After a traumatic birth with her second born, Sara was determined to have a positive birth experience with her third child. She hopes her story gives others the courage to heal from their birth trauma and plan the birth they want and need.
Trigger warning: Please read this story with care. If you’re finding the content challenging, please give yourself permission to step away.
Ubuntu Mama Sara Booley has four children, from 7 months to ten years. Her journey hasn’t always been easy, and she suffered significant trauma after the birth of her first and second children.
I had to have an emergency caesarean with my first because she was prem and in distress. She was in ICU for a while. She presented herself abnormally, and we started genetic testing. They picked up that she has a chromosomal abnormality. She was about four months old when she was diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS).
The complications that came with that were traumatic. I quit my job. She required lots of therapies and doctor’s appointments. People tend to ask me how I adapted as a first-time mom, but I didn’t know any better. There was nothing to compare it to.
Two Years Later, a Second Pregnancy
My second pregnancy was stressful because of the first one. Because they didn’t pick up anything with my eldest in utero, we had a lot of genetic counselling and assessments throughout the second pregnancy. That’s how we found that he had a congenital heart defect – Tetralogy of Fallot – a hole in his heart. We knew he would require surgery because it was big – we just didn’t know how soon it would be. There was a risk that they would whisk him off to surgery immediately after birth, or we would assess the situation at birth and have surgery later. There was this looming question of what will happen on the day of his birth.
I was planning a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) with my second. The mind plays an important role in a VBAC, and with the stress of the pregnancy, my gynae wasn’t sure, but she was supportive. We followed all the steps we needed to, but it didn’t work out. I had to have a caesarean.
It was disappointing. You know it is the best for your baby, but there is this element of mourning for the birth you wanted, which is important to acknowledge. It is a big part of your life as a mom, giving birth. When I went into the theatre that morning, I don’t think the paediatrician on call was briefed about my son. She told me that my baby is going into NICU immediately after birth. When she said NICU, alarm bells went off because my gynae mentioned nothing about NICU and because I was in NICU for 65 days with my first; I started to panic at the idea of going through that again.
I had an adrenaline rush because of the anxiety, which caused the anaesthetic to wear off. They started the caesarian, and I could feel everything. I could feel them. When I said so, they responded that it was normal and I should be feeling it.
It wasn’t just a tugging sensation – I could feel them cutting. They told me I was just a bit anxious, but I repeated that I could feel everything. It was too late to give me an epidural at that point because I was open, so they put me under general anaesthetic, and I missed out on the birth of my baby. They whisked him off to neonatal because of his heart, and I didn’t meet him until 24 hours later. It was a complete blur; I don’t remember meeting him for the first time. I felt like those were stolen moments.
They assessed him, and it said it would be okay to wait for the surgery at six months. Postpartum was hard. I had the unhealthy expectation that breastfeeding would be easy. I wasn’t able to breastfeed my daughter because of her stay in NICU, so I wanted to breastfeed my son, and it just didn’t happen. He went straight onto the bottle, and I went into a depression. Every day, I would try to breastfeed, he would scream, and I would be annoyed.
I think he had colic and reflux – he was vomiting all the time and had to be changed every hour. He cried constantly, and I felt like a first-time mom because he was a typical baby. I remember shaking him, and my husband said, “no, this is not normal; we are seeing a doctor”. I didn’t even realise how bad my mental state was. At that point, I knew I needed help. I had postnatal depression.
Army of Support
I felt that I could do everything myself, but my husband realised I was not going to ask for help and delegated to everyone to jump in when he couldn’t because of work. Before my son’s birth, our nanny came on board with us. My mom was retired and would come every day. My best friend would pop in and out and bathe the baby, allow me to sleep and make me lunch.
The support structure helped, but it was rough. I was at the point where I needed to medicate. I’m very pro-natural, but I recommend taking the meds if you are depressed.
My third pregnancy was a total shock. Because of the depression and everything going on, I wanted to return to work. I found out I was pregnant the month I started my new job. I struggled to accept that for a really long time because of the trauma of my previous birth. I wanted to try for another VBAC, but my gynae did not support the idea after two caesareans.
I was a part of a Facebook group called VBAC in SA and shared my experience. Someone recommended a fear release session with Charlene from Relax Into Birth to let go of the fear of giving birth again. Charlene wasn’t available to support me for my birth and handed me over to her backup doula, Gail, who was on board with my idea of a VBAC. We decided I would let my body go into labour and try for a natural birth.
My gynae could not give me consent and had me sign a disclaimer to say she had presented me with all the risks. That was tough mentally because if something happened to my baby, it would be my fault. That was on my mind all the time, a big mental block. Gail encouraged me to overcome that by doing a fear release with Charlene. Charlene lies you down, and you enter a deeply relaxed state. She walks you through a simulation where you burn and discard the negative emotions.
It’s a very personal experience. I didn’t feel any different, but she reframes your trauma and the birth you experienced into something positive. She prepares your subconscious to expect the new baby in a positive light.
Sara’s Redemptive Birth
At that point, I realised what kind of support I needed, so I went to the lactation consultant way before I had given birth to set myself up for a positive experience. Rallying the troops before the time helped – my husband knew what I needed, my parents knew what I needed, and my nanny was there.
I went up to 40 weeks, still hoping for a VBAC. At that point, I wasn’t feeling great. I went in for a CTG, and though the baby wasn’t in distress, my gynae booked me in for my third emergency caesarian.
The experience was far more positive. The fear release helped. Under any other circumstances, I would have been out of my mind.
My husband and doula, Gail, were with me at the hospital. I think her presence there made a big difference. My husband was darting up and down, but she was right next to me, holding my hand. That’s when I realised how important it is to have someone there with you who understands – she is a woman who has supported many women during birth, she is a mother, and she just understood the kind of support I needed at the time. She was there for me and me alone. That calmed and relaxed me. She ran through everything that was going to happen because nobody at the hospital takes the time for that – they do it every day. The birth was healing.
Finally at Peace
After the birth of my third, I reflected on my experiences and finally found acceptance.
When I fell pregnant with my fourth, I decided not to fight for another VBAC. I set myself up with the same system, and from the moment I fell pregnant, I decided Charlene should be there.
I recommend everyone have a doula. People think it’s strange – why would you have a doula present at a caesarean birth? That support means everything. She knew exactly what I needed. She had come early morning to meet me because my husband had to do the school run. She set up my room – dimmed the lights, put candles on, and played gentle, calming music. She gave me a massage before I went in. It was a total pamper session, and it made me so excited. Leading up to the birth, she had given me hypnobirthing tracks to listen to in preparation. It was an amazing experience.
Advice For Others
If you are preparing for another baby after trauma, a doula, especially one that has experience with trauma, is so important. Prepare for the birth; so you know what to expect on the day.
Set yourself up for success before your baby arrives. Rally your troops and meet with a lactation consultant. Get a baby carrier. I came across babywearing when I was researching postpartum depression. It made a huge difference with my third baby because I had two toddlers, and life had to go on. Babywearing is a total game-changer.
I recommend a fear release session with Charlene from Relax Into Birth. She has an app – so anyone can access her material. A lot of the content is free. It is basically an antenatal course you have access to on your phone.
If you’ve experienced a traumatic birth, know that your experience matters. It can get better. You deserve to heal physically and emotionally.
Please consider the following resources if you or someone you know is struggling with postpartum depression: FAMSA or South African Depression And Anxiety Helpline.
Follow Sara on Instagram @thewokemamadiaries.
Such a beautiful story. Thank you Sara for sharing🙏🏽
Thank you for taking the time to read, Kirsty.