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Eva Wiseman writes in this week’s Observer about the deluge of emotions that overwhelm a woman after she gives birth: the intense love for a new baby, the overwhelming exhaustion, the “undiluted emotion”. Having recently become a mother herself, Wiseman describes the “cuts and blood and raw animal panic” of birth itself and the “room of rushing doctors and excitable machines.”
She goes on to address that commonly used phrase: “All that matters is that your baby is healthy” – a phrase, she says, that works “to embarrass and silence us.” Which means that women don’t talk about what it feels like to go straight from the physically and emotionally gruelling experience of giving birth into a new exhausting life of new motherhood.
There was a time when new mothers stayed for 10 days in hospital with their babies – the babies were kept in a nursery and brought to the mother for feeding. These days such a model would be considered impractical and expensive, as well as less than ideal for mother-baby bonding.
But that system, despite its problems, had one great virtue we now seem to have lost: a recognition that, after giving birth, a woman needs time both to rest and to adjust to her new life as a parent. A thread last month on Mumsnet showed how far we have moved from that model, as women shared their experiences of the postnatal ward. Here are just three examples from many:
“I was poorly after Ds2 [her son] and as soon as I was moved off high dependency I was ignored, nobody answered the bell, my catheter bag wasn’t emptied all night, nobody would help me with ds2 even though I was very weak from blood loss, had lines in both arms and a catheter in. I discharged myself against their advice because the care was so awful.”
“I remember feeling all feverish whilst breast feeding him and had that feeling of sick rising up my throat (also in quite a bit of pain). I knew I needed to get to the toilet quick so I rang the bell for someone to help as DS was screaming. I explained I felt awful and in no state to breastfeed and could they please give some formula. Was met with a curt reply of ‘we’re very busy and can’t keep helping you like this’. I promptly puked everywhere.”
“Once the catheter came out, I got my request for a private room, I suspect because my distress and crying baby were disturbing others, but that meant then I literally saw no staff, despite ringing for bf help as my baby got more distressed, apart from one who came in at intervals overnight to tell me off for having my baby in bed with me. I started hallucinating, and no one noticed. Those two nights were among the longest and most frightening of my life.”
Time and again women who have had difficult births refer to poor postnatal care. Often they are weak from losing a lot of blood, exhausted from a long labour, or have difficulty moving because an epidural hasn’t worn off. There seems little recognition in some hospitals that women may feel vulnerable, frightened or alone. The cause is often put down to understaffing: yet the consequence, further down the line, in terms of women suffering from postnatal depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a further cost to the health service.
Yet women don’t talk about these things publicly because, as Wiseman puts it, there’s a “feeling that, because you got a healthy child, you should sort of shut up now, OK.”
But it’s time to stop shutting up and start speaking out: because it’s not just a healthy child that matters, but a healthy mother.