Some of you may know that when Maternity Matters first launched back in 2011, our primary focus was on birth trauma. Jayne and I set up the site because we’d found an infinity with each other, that originated back in the hellish experiences we went through during birth. We realised that although our stories were very different, we were coming from the same place. We wanted Maternity Matters to be a voice for other women. We wanted to provide a safe place for women to seek support, advice and help. We wanted to be a shoulder to cry on. Our mission and the site’s aims have evolved, as they must- as is natural. But at our heart, we will always be passionate about the reason we started in the first place. And something we believe so strongly in is this: we need to talk about birth trauma.
So-called ‘natural caesareans’ have been been in the news this week, and I’ve found myself involved in a few debates over the terminology of it all. There really is no debate over the term used- there is nothing natural about a c-section, no matter which way you look at it. There’s nothing natural about lying prone on a table in a cold room, naked beneath a hospital gown. There’s nothing natural about having your body pumped full of medication to dull the ache of the knife as it presses against your skin. There’s nothing natural about the surgeon’s hands plucking your baby from your body and taking her away from you. Nothing. So here are no arguments from me here. A caesarean birth is not natural, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be gentle.
The more accurate term for what the NHS is wanting to introduce is ‘gentle caesarean’. And this is totally achievable. This has been done. This is within the realms of possibility, and that’s a good thing.
A gentle caesarean is about giving mother a choice. Giving mother control. Giving mother the chance to have a say in the way that her baby enters the world. All of these things are given to mothers delivering a baby vaginally, so why such an issue for women in the operating theatre?
There is such a huge stigma surrounding caesarean birth, even now. And despite work being done by families, health care professionals and campaigners, this remains the case. Caesarean birth is not natural, therefore it is not celebrated in the same way. More caesarean mothers feel guilty, ashamed and regretful of their birth experience. But there are initiatives that exist to make sure ALL women can feel proud of their birth experiences, and we aim to ensure that happens. Even an emergency caesarean can be positive- my eldest daughter is proof of that!- and any plans by the NHS to attempt to bridge the gap between mothers should be welcomed. By introducing the option for a gentle caesarean in cases where the surgery is planned in advance, HCPs are working towards more mothers having a positive birth experience. And isn’t that what we all want?
A positive birth experience is different for us all. It doesn’t always mean a baby is born vaginally, and it doesn’t mean that mode of delivery is always best for mum and baby either. Financially speaking, vaginal is better. For some, emotionally speaking, vaginal is better. Physically, for some, a vaginal birth is better. But we can’t generalise. There are some women, affected by birth trauma for example, who will benefit greatly from a caesarean. And for these women, having the option for a gentle approach to it all is vital. There are other women who need a caesarean for medical reasons. Why shouldn’t they also experience as gentle a procedure as possible?
Why should’t women have music? Why shouldn’t women have the option to lower the drape to see the amazing moment her baby enters the world? Why shouldn’t women have the option to allow her baby to emerge from her body itself? Rather than being whisked away by doctors. Rather than being the last person to see the life she has carried around for many months. Rather than cold and fearful silence.
Why shouldn’t women be able to hold their babies close to their skin immediately after birth, enjoying their first cuddle on earth with no pressure to have her cleaned, weighed and wrapped in a blanket? Why shouldn’t women work with their medical teams to strive for a positive birth experience, thus reducing risks of post natal depression and ensuring emotional well-being ? Why shouldn’t women feel empowered?
All of the above are things that we all want- mothers, fathers, HCPs and campaigners. And yet the debate rages. It’s a marketing ploy. It’s a financial trap to coerce more women into having unnecessary surgery. It’s a flawed plan that will never change the obvious- caesarean birth is not and can not be natural.
Nobody is disputing the latter. But it might not be a flawed plan. It might just be a way to help women who really need it. It might be a way of ensuring more families are given a positive maternity experience in which to build the foundations of their family life. It might be the only chance some women have to feel strong, powerful and in control of her own body.
If you’d like to read a personal account of a gentle caesarean birth, please see Another Bun’s birth story in two parts, here. Please do get in touch if you have experience of this and would like to share your story.
Tweet us @maternitymattrs and join the discussion on #MyBirthMyBody
I’ve had four caesarean births, and yet my body will only show you one, unless you look closely. One fairly straight, fairly neat little line. One symbol of life. One stamp of delivery on my body. But it wasn’t always that way. And I haven’t always felt proud of that little line either. Some days I hate it, and what it means. What it has meant. Some days I’m indifferent. It’s a line that tells a story and nothing more. And some days… some days it’s the mark of something really quite wonderful.
