Birth Trauma and Birthdays

My heart is racing even considering typing this post, because writing it means thinking about it, and thinking about it means recalling it, and recalling it is just horrific. Isn’t that a terrible thing to say in regards to the birth of your first — and much wanted — child?

Despite my trepidation, I’ll keep diving — securely clinging to my safety rope to the present so as not to get sucked into the dark abyss of recollection — knowing someone somewhere needs to know they’re not broken or alone or wrong. That they needn’t shoulder the guilt others hoist upon them. That there is hope. That it does get better. It does.

I began having contractions on July18, 2011. Type-A and working from home on bedrest, I was still emailing and updating project implementation spreadsheets as I winced and grunted. Around midday, I stood to try to “walk off the pains” and I wound up on my knees, moaning, clutching the kitchen counter. I called my OB, whose office was closed for lunch, and left a message for her telling her that my husband and I were heading to the hospital.

Many hours and a traumatic birth later (story here), it was 3:36AM on July 19th. I had my daughter. We still had another round of resuscitation yet to go, a NICU stay, and some painful physical healing for my daughter and myself. But, it was over.

At least outwardly.

Inwardly, that event still haunts me 8 years later. I don’t sleepwalk or have baby-in-peril nightmares as I once did. I don’t get stuck seated on the toilet due to my physical wounds or cry during sitz baths as I once did. I don’t get faint or stop breathing at the mention of birth anymore. I don’t struggle to pull myself out of the vivid, palpable, horrific memories as I once did.

I do still find myself inexplicably tense, angry, flighty, and agitated as my daughter’s birthday approaches. Unwaveringly, I will look at the clock throughout the day of July 18th and be transported back to that Labor and Delivery room. I will get visions of the blank dry erase board that absorbed the sounds of my sobbing. And every year I awake at 3:36AM on July 19th and I shudder then sigh. But now I can return to sleep, the inky black bleed of the trauma now kept at bay. Throughout the day I will hide my ragged and raw emotions to celebrate my daughter. I will pretend all is well. This is “her day” after all. But the fact that I am capable of doing this is proof of healing not lost on me.

As real as my trauma is to me, birth traumas and birth-related PTSD like mine are dismissed. Shamed. Birth is positioned as beautiful and natural, as something to be regarded as sacred, spiritual, superhuman… not potentially lethal. Some of those who, like me, struggle(d) to conceive hoist their own pain upon mothers with birth trauma, insisting that the mother’s pain is negated by the birth of a child and wholly necessitates gratitude. Some say, “all births are tough” and shrug off the mothers’ pain. Some hold a sense of competition, perhaps rooted in self-preservation, to present their own birth story as more challenging or painful or trying that others’, which fuels them to discount other mothers’ traumas. Then there is the sect that views birth as an unsavory topic of conversation altogether and force mothers into stoic silence to quell their sensitivities. (As someone who openly discusses pelvic floor health or menstrual cups, digestive woes or breastfeeding with the same casual fluidity as chatting about Target purchases, this prudish leaning is a foreign mindset.)

The intent to shift public perspective of birth from medical to metaphysical is lovely. Beautiful. And yet the reverberations can hum as callous to those who do not share the glowing birth experience.

As hard as I try, I cannot perceive birth as anything but dangerous. As something to be brutally survived for the love of a child. Birth nearly killed my daughter and me; to me, its lethal potential, its dark and scarring qualities are unquestionable. As much as I wish this wasn’t true, it is. And I am not alone.

Mothers are expected to hide, bury, forget their birth traumas and heal physically and emotionally from the harrowing feat without perceptible scars. To bounce back in all ways. They are expected to tell and retell their children their birth stories. They are tasked with ignoring any of the day’s ghosts in favor of feigning joyous celebration. They are expected to feel sheer elation and abounding love at the mere glint of a birth recollection. Anything less is shameful, selfish, weak.

Any utterances regarding birth struggles will inevitably be met with, “but at least you had a baby” or “you should be grateful for your child.” A soldier’s PTSD would not be met with dismissive responses of, “you should be happy you got to serve” and “war is beautiful.” So, why are mothers’?

Eight years later, I am nearly a decade removed from my birth trauma. My physical wounds are long healed. My emotional wounds are in a state of healing. I am far from where I once was; happier, more present, capable of recalling without falling in. I am here. I am healing. I am trying. I am stronger than I ever knew.

It is better. So am I.

Now, to celebrate my daughter.