*Trigger warning: obstetric violence, isolation, traumatic birth, PTSD, postpartum depression, suicidal ideations
The 5:45 am drive to the hospital was surreal. The city (Birmingham, AL...a noticeably dangerous place to give birth) was quiet and still on a chilly Saturday morning in February. The sun was just beginning to light the downtown landscape in pinks and oranges. We drove quietly; my husband, still groggy from a half-night’s sleep, and me, feeling listless, defeated. Contractions were about 5 minutes apart and I silently breathed through them as he pulled into the valet and let me out to sit in the waiting area. The fluorescent lights were jarring; the room was cold and sterile with no color. I sat on a hard chair amidst drunk, homeless men and families with sick children. It was obvious that this was not a place for life and health. My husband walked through the automatic doors, car parked and bags in hand, and told the nurse and security officer behind the counter that “we were here last night, my wife is in labor, she needs a cesarean.”
We were silently escorted to a triage room where the staff could assess my labor progress and get answers to roughly 2.7 thousand questions. I was breathing like a birth warrior, listening to my body and going into that deep brain space where all mothers must descend. My husband tried his best to answer all the questions he could. He stood by the bed with his hand on me for support. A resident whom I had seen the night before walked through the door and airily commented, “See. I told you you’d be back. If you had just stayed, you would have your baby in your arms now.” I was numb.
An interesting sidenote that has always intrigued me is that I don’t recall my labor progress at admission. I can’t tell you how many centimeters dilated I was or my percentage of cervical effacement. I’ve since wondered if this was due to my own disassociation with what was happening, knowing that my progress mattered not for a cesarean, so why care? Or if the disassociation was placed on me by the staff; they knew my progress didn’t matter, so why bother mentioning it to me? Either way, I was severed from the birth experience. No nurse offered encouraging words or support. My only memories are the breathing, the hospital gown, the questions, the pubic shaving, and suddenly being in the OR with an anesthesiologist. My brain sensed the coming trauma on the horizon like a wolf sniffs rabbits hopping miles away. I was scared, unsafe, and all alone. My husband, God love him, could do nothing for me now.
My cesarean was hard. I did not like my arms being strapped down. I missed interacting with my baby during the birth. I remembered the awe-inspiring feeling of camaraderie I had with my first child. During unmedicated birth, you know as the mother that you and the baby are the only ones who can make this happen. You’re in it together. I hated that I was surrounded by a room full of strangers and that the first person who touched my daughter was a blue, sterile paper body whom I had never met. I know and rally for women who embrace their cesareans and are not scarred by them. I love these women. I champion for them. I do not believe that cesareans, nor the doctors who perform them, are evil; on the contrary, they can be used to save lives. But my cesarean was traumatic.
I was later told that my daughter came out bottom-first like a rubber chicken, with her legs and feet popping out of the incision. Her first APGAR scores were low and the staff needed to give her oxygen to pink up her skin. The 5-minute APGAR scores were just fine. When she found her lungs, she used them mightily. Her screaming sounded scared; like mine would sound if I had the courage to voice them. She was wrapped like a burrito and brought to my face, where I quieted her the repeated phrase, “It’s okay, Mama’s here.” I felt the camaraderie I missed coming back. But this was a camaraderie of shared trauma and pain. My daughter and I had still faced that birth together.
We were separated by who knows how many doors and hallways for 3 hours. She was held and quieted by my husband in a rocking chair in the nursery. He championed for us, refusing formula, sugar water, pacifiers, Vit K shots, and eye ointment. He knew he needed to bring her to me just the way she was born. He laid her down in the nursery and came to visit me in the Recovery Unit where I was separated by a dozen other post-op men and women by only a curtain. He showed me a picture on his phone of my daughter in his arms beginning to root on his shirt. “She’s doing great,” he said. “She’s starting to get hungry.” I quickly responded that I had been told I would have to stay in Recovery until I could move my legs (meaning the epidural had worn off) and that he needed to get back to her. With a quick kiss, a stroking of my forehead, and an “I love you,” he turned around and left for the nursery. I was extremely thirsty and shivering. The nurse gave me two warm blankets but would not give me anything for my thirst other than a wet washcloth to suck on.
I sucked on washcloths and stared at my feet as I mustered all my mental focus on seeing movement. By the third hour, I could pull both knees up toward my chest. I said to the nurse, “Look. I can move my legs. Let me leave here.” She made the order for my release and I was rolled into a private postpartum room where my husband and daughter met me shortly after. He handed her to me, wrapped up still, and I took her straight to the breast. Thankfully, she latched right on and we had no breastfeeding issues. I unwrapped her while burping her and switching sides, and explored those claw-like toes that brought us to where we were now. I held her for hours as she slept and ate. I slept and ate, too, finally putting her down for the first time to take a shower in the evening. A nurse who was coming in to take my blood pressure watched me hold my daughter all day and said in a Southern accent, “You gonna spoil dat baby.” I ignored her, wishing I had the physical strength to punch her in the jaw for saying such a untrue and cruel thing.
My in-laws brought my 14-month-old toddler to the hospital to meet her sister and I can remember feeling so removed, as if I was watching another family bond. I felt no attachment to any of them. My body was ragged and my heart was burned. This birth scarred me and my daughter and would affect our bonding experience for the rest of our lives. I lived with postpartum depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with suicidal ideations for over 2 years after this birth, which you can read about here. My daughter coped by having a very sensitive soul and a deep desire to feel physically loved. She has great emotional needs and has struggled with depression anxiety as she’s gotten older. She’s almost 9 now. And only just within the last few months, have I found a true and pure love for her that goes beyond familial love. I’m still learning how to feel joy by her presence instead of disassociation or pain. It’s a long road to travel, and we’re glad to be seeing more light on it than darkness.
Stay tuned for the story of my third and final birth...