During my first three three years of motherhood I suffered a massive breakdown, exhaustion fuelled depression and the absolute desolation after the heartbreaking loss of my second baby pre-term. For me, becoming a mother was in more ways traumatic than joyful, and I can still feel the wounds these early experiences created living deep within me.
It was only after the death of my baby, when I attended my first post-natal depression group whilst living in Paris that I actually realised how angry I had become. There I was hiding out in therapy with other brave, honest parents, sharing similar stories of confusion, guilt, anger and disappointment, yet it was glaringly clear to me that most of us were not classic post-natal depression stories, that of the mother who can’t feel love or care for her child.
We were something new. Parents whose pregnancy, delivery and first years’ experiences didn’t match the sanitized version of childbirth that now dominates western middle class culture. We were parents living under a silent code that the so called dark stuff, the struggles are not to be shared in the mainstream but rather kept hidden out of harms way in the privacy of therapy. Like we have something broken in us that needs to be sorted out before we can come back into society.
Yet it wasn’t so long ago that childbirth was well understood to be dangerous territory – brutal, bloody and unpredictable. It was a given that woman and babies often died during or shortly after birth and that there was very little control over the outcome. In those days, people understood that childbirth was a force of nature or god, more powerful than them and most relied on faith and community to get them through. There were no illusions then as to what it took to have a baby, and the work involved in early care.
Modern medicine has radically changed all that. We now live in a time where mortality rates are greatly reduced, giving birth is safer, defects can be identified in the womb, and people whom previously had no chance can deliver healthy babies. Yet in all this progress we have unwittingly created a new type of story, the ultimate childbirth fairytale.
In this version, pretty much everyone gets pregnant, pregnancy is a joyful experience, mothers have more control over their delivery than often is the case and babies don’t die. Heroes are those women who deliver naturally, abstain from painkillers, breastfeed and bask in the glow of their new arrival.
It’s true medical advancements, research and material wealth have brought amazing changes. There remains, however many unknowns that lead to difficult and sometimes tragic situations. To experience this in a society that is in denial about its impact isolates everyday people who are ultimately going through everyday experiences. My own loss landed me flat bang in the middle of this hidden world of the unlucky. A land filled with loving, emotionally and mentally strong people struggling to come to terms with broken dreams.
There are those who can’t get pregnant or are facing IVF, parents who suffered multiple miscarriages, lost babies at all stages. Those who faced death during birth and then the very many of us who are just not coping like we imagined we would be or how our friends seem to be. This hidden land is so populated with versions of the same core story that it is obvious to me we are the mainstream, not a marginal group whose only place is in therapy.
Losing my boy gave me the much-needed permission to voice all the emotions I had been carrying around since becoming a mother. The feelings of guilt, of inadequacy, helplessness and disappointment, of being jealous of others who seemed to be coping so much better than me.
Of comparing myself and in doing so judging my perceived imperfections. I was finally allowed under the guise of grief to be honest about how painful and scary it is to give birth, how traumatic it is to feel alone in the messiness of it all, to want so much for your child and to try so hard to deliver it, to become a parent and not fuck it all up.
So I am angry and I am sad for us all. Who are we serving by marginalising the
darker side of childbirth in favor of the soap commercial? What good is there in
pounding each other with judgment guised as knowledge and illusions of
perfection and control? There is the yin and yang in everything.
success story there is one of sadness and loss. In every fairytale there is
struggle and it is time for the truth to come out. Childbirth and parenting is
just as messy, painful and demanding as it is joyful, fluffy and inspiring. By
not telling our whole story, we are forcing each other to live an illusion, to
hide our fears behind bright smiles, gloss and can do attitudes. To find our
only solace in small secret therapy groups, disguising natural healthy emotions
as post-natal depression.