by Leanna McNeil
When I decided to start a family, I had no idea that my child’s arrival would leave me feeling traumatized, and experiencing grief and loss.
I had a perceived notion of how I would bring my child into this world and how she would thrive. For every parent, the vision that we hold for ourselves and our children is unique. That vision is often affected both by our own upbringing and family history, the good, the bad and the ugly, as well as incorporating our goals, desires and our current values and belief system.
I envisioned a natural water birth with candles, soft music and calm voices with the support of my man and midwife. I had a 6 page birthing plan which I ceremoniously had signed and dated, insisting on no medical intervention, unless in an emergency. I am a healthy woman and I knew without a doubt that my labour would be magical, and tick all the boxes of what I wanted for myself and my child. I was positive I was having a girl; I felt it in my bones. I knew that she would arrive healthy and strong, just like me. I knew that we would take her home from the hospital within a few hours of her arrival and lastly, I knew that I would be a fantastic breast feeder and that I would easily and effortlessly feed my child for the first 18 months of her life.
The joke was on me…I found out that I was carrying a beautiful boy so my 6 months of clothes and nursery shopping went out the window, and my Lulu was now a Lincoln. And when my precious baby was born, things did not go to plan. In fact, it became the greatest endurance test of my life. My son was born full term at 1.7 kilos via emergency Caesar with lots of drugs for me and a very worried and frantic delivery room full of 9 hospital staff. Then began the first month of my baby’s life shuffled back and forth between hospital NICU’s, living his days with painful medical procedures and interventions to support him into health. I couldn’t breastfeed him as he was tube fed and when he finally began breastfeeding a month later following three bouts of mastitis…he weaned himself after three months to my horror.
What a shock…the trauma of the entire experience catapulted me into a sense of complete internal chaos. I couldn’t understand why this was happening. It just didn’t make sense as I was so confident that my experience was going to be a joyful one.
When dramatic events occur in our lives, it often carries with it a profound level of shock. Not many people prepare for the worst case scenario, and when we have an idea of what we believe will be our experience, and we end up getting the opposite of that, it has an effect on our belief systems. This can manifest as a sense of grief and loss for the positive experience that we desired for ourselves.
I realise now, the wisdom in the term, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, meaning that we make plans and hold ideals for ourselves based on our beliefs and we focus on the plan, as though it is a map for our journey. And yet, sometimes life takes us onto a different road, a road less travelled, for which we may feel unprepared, directionless, uncertain and afraid.
I now know that there are a million ways in which we can experience a loss and yearn for an experience we wished to have had. Whether it’s through the pregnancy, the actual birth, feeding and sleeping challenges, and external factors in our environment like losing a loved one, a relationship ending, the loss of a job, financial or health crisis just to name a few…we can feel that we are incapable of handling our situation.
A wise American Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about ‘granting the serenity to accept things that can’t be changed, the courage to make changes when possible and the wisdom to know the difference.’ This is obviously easier said than done, when we are faced with traumatic or scary experiences that just don’t seem to make sense as to why they have happened to us. When a dramatic event occurs our first need is to make sense of it, to figure out where it all went wrong. This response is how our brains try to keep us safe-by having it all figured out. Unfortunately life doesn’t always work like that.
If you are feeling grief or loss for an aspect of your own experience, finding a place to express how you are feeling about it can make a world of difference to your entire life. In the first couple of months I felt so shell shocked all I could do was shy away from most people except my family and closest friends. Dramatic events not only shake up our day to day experience, they can affect our view of the world, our sense of safety, and the meaning we make about life. The biggest response I had to my trauma was losing a sense of safety and faith that I had held so easily within myself. While in the hospital I searched for a sense of safety and peace, but felt only fear and anxiousness. Luckily as time passed I was able to find my ground again, and to feel safe within myself once more. What supported me to get here, was using my friends and family as support so that I could tell my story over and over again and share my burden with those that love me and I am lucky that they all stepped up to the plate. I also paid for some professional support, to help me figure out how to reclaim myself and recreate a new belief system after reality as I knew it, had changed. This allowed me to integrate my experience more deeply and to have my own back by honouring my feelings and giving myself the time to sort through it all.
I feel very different since the arrival of my son, and now I understand what it means to say that strength doesn’t only come from what you can do…it also comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t. ‘Overcoming’ doesn’t mean pretending it never happened, on the contrary, overcoming adversity and life’s challenges is more about really owning how you feel about it and having the courage and strength to value your journey. We need to be able to open our eyes, feel what we have been through, and not feel shame about our pain or judge ourselves. That is true courage. The lecturer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” And I would add…warts and all.
Leanna McNeil is a Psychotherapist, Remedial Masseuse, Intuitive and Energetic Healer. When she is not working with clients in her private practice in her beautiful centre Sana Wellness at Erina Heights, she is running Heart Hope & Wonder Wellness Retreats for women healing from grief, loss, divorce, separation, bereavement, illness or dramatic life changes. Contact her on: 0424 098 913 www.sanawellnesscentre.com.au/leanna-mcneil