It took a long time for me to gather the nerve to write about the pregnancy anxiety I experienced. I didn’t know it had a clinical name. I didn’t know it was a real “thing”. I thought I was just unfit to be a mother.
I’m sharing the birth story of my daughter and my struggle as a way not only to move forward but also to help those that may be feeling isolated by anxiety.
Ptsd and childbirth
I have flashbacks about the night Elliott was born. My heart races when I see operating theatres on tv, the blue and green scrubs, the hairnets.
Even 6 months after she was born, I wouldn’t touch my scar for fear of my insides falling out. I was talking to my Grandmother recently and she was trying to persuade me to have another baby sooner rather than later so that my daughter will grow up with a sibling close in age.
I just chuckled and said it wasn’t for us for a few years at least.
Another reason I’ve not sat down and written what happened is that I have a kind of guilt surrounding Ellie’s prematurity. She was born at 32 weeks gestation and through our time spent at the NICU and the people that we met both online and in various groups, I began to consider 32 weeks as “fine”. As in, 32 weeks was on the older side of prematurity and compared to lots of bubs, she was doing really well.
She was a “feeder and grower” in the NICU, she never experienced any health complications, was on oxygen for a very short amount of time and there was never a time, aside from the few days after her birth, that I was concerned for her health. I felt guilty that she was fine when there were and are so many babies that are sick or that don’t get to experience life at all. I felt for a long time (and to be honest yeah, I still hold this belief) that I wasn’t allowed to experience any grief over Ellie’s birth and her time in the hospital because it wasn’t as dire as others experiences.
When Ellie came home, we realised that 2 months early most definitely still qualifies as a preemie baby and everyone she met was genuinely concerned for her/ interested in her story.
She’s so little! Aren’t you worried about, you know….her development?
So I guess I have a right to my feelings surrounding her birth and first few weeks of life, I just thought I didn’t.
To get to Ellie’s actual birth we have to discuss a fear I didn’t know I had until I became pregnant. I remember being 16 weeks pregnant and absolutely terrified of giving birth. I didn’t want a C-section necessarily though I thought I’d rather die than experience a vaginal birth. I honestly hadn’t considered how my baby was going to exit my body when the time came until then. I sat sobbing at my first appointment at the midwife run clinic.
I can’t! I’ll die if I have to push her out! I’ll lose too much blood and she’ll get stuck and the cord will be wrapped around her neck and you’ll give me a dead baby.
Yeah, my thoughts were pretty catastrophic.
“We’ll deal with the logistics when it gets closer to the time” said my midwife, her eyes filled with understanding.
Like many a first time mum, I paid ridiculously close attention to any twinge or pain, convinced something was wrong with me. After experiencing Braxton Hicks for the first time, coupled with a feeling like my period was on the horizon, I promptly freaked the fuck out and headed to the Maternal and Fetal Assessment Unit (MFAU).
When it turned out nothing was wrong (duh) I found myself overwhelmed with ~feelings~.
I sat blubbering in a recliner chair, attempting to verbally swindle my way out of having to give birth. (As though there was an option to press an “eject” button and have my baby launched into the stratosphere only to somersault and return safely to my arms).
A midwife got in contact with the Registrar on shift to come and have a chat to me, I was preparing for a talking down, the same narrative of “your body is made for this, when the time comes, you’ll be able to give birth”.
“Tokophobia” the Dr said calmly.
There’s a word for it?
“It’s very common, and it is grounds for an elective c-section, even in a public hospital like this”.
I didn’t believe her. I thought I was being told what I wanted to hear to calm me down.
“I’ll make you an appointment for your next clinic visit to meet with the Obstetrician who can sign off on the section, considering your gestational diabetes on insulin, they may want to have you go to 37-38 weeks only”.
After 6 hours of panic attacking (whatever, I’m making it a verb) we left the hospital with a rough plan and I felt for the first time in weeks that I could breathe a little easier.
We went home and Googled tokophobia (pregnancy anxiety) and found a plethora of results, questions on mummy forums, blog entries and of course, Wikipedia.
Why doesn’t anyone in real life talk about this?
