospital the next morning, I was in pain and exhausted. A kind midwife gave me a hug, and gently helped me when I put my hospital gown on back to front. I’d been lucky enough to never have to wear one before, and tired enough to think that given the circumstances, it should be wide open down the front.

She organised an epidural, and I started to relax. The calm birth literature is full of natural tools for pain management, but I’d always known I wanted an epidural. My biggest worry had been that I would beg for one and not be able to access it, but now it was here, in the form of a chatty man with a tray full of equipment.

My partner had brought a speaker and was playing Christmas carols in anticipation for our Christmas baby. I hadn’t really noticed them until everyone stopped talking, and Michael Buble’s voice was the only sound in the room. He was singing about Christmas while the man holding a needle the size of my forearm was suddenly silent, and then let out the unmistakable exhales of a person who is worried.


Almost four months later, I’m still don't fully understand what happened, despite having it explained to me many times. I know that despite being instructed not to move as the injection went in, my entire body jolted involuntarily. I know that I felt a sharp sensation in the nerves all the way down my legs. I know the anaesthetist was looking at my back for a long time. And then he started to talk. Something about the epidural going too deep and drawing blood and spinal fluid. He explained his concerns, and the risks associated with it but there was a louder, chilling voice in my own head. A voice that said, with certainty — despite absolutely no evidence for it — that I was paralysed. That I was that one in one million. The one case where something goes very, very wrong. It was as though all the decades of fear, that I’d tried so desperately to quash, had found a tiny crack to crawl through.

He left, and then he came back, and as time wore on, he seemed confident that any complications hadn't eventuated.

But the fear had settled itself in my bones. I didn't understand my own body. I couldn't control it. And on top of feeling scared, of feeling terrified, I told myself that those emotions were 'wrong'.

In the calm birth literature, they say fear slows and even stops contractions. It’s an evolutionary hangover from our ancestors, who needed to pause labour if they were, say, being chased by a tiger. Since the epidural, I hadn’t had a contraction. The birth process itself had frozen.


Listen to The Baby Bubble with Clare Stephens and her twin sister Jessie below. Post continues after audio.

This was the part I hadn't prepared for. I'd tried to establish a calm state of mind. To be peaceful. Stress-free. But what about when you are scared? What happens when you lose control of your mind?

Over the next several hours, I tried to forget the epidural. It appeared to be working for the most part, and I pushed aside my anxieties that there may be some issue that would only emerge once it was removed. I dismissed that strange experience as just a blip in what would otherwise be an uncomplicated birth. I went back to my affirmations, to trying to relax, to releasing the tension in my body.

Then things started to change. It had been 12 hours since I’d arrived at the hospital, almost 60 without sleep, and I started to feel agonising, sickening pain. Everywhere. It was impossible to describe. I kept being asked if it was pain or pressure and I had no idea how to answer. When the midwife checked me, she told me my baby was stuck. Her head had been pressing against the birth canal and was swollen, and over hours and hours, I hadn’t dilated any further. There was talk of a c-section, and I thought back to the sentences that had formed my internal dialogue since labour had started. 


My body knows exactly how to birth this baby.

I breathe deeply and slowly, allowing my baby to descend.

Each surge of my body brings my baby closer to me.

For hours, they hadn’t been true. 

When the obstetrician checked me, before what she thought would be a c-section, my baby had turned and my labour had progressed. She asked if I thought I could keep going for another hour, possibly two. I said yes, mostly because the thought of leaving the room and having another anaesthetic felt impossible. 

It was another seven hours before my baby was born. I can’t tell you what happened in those hours, other than that I wasn’t really there. I was in a kind of pain I still don't have the words for. The epidural had either worn off or wasn't effective in certain places, and I was shaking and then sweating and then hallucinating and then projectile vomiting. And then, with a sense of urgency, it was time to push. 

I still wasn’t fully dilated, but my baby was in distress and needed to come out. The obstetrician explained she needed to use a vacuum, but that I had to push. If I couldn’t find the strength to push, she would need to use forceps and risk a bowel tear.

I couldn’t breathe. It was almost 3am on my third night with no sleep. My sister stood to my left and talked me through how to push, and I recall the doctor telling me that if I was screaming, I wasn’t pushing hard enough. My husband’s voice grew hoarse from shouting words of encouragement, and I pushed because I didn’t want a bowel tear. I pushed because I was angry. I pushed because I was exhausted and my body didn’t know how to do this and this wasn’t magical or profound. This was a nightmare. 


I was asked my permission from the obstetrician to perform an episiotomy, and my partner tried to pause to ensure I was truly giving consent. He didn’t understand that at that moment, any ideas or plans or preferences I’d had about birth no longer mattered. I didn’t care. The person who had written my birth plan was someone else. Someone who hadn’t known this kind of exhaustion. This kind of pain. This kind of desperation. 

