My baby was born on New Year’s Eve, 2016, when I was only 28 weeks pregnant.
I had gone to the GP early in the morning with abdominal pain, which was quickly dismissed as indigestion. I was told to go home, rest and relax. Hours later, at the hospital, I was diagnosed with severe HELLP syndrome, a life-threatening pregnancy complication. We were informed that the only way to stop the progression of the fatal syndrome was to deliver our baby via emergency caesarean. After receiving the diagnosis, everything became a hazy blur of IV lines, injections and tubes. I clearly remember thinking, as they rushed my son out of the operating theatre to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, this isn’t how it was supposed to happen.
Everyday, I have relived this memory, over and over in my mind. I try to picture every detail, as if I am searching for some kind of clue that will make sense of it all.
The birth of my baby left me feeling overwhelmed with grief and guilt. I was mourning the abrupt ending to my pregnancy and the loss of a natural birth experience. I was ashamed that I had been unable to safety carry and deliver my baby. I felt that in my first acts of motherhood, I had failed.
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When confronted with my feelings about the birth, friends and family, even health professionals, would assure me that all that mattered was that my baby was alive and well. They believed that I should simply feel grateful that my son was receiving the care he needed and that he would soon be coming home. They thought they were reassuring me but, in essence, what they had done was silence me, and told me that my feelings were invalid.
My experience and my feelings about my birth are not unique. I am just one of millions of women around the world who have negative or traumatic births. And the idea that ‘all that matters is a healthy baby’ is a sentiment I see echoed in responses to media stories about difficult births. A recent story about the use of the medical term ‘failure to progress’ was met with comments that implied that the only emotion a woman is entitled to feel about her birth experience is gratitude.
One comment read, “Seriously, you and your child made it through labour alive and healthy and you are getting hung up on the words?!?”.
But what if, during your birth experience, you felt out of control, scared, or unheard? What if you feared for your life or the life of your child? Why should someone feel grateful for an experience that they felt was disappointing or traumatic?
Traumatic childbirth occurs in as many as 25 – 34 per cent of all births, according to PATTCH (Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth). A 2017 Australian study undertaken by Safe Motherhood For All Inc, found that only 58 per cent of the women surveyed had the birth experience they wanted. The study found that the majority of women felt their childbirth experience had an impact on their self-image and their ability to form and maintain relationships with their babies and partners. These findings refute the idea that birth is only one day in a woman’s life, but rather, indicates that how a woman feels about her birth experience can have a profound impact on her for the rest of her life.
It goes without saying that, of course, I am unbelievably grateful to have a healthy child. But that does not mean that I cannot also feel sadness and disappointment about my birth experience. When you say ‘all that matters is that your baby is healthy’ you are perpetuating a culture that is silencing women who are hurting. A culture that says, it does not matter what level of trauma goes on behind the closed doors of the birthing suite, as long as everyone comes out alive.
Women who are healing from a negative or traumatic birth experience need to be able to acknowledge and accept their feelings about the birth. They need validation that their emotions are understandable and that it is only natural to experience distress after such an experience.
It has been over 12 months since the birth of my child and I am still hurting from those wounds. But it has been through support groups and listening to other women’s stories that I have finally been able to embrace how I feel. I have final given myself permission to grieve and in doing so I have taken the first steps to heal.
So please stop saying ‘all that matters is that you have a healthy baby’. Because I matter. Because my birth matters.