Today is the fifth anniversary of my traumatic birth experience. Only now am I able to see others’ birth photos without feeling lightheaded. Only now am I able to watch birth scenes without getting panicked. It’s been a long journey but a healing and strengthening one.
I no longer have the nightmares, the unexpected flashbacks, or the anxiety waves. I am releasing the anger for what my husband, child, and I endured. I am letting go of the swirling “what ifs?” I am coaching myself through dismissing the jealousy I feel when I hear of others’ smooth, healthy, uncomplicated births. I am denying the self-imposed guilt. I am healing.
Trauma of any kind is an emotional — and often physical — hurdle that takes time, self-awareness, willpower, and strength to overcome. Birth trauma is no different. However, it’s a trauma that’s rarely discussed and hardly acknowledged. As if birth being a natural, common event makes it benign. As if — if you have been so fortunate — the presence of your healthy child negates your entire experience.
I’m sharing my story so that others know they are not alone, that they are not broken, that they are not weak, that there is hope. That it is in their power to move forward. This is my story.
With my first child I had a traumatic vaginal birth. I had been on bed rest for two weeks due to gestational hypertension. By a debated 36 or 37 weeks, I’d graduated to full on preeclampsia, which was even more concerning due to my congenital (stable and well-monitored) heart defect.
On the morning of July 18, 2011, I began exhibiting labor signs. By 1:00pm my husband and I were walking into the Labor and Delivery ward of our local hospital. I was probably earlier on in labor than I suspected when I arrived at the hospital, but I was a first-time-mom. What did I know?
The nurses checked my blood pressure. “Don’t you dare move,” one told me as I asked to visit the restroom, “you’re ‘this’ far away from a possible stroke!” I stayed in that bed until the evening. Catheterized, contracting, thirsty and hungry, awaiting an eventual epidural, I was told the doctor wanted to break my waters. If not that, we’d need to consider a c-section. My body wasn’t handling labor well.
I was terrified of a c-section, as I’d only ever heard horror stories. I opted for my waters being broken. It didn’t take much as I’d been 2 centimeters dialated and 90% effaced throughout my 2-week bed rest. Labor progressed.
It was 1:30am. The nurse held one foot and my husband held the other. I pushed and I pushed and I pushed. Blood vessels in my eyes popped at the pressure. The doctor came in and looked concerned. “Prep for a section.” She told the nurse and left the room. “No! No c-section. Please!” I implored the nurse. “I’ll talk to the doctor.” The nurse returned moments later. “Let’s get pushing. If we can get this baby far enough down, maybe we can avoid a c-section.” It was go time!
I pushed, we reconfigured stances, I pushed more. I tore. The doctor arrived. More pushing. More tearing. A cut. I pushed, they pulled, the ring of fire… then the monitors showed my baby was in distress.
Eight nurses came racing into the room, one jumped on top of me, told me not to scream as they pushed on my belly. I could feel my wounds burn with every push. The nurse on my chest looked at me with wild eyes and a stern voice, “This baby needs to come out NOW!” We all pushed, the doctor pulled, and out she came. 3:36am. We were all exhausted but it wasn’t over yet.
The nurses rushed my daughter to the exam table. The monitor blocked my view entirely. “Is she OK? Is my baby OK?” I kept asking, but no one answered, no one flinched . It was as if my voice evaporated as soon as it left my mouth.
I birthed the placenta. “Time to clean you up.” The doctor said, but I barely heard her. I was too focused on trying to see my daughter. Trying to glean some shred of information from the huddle of medical staff hovering over my daughter’s body.
I turned to my doctor, who was preparing to sew my torn and cut lower portions. “Is my baby OK?” I asked her. She looked toward the exam table and then to me, her eyes appearing concerned, “You may feel a pinch.” I felt everything.
Local anesthetics tend to be relatively ineffective on me but I couldn’t communicate that now because all I wanted was to know if my daughter was alive. Tears streamed down my exhausted face. I hurt in every possible way but I was stuck on an unfamiliar bed with an unheard voice while being sewn up like a torn shirt
I looked to my husband, who was standing in a mix of shock and terror beside me: “Is she OK?” He asked the nurse. The nurse quickly looked up from her efforts with our baby, “We don’t know.”
Moments later: baby cries. The nurse handed me my under-7lb baby. My daughter’s face was bruised and swollen, her head was elongated and pointed. “Shoulder dystocia,” they told me as I latched her onto my breast. “She choked on fluid.” I stroked her matted brown hair. “She ‘code pinked.'” I grasped her tiny purple hand. “We resuscitated her.” I held her close as she nursed.
We later learned that, due to an old injury, my tailbone impeded the exit route. There’s nothing we could have done besides opting for a cesarean section, but no one could have anticipated that precise impediment.
After my daughter unlatched, they wheeled her to the nursery for some assessments while the nurse helped me to the bathroom. It was 5:00am as the nurse wheeled me into my room in the Maternity ward. The sun was beginning to rise. My husband wearily pulled and tugged at the visitor chair to convert it into a bed. He flopped down to try to get some rest. “Your daughter will be in shortly,” the nurse told me as she checked my wires and monitors, “try to sleep.”
I closed my eyes but my mind was still racing. I looked out the window and watched as the sky turned from purple to pink. As the sun rose and the last few clouds were drained of their rosy hue, a nurse came in the room. “Your daughter experienced complications in the nursery, ” she told us. “The doctor will be in soon to tell you more.” My husband and I stared at one another, our traumatized minds hazy from two days without sleep.
An hour later, the pediatrician arrived. He sat down in the corner chair and told us that a nurse in the nursery found our daughter purple and not breathing. She cleared our baby’s airway and resuscitated her. It appeared to be a blockage of colostrum and fluid. They weren’t sure how long our daughter had been without oxygen, if there’d be permanent brain damage, or if she might choke again. She was in the NICU.
The doctor took my husband to see our daughter, as no wheelchairs were yet available for me and I could not dependably walk yet. In that empty room, I cried. I wailed. I mourned. Every bit of pain, exhaustion, and fear poured out of me. Then, drained, I stopped and stared at the white dry erase board on the wall in front of me. I was silent.
Five years later, our daughter is bright, highly verbal, perfectly able-bodied, and healthy. My husband is healing, as am I, from our experience all those years ago. We’ve come a long way, but we’re still mending. Surviving and savoring our journey together.