Just before 3am on December 21 — my birthday — my daughter Matilda was born. I felt her head come out of me, and I waited for relief.

I waited for the moment.

The moment where the world is meant to stop, and the universe is meant to open up and you see for the first time the tiny human your body has somehow grown and given life to and you forget all the pain and the anger and the blood and the screaming because she’s here and she’s perfect.

But the moment didn’t come. 

She did not cry.

She was placed on me and she looked up at me, but she wasn’t breathing. She was taken off my chest and to the other side of the room, and again, there was silence.


"Is she okay?" my partner asked, in a tone that was trying to be casual. He walked over to the doctor who was with our quiet baby, and I laid there, numb.

I don’t know how long it was until she did let out a cry, or if it was a single cry or a series of reassuring noises. She was placed on me again, and I looked at her bruised and bloodied head, and her exhausted body. I knew I would do anything for her, and yet I was broken. I had waited my whole life for a feeling that hadn’t come. For a moment that had been nothing like I had imagined.

Clare with her baby Matilda. Source: supplied. 


Over the coming days, I cried in fits and bursts. I could not sleep. I was scared the birth had harmed my baby, that she hadn’t been able to breathe and she wasn’t okay and no one was telling me the truth. I was waiting for a complication. The next unforeseen hurdle. I felt sad, tired, and guilty. So guilty. 

A few days after the birth, I went to the foyer of the hospital to get a coffee. I got into the lift with a new, dishevelled dad, and asked him if he was exhausted. I was trying to find solidarity in the challenging experience of attempting to sleep in two-hour stretches, and perhaps see a glimmer of complexity in someone else. He smiled. "Yes," he said. "But happily so. I’m just so happy."

When he stepped out of the lift, I sobbed.

I ordered a coffee with tears running down my cheeks, and I heaved as I waited for it. 

I didn’t know whether to write this story. I didn’t want my daughter to read it and know her birth was complicated. That her mother was a mess. That it wasn’t as simple as being, at the time, the best day of my life.


There’s a lot I wish I could’ve told myself in those days after the birth. The days where I couldn’t feel anything, except a profound sense of shame about that lack of feeling. 

I wish I could’ve told myself that a week later I’d be looking at Matilda’s little fingernails and cry because it struck me — so vividly — that they’d never be this little again.

That her first smiles, in the middle of the night and just for me, were tiny wonders. 


That her smell and her laugh and the way her feet kick when I feed her and the way she looks at me in the early hours of the morning are the kinds of joys I never could have imagined. 

I wish I could've told myself about the butterflies I get when she’s excited, about how I miss her when she’s sleeping, about the day I was at the counter in the post office and noticed her watching me, giggling. About how the days spent at home with her, while she babbles and rolls and studies the world, are the best of my life.

The type of birth I had is not uncommon — vacuum, episiotomy, a baby who was in distress. I trusted every person involved in my birth, and their actions and words and decisions were all ideal given the circumstances. No one did anything to intentionally harm me. The standard of care was without fault. And still, I wasn't okay. Were my expectations the problem? Had I unconsciously adopted the idea that my birth had to be positive? Had I simply over thought the whole thing? Perhaps. Probably. I've run through many possibilities which end with blaming myself. 

But the 'trauma' for me was less around the birth and more about what happened afterwards. The pain was terrifying, but the shame was scarier. The shame that what I was feeling — what I was experiencing — was wrong. I didn't know that when birth scares you, when it really, really scares you, you're not really there when your baby is born. You can't always switch, in a matter of seconds, from anger and terror and pain and concern for your own body, to joy and elation and excitement. To experiencing the awe. The wonder. The magic. 


I wonder if one of the contributing factors to postnatal mental health issues is this secret women hold — that in the moment they were handed their baby, they didn’t feel how they were ‘meant’ to feel. That the reality of giving birth is so exhausting and so overwhelming and so unpredictable that sometimes we dissociate to protect ourselves. We behave the same way we would if we were in an accident or if we were attacked, and suddenly, felt we had no autonomy over our own bodies. The difference is that at the time we're processing our own physical harm, we're handed the greatest gift and the greatest responsibility of our lives. And we expect to be able to feel the weight of it all, the miracle of it all, immediately. 

Of course we can't. 

But it's worth asking why, in that longed-for moment, some women feel like we've failed. And why, upon our entrance to motherhood, we don’t feel deserving of the grace and acceptance we’re about to give, unconditionally, to our baby.

Feature image: Instagram @clare.stephenss.

If this story raises any issues for you, the Australasian Birth Trauma Association offers free support to parents going through a trauma journey. You can find them here. COPE (the Centre of Perinatal Excellence) provides support for the emotional challenges of becoming a parent. You can contact them here. 

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