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A Long Road Back – My Journey Through Birth Trauma
My story illustrates the impact birth trauma can have on women. On Tuesday, September 16, 1986, two weeks past her due date, my son Jeffrey was delivered via C-section weighing 9 pounds. 13 oz. I started my prenatal visits at 22 weeks with a doctor recommended by a friend. The doctor expressed his support for my birth plan to deliver naturally with minimal intervention. My doctor has privileges at two hospitals. In the third trimester, my partner and I visited both places. I chose a hospital where the standard procedure was less invasive; there were no IVs or enemas, and they encouraged walking during labor.
Shortly after midnight on September 16th, my water broke. At this point I am not having contractions but calling my doctor. He said he had a patient who was premature at 26 weeks and needed his care and I needed to go to another hospital. After a quick shower, we drove there, where my partner handled the paperwork while I underwent their standard procedures, including enemas and inserting IV needles.
By this time, my contractions were strong and regular. I was then taken to the delivery room and placed on fetal monitoring and was unable to move around. Despite these interventions, I was pain controlled and delivered spontaneously for 9 hours. My doctor checked on my progress several times, but mainly focused on another patient of his. I was going well and by 7 I was 9cm tall.
At 9:15, when the doctor checked again, I was still 9 cm, and the baby hadn’t come down yet. He said he could make me work longer, but it didn’t matter; the baby was too big. After nine hours of intense contractions, a partner who was in the cafeteria or asleep for more hours was lying on my back staring at the wall when I lost it and started crying. Within 15 minutes, I was at the theater and they were doing spinal surgery. At this point I was exhausted and fell asleep once I stopped feeling the pain of the contractions.
I remember very little until that afternoon. My vague memories include Jeffrey crying for the first time and my ex bringing me pictures of him in the recovery room. He had to be observed in the nursery because he swallowed the mold and I didn’t hold him or try to nurse until that night. I couldn’t be admitted due to a C-section, and despite signs in his bassinet directing nurses to breastfeed him on demand, he was given formula that didn’t come to me for hours at a time.
At that point, I was so disappointed by the C-section and felt like I had somehow failed as a woman. I was also very angry with my doctor. I feel like although the relationship was great during my pregnancy, he let me down when I needed him most. I was particularly annoyed at the tone he used to me when he suggested that a C-section was necessary. I think his tone is bullying when he tells me he can make me work more but it doesn’t do any good. I remember later comparing the experience to emotional rape.
I was alone in the ward for most of the day as my son was in daycare most of the time and my partner was working. During my five days in the hospital, I cried a lot. I’m also mad that the nurses are spending more time with my newborn than I am. I can only see him part of the day. I never let him stay with me at night. Our breastfeeding experience didn’t start off well as he was given a bottle against my wishes. It was as if the nurses felt they knew my baby better than I did. I destroyed my confidence as a new mom.
Even after we left the hospital, we continued to have difficulties. My incision has a slight infection. My son’s bacterial infection caused the blisters. It started on his scalp where the monitor was inserted, but quickly covered the area under his chubby little arms. He also developed severe thrush, which made breastfeeding a downright nightmare. It took over two months for my sore and cracked nipples to heal. I vividly remember sitting on the couch with my son nursing and crying in pain.
Eventually I moved on emotionally, or so I thought. The truth came to light when I found out I was pregnant again, more than eighteen months later. All my old fears and feelings resurfaced. I sat and cried for hours; not because the pregnancy was unplanned or because another baby would put additional strain on our finances or troubled relationship, but because I was going to have to endure another C-section. I started looking for alternatives and eventually found a midwife who was willing to consider a home birth. Our first prenatal visit lasted nearly three hours and was more about debriefing the trauma of my first birth than my physical condition.
But even my successful VBAC home delivery of 7 lbs 14 oz. My daughter did nothing to assuage my anger at what I considered an unnecessary intervention. The fact that my midwife casually commented that my pelvis was more than adequate made me even angrier. In a classic PTSD experience, that comment reignited all the feelings I was going through after surgery. I try to vent my anger in a constructive way. I became a natural birth fighter; took lay midwifery courses. I tried to get a lawyer to sue my doctor but the statute of limitations has expired.
