Having a baby after PTSD – am I mad?

For some mothers giving birth is a magical, exciting and altogether positive experience. For many others, including myself, it is an experience that begins with excitement, but doesn’t have the happy ending.
After giving birth to my first daughter I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Odd right? I thought only soliders had that. Turns out mothers quite often get diagnosed after giving birth.  The symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, struggling to sleep, avoidance of certain places, persistent negative feelings about yourself, being easily irritable and a constant feeling of guilt, fear or shame. To name a few. I didn’t have all of these symptoms, but the ones that impacted my life the most were flashbacks, negative feelings about myself and persistent guilt. It hasn’t been my favourite life journey but it has been one that I’ve tried to be as open as possible about with my friends and family.
All these thoughts and feelings were triggered by one event – giving birth. So why am I back here in a situation where I have to do it again?
To put it simply, my love for my daughter and desire to have more than one child, as well as months of therapy has led me to feel like I can face this fear.  It will be easy right? “No two births are the same”, “babies come out much easier the second time round”, “you’ll be fine”, are the most common comments I receive when speaking abour my fear.  The truth is, before I fell pregnant I was adamant that when the time came I would have a cesarean.  
However, now that I am pregnant again I find myself reliving my daughter’s birth more frequently. My feelings of failure and incompetence are trying to reappear and I am panicking about delivery. What do I do? Avoid the trigger completely and ask for an elective c-section? Or try to heal old wounds and give it another go? The only problem is, I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know which option will make me feel better, and which might make me feel ten times worse. 
It has been two years since my daughter was born, but still on the eve of her birthday I layed in bed next to my husband sobbing, asking him when the flashbacks would stop and when I would stop feeling like such a failure for the way she was born. My midwife has referred me to the local mental health team to start therapy again, I have my first session in a couple of weeks. But I still have five months to decide what birth option is best for my baby and I.
Hopefully when I have made my decision I will update, but for now I’ll have to continue in this limbo of wondering what I should do. 

My Breastfeeding journey

I wanted to share my story of breastfeeding my daughter, because as I joined the club of breastfeeding mothers the only information I’d really had was what I was taught in antenatal classes and read in books. This didn’t fully prepare me for the roller coaster experience I was about to have.

Books, midwives and antenatal classes will offer you a brief account of what it’s like to breastfeed, one with rose tinted glasses. I was told that it wouldn’t really hurt, just “10 seconds of a toe curl” when I first started at each feed and then I’d be fine. My baby would gaze into my eyes as we bond over this special moment that no one else could share, and of course I’d be boosting her immune system to equate that of superman. (He never gets a cold does he?)

Whilst I enjoyed breastfeeding (so much easier to get out the house than faff with bottles and formula, what do I need? The two Bs – baby and boobs) and I was proud that I made it to 10 months with April, the initial journey wasn’t quite as easy as I had hoped.

The first 48 hours.

Let’s start with the initial doubts. When breastfeeding you haven’t got a bloody clue how much milk your baby is getting. You have to hope that it carries on until its little tummy is full and hopefully a few hours will pass until the next feed. I spent the first afternoon and night in hospital constantly asking the midwives to check if she was feeding okay, doubting myself and panicking that this tiny little baby was going to starve. She didn’t.  If this is you, relax. Your baby will cry if it’s hungry, that’s what they’re good at.

Secondly the pain. Okay it wasn’t equivalent to labour but my God having such a sensitive area in almost constant use for the first few days did some damage. Get some Lansinoh cream and apply after EVERY feed! If you want to know what it’s like, imagine the first few seconds like hundreds of little needles stabbing into your nipple, and when that pain is over think of it being rubbed with sandpaper for the duration of the feed.

Two words: nipple shields.  The NHS and midwives frown upon them but without them I would have given up. I used them for the first few seconds of the feed (the most painful part) and then quickly slipped them off. This avoided the concern of “nipple confusion” (a baby wanting a teat like a bottle instead of the real stuff) and the risk of mastitis, potentially caused by the baby not feeding enough because nipple shields make a feed less efficient apparently.

Night 2

Oh night 2…how I remember you! Top tip: get snacks out and movies ready. You won’t sleep tonight. I’m serious.

(If you get to night 2 and this hasn’t happened, expect it on night 3 or 4. It’s the night your milk comes in).

The milk has arrived

Once your baby pulls through your milk you will wake up in the morning with rock hard boobs probably about four cup sizes bigger than pre pregnancy. Think this sounds good? It’s not. It fucking hurts. They leak everywhere. It’s like someone forgot to turn the tap off. Get breast pads stat!

Friends and family

I was always adamant I wouldn’t be one of those people who hides away whilst feeding their baby. Why should I? It’s a natural thing and I feel that one of the reasons the breastfeeding rate is so low in this country is because we don’t see people doing it often enough. You can buy lots of clothes and scarves that will cover you up and once you and baby have the hang of latching on you won’t have to worry about the odd nip slip. It will be second nature and no one sees anything. Promise.

