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A photo of Mark with his wife and newborn babyMark Williams / BBC Three

Watching my son's traumatic birth drove me to a breakdown

During my wife's labour which lasted 22 hours, I had my first ever panic attack

Mark Williams

I was 30 years old when our only child, a son, was born. My wife, Michelle, then 27, had been in labour for 22 hours when I had the first panic attack of my life. I didn’t realise that was what was happening at the time. All we knew was that the baby was stuck. The nurses started talking about an emergency caesarean. I heard the word ‘emergency’ and just panicked.

I started hyperventilating, to the point where I couldn’t breathe. My wife was frightened and confused, too, as they wheeled her off to surgery. I just kept feeling like I had to man up, like I was being weak and pathetic. I thought she was going to die, I thought our baby was going to die; I was convinced that neither of them would leave the hospital alive. I’ve never felt such panic in my life, not before or since.

We were so excited when my wife got pregnant. We’d been together six years before we got married in Cyprus in 2003. Ethan was born on the 1 December 2004. We were so ready to be a little family that we just never imagined we'd feel like this. Neither of us, not my wife and not me, really recovered from that traumatic birth. Our son came out healthy, after the longest 24 hours of our lives, but if I’m honest, I didn’t feel that overwhelming love for him that you’re meant to feel as a parent. Not at first.

Mark and family a year or so after the birth of his sonMark Williams / BBC Three

In the twelve months after my son was born, we were both triggered by our memories of what happened that day. For years, speaking about it would trigger my nightmares and anxieties. 

My wife developed severe postnatal depression, which lasted for 18 months, but the first 12 were the worst. I was never screened for it. The World Health Organisation doesn't currently recommend screening dads for the condition. So I went through a depression, too, after our son was born, but I suffered in silence. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to be a burden, and I didn’t want to affect my wife’s mental health.

I took six months off work to look after Michelle. She didn’t feel worthy or good enough to be a mother, she felt helpless and, for months, it was difficult for her to even get ready for the day. I watched as she developed suicidal tendencies. Around that time, I also started having suicidal thoughts.

Then there were the nightmares. Such vivid nightmares. They started almost immediately and lasted for years. I’d dream that my wife and son had died, and I’d wake up believing for a split second that they were dead. 

Several years later, I had a complete breakdown. My grandfather died, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and I fell apart. I was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety, but I still felt unable to talk about how the birth and my wife’s condition had affected me.

By this point, Michelle had been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, an anxiety disorder which can be triggered by any kind of trauma, including a traumatic childbirth. You can get it if you witness a horrific car crash - and you don’t even need to know the person involved. If you witness something that could have taken a life, it stays with you. 

The trauma we both experienced changed the shape of our family. We’ve just had the one son, our Ethan, because we couldn't risk going through it again.  I used to worry about what would happen if my wife became pregnant again. I’d think about it and just panic. Even now, the thought of her being pregnant stirs up those feelings. 

Michelle and I both get counselling these days. She’s started working in the mental health area too, the same as me, and that’s really helped. We’re both working, we’re both doing much better. 

A recent photo of Mark, Michelle and EthanMark Williams / BBC Three
A recent photo of Mark, Michelle and Ethan

As a society, we still have this idea that PTSD only affects people who have been to war. Well, anyone can have it. PTSD is estimated to affect about 1 in every 3 people who have a traumatic experience, but it's not clear exactly why some people develop the condition and others don't. Seventy percent of people who live with PTSD in the UK never get treatment.

I’m campaigning now for greater awareness and for us to screen dads as well as mums for PTSD and for postnatal depression after the birth of their kids. I’ve spoken to fathers who witnessed far more than I did that day, fathers who saw the kind of blood loss you don’t forget, fathers who had flashbacks to that moment for years after, fathers who were never asked how they felt in the aftermath.

All I want is for us to speak openly about the possibilities of what can happen, prepare people for these worst case scenarios, and then support  them afterwards. I've even started speaking out about my experiences, campaigning for better aftercare for mothers and fathers.

After one talk, a doctor specialising in the mental health of pregnant and postnatal women told me that my symptoms also matched those of people suffering from PTSD. Although research in this area is limited, it is suggested that 5% of childbirth partners develop trauma symptoms if they have been present at the birth.

I’m so happy to be a father and I’m proud of my Ethan. But I shouldn’t have had to go through what I went through. Men shouldn't have to feel like they are so isolated, so uninformed, and so alone in the aftermath of a traumatic childbirth. I’m 44 now, Michelle is 41, and Ethan will be 14 next month. It’s been over a decade since Ethan came into the world and yet we think about that experience every day.

You know, I used to be a kickboxing champion and I’m from a Northern mining town. It’s taken a lot for me to learn how to speak about this, to push past the outdated ideas of masculinity, and learn to be open about my mental health. So many men live with this idea that they must be stoic and strong, but ultimately, it’s brave and important to speak about these things.

As told to Kate Leaver

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article help and support are available here 

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