My hands burned, my arms heavy and painful. I stop and try to catch my breath. My heart pounding. I close my eyes I can do this, my baby needs me and so I grabbed again the wheels of my wheelchair and continued what feels like the millions miles it takes to reach her.
When my first daughter was born it was a traumatic experience for us both. Pre-eclampsia was causing my organs to fail and putting my life, and my daughters at risk. So at 34 weeks my daughter was brought into the world and was in the same moment whisked away to neonatal. My fight didn’t end there but a retained placenta led to surgery where I haemorrhaged on the operating table, doctors battling to save me for hours. For 48 hours I was cared for on HDU before I convincing the nurses I was well enough to go to the postnatal ward. My daughter may as well have been on the moon she felt so far away. Neonatal was unknown to me. I had no idea what was happening to her, this wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
I had stared death in the face and almost lost her too. I was scared, no terrified. Yet as traumatic as all that was, nothing could have prepared me for the lack of care I endured the weeks after her birth.
I was called names, berated for not trying hard enough. I was treated like a burden, someone who was in the way, causing problems. Without my baby in my arms I was forgotten, nobody’s patient. I was ignored and sniggered at. My wounds laid bear to be examined and talked about as a job well done.
I felt so alone. Did everyone feel like this after birth? I couldn’t move I was so ill. Couldn’t walk, couldn’t sit. But I felt like no one listened, no one cared. The looks cast my way, the whispered tones in hallways and the cruel words thrown at me added to my physical scars, emotional ones too. It made me believe that I was weak, pathetic and demanding. Even when I was found unconscious by a doctor on his ward rounds on the edge of death, my HB at just 4.1, still I was made to feel somehow it was all my fault.
It wasn’t just the emotional side but the lack of support that made my journey hard. No time to take me to wash or shower. No time to take me to the neonatal unit where my baby lay without me, in a glass box, wires her only companion. Food wasn’t given me because I was not at my bed side on time. The cruel laugh when I winced as needles punctured my already black thighs everyday, as I was scolded to toughen up. The tutting when I couldn’t get out of bed quickly enough. The irritated tones when I asked about my daughter after hours of not knowing if she was ok.
Alone and without the help I needed I instead wheeled myself to be with my baby. Half an hour of pain, down long corridors and steel lifts my battered and bruised body protesting and threatening to give out on me. Even then all I could do was watch from my chair my legs too weak to hold me while someone else changed my daughters nappy and cleaned her tiny face. Permission I sought, permission to touch my own baby, only to be told, ‘be careful you may hurt her’.
Five weeks of feeling alone, of feeling scared, a burden, and yes unloved. Those weeks scarred my soul and burned their hell into my mind. Five weeks that turned into months and years of memories that would revisit me in the dead of night, taking me back to that room, to replay in my mind as if I had never left, taking me back to the pain.
While it took twelve months for my physical damage to heal, the emotional pain continued, PTSD resulted as well as anxiety and uncertainty. My life changed, the person I was changed.
I’m not alone in my story. Which is why I set up Unfold your Wings to offer support and hope to others. Bad postnatal care left me in a cocoon of darkness and many others families too. When postnatal care is poor, the impact is immense, and can leave women struggling, affecting their mental wellbeing, sometimes leading to perinatal mental health issues.
Trauma can have many faces, but it shouldn’t be the face of postnatal care. Postnatal care should protect and nurture, it should reduce trauma and wrap families in kindness. We must all work together listening to the voices of families to improve postnatal care given in our maternity services. Why? Because bad postnatal care leaves scars on hearts and minds. So let’s help keep women emotionally safe in birth too by making sure that postnatal care is just as important as medical care.