'I love my child but I'm finding it really hard' - A Story of Motherhood

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We spoke to prominent artist and psychotherapist Sarah Greaves about her experience giving birth, how it affected her in the weeks and months following and her most recent exhibition ‘The Other in Mother’. In part one of our three part interview, Sarah talks about the difficulties she faced while giving birth.

Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences then?

So I think, like lots of women, I felt that motherhood would be kind of innate, you know, that knowing how to be a mother would be innate, and I had experience with working with children and young people for years and years, just like my partner. I felt like I wanted a child, and we’re both very loving and kind, calm people, and that all of that would mean that parenting would be a breeze, and of course it isn’t.

Some of the research I did with this psychologist at Mum & Baby talked about how every women, regardless of whether they had postnatal depression, anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder, every woman goes through a traumatic adjustment when they become a mum. Even being pregnant, your life changes. Having a newborn throws everything into the air, and from that point, it’s about redefining or finding out who you are.

I think I found it quite a shock, that it was hard. I think that something like the sleep deprivation alone is enough to make anyone feel depressed.or anxious, and if you do that for weeks, months or even years, that’s going to have a huge effect on your mental health. I remember even having hallucinations through sleep deprivation, so that was really difficult.

I had a difficult birth, which I think had a huge effect on my thoughts about how good motherhood was, or how good of a mother I was; whether I was failing as a mother, and I think it just throws everything about the choices you’ve made, from jobs the money you’ve earned, the partner you’ve chosen, the way you were parented, your childhood experiences.

All of it is suddenly thrown up into the air, and you’ve got to deal with a baby, and I remember pushing Alfie, little Alfie around the park and just thinking “what have I done?”; just really thinking that I’ve ruined everything.

Did you feel that way about yourself and your life or was that more about Alfie’s life?

For us! For our lives, yeah. It’s funny because even saying it, despite being a therapist and having lots of knowledge about mental health, and despite doing this project and being very open about the issues of motherhood, it still feels like a very shameful thing to say that when he was a newborn, I felt like I had messed up.

I think we need to able to have multiple narratives about motherhood, and we need to able to say that “I love my child, but I’m also finding it really hard”. I remember screaming and crying however many times while shutting the car door and not being able to hear anything, and I’d think to myself: “I could just walk away. I could leave him in the park.”

I think that the demands of a mother are so high that we need to be able to say these things, as well as be able to say: “I love them and I wouldn’t be able to be without them”. I felt like I was really lucky because I felt that bond immediately, and some women don’t, and I remember thinking about how women who are severely depressed or don’t feel that bond initially could then carry on with that 24 hour care without having those moments of joy when you see the baby.

I feel like it’s incredibly difficult. For lots of women, a difficult birth can feel like you’ve failed at the first hurdle because it didn’t go how you’d expect. We did a hypnobirthing course, which sounds quite hippie, but it was brilliant for the first bit of labour that I had. I was induced at 42 weeks, and it was very serene. Twinkling lights around the bath in the hospital along with music, and I felt like I was quite in control, and then it went quickly into quite an intense labour.

They did a test to find out the oxygen levels in the baby’s blood, so they took blood from the baby’s head, because they were worried that his heart rate was dropping but not recovering. They did the test, and it felt for me like it was about 20 minutes, but Joe, my husband, said it was like seconds, but they then said they would have to take me into surgery to have a crash section, which means you’re under general anesthetic.

From being in a room with two people, there was suddenly 12 people in the room. [A: So there was a lot of panic?] Yeah, there was a lot of panic, like the red button had been pressed; it was an emergency. I was whizzed through corridors, lying down and seeing the light flashing above me, like in E.R. or a movie you know? Everything moved so fast, and before I knew it, I was put under.

When I came round, I didn’t meet Alfie for 12 hours, which is a really long time. I actually first met him on a iPad, as they put the iPad on a incubator because he was in intensive care. That was my first viewing of him, so there’s pictures of me holding an iPad instead of a baby. It was such a bizarre thing.

So how did you feel when you saw the pictures?

Oh, really elated. I was also very elated on morphine! But I think afterwards, not meeting him for that amount of time, the guilt that I felt for not getting out of bed sooner even though I was on loads of morphine, and then going to the incubator and seeing the baby that you felt you should know the best only to find out lots of other people had met him already. I wanted that moment.

I’d never heard of a crash section or people being under general anesthetic, and none of the reading or NHS courses prepared me for that. I just assumed that no matter what the variants are of the birth plan that didn’t come out of the bag, I would have that moment, or we’d have that moment. Same for Joe. We’d have that moment of seeing him born. That was really hard and I think I really suffered with that.

I also started having nightmares and flashbacks after the birth about just before going into the theater. There was an anesthetist who didn’t really engage with me and I couldn’t breathe with the oxygen mask, or the mask used for the general anesthetic. It was a tiny bit of what happened, but it really stuck with me. It felt really dehumanising, and I found that really hard to cope with.

I think that’s what’s hard is that there’s so much pressure on women to have a so-called natural births and vaginal births, and I think that if women end up having to have more painkillers than they expected, or a C-Section or a Crash Section, it can really set women up to fail or to feel like they’ve failed at the first hurdle, when it really, who cares how the baby gets out?

So long as it’s healthy.

Yeah, exactly. We put a lot of emphasis on that birth, but of course it’s an important part, isn’t it? It’d be great if more people could have water births at home, but there’s a reality of being within this kind of medical system, and a medical system that wants to reduce risk and will intervene. But I think those interventions can often cause women more trauma. If we’re going to do that, we need to look psychologically at how we’re going to support women after that.

When you went through that whole process, did anyone sit down and explain the whole process to you? Obviously it wouldn’t give you enough time to process everything anyway.

They were an amazing team, and the doctor was brilliant, but it was like “we haven’t got time to sign the consent forms, but do you give consent?” and you’re just there struggling to speak. It was really traumatic for me, but it was also really traumatic for my husband, because suddenly he was like “what’s going on?” and he was put in a room.

Everything is out of control.

Yeah, totally out of control, and he was in a room, he didn’t know what was going on, he didn’t know if I was alright or if the baby was okay. It was really horrendous for him as well. So yeah, I think it’s a complicated issue around birth, but I definitely think that lots of women have their story, and it’s interesting that in groups of women with newborns, often women will be telling and sharing that story, which is what we do with trauma.

We need to speak about it, we have to give it a narrative, be able to own it and figure it out in our heads and I think it’s interesting that that’s what happens naturally with groups of women who’ve given birth. There’s a need to tell that story.

Photos taken in Sarah’s studio earlier this year.

Watch this space for part 2 and 3 coming soon. You can find more information on Sarah’s Other In Mother Exhibition Tour on: http://www.theotherinmother.co.uk/