Hypnobirthing course? Check!
Hospital bag packed? Check!
Newborn essentials purchased? Check!
I was ready. I was fully prepared. I knew how this was going to go down; I’ve read the books and my friends have babies. I knew all there is to know about having a baby!
Except, as it turned out, I didn’t have a clue.
After what the doctors refer to as ‘a traumatic birth‘, I was laid on a hospital bed – the same I had given birth in – and there was blood everywhere. Our incredible midwives flurried around us writing notes, checking the tubes and monitors that hung above and engaging in chit chat that signalled that all of this was quite normal; everything was okay. I did my best to feel ecstatic, for I had birthed my healthy little (my vagina disagrees here) boy and nothing else mattered. Right?
Beneath the glow of replenishing iron, under the smiles and the skin-to-skin, my mind was racing, the pain killers were fading and the shock of it all was slowly setting in. I had passed out during birth and I couldn’t remember much of it, I was still bleeding heavily, and I couldn’t even raise my arms enough to hold my new baby.
I wasn’t ecstatic. I was confused and wanted to cry
I wasn’t ecstatic. I was confused, I was sore and I wanted to cry. A lot. I had so many unanswered questions. No one else looked worried; it must all be normal. ‘Don’t ask that’, I thought to myself. ‘They’ll think you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re a mum now, you’re supposed to be happy and you are so lucky! Get on with it“.
But I hadn’t read this chapter in my preparation. And, as I slowly learnt, there were a fair few others I had missed out on too. The ones about loss of dignity, the ones about not caring about the fact that you’ve lost your dignity, and most importantly, the one about going to the toilet for the first time post ‘carnage’. No reading could have prepared me for that.
The first wee is the hardest
I guess the catheter gave me some time to process things before needing to give ‘going to the toilet’ some mental capacity. A saving grace perhaps? But the time came, and twenty-four hours after tearing my poor lady-garden open, I was going to need to use it again; and there was no stopping it.
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Apparently proving you can fulfil this task into a cardboard potty is your ticket (or so I thought) out of hospital. I was already confident that I could stand, despite the thunder like pain in my entire crotch area. A midwife had made me try while she changed my bedsheets and I was relieved to give it a go as the feeling of sitting in your own warm afterbirth is one I find hard to forget.
I waddled off, to complete my challenge
So off I waddled to attempt the next challenge. It took me an age to reach the shared hospital toilet where I dutifully performed the task. I mean, I think I did. I managed to reach the line I was told to aim for, but I couldn’t tell you whether I had controlled that or not – in fact I was in shock that there was even anything left down there to perform with. It felt weird that no one was with me after the hours prior where my every vaginal movement was analysed; suddenly I was going solo again.
Totally traumatic – but I got the job done. Well done me! Off I waddled again, my eyes searching for stares of judgement as I carried my pot of gold (and crimson) up to the front desk. I handed the midwives my finished project; no lid, no neatly concealed container. ‘Here it is ladies, now please take a look and send me on my way!’ They didn’t react, they’d clearly seen it all before.
My baby started to cry, and cry…
The hours ticked by, and I remained on the ward. My self-professed silent, well behaved baby was starting to make a fair bit of noise. With three other mothers, their partners and their newborns all at the same sleepover, the desperation in my shushing was clearly evident. A nurse popped her head around the curtain and asked if I was okay? Of course I am not okay! I feel like a horse has kicked me in the vagina several times, I am not sure if there is any blood left inside of me, my baby is showing me up in front of my new colleagues and I don’t have a clue what I am doing. “Yeah not bad thanks” I replied.”I’m just a bit worried that he is crying quite a bit”
Cue the cute knitted booby and syringes. Another missed chapter to tick off the list. The blood loss during birth meant my milk hadn’t come in, and unbeknownst to me, I hadn’t been feeding my baby as professionally as I thought I had. “We might have to give him some…” she paused. “Formula”.
Guilt, failure and stigma
The guilt, the failure, the stigma. My midwives told me to trust my boobies, but they had let me down and here I was giving way to all of the thoughts that I hated hearing other women say. I wasn’t a failure. My baby would be fed, so what’s the problem? If only self doubt were tamed that easily.
