The Aftermath Of A Traumatic Birth
I still mourn that lost year of his life.
My eldest son Oliver is now 5, he will be 6 in January, my beautiful bambi eyed firstborn son, a boy that, if I’m honest I only got to properly enjoy when he turned 10 months old.
I had a traumatic birth post induction you see, a crash section, or emergency as it’s more commonly known, but crash defines it so much better-that manic rush to theatre in deep panic, the not knowing, that overwhelming sense of this isn’t how it was meant to be, the loss of control, the trauma. The pain, physical, emotional, the speed. And then relief. For some.
I’ve mentioned Oliver’s birth in passing on my blog, I’ve alluded to how tough my first pregnancy was, but I’ve never written about that time, not fully, not candidly because well I couldn’t really, not until now.
I was diagnosed with the pregnancy liver condition ICP around 8 months pregnant, a mostly baffling condition in much need of greater research, which meant constant tests, and palpable worry towards the end of my pregnancy (I went on to make a film on it to help others)…
I came to terms with that troubled, testing time along with the birth and the hard months which followed, several years ago thanks to my nurturing family and the most empowering, caring counsellor you could ask for. I was lucky.
The calm pregnancy and birth of my second son too inevitably helped heal me… yet sometimes even now, I catch myself watching Oliver asleep, his spidery lashes fluttering with every breath, and I cry.
I still mourn that lost year of his life, the one I felt I should have felt on top form for, the one I thought I’d practised and trained valiantly for (it has been my dream since childhood to be a mum)… I cry the tears of that precious time stolen from my grasp, the many moments I should have laughed more, felt happier in and relished rather than operating in that awful default, survival mode, not myself at all.
Day to day, mostly at my lowest ebb, scared to admit how dark those times truly felt and quite how alone and lonely I was all rolled into one, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt worse, particularly when my husband two weeks on, was back at work.
I could barely walk post-op, let alone think or pause for help, a colicky baby attached to me at all times who could cry for 6 hours straight and who did not like to sleep, meant there was just no time, no moment to inhale, to pause.
Understandably, but not helpfully, I found myself in a body I did not recognise, bruised from surgery, my confidence lost.
I know too of course, that you don’t need to have suffered a traumatic birth to feel all of the above, that birth and of course those newborn days and months are tough enough.
A first child is a total shock, that much we know, and whether we choose to admit it or not, most of us will undergo a period of mourning for our former life, the sleep, the freedom, the you that came before, because motherhood, parenthood defines you, it simply cannot not.
Suddenly, and as Miranda in Sex and the City so eloquently put, ‘there’s a giraffe in the room’ who depends on you to be your best, so it can survive, and thrive. You.
But what if you don’t feel strong? What if you feel weak and tired and have lost all your strength and self-belief?
Your shoulders, weary, weighed down, crushed by the enormity of responsibility makes asking for help a near impossible feat. To admit that you need help. That you just can’t. Not today. You need a break. A chance to take it all, in.
Yet your pride prevents you for reaching out, you feel a failure, the biggest failure of all in fact, you question why motherhood, the most natural thing in the world, could feel so hard. You blame yourself, it must be you.
To say you do not feel your best when all around you, and by all, I mean the picture in your head you painted of this time before the birth, the stories, the many stories the media told you and re-tell of how life is meant to be with baby, means that whilst you feel you’re free-falling, you fail to find the words to speak up, to hold your hands out and ask to be caught, to just be held.
I have the most loving and supportive husband, Peter, and parents who would do anything for their kids, but they were living in Leeds while we were based in London, and trips to us could never be longer than a few days at best, and even then I could pretend.
Not once, during the bleakest of times, my head spinning, the countdown of hours until Peter would finish work, that sense of feeling lost, not stimulated, those many months on maternity leave which felt too vast, well, I never articulated a word.
I feared I would just worry others, that I’d be deemed an unfit mother, plus when trying to discuss my concerns with my GP she told me it wasn’t PND, that I looked and seemed fine to her, but now, I know I was reeling in the after-effects of my son’s birth (PTSD) and needed family and real friends around me, to hold me up, to help me.
