Both my births were traumatic in different ways. My first son was born after a very long back-to-back labour, I didn’t dilate past 7cm and eventually his oxygen levels plummeted to the point where I had to have a category 1 c-section. I was whisked into a make-shift theatre because the labour suite was in the middle of refurbishment works, I was cut open and he was pulled out of me within about five minutes. There was not enough time for my husband to scrub up and come in with me and, had I not already had an epidural, I would have been knocked out because local anaesthesia would not have had time to work. Failure to progress was the reason given for the section and that’s what I remember – a niggling feeling of failure, especially since I then struggled to breast feed and eventually settled on combi-feeding for five months, which compounded my feelings of uselessness. I’d already suffered two miscarriages, which meant I was harbouring a deep distrust of my body’s ability to do anything right when it came to pregnancy and birth.
Before I became pregnant with my second son, I suffered another miscarriage and so the subsequent pregnancy was again dogged by high levels of anxiety. I was determined to make my second birth a more positive experience. I went to pregnancy yoga to help me relax, something I wasn’t able to do when I was pregnant with my first son because I was too fearful that I wouldn’t end up with a live baby at the end of it, and that I would then have to explain to all these people I had shared a class with what had happened, or disappear from sight, never to be heard from again. I read up on positive birth experiences but tried to remain realistic in terms of my expectations. That if I needed another c-section then that would be ok – hopefully I could make it a calmer experience this time and have more control over it.
My care was consultant-led due to the previous complications and I was due to be induced by having my waters broken if I was more than 11 days late. My blood pressure went up in the days leading up to the birth and I was offered a slightly earlier induction. I ended up on a crowded and noisy ward on a Friday morning with no sign of a space in the delivery suite, and so I asked to go home where I’d be more comfortable.
I was called back in in the evening, induced and then there was a shift change as the clock ticked over into weekend hours. I can only describe it as like the part in a zombie film when everything seems like normal but you know that something bad is going to happen. An apathetic and uncommunicative agency midwife shuffled in to take over from the smiling, empathic staff midwife who had been with me when I first arrived, and a colossal prick of a junior doctor clocked on for what I dearly hope was his last ever shift in obstetrics and gynaecology.
I felt belittled, ignored, silenced, misled and forgotten. Each time I tried to communicate about my care, I was dismissed. A plan had been put in place to allow me to labour for between 6-8 hours and then opt for a c-section. This didn’t happen. I was sneeringly told I’d been screaming for 6 hours, didn’t I at least want to try for a natural birth, I was told the midwife would be sued if I was allowed to get off the bed from my prone position on my back and so I had to contort my body to deal with the pain. I asked for an epidural and had to wait several hours for it in agony with no help – my birthing ball left forlornly deflating (like my confidence) in the corner, never to be used and a constant reminder of false promises. Once I had pain relief, everything slowed down and I had to wait overnight for a c-section on a Saturday morning when a more experienced consultant could come in and do it – not admitted to me of course, covered up by assertions that it was done for my own good despite being on the brink of a septic infection. Failure to progress again, and me a useless bystander because I felt it was my fault that I couldn’t communicate my needs and was rubbish at birth once again.
I left hospital broken. I then had bouts of numbness after being discharged. I didn’t want to speak to anyone at the hospital, let alone go back there but I was assured that I would be seen on the ward. As we were due to leave, they rang and changed their minds, the shutters came down and I was told to go to A&E. Despite promises of being seen immediately, I waited two hours in a daze with a two-day-old baby, my husband and our four year-old, bleeding and spaced out from painkillers. I rang the ward and pleaded for understanding and to be seen. I was fobbed off with defensiveness and a lack of comprehension. No-one would help so I left without being seen. It re-enforced my fears that no-one really cared and I felt bereft for days – I still do when I think about it.
I asked for an extra midwife visit once at home, they never showed up. My ‘consultant’ debrief ended up being a meeting with two senior midwives who hadn’t been involved in my care and whose approach was kind but pointless. A letter back to me describing my own experience in their words. I never did get a consultant debrief – just advice to make a formal complaint, which I did during a time of little sleep with a newborn, and received a letter that was partly apologetic but missed many of the fundamental points of my experience.
This level of care has to stop. It’s not good enough and totally avoidable.
And don’t let people tell you that you shouldn’t share your negative experiences for fear of frightening other people. You absolutely should. There are many wonderful birth stories but there are equally as many appalling ones, and we do no-one any good by denying these a voice and a space to be told. It is only by sharing how we were treated and how we felt that we can heal ourselves and change things for others.
The Make Birth Better collective was formed in 2017 by Dr Rebecca Moore and Dr Emma Svanberg to encourage parents (both mothers, fathers and birth partners) to talk about their stories, and to prevent, diagnose and treat birth trauma through clinically-led education, campaigning and research. You can visit the site here to read other people experiences if you are able, access resources and find information on how to get involved. Or you can follow Make Birth Better on Instagram and Twitter (please bear in mind some of the material may be distressing).
The Birth Trauma Association also helps people who have had difficult and traumatic birth experiences, and launched the first Birth Trauma Awareness Week in August 2017, with the second following in July 2018. It is also running the MOMs (Maternity Outcomes Matter) project, aiming to reduce adverse maternal and neonatal outcomes by studying the lessons that can be learnt from the parents’ perspective. You can find out more on the website and Twitter.
Next time: the campaigns for better post natal care. Read the previous post in the series here.