I wondered aloud to my husband.
A few weeks after my MFAU freakout, I attended the appointment with the OB to be assessed as to whether I was suitable for an elective C-section. I felt clammy with anticipation, this was one of the first times in my life I had to really advocate for myself and my mental health and I was scared.
After what felt like a very awkward first date where I overshared and yes, cried… I had “approval”, a c-section it would be! I was still terrified but was no longer convinced that I would die in childbirth.
Although the weight has lifted, I still felt like a failure, I wasn’t a “real” woman was I? Why wasn’t I brave? What about vaginal births and all the good things it provides babies with? Was I selfish? The internet would have me think so. I read time and time again “if you’re too posh to push you don’t deserve a child!”
First off, I have been called lots of things but never “posh”. It’s not a case of thinking I’m better than anyone or that I shouldn’t have to go through the pain of labor, I didn’t think I’d be cheating the system by getting cut open.
I sat with my first round of “mummy guilt” for around 4 weeks, wondering if I’d made a mistake, if my prenatal yoga teacher was right and that my body possessed everything necessary to birth this baby.
So we had decided on an elective c-section as my mental state was worsening with every day I thought about the birth. As I researched I realised a trend I hadn’t before.
The justification around c-sections. It seemed each forum and article I read about c-section births, the mothers had a common message, that it wasn’t their choice to have their baby that way, and if they had their way, these women would prefer a natural* birth.
I felt I was wrong for not longing for a natural delivery, and felt that I was planning and structuring an experience that was supposed to be spontaneous and instinctive. But that was what frightened me so much!
I will mention one blogger I found, Amber who’s honest accounts of pregnancy anxiety I devoured and made me feel less alone.
Natural labor and delivery, to me, seemed to require the abandonment of control and anxiety, coupled with a natural intuition and deep knowledge of my own body, and I didn’t feel I possessed a modicum of that.
Premature birth anxiety
My 32-week midwife appointment arrived and I waddled to my appointment, my tailbone on fire and my bladder annoyingly full. I did the dipstick test like normal and was a bit confused when it came back this colour.
Shit man, am I a bodybuilder with all that protein?!
The midwife hid the bp monitor screen from me (as to not freak me out) while she took my blood pressure. She took it a further 3 times over the course of the hour. I went off to the diabetes checkup part of my clinic visit and started to get an overwhelming headache.
The midwife called through to MFAU and I was sent up for monitoring.
I called my husband in a rush, wanting my phone charger and a cuddle (what priorities!). After a few hours of sitting with a trace and having my blood pressure checked every 15 minutes, I was given a bed to stay on the delivery ward.
Saturday went by in a blur of smuggled in snacks and headaches until Adam left in the evening. I’d been given a needle in my thigh for the babies lung development, as it was being said that I’d deliver before 36 weeks.
Alone in my room after dinner, I began to feel really wrong. Like I was going to literally explode. My whole body had swollen so my skin was stretched taut, my headache was only getting worse and I was seeing stars. My whole body was shaking and I wanted to run.
“Somethings wrong, I think I’m going mental, I don’t want to be pregnant anymore!” I told my favourite midwife, Patricia.
After consulting with the Doctor on shift she had more of my blood taken and we waited for results. I managed to squeeze off my wedding ring using a pretty pungent combination of hospital grade soap and antibacterial gel. I messaged my husband to get some sleep. At midnight (the drama never stops around here) two surgeons came and knocked at my door.
“I hear you’re not feeling well?” the older one had asked me.
You’re damn right I’m not feeling well buddy, what’s wrong with me? I shrugged a yes.
“Mrs Shaw, have you heard of pre-eclampsia?” the younger of the two asked as he read out my trace and eyeballed my blood pressure reading.
Um…yes I freaking have, I’ve been Googling it all afternoon! I nodded.
They calmly explained to me that I’d be prepped to have an emergency c-section and it’d be happening in 2 hours time, once the magnesium sulfate had gotten into my blood through a cannula.
Oh so they’ve got the wrong room, that’s awkward.
They walked out and Patricia walked back in, an apologetic smile on her face.
