Body Lessons 7: Loss of Faith

This is not the piece I had anticipated writing, when I woke up early one July morning, knowing that I was pregnant with our second child. In that sunlit moment, it felt almost identical to how it had been with Ella, and I assumed a similar journey was about to unfold.

The pandemic ensured that my external surroundings that day did their best to challenge the poetry that had begun to unfurl itself inside me: I queued up in Hackney for my second Covid vaccine, wondering if and how to tell the onsite doctor that I was ‘a few hours’ pregnant. Cue raised eyebrows from all within earshot as I tentatively explained my predicament.

And so I set about writing a welcome home piece of sorts, anticipating a familiar mirroring of the only other pregnancy I had experienced: An initial spark of deep magic, giving way to a cocktail of nausea, exhaustion, love, and the otherworldly sensation of knowing this unmet soul so well that they have become a part of your fingerprint. Later that afternoon as I sat down to breastfeed Ella, she looked at my boob, burst out laughing and walked out of the room. A symbolic, if slightly flippant, handing over of my body to the next baby. (I think what she meant to say was ‘Thank you for giving yourself to me so entirely for two whole years Mum. I love you.’)

I didn’t realise that this initial reassuring beginning, this same instant ‘knowing’ would be where the similarities would end. This second pregnancy has been the most bewildering and amazing lesson in difference. It has shown me that we can never predict or know another’s experience based on our own. I could not imagine two more different pregnancies, from the physical symptoms to the accompanying emotions to the relationship with each baby – two wildly different realities lived by the same body and mind. Both pregnancies neatly underlined, as if in summary, with birth plans that could not be more distinct: from a planned home birth with Ella, to an elective caesarian this time around.

If you have visited my writing before, you may have read Ella’s birth story. I have thought a lot about whether to leave that post up, or remove it. It was written in the postpartum equivalent of the tinnitus-filled fallout that follows a bomb blast, the strange and silent emotionless aftermath that heralds true PTSD. I am beyond grateful for the jaw-dropping protective ability of my mind, that it allowed me to experience Ella’s labour with very little emotional distress at the time, or for months after. A mind that was wise enough to know it needed to hold back the damage until I was ready for it to roll through me. So in a way, that piece feels unrepresentative of how Ella’s birth affected me, but I keep it up there, because it was how I felt at the time – and that is important.

I knew, in some distant intellectual way, that there would be parts of the experience that I would only ever confront if I became pregnant for a second time. You can recover and rebuild in retrospect, but to face birth for a second time requires a new kind of strength entirely.

For the first few months of this pregnancy, I was shocked at how different it was from the last. I had the odd day where I could hardly get out of bed (this is incredibly practical when you have a toddler) and spent many hours at work fighting the tugging depths of my fatigue, fuelled by a woefully-limited caffeine allowance. But apart from one particularly dire Norovirus anomaly, I didn’t feel that sick, and I also just…didn’t feel that much. It was odd. It was nice. Falling pregnant with Ella was like a tidal wave. (A tidal wave that I now have tattooed on my arm.) An instant and overwhelming transformation to Mother. I felt afraid and in love, at once myself and a foreigner. This time there was no great sea change, no huge identity shift, no desire to hibernate. I was out at parties (sober), up late, socialising, working. This made sense: Ella had made me a mother. This baby was lucky enough to be showing up once I had passed my brutal probation period. I was a little more practised, my sense of self had made room for this already. It felt smoother.

I am sure a lot of this is true, but there was a niggle: I felt slightly numb. My yoga practice continued apace, yet another significant difference between this time and the last. I felt strong, happy to go upside down, to backbend, to jump through and back. When people asked me how the pregnancy was going, I would feel this little twitch happen internally as I remembered that I was pregnant. I felt so normal a lot of the time, that it was sometimes a shock to remember what was taking place behind the scenes. I put it down to the fact that my body had done this before: It had a roadmap.

