*Danielle’s Story, USA

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I struggle to know what to say, because I know that my birth injuries pale in comparison to many other injuries that I’ve come to learn about through being a part of a facebooksupport group. But I know that the community is better off when we hear stories from a variety of experiences. I also know that comparing stories is something I need to be careful of. From what I went through 7 years ago, I learned that I don’t want my story to be judged. As a naïve and optimistic 25 year old, I thought I could “do everything right”, and things would turn out as planned. But a+b doesn’t always equal c in real life.

My husband and I took classes through The Bradley Method of natural childbirth. We eagerly learned so much, and grew in our convictions towards a med-free, out-of-hospital birth. We were happy with the midwives at a Birth Center, and things were looking good! My pregnancy was progressing normally and I was due with a boy in May of 2012.

With some early labor signs, we went to bed one Saturday night, feeling pretty strongly that we would be meeting our son the next day. Little did we know, he would be born on Friday, 6 days later. The start of labor was very slow and confusing, and TIRESOME. I became fatigued and frustrated, unable to sleep due to the increasing pain and anxiety. Tuesday, I learned I was in prodromal labor, which is prolonged early labor. Wednesday, we were finally admitted to the birth center. The birthing room, the midwives, and my husband were all serving me as wonderful supports. I kept thinking that “today would be the day”. But the fatigue was growing stronger than my contractions. My body and my uterus were growing tired from contracting for so many days, and both parts of my body were relaxing into sleepiness – which was not helpful now that I was in active labor! We tried all we could, and after a long time, we all agreed that my uterus and the rest of my self were too fatigued to safely continue the labor away from extra help. At 9c we drove 30min to a hospital.

I hated being at the hospital! It contrasted the birth center so much… I loved the birth center and the staff there because it was so peaceful, comfortable, respectful, and natural. Being at the hospital felt alarming, cold, jarring, and unhelpful in its routines and procedures. Nothing was an emergency, but it started to feel that way and my anxiety went up.

I was put on pitocin. I remember thinking of the metaphor “beating a dead horse”. I felt like I had nothing left but my body was being abused. I eventually got to the pushing stage and pushed for several hours. My midwife (who came with us from the Birth Center to continue to help us labor) got the on-call doctor to come. This woman came in with guns blazing and she was ready to make things happen. Not that she communicated anything to us, but she wasn’t gonna waste any time and she was gonna get this baby out. My midwife was pushed to the side, the docstarted cutting, my husband passed out, and she’s yelling at me to push and mumbling about a vacuum. It was chaos and pain, and no communication between her, me, my body or my baby.

I recently read the detailed notes of my son’s birth that I wrote 2 months after the fact, and this is some of what I wrote:

“She just set up shop and mumbled to her assistants and started cutting me. And more cutting. It was all happening so fast. Why didn’t she wait to have me push with a contraction? My midwife said later that these moments were so bewildering to her. There was no communication, no coordination between her pulling and me pushing. She was not working with my body’s natural efforts. Dr didn’t even ask me about an episiotomy, or inform me she was going to do that. She just did it. My midwife was pushed to the side, reeling, everything was happening so fast she didn’t have time to process what was going on to be the gatekeeper between us. I couldn’t see what was happening and didn’t know what was going on. I noticed my husband wasn’t by my side anymore. He was sitting with his head in his hands. My midwife was holding a wet washcloth on his forehead. He said later that he knew he was either going to pass out or vomit. He was soooo very angry at what was happening right before his eyes. These moments were so traumatizing to him and he hated what the dr was doing to me. To him, she was going crazy with the scissors, so much different than what we thought was necessary or had seen before in our educational courses. My husband was flabbergasted and wished he would’ve yelled, “Stop!! What are you doing?”

Well, the doctor accomplished what she came there to do, and she pulled my son out of me by his head with the vacuum. I had previously asked to have him lay on me right away but was denied that. He was evaluated in a warmer far away from me, with strangerspoking at him. He was 7lbs 14oz, 21 inches long, and healthy.

