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Biological roulette: Coping after birth goes seriously wrong

Birth trauma is a very real issue in New Zealand. Francesca Jones shares the story of her daughter’s birth and insists we realise we must approach this issue differently to protect vulnerable mothers.

Content warning: This post is an account of birth trauma and contains a graphic depiction of a near-fatal birth. We share these stories on The Spinoff Parents to give voice to women who have suffered from this or are currently working through their journey. We believe talking about birth trauma and sharing the real life stories of New Zealand women, in their own words, helps to raise awareness of this topic. Please be aware that this article may be triggering for mothers who have survived traumatic births.

The author Francesca Jones and her daughter

The author Francesca Jones and her daughter

I held my daughter after she was born, for a few minutes. I don’t remember it.

I wonder, is there a difference between holding your child and not knowing it happened, and not holding your child at all?

I remember the midwife, at the head of my bed, noticing the placenta was about to be delivered. It is my last clear memory. This snapshot sits in my head because something jolted in my brain – pay attention, something is about to go wrong.

Like your senses springing to life as they see the headlights driving towards you. I am the proverbial possum, frozen, helpless, but alert. Then the slam of impact. The feeling. The feeling I have no words for.

The placenta is delivered intact. Something comes with it that is not supposed to. Something that is supposed to stay inside my body. My uterus.

Like peeling a sock off from the top down, or reaching in to your pocket and pulling it out. My uterus is turned inside out, and is suddenly a very external organ. A uterine inversion; a rare complication of labour. Most obstetricians will go their whole careers without seeing one.

The uterus cannot contract like it should, and without the placenta against it the blood has nowhere to go but the bed, the floor. The blood loss is rapid. I will lose 3.7L in total. My blood pressure plunges, out of proportion to the blood loss. I am raced to theatre.

My husband is left alone in the delivery suite. This is how he holds our daughter for the first time. Lying down, cradling our daughter to his chest. He waited for someone to come back and tell him how I am, what has happened to me. Eventually he rang his parents, and then my father. I do not know what he said to them. All I can imagine of these conversations is the silences, and the moment his voice cracked.

Down the hall, I am in and out of consciousness. A swarm of medical staff surround me, vague shapes outside the bright lights I am exposed under. Needles. Nausea. My body shaking uncontrollably on the table.

My next clear memory is this: a midwife talking to me once I was stable. She tells me they will move me soon. That they will bring my daughter to me.

My daughter.

Those words slam into me with an almost physical force. The child I had held inside me for nine months was no longer there. My arms were supposed to be cradling my child, not strapped to an operating table. Where was she? Was she crying? How old was she? Would I even be able to hold her?

I could. In recovery they lay my daughter on my chest. I remember a huge feeling of peace at getting to hold my child. Nurses had put a hat on my daughter. I had a vague memory of black baby hair. I remember desperately wanting to feel that hair against my chest, but was too weak to ask, words were beyond me.

***

Just as there is no real preparation for the reality of labour, there is no preparation for an experience like mine. I still firmly believe that, in general, women can and should be better prepared for situations where birth does not go according to plan. Women go to classes, and read books. Over and over again we are told that birth is a natural event, that it is nothing to be afraid of. We are told to stay relaxed, our bodies know what to do. This is true, in the vast majority of cases. There is almost a reluctance to discuss potential complications, as though by talking about them we will make them happen. Despite this, when things do go wrong, we were meant to have seen it coming. Birth is a risky business, we are now told. Was it our fault – for not relaxing enough, or having the temerity to write a birth plan?

I am certain I was not naïve in my preparation for my daughter’s birth. She is my second child and I had experienced serious complications with my first birth. My son had spent some time in special care too. I had been hoping that this time I would not haemorrhage, that this time I would get to hold my newborn.

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Instead I found myself weak and desperately sick. Confined to a hospital bed. My husband and daughter roomed in with me. He did everything for her; rocked her in his arms, changed her, fed her. The nurses were in and out of the room, a stream of monitors and IV lines. I watched, like it was all a show for an audience of one. I waited for people to lay my daughter on my chest. I didn’t actually ‘hold’ my daughter in my arms until she was three days old. Even then my arms had to be supported by pillows.

I was carrying a different weight. One I couldn’t share. The burden of my experience.

***

Be grateful.

In the immortal words of our editor: I am grateful – now fuck off.

I am grateful to be alive, in a way that – unless you too have teetered on that great divide – you may not be able to understand. It does me no kindness to remind me of this gratefulness. The enormity of what did not happen is too big. The potential loss – the loss of everything. Not just the lost memory of holding my daughter. The loss of every moment that would follow it. My daughter and my son. Healthy and growing but lost to me forever.

I am grateful my daughter was fine. She is now a healthy, thriving toddler. What happened is about me, not her. She is an entirely separate thing. These are not selfish thoughts. So as much as I understand the impulse to say them, these words hurt:

You forget the pain once you hold your baby.

As long as my child is healthy it will be worth it.

Or hardest of all for me to hear – I would have done anything for it to be me.

These words are a door slamming in my face. Once they are in a conversation how do I join in? If I could find the words I would want to say this: I’m sorry for what your baby went through, but I would not wish what happened to me on anyone either.

The grief women like me feel is real. Too often we are made to feel that as long as our babies are healthy we have nothing to complain about. Too often we are silenced before we can express the devastating toll our bodies and minds have suffered. We are helpless before the rolling maul of advice and internet commentary. The hilarious horror stories. The endless extolling of the ‘golden hour’. Hold your baby for the first hour of its life: It will promote mother-baby bonding, it will improve your chance of successfully breastfeeding, it will help stabilise your baby’s temperature and heart rate. Holding your baby will make them feel secure in this transition to life outside the womb. So we haven’t just missed out, we have also failed on page one of all of the Caring For Your Newborn books.

Women who experience a traumatic birth (whether that is one physically traumatic like mine, or mentally via loss of control and bodily autonomy, or due to medical complications their baby experienced) are vulnerable to post-natal mood disorders, whether that is depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. I had nightmares and flashbacks for months. I still cannot walk into a hospital without feeling dread in the pit of stomach and my heart pounding in my chest.

We can, and should, support women like me better. We need to acknowledge that things can and do go suddenly wrong. That this is not because of something the mother has done. It is just biological roulette. When things do go wrong we need to support women who are struggling. We need to acknowledge their grief and not dismiss it. I was able to go back to hospital to discuss what had happened. I was even able to see the operating theatre I was taken to. This helped enormously in being able to come to terms with what I remembered. In cases like mine talking amongst our friends is not enough, we need the medical profession involved to help us make sense of what we experienced.

I am proof that modern medicine is an amazing thing. That when things do go catastrophically wrong doctors and nurses can cope.

I am grateful for this.

But, sometimes, when my daughter cries in the night and I go to her, I pick her up and feel her hair against my cheek and say

“It’s okay. Mama’s here.”

I wonder who I am trying to comfort. Her, or me?

If this post has upset you, or you’re struggling to cope following your birth, please talk to your midwife. If you feel you cannot talk to your midwife, the NZ College of Midwives can support you in setting up a facilitated meeting. You can also read more about birth trauma and access online resources at Trauma and Birth Stress Support. If you’re feeling vulnerable, here is a list of region-specific support curated by Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Aotearoa

Francesca Jones is the mother of two young kids, and is currently living in Denmark. Having nothing better to do with All The Free Time she enjoys as a stay-at- home mum, she decided to write a blog. She has ambitions to get a full night’s rest again one day. In the meantime her interests include coffee. You can find her at her blog My Flatpack Life, or on her Facebook page.

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