At around twenty weeks, everything changed. Quite suddenly, I developed severe pelvic pain, both at the front in my pubic symphysis joint, and at the back in my sacrum. SPD and PGP are two delightful conditions that we think occur when the weight of the baby and/or the hormonal changes in pregnancy increase the mobility of the pelvic joints beyond what is functional and pain-free. Bound up in this physical discomfort though, was a heavy trauma memory that almost floored me. After Ella’s birth, I had pelvic pain and heaviness for almost a year. During the first six months, whenever I got too tired (a lot, then) my whole sacrum and the inner rim of my pelvis would throb and ache.

My records state that I am ‘asymptomatic’ after my third degree tear. This is because I currently do not have any ‘symptoms’ and have been lucky enough never to have leaking or incontinence. But I wouldn’t describe myself as asymptomatic. Even now, two and a half years later, that part of my body feels as though it has been through a lot. As the weeks passed and I moved deep into the third trimester, I began to feel an aching pain on the right side of my pelvic floor, where my episiotomy had been cut. I worried that my body wouldn’t be capable of healing for a second time. I felt that I had been lucky (and had worked incredibly hard) to recover as completely as I could, and risking it again seemed foolhardy.

Lying in bed, I told Christian that I felt as though I was speeding towards a car crash. If I thought about it at all, it was true terror: I had recovered from a terrible accident, and was being forced to walk right back into it again, to stand motionless in the centre of the road and wait to be taken down. This. This was what the numbness had been holding at bay.

Christian and my family started making murmurings about a caesarian. I think part of my mind assumed that an elective caesarian, borne out of fear, would be tied to the narrative that I wanted to break free from – a caesarian this time around because of what had happened before, would in some way be a continuation of that birth. And so it felt like sadness. A real loss of faith. I had a fixed idea of what this second ‘healing’ birth could look like, and it didn’t involve me lying on an operating table. Whenever I thought about asking for a caesarian, about that being how this baby would be born, I wanted to cry.

It has taken me four months to move through a decision that for many women is forced upon them in a matter of red-light-emergency minutes. I can only imagine how hard it must be to come to terms with an abdominal birth if that wasn’t your plan or intention, and I feel very lucky that I have had the time and space to work my way towards how I feel today.

In the end, after weeks of thought, it was a very sudden shift. It was like I had been looking at some kind of illusion or magic trick, and suddenly realised what I was seeing. I understood that the reason I had so much sadness and fear around birth wasn’t because I hadn’t processed Ella’s labour properly – it was because I had. It had been physically and emotionally damaging, and I didn’t have to go through that again. The sensation I felt – that this part of my body was telling me it couldn’t break and repair for a second time – was a real message, from a body I have spent years cultivating a deep connection with on my yoga mat. I needed to listen to it.

And then the sun came out. I felt a swell of gratitude from my body, once I had promised it that we could do this another way. I finally felt excited about the baby, connected to his life. I saw another option for a healing birth, one where I can be with my baby as soon as he is born, one where I am not hallucinating after four sleepless nights, one where I am not waiting on my own post-theatre, hooked up to iron transfusions and so heavily anaesthetised that I might just disappear. I realised that a caesarian could be all the wonderful things that my experience of a vaginal birth was not.

I am under no illusion that recovering from this birth will be hard. I am anticipating a similar level of physical damage as last time (after Ella’s birth I couldn’t walk properly for weeks). But I feel calm and clear-headed about the fact that it will just be physical. I feel huge relief that this injury will be in a new place, a chance to heal somewhere for the very first time.

I think in life we often get given the same lesson to learn over and over. I have a tendency to push through difficulty until I am past my edge, clearing a direct path through the middle of it, seeing the challenge as a gift. It doesn’t feel natural to me, to hold my hands up and say ‘I don’t think I want to do this. Is there another way?’ Even the process of making this decision has felt like an antidote to my often brittle approach to hardship.

So this is really a reminder that however you choose to bring your baby into the world, trust yourself. It is easy to see vaginal birth as somehow natural, and an abdominal birth as brutal surgery. I know many women with the right support are able to have beautiful natural births, but my experience of a vaginal birth still involved being cut open, being sewn up on an operating table, not being with my baby once she had been born, and a much heftier cocktail of drugs than I will likely be getting for a caesarian. I feel very lucky to have had the space to work out what my body needs this time around. And every time I remember that I may have experienced labour for the last time, I feel like pouring myself a large glass of champagne 🙂

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