Back to me… I feel the dr tugging at the umbilical cord. She’s mumbling to me to push. I asked why she was tugging and why did the placenta need to come out already? All of a sudden, more pain. I was screaming and my labor attendants rushed to me to coach me through the pain as if I was still in labor. I didn’t realize until I saw the doctor’s arm soaked in blood that she was manually scraping the placenta out of my uterus. Actually, I didn’t realize that until much later. I just knew when I saw all the blood that she was up inside me but I didn’t know why. Back to my birth notes:

“It hurt SO much. Just as much or more than the last painful contractions. I screamed through it. But I think part of the pain was because I didn’t know what was happening or WHY it needed to happen. I had thought the pain was basically over with, so why did I still have to go through more pain? I was so tired of the pain.”

My midwife told me later that my placenta was “sticky” and didn’t come out in one whole piece and was later found to have acute chorioamnionitis and some calcification. So it sounds like this extraction was necessary, but why the haste, and why the lack of communication and consent? I consider this obstetric violence.

My son was finally placed on my chest, but I was unable to hold him because I was too weak. I remember my mom taking pictures and asking me to smile. And I thought, “Wow, this was not how I expected to feel after holding my baby for the first time. That someone has to REQUEST that I SMILE?! I felt like I was just a shell.

After I passed out, after everything calmed down, my husband was able to hold and enjoy our son. But things were not smooth sailing after that. I couldn’t move on my own. I needed three units of blood. My son had some elevated counts that concerned the staff so he received antibiotics for 48 hours in the NICU. There was drama between the hospital staff and the Birth Center staff. I had a catheter for a week because I couldn’t release my bladder. And I was trying to process everything I had just gone through.

I was so exhausted, overwhelmed, and upset. Why had all this happened? I felt like we were prepared. I felt like we did everything “right”. Why did everything happen like this? I was very angry at the on-call doctor for the WAY she handled everything she did. At least my perineum was healing well, and that was because the dr. had a reputation of performing so many episiotomies that she had a lot of practice stitching them back up.

Again from my birth notes: “It wasn’t until Saturday that I was able to hold baby on my own. I was able to get a shower that day which I knew would make me feel better. My husband bathed me and washed my hair. I was sooooo thankful for him and impressed by his willingness to do that for me. I felt embarrassed by my helplessness. I kept thinking that I was just as helpless as my baby. I needed help to do anything because I had no strength. I kept saying that it felt like I was run over by a truck. Everything was sore. I didn’t eve notice the stitches too awfully much because the rest of my body was so sore. Everything felt like a giant bruise. “

I felt physically uncomfortable for a long time after the initial recovery. Other women were having babies and I’d be in tears with fits of jealousy and rage, seeing their “easier” births and seemingly breezy recoveries.

As I healed more and more physically, my anxiety was increasing. My baby was difficult and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was able to pull myself together at times, but I often complained, seeking sympathy, about my birth experience, and my difficult baby. I did have some slightly older women in my life through my church groups who offered sympathy and meals. But I didn’t feel like anyone could understand or relate to me regarding how my birth experience evolved and the choices that lead to it.

When I would try to take naps during the day, it was like my body was in a heightened state of arousal, like fight or flight. I could not get myself to relax to sleep. When I would laydown at night, my mind would go over the chaotic details of various parts of the labor and delivery experience. All of them. It wasn’t just the episiotomy, it was the pain after that from the manual extraction of the placenta. And the agony of the prodromal labor. And the initial recovery. And lots of details. It was like a horror movie playing on a loop that I could not get to turn off or look away from.  

At night, I started doing weird things. I would suddenly wake up in a fit and think that the baby was smothered on the bed somewhere between us, even though we had never co-slept with him. I would get up and turn on the lights and look around the room for him, and then finally go to his room and prove to myself that he was safe and sound in his crib. That type of thing happened often.

Then I would suddenly wake up at night with palpitations, shaking, feeling out of control and freaked out. I didn’t know at the time that I was experiencing panic attacks.

