I realise that from the title this post may seem like a sudden about turn for me. Ever since my little boy came into our lives nearly 18 months ago I have regularly written about how I feel the subjects of pregnancy, birth, recovery and parenting are not talked about enough. Or rather, they are talked about plenty, but not in a realistic fashion. I’ve made it known that I feel women in particular have been sold many a lie about the reality of becoming a mother and that I fear this contributes to the huge amount of stress, loneliness and anxiety that I and many fellow new mums feel. The further along this journey I get, the more it resonates, so I am not in any way going back on those opinions – we really do need to talk about this more. The more we talk openly and honestly about our experiences the more we will drive out these outdated, romantic notions that motherhood is somehow some sort of natural calling that you will intuitively grasp the moment the time comes. Or that birth might be mega painful but not really a big deal because millions of other women have done it before you. Or that you won’t care about sacrificing an awful lot of what you used to consider necessities because you’ll just be so darn #humbleandblessed. Maybe one day we’ll be able to normalise the truth – that pregnancy can be debilitating, that birth can be traumatic and that toddlers can sometimes be massive arseholes – and not be shamed for admitting it.
So I don’t object to the idea that we should tell our birth stories – far from it. Please, please, please continue to share away. Even a year and a half on I still find comfort in hearing from other women and sharing my own experience and I’d encourage anyone who is either due to, or has recently, gone through it, to do the same. I reject the idea that we should shield pregnant women from too much of the potential drama that may or may not await them – in hindsight I wish I had made the effort to seek out more real life stories rather than focusing so heavily on the generic medical advice as it may have meant some of what came later was less of a shock and wouldn’t have shaken my confidence quite so much. You can never be truly prepared for birth as no two are the same, but so much of the less palettable details are kept like guarded secrets that it’s not uncommon for women to find themselves left with a body they no longer recognise, imagining they must be the only one. When I realised I was suffering mild prolapse a couple of months after Bailey’s birth, for example, I was devastated, feeling certain I must have ‘done something wrong’ during labour since I was confidently told by many that as long as I did my pelvic floors I would be fine. It was only after having my concerns largely dismissed by my GP and doing my own reading that I came to realise I was going through an entirely normal part of post partum recovery – one that many, many other women go through too. So go ahead and talk. I mean, read the room, obviously. If your best mate at 38 weeks is absolutely terrified and expressing fears she might not cope that probably won’t be the best time to tell her in glorious detail about how long it took them to stitch your nether regions back up, but when asked I don’t see why we should be pressured to gloss over the ugly parts – glossing over those ugly parts is exactly why, for many of us, our expectations have been so poorly managed.
What I do object to is this strange obsession we have with comparing those stories. In ranking them into some sort of weird hierarchy of horror. Perhaps it is due in part to the way we are forbidden to share too much of the truth with our expectant counterparts, but once we’ve passed that milestone it’s almost like joining some kind of secret society. Women who have gone through the experience, when given the chance, will suddenly gleefully gather to dissect the graphic details of each other’s trauma in hushed tones, eating up every word describing the pain, the blood, the screaming, the tearing…the more horrific the story the better. In some ways this is great – it’s cathartic, it’s reassuring and it can help you to feel less alone, and I think it’s heartbreaking there aren’t more outlets available for women to do this. But it also seems we cannot resist using this information as yet another way of competing with each other. You get brownie points if you did it drug free. A gold star for every hour of labour or extra pound the baby weighed. And we all know that EVERYONE has an opinion on elective C-sections… A lot of the time this is all meant to be positive – its a way of acknowledging and celebrating the sheer strength and resillience of women, the wonders their body can do and the pain they are able to endure. It paints women as tough and strong, and I would never for one second suggest it isn’t deserved praise. But I do think this specific focus on how hard or difficult each person’s experience was can have a negative impact too. It starts to polarise, for when you place someone’s birth experience in the camp of ‘difficult’, you instantly place someone else’s in the camp of ‘easy’ by comparison and herein lies the problem – absolutely no birth is easy.
I’m one of those women who is often placed on the ‘easy’ end of the spectrum, and when looking at it with an ice cold eye, that is kind of true. In the grand scale of things, Bailey’s birth was as uncomplicated as you can hope for one to be. My labour was relatively short, lasting only around 9 hours from my first contraction to delivery. He was a fairly small baby, weighing just 6lbs 8oz. I got the water birth I wanted, had minimal tearing and managed to forgo the drugs I was so afraid might make me feel confused or cloud my memories of meeting my boy for the first time. There were no emergencies, he was healthy, he took to breastfeeding immediately and I was home less than 24 hours after going into hospital. Yes, when you look at the whole range of things that can happen, mine is not what you would class as one of the worst by any stretch. The thing is though, that ‘easy’ experience we’re talking about was the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was the most pain I’ve ever had to endure. It was the most frightened and uncertain I’ve ever been, and while it would never be described as traumatic, I had, and still have, lasting trauma. My physical recovery took months. My mental recovery is not complete, and honestly, I’m not sure it ever will be, not fully. That thing people so like to tell me was easy was a life changing moment, and it’s really difficult to hear people describe it like that. It makes me feel dismissed, like this incredible thing I managed to get through couldn’t possibly be as bad as I remember. It makes me wonder if I’m not as tough as I thought I was, since everyone seems to think what happened to me was a walk in the park. When people tell me I was lucky, I think about the sensation of having little to no control at all over my body as it expelled something from me, I remember feeling myself tear open, I remember realising I had prolapse and fearing my womb might be about to fall out of me at any time, and I don’t recall at any stage feeling particularly blessed. In fact I know full well that in the moments after he was born, as I basked in the huge wave of relief that had flooded me, I watched Dan cradle our child and wondered how I would break it to him that I would never be doing it again. And so when I listen to other women tell me their stories, and I hear myself agreeing that, yes, my birth was easy, I can’t help but wonder – if that experience, that thing I genuinely feared might kill me, was easy, then how on earth would I be able to cope with a harder one??
Of course, I did survive it, and as time passes the memories are softened. While I still carry my birth story with me, it no longer looms heavily in my thoughts and I have found myself able to think again about future children, to feel ready to consider the thought of being pregnant and giving birth again. But I still fear it. I still worry that since everything went so ‘well’ the first time something awful is bound to happen to me if I do it a second time, and as much as I know I’d probably harbour some fears either way, I am certain a lot of my concern stems from regularly being told I was ‘lucky’ to have the birth that I did. Why do we do that to each other? Why are we so intent on ‘winning’ such a pointless race? Here’s the thing – while it may well often be true, I just don’t think it’s ever helpful to point out that things ‘could have been worse’, especially not when someone is trying to heal from a life altering event. I get that that looking at the positives can be a valuable exercise, but it has to be done in your own time, and only once the healing process is well underway. Telling someone to look at the bright side when thier emotions are still so raw feels like a slap down, because knowing that someone has been through harder times than you doesn’t actually lessen the pain or trauma you are feeling, it just makes you feel bad for feeling it.
So instead of handing out awards for the longest, the most painful, the most problematic of births, let’s instead give credit where credit where credit is due – to every Mum. Let’s not forget that every birth is a miracle. To bring a life into this world – whether long or short, naturally or by c-section, with or without drugs, in water, on a bed or in the back of a goddamn taxi – is an incredible feat, and one that every mother should get recognition for. There may always be someone put there with a more impressive story than yours, but don’t ever let anyone minimise what you did, what you went through to get your little one safely here. What you did could never be descried as easy, so be proud, mama. Be proud.