Turning 30 has made me think a lot about pregnancy and babies. I have always assumed that I’d have a baby ‘one day.’ That it was something I was ‘meant’ to do, wanted to do, intended to do. And I presumed I’d do it before I was 30, because of so many socialised ideas about this age.
— Before we go any further, there’s some trigger warnings for this piece. The stories shared with me are very honest, are across the spectrum of mental illness, and include references to trauma and abuse. Please be aware of this and put your own self care first. —
It has become increasingly clear to me that my physical and mental health are probably going to stop me from being pregnant and caring for a baby. That is absolutely not a judgement call on anyone else’s choice. It’s just my feelings right now, and an acceptance of my physical reality. Those feelings include a lot of sadness, because I deeply wanted to experience pregnancy. Luckily, I have a child in my life who gives me great joy. While not the same as biological parenthood, this means so much to me.
I have several friends who are currently pregnant, or mothers to babies or young children. Some of them have talked to me about the realities of their pregnancies and the early days of motherhood. A lot of the things they said were completely new to me. They expressed frustration that the possible difficulties and complications involved in getting pregnant, being pregnant, giving birth, and being a mother are not shared more often. One said that she hated how TV sugarcoats and romanticises pregnancy and giving birth, because nothing had been like that for her, and it made her experience so much harder. She felt very alone.
“I wish there had been something, someone, there for me, to tell me how things could be in reality. I had toxemia and was put on bed rest, and no one even explained to me what the matter was, or how dangerous things were. I hated being pregnant and I wondered what was wrong with me. When I gave birth after being induced, it was very quick, I didn’t get any endorphin high or anything, and I didn’t feel the expected immediate rush of love or connection with my baby. I was devastated. I just wish I’d known everything I felt was normal.”
Hearing this was what lead me to offering writehanded as a space for women who wanted to tell their story.
In doing so, I had to ask myself some questions. As a person who is not pregnant, should I be writing about this? Were there already enough resources and stories out there, and in that case this wasn’t something I needed to do? I was given a lot of links to information and blogs, which I have included below.
Several women approached me wanting to share and reach out, and that was something I wanted to support. What they told me was tough and heartbreaking, so, again, a warning before you go further. I thought really hard about my intentions for sharing these stories, and the responsibility involved in doing so. My anxiety about this was quite extreme. I consulted with the women. They reiterated they wanted to go ahead.
I’ve decided to do this as a series, because each story is substantial, and deserves its own space.
This is Part One.
We’re told that the best way to deal with mental health issues is to talk to someone. Getting over our staunch reluctance to share and open up to each other has been the key message of countless public health campaigns and mental health awareness drives. What’s not discussed however, is what happens when you reach out and nobody answers.
I’m currently eight months pregnant with my first child, and I’m a survivor of childhood sexual assault (CSA). Despite my mental health being generally really good, I knew when I first found out I was pregnant that I might need some support to deal with any issues that could arise. It’s OK though, I thought. I’m good at talking about any problems. I felt pretty confident that I could handle any potential speed-bumps throughout my pregnancy.
I found a midwife through the national registry who seemed to align with the birth I wanted. She was an older woman with lots of experience and, without any local family support she seemed to be the auntie figure that would be important before and after the birth. She was perhaps a bit abrupt and some of her anecdotes about other women she’d worked with were a bit hairy but I felt sure that as we got to know each other that’d settle out.
It didn’t take long before I started feeling anxious. Changes in my body, hormones, fatigue and morning sickness were taking their toll. On my second appointment with my midwife I decided to be brave and tell her I was struggling. I got told that, compared to lots of other women, I was doing fine and not to worry. I felt a bit brushed off but hey, the midwife seemed happy with how I was doing so maybe I should just chill out a bit?
A few months later and my anxiety still hadn’t abated. I was suffering horrendous mood swings, still struggling with fatigue and feeling frightened and depressed. I went back to my midwife and said, again, that I needed help. She outlined all the different support available to pregnant women but when I asked for a referral she again said that I didn’t need it and that I just needed to get over it.
