Birth grief is real. Although many people scoff at the idea, it is real. When someone refuses to listen to the sadness expressed by a new mother, it reflects poorly on them. It reflects on our society, but it doesn’t reflect on the mother herself. Birth grief is real.
Women spend months, sometimes years with a vision of how it will be when they meet their baby for the first time. When that plan changes, it can leave a woman feeling lost. It’s not because she isn’t overwhelmed with joy to finally have her baby, because she is overjoyed! It’s because they didn’t meet in the way she wanted.
Birth trauma is starting to gain some traction, and rightly so. It’s a really important topic. However birth grief is lagging behind. Birth trauma frequently results from births where there have been incidents of obstetric violence and coercion, or sudden, and frightening medical complications. These women often have trauma as well as grief, and their voices are growing.
If a woman isn’t traumatised by her birth, she may feel very isolated in her grief. Birth trauma has a growing number of support groups, and has even been mentioned by the mainstream media. But a grieving woman without trauma may feel as though she has no right to speak. The stories traumatised women share in those spaces can seem daunting, as if they dwarf birth grief. However birth grief can take a huge toll on a woman, it’s just different to trauma.
Birth grief can arise partly because women are so silenced by people who insist that a healthy baby is all that matters. This is such a pervasive statement, it dismisses the mother’s feelings completely. Often because no trauma is present, it leaves the woman baffled as to why she is actually feeling out of sorts. Everyone was kind to her when she was giving birth, she knew it might not go to plan …. so why the grief?
“My baby is here, shouldn’t I be overjoyed? What’s wrong with me?”
It’s not uncommon for a young girl to have some ideas about her future wedding. If a wedding doesn’t go to plan, no one says “but at least you’re married now, that’s all that matters!” Because the wedding matters, it’s a celebration that she planned for a long time, and imagined as a little girl.
Birth is the same. Little girls imagine how they might feel when they become mothers. Why is it so hard to imagine that a woman might feel sad if she doesn’t meet her baby in the way she imagined? You might say that women have unrealistic expectations of birth, but that’s simply untrue.
Suggesting that women have unrealistic expectations of birth is absurd. Women expect that birth will be hard work. They expect it to be unpredictable, they expect a whole range of potentially unpleasant things may happen during birth. They expect to feel good after the birth though. They expect to feel happy when they first set eyes on their baby, and anyone who says that’s unrealistic needs to reassess their mission statement.
We expect mothers to feel happy when they first meet their babies, so hearing that they might have felt otherwise makes many of us uncomfortable. That’s not something that mothers should wear, it’s something society needs to come to terms with. We cannot dictate to new mothers how they should feel. Furthermore if a new mother hints at being unhappy, it is our responsibility to offer her our support and validation.
We need her to mother her new baby, and she needs us to have her back.
If you are grieving for birth, it is not because you are inadequate. It is not because you are selfish. It is because you loved your baby so much that you wanted to welcome them in the most loving way you could. What could be more selfless than that? There are few acts more selfless than planning the birth that will welcome your baby.
Grief is a strange emotion. It comes in waves when at it’s most intense, allowing the sufferer to experience moments of lightness. It’s common for someone who is grieving to laugh for example. Grief ebbs and flows, so you may think you’ve recovered when BAM it hits again. Grief can lie dormant for weeks, months, even years and then revisit us. Grief is not an emotion that can be controlled or predicted. It is however, an emotion that should be honoured.
According to the Australian Beyond Blue website, grief is defined as
“Grief is a natural response to loss. It might be the loss of a loved one, relationship, miscarriage, pet, job or way of life.”
In the case of birth we can interpret birth grief as a way of life. Unless we apply the most stringent and literal interpretation to that definition, it’s easy to see how birth is well within the boundaries. If people can grieve for a lost job, surely they can grieve for the loss of a dream. A dream as precious as the first meeting between them and their baby.
Birth really matters to women. It’s time our culture came to see it as the life changing event it is. How can birth NOT be life changing? It is the bridge between womanhood, and motherhood. When a woman is grieving for birth, she needs to be surrounded by people who care for her, people who – if they don’t know what to say – say nothing. As adults, we should know how to be empathetic. When a woman is grieving over birth, it’s really not complex. All you need to say is
“I’m sorry you didn’t get the birth you had hoped for.”
If you are struggling to come to terms with a birth that has left you grieving, the most important thing you can do is to be kind to yourself. Don’t have unrealistic expectations such as a timeline for when you should “be over it”. Just be kind to yourself. Reach out for support, and if you encounter someone who is ignorant about birth grief, leave them in the dust and keep on searching for the right support. The number of women who are speaking out about how birth matters to them is growing, come and join our ranks.
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