My first scar was neat. An emergency c-section carried out almost 12 years ago after my firstborn became distressed, and stuck, and too tired to make her own way into the world. The surgeon worked carefully but quickly, and plucked her from my tummy amidst jovial chatter and soft music. Her head rested on my lap for a moment and she let out a mewl while the rest of her body remained inside. And in that half moment where I wasn’t quite a mother, but I wasn’t quite not a mother, it felt as though time stood still. I paid no attention to what the surgical team was doing. As they stitched my body, I was in another world.
My second scar was a mess. Wonky. Wobbly. Weeping. It ran along above my first scar in a messy and uneven line, almost as though it was racing to the finish line, looking side to side to check it was winning rather than ahead to stay in the right place. There was a sore, red bump where the knife pierced my skin in panic, and then it veered upwards so that the whole thing was very sorry indeed. I hated it. Three days post surgery it became infected. Flaming red, weeping and miserable.
For a long time after the second c-section (a horrendous emergency) I could not bare to look at my body in the mirror. And when I did, I tortured myself with the way the baggy skin from my tummy hung over the new scar. Like a little step. I had to pull my skin upwards to see it, and I hated it so much. Losing the baby weight had no effect on the scar. It was wrong. All wrong. It was not a battle scar, as people preferred me to think of it. It was not a mark of bravery. It was not a sign that I had done amazing things. It was the stamp of failure and I hated it.
My third c-section birth was gently planned and beautifully carried out. Oh, it still hurt like mad, but it was nothing like the surgeries that had gone ahead of it. It was, quite simply, lovely. And my surgeon was very keen to let me know that inside, where nobody could see, had healed really well. Virtually no scar tissue. The only real signs of my history were worn on the outside.
After this birth, my body wore only one scar again. The wonky scar had gone. My body was stitched up so that it appeared that just one small and neat line remained. Perfectly straight, almost erasing what had been there before. There was still the baggy skin months later, and there was still the little ‘step’ above the scar… but the horrible wonky line was gone. And with it, some of the torment too. My third birth was, and always will be, very special to me.
And so 18 months ago I had my fourth and final caesarean section to welcome my youngest into the world. And though my surgeon had warned me it would take much longer than usual as she expected a lot of scar tissue, it was actually very quick and efficient. Internally, my body had again healed well and showed no signs of having been sliced again and again and again. Once more, the advantage of a calm elective meant that my surgeon was able to cut carefully, and stitch me up neatly. Now, if you look closely enough, there are four rather unique faded silvery lines that each carry their own tale.
And so here it is.
A body that has been on the table four times. A body that has carried and delivered four babies in an operating theatre. A body that carries the war wounds of the brave.
Because I am brave. I know that now. And no matter how much I hate parts of my body (and who doesn’t?) I will always have this. My birth. My body.
*If you’d like to be involved in the next phase of the campaign, come and join the Facebook group here and let us know, or tweet us.
The Maternity Matters team is made up of mums who have been through a variety of pregnancy and birth experiences – some good, some truly horrendous – and we bear both physical and emotional scars from these experiences. The emotional scars are hidden, perhaps known only to ourselves and a select few trusted others, but the physical scars, whilst not often on public display, can be clear for all to see if we let them. Stretch marks, saggy skin, the mark of a surgeon’s knife for some. All visible to some extent on the overwhelming majority of postpartum women, and all completely normal, but for a lot of these mothers, it’s a new normal they find hard to accept.
We launched the #MyBirthMyBody campaign to highlight the degrees of ‘normal’ when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth to reassure women, if nothing else, that their postnatal bodies are not things to be horrified or disgusted by, but are things of beauty, their scars a testament to their strength and achievement of becoming a mother. And that’s not overstating it – it’s a bloody ordeal for many and an achievement it is to bring new life into the world.
We chose to focus on caesarean sections, not only because the team has plenty of personal experience in this area (myself actually not included with my two ‘normal’ deliveries – a term I have a problem with in itself but that’s for another post!), but because the scar of a c-section is perhaps the most obvious example of a body permanently marked by pregnancy. The women featured in our video who bravely chose to share photographs of their stomachs with the telltale line cutting across it, had to not only undergo major abdominal surgery to meet their baby, but they have a constant reminder on their skin, like a tattoo they didn’t ask for. Even in cases where the caesarean has been life-saving, or was quite happily an elective procedure the mother has no bad memory of, her body is irreversably different than it was before. The same can be said of all postnatal women, regardless of mode of delivery.