When my son was about 6 months old, we were with close friends one evening. I was wrapped up in jealousy towards my close friend after she referenced her recent birth recovery and I broke down in front of them. My one friend who worked as a nurse looked at me compassionately and said directly, “I think you could have PTSD.” Something clicked and I felt a tiny bit of release, maybe because I felt like that label legitimized my experience.

As I started to try to understand what this meant and how to move forward, I found myself also feeling uncomfortable with that label. Like, is what I went through that serious to have that label? I don’t want to take anything away from the seriousness of that label for people like veterans. Do people just think I’m whiny? And in truth, some did! After a girls night where I felt particularly compelled to share my experiences with one woman, another woman overheard and asserted to others later that I should just be thankful I have a healthy baby. I shouldn’t be so worked up, because there are so many people who would dream to have a labor like that if it just meant they could have a baby at all. I felt so hurt by this. Of COURSE I was thankful to have my baby. But I matter, just as much as my baby. And NEITHER of us ended up healthy or unscathed by his delivery experience. I learned it’s okay to mourn for all that, but to also be careful to whom you share those parts of yourself with.

Time moved on and I sought some counseling. It didn’t feel particularly helpful, and I didn’t pursue it much, as I was still wrapped up in figuring out my baby’s schedule and his health concerns.

I would say I started to feel more like myself physically at around 6 months postpartum. My perineum seemed to have healed well overall. I did continue to experience minor discomfort when standing or sitting in certain ways, even to this day. I was able to resume intimacy and my normal bathroom routines relatively quickly. I know now that I am in the minority, and lucky in that regard.

Things start to settle down, my son and I fell into a routine. We finally bonded after about two years, and I blamed that on the birth and recovery experience. But looking back, I felt I made the best decisions I could with the information that was available to us at the time. Looking back, I would do things differently with the knowledge I now have. But we did what we felt was best at the time.

Fast forward, we got pregnant with baby #2, another boy. He would be born 1 month shy of 3 years after my first son. Towards the end of my first trimester, I started following the facebook page called “Birth Without Fear” and started to become very inspired by the many stories of women overcoming difficult deliveries and going on to experience healing subsequent births. I was reminded of all the reasons I pursued a natural, out-of-hospital birth with my first. Ultimately, I decided to try again!

I’m sure people thought I was stupid, but I felt confident… until about 37 weeks. I started freaking out and crying at my routine visits! The midwives were amazing, once again. Compassionately listening to all my fears, and offering their feedback. One time I stayed 45 minutes, and it felt like a counseling appointment. When our time ended, she handed me a book recommendation and a business card for a counselor. I met with her right away, and she was the perfect fit for what I needed! She had been a birth attendant for a well-known home birth midwife for many years, and also attended many hospital births. In fact, when I relayed my experiences, she knew which doctor had been on call – because her (poor) reputation preceded her. Side note, this doctor was later forced to resign. Anyway, I felt very understood, supported, and respected in my desires for an out-of-hospital birth, and also very understood by how it got turned upside down. She was compassionate and listening, and also offered specific practical tips for my upcoming birth. She also reassured me I could call her even while I was in labor, if I needed to. I wish I had found her 3 years prior.

Anyway, I DID call her during my labor… because I ended up in prodromal labor again! And it even started on the same day of the week as my first labor. “But this is 2015. This is a different labor. This is a different baby. I will make the best choice with the information we have.” The midwives assured me that once I hit active labor, since I had been through this before, my body would take off and move much more efficiently this time. I handled this prodromal labor differently. I distracted myself with going to the movie theater and shopping. Things progressed, unsteadily, but the contractions did trend in the right direction, and faster.

