Other than the usual aches and pains, I was blessed with a very easy and normal pregnancy. As my pregnancy progressed and my baby girl would do her daily gymnastics routine in my tummy, I eagerly counted down the days until I would finally get to hold her for the first time earthside.
I was horribly ill through my labour, vomiting, freezing cold and shaking all over. Everything that I thought would bring me comfort when writing my birth plan seemed to make the pain worse or would cause Olena’s heart rate to drop. For over 30 hours I worked until I could not take it anymore and I agreed to an epidural. At this point, these strong contractions were not dilating my cervix any further, and we hoped that the epidural would allow my body to relax and do what it needed to do.
When I made the decision to take the epidural, there was no going back. I had given up all determination, and I just wanted the pain to be gone. I needed rest, and from what I had heard, women could even sleep after having an epidural. I’d been awake for almost two days at this point, and I was desperate.
To my horror, it didn’t work.
Initially, the medical team did not believe me when I told them that there was no change to my pain - however, after insisting with them, they agreed to try the epidural again. But first, they said they would need to take bloods from me first and check my temperature.
This was when they realised why I had been so sick – my temperature was close to forty degrees and indicated that I probably had an infection. I was given more aggressive antibiotics through my IV and was told that I could not have another epidural. I was at breaking point and knew I could not take it anymore.
The midwife said to the doctor, “Should we look at doing a c section?” and the doctor replied, “No, keep going for a few more hours.” I looked at my husband, and it was at that moment I realised my mortality. I wasn’t going to die, I know that now, but at that point, I knew I could not go on any longer.
It was Sam, my husband, who went and spoke to the doctor and told him that enough was enough, we needed to go and have a c section. I don’t think he could handle seeing me in so much pain and so unwell any longer. At first, I felt relieved and then immediately guilty; that was the first time I felt like I had failed her.
Most of the surgery itself is a blur in my memory; however, I do remember the moment she was pulled from my body. I waited for a cry, and there was no sound. I peaked at her above the curtain, and her tiny perfect lips were blue, and they rushed her away to the side of the theatre to resuscitate her.
And right then, that was the second time I felt like I had failed her.
Thankfully, the medical team were able to breathe life into my girl, and she was given to me for the first time. The toll of such a long labour was obvious; her face was swollen with her eyes trying to peep through tiny slits. I thought to myself, “What have I done?” And again, I had failed her for a third time.
Those few precious minutes together were so surreal and ended much too quickly when she was taken away while I was wheeled into recovery. I remember thinking that this wasn’t right for us to be separated so soon after meeting. When we finally met again, she had a cannula in her hand with a splint taking up her entire arm.
My Olena, she was beautiful there is absolutely no doubt. I was completely besotted with her however so fearful of failing her again. The duration of my hospital stay was filled with countless more moments where I felt like I continued to fail and fail and fail until I finally broke and had a panic attack.
I remember feeling so unsure, so scared, so overwhelmed – how was I going to care for this beautiful girl when I’d failed her countless times when we hadn’t even left the hospital yet? To calm me down I remember being smothered in warm blankets and given a sedative however my body, so full of adrenaline still fought and I did not sleep. Despite this, I was not given any follow-up care around my mental health and sent home without any further support from the hospital.
The impact that Olena’s birth had on my mental health, my relationship with my husband, my relationships with friends and my relationship with myself was debilitating. I stopped being social, I did not ask for or accept any help from others, and I had an overpowering need to feel in control.
Although I needed to be in control, I struggled to make decisions about how to best care for her in fear that I would fail her. I was so afraid, and my need for control was a way for me to cope.
It wasn’t until I fell pregnant with my second daughter, Lucy, that I learnt that I had experienced a traumatic birth. While my birth story may sound similar to other women, and I have friends with very similar stories to mine, what I learnt is that it is not necessarily the events of the labour that make it traumatic, it is the women’s perception and experience. For me, Olena’s birth was a reminder that I had failed and I didn’t know whether I could do it again.
While I was happy to learn of my pregnancy with Lucy, I couldn’t shake this feeling of fear and guilt. I pushed it down and kept on going until one day, I just could not continue to deny my emotions any longer.
When I was sixteen weeks pregnant, I completely broke down. It was a Thursday, and I drove to work; however, I fought back tears the whole way there in the car. I was working as a social worker, and I had this overwhelming sense of guilt as I felt like I could not look after myself let alone support and care for those who are most vulnerable in our community.
I arrived at work, parked my car, and I could not bring myself to get out. I cried and cried until I was a horrible mess. Once I calmed myself down, I called my manager, feigned being ill and drove myself home. My beautiful husband came home from work and took me to see the doctor where I was put on a mental health plan. It was through therapy that I learnt my birth experience with Olena was traumatic, and I was experiencing PTSD as well as antenatal depression and anxiety. To get me through the rest of my pregnancy, I relied on regular therapy sessions as well as the support of my close friends and family. I needed to ask for and accept help because I knew that I was not going to survive my pregnancy if I didn’t. There were days where Sam would have to physically drag me out of bed, days where I would break down and cry in front of Olena. She would look at me while I cried, and I would feel guilty for her seeing me like that and then I would cry some more.
With the right support, the darker days were fewer, and the brighter days came, and I knew that I was getting better. I started to accept my birth story as something that had happened to me but not something that defined who I was or the type of mother I am. I now know that I am not defined by my birth story. I am not a failure. I am enough.
To any mother reading this who may feel this resonates with her, please know that you are not defined by your birth story. You are enough, you are valuable, and you are an amazing mother.
Through my own experience and my professional background as a social worker, I now want to support other women, other mothers in their own journeys. Let’s do this together.