After a difficult and traumatic birth, I felt helpless. I was physically and mentally drained. My back was still so sore and painful that I could hardly move. Sitting up in bed, even to lean back against pillows, only increased the pain in my tailbone. I was so weak and sore from birth that I couldn’t walk to the bathroom (the only place I went other than bed) without support. Zach had to walk behind me with his arms supporting me under my arms, carrying smelling salts in case I passed out. I had no appetite. Zero. But I knew I had to eat, knew I needed calories to produce milk. It was difficult. Let’s be honest – it sucked. A lot. But what was worse than the physical discomfort was the emotional turmoil I was experiencing.
I had a beautiful, healthy baby. So I should be happy, right? I should be in a state of bliss like you always hear about. I should be in my “babymoon,” high on the new life I’d created. This is what I thought. And thinking this was what I should be feeling just made what I was feeling seem even worse. I felt sad and defeated. I felt sad because I felt defeated. I had all of these ideas of myself as this great birth warrior who had the strength and determination to have an amazing and profound childbirth experience. I was so sure I’d kick childbirth’s ass. But instead it kicked mine. I felt a huge well of emotion rise up inside me every time I thought about the labor, the birth, the aftermath. Every time I looked at my son I thought of what I went through. I would feel sad, then I would feel guilty and like a bad mother for feeling sadness when looking at this beautiful, healthy baby. So many other women were out there wishing they had healthy babies, and here I was with one in my arms. So why couldn’t I be happy?
I tried to deny it at first. I tried to suppress it. But I knew the answer to why: I was traumatized. I had a traumatic experience, and people don’t just bounce back instantly from traumatic experiences. My birth was so far from what I wanted, so far from what I’d envisioned. I was so terrified that my son was not going to be okay after his cord snapped and in those seemingly brief yet endless moments before he regained his color. I was so terrified that I would never make it through the pain I was experiencing in labor. I felt like a failure. I felt like my body must be broken to not be able to handle childbirth like most women can. I felt like my body must be broken to not feel the urge to push. I felt like my body must be broken to not be able to stand up to walk around with my crying baby to comfort him in the middle of the night.
This was one of the hardest parts – I couldn’t stand and hold my baby. When he would cry, I had to pass him to someone else to be comforted. This, more than anything, made me feel like a failure. Like I wasn’t even his mother. I would choke back tears every time he would start to cry as I handed him off to Zach or my mom. I would watch them walk around with him, the way I thought mothers should walk around to comfort their babies. But all I could do was lay in bed, helplessly watching. Relying on someone else to soothe my son. Relying on someone else to do my job.
At night, Floyd would nurse for a few minutes then start crying hysterically. He was gassy, and he would writhe around in pain. When I saw him moving like that, screaming like that, I saw myself in labor. This triggered a trauma response every time. I would start crying, and I would have to look away while someone else came to pick him up and comfort him. All I could think about was how much I had suffered, and how much he was suffering. The two were linked in my head, even though I knew intellectually that the pain he was feeling was in no way comparable to the pain I had felt.
For the first two days postpartum I tried to hide my sadness. I didn’t utter the word “trauma.” If I was seen crying, it was when my son was in pain or upset and I couldn’t comfort him, so it probably seemed pretty “normal.” But on day three I realized that if I wanted to heal from the pain and the trauma, I had to acknowledge it. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I was on the phone with my mom when I finally couldn’t hold it in anymore. I said something like, “You know, I had a kind of traumatic birth.” She was quiet for a moment. She understands trauma, probably better than most. Then she said, “You really did, didn’t you?” I don’t remember talking about it much more on the phone, but when she came home from work she brought several things she thought might help. Oils, various forms of Rescue Remedy, tinctures, and I don’t know what else. She sat down with me and let me talk through what I was experiencing. Zach had gone out for something, and when he came in I was crying. He just stood quietly and listened, with a look of empathy on his face. I don’t remember what I said or for how long I talked, but I felt some weight lifted by just admitting to the people closest to me, who were there for the birth, that I felt sad and helpless and traumatized.
