My son James recently declared that he wants a new scooter for his eighth birthday.
I tried replying enthusiastically but every time his birthday ticks around I can’t help but have flashbacks to his traumatic arrival.
James was my first – my meticulous birth plan went out the window when my waters broke at 1am and, 20 hours on, he was stuck in a back-to-back position.
I just wanted him to be safe – delivery resulted in forceps, an episiotomy (an incision made through the vaginal wall and into the perineum) and a third-degree tear (extending into the muscle that controls the anus).
Now, I don’t want to scare expectant mums, but I don’t want anyone to go through what I did – physically and psychologically. A bad experience in labour can be life-changing and I want women to know the warning signs – and not to feel afraid to press for help when they need it most.
Approximately nine out of 10 women who have a vaginal birth will experience a tear of some degree. Unfortunately, while most are minor, there’s a group of women, like me, who don’t have a quick fix.
After the difficult labour, I had anal fissures (small tears in the anus lining), which split and bled every time I went for a number two.
Vast amounts of laxatives, at the doctor’s recommendation, were meant to loosen my stools so they would be easier to pass while I healed.
At my six-week post-birth GP appointment, I could barely walk due to the pain in my behind. But I was given numbing cream and passed as a healthy new mum.
In reality, I felt anything but.
I was plagued with anxiety about going to the toilet because I knew it would bring agony. It took away the joys of being a new mum but, when James smiled at me for the first time, it made it all feel worthwhile.
All my friends seemed to have recovered so quickly from birth, and I felt very alone (Picture: Sarah Haselwood)
One day after sitting on the toilet for hours on and off, in intense discomfort, I ended up in A&E, clutching my newborn baby, in desperation for help with the pain.
Although the hospital staff were kind, the only option was a shot of morphine, which temporarily helped but, within hours, I was back to square one.
When the fissures finally healed a few months later, the agony in my anus remained. I was so busy as a new mum that I battled through without asking for further assistance.
All my friends seemed to have recovered so quickly from birth, and I felt very alone. I confided in some friends, they were sympathetic, but they had no answers either.
My parents were hugely supportive but, living 30 miles away, we spoke on the phone mostly and it was easier to pretend I was coping when I was actually falling apart. Plus, I did not want them to worry.
My husband Julien saw the daily reality; hearing my screams from the bathroom. A few months after the birth, he insisted on arranging me a GP appointment, where I was referred to an NHS Colorectal Surgeon in December 2013.
An anal fissure had opened due to my constipation and he recommended I remain on laxatives and a high fibre diet.
Three months on, nothing improved but then, as James turned five months old, I found out I was pregnant again.
My first reaction was fear. After some counselling, which did not ease my concerns, medics agreed to schedule me for an elective c-section.
During pregnancy, the investigation into my bum problems was put on hold and, for a while the pain subsided. I believed I was cured.
But to my dismay, after Oliver was born, the fissures returned after a few days – I thought I knew how to manage them better with laxatives but, about a week on, the spasms in my bottom were excruciating.
Thus began a cycle of increased laxatives, long periods on the toilet, heightened anxiety and soreness during, and for hours after, passing a stool.
I remember taking Oliver to a baby massage class when he was two months old, and I winced having to sit on the floor. No-one noticed, once again, I kept it to myself because I felt mentally and physically exhausted.
Plus, I was embarrassed. Problems ‘down below’ are not the sort of topic you want to throw into light conversation.
Eventually, Julien persuaded me to go back to the consultant in early 2015.
To my disbelief, he suggested Botox. Explaining that the Botox was not for a cosmetically smooth behind but to reduce tension.
Desperate to try anything, I hoped it would be my wonder cure but sadly it did little to alleviate things for more than a few weeks.
Results of a colonoscopy the following March came back clear, which, although ruled out anything sinister, left me without a diagnosis and battling pain.
It seemed we had come to a dead-end. Determined, I tried changing my diet, various herbal treatments and acupuncture to no improvement.
The discomfort became a part of my life, but my boys kept me going – making me laugh every day.
I wouldn’t change a single moment I have spent being their mum (Picture: Sarah Haselwood)
Finally, in September 2017, I paid to see a private women’s health specialist recommended by a friend, and after a fair bit of probing, she diagnosed an overactive pelvic floor. Essentially, I could not coordinate my pelvic floor muscles, which created spasms and severely affected my ability to have a bowel movement.
It was a bizarre revelation as, during and after pregnancy, midwives had told me to tighten the pelvic floor – I certainly wasn’t aware the pelvic floor could be too tight!
With the cause in hand, I contacted a private colorectal consultant who agreed with the tight pelvic floor diagnosis. It explained everything!
And the solution? Metal rods! I was advised to insert a metal rod into my bum for 20 minutes every day for three months, gradually increasing in size.
I did it every night when the boys were asleep. At first, I had to psyche myself up for it because I worried it would hurt, but I did my ‘homework’ every day and surprisingly, it wasn’t painful.
After three months, my pelvic floor loosened, the spasms reduced, and I halved my daily laxatives. It felt like I was finally winning.
I hadn’t realised how stressed I had been about my toilet trouble until it began to ease.
After over four years of seeking a diagnosis and remedy, it turned out to be a straightforward fix. I was angry at first, but mostly relieved.
I still constantly worry about relapsing, and about using toilets away from home or forgetting to pack laxatives – sometimes I do have flare-ups (but the metal rods are at hand!).
Most days, I’m OK. I feel sad that I wasted so many years in discomfort.
Despite the toll it took on my body, I’m grateful they were born just a year apart, as it means my amazing boys are best friends.
I wouldn’t change a single moment I have spent being their mum.
But I would change how many specialists I had to see (often at my cost) to obtain a diagnosis.
I wish I had not felt my situation was my problem, that it was in fact both unusual and unacceptable, instead of internally trying to deal with it.
After a policy change in 2020, all new mothers can request a GP appointment to discuss their health six to eight weeks post-birth.
My advice would be for mothers to use this appointment to honestly discuss physical or mental health concerns because battling it solo can prolong issues.
Plus, it makes being a mum incredibly challenging. I wasted years struggling, and far from in silence – I did seek help and was batted away with no real resolution.
When you have young children, it’s tiring enough without having to keep fighting for someone to listen. I missed out on a lot of special moments with my boys because I was distracted by my health worries. That’s not right.
I hope that any woman reading this who might be unfortunate enough to be experiencing the same symptoms, can have a lightbulb moment sooner than I did rather than feeling secret shame for far too long.
The Truth Is…
Metro.co.uk’s weekly The Truth Is… series seeks to explore anything and everything when it comes to life’s unspoken truths and long-held secrets. Contributors will challenge popular misconceptions on a topic close to their hearts, confess to a deeply personal secret, or reveal their wisdom from experience – good and bad – when it comes to romance or family relationships.
If you would like your share your truth with our readers, email [email protected].