Going from directing sets of hundreds to just baby and I, and a baby I loved just felt odd. I was structure-less, a mile of days and weeks without real plans or knowledge of what was to come. A full stop it felt. No goals, a simple hope I’d direct again buried within a crushing fear of what an insecure freelance life would bring.
It didn’t help that my friends were mostly single and without kids at that time, to be one of the first with child, and yes I made new mates with babies but the pressure to be your best in front of people you barely know, mostly felt too much and made me withdraw even more.
Eventually my feelings were forced to unravel, it just could not go on anymore, this pretence that all was well. I cried for help and thankfully, my family and friends came running.
When Oliver turned 10 months old, we made the decision to move back to Leeds, to be close to my folks in a city I call home. Wrapped up in a blanket of unconditional love and care, my Mum was there to help me with the day-to-day care of Oliver which meant soon enough, I started to feel much better.
If only I’d known opening up would help so much.
With renewed strength (oh the irony of needing to feel strong to admit weakness) I asked my new GP if I could see a therapist and ultimately, politely demanded (if demanding can be polite) to see someone, as he’d initially brushed away my worries.
Maybe I appeared stronger than I was. Maybe I always did.
With the help of my counsellor, together we created an emotional first aid kit for me, we chatted in depth about the past, my fears, my goals and before long I’d built a box of tools to help me overcome the stress.
Mostly, he asked me questions I finally faced and answered, and slowly with his help, with everyone’s help, I began to feel more like my old self. I had faced up and accepted that sh** happens and moved forward with my life. I’d gotten over, for the most part, the sadness of being cheated out of the birth experience I’d hoped for, I’d recovered from the sadness and the melancholy of it all.
I started my blog around that time, although my first posts were lighthearted and funny, a form of escapism for me back then. This blog was a lifeline, another form of therapy. It helped me rediscover my voice at a time I felt I had none and connected me to like-minded women (and men) online who ‘got me’ and many who’d been through what I had.
This blog here offered me a space, a platform, and later a business, I could never have foreseen.
I was a finalist in the BritMums Brilliance in Blogging Awards in the Fresh Voice category surprisingly four weeks after going live on my first post. I cried. My voice somehow seemed to resonate, my stories of my move to Leeds and tales of life with my Big Fat Greek family (such as Dad and a Little Case of Chicken Pox) entertained, the voice I thought had gone, was back, and that nomination gave me the boost I needed to return on set, to direct again once more.
A year on almost to the day, when Oliver turned 2, I discovered I was pregnant again, and despite the odds of developing ICP again and another traumatic birth would follow, neither came to fruition. Thanks to the incredible care of my consultant (thank you the NHS), I experienced a tranquil, planned elective, a joy I wasn’t sure I’d ever have, but did.
Big haired, almond eyed Alexander looked just like his older brother at birth, and this time, I felt firmly empowered, in control and incredibly content.
So why blog about this now?
I wanted to finally write this down on digital paper (!) as I’d hoped to many times before but couldn’t find the words, to share the light after the darkness. My concern then was that one day my son would look back on this and be saddened by it all- I worry he will, now. But he was loved so much by me as he is today, by his Dad, his grandparents and despite those tough first 10 months, he never knew the pain I felt most days.
We have photos of his plump, happy face full of yogurt, his gummy grin smiling back at me, his mama, his world. We have phone videos of his contagious little laughter, walks across my favourite bridges both in London then in Bristol where we lived a while, music classes I took him to when I felt I could and in every one, he’s staring back wide eyed and smiling right back at me. A happy child who adored his mum, and still does, my only wish is that I’d asked for help much sooner than I did. That despite being a perfectionist in my work, that approach won’t work in real life.
I’ve cried many times writing this post but I know it’s time to share that troubled part of my life, to potentially help others who might well feel the same as me, all those years ago, right now, today, to offer some strength to them so they can reach out, seek help and know they’re not alone.
So that’s my story, it’s certainly not pretty but it’s honest and from my heart and I hope it might support someone struggling from a post traumatic birth.
If that’s you, please know that this shall pass, that life can and will improve, that with time and help and love, you, like me, can heal as well.