Trigger alert: this article features words and images about birth trauma. The content may be triggering if you have had a traumatic birth experience. Please make sure you have support if you choose to proceed.
This week is birth trauma awareness week. I sat on the fence about writing about something so personal, which is ironic because everything I share is personal. But birth takes it to a whole new level. Birth is a topic that brings up many things for people and can be polarising too. I hope that in sharing my birth experiences, I’ll open a communication channel; it’s okay and healthy to talk about birth.
I also hope that I’m able to tackle the topic sensitively. It is not my intention to offend anyone, in particular birthing mothers. I understand that other women make choices about birth that are not mine. This article isn’t about the choices we make. It’s about making informed choices and being supported by birth service providers – doctors, midwives, doulas, nurses and obstetricians.
Alright, here we go…
I never wanted children. I knew motherhood was not a path I would take. I shunned almost everything deemed appropriate by society. I never wanted to work in a conventional career, dropped out of university, hated the idea of marriage, and felt vehemently opposed to buying houses. You could call me a fringe dweller. I never quite fit in.
As a (now) stay-at-home mother to two and wife, it’s obvious that my opinions changed. But not in the way you might think. I didn’t wake up one day with my maternal clock ticking. At all. Instead, I made a pragmatic decision to try for a baby. And I did it solely for selfish reasons.
Reason number one was for my partner. He made it clear that he wanted children from the day we met. After more than ten years together, it was time to deliver on the bargain or risk losing him.
Reason number two was to give my life meaning. I had started my personal development journey and was thinking about life and my future if I chose not to have babies.
The final reason was that I didn’t have much time to decide. At age 37 and with no backup plan, I decided to lean in and see what happened.
After going off the contraceptive pill, I fell pregnant very quickly. And it’s hard to articulate what that felt like—from being completely ambivalent towards the idea of starting a family to being completely enraptured by pregnancy happened in the blink of an eye. Once I saw those two little lines on my pregnancy test, my life changed irrevocably.
Life changed in an instant.
I felt completely filled with wonder from the first moment I knew. And that feeling lasted my entire pregnancy. Several hours after finding out, I had a sense of certainty so convincing that it stayed with me until I birthed Makia. That feeling was that everything would be okay. I knew my baby was strong and healthy and that they would be fine. That inner knowing was tested by plenty of pregnancy nerves and anxiety, but always within reach when I needed it.
Leading up to my due date, I did my due diligence. As someone who had paid little attention to pregnancy and babies my entire life, I knew very little about birth except for what I’d seen and heard in the media and from my mother. I was birthed via elective caesarian after my brother was birthed via emergency caesarian. My mum trusted her birth providers implicitly, and I grew up with stories of pain-free birth and my mum being simply ‘unzipped’ to deliver me.
I wanted a natural birth. I knew that my sisters in Zimbabwe all delivered naturally and that their birth culture differed greatly from ours. Dreamboat and I signed up for private hypnobirthing classes to empower us with more knowledge and to give us tools for a natural birth. I hired a private doula and became the hypnobirthing cliche – I had personal affirmation cards, homemade essential oil blends, a 4-page birth plan, birthing playlists and every other bell and whistle you can imagine. I also read evidence-based books on natural childbirth – Ina May’s ‘Guide to Natural Childbirth’ and Rachel Reed’s ‘Why Induction Matters’.
Muroora’s, Emmanuel’s brother’s wives Tracey, Lynette and Charlene, all with babies strapped to their backs.
I was prepared to tackle the ‘system’ I had learned so much about in hypnobirthing. I knew the ‘cascade of interventions’ wouldn’t catch me because I had every intention of refusing induction, internal examinations and pain relief. I made these decisions because of the overwhelming evidence that normal, physiological birth leads to the best outcomes for mum and baby – physically, hormonally and mentally. Every intervention brings its own risks and disturbs the beautiful dance of mother and baby working harmoniously to bring baby earthside.
I began labour spontaneously. That’s the term for it, spontaneously. That in itself is a big achievement. Recent statistics from Australia state that only 41% of women start labour spontaneously.
Of the 41% of women and babies fortunate enough to start labour spontaneously, when mother and baby are ready, 25% are augmented – that means medically progressed. There are many means to this – having your waters artificially broken, having gels smeared on your cervix, or having balloons shoved into your uterus.
Or being given syntocinon, a synthetic version of the body’s own oxytocin – a hormone that progresses labour. The real stuff – oxytocin – brings with it all the love and nurturing chemicals needed for mum and baby to bond and begin breastfeeding. The fake stuff – syntocinon – purely opens the cervix. And when the fake stuff flows via an intravenous drip, there’s none of the real stuff to be found.
