In your journey (or journeys) towards and through that crazy awesome whirlwind of sleepless nights and indescribable joy known as parenthood, you no doubt will have heard or been told that 'the thing that really matters is a healthy baby.' It may not have been worded in that exact way, or been delivered with the same tone of voice, but the sentiment is unmistakable - that the arrival of a healthy baby is paramount to the exclusion of all else.
There's a lot of difficulties that arise from the increasing acceptance of this idea, the most problematic one being the increase of new mothers who are being told to put their feelings aside; that their feelings about their labour and birth make them 'selfish' and 'birth junkie thrill seekers' and 'all about the experience without caring about the well-being of their baby.'
This kind of negative feedback can come just from questioning what happened during a birth and labour, or the procedures that were performed, or even for just saying that you were dissatisfied with the quality of your care in general. I'm fortunate to have not experienced this attitude for myself first hand but I see it everywhere I go. I'm a member of many different parenting groups, pages and clubs and it never fails to amaze me how widespread this invalidation of feelings and experiences is.
I have known mothers whose babies were born via caesarean section and had resultant side effects, both physical and emotional, of that surgical procedure. Are all c-sections bad, negative, unnecessary? No! Of course they are not! In so very many cases they are needed and they do save lives.
But in far too many cases they are unnecessary and in some circumstances (unfortunately) the pregnant woman is coerced into accepting this course of action even though she is reluctant and/or not appropriately informed.
Let me tell you my story about the importance of a happy mum. My own first daughter was born vaginally so they wrote in my pregnancy record 'natural birth.' Well I can tell you, it sure as hell didn't feel like a natural birth. What it felt like, and what actually happened, was a spontaneous labour that narrowly avoided being an induced one. What actually happened was, they looked at me as a statistic and did nothing to consider my individual situation, and the doctor doing the rounds kept coming in every ten minutes, trying to pressure me into having an epidural. Guess what? I had the epidural. I didn't want it though. I was unhappy and afraid of what was happening around me. After the epidural, I was made to stay lying down on the bed, and when time came to push (I felt NO urge to push) I had to push lying on my back and distinctly against gravity. Because the epidural hadn't taken properly, I had to stay on this bed but still feel every single contraction. (absolutely dreadful for someone who needs to move during labour).
So I pushed when they said and after an hour of careful, non-stressed pushing, all these doctors (5) suddenly appeared in my room and start shouting at me. One of them put her fingers in my vagina without even asking first, she just came over, spread my legs and put them in just like that. Then she's shouting at me to push like I'm not already doing it. They made me push as hard as I could whilst holding my breath and after three of those, I became so faint and close to passing out that I could no longer understand any words that anyone was saying. For crying out loud, I just needed a breath! Then this doctor, who still had her fingers inserted, starts talking about how my daughter's heart rate has gone all tachycardic and they'll have to prep me for an emergency caesarean, and all I can think is 'EMERGENCY? WHAT EMERGENCY??? You made me push holding my breath until I nearly passed out and you thought that would have no effect on my baby?!'
And then they cut me with a medio-lateral cut - just like that. They said nothing, informed me of nothing, and I knew nothing until it was happening already and it was too late to stop it. I felt so empty and stunned afterwards. It was hard to do much more than hold my beautiful baby. Later, breastfeeding descended me into the depths of hell. Every feed was agony. Every horribly hungry scream was ripping my heart to shreds. I don't know how we lasted 4 months but she was so much more tiny than she was supposed to be at the end of those 4 months, and all I can remember is sobbing hysterically on the phone to my mother that I didn't think I would survive another feed. She didn't know what to say.
It wasn't enough that my daughter was healthy, bar feeding woes. Every lactation consultant, every doctor, every midwife said to me, her latch is perfect, she's feeding well (she was NOT) she sucks beautifully. Well I told them it hurt so bad I cried every single feed and they all agreed that it shouldn't be like that but they couldn't tell me why or what to do. They were support services but they were helpless in the face of the needs for the support that I needed.
Giving in to formula feeding (which is what it felt like to me at the time) felt like I had continued the story of how spectacularly my body had failed during birth, only this time it was feeding my beautiful girl that I had failed at. It was the lowest moment of my life. It took me months to crawl out of that darkness and I'm still not really over it yet. It still hurts me. But I realise now that it's not as simple as, I failed.
From Wikimedia Commons
My baby WAS healthy when she was born. I, her mother, was NOT healthy and I was NOT happy. I had been coerced and my wishes ignored, my instincts bulldozed over and any suggestion of informed consent completely obliterated. A healthy and happy mother is such an important thing for a healthy baby to continue thriving! She is its support, its comfort, its sustenance, and its guardian. Such an important person in the life of a baby. If a mother is struggling with her health and emotional well-being, and trying to care for her baby too, someone will end up suffering for it. It may be the mother, it may be the baby. But, in the end, odds are that it will be both of them.
There shouldn't be this culture of having to choose between a healthy baby and a happy mother. It is reasonable and possible to have both of those things in a labour and birthing experience. It will not always be possible, of course, but it IS possible. When my second daughter was born, I was being seen by an experienced and skilled midwife for my pre- and post-natal care, and had arranged a homebirth with her, any significant issues arising excepted, of course. My second daughter's birth was so gentle and I was so unafraid, I actually wondered if it had really happened like that for a few days!! My labour was painful but I was ok and managing well. I got to bring my daughter into the world myself and she came straight onto me, onto my chest where it was soft and warm and I knew she belonged. She barely even cried. And I felt so invincible. I felt sure that you could have taken a sledgehammer to me and it would have done nothing, I felt so perfect and right in that moment, just sitting on my bathroom floor amidst all the liquor and blood and everything like it wasn't even there and it didn't even matter.
And my quiet, happy, chuckly baby has a quiet happy mother. She has always been content for things to just be. And even though breastfeeding didn't work out again (at 4 months, quite odd), I was a happy mother this time instead of a traumatised mother, and even though it upset me, I accepted it and I didn't feel constantly on the verge of a mental and emotional breakdown. I was ok. We were ok.
It is ok to want both. And it won't always be possible for every mother and baby. But it's a lot more possible than we think. And it's something we should aim for a hell of a lot more.