“Let’s try and get some milk flowing first”, she said. Like a deer in headlights, I sat on the bed and took off my top as instructed. I naively unclipped my nursing bra, not realising that this wouldn’t allow for skin to skin; but soon I had whipped out my chest with no concern as to who may or may not be within peeking distance and I felt no shame in the matter.
My body was no longer my own
My body was no longer my own – I didn’t know how to control it anymore and it wasn’t doing the things it was ‘supposed to do’. I was too tired to care. I just wanted to give my baby some milk. So there I sat, staring down at my still swollen stomach, being milked by the midwife. She demonstrated how I should self-milk my empty udders, via a small knitted boobie, all for just a few drops to feed my son with.
The most surreal moment came when this incredibly patient and kind nurse tried to help get things moving with some oxytocin chat. As we continued massaging my boobs, equipped with her purple syringe ready to collect whatever I could muster, she said, “We need to get the oxytocin flowing as that helps produce milk. Talk to me about something you love – what’s your favourite food?”
“Wagamamas”, I replied. Squirt, squirt. Magic!
This wasn’t normal, surely?
After the news that I would be staying in for another night, I knew it was time to brave the shower. I will confess, I’m a prude when it comes to sharing facilities. So, regardless of everything else, I wasn’t excited at the thought. But the urgency was growing – I had come into the hospital on Monday night, it was now Thursday and my saviour nurse had told me it was going to make me feel much better. It was time to grin and bare it. I wasn’t allowed to get my cannula wet on one hand so the whole thing was a bit of a struggle. I let the water run naturally to wherever it took its course, but the idea of actually washing the garden below, well… I didn’t even know where to find her anymore because the swelling meant that it felt like she began just above my knee caps. This wasn’t OK. This wasn’t normal. Why is everyone pretending that things are fine? I wanted to cry again.
The tears came, and flowed
So I did cry. Several times in fact. Sometimes because I wanted to – I wanted to cry about the pain, I wanted to cry because everything was uncomfortable, I wanted to cry because I was sad that the birth hadn’t gone the way I had hoped. Most of all, I wanted to cry because of the self-imposed guilt I was feeling about everything. Other times, I cried because tears were falling out and my face was definitely replicating crying, but I had no explanation as to why. And this went on long beyond the hospital stay.
This birthing experience was not the one I had planned for. I knew about the baby blues and aloe vera frozen pads, but that didn’t quite compare to the grim realities of postpartum life. The hardest part was that I didn’t feel like any of it was truly happening to me; I didn’t want to accept this as my story. Sometimes, I wasn’t even sure I had actually given birth, until I attempted to move and the pain or stinging would send me a sharp reminder that I well and truly had. I hated my situation and I felt angry at myself for being so ungrateful about it. I wasn’t in a newborn bubble like I was supposed to be – I felt lost, I felt powerless, I felt let down by my body and I didn’t know if I would ever manage to feel differently about it.
Starting to accept this new ‘normal’
But as I write this, my little man, who I adore, is sound asleep and I couldn’t be more thankful for him and for the women (and men!) who have heard me out during the many recounts of this tale. I can finally accept that it was my “normal” and I am OK. I do feel differently about it now and I am able to look back on it with humour – I found laughing about it really helped.
Women are absolute machines!
What have I learned from it all? Women are absolute machines. The gore is all part and parcel of the process of bringing life into the world – the war wounds from the miracles we create. The idea of losing my dignity has been replaced by one of gaining my stripes; yes, the body that was prodded and poked and cut and stitched and seen by so many gave me my baby. Would I have been better prepared if I had discussed things like changing my nappies after birth, in addition to my child’s? Or how best to sit on a doughnut ring to avoid stretching my stitches? I’m undecided.
But is it normal to feel broken and gutted after giving birth? Absolutely yes. I am not convinced that everyone has this illusive release of hormones that help you to forget the pain – I think the only hormones I received were the ones that made me cry and made my hair fall out. But did talking about it after help? Without a doubt. And that’s what we should all do to normalise the ‘after birth’ more.