It's taken me a long time to write this, because every time I sit down to put it in words, I start having flashbacks to what should have been one of the most joyous moments of my life, but ultimately turned out to be one of the most traumatic – the birth of my sons.
After my membranes ruptured at 29 weeks, I knew the labour and birth would be a closely managed affair. In my ideal world, I wanted a fuss-free vaginal birth, but if I needed a caesarean, well that was ok too. In my wildest dreams I never expected to have both...
I went into labour on a Friday night, exactly two weeks after the waters broke. Unfortunately the threat we had managed to avoid two weeks earlier – being transferred to another hospital because of insufficient neonatal intensive care beds – became reality. Sadly, the trusting relationship I had built up with my midwife came to an abrupt end, and I became patient M9003986: just another on the busy delivery ward that Saturday afternoon.
Before having the boys, I had often heard the term “birth trauma” bandied about on parenting and pregnancy websites, but I disregarded the experiences of the complainants – after all, who cares what happens as long as the baby is ok, right? Well, yes, but isn't the health – both mental and physical – of the mother post-partum of utmost importance?
Sadly I am now all too familiar with “birth trauma”, but the physical scars are nothing compared to the mental pain.
The differences in hospital protocols became apparent from the minute I arrived at the transfer hospital. Stripped of my comfortable "birthing" dress, which I had specifically chosen for labour because it was soft and light, I was tied into a hospital gown and ordered to remain on the bed at all times. My midwife, who had travelled to the second hospital, was shown the door after a cursory handover, leaving just my husband as my support person. Only one person was allowed to support me, unlike at my hospital of preference, where several people can be present in the birthing suite. So my Mum and sister who were waiting in the corridor outside my room were told to leave.
My requests for a hot pack were rejected (against hospital protocol), as was the request for analgesia (I hadn't had anything for more than eight hours) and my husband was told that if the babies were born that night, he would have to leave soon after – there was no provision for him to stay.
Now I know this all sounds terribly me, me, me, and that I was fortunate enough to have been originally booked into a hospital with a relatively progressive attitude towards birthing, but these small concessions were what I was expecting during the boys' birth. To have them suddenly removed was a real dent to my confidence and as any woman who has gone through childbirth will tell you, confidence is essential.
I won't bore you, dear readers, with the horror details of the long line of registrars who felt compelled to examine my nether regions every hour. I won't drone on about one particular doctor who, upon finishing an internal exam, left me with the hospital gown rolled up under my arms and an empty tube of KYJelly on the side of the bed, then threw a wad of paper towels on my stomach, and exited the room with the parting comment “clean yourself up”. Nor will I harp on about my apparent shrinking cervix which went magically from three centimetres, to seven, to three again, then back to seven, depending on who was doing the feeling.
It was a long labour, but at just after 5am the next morning my big boy, Theodore, was born weighing just over 1.8kg. He started screaming as soon as they put his tiny, slimy purple body on my chest but was quickly whisked away to the side of the room for the neo-natal specialists to work on him before being transferred to the nursery.
It was soon after his birth that things started to go pear shaped. Firstly, the doctor in charge seemed concerned that the labour wasn't progressing fast enough, so she broke the membranes. Then one of the midwives seemed to think the cord was coming out first. Then the doctor decided it was an arm. It's all a bit of a blur, but my husband tells me it was about this time they decided to use the ventouse to try and suction him out. This didn't work and all of a sudden we were rushing through the corridors with the doctor shouting “Code Red” which of course I thought meant either me or the baby was on death's door. They wouldn't tell me what was happening, and after crashing through a set of swinging doors into an operating theatre, I realised they were going to perform a caesarean. Which I was totally okay with. As long as the baby was alright, right? But first, she gave the forceps a go. At this point, I should mention that the epidural had been turned down so far during Teddy's birth, that I could feel every.single.thing. After two useless pulls on the forceps, she gave the go-ahead to the anaesthetist, who started flicking me and running ice up and down my legs and waist. Could I feel it? Hell yes. The last thing I remember was a gas mask over my face, then waking up in an empty, bright white room, thinking my baby had died.
Then the pain hit. It was excruciating but I couldn't move or talk and the three people on the other side of the room (Nurses? Doctors? Orderlies?) were completely ignoring me and chattering away about iPhone apps. It was as though my unimportant body, now empty of its precious cargo, had been cast aside to be dealt with later.
I have no idea how long it was before I was wheeled down to my room, but no one told me what had happened, and it wasn't until I saw my husband and managed to gasp out Baby? that I learned we had another son. He was tiny like his brother, but doing well.
But I wasn't alright. I was in agony, and was desperate to know what had happened during the birth. Why had it all gone downhill so fast, and what had happened to the epidural? Why did I need the general anaesthetic?
Unfortunately, none of the nurses on the post-natal ward could tell me. I asked at every shift change for a doctor to come and explain what had happened, but no one did. I spoke to social workers who promised to help me, but they didn't. Birth is meant to be a happy celebration, but the experience left me shattered. My tiny babies were in intensive care, I was two hours drive from home and my family – including my husband – were restricted to visiting hours only. I discharged myself two days later, desperate to leave what I considered a hostile environment, and made the four-hour round trip every day to take my babies expressed breast milk.
I gave up asking for help and and an explanation after about a month. Despite being at risk of developing post-natal depression, I didn't get any follow-up advice or appointments. The boys were exceptionally well-cared for, but their unimportant mother was apparently just expected to get on with it. I am getting on with it, but I have plenty of nightmares and flashbacks to that best and worst of days. I'm sad that I won't be able to birth again – to have that experience and photographs and to feel the joy and elation and sense of achievement I have heard my friends talk about. I have my boys and I am absolutely indescribably in love with them, but I wish I could look back with fondness, rather than tears, at their entry to the world.
Did you have a traumatic birth? Comment on Prue's blog.