Monday, November 3, 2014

On birth trauma, self-shaming, and why I want a do-over

There has been a post kicking around in my head for the past 6 months since the baby was born, but it wears me out just to think about it. I'm going to attempt to put it down on paper (so to speak), in the hopes that I can finally feel some peace and let it rest already. This is my attempt at forgiving myself, moving past it, and looking forward.

I never had a "birth plan," as I didn't have very strong opinions about the way I wanted things to go. I had no aversion to the possibility of medication if I felt like they might help get the job done, and I wasn't particular about locations or positions or any of that stuff. Mostly, I just wanted to meet my daughter already, so I trusted the professionals to make it happen in the most efficient and least painful/complicated way for both myself and the baby. My feeling was that I didn't really see the point in making a plan when all I heard was that you never really can plan for things like this; things are going to happen like they are and it's best to just go with it. On that end, I'm fine with how it ended up, because things definitely did NOT go as I expected them to, so most plans I would have had probably would have went out the window. At least I didn't have to be stressed that things weren't working how I wanted them to. What I do regret was that things did not happen like I imagined they would, and I later found out they most likely never will. My doctor told me it is almost certain I will never have a natural birth because of the shape of my pelvic bone structure, and for whatever reason the fact that I will never know what this experience feels like really bums me out. I am not bothered by the scar my emergency c-section left or anything superficial like that; I just wanted to know what it felt like to give birth the natural way, and I feel like nature cheated me out of an experience that defines me as a woman. Maybe that's a bit silly or dramatic, but it's how I feel.

When my water broke 3 days after my due date, I was more than ready to get the job done. I was having a lot of anxiety about how I would know it was time, and when my doctor predicted that my water might break as opposed to having contractions, I was happy with the news and hoped she was right. It happened shortly after midnight on the 1st of April, and suddenly all of our jokes about having an April Fools baby seemed frighteningly real. I was having contractions in the car on the ride to the hospital, and that was when I realized I would have been pretty safe about knowing it was time had the contractions come first. They were no joke! Things start to get a bit more blurry once I made it to the hospital and got settled into a room. I opted for an epidural, and was also given an IV of magnesium because my blood pressure was elevated. I was progressing with dilating, but then the magnesium slowed the progress. I was a bit loopy from the pain meds, but I did notice that every time the nurse emptied my bag the urine was very dark, rather than yellow. I was too out of it to ask why, and no one volunteered any information. I was something like 20 hours into labor at this point, and I was running low on time; once your water breaks, you generally have about 24 hours before the risk of infection for your baby becomes an issue. I got a shot of pitocin to speed up contractions again, and when I was close to 10 centimeters, the doctor decided it was time to give pushing a try.

I was in active labor for 2 and a half hours. During that time, I was so exhausted from not having slept the night before and everything that I was going through that I had lost all concept of time and couldn't believe more than an hour, tops, had passed. During those 2.5 hours, I wondered why nothing was happening and figured I must be pushing wrong, despite the fact that the doctor kept telling me I was doing good. I was also completely miserable and losing my grip on reality; one side effect of the magnesium drip was overheating, and I was so hot I couldn't stand it. I had the air conditioning in the room cranked and still could not cool down, and when my family would come in the room to see me before active labor began, they would be shivering and wearing their coats. Josh had a sheet from the couch wrapped around him. I continued to sweat, despite the cold rags his mom kept dipping in ice water that were on my forehead throughout active labor. I had cottonmouth and my throat was so dry that it stuck together, but because there was a risk of surgery looming, I wasn't allowed to have any water to drink. I went through countless cups of ice chips, and when I could no longer feed them to myself I had my mom, Josh, and Josh's mom in the room that were helping me. They also made me put an oxygen mask on because they were afraid about the baby's heart rate, but the mask was making me feel claustrophobic and I felt like I was on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. I had never been so miserable in my life and honestly would have been crying at that point, if I had enough strength left to do so.

When pushing did nothing, the doctor announced that the baby was either "too large" to fit naturally, or was in a position where she couldn't make it through the birth canal. I had nothing left in me to keep fighting, and I ok'ed the c-section several times over while she kept telling me to "think about it." I didn't even have the strength to yell "JUST DO THE DAMN THING!," i kept saying "I can't do it anymore, i just can't..."

Suddenly I was leaving the dimly-lit room and being wheeled down a brightly lit hallway. I was so exhausted I couldn't focus my eyes; they kept crossing and no matter how many times I screamed inside my head, "wake up, wake up!" I couldn't do it. My heart felt like it was going to explode. I felt like the panic attack was on its way. I remember saying to the nurse wheeling me away, "I feel like I'm dying. I feel like I'm having a panic attack. What do I do?" I had never felt like I had no control over my own body like this and my brain told me this was it, I was actually dying.

