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I'm Not My Mother by Patricia McCambridge

It's taken two children and a decade of therapy and healing to realise I am not my mother.

I have vivid memories as a child growing up, of hospitals and of adults hiding the reality that my mother was slowly dying from a hereditary heart disease known as Cardiomyopathy. Unbeknown to me, she would just about make her 40th birthday and leave me in the depths of childhood trauma for what feels like an eternity now – 21 years. The last memory I have of her is of us visiting her in the hospital the day before her birthday with a card and some chocolate, as a child hoping to receive thanks and a shimmer of joy at giving a gift to my beloved mother. When I dig deep on this memory and how I felt at the time it was as if she wasn’t pleased with the gift and just set it aside as if it didn’t mean anything to her. I remember feeling upset and angry with her – why was she being so ungrateful! I vaguely remember her asking my Dad to take us home – in a slight and painful voice. It was at that point I felt resentment towards her for being cold and flippant with us. Of course, now, as a woman and mother myself I realise she was protecting herself for what might have been the last time she would ever set eyes on her family – and it was. Two days later she died of a massive heart attack in the Causeway hospital and it’s at this point is where my personal story of ‘I am not my Mother’ begins.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had Echocardiogram results telling me, every time, that my heart works and looks perfectly fine – definitely ten now. Yet, with everything I do in life I’m convinced that somehow I am the same person as my Mother, and I’m destined for the same fate. She died at 40 and so obviously I will too, right? - even though I’m physically healthy. I’ve been offered the genetic test to see if I have the gene and now that I’m older and have children it's maybe more pertinent than ever before with other little hearts at stake. With a constant negative ill-health narrative on your mind comes problems with anxiety, panic attacks, postnatal anxiety and intrusive thoughts. It’s difficult enough to navigate mental health issues at any time in life, never mind when faced with a small human – sucking life directly from your soul. To date, the ebbs and flows of mental health, for me, have almost determined the experiences I’ve had in life, or so I believe.

Let’s skip forward to 2009 as a 23-year-old undergraduate, sitting her final exams at a specially acquired desk for heavily pregnant people – 36 weeks to be exact. I had studied hard for this exam but all I could think about was, ‘what if I’m having a heart attack’ as the palpitations throbbed in my chest. I thought to myself there is no possible way I will ever finish, or in fact, start this exam. An intense wave of utter despair and doom swept over me and my whole body felt weak with panic. I couldn’t breathe or swallow – it was as if my veins had frozen. In that moment it was like the feeling you get when a car drives out in front of you or you have a near miss on the road, but on pause x 1000 – an intense shot of unwelcome adrenaline being injected into your veins like poison. I manage somehow to raise my hand and ask to be escorted from a packed exam hall. All I could think about was having a heart attack and my baby dying of suffocation. I spent the next few days in the maternity ward on bed rest with high blood pressure – which of course didn’t help my anxiety levels.

At the age of 23 I had never held a new-born baby before apart from when I was a lot younger. I had no experience of babies and no close relatives or friends with babies that I was close enough to at the time, to have any kind of exposure. I had absolutely no idea of the sheer magnitude of the life changing event about to bestow me, like a thief in the night stealing my safe and comfortable version of reality.

Nothing, absolutely nothing could prepare me for the birthing experience I had with my first child. I was unprepared, un-educated and unsupported emotionally for the physical fall-out of an extremely intense induced birth. I went from nothing happening to having 10 people in the room, asking my permission to prepare for vacuum delivery and an episiotomy because the baby’s heartbeat had slowed down. It was hectic and I was so overwhelmed and terrified at what was going on – I don’t remember anyone explaining anything to me. To me, it seemed like everything was totally out of control and this wasn’t going to end well, for mother and baby. I’m not sure what type of pain relief I had but I was absolutely out of it to the point where I remember thinking ‘the baby hasn’t survived’ to ‘it must be twins’ in the same train of thought – clearly delirious. The baby was delivered, and he was pale blue in colour, and I was convinced he was still born – how could a baby be born that colour and still be alive. Why hasn't someone told me the baby could be blue in colour?

The baby was healthy, and all was well with both mother and child - physically. I was then left in a state of inner turmoil, exhaustion and an unanswered dialogue of what the hell just happened in the delivery room. What was all that about and why was it so manic – how can things resume to normal after such hell and debauchery? Did no one else witnessed it? Can we at least talk about it? Was I delusional or was I traumatised? The latter would come to the fore over the next few years as I seeked to work out why my first birth had an etching darkness to it. I was so shocked by the experience that my brain went into shut down and I didn’t mention it to midwives or consultants for a genuine fear that only I could see what happened and it was all in my head. The reality was that I had a very intense birth but objectively no different to what the professionals witness every day.

Fast forward 9 years and I’ve never been more excited to be having another little baby as a married and settled woman – I’m determined to try and overcome any fears of a recurrence of trauma. Head strong and focused on being mentally, emotionally and physically prepared for all eventualities – let’s face it, we have absolutely no control over our bodies when we enter those final hours of labour. We can, however, control our thought process and that is exactly what I did. I went to two different hypnobirthing classes and spent hours on visualisation techniques and researching more about all the different eventualities - watching ‘one born every minute’ as if it were a gripping crime series.

As ridiculous as this might sound to some, I went into labour feeling very relaxed and chilled. I was incredibly lucky to have the most amazing natural birth experience in the home from home unit in Dundonald with only one midwife present, delivered in almost silence in a soft surrounding with ambient music playing. I’ve never felt so exhilarated, powerful and victorious – for overcoming my fears and to be blessed with a beautiful and healthy baby girl.

The midwife was in awe of my mental strength throughout the labour and delivery. I explained to her that this was the result of a commitment to overcome my fears and the closure of an 8-year period of dealing with birth trauma. I worked so hard for this and I deserved every second of this wonderful feeling. I deserved to be mentally and physically strong and I deserved to experience freedom from the ill-health narrative. I’m not one to bury my experiences and I’m glad I dealt with the trauma of the previous birth so as to not let it haunt my existence as a wife and mother. I will remember that time, but only for a little while, and only to remind me that it was all worth it and I would do it again for my wonderful boy.

The fallout of dealing with childhood trauma and birth trauma is that now I can live with the acceptance that those things happened to me and as a result I suffer from anxiety and panic. Some days I kick it to the curb and put the world to rights and some days I barely manage to get out of bed – those days are becoming less as time works its healing properties.

Motherhood has brought me to an understanding and part resolution of my trauma, a calmness of heart and the stark realisation that I am not my Mother. I live with these experiences, in separation and as one and I fully accept my responsibility to not let it define me. When we become Mothers, I believe we must make time to heal and unravel past experiences so that we don’t pass on the symptoms of trauma to the next generation – we must make every effort to close the loop. Make time to talk and seek help for yourself and your family. For one thing is for sure, I am not my mother and my children will not be me!

Words and images by Patricia McCambridge

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