The Motherhood Diaries: Birth Trauma – ‘When My Most Memorable Moment Also Became My Most Vulnerable’

Birth trauma affects an incredibly large number of Kiwi women, yet it’s a topic so rarely discussed. So, what does happen when what is supposed to be one of the happiest days of your life, becomes the most terrifying of your life?

Welcome to our series, The Motherhood Diaries – a safe space for you to share your experiences, advice, hopes and heartbreaks. We’ll be hearing from industry experts giving practical advice alongside Capsule readers (You!) sharing your firsthand experiences. We’re looking at everything from fertilitytrying to conceivepregnancythe fourth trimester, newborns, toddlers, children’s mental health and teenagers, fertility issues and everything in between! 

Psychological birth trauma is only recently gaining understanding and air time. In this piece, Kate Hicks, Founder of Birth Trauma Aotearoa, shares her own experience and what led her to create the My Birth Story support website and, more recently, a charitable trust working on behalf of Aotearoa’s birth trauma community.

I remember some things about my first birth experience – I remember hurriedly packing a hospital bag for a hasty exit from home to the hospital. I remember the specific cream colour of the walls and curtains of the maternity consulting room. I remember falling asleep in the birthing pool, in between contractions – contractions that were off the CTG chart strong and had no breaks for 16 hours. I remember team in the operating theatre taking turns to introduce themselves to each other and then, once everyone had finished, I said: “And I’m Kate, the Mum” followed by much laughter among the staff. I remember vomiting and shaking uncontrollably as seven layers of my body were stitched back together after an emergency C section.

There’s a lot I remember about my first birth experience; there’s more I’d like to forget. But I never will, so instead I take power from this experience to drive me to help others.

I don’t tend to share too much detail about my own story – though, having worked in the birth trauma space for the last seven years, I know how powerful sharing a story can be.

Birth trauma was a concept I only learnt about four months post-partum. My (amazing) midwife mentioned it when I expressed to her that I still felt really ‘wobbly’ about my daughter’s birth but couldn’t work out why I felt this way. I knew it wasn’t post-natal depression. I was anxious, but I didn’t think this was post-natal anxiety either.

What was birth trauma any way?

Trauma is our body and our brain’s way of protecting us from real, or perceived, danger. Birth trauma is trauma that is related to pregnancy, labour, birth and early post-partum.

When we experience danger, our brain immediately sends us into “fight or flight mode”, in order to protect ourselves or our loved ones. This is a very, very normal thing that our brain, and our body, does for us – it’s about survival and it’s totally natural. When it gets tricky, though, is when the danger passes but we struggle to move past the fight or flight state.

When we’ve experienced birth trauma we can experience difficulties in bonding with baby, breastfeeding challenges, relationship issues, confusion and grief, mistrust of medical professionals, anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Birth trauma research is sparse but the little research that exists suggests that one in three birthing people report their birth as traumatic – in Aotearoa, that equates to around 50 people a day emotionally broken from the birth of their child. And it’s not only mothers and birthing parents – fathers, partners, support people and medical staff can all experience birth-related trauma too.

One of the trickiest things about birth trauma is that it’s subjective – what seems traumatic to one person may not be to another and vice versa. Often, when expressing distress about their birth, people are met with the dismissive attitudes of “at least baby is okay”, or, “what do you expect, it’s birth?!”. It’s always up to the person to decide whether they’ve had a traumatic experience or not and everyone is deserving of support regardless of what happened – it’s about how we feel about the birth that matters going forward.

The experience of trauma can come from anywhere, but some of the most common causes are a birth experience totally different to the one planned, fearing for one’s own, or baby’s life, procedures done without consent, systemic failures, poor pain management or care from staff, baby needing intensive care (NICU) or baby loss, and the triggering of previous abuse.

But no matter the cause of the trauma, we need to be gentle with ourselves and remember that our response to these threats is very normal and we deserve support to work through the experience.

So where, in Aotearoa, is that support?

Following my own experience I looked high and low for resources to help me understand what I’d just gone through, to remind me that I did nothing wrong and that I wasn’t “making a mountain out of a molehill”. But I came up with very little, and next to nothing that was based here in Aotearoa.

Surely I couldn’t be the only one thinking about this stuff?

Surely I wasn’t the only one coming out of this life-changing experience feeling like this?

And I was right – after talking to many people and maternity sector staff about the idea of an Aoteaora-focused support resource, the resounding reply was: “Yes! We need this!”

The next two years were filled with conversations, meetings and learning as I pulled together the My Birth Story website

Fuelled by the need I had first-hand experience of, and with the help of some other generous volunteers, My Birth Story was launched in 2018, right before my own, second baby was born.

My Birth Story offers comfort, validation, and support options for anyone who has had a negative or traumatic birth experience. Since going live, the site has a constant stream of visitors from New Zealand and across the globe. People need to know that their experience matters, that how they’re feeling matters, and they need to know where to find support. A website is an ideal option as it can be accessed from anywhere, at any time, and completely anonymously.

Since launching My Birth Story my work in the space evolved to include education and advocacy. As I continued this work I could see, very clearly, where the work needed to happen if we are to see any real drop in birth trauma prevalence and support following it. So, I spent another two years establishing an organisation whose purpose was to work towards that change.

Birth Trauma Aotearoa has only been around for a short time but, in that time, we’ve managed to advocate for parents and whānau at various policy meetings, on campaigns, at parliamentary hui, and support service planning.

Our work involves education, advocacy, research and support – and though we’re a new, small organisation, made up of entirely volunteers, we’re fierce advocates for women, birthing people and their whānau. We know our communities deserve trauma-free birth, and when birth trauma does inevitably occur, we deserve excellent support.

Birth Trauma Aotearoa holds equity at the heart of what we do. People experience inequity in care due to various factors – racism and colonisation, ableism, lack of services for rural families etc. – we only need to look at the statistics to find unacceptable examples. One of the jobs of Birth Trauma Aotearoa is to work at removing these equity barriers so that everyone has equitable access to safe maternity care. Everyone deserves health care that is supportive, well resourced, based on best-practice, and consumer-centred, and never more so is this necessary than when we are welcoming children in to the world.

As Birth Trauma Aotearoa moves forward, our work will continue to advocate for improved and equitable resourcing of the maternity sector, we’ll continue to educate so that people consider the experience of birthing as just as important as what physically happens, we’ll facilitate robust research so we have a comprehensive understanding of birth trauma here in Aotearoa, we’ll campaign for consumer-centred care, and we’ll build empathetic support networks that help people heal.

I had incredible support from my partner, family, midwife, kai awhina and the medical professionals involved in my daughters birth yet still I know what it is like to have a baby and then feel like you’re floating alone at sea alone not knowing where to go or what to do next.  Birth Trauma Aotearoa aims to safe harbours for people so they can thrive in new parenthood instead of just survive it. We feel honoured to do this work.

Where to go for support

  • If you need support following your birth experience, visit: mybirthstory.org.nz
  • If you would like to follow the work of Birth Trauma Aotearoa, visit: www.facebook.com/birthtraumaaotearoa
  • If you’d like to support the work of Birth Trauma Aotearoa, you can do so here: https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/birth-trauma-aotearoa

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