Doing the maths on that, a mere 16% of women in Australia go into labour spontaneously when their body and baby are ready and proceed into their labour without intervention.
So spontaneous labour was a good start for us. I was lucky that Makia decided to come close to my due date (39 weeks, six days), despite the hospital wanting to induce my labour at 39 weeks due to my ‘advanced maternal age’. I was prepared to stay pregnant until 42 weeks before discussing induction. That was MY choice. But the hospital had begun their campaign to induce me early, using fear-based language about the risk of stillbirth and other complications. (No mention was made of the risk of complications from induction).
I was excited to be in labour. I ignored the advice to rest and spent my first day in labour cooking, tying up loose ends in the business and texting friends about what it felt like. By late afternoon I was already tired and active labour hadn’t begun. I sometimes wonder if that’s where my problems started. Would my outcome have been any different if I made another choice that day?
When labour started progressing that evening, I made my next error. I went to the hospital too early. At this stage, I was having three contractions every ten minutes and had been for several hours. I couldn’t do anything during a contraction. According to what I had been told, this meant that labour was well underway.
Because I refused internal examinations, the hospital midwife could not determine how open my cervix was, and I was sent home. My doula Steph joined us, and I suffered my second highly uncomfortable car ride, losing my waters on the backseat this time.
I laboured at home for hours! I remember being so tired and pacing up and down on the advice of my doula. I couldn’t stand to be touched during a contraction. I felt scared and overwhelmed, with no idea what to expect. But the tiredness was the worst. By the time we arrived back at the hospital, I had already been awake for two nights.
This time the hospital admitted me. I felt so relieved. I could get into the birthing pool, birth my baby and be surrounded by support. My midwife more or less left me alone; she was a stranger to me. I consented to an internal examination this time, and my birthing team’s smiles showed me that all was on track – I didn’t want to know the number.
I was so relieved to be in safe and capable hands in the hospital.
More hours passed. A new midwife took over at shift change. There were no more smiles. I was encouraged to lie in various positions to shift the baby’s position. I was fading fast, and the positions were excruciating. I started worrying about the pain, how tired I was, about my birth team – doula and photographer – and how long they had been with me. I was worried about Dreamboat – now on his 27th coffee. I wondered if there was any inner resistance, a final piece of mental surrender that would move things along. Labour stalled. Contractions slowed down.
I began taking micro naps in the birth pool, and another internal examination was encouraged. I measured 3cm. I had been in labour for 36 hours.
Hours and hours and hours later.
I later found out that my first examination marked me at 8cm. Was it an error, or did I go backwards from being in such an unfamiliar environment? Midwives say such a thing is possible, but we’ll never know.
Even though I had expressly asked not to be involved in discussions during labour and having two people there to represent my interests – Dreamboat and my doula – my midwife called into the strangest meeting of my life. I was completely naked after 36 hours of labour and two sleepless nights, and Dreamboat and my doula Steph were also quite the worse for wear. My hospital midwife and a student midwife rounded out the team. I was given two options. Option one – go home. (But you probably shouldn’t because we’ve had our fingers inside your vagina, and you might get an infection that could kill your baby.) Or option two – take pain medication and rest.
I took the epidural. It also came with a syntocinon drip, which was barely mentioned to me at the time. Why? Because epidurals slow down labour. Did you know that?
I can’t tell you how it felt to slip away into sleep after that epidural kicked in. Do I regret it? I regret that circumstances led to it. I regret what happened to my baby girl a few hours later. But I don’t regret that five-hour sleep. What labouring woman would regret a total and complete absence of pain after 36 hours of work?
Sleep overtakes me.
The hospital team woke me to inform me that it was time to have my baby. Hooray. How empowering. I was lying prone on a hospital bed with wires everywhere. I couldn’t feel a thing from the waist down. My midwife, bless her, was advocating for me to push my baby out. But I guess I had crossed some invisible threshold or time limit while I was asleep because now there was an obstetrician in the room, along with her student offsider, and I was told in no uncertain terms that it was time to have the baby.
The timeline is foggy at this point. I know there were a lot of people in the room. I know that any pretence that my husband or my doula was speaking on my behalf was gone. The obstetrician was talking to me and me alone. And she told me that my baby was distressed and that I needed to have the baby now. In a moment of clarity, I rallied for myself and my baby. I told her that my baby was not in distress and was strong. Just as I did all those months ago when I found out I was pregnant, I knew everything was okay. I knew it.
I was given the option to test my baby for stress. They inserted a needle into my vagina and pricked my unborn baby’s head. The test proved what I already knew – the baby was fine. This result brought me ten minutes. During that ten minutes, I was “allowed” to try pushing the baby out. Not easy when you can’t feel anything, but I really tried. And it was working. My midwife squeezed my hand encouragingly.
