It is the week of the 5th anniversary of my birth trauma. As you might have guessed, this means that my once tiny baby whose birth caused my trauma is now an energetic 5 years old.
Anniversaries can be a really hard thing for moms who have experienced birth trauma. It isn’t something that I’ve experienced myself, but there are those who stare at the clock and can’t help but think of the terrible thing that happened to them “at this time x years ago.” It isn’t my experienced, but the anniversary of my trauma is a good time to go back and reflect on how much I’ve healed my story.
I want to share with you the story of my elder daughter’s birth. I’m prefacing it like this, because I want you to be ready: if you’ve also experienced trauma, my story may trigger your trauma response, and so I want you to tread lightly through this post, take breaks for self-care as needed. Emotions can scare us, as well as the expression of emotions in words, and I want to inspire with this story rather than harm. It’s all in how you choose to receive it — in this case, receive it carefully. If my story is a piping hot cookie sheet fresh from the oven, you’ll need heat-proof mittens.
There’s another possibility, though. My story might seem so mild compared to yours that you feel angry — you may be angry that I called my experience trauma, when you are the one really traumatized. This is also about how we receive the story. Remember that comparison isolates, and by labeling my experience not-trauma, you’re separating yourself from connection I’m trying to offer. In this case, my story is a precious object that I need to you handle with your softest hands — because it’s my vulnerability that I’m offering you.
The Trauma Story
I planned an all-natural birth. I planned that I would hire a doula, I would learn to accept pain. I would labor as long as I could at home, and then go into the hospital’s Alternative Birthing Center and be attended by nurse midwives, who would never ask if I wanted any pain killers. Immediately after my birth, I was ashamed that I had not achieved my goal, that something that was supposed to be so natural and primal was beyond me. Here’s what happened instead.
Saturday before the Monday my daughter was born, my midwife called with the results of a 24-hour urine screening that had come back poorly, showing that I had a lot of protein in my urine. She asked me how I was feeling — I felt fine. She told me that she suspected I had preeclampsia, and I was to eat something, and then come straight into the hospital. It was possible that I was going to be induced that day — when I was only thirty-three and half weeks pregnant.
I began floating, being out of touch with my body and reality after that phone call. I didn’t have a hospital bag packed — a combination of perinatal depression and procrastination, thinking I had 6 whole weeks left — and all my planning went out the window. I packed six books and a hand-knitted blanket, and one change of clothing. That was it. I don’t know why I thought I was going to have the time to read all those books, but they were comforting. As was the blanket. And yet, none of it was actually useful for what turned out to be a seven day stay at the hospital.
Another thing that made me feel vulnerable at this point, and downright unsafe, was that my in-laws immediately hopped into their car and began driving the four hour drive to the hospital. I dreaded what seemed like the performance of giving birth, and having my in-laws come up before I was even in labor seemed mortifying to me. They came to support Tim and me, but all I could think of was they were expecting something of me and I didn’t know how to deliver. (Ha! Pun unintentional, but fully loved.)
We had rushed to the hospital, the car ride tense and full of declarations to each other that everything would be okay. When we arrived, and after the initial examination, everything ground to a halt. My blood pressure wasn’t dangerously high, and so everything began to be questioned. Was I in danger? Was I not? I couldn’t be sure, and no one would tell me or my husband anything. They decided to collect another 24 hour urine sample, and judge my health by that measure. The midwife wasn’t there when I arrived, and the midwife was no longer my caregiver. The nurses did most of the work (which is normal, I now know), and the Medical Intern and the Resident did all of the talking. I didn’t see my attending doctor until I had been in the hospital for about 24 hours. All of this led to a situation in which I would feel very much as if I was being kept in the dark. I wasn’t being involved in the decision making, and all I knew was that I was supposedly in danger — even though I had no physical symptoms.
About an hour after the second 24 hour urine collection had been sent to the lab, the intern comes in and gives me an ultrasound to confirm that my baby’s head is down, but refuses to tell me why. No one was communicating clearly with me up until that point, but the nurse midwife calls me and says, “I want you to know that induction is hard. Induction is hard in first time moms, and even harder preterm, like you are. Things are going to start going fast. They’re going to give you magnesium sulfate, which is going to burn going in and make you feel warm and sleepy. Then they’re going to catheterize you, and ripen your cervix. You’re going to be confined to the bed, so I am going to give you advice I don’t normally give. Get an epidural. All the pain coping techniques depend on movement, and you won’t be able to do that. Don’t be a martyr.”