Once I admitted what I was experiencing to myself and to them, it got worse before it got better. I spent much of my days weeping. My mom made a bone broth soup to help restore my strength. She asked if I wanted some soup, and I told her I didn’t. I was hot, and eating hot soup sounded awful. But she thought I should eat some, and I couldn’t come up with any suggestions for what I might eat instead, so she brought me a bowl of hot soup and placed it on a pillow in my lap. After she walked away I picked up the spoon, then quickly put it back down. I started sobbing. Zach came in and saw me crying over my soup and asked what was wrong. “I don’t want soup!” I choked out through my sobs. My mom came back in and said apologetically, “You don’t have to eat soup.” I felt ridiculous, crying over soup. I laughed a little as I wiped my tears away.
After a few really intense days of feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, I started having longer stretches without tears. I still couldn’t really sit up without pain, and I definitely couldn’t stand to hold my son, but I was getting better. Slowly but surely. Then one day Floyd started crying and no one else was in the room. Holding him close, I stood up. I couldn’t walk around, but I stood. It was a small victory. It was the first time I had stood holding my son, days after he was born. Zach came in the room and said, “Look at you standing!” I felt happy and proud of myself.
I stopped associating my son’s pain with my own. When I would see him squirming with gas I would not flash back to my own writhing in the birth pool. I still couldn’t stand for long holding him, so my mom and Zach had to soothe him much of the time, and that was still really hard for me. I would still cry when that happened. I would still cry any time I thought about the birth.
Soon, I got my appetite back. At first, it was just hunger with no appetite, but then it quickly turned into the most ravenous hunger I have ever experienced in my life. I would eat a good amount of food, then feel like my stomach was an empty pit twenty minutes later. “Observation: Feeding the nursing mother of a newborn is a lot like trying to keep a teenage football playing boy fed,” my mom posted on Facebook. “Except that as the nursing mother it feels like you’re doing the exercise routine of the entire football team…” a friend replied. And they weren’t wrong!
Seven days after Floyd was born we were ready to head home to Illinois – a two hour drive. It was Christmas Eve eve, and my mom was going to come with us to help until January 6th. Before we left, we had our one-week visit from our midwife Linsey and her assistant Bianca.
When Linsey came in she asked how things were going. “Well,” I said as my eyes welled with tears, “I’ve been having a lot of baby blues.” “Oh, no,” Linsey said with a look of concern as she reached out to put her hand on mine. I told her how I was feeling, how I felt like I had some trauma from the birth. I told her how I felt like my body didn’t know what to do because I never had the urge to push, and how I’d felt like I couldn’t cope with the pain. “I don’t know if this will help to hear or not,” Linsey said, “but I’ve seen over two-hundred births, and you really did have an exceptionally difficult labor. I thought you were breaking your tailbone, you were in so much pain.” It did help to hear. It helped so much to know that I wasn’t just a weak failure. We talked for some time about what I was feeling, and she told me what to look out for in postpartum depression: invasive thoughts, guilt, lack of bonding with the baby, etc. I did feel guilt, but that was the only thing she mentioned that I was experiencing. She gave me some resources, including information on the postpartum depression book, Mother-to-Mother. She told me she’d like to see me again in six months to see how I’m doing (apart from our standard six-week visit). She warned me that sometimes the feelings from a traumatic childbirth experience can come back one year after the birth. Bianca asked if I’d considered getting my placenta encapsulated, because it is known to help prevent or lessen the effects of postpartum depression (I had my placenta in the freezer with plans to bury it in my dad’s backyard where both my brother’s and mine are buried). I told her I’d like to, but hadn’t planned on it because it was so expensive. She and Linsey agreed that it would be a good idea if I could manage it. Bianca gave me the name and number of someone who she said would do the encapsulation for a good price.
I called the woman Bianca referred me to, and not only did she offer to do the encapsulation for $50 instead of the typical $200-$250, but she offered to come pick my placenta up from my mom’s house and mail the capsules to me in Illinois when they were ready. I was thrilled!