But babies take more than ten minutes to move through the birth canal, even with a mumma that can walk around and get into the right positions. My time was up. I was informed that I needed a forceps delivery (where they pull the baby out by force with metal ‘wands’) and an episiotomy (where they cut your vagina open with a pair of scissors to allow the baby and forceps to pass easily).
I told them I didn’t want either of those options. In a valiant attempt to take control of the situation, I asked that a vacuum delivery be tried first. My wish was begrudgingly granted and attempted. Five minutes later and forceps were again insisted on.
No episiotomy, I begged.
I asked for more time. I asked if there was truly any risk in waiting. Exasperated, the obstetrician replied that she wouldn’t wait another minute if it were her. And that was that.
The forceps were inserted. My baby was pulled out of my vagina with metal wands clasped around her little head. I was cut open.
My little girl is pulled into the world by force.
And in the minutes afterwards, I didn’t care. I had my baby. A girl. And she was so beautiful. Despite the stress of labour and birth. Despite the many interventions. Despite the complete unravelling of the plan, she was here. My midwife told me how fortunate I was to have an instrumental delivery in a birthing suite. Usually, they’re performed in a surgical room. And I’d dodged a caesarian – whoo hoo. I had successfully birthed a baby out of my vagina. What an accomplishment. So why didn’t it feel that way?
Disassociating from the experience.
That birth experience tarred my start to parenthood. The coercion. The lack of explanations, or time to make decisions. The fear-based language prominently featuring the word ‘death’. My little girl was badly bruised and bleeding from the damage inflicted by the vacuum and the forceps. Despite being born with an Apgar (a measure of a baby’s condition out of ten) score of 9, Makia slept a lot and struggled to breastfeed afterwards.
I was in agony and dealing with a loss of bladder sensation after the epidural and catheter. The episiotomy hurt like hell.
After a night at home, we were readmitted to the hospital because Makia had a low blood sugar reading. I couldn’t latch her to my breast. That night was the loneliest and most challenging of my life. With my milk coming in, breasts bursting with it, and my little girl unable to feed, I was woken up every three hours to pump milk and bottle feed. The more milk she got, the more alert she became, and we began our breastfeeding journey a few days later – only because we persevered despite the lure of formula feeding.
My bladder problems continued. I was diagnosed with an overactive bladder a few months later, a prognosis without treatment and one that is generally only managed and not cured. Luckily I was one of the fortunate ones, and I was able to retrain my brain and bladder and restore normal function.
My vagina healed too. But there was a weight hanging over me. I felt it. It’s why I can recall so many trivial details of my birth. I replay them in my mind again and again, wondering what the turning point was – when things went wrong.
People in my life told me to get over it. Platitudes were recited – “healthy baby, healthy mum”, or “at least you didn’t need a caesarian”. A close friend told me that birth is dangerous and I should be grateful for medical care. I am very grateful for medical care – when needed and when the intervention will objectively save a life.
As I became entrenched in motherhood, I was privy to other birth stories – most more terrible than mine and many ending in caesarian.
But I couldn’t forget. And when I sit into that feeling, I can very clearly articulate it as shame. I felt ashamed that my body had let me down and that I could not do what women do – birth a baby. I felt ashamed.
I felt ashamed that my little girl was violently pulled into the world. That she came out with bruises and blood, marked before she took her first breath. I felt ashamed that I needed fake oxytocin (the love hormone) to will my cervix open. I felt weak for having lost my steam mid-labour. I felt less of a woman and undeserving of the title ‘mother’. Birth was something that was done to me, not something that I achieved.
My daughter, marked and bruised.
That is birth trauma. Something that one in three women admit to experiencing, a figure that professionals believe is widely underreported. Birth trauma can come about by feeling unsupported, unheard and unsafe. And it has deep ties to the patriarchy and the shame that women are indoctrinated to feel from the time they get their very first period. (Let’s not go there today, though.)
I can share more statistics. I can talk about the history of the medicalisation of birth. But I’m not going to. There’s plenty of further reading you can do if you’re interested – which anyone who has been born should be (that’s all of you.)
I will briefly share a comparison story – the birth of my son William.
It took me a while to mentally prepare myself for birth again. I even did a cleansing ceremony where I wrote down all the anger I felt at the system, how unsupported I felt, and unheard. I let it rise and channelled it into words I burned at the beach.
Two weeks out from my due date, I got very sick. My baby was communicating to me to slow down. To honour myself and my body. I did a healing. I listened. I spent the remainder of my pregnancy deeply nourishing myself. I ignored the advice from the hospital to induce labour. In fact, ignoring the advice of the hospital became a theme for me during my second pregnancy.
