I always knew I wanted a baby, but for many years I had a fear about the whole process.
Everything I had seen and read about the process seemed like pregnancy and birth was scary. It’s not surprising, really, because everything I ‘knew’ about pregnancy and birth was gained from the media. Of course, nice stories about straightforward birth don’t make good telly or sell newspapers.
A few years ago I joined the NHS. I’m a communications person, and had the benefit of learning about all kinds of things. I was most fascinated about maternity, and got to know many professionals. I led health promotion campaigns about things like normalising birth and seeking to remove fear; getting new mums to feed back about their views about their experiences to make sure the service was the best it could be, and dispelling myths like women who have had a C section can’t try to have a vaginal birth for subsequent deliveries.
When a BBC TV crew were doing a programme about a young couple having a baby at the hospital I worked at, I sat in on all of the sessions to supervise them. The midwife was absolutely wonderful and explained the physiology of labour and birth. I was gripped.
I was in the delivery room for those long hours while the mother was labouring. It was such a privilege to be able to witness such a thing without being directly involved in the process. I could see that it hurt and that it was exhausting, but it was all calm and under control – no mean feat under the gaze of two television cameras. I was completely in awe of the midwife and of the labouring mum.
The labour seemed to be progressing quickly, and the baby’s head was crowning but it didn’t get any further. In the end, the baby was born by emergency C-section – the baby was back-to-back. I was so disappointed to not see the baby come into the world, but the main thing of course was that all was well for mum and baby.
So, when I got pregnant I was a card-carrying, t-shirt wearing, flag-waving member of the group that promotes pregnancy and birth as being perfectly natural, normal life events that are nothing to be scared of.
I thought I knew so much about pregnancy and birth. I thought I had read everything that was possible to read. I thought I knew all the risks of pregnancy and birth. I thought I had mitigated the risks by doing everything in my control, like eating well, exercising and going to my antenatal appointments.
I thought there was no such thing as a ‘normal’ birth, and was totally relaxed about a birth plan. I was relaxed in the knowledge that midwives and obstetricians know what they are doing and would do only interventions that were necessary for the safety of me and my baby.
So when tragedy struck me and my baby in the form of two conditions: one I’d never heard of (HELLP Syndrome) and the other (preeclampsia) far earlier in my pregnancy than I thought possible it was like being mown down by a truck. All my choices were taken away from me in the situation that was literally life-and-death for me and my baby.
I have said this before, but it bears repeating: I am unlucky this happened to me, but I am lucky to have been caught in time by my midwife because I had absolutely no idea I was so ill, or what the dangers were to me or to my baby.
The women I know who have had HELLP syndrome had never heard of it before, either. They are as lucky as me to be here to tell the tale. Thankfully, it is rare. Thankfully, because of the excellent antenatal systems we have in place, most mothers do live to tell the tale and everything possible is done to help the babies.
Sadly, some women have died from HELLP syndrome and from preeclampsia. I am determined that no woman or baby should die because of a lack of knowledge or information about any of the risks that can happen in pregnancy, and how to recognise the signs and symptoms.
Organisations such as the MAMA Academy, which I am a proud ambassador for, and Count the Kicks seek to empower pregnant women by teaching them about positive pregnancy. Positive pregnancy and empowerment, to me, means knowing all the facts so you can face pregnancy and birth without fear, whenever possible – or at least be able to manage the fear. There needs to be a greater awareness and proliferation of the work of these organisations, and others who are doing similar work.
What happened to me was extraordinary, but I do still believe in pregnancy and birth as a natural process. I’m heartbroken to have lost my baby, Hugo. I’m also gutted that should I get pregnant again I will be high risk with bells on and unlikely ever to have the sort of straightforward pregnancy and birth I dreamed of. Helping other women and babies is a way through the heartbreak.
There are still so many myths perpetuated about pregnancy and birth. Yes, it can be risky, and yes, things can go wrong. Some women (like me) have enduring psychological problems relating to birth trauma and/or loss of a baby. There are too many interventions that are unnecessary, and I’ve heard anecdotally that some women hold a fear that will happen to them.
However, so many pregnancies end happily, and the proud new mum is able to take their beautiful new baby (or babies) home.
All women need to feel empowered during pregnancy and birth. They need to know the facts, the risks, how likely those risks are to happen and how to mitigate them. They need to feel in control of their own bodies and have enough information to make informed choices. Being pregnant can be a stressful and anxious time because you don’t want anything bad to happen, so there does need to be a fine balance with not frightening expectant mums.
So, what’s the answer? Well, if I knew I wouldn’t be sat in my dining room writing this blog. Instead, I would be sat sipping cocktails somewhere exotic because I would be very rich.
The media is unlikely to change its tune, and not every woman will be able to witness a birth.
But – I’ve always believed that knowledge is power, and knowledge can help fight fear. Knowledge is about communication.
It can often be about managing expectations. So, the answers might include being open, honest, sharing our stories and experiences. Treating women as individuals, with their own hopes, fears and expectations. Being open about what we’re frightened about without fear of judgement, so we can be reassured. Celebrating the positive birth experiences. Telling providers about the bad ones, and the providers listening so they can make necessary changes. Improving the information that is available to pregnant women. Acknowledging that while choice during labour and delivery is the gold standard, not all women will be able to have a choice if something happens such as preeclampsia.
For me, the key words are information and communication.
I hope that when I am ready, I will have enough information about the facts and risks to face another pregnancy with a manageable amount of fear – and I have to acknowledge that having experienced a loss, a certain amount of fear will be inevitable.
What do you think the answers could be to fight the fear of pregnancy and birth?