Elizabeth gave birth 15 months ago. She never dreamed that she would experience the trauma of giving birth in such a way. It left her with post natal depression and feeling unable to go through birth again.
She became pregnant while completing her final year of a bachelor’s degree. When her relationship ended, she was only 21 and found herself facing birth alone. Six months into her pregnancy, feeling overwhelmed and barely holding it together, she was prescribed an anti-depressant.
To be closer to her family when her baby was born, Elizabeth moved to Wollongong, where she met her current partner. They were shopping one day, around lunch time, when her contractions began, coming at a regular 5 minutes apart. They quickly drove home, met Elizabeth’s mother and sister there, and left for the hospital, an hour’s drive away.
When did the trauma of giving birth start?
After arriving at the birthing unit of the public hospital, Elizabeth waited 45 minutes before she was seen by a midwife, who observed her and sent her home.
“The midwife on duty told me I didn’t look like I was in enough pain to be in labour. I was sent home to wait, at 1-2cm dilated with contractions every 4 minutes lasting 60 seconds”.
Back at home, Elizabeth tried to manage the pain by getting into the bath. Her contractions were intensifying and she was scared because they were coming so quickly. At one point she believed her waters had broken and at 8pm she decided to drive back to the hospital.
When she arrived, she waited 25 minutes before being let into the birthing unit.
“I waited outside the birthing suite in the hallway with my mother, pressing the button to be allowed in, for 25 minutes. I ended up banging on the door because nobody came. I’ve never felt so dismissed.
“Here my first stage continued, with my mother and sister in the room. I relied on gas. I asked the midwife for suggestions to speed my labour along. I was given Syntocinon. She decided it was best to tell me (rather than ask) that it was best to break my waters”.
As the night turned into morning, the gas began to make Elizabeth feel nauseous and she was physically sick. While she was in the shower, with her mother and sister supporting her, they overheard the midwives complaining Elizabeth was a ‘bad patient’.
“While I was in the shower the obstetrician came in and told me I should have an epidural because I ‘wasn’t progressing’ and needed rest. I had made up my mind beforehand that I didn’t want to go down that path but she frequently insisted. I told her no”.
Elizabeth felt her wishes were being completely ignored and the sense no one was listening to her was intensified when she came out of the shower she was told she would be given some pain relief, although she had refused it.
The obstetrician returned and insisted Elizabeth have an epidural. Overwhelmed and exhausted, Elizabeth gave in to the pressure and agreed.
“I felt like my body was deemed incapable of what it was supposed to do”.
Despite no signs of fetal distress, Elizabeth was continuously monitored and confined to the bed.
As discussions took place around her, she began to feel like a disobedient child. The possibility of a c-section had been raised when she was finally deemed to be at 10 centimetres and was instructed to push.
“My midwife told me that she would instruct me when to push, despite me not feeling the need. I was told to be quiet while pushing and that I wasn’t pushing the right way. I couldn’t breathe through my nose properly, due to a cold, and kept being told to use the gas, despite repeatedly telling the midwife it made me feel nauseous”.
“After my baby arrived (over 40 hours later), I was given an injection to help with the third stage. This was routine. I was not asked”.
Elizabeth entered motherhood exhausted, fragile and with very little positive support. Her baby was born with a small birth defect and she waited two days for a paediatrician to check him.
Like all new mothers, she found breastfeeding a challenge and sought advice from the midwives.
“I tried to breastfeed and was told I was ‘doing it wrong’. My little one wouldn’t stop crying from hunger so I was instructed to pump. Every time I tried to breastfeed him a midwife would pull him off and relatch him, leaving him very cranky. I didn’t breastfeed past hospital. While bottle feeding in the hospital the older midwife told me that if I continued to feed him ‘in that position’ (lying in my arms), he would get wind, and that if he was upset it was because I didn’t feed him correctly”.
Things became more stressful when Elizabeth’s baby vomited in his sleep and turned bright red. In a panic she buzzed for a midwife. No one attended her call for 15 minutes.
“Luckily I had listened to my instincts. I turned him over and patted him firmly on the back. I had no idea of what I was doing. I didn’t feel like a mother. All I felt was pain from a catheter, and exhaustion”.
Elizabeth’s baby was colicky and constipated but no one offered any solutions except to take him away and into the nursery. One midwife told her: “If you can’t care for your baby you won’t be able to take him home”.
Later a student midwife apologised for this having been said, but the damage was done. Elizabeth was distraught and decided to leave.
“I had cried myself to sleep every night. I needed to go home. I had no confidence in myself”.
Two weeks passed before Elizabeth was seen by her local maternal health nurse, and only after her mother was concerned she had been forgotten, and called the local hospital.
The next few months were a blur of exhaustion and isolation. Elizabeth’s baby screamed with pain from colic and she felt unable to care for him properly and that she was failing as a mother.
Her relationship with her family disintegrated and, for a period of time her relationship with her partner also fell apart.
It was not until her baby’s 6-month check up that Elizabeth finally got the support she desperately needed.
“My family doctor refused to let me go home because she realised how upset and depressed I was. I remember telling her over and over, ‘I don’t want to do this. I’m doing it wrong; he won’t stop crying’.”
Her doctor diagnosed post natal depression and Elizabeth was given medication to help her manage the symptoms.
It took until 10 months after his birth before Elizabeth realised how much she loved her baby. The scars of her experience remain, but today she is in a much happier place.
She is completing a Masters in Research with a focus on neuropharmacology in maternal depression, and she doesn’t plan to have more children.
Elizabeth was young and unprepared. She had normal expectations of a positive birth experience, but ended up traumatised, with her mental health in tatters. Her story is depressingly familiar.
The lack of respect and care experienced by one woman has deep and ongoing consequences for others – for her baby, her family and the wider community.
Each time one woman is not afforded the help and support she deserves, her basic human rights are being violated.
Studies show that up to 45% of new mothers report experiencing trauma during birth. For some mothers who have experienced a traumatic birth, there are positive experiences called posttraumatic growth, for those who struggle with the negative impact of a traumatic birth – posttraumatic stress, can affect them for months and years after.
If you need help dealing with a difficult or traumatic birth experience, these articles offer information and support: