When Birth Breaks You – My Healing Journey Through Birth Trauma
By Janean Doherty
Trigger Warning: Birth Trauma
These are all words that would come to my mind when someone would bring up childbirth. During all my years as an OB nurse, I participated in probably close to one thousand births. I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly, and spent a lot of time dreaming about my future birth, much like we do as girls when we dream about our wedding day. I had a picture in my mind of how my births would go, and so once it was finally my time to have my first child, I held on tightly to that picture and did not want to let it go. I was excited more than nervous for my birth, despite it being the beginning of c*d, because I had spent so much time and effort preparing my body, mind, and soul for this experience.
Josie’s Traumatic Birth
However, after 48 hours of labor, very slow progression, no sleep for days, and 4 hours of pushing all without an epidural, I was feeling frustrated with my body, like it was failing me. In a last ditch effort to avoid a cesarean birth, I got an epidural, pushed really well for an hour, but still was unable to bring my baby’s head down past a zero station. Her head was asynclitic (head down but sideways) and stuck. But I was adamant about wanting a vaginal delivery. So, since my baby’s heart rate was still good, I asked my doctor to try a vacuum. I got a pudendal nerve block and a bolus of anesthesia in my epidural, which are both measures to prevent me from feeling any pain. From there, he attempted a Malmstrom vacuum extraction, which is an old powerful vacuum (most vacuums used by OBs are kiwis. However, there was a fluke complication with the vacuum and it tore me inside, which I felt, despite all the medication on board. So, after all of that, they rolled me back to the OR for a c-section, followed by an internal repair. Of the words I listed in the beginning of this post, I did not feel my birth was any of them. It took a while to process everything that had happened during the birth of my baby girl, but I did a lot of external processing with friends and gradually was able to accept it as our own unique story.
Dean’s Traumatic Birth
Fast-forward almost two years as I’m getting ready to delivery our rainbow baby, I had built this birth up to be my redemptive VBAC. I had spent the last year preparing for this, with weekly Webster Chiropractic visits and pelvic floor therapy, implementing Spinning Babies balancing practices, hiring my favorite doula, and doing mental preparation with prayer and positive affirmations. I knew that I had a small pelvis but did everything I could to avoid another major abdominal surgery. Everything started out absolutely dreamy, just as I had been imagining, but the same issues I had with my daughter’s birth began to arise, and I knew that a c-section was probably in our very near future. However, the fighter that I am wasn’t going to go down easy, so I asked for an epidural in the room to be able to give pushing one last shot. This was my last chance to ever be able to have a vaginal birth with any baby. But long story short, some negligent care turned my “redemptive birth” into an emergency c-section and left me with a whole slew of physical, mental, and emotional problems.
I was so unwell that my husband was basically a single dad for the first two months of our baby’s life. I suffered from birth trauma, lingering medical issues from the poor care, bonding issues with my baby, postpartum depression and anxiety, and feeding issues. Things got so bad that we had to drop my two year old off at a relative’s house for a while because it was unhealthy for her to see her momma in such a bad state. I was experiencing intense, debilitating anger directed towards my birth team (besides my incredible doula!) while grieving the loss of my redemptive birth and ability to ever have a vaginal delivery. I was unable to ever breastfeed and we spend almost every day for the first few months at different doctor appointments. I remember feeling like an absolute monster because when I looked at my baby, I felt nothing. There were even days when my perinatal mental illness directed my anger at my baby, making me think, “You are the reason I feel this way, and the reason I can’t even be a good mom to my toddler right now.” It was one of the scariest experiences of my life. I was completely going through the motions as a mother and wife and hated my whole self- body, mind, and spirit- for failing me and my family. There was a part of me that knew from a logical lens that this season would not last forever, but gosh, that part was completely enveloped by despair most days.
Picking up the Broken Pieces
When I reflect back on those early months, it is honestly a blur. I felt robbed of the joy of having a newborn, of my maternity leave, and of the entire fourth trimester. I felt much jealousy towards women who had beautiful vaginal births and who could breastfeed and bond with their newborns as much as they wanted. I was angry for so long, feeling like my dream birth experience was stollen from me. I had nightmares about my birth, racing thoughts reliving the traumatic events day and night, and PTSD flashbacks from having been a helpless party watching negligent care happen to me. I will never forget the feeling of utter desperation I felt when listening to my baby’s heart tones drop down to 50/60 beats per minute but not being able to do a darn thing about it. I was unable to move, breath, or talk while my blood pressure was bottomed out to 50/30 – all from the anesthesia – in the terrifying moments leading up to our emergency cesarean. I felt like it was all a horrible dream, and I wanted so badly just to wake up and have a totally different story. I could not talk about it without crying for many months. I still cringe when I think about the place I was in for so long. It brings almost a palpable pain to my momma heart. I still worry that my kids will remember their momma sobbing and having anxiety attacks, but I trust that their young age and innocence will protect them from those memories, and that they have inherited some of my resilience. I hardly have any pictures of my baby from those early months, and even less of me/us. But maybe that’s a good thing. I was unwell for about the first 7 months of my Dean’s life, but my baby is 10 months old today, and I finally feel like:
“I MADE IT. WE MADE IT.”
There were countless times over those first 7 months that I asked God, “Why me? You know I don’t ‘suffer well’ so why didn’t you give me easier deliveries? This isn’t fair.” I was angry with Him for allowing me to suffer so much, especially because my suffering directly affected my family. I wasn’t able to be the mom/wife I wanted to be, or the mom/wife that my family deserved. I wasn’t able to be a good friend, especially to those whose experiences I envied. I had to say “no” to most things during that time, including play dates, church events, meal train sign-ups, and outings, which would make me feel guilty. And I never knew if a good day would turn into a terrible without any warning and the thought of risking it was too much for me to handle. In fact, most things felt like “too much.” I didn’t know if I would ever understand why all of this happened to me in this lifetime. BUT God put something on my heart that changed my whole perspective:
“God does not waste our suffering.”
Finding Meaning in Suffering
I have been able to rewrite many “ANTs” (automatic negative thoughts) with this revelation. It’s all making so much sense now. My experiences have brought me an incredible amount of awareness, empathy, and compassion to a population that is pretty gaslit. Now that I am on the “other side” of it, I can totally see a piece of God’s plan for my life. With my professional and now personal experience in the world of birth trauma and perinatal mental health, I know that I can use my suffering to help others. I can help be a voice for those who suffer silently and help bring awareness to the effects that these struggles have on women. In my current line of work as a counselor at a pregnancy center, I pull from my experiences daily to help women. I am even creating a FREE online postpartum education course that will have TONS of education and resources for women on everything postpartum, but especially birth trauma and perinatal mental health. I can honestly say that I feel the best I have ever felt in my whole life. I have peace, joy, and energy every day, and a love for my family that is so big it hurts. Though I wish this season of happiness would last forever, I know that our lives are made of different seasons- easy and hard ones. But it’s the tough ones that shape us and bring about truly beautiful things. I was just talking to a mom friend who is currently in a difficult season and who was feeling guilty because she has to say “no” a lot and cannot make it to play dates and outings. I felt for her because I was just in that season not too long ago. I told her:
“We do what we can, when we can.”
Having Patience with Myself
Sometimes it’s all we can do just to get food on the table. Sometimes we can’t even do that and have to DoorDash meals and groceries. But, eventually, we will be able to do more than we ever dreamed possible. I am currently in a season where I can chase my dreams and make things happen. But I haven’t been for very long, and I know I won’t be forever. And that’s okay. Because through all of this, I have learned to appreciate the suffering, as much as I can appreciate the good times. Because it’s only through suffering that true beauty comes forth.