Right before my son turned 1, I met an old friend for coffee. It had been a while since we had seen each other, and in catching up, she inquired about the birth of our second child. As I told her our story, I began to cry. Even though nearly a year had passed, my feelings around his entrance into this world were still raw and complicated.
It had been difficult to name the emotions tied to the experience. Each time I’ve told our story over the past year, a new door has been opened to anger, fear, guilt, loss, and shame. All the love I have for my son couldn’t erase my questioning of the healthcare system, my faith, and my body. How do you reconcile an event that brings both happiness and doubt?
“Births are not either traumatic or not,” writes Maureen Campion, MS, LP, in Heal Your Birth Story. “Many women have beautiful births in which there was one moment when they were faced with an overwhelming sense of unexpected loss of power. That moment, a week after the birth, may simply resolve itself, or it may become an obsessive sore spot that begins to take over the best parts of the story. . . . Trauma occurs in moments.”
Campion, a Twin Cities–based psychologist, writes in a compassionate and understanding voice, and details the various avenues of emotions tied to psychological birth trauma and unresolved negativity around a woman’s birth story. In her book, she shares her own tale and others’ essays, and offers exercises to aid in healing.
Indeed, the spectrum of feelings and the event itself varies so widely and uniquely. My first birth with my daughter was glorious: My vision and hopes realized in an active and speedy labor and water birth.
When I became pregnant two years later, I was certain a second pregnancy would run a similar course to my first. I hired my same amazing doula, but signed up with a larger group of nurse midwives, as my former group disbanded. There were some concerns along the way as I met with the different midwives, a practice of roughly 20 women, but with my doula and husband by my side when the time came, I knew I’d have my key support team in place in case anything went amiss.
Then about two weeks before his due date, my waters broke. Since my first birth was just shy of eight hours, my care team had several discussions about this birth also being fast, maybe even half the time. So we set out for the hospital.
But even as we prepared to go, I noticed something strange: no regular and steady contractions. Really, nothing.
Once I was admitted to the hospital, it was noted quickly that my risk for infection would increase after 12 hours of the waters breaking so we needed to consider medical intervention. I thanked the nurse for the information, but I was worried: Several conversations with the midwives were about my goal to have a nonmedicated vaginal birth, ideally in water. Instead of me trusting them as their patient, I was now vigilant and cautious of their care.
With my husband and doula, I walked outside on the trails and throughout the hospital corridors. I tried repeating the same patterns as my first birth: swaying on a stability ball, different positioning, relaxing in the tub.
Lunch came and little had changed. More walking, lunges, step-ups, squatting, and walking. So much walking.
Near dinnertime, the conversation with a second midwife returned to interventions, and we agreed to try the prostaglandin pill Cervidil, which works to soften the cervix and thus spur contractions, later that night if nothing had changed. While they were ready to take action, I was still hoping for nature to lead. “I don’t have anywhere to go,” I noted. I went for another walk, and took another bath.
That evening, the charge nurse pushed to give me an IV without full explanation, saying that it “wasn’t up for a discussion,” and I grew frustrated. It’s in my nature as a health journalist to know the facts and rationale. (She later explained when prompted for more detail that his heart rate was high, and the thinking was that I was dehydrated and needed fluids, which did indeed work to bring down his heart rate.) As she inserted the IV, tears streamed down my face, and through my anger, I told her, “I don’t want my birth to feel like my brain surgery.”
“You will find raw spots in your story around something that was said to you or a procedure that went wrong or the way you were treated,” Campion writes. “For you, this was a sacred, amazing, powerful experience. For some of them it was just a work day and maybe a crappy one at that.”
With the shift change to a wonderful new midwife and nurse the next day, I was ready to move forward. We walked again, I squatted and lunged; we tried Spinning Babies; reiki, massage, acupressure, acupuncture, and warm baths.
