“You’ve got a healthy baby and that’s what matters.” I heard this over and over again after I had Elliot. It’s a terrible statement to make, because it sounds like the mother’s health doesn’t matter, just the baby’s. Of course we all want the baby to be healthy, but don’t we want that for the mother as well? And when we say ‘healthy mum’, it ought to be about her whole person: physical, emotional and spiritual are all tied up together.
I’ve been reflecting on three aspects of my maternal health since Callum’s birth almost two months ago.
One of the most overwhelming aspects of giving birth for me is the sensation of feeling well again. Whatever the recovery from birth and the sleep deprivation, I am no longer throwing up some of the time and nauseous the rest. For me, pregnancy is demoralising and debilitating. But when the baby comes out, I suddenly feel like myself again. That’s significant, because I have not been myself for nine long months. Since Callum was born, people have been saying to me how well I look in myself, how my smile is different. For me, just getting the baby out and no longer being pregnant brings a sense of healing, of finding something that was lost. Added to this, I now also feel intense relief I feel that I won’t ever be pregnant again.
Even as I physically recovered from Elliot’s birth, the way it unfolded meant my post-natal period was marked by trauma reactions. During Elliot’s birth, I experienced a medical system so obsessed with policy that they took a one-size-fits-all approach and did not consult with me. Though I was laboring well and calmly, and things were slowly progressing, the arbitrary time window had passed and so began a series of interventions that saw me end up with an unplanned c-section. Caesareans can be wonderful, saving lives or saving trauma, but my c-section was the culmination of having my autonomy stripped away.
This isn’t about individual doctors and midwives, but about a system, and I didn’t know how to navigate it. I didn’t know what or how much I was allowed to refuse or request. After all, I was on the hospital’s turf. I remember thinking at one point, however irrationally, ‘I’d better do what they say — I don’t want to have my baby out in the street.’ I’m someone who has had to struggle to get to the point of seeing my body as good, and believing that I ought to be able to consent to what happens to me. Having that needlessly stripped away was therefore not only disempowering but downright traumatic.
So with Callum’s birth I was looking for a completely different experience. The second time around, I wanted a ‘do-over’. If I ended up with a c-section because it was necessary, I would thank God for the medical intervention, but in the meantime I wanted to give a natural birth a red hot go. I wanted the chances that were taken away from me last time. I knew I’d need a lot of support to do that.
Our fantastic sending organisation came on board in a big way. They recognise the importance of mental health for their workers’ longevity on location, so when I told them I needed some counselling, they hooked me up to skype with a psychologist I’d seen before. They agreed to bring me back to Australia early so I could qualify for a midwifery group practice. Red Twin shifted her holidays so she could come back from Central Asia to be there for me and for Elliot during the birth. Others supported me as well. My friends Katie and Annie (who is also a midwife) talked me through a stack of things to do with vbac and were an emotional support, and Annie attended the birth and was wonderfully reassuring.
And it all paid off. Callum’s birth was a triumphant experience, and a healing one. I’m astounded at how well I’ve recovered — because not having the emotional trauma means the body can do what it needs to. Through therapy, I had worked on much of what was broken in me because of Elliot’s birth, but Callum’s brought a sense not only of being ‘fixed’ but of completion.
Before Callum was born, I was worried about whether I would love him as much as I love Elliot. The waves of emotion in the weeks after Elliot’s birth were so intense – was my heart big enough to do that twice? Everyone assured me I would love my second child as much as my first, but what they didn’t say was that the quality of the love is different, or at least it has been for me. Loving Elliot was an entirely new experience and the sensations of mother love completely new to me. I haven’t re-experienced that newness. Instead, I’ve felt like that same kind of love that I have for Elliot has expanded to now include Callum as well. It’s beautiful and happy, and perhaps the settledness of it is also because I am in a better post-natal place. It’s less like waves crashing over me, and more like feeling my heart go up a dress size.
Giving birth is about so much more than the gorgeous child you meet and who becomes yours. When I gave birth to Elliot, my motherhood was birthed as well, and the second time around more has been added to that, just as a new child has been added to our family. This time I feel: like I’ve found myself again; a sense of completion of a process begun 3.5 years before when I went into labor with Elliot; and a new expanded version of ‘Mama’.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.