This advice made me feel brave, and on top of the waves that were crashing against me. I told my husband, “I am going to labor as long as I can without an epidural.” I said, “I know that epidurals can slow labor, and the midwife told me induction is hard. I don’t want to get it too soon and slow the process down. But I’m going to get the epidural when I can’t stand it anymore.” He agreed with me, and the interventions began, relentless.
I think it’s important to note here that induction is long and boring. Here is what’s important to note about my induction:
- I was given an off-label, contraindicated use drug called cytotec to ripen my cervix. It is specifically warned against because it’s associated with uterine rupture. The intern and resident did not know that the drug was contraindicated, when we pointed it out — it felt as if I was getting unsafe care, especially when they insisted there was no alternative.
- I was essentially tied to the bed: IV in my right arm pumping in magnesium sulfate, pitocin, and sugar water; oxygen in my nose, blood pressure cuff on my left arm going off every 30 minutes, the external fetal monitor and contraction monitor (which were replaced by internal monitors as time went on), a bladder catheter, and each leg had cuffs that massaged my legs to prevent blood clots. I was immobilized both literally and metaphorically in my laboring.
- As they ripened my cervix, they told me that they were going to let me sleep overnight. When I awoke in the morning, I found that they had begun pitocin without discussing it with me, and without notifying me. My autonomy was being completely ignored, and I didn’t know why they had done that, which scared me even further.
- After my waters had been broken, labor started in earnest, but contractions were not registering on the contraction monitor. Even though my husband and I were timing the contractions, our participation in my care was ignored, the pitocin was turned up, and an internal monitor was placed.
- When I finally asked for the epidural, my doula reminded me that my birth plan had indicated I did not want an epidural. Even though the decision that I made before induction that made me feel confident and in control had been questioned by the person who was supposed to be supporting me — at THAT moment, it felt like support. So I told the nurse I was thinking about it, and so the epidural didn’t happen. In the months and, honestly, years after my daughter’s birth, the doula questioning my decision to have an epidural in the moment came to symbolize betrayal of my personhood and my needs in pursuit of the “perfect birth.”
Not long after I asked for the epidural,
A resident came in and informed me quite matter-of-factly that the internal monitor for contractions had fallen out. By this point, I was pretty sure I was in transition for my little one, very close to pushing him or her out — after all, the baby was preterm, and though I was at 6 or 7, the wee one’s brain was only 2/3 the size of a term baby. I asked what would happen if she got down there and found out I was ready to push. She dismissed that thought entirely, despite the fact that I could feel the monitor during contractions pinched between baby’s head and my cervix, and told me that it was rare for them to fall out in the first place.
They got me onto my back (moving caused contractions, so it was a bit of an ordeal), and she reinserted the monitor. I cried, and screamed and demanded they stop poking me. My husband, and doula, and midwife were all there massaging me, encouraging me, telling me I was brave and that it would be over soon, and I got through it. And it was over — but the god damn resident had taken off baby’s monitor and had to reattach it, so her hand went back up my vagina.
This is the part of the story that would make sense to most people as trauma — I was held down, in pain, and forced to go through something I clearly did not want to happen as it was happening. And it is in this instance that I can say I froze — I lost all sense of time at that point. And while most women lose a sense of time in labor, my pitocin remained down, and I actually do not even remember laboring anymore after that point.
The next thing I remember, which seemed like half an hour, but was apparently more like a six hour gap:
It wasn’t that much later that the Doctor who supervises my midwife practice showed up in the room, telling me that he would like to check my cervix to see process, because he wanted the baby born in the next half hour to six hours. Babies at 34 weeks don’t have much reserves, you see, and he was already seeing some distress. I told him to skip the exam and just prep me for surgery. I was done being prodded.
Oh, the guilt I felt for this decision. I thought I had done something wrong to want a c-section, to need a c-section. The shame I felt for this decision. I thought I was weak, less than, a bad person because I had given up. I thought I was a quitter, not worthy of being a mother because I couldn’t do it. Emotionally, I beat myself up badly. This is from a journal entry I wrote 24 hours following my daughter’s birth, as soon as I was moved from observation to the recovery ward.
So, surgery happened. Baby was born at 8:39 PM And Tim held baby Rocketship for the first time and sang to her, and I stroked her cheek, and she was whisked off to the NICU. I was cleaned up and brought back to my room, where the magnesium kept coming. I said hello and I love you to both sides of the family, both of whom got to see baby before they left, and then I settled in for the night.
Rocketship, by the way, was 4lbs 3oz, 17 inches long, cried as she was pulled out, and scored an 8 and 9 on her APGARs. My mother-in-law says she’s already got gifted test scores. She was rooting nearly immediately (our doula was watching), and tried to suck on her fist in the NICU. She regulated her temperature by the next morning with the help of blankets, and Tim has helped feed her twice. She was even well enough to come visit me (in my mag stupor) for a few minutes; I got to hold her.