After she spoke to me I slowly began to realise that this was real. I called a family friend and frantically blurted “please pick up Adam, having the baby tonight, can’t do it without him”.
Within the next half hour, I was wheeled around to a room to start the drip and insert the catheter and all the other fun things. Adam walking into the room was one of the most heartwarming visuals I can recount to this day. His eyes were bleary and frantically searching, and even for his British-ness, he had gone exceptionally white.
I remember basically grabbing the anesthetist and making him swear that he would administer the strongest anti-emetics he had. According to me, my life was in his hands, screw whatever was happening below the curtain.
Finally, I was wheeled into the operating area (Operating Room? Operating Theatre? My knowledge starts and ends at Hugh Laurie’s House). The room flooded like backstage at a play, people of various medical professions all getting ready for the big event.
I held onto Adams’ shoulder while they gave me the spinal and shook as I looked into his eyes. A warmth spread over my body and one of the Doctors asked if I could feel that. Not even knowing what that was, I shook my head.
I was holding the anesthetists’ assistants hand (her name was Fran and she had a hair cover with Garfield on it) almost as hard as I was holding Adam’s.
I remember being incredibly unimpressed with Adam’s ability to navigate a hair tie. I just wanted it out of my face and in the end, felt I looked a little too close to The Flinstones Pebbles.
I recall being convinced that they were using a buzz saw to cut open my stomach. I felt like I could hear a whirring and imagined Dexter levels of blood being sprayed on the surgeons. In the middle of them digging around in the handbag of my stomach (that’s what it feels like, amirite?) I decided I needed to hear some music, and soon.
The Animal Crossing theme music began to play and I snapped no! Jack Johnson’s album In Between Dreams started playing (good choice). It happened so quickly and after a lot of beeping the curtain was lowered and the Doctors revealed their final magic trick, our 4lb-something pink-faced animatronic baby girl, complete with a full head of hair. If you’ve seen the beginning scene of Jurassic Park where the raptor hatches then you’ll have a good idea of what Elliott looked like that morning.
Is she breathing? Is she breathing?!
I can recall frantically yelling while they took her over to give her oxygen and pop her in the incubator.
Adam cut her cord, which was something I remember us discussing as being “gross” and not something he’d want to do. The video I have of him doing it he looks equals parts terrified and excited and that warms my heart. One of many you won’t know until you become a parent moments.
The “sewing up” took a lot longer than the first part of the c-section and in the meantime, Ellie was taken to the NICU, where she’d stay for the next 5 weeks. I was wheeled to a recovery area for monitoring for an hour. All I remember of this was declaring loudly and passionately “You’re all in such a noble profession, I love you all”. I don’t know if it was pain medication or adrenaline or what but I embarrassed myself a fair bit.
I’d be staying in the ICU for the next 12 hours and wouldn’t be able to see Ellie.
I sent Adam up to see our girl and take photos while I tried to stop shaking. Adam managed to swindle a chair to sleep in for the next few hours in the room with me while I listened to the gentle hum of the electronic leg compression boots (best invention ever).
I was having what felt like a marathon panic attack and was still unsure what was happening. I remember bursting into tears when a Doctor asked me how I felt physically. “I can’t feel her kicking me”. I’d been so used to her movements that I was convinced she was still inside me and that something was wrong.
I was wheeled up to see her, still in my bed around 12 hours later. At this point, she was still on CPAP (continuous positive airways pressure). In the photo below you’ll see me looking pretty confused. The first time I ever met her I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t understand that she was Earth-side and “born”. I stayed in the room for a grand total of 3 minutes before asking to leave. I was scared out of my mind.
Slowly and then all at once, after a few more visits I began to realise that this little baby was ours. I was able to finally hold her the next day and we began our NICU journey together as a family. But as you can imagine, that is another story.
*I know some people don’t like the term natural birth as a descriptor for a vaginal birth and prefer to call it “vaginal”. I understand this but tend to disagree. Vaginal births ARE the natural way our bodies are supposed to birth and differentiating between natural and c-section does not, in my eyes devalue a c-section mothers birth.