In the five years since my C-section, I’ve often wondered what the assumptions were. What if I stick to my plan and give birth at another hospital with a less invasive procedure? What if I walk around or struggle to get up? What if I am not being continuously monitored? Every time I get caught up in those assumptions, I get angrier or more frustrated. Few people really benefit from hindsight, but I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to address those assumptions once and for all.
My second home birth answered these questions once and for all. This son is much bigger than my 8 pound daughter. 15 oz, but still smaller than his big brother. I had a short, intense labor of less than two hours. I had what many would consider an ideal natural childbirth. I worked upright and walked around in early labor. I push into a position that is comfortable for me. My midwife and her assistants have been fantastic supporters for me. I’m comfortable at home but my son is stuck in the birth canal. My experienced midwife said his shoulder dystocia was one of the worst she had dealt with in decades. She felt that prayer was the only thing that could save my son. After birth, his breathing was constricted, and his APGAR per minute was only 4. All the assumptions that had haunted me for five years were gone. It’s sad to say, but that experience was the one that let me unleash nearly five years of anger towards doctors.
It was this experience that made me realize for the first time that cranial-pelvic disproportion was not some fictional condition used by doctors to force patients to undergo unnecessary C-sections. I suppose the permanent bulge on the top of Jeffrey’s head pressing on my pelvic arch should have indicated this earlier, but it’s often easier to blame others than to take responsibility for ourselves. I came to accept that my C-section was the result of overeating during pregnancy, which resulted in the baby being too large for my pelvis.
Over a decade later, with the birth of my youngest son, I was completely emotionally healed. I had planned for a midwife to assist with hospital births. I’m confident I won’t have any difficulty using another VBAC. I stayed home in early labor and only went to the hospital when the labor was well established and the contractions were so tight and so intense that I had a hard time controlling them. Based on my previous deliveries, I was sure the baby was on the way, but when I checked I was only 2cm dilated.
The baby was in the posterior position and my intense back labor was not effectively dilating my cervix. I tried laboring upright in the shower. I try to walk. I tried lying on my side. Nothing works. The pain was worse than any labor I’ve ever had before. I knew that if I had chosen to have an epidural I would greatly increase my chances of having another C-section, but the pain was so severe I decided to have it anyway. After a few hours and several interventions, I did have another C-section. But this time instead of anger and resentment, I made my own decisions. I believe I have done the best I can for me and my kids.
Another part of healing for me is that so much has changed in the fifteen years since my first C-section that many of the things I hated the most no longer apply. When my son was born, they brought him up to me to stroke and put him in a warm bed. My partner, his mother, and Jeffrey were able to touch and talk to the baby while the surgeon stitched me up. I was then taken to the recovery room and reunited with my son. He was born less than an hour later. The nurses helped me nurse him immediately. Most importantly, the hospital encourages all babies to share the same room. My partner is with us even at night and the only time my baby is away from us is about 15 minutes a day for weighings.
It’s as if I’ve come full circle. Although the procedure is the same, I’m a different person. I have matured. I have understood my rights and responsibilities. When I am faced with an unfamiliar situation, I know the benefits and risks of all my choices, and I readily accept the consequences of those choices. I was empowered by the same program that used to scare me so much that I developed PTSD. Some are because I have changed, and some are because of changes in the medical system.
As a mom of three C-sections, I sometimes get very frustrated with vaginal births. Yes, the natural delivery of my daughter, despite the odds, even my second son was amazing. They healed my inner woman in some ways after the first traumatic C-section, but none of them were perfect. I wrote and carefully discussed an exhaustive birth plan with my midwife, but both deliveries did not go according to plan.
Births almost never follow a plan. I was angry and depressed for five years for no reason. How many other women have gone through the pain that creates scars deeper than a C-section? I often wonder what would have happened if shoulder dystocia hadn’t happened. Will I continue to be angry and depressed with my doctor? Will my PTSD fully heal? Of course, I’ll never know the answers to these questions. My deep sympathy goes out to the tens of thousands of women who have never had a definitive answer from fate.
But my experience led me to create childbirth education classes and doula services specifically for these special women and babies who choose C-section. I believe that with compassionate support and care, breastfeeding rates in these families can be significantly improved, and more importantly, we can help them recover more quickly, physically and mentally. This is my unique vision and mission; my long journey back from birth trauma.
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