After 38 hours from when my waters broke, my contractions began to be stronger, steady, and more predictable. Now on my fifth midwife and fourth nurse after another shift change, I re-explained my birth preferences again: Let my body do the work, release any worry, and please avoid causing alarm. My goal is a water birth.
The midwife nodded and seemed to understand, but I quickly started to see that the fetal heartbeat monitor would decide the course of this birth. Since I had been put on Cervidil, the machine was their guide instead of me as the patient, and the monitor seemed in control of my and my baby’s destiny. They discussed the numbers even as my vocalization changed from what my husband described as “Zen monk” to “lead singer of a heavy metal band.” They watched the numbers as my contractions became longer and closer together, but no mention of the tub being prepared — they wouldn’t even answer my husband when he asked several times if it was ready for me. I felt my water-birth dream dissolve with each passing hour, and my spirit crushed every time the midwife stopped by my room. I felt increasingly invisible and unheard.
When Pitocin was suggested to augment labor, I decide to take a bath. Partly to stall, but also because I knew what was happening, and that no further talk of intervention would be needed. The nurses discussed my numbers and whether the baby’s heart rate met the criteria for a water birth with the ob-gyn on the floor, and I kept focused on labor, now moving into transition. From the bathroom, I climbed onto the bed as the charge nurse pulled the emergency cord for help, and within seconds, our baby boy was born at 12:30 a.m.
I was relieved, but as soon as he wasn’t placed in my arms, I quickly became concerned — he was blue and not breathing. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and there was a tight knot in it. The nurses cheered at me, trying to distract me from the emergency cart in the corner, but I heard the NICU nurse counting aloud marking the time until his first breath. A minute, nearly two, and then shrieks from this little man. To this day, I still hear the counting, and see the panic on the nurse’s face and the fear on my husband’s.
He weighed just over 5½ pounds. Because he had tied a knot in the umbilical cord (most likely loose until birth when it tightened), my care team thought, he didn’t get as much nourishment to grow bigger. My placenta was small, too. Guilt quickly came over me as I thought back to my prenatal appointments where they cautioned me about how much weight to gain — did I not gain enough weight? Even the NICU nurse commented, rather inappropriately, “This baby has no fat on him! You’re going to have to supplement.” I hadn’t even had a chance to breastfeed my baby yet.
After such a tedious labor, his sudden entrance was jarring. As the sun rose, I held him and nursed him all while ruminating: Did I do something wrong? Is he going to be OK? What just happened?
In the following months, I met with mom’s groups, tried bring-your-baby yoga classes, and thought that those feelings of regret and shame would disappear. When I told my birth story to one woman, she said, “Well, all that matters is that he’s here and healthy” — as if the resulting child should just wash away the haunting memories and emotions.
For a while, I was able to muster through: Just push my feelings deep down or ignore them and eventually they’d disappear, right? Moms are often given this message: Suck it up; be the rock; it’s not about you anymore. But how are moms supposed to function as healthy adults and fully heal emotionally and physically from childbirth if they are not supported in addressing emotional distress? With birth trauma linked to postpartum mood disorders, Campion notes, not resolving these feelings can be potentially dangerous for some women.
Today, I feel like myself again. I’ve made peace with his birth, and realized my own strength in the process — a courage that was emblazoned in my DNA from my late grandma Marie and my mother Karen. I’ve moved through the emotions while journaling, reading Campion’s book and attending her birth-trauma workshop, and doing private therapy sessions. I’ve channeled other sources of resiliency, and rediscovered a deeper spiritual connection and purpose that’s refueled me.
“A strong sense of healing is knowing that your birth story is complete and that it no longer impacts your daily life,” Campion writes. “At some point, it just gets to be what happened; it becomes your past.” She notes ways to connect to other mothers and organized advocacy groups, if that feels like the right next step.
There comes a time to turn the corner. Pregnancy, birth, and motherhood have taught me so much about how good and bad live together simultaneously; my lens has shifted to see the beauty and fragility of life — and how it will change. The right amount of space, love, and support can make all the difference.