A “scandalous” postcode lottery means that millions of new mums in the UK are unable to access mental healthcare during pregnancy and after giving birth, and the NHS has today announced over £20million of funding to try and correct the problem. Here, mum of two Jenn Babington, who suffered a fourth-degree vaginal tear after her first birth, explains why this mental health provision is such a crucial lifeline - and should be offered to all women.
I had a horrible, awful birth with my first child. I ended up getting induced a week early because the baby wasn’t moving. It took three days for the induction to start working and to go into labour. When I eventually had her, I was left with a fourth-degree tear. They also cut me, put forceps in and dragged her out. I had to be stitched up for four hours afterwards.
It’s taken three years to heal properly. I had an operation to do repairs. There was also talk at one point of me needing a stoma, a bag, put in so that my bum could heal.
I don’t remember having any suggestion of anyone to talk to. The midwives did a sense check on me, and I remember having a breakdown and sobbing at one of them, and she said: ‘Well, we can put you on the list for counselling’. A friend of mine had a really scary birth experience and she had counselling, but she had to wait six months to get it. You’ve got to wait such a long time that I ended up going private so that I could speak to someone straight away.
It was really hard to not have any mental health support afterwards, both in the hospital and as I recovered at home. I was obviously traumatised by the experience. I felt really abandoned on the ward, which I understand because they are concentrating on the baby, but there was also a bit of me that was very scared.
I also felt that the healthcare professionals did not care much at all. I think they are under such pressure that they’re mainly interested in getting you home, and out of the door. I stayed overnight but went home the next day. That might have been because I wasn’t high risk in other ways, but I didn’t feel supported while I was giving birth or afterwards.
I couldn’t speak about the experience for about two or three months, and I cried every time I talked about it. Going from the person that I was before to having that birth was really hard. I was 33 when I had my first child – I’d been living my life and I was a highly functioning human being. To suddenly feel like ‘Somebody help me’ and to be unable to do basic stuff, like leave the house, was frightening. I’m an Oxford-educated corporate finance lawyer. But this totally sucked up my identity.
I was also cross at all of my friends. They had gone through birth, yet none of them had sat me down and said, ‘Just to be realistic about things, it’s really quite painful and humiliating and here are the things you need to know’.
When we considered getting pregnant again, I said to my husband: ‘I’m not having another baby unless I have a caesarean section and we have a private room’. I couldn’t go through that again.
But during the second pregnancy, we went to NCT classes and the tutor put all these pictures of babies on the ground. You had to pick up a picture that you identified with – I picked up one who looked like my daughter because she had forceps marks on her head. The NCT woman then went on about how I’d ‘failed to progress’ and that’s why midwives had intervened with forceps to help me to give birth.
I burst into tears in the middle of the room in front of all these people. I said at the end of the class, ‘Don’t ever speak to anyone like that again, who are you to decide how people should give birth?’ Words like ‘fail’ are not nice.
The caesarean section was remarkably calm and I felt much more empowered. The midwives were amazing and really cared for me. I think I just knew what to expect.
I really do think the NHS should provide more mental health support for new mums. I’m articulate and can shout for help if I need it. But what would have happened if I wasn’t? It’s frightening, and it’s a complete change in your life. It would also help mums to bond with their child quicker as sometimes you can associate that scary occasion with them.
I don’t know why we live in this weird world where you can take some paracetamol when you have a headache, you can put ibuprofen gel on your leg, but when you’re having a baby you have to just deal with it.
Images: Katie Emslie, Jordan Bauer, Jenna Norman, Unsplash