That night we finally arrived at home. Just being home made me feel so much better. I had my own comfortable bed to lay in, and that helped my back immensely. I was excited at the prospect of the placenta capsules arriving soon. A good friend of ours, Leigh, is a Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner, and she came to our house the next morning to give us a tincture to help with Floyd’s gas. She listened to what I was experiencing and prepared some herbs for me, which she brought over after Christmas.
I got the herbs from Leigh at about the same time as the placenta capsules, and the combination of the two was like a miracle. I stopped crying, I stopped feeling sad, and most importantly, I started fully feeling the joy of being a new mother. I was actually able to enjoy every moment with my son. I felt energized and invigorated, and I felt my strength returning. Each day I felt stronger and stronger.
But I had one major setback. One New Year’s Eve I took a nap with Floyd laying on my right arm. When I woke up and went to lift him, my wrist popped out of joint. It was painful, and it happened every time I moved my wrist or my thumb. I got a brace, and that helped keep it from popping out, but it still happened a lot. And it meant that once again I was unable to perform a vital task in caring for my own baby – I couldn’t lift him. I had to have someone else set him in my arms to nurse. It was so terrible. Just when I was starting to feel better, I went back to feeling helpless. Zach had to go back to work the day after Christmas, and when my mom went home on the 6th I would be alone all day every day with my baby that I was unable to lift. I was panicked at the prospect. And of course it happened on a holiday.
I went to my chiropractor as soon as I could, January 2nd. He adjusted my wrist a little and put some kinesio tape on it and told me to keep wearing the brace. He said it was likely due to the hormones from the pregnancy and breastfeeding. I had Leigh give me acupuncture. Within a few days it got to be well enough for me to sort of lift Floyd in a particular way that kept my wrist straight. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked well enough that I felt I could competently care for my son once my mom left.
And I did. I was able to change his diaper and walk around to soothe him. I could lift him to change sides when he was nursing. I could do it.
Two months later my wrist still pops out of joint when I move my thumb a certain way, but it has gotten a lot better. It’s no longer painful most of the time. I’m still taking one placenta capsule a day, and when I forgot to take it one day I noticed a big difference. I felt overwhelmed by my emotions again. But that was a month or so ago, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that when those pills run out (as they will in two days) I’ll feel just fine.
I still feel overwhelmed when I see images of birth (not just my own), and hear or read birth stories. It’s hard for me to hear about perfect, easy, happy childbirth just as it’s hard to hear about difficult traumatic childbirth. I don’t know if or when that will change. But I am glad to say that I am truly happy now. I love every moment with my son, even the challenging ones. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the breaks I get when my mom comes to stay with us on the weekends and sits up with Floyd in the mornings so Zach and I can continue to snooze. I am so grateful for these moments and for her help. But I have so much fun with my son.
As difficult as my childbirth and postpartum experiences were, I can honestly say that I have never experienced any joy like that of being a mother. Having a child is the most incredible thing I could ever imagine experiencing, and my son fills my heart and my life with more love and joy than I ever thought possible. He is so incredible, and watching him change and grow constantly is the most amazing, wonderful, exhilarating, enchanting experience of my life. He truly is my pride and joy.
At the beginning I had little faith in myself as a mother and as a woman, but I’ve overcome that. I have risen from that. While I am now physically healed, there are still emotional scars that will take time to fade. But that’s okay. I embrace my experience, but I don’t let it define me as a mother or as a woman. While I won’t go so far as to say that I feel empowered by the difficulty I had, I do feel stronger in myself because of it. That’s not to say that mothers who have an easy transition are not as strong, by any means! Hats off to you mamas! But I myself am stronger than I was before.
To say that I “wouldn’t change it for the world” would be a lie. I would love to be able to rewrite history and have a relatively easy labor and postpartum period. But I can’t, so I don’t dwell on it. It happened, and I came through it. And I am proud of myself for that.