This is the happy part of the story, the one that everyone focused on: my baby was born happy and healthy. She was so healthy, in fact, that the NICU let her come visit me, without any monitors for her. But what I remember is that I was (as I note) in a stupor — I could not communicate clearly to the nurse that I wanted to be skin to skin with my baby, that I wanted her out of the three layers she was wearing (clothes, swaddle, fleece swaddle) and onto my chest. I felt that I had failed in an attempt to bond with my baby.
Twenty-four hours after my daughter was born, I was moved from observation on the Labor and Delivery floor to recovery on the Postpartum floor. This was Tuesday, and induction had begun in the early afternoon on Sunday, during which time I had been on IV fluids, and not eaten — 60 hours without food. By the time I was settled in to the recovery room, the kitchen had closed, and all the nurse could offer me were saltine and graham crackers. My daughter was a floor away from me, safe in the NICU, but no one offered to take me to see her, even though medically, I was now allowed to move. This is the moment that is most traumatic, even five years later, even after healing, it’s the one that still causes me to feel regret.
In the next part of the journal entry after my daughter’s birth, I expressed my feelings, not knowing how poignant this moment would be:
I am feeling disconnected from my baby; I was on bed rest the first 24 hours after delivery because I was still on seizure watch/the magnesium sulfate, and could not go see her. Tim, however, did, and I am forever grateful to his attentive parenting. He’s been sending me pictures, and telling me about her, and everything he can do. I just need to work on attaching to my baby, to believing she is mine.
I am scared. Scared I will break her, scared she might not recognize me, scared that we won’t bond. Scared that she won’t eat. Scared that I will be a bad mother because of this rocky start. I am so scared. I need to go see her and I don’t know how. I am having a hard time believing she’s mine… it was hard to believe when she was inside me, and now it seems impossible.
While everyone focused on the happy part of the story, I was feeling guilt and shame and hopelessness that I would ever be a good mom, could ever be a good mother, because of the way she was born and that I was separated from her. I felt deeply and continually unsafe because my baby was out of my reach — that I wasn’t protecting her. It was driven hormonally, for sure, but I felt helpless. I couldn’t even get real food for myself. I also felt like I had failed because my husband had been parenting our newborn, not me. Wasn’t it my job?
From there, the story is happy again. My husband arrived after his night at home, made sure I was fed, and took me to see my baby in the NICU. After rounds that morning, my baby was discharged from the NICU into my room, and we were together.
Before the Healing
I judged myself so much because of the intense emotions I was feeling — anger at my friends who were still pregnant, because of how unfair it was that my daughter was premature and theirs were still gestating. Anger at preeclampsia, anger at myself for getting preeclampsia, fury that I could not prevent preeclampsia in the future because scientists haven’t yet figured out its source.
I felt guilt and shame that I wasn’t able to live up to what I had planned, that I was unable to give my daughter the perfect bonding experience after her birth, that I had actually volunteered for a c-section. I felt completely out of control of the experience — the medical interventions, the social niceties, the way that suddenly I was excluded from society in so many ways because I had a newborn child.
I was angry at my doula for reminding me in the middle of my very highly medicalized birth that I had desired no pain interventions — even though the necessary medicalization was preventing me from doing what I needed to do to avoid pain interventions.
I was grieving. I grieved the six weeks of pregnancy I thought I had left that were suddenly taken from me. I grieved for my baby’s lost time inside the womb, and the struggle it seemed to me she must be having (she was fine, which is not to say that other NICU babies don’t actually struggle). I was grieving the possibility that I would never have a normal pregnancy, because preeclampsia is most common in first time mothers, and in mothers who have had preeclampsia before — i.e. it was likely to reoccur.
When my trauma occurred, I was frozen into an emotional state full of anger, guilt, shame, and grief — and whenever I began to thaw slightly, to come to terms with my new reality, to heal, the intensity and reality of my emotions became obvious to me and I was scared back into my frozen state.
Numbness and disassociation were normal state of beings for me for the first six months of my baby daughter’s life.
But women who have experienced birth trauma don’t have to carry that pain indefinitely, and they don’t have to try to unravel it alone.
If you believe you’ve had a traumatic birthing experience, and you want to know about how to move forward, I invite you to get a free excerpt of my soon-to-be-released eBook, Transforming Birth Trauma. The sample contains two tests to determine if you’ve experienced Trauma, and the most important next step. AND you’ll be among the first to know when the whole book is available for purchase.
Click below to receive The Transforming Birth Trauma Excerpt and start reframing your pain into something positive today.