But this doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative thing. While some women say that they hate the way their body has changed, some feel proud of their scars and stretch marks, saying they felt empowered by becoming a mother. I think I would honestly say I fall somewhere between these two polar opinions. I certainly wouldn’t say I ‘hate’ my 10 month postnatal tummy, but I feel there is some work to do to get my figure to a state I feel more comfortable with. A bit of toning here, a bit more weight loss there, and my tiger stripes I can live with. Accepting my new normal has helped me focus on eating more healthily and getting back into exercise, which has in turn frustrated me with slow progress back to my former fitness – something else I have had to accept.
While doing a bit of reading around the topic , I came across this 2014 research article by Hodgkinson et al: ‘Women’s experiences of their pregnancy and postpartum body image: a systematic review and meta-analysis‘. The researchers looked at the themes evident in a number of different studies previously conducted into the subject matter, and I’d urge you to give it a read if you have ten minutes. There are interesting learning points for health care professionals caring for pregnant women and fascinating insights into why women may have the body image perceptions they do when it comes to this period of huge change in their lives.
What struck me the most was some of the quotes from women they highlight from other studies. I wonder how many of these you may identify with:
“Having the big tummy during pregnancy was fine, I enjoyed that, because it meant I was pregnant and everyone could see that. But now, if I’m not with my baby then people have no idea why I’m bigger.”
“I hated to be pregnant, ugh. I thought it was disgusting.”
“I would have liked to have known that I wasn’t going to lose weight again quickly after having her… I just didn’t know these things…”
“You’re always trying to get it back, but never really can have it back.”
“They [breasts] don’t add to you being a woman anymore, they’re just practical…I suppose they’ve lost – lost something sexually maybe.”
“…Not changed; just probably deepened. Deepened in the sense that I’m probably more aware of myself in a very different way, which is valuable.”
“Some women just can’t get their old shape back at all, and I’m bound and determined not to be one of them.”
It’s not hard to appreciate the inevitable link between positive body image and self-esteem, and good mental health. The internal struggles that the women who said these things must have had, and may well continue to have, could be debilitating. If we consider the potentially fragile mental state of a new mum anyway without the added personal pressure to conform to the perceived ideal as soon as she has given birth, we can see why support, especially peer support, is so vital.
Which is why I was actually heartened to read another quote:
“There is just enormous connection between women who’ve had children…it’s like becoming part of a club.”
You’re not alone, we’re all in this together, and you are ‘normal’, whatever you may think.
When we’re young we want nothing more than to be normal. To fit in with the crowd and to be accepted into society. We don’t want to stand out like a sore thumb, or have people pick up on the little things that make us interesting and unique. We just want to fit in. And then somewhere along the line, over the years we learn that being normal is not always the most desirable or achievable goal to have. Suddenly it’s good to be different. It’s good to cut against the grain now and then. Stand out, be you and be proud of your quirks. Be proud of the little things that make you a rose in a garden of thorns. Be proud of the little bits and pieces that give you personality, vibe and charm.
And then, we fall pregnant. And we want to be normal again.
We want every twinge and every lump and every bump to be ‘normal’. The way we feel, the way we look and the way we react to pregnancy is analysed and discussed and dissected. Why? Because we want it all to be normal. Nothing to raise alarm. Nice and healthy and normal. But we are we! We are unique and we are individual. So why do we revert to wanting to be just the same as everyone else?
#MyBirthMyBody intends to shine a light on just how many variations of normal there can be. Because we are all normal, just normal in different ways. We all have our own normal. We have our own bodies.
I’m often asked about c-section scars. Is it normal to have no feeling 12 months after surgery? Is it normal for the scar to be red? Bumpy? Raised? Itchy? Wonky? Faded? Smooth? Is it normal to hate it? Is it normal to be proud? Is it normal for it to be high, low, horizontal, vertical? Obviously, if you’re worried you need to speak to a doctor to set your mind at rest. We are not health professionals and we are no replacement for qualified help and advice. Those things we are most definitely not. But we are mothers.
Most of the Maternity Matters team have had at least one c-section, and in most cases more than one. We’ve shared our scars in a video, along with several other women. Why? To show you what is normal. What a normal body looks like. In all its bumpy, blotchy glory. We’re not photo shopped and we’re not hiding anything.
This is my birth. My body.
Follow us on Twitter @maternitymattrs, tweet us #MyBirthMyBody and let’s talk about the degrees of normal.
Sunday 13th March was #IUGRawarenessDay, the second I have celebrated since IUGR invaded our lives. I say ‘celebrated’ in the loosest of terms of course, because IUGR is not really something you celebrate as such. It’s more a part of our lives that needs acknowledging. And in the weeks leading up to this day, I wasn’t sure what it all really meant any more. My blog (Ghostwritermummy) has had to take a back seat lately; too little time, inclination and motivation has made it so. And Maternity Matters has not been given the attention it deserves either. But I’ve been here before, and I’ve been writing long enough to know it’s ok. If a break is needed, then a break is needed. And while readers may dwindle, the heart and soul remains and that is ok too. So what brought me back? Sunday.
