One in three women in the modern world describe their birth experience as traumatic. These are births that are taking place in million-dollar facilities with highly trained professionals, yet something is so broken that most women are walking away heavy-hearted. So why are so many of us feeling out of control, despite months of emotional and physical preparation?
Since the birth of my daughter I have, almost obsessively, set out to answer this question. The adrenalin of her arrival has already started to fade, and I am left with a hollow feeling of disappointment. I feel like there has been some kind of misunderstanding, that I was handed a birth meant for someone else. Late at night, as I halfheartedly scroll shopping websites while breastfeeding, my mind wanders back to that day, searching for clues as to where I went wrong.
If this seems like a privileged position to take up, you’re absolutely right. The sliding scale of birth tragedy moves well beyond my experience: how lucky I was, in the end, to come home with a healthy baby and a body set for a full recovery. But there’s danger in denying the experience of emotional trauma. The attitude of ‘healthy mum, healthy baby’ silences the many women who have walked away harbouring heavy blocks of grief, anger, and regret. Like me, these women will look back at the early days of motherhood not with a halcyon glow of love and achievement, but something darker. A toxic sludge that oozes into little corners and sticks. Regret.
‘Emotional birth trauma’ is a relatively new concept. Previously, the focus was almost solely on the physiological experience of birth. But over the last two decades, holistic thought leaders offered a new way of approaching childbirth — no longer did you have to hand over complete control to the doctors and midwives. Authors like Marie Mongan (founder of the ‘hypnobirthing’ movement) and midwife Jane Hardwick-Collins encouraged women to take the wheel, believing interventions should be selective, not the norm. By taking an active role during your pregnancy you’ll be rewarded.
The message was clear: you, and you alone, have the control to create the birth you desire.
This concept sparked a whole wellness industry focused on birth preparation and avoiding birth trauma. Here, we see the idea of ‘good birth’ and a ‘bad birth’ start to emerge. A positive birth was one that had a sense of control — perhaps you fought off fear to birth at home, or resisted painkillers to experience the euphoria of natural birth. A bad birth, on the other hand, implied a sense of failure. Many of the lessons alluded to unnecessary intervention being a direct result of a mother’s anxiety. That is to say, preventable.
For me, a ‘good birth’ was one without from medical intervention, guided with drug-free techniques like meditation and hypnobirthing. It isn’t much of a struggle to identify why: the early days of my pregnancy were littered with the standard lineup of doctors appointments, hospital appointments, and tests. Every other week I was getting my blood tested, my urine tested, my stomach measured, my weight taken. One month I was told I was underweight due to constant vomiting, the next month I was overweight and instructed to diet.
Online and social media algorithms hustled me into a digital pigpen along with the rest of the nervous first time mums. Cornered, I was targeted with advertising from holistic health networks offering everything from prenatal counselling to pregnancy acupuncture, dietary advice and maternity vitamins. Between the medical fraternity and the holistic community, I was being given a dangerous message: it wasn’t enough to just be pregnant — I had work to do.
As my pregnancy progressed, new complications emerged. There was mysterious bleeding, prolonged vomiting, then the discovery my daughter was lying in a breech position. Anxious and overwhelmed, I became obsessed with avoiding a ‘bad birth’. So much so, in fact, that I switched streams at 30 weeks from a hospital birth to a home birth. With that came a slew of additional preparations: sourcing a private midwife, speaking to my family and neighbours, organising birth pools and hoses and blankets and towels. And, most notably, the mental gymnastics of considering a homebirth, something I’d always considered to be irresponsible and misguided. But a hospital birth might lead to intervention, and that was well and truly in the ‘bad birth’ column.
What this left me with was nine months of intensive preparation. Not a day went past that I wasn’t visiting an acupuncturist or a chiropractor, burning Chinese herbs next to my toes, or lying upside down on an ironing board propped against the wall. (A common technique to ‘spin’ breech babies.) I made aggressive motivational notes to pin around the house with messages like, ‘My birth is in my control’. I stayed up late reading birthing books, saw my doula once a week and my midwife every few. I made playlists and Ayuvedic postpartum meals. I cooked so much we had to buy a second freezer to house it all. I cooked so much we’re still eating those meals.
So what happens, when you spend almost a year in a state of frenzied preparation? You begin to turn the birth into a competition.
It’s you versus you, battling it out using only the power of positive thinking and the holistic bible of good behaviour. You would think with so much preparation I would have felt ready, even excited. But instead I had worked myself into such a state of expectation that I felt I was owed the birth I wanted. Sure, things can go wrong, I thought — but not for me. I had done the work and it was time to be rewarded.