That said, in the early days you end up so obsessed with trying to make your baby latch properly that every Tom, Dick and Harry gets and eyeful of your boobs. Don’t worry. You’ll get over it, as will they.

Most of my friends and family were fine around me feeding. There were the odd few who felt uncomfortable, my 19 year old nephew was adamant he’d seen my boobs and was scarred for life, I know full well he hadn’t. My sister’s husband also took time to get used to it, whilst on holiday with them I had to feed April at the table when he was sitting opposite me, at the first sign of her needing to be fed he would physically turn sideways and lock his eyes on my sister. Luckily this didn’t bother me. I knew he wasn’t being rude, he just didn’t know what else to do.

Feeding in public

In my 10 months of breastfeeding April I never once had anyone come up to me and make a negative comment. If you don’t look out for it and get paranoid that everyone who looks your way is staring at you in shock and disgust then you’ll be fine. Be paranoid and you’ll misinterpret people’s actions.

Distractions

As April got older and more interested in her surroundings feeding became harder. As a newborn they can barely even see your face, let alone look around the room whilst feeding. Once April started to take an interest in everything around her it became harder and harder to feed on the go. I found myself heading to her nursery to feed in quiet so that she wouldn’t whip her head off every 2 minutes to check what was going on! I think this stage required the most patience for me and was the start of our breastfeeding journey coming to an end.

Going back to work

This was the other factor that contributed to me stopping feeding. When April was 10 months old I went back to work four days a week. I worked in central London, this meant 12 hours away from home. I went to work armed with my breast pump and cool bag to pump my missed feeds and store the milk. However pumping is hard work. It’s not as efficient as feeding directly and sometimes you can sit there for 20 minutes to only get 2oz of milk. My manager was incredibly understanding and let me go off to pump as and when I needed to, but I couldn’t shake that nagging feeling that everyone would think I was just skiving off and sitting in the medical room by myself.

Not to mention how boring it was! No mobile phone signal, no one to talk to, just me, my pump and the 4 walls. ZzZzz.

The final goodbye

So after 10 and a half months of breastfeeding we had both come to a natural end. April no longer demanded the feeds she used to have, my supply gradually declined and we made the transition to formula.

I made sure that I knew when our last feed was going to be so I could remember it, and I still do. It wasn’t anything special, just a normal feed time but it gave me closure. 

I won’t lie, I cried the first time we gave her formula. I hated the thought of feeding her something that was designed in a lab somewhere by strangers. Until then she had only ever eaten natural things. This was alien to me and it made me feel incredibly uncomfortable.

Of course I know now that formula wasn’t going to poison her, she didn’t seem to know a difference and it was given to thousands of babies in the UK so who am I to say it’s not good enough for my child? It was probably insecurity more than anything, I hated feeling as though I had been replaced.  She had it for two or three months and then made the transition to cows milk. Now I’ve been replaced by a farm animal instead of a lab – awesome.

Oh and if you get told that formula will help your baby sleep it’s a lie. April’s sleep stayed just as shit on formula as it did on breast milk. It’s a myth. So if/when you make that transition don’t expect a miracle!

The end

As a fairly anxious mother who always panics that she’s not doing the best for her daughter and always questions her parenting it’s safe to say that breastfeeding is one of the things I feel really proud of doing. I stuck with it when I felt like giving up and for the first six months of my daughter’s life outside the womb I was the only thing that kept get growing. That’s a pretty awesome feeling.

Special delivery

Firstly I’d like to say that my birth story isn’t the worst in the world, in fact it’s probably quite a common tale for first time mums. I’ve known of women who have had far worse times than I did, I’ve known women who have had to have blood transfusions and women who have ruptured their bowels during labour. But for me, it’s the mental scars that have lasted far longer than the physical ones. It’s 13 months on from when I gave birth and re-living it still brings me to tears and fills me with feelings of failure, dread, anxiety and fear. 

This is a hard one for me to write but I think I need to address what happened and how I felt. It will be long so please be patient.

It was about 3am on Saturday 25th April when I first realised I was in labour. “Excellent!” I thought, “I’m finally going to meet my baby girl, my journey to motherhood starts here”.  I was excited, I was happy, I was feeling positive.  

Fast forward a few boring hours (no one warns you that usually the first time round it takes bloody ages!) and in the early hours of Sunday 26th April I was admitted into hospital, still breathing well through contractions and feeling ready to take on the challenge of giving birth. 

As the day went on my contractions worsened, I was given paracetamol for the pain (all mums will tell you this is an absolutely pointless drug that has no effect what so bloody ever on you during a contraction!). By 12pm on Sunday my waters broke and wow did the contractions intensify! My positivity was dwindling as I felt as though my body was being ripped apart from the inside out. But my contractions still weren’t regular enough to be taken onto the labour ward. I spent the next 8 hours breathing heavily, throwing up and occasionally crying. I was ready for the drugs now. Where were the bloody drugs?