Last year Elsie was only 5 months old and IUGR was still so new.
Now, another year on its not so new, not so scary. For us, anyway. We’re definitely the lucky ones. Recounting times of desperate darkness is now not just to spill my fears into words. It’s more now to help, guide and support. To have it on record. To tell the world to listen up, take notice. Do something.
At the Tommy’s Awards we had the honour of listening to professor Alex Heazel talk about the work he does at St Marys hospital in Manchester. We heard about the research his team are carrying out into IUGR, in a bid to cut stillbirth rates in the UK and I realised suddenly- it was his team I donated my placenta to after Elsie was born. I was the woman they were so excited to have on the surgery list that day. The woman they hoped would donate a part of herself to further their research. The woman who would never had hesitated for a moment to do that one tiny thing to help.
My placenta won’t provide answers for me. It can’t. I can never know what it was used for, where it went and what was discovered from it. But I was proud. I am proud. And what’s more, I’m more determined than ever to change the way IUGR families are feeling right now.
There’s fear. There’s anxiety. There’s isolation. These things exist because IUGR families are not given the information they need. They’re not supported emotionally. They’re not taken seriously enough. And IUGR is serious!
At the awards we heard stories of babies born too soon, simply because they were not growing inside. Babies being born too late. Babies with life long disabilities. Babies who just didn’t make it. Lives cut short before they even began. Dreams, hopes and families shattered. But it could have been different for so many of them. Knowing the risks might scare you, but let it also empower you. Women want to know. Women deserve to know. And they need their families and medical teams to support them.
We shouldn’t be afraid to tell women the truth. IUGR babies are at a higher risk of stillbirth. IUGR pregnancies should be handled differently. IUGR babies are more likely to survive if everyone is on the same page.
I’m so excited to start working with the Child Growth Foundation on a project related to IUGR, and I intend to use my voice to shout loud and far about Elsie.
The tiny baby who struggled to grow.
The tiny baby who barely moved.
The tiny baby with the mightiest roar.
All through my first pregnancy, I was given ‘advice’ about my baby. A brand new person, whom nobody in the world had ever met, yet I was given so many pieces of wisdom for her! In the end, much of what I was told was nonsense- mainly because my daughter was her own person and it was up to me, her mother, to figure her out. So yes, there were panicked phone calls that discussed- at great length- the colour of her poo, and there were frantic trips to A&E too. But ultimately, we found our own way. We weren’t really online back then, so it was easy enough to muddle through. It’s not quite the same any more though, is it?
Roll on eleven years and my youngest is now 16 months old. Her pregnancy has been documented, and her journey so far is known to many. The fact that I have written extensively about my pregnancies and my experiences as a mother means that I often receive emails, texts, messages and comments on my blog asking for advice. Thanking me for sharing my story. Encouraging me to carry on writing, speaking up about the causes I’m passionate about. I get many messages from pregnant ladies and new mums, asking me for my advice on various issues…But should I really be telling new mums the truth?
During last week’s #BirthTraumaChat we discussed the possibility of setting up a support network for families that had suffered a traumatic birth, and it was suggested that sharing ‘negative’ stories could be damaging to pregnant women. And its not the first time it’s been implied, or I myself have wondered about it. Should my birth stories and my experiences be read by those with no experience of childbirth or parenting? Could sharing our stories have a negative impact on what is yet to happen?
But then there are the new mums who exclaim, ‘Nobody told me about bleeding nipples/ what a contraction feels like/ the fact that they might slice me open on a table after all!’
Then there are the new mums who sigh, ‘Nobody told me the baby who slept so soundly for the first two weeks of her life was going to wake every two hours for the next fifteen months!’
And not forgetting the mums who weep, ‘Nobody told me being a parent was going to be so hard.’
So what is the answer? Should we be telling new mums the truth? Are we damaging their experiences by sharing our own? I’m a firm believer in knowledge being power, but I have also been told that in the case of my second birth (a failed VBAC attempt ending in an emergency section under GA) I experienced a self-fulfilling prophecy. That positive thinking would have ensured a different outcome, and I just don’t buy that. No amount of hypo-birthing, positive thinking or pre-natal meditation is ever going to change the fact that my baby got stuck and the only way to save his life- and mine- was to slice open my belly and take him out IMMEDIATELY.