Of course, that’s not how birth works. The unimaginable became imaginable. My daughter, now 10 days overdue, had stopped moving. We were rushed through to hospital, where a lack of beds meant we needed to transfer to another regional hospital an hour away. The birth lasted three days, and over the course of that time there were many terrible moments that I find hard to let go of. But I will not easily forget the feeling as I walked through our house en route to the hospital, grieving the birth I had worked so hard for.
Earlier that morning, my partner and I had done a happy dance in the Sunday morning sunshine, celebrating the first signs of labour that had come on overnight. We were practically skipping with excitement as we checked off the birth preparations: pool, pool liner, hose, blankets, towels, exercise ball, candles. The cats dashed around our ankles as we made breakfast and listened to Stevie Wonder. The wind chimes tinkled outside and shot rainbows around the kitchen. I had thoughts about a warm bath, beginning my mental and physical descent into the birth ahead.
Just an hour later, we were racing back from the midwife clinic in a state of panic. I was running around the house, throwing into a bag anything and everything that I felt could save me from the evils of a hospital birth. So ridiculous was my state of mind that fairy lights — fairy lights — seemed more important than anything else. There would be no labouring in our warm living room, no being surrounded by friends and loved ones. No celebrating with the lasagne I had baked the week earlier, in the freezer with a secret note that said ‘Congratulations Daddy, we made it!’ No first night as a family tucked up in our bed. I could almost feel all my hard work slipping through my fingers and the dull, heavy knowledge that, despite it all, I was going to join the ranks of women who hated their birth.
I am ashamed to say that the grieving of my ‘perfect birth’ was so intense, it almost matched the grief I felt for my daughter’s safety. What an ugly thing to admit.
I have questioned over and again how I arrived at this state of mind. What I have realised is that it was death by a thousand cuts. There is no one source to point the finger at, no one specific to blame. Like all new mothers, I had simply become a sponge that soaked up anything and everything that came into my path: if you told me that it would absolve me of my pregnancy sins, I’d do it. When I was taught that birth was an experience that could bend and mould to my will, I believed it. What I didn’t understand was the infinite complexity of bringing a child into this world: anything can go wrong. There is no preparation. There is just you, in that moment, and the way you choose to respond. Overcome with disappointment, I responded with resistance and panic, and I am still feeling the pain of that defeat today.
The danger of handing over so much of the responsibility for a ‘good birth’ to the mother, you see, is that you also pass across full responsibility for her ‘bad birth’ too.
I still feel a flush of shame that I had not tried hard enough. Over and again, as the birth went from bad to worse, I came up against a character I had created of my own volition: the perfect birthing woman. When I had to be induced, I saw her roll her eyes. When, after twelve hours of unmedicated labour I begged for an epidural, I felt her groan in disappointment. Right up until the final moments, where my midwife urgently asked for permission for an episiotomy, I felt her judgement and a deep, burning shame.
My story is not unique. I speak often with other new mothers about this experience of disappointment, and they have all shared their own version of failure. It didn’t matter what path we had taken — even the women who had flung plans to the wind, wholeheartedly accepting a hospital birth with whatever method, felt stung by their inadequacy. C-section scars and breastfeeding woes and sleepless nights all were traumas that were, apparently, self inflicted.The sadness seems to sink deep into our bones, the early days of motherhood seeped with a recurring nightmare of ‘What if?
If only we had tried harder. Maybe things could have been different.
The first thing I did after the birth was delete my Instagram account. Images of homebirth were particularly triggering: red-faced women, grinning wildly, clutching newborns in their living room surrounded by family and candles and pet dogs. That was where I had planned to be. That is where I deserved to be. Instead, I was battling a sense of crushing failure. As the months tick over, putting more and more time between myself and my daughter’s birth, that intensity has become to soften, but the feelings don’t really change. I read somewhere the other day that grief doesn’t shrink over time, we simply change shape in order to better house it. Disgusted with my body’s inadequacies during birth, I have thrown myself into fitness. Each new goal is a little revenge upon myself, a reminder that I am strong and motivated, despite what transpired in that hospital room. I held a placenta burial, a moment to reclaim some of the ritual I had so badly desired for my birth. At the burial, I made my family listen to the birth story one last time. I let my doula tell me that I was brave and strong. I allowed others to witness my grief. I carved out an opportunity to, quite literally, bury some of the pain.
Women have spent entire swathes of our lives stuck between binary concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Good girls and bad girls. Good bodies and bad bodies. We have always had to juggle this black-and-white view on everything from our relationships, sex lives, parenting abilities, intellect, religion, politics, and everything else that can be divided and conquered. It only makes sense that we adopt a polarised mentality about our births. But birth, I have realised, cannot be approached this way. Despite the deepening division between the medical system and the holistic birthing community, you do not have to choose one or the other. You do not have to have to work overtime for nine months to win the chance of a a ‘good birth’, nor do you have to spend the rest of your life carrying around the guilt of a ‘bad birth’.
There is, quite simply, birth.