"If you're feeling a little more anxious than normal, they can give you something to relax when you get to the room," the nurse told me. A little more anxious??? I was out of my damn mind by that point.

The rest is a blur. They took me to the surgery room, which felt like a space ship where they were about to do an alien autopsy. It was insanely bright and everything was white. They laid me on a bed with a white sheet in front of me so I couldn't see anything they would be doing. I guess Josh was there, but I barely remember it. The sensation of them cutting me open and yanking a baby out was entirely unpleasant. When they first started the incision, an anesthesiologist stood above my head injecting the anesthesia telling me, "Erin, when they begin the procedure you shouldn't feel any pain, only pressure." That's when I felt a burning sensation on my abdomen, and I loudly told them, "OW THAT HURTS!"

"You mean you feel pressure?" the anesthesiologist corrected.

"NO IT BURNS, IT HURTS," I yelled. Normally I am much more polite and reserved, but I remember being panicked and having no tact whatsoever. They shot another dose of anesthesia in me and I felt my back go cold as it coursed through my body.

I asked someone if I could go to sleep during the surgery. I didn't want to, but if I had to stay awake the panic attack would surely come, and I had no control over keeping my eyes open any longer. They assured me I could rest and against my will, I faded in and out of consciousness while they pulled my baby from my body.

They had warned me ahead of time not to be worried that she might not cry right away, being a bit groggy from the magnesium I had injected in me. That damn magnesium, that caused me so much discomfort, might be affecting her, too! But seconds after they pulled her out, I heard her: more of a yowl than a cry, but there all the same. I remember telling Josh deleriously, "she sounds like a cat!" and one of the nurses laughing at me and saying, "I won't tell her you said that!"

Normally, I had heard of people with a c-section having their baby held up over the sheet when they pulled them out, or being brought around to the mom to hold or at least SEE them right away. None of that happened. I was upset. They took her out and carried her to a station behind me over my left shoulder, where they cleaned her up and recorded her stats. Josh was standing there with them, and I heard a doctor say, "here, give me your phone, I'll take a picture of you holding her!" All the while I was laying on the table straining to look over my shoulder to catch my first glimpse of the baby I carried for 9 months, but unable to see a thing because I was still so exhausted my eyes wouldn't focus. I kept thinking "WHERE IS MY BABY AND WHY HASN'T ANYONE SHOWED HER TO ME YET???"

After what seemed like forever but was probably only a few minutes, Josh carried her over and tried to show me. I still couldn't see her, because he was standing so high above me that my eyes couldn't focus on them. I was near tears, or maybe I really was crying by that point, I can't remember. I do remember saying to him, "I can't see! I can't see her!" and he tried to bend down so I could see her, but they made him bring her to another room and they left together without me getting a chance to hold her, touch her, or really even see her.

They told me it would just be a few minutes until I could go join them, but it took them about a half hour to fix me up. I was devastated, thinking all our family waiting at the hospital was probably getting to see her before I even had (they didn't). I was still out of my mind with exhaustion, but I was running on a tiny bit of adrenaline at that point. I have no recollection of my trip from the surgery room to the room where Josh and Violet were, but my next memory is them pulling a curtain back and seeing Josh sitting there in a chair holding a bundle that was our daughter. They finally put her in my arms, but sadly I was so tired at that point that I don't remember much about our first moments together. It wasn't long before our family began being led behind the curtain to meet her in groups of one and two. My mom was first and she was crying.

"Look at her," is all I remember her saying through tears. Everyone agreed right away that she looked like Josh. It freaked me out a bit that I couldn't see myself in her at all.

Violet Mae was born at 12:24am on Tuesday, April 2nd (no April Fools baby after all). She weighed 7 pounds, 1 ounce and was 20 inches long (not "big" like the doctor predicted).

I was told later that the complication was because she was slightly at an angle, but moreso because of the shape of my pelvic structure. Her head was wedged so tightly next to my kidney that I was peeing blood (which made sense now). It was a rough delivery for both of us, but we were both fine.  Perfect, in fact. She was perfect. I still had a ways to go.

