The Unexpected Side Effects of Childbirth With PTSD
What seems like just yesterday I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. He was a gorgeous baby, perfect in every way. My husband and I had wanted to start a family as soon as we’d been married but had waited five years, so we were so excited to be finally pregnant and could not wait to meet our baby. This should have been the best time of our lives, the realization of our dream to have a child of our own was happening, but it was the beginning of a nightmare instead. Now, 10 years later I have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but at the time I was unprepared for how this was going to affect me and my first steps into parenthood.
The labor I’d hoped and planned for was a natural, drug-free delivery with my midwife and husband for support. As a young woman who had experienced a lot of trauma in the past and was incredibly shy about my body, I knew my limits and that this gentle and private approach was going to be an important part of the journey into parenthood for me. We had meticulously prepared and written a detailed birth plan and discussed the specifics with our midwives who were happy to assist us to have the birth I was hoping for. However, as most best laid plans go, especially birth plans, it was not to be.
Forty-six hours of labour, revolving door of midwives and doctors as their shifts started and finished, being moved from a birthing suite to a stark and frighteningly clinical delivery room, an unwanted epidural that scared me deeply, obstetric support, and then a frantic rush to the operating room. There I found myself surrounded by a room filled with doctors, nurses, and other medical and surgical staff. I was terrified and felt powerless. In the time it took to get the spinal block working, my baby had moved and surgery was no longer an option. What followed left me so physically and emotionally beaten up that I can still hear the doctor yelling instructions at my midwife and others when I close my eyes and still remember the gasp of horror when the physio visited me a couple of days later.
I really want to say here though that this experience wasn’t the doctors’, or the nurses’, or the other medical staff’s fault; they were amazing, kind, lovely people who were doing the best they could to get us both through the delivery safe and sound. They also were not aware I was a trauma victim. I doubt their treatment could have been different even if they had been — emergencies are rarely focused on protecting a person’s dignity but on preserving life. But the loss of power and autonomy triggered me badly and catapulted me into the depths of darkness which I spent the years following this trying to drag myself out of.
When my beautiful, safe, healthy baby was placed to my breast, instead of a surge of love, I felt overwhelmed with horror and sickness. I could barely handle the touch of his tiny hand against my skin. In hindsight I know I was in shock. I remember I couldn’t stop shaking, and even though I’d not ended up having a C-section I spent what seemed like forever in recovery, with warm blankets being put over me and being checked on by kindly nurses. My head was spinning and I couldn’t breathe properly. That time became a blur, but I remember my darling husband sitting at my side, holding our baby, looking shocked and relieved.
My darling little boy cried all the time; he probably had a headache from his eventful journey into the world. I struggled with healing, my milk supply, and breastfeeding was just another horror to add to my quickly declining mental health. Every time I tried to feed our son I wanted to be ill from the feelings of revulsion it brought up inside me. This in turn spiked deep feelings of shame and guilt. I constantly questioned and berated myself. Aren’t all mum’s meant to love the bond of feeding and nurturing their newborn child? What was wrong with me? After all my dream was to have a baby. Why was I not blissfully happy?
My dear husband was left to hold us all together. And he tried, he tried so incredibly hard, to do everything and be everything to the both of us. He changed nappies, liaised with the nurses and the doctors, took notes from the physiotherapist and the lactation consultants, and spent hours each night walking up and down the halls rocking our infant son so I could sleep. Almost 11 years on, he leaves the room when a birth scene comes on the TV; that time in our lives affected him too as he watched on, powerless to help.
We checked out of hospital on day five, much to the surprise and disapproval of our lovely midwives. I had hoped to feel better when we went home, but instead it just got worse and worse.
Once my husband had to return back to work, things truly fell apart. When he left for work each day I would cry and question how I could get through the next few hours without him. When our tiny son went for a nap, I would sit alone on the kitchen floor or the bottom of the shower and cry and pray, and cry and pray some more. I prayed for the courage to hold on because having experienced the pain of losing someone you love to suicide, I knew as desperate as I was to leave this all behind, the pain would only just be starting for my husband, for my son, for the rest of my family. I also prayed for death, for me to close my eyes and just cease to exist.
One day I heard a story on the news about another mum who lived nearby who had postnatal depression (PND) and had taken her life. It was a tragic story, but I related to it. I slowly cut myself off from family and friends. I was so exhausted that I didn’t have the energy or desire to be with people but mostly because catching up for coffee meant I would need to leave the house, and I did not feel safe to drive. I imagined driving into a tree or rock wall every time I got into the car alone.
Through all this, all these dark and desperate thoughts and weeks, not once was my child in danger of anything except a mother who was living in some kind of nightmarish haze. He was fed; I had needed to stop breastfeeding but instead expressed all his food for six whole months. He was cared for, I read books, and sang him songs, danced with him, took him for walks, and took him to playgroup. It was the moment he went into his cot that I could let myself feel all the pain, let myself wallow in its darkness. People who are depressed are not automatically selfish or bad parents who neglect their babies.
Others I knew were experiencing depression too, women I’d met over the previous months. They reached out and told others they weren’t coping, they got support, family and friends rallied around them, some went to hospital for short stays to help them get rest and cope with their illness, to recover for themselves and their families. No one noticed me falling apart.
I’d managed so carefully to hide my illness from everyone, even my husband, my family, our friends. People kept complimenting me on being so well put together! Friends and strangers told me I was a great mum, so relaxed and had everything figured out. Inside my brain was a voice that screamed, “Seriously? Can’t you figure out anything, why can’t you see? I need you to help me!” I was desperate for someone to ask me if I was OK, really ask, force me to tell them the truth, but all I could bring myself to do was force a bright smile and thank them, terrified they would see through the illusion.
It was six months on before I finally admitted I could not cope, and let down my guard enough to tell my husband I was not “just tired.” And he took me to our doctor. It took a long time to get over the worst of the depression, and the mental scars from that time will last forever. My postnatal depression was the super-sized version of the underlying depression and trauma I’d been carrying around for years, and that still remains. But I am thankful I get to live to tell the story. My children still have their mother.
Please ask those you love if they are OK. Really ask them, look in their eyes and ask them. That way they will know you really mean it. You may need to ask multiple times, but thankfully these words don’t cost by the letter.
Ask someone who seems fine…
Ask someone who looks “put together”…
Ask someone who appears they have everything going for them…
Sometimes those who seem to be doing great are just the best at putting on a mask, scared to show the cracks or feeling unworthy of the help they so desperately need. That was the case for me. I know it has been the same for others.
If you are struggling through the fog of depression, remember each of us has something to give to this world, each of us is valuable, that includes you. You can get through this, you can start to heal from PTSD and/or PND. It takes time and courage, but if I can do this, you could do it too! Please don’t wait for someone to ask. Reach out.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.