Finding Her Birthdays Triggering
*Refers to high risk pregnancy, potential baby loss and birth trauma*
Birthdays are a happy occasion. A celebration, especially as a child. That one day when all the presents are just for you, and you have a party with your friends, and eat great food, and blow out the candles on your birthday cake whilst everyone sings Happy Birthday with your name in. Children will spend a whole year counting down to their next birthday. My little girl knew the birthday she wanted way back last year when she still had months to wait, and on Sunday that is exactly what she had. She was so excited for her special day. C counted the number of sleeps leading up to it, and told everyone she saw that she would be five on Sunday.
As a mum, I think children’s birthdays can bring up a mix of emotions and often they take us by surprise. Watching your child celebrate being one year older is beautiful. To see the joy on their face, and the excitement of what the next year will be like now that they are just that little bit bigger is magical. But for us, the idea that they are that bit bigger can also be a little upsetting. They’re not a baby anymore, in fact they're one step closer to being completely independent. Of course they will still need their mum, but in different ways as the years pass. Birthdays can create nostalgia and flashbacks to those baby snuggles and early giggles, that simultaneously seem like two minutes ago and another lifetime all at once. Motherhood in itself teaches us that we can feel more than one emotion at the same time. Love and frustration. Relief and guilt. Joy and Sadness. Yet, I’m sure I'm not the only person that has struggled with accepting the dual of emotions.
For me, my little girl’s birthday has been particularly difficult at times. Because on top of the nostalgia, her birthday reminds me of my pregnancy with her, and her birth, and the first three months of having her in our life.
It comes in waves. Moments when I look at her throughout the day and remember that moment they told me she may not survive pregnancy, or I actually hear the voice of the consultant informing me she needed to be delivered immediately by emergency c-section. Those flashbacks can occur at any time, but I have noticed her birthday to be particularly triggering.
And for the last four birthdays, this has frustrated me. I should be happy, right? I should just be grateful that my baby did survive, that she is here, celebrating her birthday! So why have I been hiding in the bathroom, replaying it all in my mind? Simply put, I think it's because of grief.
It sounds bizarre to say ‘grief’ when my baby is still here but I think grief is the best way to describe those feelings. In those moments, I grieve the smooth, glowing pregnancy that I had assumed I was going to have and the birth that I thought would be similar to my son’s. I grieve that experience of holding my newborn before anybody else. I grieve returning home and walking through the front door with my tiny bundle, the way it ‘should’ be. I grieve celebrating her birth with a display of pink cards instead of being too scared to pop them up in case the worse should happen. I grieve those first days with her that should have been full of cuddles and sleepless nights, but instead were filled with incubators, machines and difficult, stomach turning conversations about what her future may look like. All those experiences I imagined when I first found out I was having a baby, all those moments that didn't go to plan, the things I missed out on, they are the things that I grieve for each birthday. And that is okay, because we can feel more than one thing at the same time. I absolutely can feel joy and sadness on her birthday. I can feel grateful, so so grateful for our little girl whilst grieving those experiences. I know that now. I accept that now.
This year was a little easier. There were still moments when I could feel that lump in my throat or my eyes starting to burn a little, but there was no hiding this time and those waves of emotion passed.
There are a few tools that I have learnt or developed to help with that over the last few years as I’ve learnt about who I am, and how I work.
And I want to share them with you now, so that, if like me, you find your little person’s birthday particularly triggering for any reason, you can see if they help you too.
I’ve already spoken about this one a little but I think it is the most important. When I didn’t accept my feelings, and instead tried to shame myself out of them, it got harder. Accepting that it is perfectly understandable to find my child’s birthday triggering after the journey we have had, has meant that rather than suppressing them and bullying myself for being ‘a bad mum who isn’t happy on her daughter’s birthday’, I can treat myself with compassion as a person that experienced something traumatic and is still processing that. One of the best ways I have found to do this, is to question what I would say to my best friend if she was to experience something similar. Would I tell her to get a grip and get over it? Probably not. I’d be offering a listening ear, a cup of tea and a hug before reassuring her that she is still a great mum, and that those feelings are understandable and that they will pass. If I would offer this compassion to my best friend, why would I not offer it to myself?
I’ve heard a few people talk about having one liners or responses pre prepared for difficult situations, whether that's a conversation with somebody else or a difficult personal moment as an individual. For me, having just a couple of one-liners prepared leading up to C’s birthday really helped to find my way through those moments of sadness and grief. Something like, ‘It’s okay to feel this way. It was a traumatic journey’, or ‘You can be grateful and hurt at the same time’. It really depended on what I needed to hear to coach myself through that moment, and I think again, using the idea of what I would say to my best friend was a really helpful method to find that compassion and empathy for myself.
A therapist once said to me that intrusive thoughts or negative thoughts are a little like a drunk person on a bus. If you engage too much, or ignore them completely, they get louder and more aggressive. But, if you acknowledge them simply and then move on, they often quieten down and leave you alone. And I find these one liners great for acknowledging those thoughts in the moment without engaging with them and allowing them to become louder.
Writing about my experience
When I started writing about my experiences, I wasn’t writing for myself, but for the other mums who may have felt something similar, and thought they were completely alone. A year into writing this blog, and about eighteen months after my writing journey began, I’ve realised that writing about my experiences helps me, just as much as it would any mum that is reading it. Maybe even more.
There have been many times when I’ve procrastinated instead of writing, because the thought of revisiting those experiences to explain them to someone else on paper has been quite overwhelming. It has been painful too, and there have been tears on more than one occasion, especially when rereading my words. But what I realise now, is that all of those difficult moments help me to process my thoughts and feelings so that the next time the waves wash over me, they don’t knock me off my feet quite so much. I still stumble, sometimes they still catch me by surprise, but I keep my balance a little easier.
Of course, writing personal experiences for others to read isn't something everyone is comfortable with doing, but perhaps just writing it for yourself, like a journal, will have the same effect.
A Final Thought
To the mum out there who’s trying to find her way, I hope you know that you are not alone. I’m fairly sure there are many, many other mums out there right now who are experiencing something very similar, probably all imagining no one else could possibly understand. I know I was!
And above all, I wanted to say that I believe you can love your child and struggle in motherhood. You can be grateful for your baby, and angry for your birth experience. You can cherish the newborn cuddles and be frustrated with the way your life has changed.
We can feel more than one thing at once. I’m sure of that too.
Be kind to yourself.
Be your own best friend in those moments.
And reach out when you need to.