I had a traumatic vaginal birth with my first child (story here.) It left me scarred in more ways than one. 20 months later, I went on to have a jarring c-section birth with an inept anesthesiologist (story here,) followed by a second c-section that went well — for which I cried tears of joy as they sewed me up — until the epidural fell out of my back on transfer from the operating table to the gurney, meaning I had zero pain relief immediately following invasive abdominal surgery. To say I have traumatic birth memories is an understatement. But birth is natural, right? Everyone on Earth arrived by way of birth. So how can something so commonplace leave such an emotional scar? It’s not like I went to war.
But, in a small way, I did. At least, it was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced — or hope to experience — to war. There was blood and pain and true risk of death. There were tears and little control and so much fear. It was war in the delivery room. A battle to overcome.
That said, birth isn’t actual war. It’s the bringing of life. It’s something done everywhere every day. How can some women birth over and over without issue, whereas others are tormented by the memory of just one birth? How can similar experiences manifest so differently in individuals? Truly, I don’t know. They just do.
What does my birth-related trauma look like? Not much from the outside, honestly. I keep it well-hidden. Fortunately, 6.5 years out, my bouts are much less frequently triggered than they used to be. I used to sleepwalk every night with baby-in-peril dreams that, at best, caused me to scream in my sleep and at worst spurred me to unknowingly sob while digging holes in my pillow. Even the hint of birth in movies or TV would cause me to become faint and nauseous. I had to switch to another OB in the practice because I couldn’t bear to see the doctor’s face at the other end of an exam table.
6.5 years later, when my trauma does flare, I generally know what to expect: episodes of panicky breathing, rapidfire vivid memories on an uncontrollable loop, edginess and irritability, a clenched jaw and subsequent headache, sleep disturbances (ex: nightmares, sleepwalking, insomnia), feelings of sadness and shame, emotional detachment, and fatigue. Sometimes the trauma sticks around for a few hours, other times for days. It’s hard to predict its schedule.
During the episodes, I welcome as much mental clutter as I can to pile on top of the birth horror reel that’s constantly spinning in the back of my mind. It is the quiet time I fear. Closing my eyes in the shower, a lull in radio programming during a drive, that period before sleep when you close your eyes and welcome rest, those are the times when my trauma tightens its grip. Every birth memory I tried to shove beneath carpool and dinner prep, homework help and playdate scheduling, social media pings and friendly texts fires through my mind like an emotional inferno All of the things I tried to forget I am reliving.
If I do sleep, it won’t be well or for long. I will likely sit up in bed thinking I’m awake when I am really somewhere between wakefulness and slumber. I may possibly sleepwalk into the closet or jump from bed in a terrified dream state. I will wake far too early exhausted but unwilling to close my eyes again for fear of repeating the process. I just want the day to start so that I can push the memories beneath the surface, weigh them down with the everyday. Bury them with the life I love.
Then, as quickly as it arrived it is gone. My trauma after effects trail away, a mental vapor. Leaving me content once again and appreciative of my unglamorous beautiful life as a stay-at-home mom of three. The memories fade and sleep is welcome once again. Until next time.
If you — or a loved one — suffer from birth-related trauma, know it does not make you weaker or lesser or broken. You can love your child and your life, you can be a loving and appreciative parent but still suffer from the emotional wounds. It doesn’t mean you’re ungrateful or unfit. You are simply a human who survived.
Get help if you need it. Talk about it. Give it voice. Know it will get better. You are a survivor. There is no shame in that. Ever.