Tuesday evening, I started to feel frustrated and really nervous. I was exhausted. I had been contracting regularly for three days and not sleeping much. What if I keep going down this same path and it ends up practically the same? Should I just go to the hospital and get induced? Can I just get a c-section? After talking through what those other options would look like in reality, I decided I wanted to continue on my path for now. That eveningproved to be what I call my “emotional transition.” About two hours later, I knew I was hitting active labor! We checked in at the birth center around midnight that night, and I felt like things were moving along okay. I labored all night and knew that I was progressing. Being in the tub felt good, and the midwife who was supporting me in the final hours was the same one who had supported me in my last few prenatal appointments where I was freaking out. When I got to pushing (Wednesday morning), I got nervous – would I have the strength to push him out here? Can I do it? I didn’t fear tearing, I feared if everything would play out safely and happily overall. I was in the tub, on my knees, draped over the side, with my husband calmly supporting me. When my baby’s head came out, he was en caul! With the next push, my water broke and he slipped out. The midwife passed him to me underwater, between my legs, and I pulled him up and held him close. I leaned back in the sweetest relief. My firstborn came running in, and we have a beautiful picture of all of us together, me smiling, gazing at my firstborn, holding my second, whose birth I’d wished for him. That picture represents the acknowledgement of the loss I mourn, but also the redemption that I gained.

My midwives gave me a shot of pitocin in my thigh just after delivery (which we had discussed beforehand!), to help make sure the placenta would be expelled. That all went perfectly. I did sustain a 2nd degree tear, but that didn’t matter much to me, since I got the experience I was wanting. I got to snuggle my baby and enjoy the high after giving birth! I was awake, alert, thankful! We were adequately checked and monitored, but largely left to ourselves to do what comes naturally after birth. Just rest and snuggle and bond in a cozy bed. It was beautiful.

After the immediate postpartum period, I felt so differently this time around. I still experienced quite a bit of physical discomfort, but that subsided. But psychologically I felt so different that time around as compared to my first.

And interestingly, after my second, victorious birth, I started to hear sad stories from other women who had recent, unhappy birth experiences. Because I now knew firsthand that there is so much we cannot control, despite our best efforts to do everything right, I was able to offer an empathetic, listening ear.Some more healing came as I was able to offer support to these women. Specifically, two other close friends experienced births for their firstborns that had similarities to mine. And not only that, the babies were difficult as well! They opened up to me, knowing that I would understand their disappointments and anger surrounding their experience at becoming a first time mom. It felt good to be able to offer support, and they would thank me, saying that something specific I had said helped to give them peace and perspective.

My closest friend shared with me her fear regarding her second birth. Due three years later, after a hospital transfer with her first, she also wanted to try again for a natural, out-of-hospital birth, but was scared. She looked to me for inspiration, but also some perspective that the labor may not be a complete answer to prayer. We talked so much, she told me I would make a good doula, and I offered to serve her in this way if she and her husband would want that. We talked some more about expectations and whatnot, and we started planning with her husband.

So this past March, I assisted my best friend in bringing her second baby into the world. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I wish I could say it was all we hoped for, but it wasn’t. She had a rough time. She was able to deliver in the birth center, but it was a difficult experience for her. Seeing her in such distress, I was able to compartmentalize it, and it didn’t trigger old memories for me. After she delivered the baby, I read my friend’s face and knew that she needed more care. She wasn’t well. She needed almost more assistance postpartum than she did during labor. I was inwardly grieving at what she was enduring, yet at the same time thankful that I understood deeply, and could be there to support her in her time of need. Not only a direct support in those moments, but also in the following months where we processed through what had happened.

It was a unique experience that I’ll never forget. Going through that helped me heal more deeply, and also exposed how much healing I’ve already done, 7 years later.

Based on my experiences, the emotional and psychological support aspect following traumatic birth experiences is now very important to me. I am glad that I can understand the pain that’s hard to explain from a traumatic childbirth experience, and offer compassion and support. I want to continue to encourage women to educate themselves, trust their bodies and their instincts, and also be open to supportive medical professionals for extra help when necessary. And I hope professionals seek to understand how they can better support the whole woman. Let’s integrate the body, mind, and the heart, as much as possible. Creating safe, supportive, listening spaces like this is a step in the right direction, and can help us achieve these goals. Thank you for listening to my story.

*Danielle ~ USA

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