This week is birth trauma awareness week and inside my heart feels heavy.
I spend my days listening to the stories of those affected by the birth of their babies and see the pain that is etched on their hearts and minds.
Awareness matters, it helps those who may otherwise have no idea how birth can affect a family understand the impact that a difficult birth can have both physically but also emotionally. The impact is like a shockwave crashing into every aspect of life, bonding, feeding, relationships, everything.
Despite this it still feels like we have our heads in the sand. Every now and again those who care for women during pregnancy and birth will lift their heads and take a peak into our world, the world of being a survivor of birth trauma. Sadly though this often feels done out of pity. Comments such as ‘well you didn’t prepare enough, you didn’t work with your body, you didn’t realise the impact of inventions or pain medications or being strapped to a bed to be monitored.’ There is also the dismissal of ‘your baby is healthy and safe, be grateful’ or the excuses of working in an understaffed, pressured system. Many become defensive and claim that is it to do with ‘how women give birth these days’ or because birth is ‘over medicalised’, even that they have too high expectations.
For me I didn’t have time to prepare for pre-eclampsia that was killing my organs, killing my baby, killing me. I had no choice but to be induced at 34 weeks to save the life inside me that my body was failing to nurture. I had no choice but to accept the interventions that removed my haemorrhaging placenta and saved my life.
Yet what was a choice was the way I was cared for. Those over my care had a choice about calling me silly, weak, dramatic and needy. They had a choice about their words that were cruel, cutting, biting and damaging. They had a choice about standing over me with masked faces, telling me I would die. They had a choice about slapping my leg or laughing while injecting my black and blue thighs everyday while telling me to toughen up. They had a choice about turning a blind eye while I wheeled myself down to the neonatal unit to see my sick baby because they said they were too busy or telling me that if I wanted to eat I needed to leave my baby and come back to the ward. They had a choice whether to check my test results, which, instead due to their neglect, left me fighting for life on a hospital floor.
No preparation could have protected me from the choices made by those who were suppose to care for me.
My head tried to blame me, to make me believe I was weak, at fault and defective. My heart in the weeks, months and years after strove to bury all that I had been through, to silence it. Guilt was my companion, that walked with me daily.
Time and therapy has allowed me to grieve my experience, to see that trauma wasn’t my fault. I was a victim, a victim of abuse, poor care and neglect. Its not pity I need, or once in while, a lifting of heads out of the sand to look my way, only to judge me for speaking out, for telling the truth, for trying to make a difference. What I need is the same as what I needed those years ago in hospital when I was scared, frightened and alone, namely kindness, compassion and respect, not pity.
So why is my heart heavy?
I fear that the voices of families are not being heard. I have made my peace with those that abused me, who neglected me, even though they may never know how their actions damaged me, leaving scars I will always carry. I see many who are striving to positively care for families, trying hard to give all they can to make birth positive even in the most difficult of situations. But I also see many who are are not, those who are still causing pain, who are treating others with unkindness, still not listening. There are others who have their heads in the sand refusing to acknowledge that trauma happens and that often poor care is the reason.
Day in and day out I hear the pain, I see the damage caused in the eyes of those who a struggling. I hear the cries of anguish and sorrow. I wonder who is truly listening? Who is listening to the reasons so many are feeling traumatised from birth. Who is listening to those who are speaking out to say this is how we can make a difference?
So while we argue about policies, evidence or about where birth should be. While we defend our actions, or blame the pressures of a system. While we may offer platitudes to those who are hurting, only to return our head to the sand, remember this.
No matter how bad the situation is, no matter what the interventions are or where a woman gives birth. No matter what the pressures, or the system demands of you. You have a choice. A choice to listen. To lift your head, to open your heart to hear those who are hurt and in pain. To listen and understand, not with pity, but with empathy. To let it move you to question your actions and words, to change and make sure that women and families are at the centre of everything you do. Because this isn’t your birth, its mine, it’s theirs. You can at the end of the day walk away, go home to your family and forget. We can’t we carry it with us, the lost moments, the pain and guilt, the lives torn apart and harrowing memories.
However, even in the most awful of circumstances kindness and compassion can shield those affected. We have seen this on the news when a tragic event happens. It is the kindness that shines brightly, that buffers the pain and carries those who have been hurt through.
So I will continue to raise my voice, to speak up for those who like me are survivors of birth trauma. I will continue to remind those who care for families in birth that we must listen to these voices and let them lead us as to how we can improve services. That emotional wellbeing matters just as much as physical wellbeing. Our voices may be hard to hear, an echo that reminds us that sometimes we fail to give the care we should, or that we must do better. This is not an attack, but a plea to say, let us do this together, let us take the good and the bad and use it to make birth better for all.
Yes awareness matters, but what matters more is that the awareness becomes actions that mean changes in all of us so that together we can reduce trauma from birth for families everywhere.