But if I had not had a ‘tricky’ birth first time around (also an emergency section, after induction. Although a somewhat less frantic affair) would I have entered the birthing suite in a different frame of mind? If I had no inkling of what could go wrong, would things have been different? Who knows.
What I do know is this: there is no escaping the truth of what happens if you are determined to know about it. We are all online. Mine is not the only story out there that doesn’t have a positive spin on it (no matter how hard I try, the birth was traumatic and I make no apologies for saying so) and it will not be the last either. The ‘negative’ stories are out there, as are the positive stories, and in fact it could be argued that positive stories can also have a negative effect on women too. Most of us strived for a peaceful water birth, didn’t we? Well when that doesn’t happen, the results can be just as devastating.
So do new mums need to know the truth? Maybe. Maybe we let them decide for themselves.
We’re very grateful to Laura for this short but important post with a simple message – ask yourself how you are really feeling before it’s too late. Laura is writer, historian and mummy to a busy toddler. She is particularly passionate about birth trauma, perinatal mental health and tongue-tie.
Laura blogs at www.keepingiteclectic.co.uk. Find her on Twitter @MrsJellybobUK.
I was very moved last month by honestmumma‘s post about how we can wear a mask and deceive others about how we are feeling whilst in the grip of postnatal depression. For me, this has not even been a conscious choice, but instinctive. I do it unthinkingly. I always have, really. But, once we are parents, the pressure intensifies: the pressure to be ‘a good mum’, the pressure to bond with our babies, the pressure to be suitably happy and grateful.
What shocks me is how immediately that mask went on. I nearly died having my son. After four days of labour, the epidural and the drip, four hours of pushing, the failed forceps delivery, the emergency c-section, the incision tearing, the haemorrhage, all of it, I was intermittently conscious and questionably aware in the recovery bay. Apparently I was chatting away but I have no memory of it. I was already performing. I updated my Facebook status with the obligatory happy announcement and newborn photo, putting the wrong time of birth. I was handed a telephone and dutifully told my mother and whoever else that my son was “beautiful.” He was. I can see it now. I don’t think I could see it then. I think I was just saying what I was supposed to say. Some time later a close friend recounted to me the phone conversation we had while I was in that recovery bay. I said the baby was beautiful and my friend said, “But how are you?” I hesitated. “I don’t know.” That was the honest truth. I was so unwell that I didn’t even know it.
The mask, however unintentionally adopted, stayed put until I totally unravelled five weeks later and found myself in a Mother and Baby Unit. I wish one of the health professionals caring for me had taken the time to probe a little deeper before it got to that point. The moral of the story, then, is certainly not ‘fake it until you make it’ – unless you what you want to make is a mess of your own sanity.
It is always a good idea to take a moment to ask yourself how you are. ‘I don’t know’ is a valid answer, but check in with someone else if you can.
Tommy’s the baby charity are urging women to share their stories of miscarriage, in a bid to break the silence. To end the isolation. To end the fear. The charity want to destroy the taboo that surrounds the loss of a baby in early pregnancy. Their #MisCOURAGE campaign launched today, and I want to share my story.
I wasn’t yet a mother. I knew nothing of the absolute joy and pain (in equal measures) that awaited me. Nothing of the journey that would take me to the highest peaks of happiness, then plunging down to the deepest depths of sadness. Because parenting, for me, has been kind of all or nothing.
I wasn’t yet a mother. Yet, when I saw the image flickering on the screen before me, I felt like one. A tiny, tiny little heart beat. There one moment, gone the next. Nothing.
Yes, the silence really is very loud.
BlogBumpClub is now passed on its 5th Mama. If you don’t know about it it’s a group of pregnancy bloggers and new mums started in 2014 by Molly Forbes. It provides a public space to share pregnancy tales as well as a private space to share parenting woes and ask for advice. A bit like ante natal and post natal groups but all online.
The main idea of BlogBumpClub was to share our pregnancy tales but it’s grown so much that on a daily basis many of the Group chat and ask advice from each other. It’s turned into a much needed online support group essential to many of us who can’t always get out and about or who feel too silly to ask something in a more public space.
This month I (Chelle) handed over the reins of the linky to the lovely Hannah. I’ve got a short time left until baby number 3 is due and Hannah is now into her second trimester. I offered to come on board and do a regular joint link up with Hannah to share some of your amazing stories and advice!
Both myself and Susanne have felt a wealth of online support especially during out last pregnancies and with Hannah starting her second trimester while working from home we understand that online support is very much needed. That’s why this month the joint Maternity Matters / BlogBumpClub link up is all about support! We want to see your posts about support networks, any advice you have shared on your blog or those blogs that have really helped you through the highs and lows of parenting.