My body forces me to rest.
I ignored their advice to take aspirin – there was no medical basis for it. I ignored their advice to take thyroid medication – my thyroid function was within the normal range. I ignored their advice to test for gestational diabetes – you can’t have it if you don’t test for it. And I definitely ignored their advice to induce my labour. Instead, I relied on my body, the magical and all-knowing vessel that it is. And I relied on my inner knowing, my mother’s intuition. It knows far more than they give it credit for.
I had continuity of care this time! I applied for midwifery group practice (MGP), a public service that sadly doesn’t extend to every birthing mother. It’s the lottery if you get in, and I only did it with a little help from a friend.
At 41 weeks pregnant, my labour spontaneously began. It was different this time. More intense. Dreamboat rushed to prepare Makia for daycare and left our apartment to drop her off. I was thrust into my worst nightmare, even more unsupported than last time. Nobody to tell me that it was all going to be okay.
Lost in my head, I mentally gave up very early on. I wanted the hospital and every epidural in it. But in one desperate attempt to help myself, I did two things –
- I messaged my healer Jenny and had her start doing some clearings for baby and me and,
- I rang my midwife in tears and told her I wasn’t handling things alone.
My husband arrived home and started coaching me with advice from Jenny – my remote healer. That interlude deserves a story of its own one day; she later described the battle between the masculine and the feminine – my son resisting the pull of the uterus. Once we were synced up, things progressed very quickly.
Not long after that, my beautiful midwife Pip arrived. Her job was to assess me and bring me to the hospital when I was in established labour. It was too late for that. Within ten minutes of Pip arriving, I was starting to push. Pushing my baby out took me one hour and forty-five minutes of work.
We hit the ground running.
Nothing prepared me for the pain. The easiest labour pain with William was stronger than the worst labour pain I had with Makia. Our journey together was slow and gradual. I had time to learn about my body and welcome the contractions as they gradually deepened. William came in like a freight train. And he was posterior; he had to turn around during his descent down the birth canal – and the back pain was out of this world.
Two snippets of advice came to my mind. One was to choose my pain – the pain of labour or the pain of recovery after interventions. With my previous episiotomy still fresh in my mind, I was keen to ‘front end’ the pain and do labour naturally.
The second piece of advice was this. There comes a time in labour when a woman realises that she’s in it and only one person can get her out – herself. I reached that point. And that’s when things got serious.
I screamed at the top of my lungs through every single contraction. For one hour and forty-five minutes, I screamed and rested, screamed and rested. Pip fed me sips of coconut water and reassuringly laid her hands on me. They said, “You can do this”.
You can do this. You ARE doing this.
I never made it to the hospital. William was born on our lounge room floor less than 8 hours after labour began. And I felt more powerful in that moment than in any moment of my entire life.
I am powerful.
Recovery took no time at all. I took to parenting for the second time with pride and confidence. I felt like I had healed something broken inside of me.
Recovery was worlds apart.
This week I attended a birth trauma awareness event in Lennox Head. Getting down there was no small feat, involving the help and support of my husband and mum and a long return car ride with my baby. I felt drawn to be in that room and part of the conversation. I can’t tell you how validating it felt to hear other stories of birth trauma and hope that the system can change – if we demand that it changes. I’m going to share two final things.
Becoming a part of the conversation.
Birth photographer and co-creator of the Birth Time documentary Jerusha Sutton shared one. She said –
With continuity of care:
The woman softens.
The woman opens.
The woman births her baby,
And feels like she can take on the fucking world.
That perfectly summed up my experience of birth the second time around. Birth isn’t something to be feared and handed over to the experts. Our bodies know what to do. International statistics show that over 90% of women can theoretically birth naturally and without problems. Yet, professionals estimate that only between 1 and 5% of women in Australia have a drug-free, spontaneous and completely physiological birth.
How we birth determines how we show up in the world as mothers, women, and human beings. It matters. Birth matters.
The last thing I will share is the steps you can take if you demand that our system change. To move the prevalent model of care into something that prioritises women, their autonomy and their physical, mental and spiritual health. They are;
STEP 1: Send a letter to the parliamentary inquiry on birth trauma (NSW) or your local MP.
STEP 2: Send a letter to your local hospital about the services you want
STEP 3: Send a complaint to the Healthcare Complaints Commission if you have experienced birth trauma.
We are the consumers. We get to choose. It is time to reclaim birth.
I’d love to share my birth video here, but throwing it out to the public feels too much. Instead, I’m offering to share it with any woman who asks to see it. Simply email me, and I’ll share a link.
Let me finish with this.
“There’s a secret in our culture, and it isn’t that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.”
** Originally shared to my email database on the 20th of July, 2023 **