Liz Kearney: 'When it comes to postpartum horror stories, it seems that mum really is the word'
The month following the arrival of our first son was far and away the most magical of my life. And yet, every moment of magic was balanced out with an equivalent quota of pain, worry, fear and exhaustion. We were deeply in love with our new arrival, but everything felt like an enormous struggle.
Feeding him was excruciatingly painful. Post C-section, it hurt to walk, so I sat glued to the sofa holding the baby and complaining, while my long-suffering husband did virtually everything else.
Three weeks in, I ended up back in hospital for a week with an infection. And this time round, there were no excited visitors dropping by to coo over the newborn, just me and a hungry baby who, after nearly a month, I still couldn’t feed without yelping in pain. It was all pretty grim.
When I got out of hospital and shared my story with fellow mums, I quickly realised that in fact, I was one of the exceptionally lucky ones. I was only in the ha’penny place when it came to postpartum horror stories, which came thick and fast once the conversation started.
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I heard tales of terrifying emergency births, serious tears, of prolapses, bad infections, mastitis and postnatal depression. Some of the women I spoke to were quite clearly still in shock at the trauma of the birth and at what had happened to their bodies.
Sometimes, it felt like those cosy new mum coffee mornings were actually a battleground where everyone was hiding their scars under a bright smile and a nursing top.
Collectively, though, outside the confines of those get-togethers, a strange silence soon settled in. I suspect that we had come to accept that the physical challenges of new motherhood are really a very tiny price to pay when weighed up against the enormity and relief of safely delivering a new life. Gratitude can be a powerful painkiller.
But that silence is now being broken. As reported in this paper yesterday, Trinity College Dublin has this week published the findings of a groundbreaking study into women’s postpartum health.
Having collected data on more than 3,000 first-time mothers, the information has been collated in the Maternal Health and Maternal Morbidity in Ireland (Mammi) study, and is now available online as a resource for new mums.
It is a wonderful idea, long overdue, and is bound to be a vital tool for women in the first heady months of parenthood.
But the statistics published on the Mammi website tell their own story. Some 41pc of women are incontinent a year after birth. Nearly 18pc are suffering from depressive symptoms three months after the birth of their first child. And a third of women still experience pelvic pain a full year after having their baby.
“There is a national silence surrounding these problems,” said Dr Deirdre Daly, the professor of midwifery who led the study. She added that she hoped making this information widely available would make things easier on the mothers of the future.
She’s right, of course, and starting a conversation around topics which have been taboo for so many decades can only be a positive thing.
But the professionals will have a challenge on their hands. The cultural omerta we mothers have long imposed on ourselves post-birth will be very, very hard to break. Because it’s not simply fear or shame that keeps us silent, but a sense of sisterly solidarity, too.
There is an unwritten rule that you shouldn’t over-egg the trauma, particularly in front of women who are either pregnant or just thinking about having a baby.
It’s simply good manners. Telling them how bad it all might be would be a bit like telling someone who was about to head off on holidays that you’d already stayed at their chosen hotel, and it had bedbugs.
And besides, who knows? Maybe they’ll be one of the lucky ones who will sail through birth and those first few months completely unscathed. Why worry them unduly with something they can’t control anyway?
Certainly, when I was expecting, no one warned me that there was a range of potential post-birth difficulties that might arise. And though it might sound perverse, I’m actually grateful. I’m glad I was free to enjoy the relatively stress-free days of pregnancy. Thinking too far ahead would probably only have made me more anxious.
In a broader sense, I do sometimes wonder if we are too quick to dwell on the downsides of having babies and motherhood in general. We already have falling birth rates and a generation of young women with a growing sense that motherhood may not be for them.
The thing is, while I remember how tough that first month with our son was, it isn’t a memory that lingers. Far more vivid in my mind is the magic of having this tiny, gorgeous creature in our home. The confusion was ultimately replaced by the hard, wonderful everyday reality of parenting.
It’s Mother Nature’s oldest trick, but it’s a message that new mums – particularly ones who are struggling, or in pain – might need to hear more than anything.
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