I want to share my experiences, as both a member of the public and as a professional within maternity services. My experiences extend across nearly 3 decades.
Realising I was 22 weeks pregnant was a shock. I was 22 and had just returned from Glastonbury Festival. I had been a vegan and restricted my food intake as I had gained weight. I became ill because of Listeriosis, and was admitted into a side room on the main corridor of the postnatal ward. I spent ten days there; I was disorientated, shocked and overwhelmed. I couldn’t process my situation, let alone bond with the developing person inside me. The ward was noisy and busy, people clattering up and down the corridor, shouting, talking loudly and there were lots of babies were crying. The only saving grace of this din was that it was almost constant. The lights were bright and the walls stark, clinical, and glaring. The smells were clean but unfamiliar to me. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
I went into spontaneous labour the day before my EDD (estimated due date). The hospital room was old and orangey. It was spacious with ample natural light. I went to second stage rapidly, I was terrified.
*As a student midwife I learnt that as the cervix fully dilates a surge of oxytocin and adrenaline assimilate the flight or fright reaction- ‘I can’t do this!’ (many yell). This ‘transition’ is quickly replaced with an automatic urge to push.
My labour was what is known as a precipitous labour – it was rapid. My pervasive bubble of dissociation was only partially rippled by the shock of sudden parenthood. The doctor who sutured my 2nd degree tear was unkind and didn’t believe me when I said that she was hurting me more than the delivery had. When she left, the midwife tried to encourage me to have a shower, but I just wanted to sleep. I lay with my physical and mental state mirroring each other. I asked them to watch the baby. I didn’t sleep, I just shut down. Like a pre-packaged sterile item from a shop, feeling absolutely no connection or bond. I stared into the plastic cot by my bed.
I developed post-natal depression including a relapse of anorexia and I’m indebted to my amazing health visitor Brenda, for supporting me through that time.
Despite the fiery baptism I had into parenthood, I had another child and I was able to prepare a little more. I had another precipitous labour, this time four weeks before my EDD. I was woken up at 2am with stomach ache and I worried about another bout of food poisoning and called the delivery suite.
Whilst on the phone, the midwife heard that I was ‘bearing down, so I was ‘bluelighted’ to hospital, strapped to monitors and they told me that no foetal heartbeat was detected. A scalp monitor was attached to the baby and late decelerations were seen; instrumental delivery imminent.
People were running in and out of the room, but I was in a pleasant delirium of Entonox, reliving one of my favourite Monty Python skits. I asked the midwife doing my episiotomy “what’s happening?” she explained the urgency – I swore, stopped chugging the Entonox and bared down like my life depended on it. Then, out she popped, free bird-Lynyrd Skynyrd; looking skyward less than two hours after I had woken with a gripey tummy.
*Android shaped pelvis increased the risk of a ‘mal presentation’. Compression of my bowel due to her position meant that I had the urge to push before I was fully dilated, it was this that the midwife heard, and if she hadn’t been astute to my silent intervals on the phone the outcome could have been very different.
Seventeen years after my first child was born, I stopped having the contraceptive injection. There’s no scope to explore ‘why’s’ here, but many years later- when I ‘should’ have been considering retirement plans – I was thinking of the parenting experience I never had.
Between ovulation and menstruation – a flow of hope that ebbed away every 2 weeks.
Each time, grief of non-existent potentiality. It was soul destroying. I was waning piece by piece. Then, my first known miscarriage – I bled for weeks, it was horrendous. A bitter reminder of what was, and what would not be, present continuously. Eventually, I adapted to a new state of pained normality. One day, whilst mindlessly weaving in and out of the Tesco aisles, my stepdaughter called me to tell me that she was pregnant.
I won’t lie; this woke me out of my blunted stupor of superimposed normality. Suddenly I felt the trauma I had suppressed, I felt so much pain.
I became pregnant later that year and on the 4th September, I had my anomaly scan. Sitting in that waiting room was torture – by now miscarriage was not singular, I had little hope or expectation, but this was the furthest I had got with a pregnancy.
In the silent ultrasound room, the sonographer almost imperceptibly froze, just saying that there was no heart rate would have been simple – but there was a mass which didn’t appear ‘normal’. I became detached and robotic. After what felt like an eternity, a registrar explained that I could go home and wait an indeterminable amount of time for the inevitable loss, or, I could be admitted and have a medically induced miscarriage.
I wanted it over, I was admitted and given a pessary to induce labour. My ‘sample’ was sent off for tests and the results were a Hydatidiform Molar Pregnancy. I found myself sitting in the early pregnancy scanning rooms again surrounded by pale, anxious looking people listening to the receptionist gossiping on the phone. The follow up for my molar pregnancy was months of blood tests; a molar pregnancy causes proliferation of trophoblastic cells (a tumour) and carries a risk of becoming malignant. All subsequent pregnancies require follow up blood tests as a single cell left behind can trigger proliferation again. I went from expecting a baby, to being monitored for cancer.
After ‘giving up’, I had another miscarriage and fell pregnant for the last time. I knew that my age could increase the risk of anomalies. I was dealing with so much in my life; I had PTSD and extreme anxiety, which I hid due to fear of discrimination.
Twenty-one years after my first child I had my last one. This time, unlike the first time, I entered an immediate state of hypervigilance. Obsessed about doing what was ‘right’. The sinister doctrine of ‘breast is best’ for intellectual development, childhood obesity and immunity fixed my actions to the point of obsessive obedience.
To me, it was literally life or death that I breast fed my child, despite an undiagnosed high palette and Raynaud’s in my nipples. I suffered the type of pain which made me cry every time she latched on and for hours afterwards. It was unbearable. I lost chunks of my nipple tissue and bit my lip resulting in a haematoma. I had OCD symptoms, severe anxiety and was suicidal. I was very unwell, but professionals assumed that I didn’t need help because of my job.
It took my friend a lactation consultant and my own research to identify the issues. The continuous fluconazole was stopped and instead, nifedipine prescribed. The pain stopped immediately. I was taught ‘the flipple technique’ which meant that my daughter finally latched properly after three months of inadequate milk transfer, my daughter was finally thriving.
My journey hasn’t been ‘usual’ and certainly not easy; but it was mine and it is unique. I have learnt and am still learning so much from the day I realised I was pregnant at 22, to my life now as an older parent. There isn’t a ‘right or wrong’. Some might say doing your best is good enough – but sometimes surviving might be all you can do. Reflecting on what’s best for you and your child(ren) (and partner if you have one) in better times should be a goal. Don’t be hard on yourself, get space to reflect and always remember that no matter who you are, sometimes all a person really needs is to have their feelings validated.
If you are going through perinatal care right now, remember your worth is equal, regardless of who you are. You deserve a discriminatory-free, well explained service that not only meets your needs, but makes you feel safe – and if possible, helps you to enjoy it.
If you are working in perinatal services, I am a fellow professional who has seen and experienced much. Curiosity about both the context and the individual who is in your care, can literally make a lifetime of difference. Assumptions and presumptions about people are often wrong and can be harmful and marginalising.
As a late diagnosed autistic person, I am particularly passionate that professionals understand the extent to which sensory processing can impact a person’s behaviour and mental wellbeing. For example, I shut down when I am overwhelmed, either due to sensory and/or information, emotional overload.
A quiet person is not always an OK person.
Pregnancy loss and trauma (from perinatal experiences) require trauma informed care and support as this can reverberate in echoes throughout a person’s life at the most unexpected times.