The first few times I told the whole experience to family and friends visiting me in the hospital, I cried. I wasn't prepared for how much physical pain I was in after the c-section; I guess since it is such a routine surgery I assumed it was no big deal. I failed to recognize that major surgery is still major surgery, no matter how common it is. I stayed in bed for most of the first day, but the first time I left my bed to get a room transfer I left a puddle of blood on the floor of my room. I was horrified, but the nurse (obviously a "Walking Dead" fan) joked she would tell a maintenance man that a walker had been loose. I had to stay in the hospital an extra day because of my blood pressure, and there were still side effects from the magnesium I was on that were making life more difficult. Although I checked in on Monday, it felt like it was Sunday since I never actually went to bed that night. I didn't get discharged to go home until Saturday afternoon. I was desperate to go home, even though I was terrified at the prospect of being on my own with a new baby to care for when I was in the worst physical shape of my life and couldn't even care for myself.

The fact that I gave birth in a "baby friendly" hospital was one that I knew nothing about. Next time, I will do better research about the hospital I give birth at. After the baby was born, I remember my mom visiting in my room and asking the nurse on duty where the nursery was.

"There isn't one," she told my mom. We thought it was strange, but didn't question it. Only later did I find out that there IS a nursery, it was right down the hall from me, it just didn't have a traditional viewing window like they used to where you could visit your baby through the glass. Apparently they tell people there isn't one because you are encouraged to keep your baby in your room with you at all times, including at night. Don't get me wrong; after waiting 9 long (uncomfortable) months, there was nothing I wanted more than to keep that baby by my side every second. But I still hadn't gotten more than two hours of sleep since being admitted, and I wasn't in the best shape. Because of work and having pets at home, Josh wasn't able to stay with me overnight in the hospital, so it was all up to me. Nevermind the fact that this was my first child so I literally had no idea what I was doing and was running purely on instinct. Nursing was not coming naturally. Despite my best efforts, any time she would latch on she would either fall asleep immediately and refuse to eat, or she would scream and fight me until her tiny face was red. Nurses would hear her cries and come to help, and they sent lactation specialists to my room. Each had a different way of teaching me to do things, and when the next one would come in she would question why I was/wasn't doing something their way, despite being shown something different by someone else. Even though I was doing everything right, the baby refused to nurse for more than a few minutes. They brought a pump to my room and had me doing that in between trying to feed, but I wasn't pumping much of anything. I had falsely assumed my decision to breastfeed would be all it took to make it happen. I didn't anticipate the difficulty.

Eventually, a nurse came to me and said that Violet was losing weight a bit too quickly, and they were a little worried. She asked if I would like to try supplementing with formula. I knew from the visits from the lactation specialists that this was considered taboo, but I was more concerned with the health and well-being of my tiny baby. I said yes. I continued trying to nurse, with the same problems as before. When I offered her a bottle, she took it and I was sure she was being fed, which eased my scrambled brain. The lactation specialists and nurses continued to come, and some were downright confrontational about the trouble we were having. One came in, looked at the chart in front of her, and asked me accusingly, "WHY ARE YOU GIVING HER FORMULA???" Well, mostly because they came to me and told me she needed to eat and I was going to make sure that happened, however I had to get the job done. Geez. I definitely felt pressured and shamed for the decision I made, and this continued for the duration of my stay. I wasn't able to sleep more than a few hours at a time for my entire stay, partly because I was stressed and lonely and partly because the hospital staff wouldn't give me a break. Even when I did fall asleep, someone would come into my room to check something or other and need to wake me up. There were a few times that I did send the baby to the nursery (which some nurses were more willing to do than others), but all I did was feel guilty and lay there not being able to sleep anyway.

There was one night where Violet stayed in my room next to my bed and I tried desperately to nurse her, to no avail. I was exhausted and felt like sleep might come, but every time I laid her in her clear plastic crib, she began to wail. The only way to quiet her was to hold her close to my chest, and that is how I sat up throughout the entire night, until the sun started to come up through the blinds. I was so scared I would fall asleep with her in my arms and I would drop her, but I fought the sleep and just sat there holding the warm bundle against my skin. I still remember how alone I felt that night, and how scared I was. Josh sent me a text that said he was at home unable to sleep as well because we weren't there with him. That one made me cry. My friend Justin, aka Nobunny, sent me a message on facebook saying he wanted dibs on an unofficial uncle spot. Thank goodness I had my phone there with me to stay in touch with people, because I felt a million miles away from the world.