She also made a throwaway joke about internal examinations (like they’re a thing to joke about) and brought to the surface every anxiety I had about the birth, and doctors, and medical exams. I wrote a birth plan that discussed my past and my fears and, for the third time, went into an appointment to discuss my mental health. I was again told not to worry and, whilst she sympathised with my fear of being examined, I didn’t have a say in the matter and that I just needed to trust her. I asked for a referral and was told that if I wanted one then I would have to go through my GP. I made an appointment and felt that at least I was making some progress.
The GP’s appointment is one I’ll remember for the rest of my life. She stopped me in the middle of telling her why I felt so frightened to take a personal call, and ended our appointment telling me that I wasn’t eligible for ACC counselling and “If you’re that worried, you could just have a c-section”. I felt utterly betrayed.
I went back to my midwife and asked, again, if I could get a referral, private, anything. She told me to go back to the GP, and that she wouldn’t refer me to maternal mental health as “there was nothing wrong with me”.
One of the worst aspects of having suffered a sexual assault or abuse is the often-realised fear of not being believed, or dismissed as a timewaster. Having not one, but two medical professionals treat me like this was like a punch in a face, and a reminder of times when my abuse wasn’t believed, or was questioned, or reframed. Being told by my midwife that I’d be internally examined whether I consented or not, at a time of great stress and pain, felt like by getting pregnant I was agreeing to be sexually assaulted. I was a mess.
Luckily for me, I had the support of a very understanding partner and people on Twitter. Through them, I found out about HELP Auckland, a sexual assault counselling and support service, and about the National Women’s Health Centre at Greenlane. Through these services, I was able to talk to very sympathetic counselors and midwives about my fears and I was treated with respect and aroha.
Through HELP I have been referred to a specialist clinic who will help me deal with my fear of medical procedures, and I have the option of more counselling with them if I feel like I need it. Just being able to sit with women who believed me, who supported me and who said that yes, what you’re feeling is valid and OK and we can help has done wonders. I have a new midwife, and no longer have that impression that I’m “wrong” for feeling the way I do about labour and birth.
If I could give any advice to anyone reading this, it would be that YOUR FEELINGS ARE VALID. If your primary care giver (doctor, midwife, obstetrician, whoever), is making you feel otherwise, then you absolutely should trust your gut and find someone else. It can be so triggering having someone in a position of authority question your experience but if they do then they have no business having authority over you. There is a raft of services and assistance out there for people dealing with mental health issues in pregnancy, don’t let anyone tell you different or act as a gatekeeper to prevent you getting what you need. It’s outrageous that I even need to write that, but it’s how things are. Pregnancy is a very difficult time for so many people going through it, it shouldn’t be made harder by the people trained to support us.
Blogs by mothers
Thalia at Sacraparental has written so much about this, including a series about her postnatal depression: How It Is. I also thought her series about making parenting easier was fantastic, especially this one about ‘living in the gap’ between your expectation of parenthood, and the reality.
EmilyWrites. Emily is a mother to two young sons and has been writing about parenting for ages. She is also a columnist and has a book coming out in March.
Leilani Tamu writes about her pregnancies and the difficulties she had breastfeeding.
Australian Leonie Dawson writes about her postnatal depression, and has produced a great zine about hyperemesis gravidarum.
Resources, support, getting help
Mothers Matter, a huge website that includes stories from mothers. This has such a wealth of information, including things like what sort of medications you can take during pregnancy and after birth, lists of support services, facts and myths – it goes on.
Mothers Matter has a list of support services around the country. It doesn’t include private professionals, but it may help narrow down what you need and what’s available to you.
Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Aotearoa
Help Auckland – offer on the phone and in person support to survivors of sexual assault and can help with accessing further services.
Here is Radio NZ’s series on perinatal depression.
If you have more information or links you’d like to add, please let me know. I am happy to add them in.