I’ve always been pretty organised. I was the kid who did their homework the day it was set and I always, always follow the instructions on flat pack furniture. So, when I fell pregnant with my son in November 2018, I prepared, as I always did: pregnancy yoga, hypnobirthing, a meticulous birth plan.
Preparation did nothing, though, when it all went wrong. My son never engaged until my waters broke and his head slammed into my pelvis, where it stayed wedged and swelling until he was removed by 6 attempts of forceps, with no pain relief for four of those attempts. While I was offered a caesarean after 4 attempts, I was told his skull may fracture in the process so I felt little choice but to persevere with two more attempts.
After he was finally born, he was taken away and I heard nothing. Just silence for several agonising minutes while I frantically asked if he was ok. Eventually he was placed on my chest, his head bruised, swollen and cut. I remember forcing myself to smile for photos because ‘that’s what people do when they’ve had a baby’.
Predictably, my traumatised baby didn’t have the strength to breastfeed and 5 horrendous days and nights after he was born he was readmitted after losing 15% of his body weight.
In the months that followed I pushed myself to exhaustion becoming the perfect mother, overcompensating for failing to birth or feed my baby properly, bubbling with an undercurrent of anxiety and denying the fact that I was actually undeniably traumatised.
This continued for the next two years. When I was asked about the birth, I’d just quip that it ‘got a bit medieval’ and when asked when we’d have another baby, I’d always answer that our son was so wonderful we didn’t need another.
No more children, no need to deal with the trauma.
The thing is, staying in denial about trauma is like a game of Jenga. It works in the short term. It gives you a sense of precarious control, enables you to continue almost as normal and gives you excuses to swallow down your anxiety. All it takes, though, is one move, one misplaced block and the tower tumbles. Then you’re left surrounded by broken pieces, scrambling to rebuild what you’ve destroyed.
The move that undid it all for me was unplanned, falling pregnant again with our daughter in December 2021.
I made plans and booked a caesarian. For a while my anxiety was manageable. I praised myself for dealing with it so well. Then, like the flick of a switch, I hit 28 weeks pregnant, 11 weeks to go, and I fell apart.
I’d go nights without sleep, heart pounding. I’d breathe through panic attacks on the train to work and I became completely unable to be present. All was made so much worse by the knowledge that every day brought me closer to birth and to the hormonal, sleep-deprived blur of postpartum.
I felt as though I was about to be in a car crash and I’d just discovered my seatbelt had come undone.
I had left it so late. I was, for once in my life, completely unprepared.
At 31 weeks pregnant, a Monday morning after one particularly bad weekend, I finally made two phone calls: one to my psychologist and one to the GP. I was prescribed medication and at 34 weeks pregnant I had my first session of EDMR therapy to finally deal with the trauma that had haunted me for three years. Three more sessions crammed into the following few weeks unlocked and began to process my feelings of failure, shame and guilt, and little by little I started to regain control of my thoughts – to see through the undercurrent of anxiety and hypervigilence and to finally identify it as trauma.
I had my final session at 38 weeks pregnant, and, like coming out of a rainstorm, my head felt clearer. Between the therapy and medication, I felt like I had hurriedly put in place the scaffolding that would, hopefully, see me through birth and postpartum.
At 39 weeks, I arrived at hospital for my planned caesarean, in an operating theatre which was a carbon copy of the one in which my son was born 3 years earlier. Only, this time, there were no medics frantically rushing around, no panic, no pain.
As my daughter was born, I cried as they lifted her over the screen. I cried with relief that my baby was healthy, that I could hear her cries, and that I was finally able to understand why people describe the birth of their children as the best day of their lives.
Isabelle is now a few weeks old. We’re home, settling in as a family of four and my anxiety is the best it has been for years. I look back on the last two months with pride. I’m proud, both for making the choice to take control of my birthing experience and for finally, belatedly, tackling my birth trauma just in time for me to be able to have the healing, redemptive birth that I deserved.