It must have been the next day that I texted my dad crying, asking him to come sit with the baby during the day so that I could try to get some sleep. I wonder how much my mental state would have improved during those first few days had I just been able to get more than 2 or 3 hours of sleep. Getting to go home lifted my spirits immensely, although it was also overwhelming. I spent the first 2 weeks of Violet's life sleeping in a chair sitting up in the living room, because my incision was too painful for me to lay down. Most nights she was up every 2 hours or so, so Josh and I would get up together to feed and change her. When I couldn't get up any more, I would take her back to the chair with me where she slept wedged next to me and the arm of the chair, and that way we would get a few consecutive hours of sleep. Nursing was going no better at home, even though I was hoping that being in a more comfortable environment with no specialists hovering over my shoulder scolding me would improve things. I signed up for an expensive pump that my insurance actually paid for and it was shipped to our house within days. I pumped every hour for days and wasn't getting anything. I was depressed and stressed out. I cried and felt like a total failure. Josh sat there wishing he could do something to help, hating to see me so upset. After nearly two weeks, I couldn't stand it any longer and I asked him to pack the pump and put it in the attic. I felt utterly defeated and horribly guilty. People kept telling me not to feel bad for giving the baby formula because all that mattered was that she was eating. I still felt like I didn't do enough, and hated myself for not having the strength to keep trying. It wasn't until I talked to one of Josh's aunts, who told me she also had a traumatic labor, that I began to realize it might not be my fault after all. She asked me if my milk ever came in, and described what it felt like. I never had any of the sympotoms; no pain, no leaking, no nothing. I don't think it ever came in to begin with. It would certainly explain why Violet was getting so frustrated and screaming every time I tried to nurse her if there was nothing for her to eat. Josh's aunt told me that a nurse had told her it seemed more common to have trouble with nursing and milk production in women who had traumatic births. Certainly, the medication I was on had caused a number of complications, and I don't know for sure if this wasn't yet another. There was definitely trauma; my doctor even made a comment about how I had a difficult time and eluded to the fact that if it weren't for modern medicine, one or both of us probably wouldn't have made it. I was most upset that all the nurses and lactation specialists who were pestering me about how I needed to just keep trying had never once mentioned the possibility that some women just can't breastfeed. They made me feel like I was doing something wrong, when I was doing everything in my power to make it work. When I finally threw in the towel, it was to save my sanity and concentrate on raising a healthy child, however it had to be done.

I didn't write any of this because I want a pity party. I know there are people with far worse trauma than me, and people who are having a difficult time even getting that far who wish more than anything they could be pregnant. I get that. I know those people. Those are my friends. Those are my family. I have just been carrying around a lot of baggage these past 6 months, and I'm hoping that writing it all down will somehow allow me to let go of that guilt and regret. It was hard to recognize it at the time because I was in the thick of it, but the few weeks after giving birth, especially those first few days in the hospital, were a very dark and depressing time for me. I hate that those are the memories I have associated with my wonderful, beautiful little girl. I want to just remember her first smile we caught on film, and the first time we brought her home to meet her puppy (who has loved her and been fiercely protective of her since the day we came home). I don't like feeling like I gave up too soon, or I didn't try hard enough for her. I suspect a lot of the negativity I've let hold me in its grip has something to do with the fact that I haven't taken very good care of myself afterwards, and I am still depressed when I look in the mirror. I am embarrassed that I get jealous when I see other women post about their easy natural birth, and I want to hide the articles I see reposted on facebook about how breastfeeding is best and everyone should do it. If only it were that easy.

For a while after my daughter was born, I was convinced I never wanted to go through this again. After all, the entire pregnancy was pretty miserable and I had nearly every symptom one can get -- morning sickess was awful during the first trimester, and heartburn was so bad during the second and third that I went through at least 6 bottles of Tums and had a prescription heartburn medication that didn't even help. But as time went on, I started to think about how I might want to do it all over again for the chance to have it be different. I realize it might end up being the same, or worse. But the thought of having a second chance, a chance where I will know a little more about what to expect and won't be as hard on myself even when things don't go as planned, sounds kinda nice.

The cliche is true: it was all worth it. I have a smart, adorable, sweet baby girl that I couldn't imagine living without. I went through hell to get her, but dammit if that didn't make me all the more determined to love and protect her and raise her the best I can. I haven't regretted one second of this rollercoaster, and I adore being a mother. We really lucked out with this one; I can tell she is going to grow up to be silly and intelligent and amazing. I can't wait to see what she will grow into; I only hope I can do her justice as her mommy who would do it all over again in a heartbeat.


  1. I just came across your Hasil Adkins grave exploration blog. THANK YOU for that! There's hardly any info on where he is. Sad that there is no major tribute to this man somewhere. But, the biggest tribute is that he still lives on in music.

    CONGRATS on motherhood!!!