I have been doing voluntary work for a birth trauma association now for several years.  My contact details are on the website and work consists mainly of giving email advice to new mums on how to deal with the consequences of traumatic birth experience and, when necessary, helping find a local counsellor . Sometimes, when appropriate, I offer a free Skype session. 

I see my job as helping new mothers to start processing their birth experience – confirming that what happened was, indeed, quite traumatic and it is normal to be feeling low, anxious or depressed. I am often the first person these women talk to about their experiences and it helps opening the door for counselling.

Often there is a physical trauma – something went wrong, there were complications, medical support was inadequate, baby or mother’s life was in danger and so on. What is surprising, though, that even more often I get emails from mothers who have delivered healthy babies and are feeling physically ok, yet emotionally they are in a complete turmoil. I am not talking here about post-natal depression caused by hormones, lack of sleep and complete change of lifestyle. These are the cases when emotional distress is caused by a wide gap between mother’s expectation of birth and an actual birth experience.

Commonly, women I talk to had an idealized picture of birth – completely “natural”, almost pain free, no medication or drugs involved. Which is a fantastic idea in itself and it is great when birth goes as planned. Unfortunately, it is not often the case. Thousands of things can go and do go wrong and medical help is required. As a result, instead of feeling exhilarated and proud after giving birth to a healthy baby, new mothers feel like failures. This feeling of inadequacy can sometimes develop into depression.

Post-natal groups, where mothers compare notes about how “natural” or “drug-free” their birth experience was, often reinforce the feeling of inferiority and isolate those who had a different experience.

Antenatal groups give expectant mothers a picture of a “natural” birth as the only “right” option, making it sound easy and achievable for everyone. Birth is, indeed, a natural process, but it is also quite natural for it to go wrong. Many women throughout history have died in the process and this is still happening in many countries today. Advocating “natural” birth as an option should always include mentioning the risks associated with it. Expectant mothers should be offered different options and the choice should be theirs, depending on the circumstances, health risks and other factors. Rather than bullying women into one “right” way of giving birth, people running antenatal groups should be explaining the pluses and minuses of various ways of giving birth and providing women with information. What works for one mother could be completely wrong for another and there is no need to create a failure from what should be a celebration. 

Having met plenty of women who have opted for a “natural” birth, I have yet to meet somebody looking for a “natural dentist”…

Further reading

Meet the therapist: Anna Storey

Coping with the grief of recurrent miscarriage

Understanding fertility: Q&A with Emma Cannon

Perinatal and postnatal depression

Birth trauma: new mothers with PTSD