A few days before I left my job to go on maternity leave a colleague gave me some very helpful advice. “Condoms make excellent ice packs,” she whispered across the partition that divided our desks.
Apparently the freezer on the maternity ward was full of these homemade ice packs. “They are just the right size for down there,” my colleague continued raising her eyebrows at me conspiratorially.
It was the first time anyone had hinted, to my face, at the possibility of birth injury. I added condom ice packs to my to-do list.
I was extremely lucky. My baby arrived in what the student midwife described as a “textbook delivery”. I got away with “superficial” tearing. I needed some stitches and was grateful for the ice-pack tip, but I remained naïve to the horror birth injuries that would affect some of my peers.
There has always been a culture of silence around birth injury. But perhaps social media is changing that.
Experts in the UK are telling women a new trend to share “horror stories” about birth via social media and Mumsnet (a British parenting forum) is fuelling an epidemic of fear.
Speaking to the British Science Festival, Catriona Jones, senior research fellow at the University of Hull, said that these so called "horror stories" are contributing to the rise of tocophobia (a phobia of childbirth).
But the reality is that women should be fully informed about what can happen during birth – we have every right to be. Birth injury is surprisingly common.
Statistics from Australian research (commissioned by Medibank) show 31 per cent of mothers who have given birth in the past five years suffered pelvic floor damage, and 10 per cent had had a pelvic organ prolapse. Other common birth injuries include third-degree perineal tears, haemorrhoids and long-term urinary incontinence.
It’s easy to see why women, on the whole, stay silent about birth injury, because we are conditioned to feel a certain amount of shame when it comes to our genitalia but censoring women's stories is not the solution.
“Women think they can’t talk about their reproductive system and associated functioning or injury. Our menstrual cycle and even breastfeeding has long been an issue suppressed in discussions. Birth trauma is no different,” says Cath Corcoran, a perinatal, birth and postnatal psychologist.
Also: “If a woman admits that she had a bad birth experience she worries she will be judged by others for appearing ungrateful for a healthy baby."
Heba Shaheed is a women’s heath physiotherapist and founder of The Pelvic Expert, an online recovery program for mothers with prolapse, incontinence, pain and abdominal separation. She says that birth injury has been normalised.
"Because birth is ‘natural’, any women’s health issue that develops due to birth is normalised. It is important to emphasise that women’s health issues are common, but they are not normal, and we should never accept them as normal,” she says.
Shaheed notes that if we are to reduce the number of women who suffer birth injury, then the medical profession needs to do a better job at educating women about what can happen so that preventative measures can be taken.
“Educating women will help them to prepare for possible complications as well as prevent them.
“For too long women’s health issues have been considered taboo and swept under the rug. Women continue to be let down by the healthcare system,” Shaheed tells me.
But why would professionals charged with looking after pregnant women fail to prepare them for the possibility of birth injury. Shaheed thinks it boils down to a misconception that the truth will scare pregnant women or that it will lead to a rise in C-sections, which, by the way, are also part of contemporary personal, birth choice.
Rather than criticising women for spreading “horror stories” on social media, we should be empowering women to talk more openly about their birth injuries.
Better still, rather than worrying about an epidemic of fear, medical professionals should be preparing women for the reality of birth injury so that they can mitigate for it.
Experts like Jones think horror stories spread fear; the reality is that horror stories are the warning that professionals are failing to provide.