At 8pm I was finally taken onto the labour ward, given an epidural and hooked up to a heart monitor so the midwife could track what was happening. Time to relax. The contractions were still happening but I no longer felt as though I was on the verge of exploding. Queue a quiet few hours, watching Monsters Inc on Netflix, chatting to the midwife and getting back to my calmer but excited self.

At around midnight I noticed the sound on the heart rate monitor kept slowing down, from a gallop to a steady walk. I mentioned it to my midwife and she said she would monitor it but that the baby’s heart rate was dipping every now and then. 

After monitoring it for a while the midwife decided to get a Doctor to come and look at the stats, he said to keep monitoring and he would come back to see how we were doing.  The dips in the heart rate started getting more severe and more frequent, worry was setting in. The midwife called the Doctor back in and they decided to take some blood from the baby’s head to check she was okay. Whilst they were very good at acting calm I knew something wasn’t right. I knew this baby would need to be born soon and that’s when I kept getting awful images flashing into my head of the worst case scenario. The worst part was that I couldn’t do anything about it, my fate and that of my daughter were in the hands of effectively, two strangers. I laid there obsessively listening to the monitor, every time her heart rate dropped so did mine. I started to think my baby was going to die. I was going to live the nightmare so many parents worry about during pregnancy. I would never take my baby home. 

It was just after 7am on Monday 27th April and I had been listening to my little girl’s heart rate dip for 7 hours now and I knew I needed to get her out. The midwives let me start pushing and boy did I push! I used every ounce of energy I had left after being awake for two days and I pushed, I was so close to holding her in my arms. I knew she would be safe once she was with her mummy and nothing was more important to me right now than holding her tight and telling her she would be okay.
I had been pushing for an hour and the midwives called it. She wasn’t coming out, her hand was up by her head, her umbilical cord was around her neck and the position she was in meant she wasn’t going to be delivered naturally. That’s when they mentioned that awful word. ‘Forceps’. I panicked. This wasn’t in my birth plan. I had specified anything but Forceps, even if it meant a c-section. I had heard horror stories about children being brain damaged after forceps deliveries and I wasn’t about to let that happen to my baby girl because my stupid body couldn’t get her out. But it was out of my control, the Doctor said they wouldn’t be able to get me down to theatre quick enough and they needed to deliver her immediately. My heart rate went through the roof, I felt sick.  I just wanted this to be over. “Can I use the gas and air?” I asked. I told myself that if I got high enough I could block this memory out of my head forever, I could get so high I wouldn’t know what was going on, I wanted to be knocked out. But it didn’t work. I still remember it.  I remember the sound of the snip, I remember my body being pulled down the hospital bed from the force of the forceps, I remember screaming louder than I’ve ever screamed before, I remember giving one last push to help her out and finally, there she was. My little girl, safely on my chest.
Thank fuck for that.
I breathed a sigh of relief and burst into tears. “You naughty little girl, you scared your mummy and daddy” I said to her as my husband cried with a mixture of fear and relief. And I knew it was over.
Giving birth was my marathon. I was one step away from the finish line and I had collapsed. It was all or nothing, and I felt as a though I had achieved nothing. I had failed.
This happened over a year ago and although physically I’m fine, mentally I’m struggling to forgive myself. As a mother I am supposed to keep my baby safe and that weekend my body failed me. A woman’s body is built to give birth, women give birth on roadsides, in public loos, on trains for God’s sake and I can’t even bloody manage it with the guidance of a midwife telling me when to push.
Someone else had to do my job for me and if I’m honest, it makes me feel as though I didn’t deserve to keep her, to take her home and to call myself her mother. It makes me feel like I cheated. I hadn’t crossed the finish line but I was still given the medal.
If it had been down to me alone I’m certain her and I would have died and I re-live those final couple of hours on a weekly basis in some kind of sick self-torture. I can’t listen to stories of people giving birth because it fills me with jealousy and resentment – why can they do it and I couldn’t? I constantly wish I could go back and try again, maybe if I had pushed a bit harder, maybe if I had pushed just one more time? I know in reality it was out of my control and I didn’t do anything wrong, but unfortunately I can’t seem to apply that logic to my emotions.
I haven’t written this post as some sort of self-indulgent pity-party. I’ve written it because even if one woman who went through a similar experience reads it and feels as though she’s not alone then it’s worth it.
In this society of social-media bragging, we’re constantly fed stories of women who gave birth in the bath, listening to their specially selected playlist whilst holding their husband’s hand. That’s lovely for them, it really is, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t hate every person who had such a straight forward delivery. No one posts about the negative experiences because we’re too busy trying to block it out, too busy hating ourselves for what happened, and too busy being jealous. It’s okay if you struggled, and it’s okay that you didn’t sneeze your baby out in a field full of daisies as the sun rises, because that’s just life. At the end of the day we all got the same present – a newborn baby and we are all about to start the same chaotic, stressful, joyful and tough journey of being a mum.