‘Typical’ is the word Kylie Smith would use to describe the pregnancies and births of her three children.
Before giving birth to her daughter Willa early this year, the speech pathologist delivered her two other children Rose and Samuel naturally, without any complications.
Her babies always “came quickly” and she was able to breastfeed them straight away without issue. All three labours were completely uneventful.
With her first two babies, so were the weeks and months that followed. But when Willa was around four weeks old, Kylie started experiencing odd symptoms.
“I noticed on Good Friday, I couldn’t taste the chocolate Easter eggs. It was very distressing, very odd. My tastes were completely off. I couldn’t taste my food properly,” the 39-year-old told Mamamia.
“Food didn’t taste right, like if you went to swallow a tablet and you didn’t swallow properly and got a yucky, talc taste in your mouth, that’s what everything tasted like. It was so annoying, I was finally able to have a drink again but I couldn’t enjoy it because of the revolting taste.”
Kylie kept her symptoms – odd headaches that felt like “stripes across her head” and pressure in her mouth and ear – mostly to herself for two weeks. She’d just had a baby, after all. She was breastfeeding and using muscles she hadn’t used for a while, she told herself.
“I thought I’d pulled something or strained something, that it was all part of having a new baby. I put it to the back of my mind. I didn’t want to look like I wasn’t coping.”
But the mum-of-three couldn’t shake the feeling of not being able to taste her food. Having a medical background, that was the only one of her symptoms that really worried her, that she couldn’t rationalise.
"After two weeks, I thought 'oh, I'll just go to the doctor'. They found I had extremely high blood pressure, 170/110, and I was immediately rushed to hospital. I had MRIs and CT scans, eventually they found I'd torn both my carotid arteries. I was in hospital for a week, it wasn't a good scenario."
Kylie was diagnosed at Jessie McPherson Private Hospital with a rare postpartum condition, Carotid Artery Dissection, that can result in blood clots and, ultimately, heart attacks or strokes.
She believes if not for her blood pressure skyrocketing, she may have not been diagnosed.
Although it's not clear what caused the condition, Kylie's since learned about how vulnerable women can be, not just mentally, but physically in the postpartum period. She, like many new mums, thought getting through pregnancy and birth meant she was in the clear and ready to focus all her energy on her newborn.
"Women have their six-week check, and we are very mindful of our pelvic floor. There's a perception that if you can do some star jumps with a full bladder, that means you're good to go and you don't have to worry. But that's just not the case."
"We're told we need to look after our mental health postpartum, the same applies to your physical health - you've gone through a major, major thing.
"If I'd been aware that your whole body is readjusting after having a baby - there are so many changes hormonally and physically - I think I would've acted sooner with my own symptoms. Instead, I downloaded a yoga program online and started doing headstands to try and stretch out my neck. I can't believe I had torn arteries, and I was doing headstands."
According to research published by Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care, more than two-thirds of the women report experiencing at least one physical health problem after childbirth.
These can range from minor or transient conditions during the traditionally six-week postpartum period, to ongoing medical conditions that require long-term management.
For Kylie, it was easier to ignore her symptoms than booking a doctors appointment and organising that with three kids to look after.
"When you're in pain and you've got a new baby, and even other kids, you're so distracted, you're not focusing on your pain. You're just so busy, focusing on all the things going on," she said.
"It's not like you're sitting at home and thinking about it, you're chucking Panadols down and getting on with it. [When you're a new mum], you also don't have the head space to be processing the little symptoms you're feeling.
"You're breastfeeding, sleep deprived, waking up every couple of hours during the night, doing school drop off and going to birthday parties [if you have other kids]. I'm an extremely healthy person, I'm active and I eat well, I think I was a bit arrogant when it came to my health. You read things and think, that'll never happen to me. But they did."
Kylie likens putting yourself first when you have a newborn to the analogy of being on a plane and being told to fit your own oxygen mask first before fitting your child's. Only, you wouldn't. Your first instinct will always be to go and help everyone else and put your mask on last.
"The trait of being a martyr and thinking a good mother is a martyr who puts everyone else first can lead to mums having strokes, or mums dying. That's not something we should be promoting, it's the opposite."
"We are more vulnerable than we think, especially in the postpartum period. That doesn't mean you're not strong, but if there's a symptom you're concerned about, go and get them checked. And if you're brushed off, get it checked by someone else.
"It's better to feel a bit silly than to end up in hospital during what's meant to be a really happy time with your new baby."
Postpartum physical health doesn't always remember how healthy you were before you had kids or how seamless your birth was, as was Kylie's experience. She hopes sharing her story will encourage other new mums to be extra vigilant about their health in the postpartum period.
"Even if you were in great health before, your body has been through an enormous amount of change. Postpartum care is so much more than just your pelvic floor," she said.
"Being a martyr does not make you a better mum. Please, prioritise your health so you're in the best position to care for your children."
This is one woman's story and should not be substituted for personalised medical advice. If you have concerns about your health, please seek professional help from your GP or specialist.
What was your postpartum health experience like? Did you have any problems after giving birth?
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