Birth Trauma Isn’t Always Visible; Sometimes It Hides for Weeks or Even Years
It’s been nearly six years since my son was born. Since that day, I’ve educated myself on the system, the politics around birth and maternity care, and pretty much everything else birth-related. I am a walking encyclopedia of information and I have brought Improving Birth to my community. I hosted rallies every single year to bring awareness to the public of our invisible problem. I have connected with SO MANY women in the birth industry and those who were hurt by the system. I have helped women navigate their options and given them the encouragement to make their own choices. I have birthed one child at home on my own terms, and I have shared that story so many times and every time I share it I am brought back to that day and I smile.
But there are no smiles when I think of the birth of my son. There are often tears; they are shed or else held back, and my chest aches with the force of those sobs that fight and claw to be released.
It’s been six years. I have learned from it, I have beaten the odds; I had a vaginal birth just like I wanted. I got my homebirth with my second child. One might argue that my son’s birth was necessary to put me ON this path in the first place. I often think that too. I wouldn’t have the drive to do what I do if I didn’t know what it felt like to be hurt by the system of paternalistic maternity care.
But it still hurts. Six years later, I am not “over it”.
Birth Plans Do NOT Lead to Birth Trauma On Their Own
Other times of the year, it’s easier to move past that hurt, but not this time of the year. This time of the year everything affects me more, and I didn’t realize just how much I’m “not over it” until certain events unfolded so quickly last weekend.
Recently, the Duchess of Sussex had a lot of articles written about her birth plans and nasty comments were made by obstetricians and “birth experts” who essentially scoffed at a first time “geriatric” mother having a birth plan, let alone wanting a home birth.
I have seen this rhetoric before; hell, I see it ALL THE DAMN TIME. It’s kind of in the job description of Birth Advocate to be up against that kind of negativity often when giving information to women who might be receptive to it, but where others in the public forum will argue that “a healthy baby is all that matters” and call me all sorts of lovely names and insinuate that my children “deserve better”. The internet is not a kind place; it is far LESS kind to women who dare to question and challenge the paternalistic viewpoints of the maternity care system.
Women like me are “selfish” to put our “experience” above what is “best for our baby”. Women like me are “foolish” and “idealistic” to think that our “silly little birth plans” have any merit at all, that we have no one but ourselves to blame when things “go wrong” or just not as we wanted them to.
One might argue that my trauma surrounding my birth stems from my silly need to be in control. One might argue that my refusal to just let my body be cut into for the good of the baby was the REAL issue. That maybe if I hadn’t been SO insistent on my unmedicated birth that I might not have been so terrified of a little bit of “help” and maybe I wouldn’t have been on my back pushing for 3 hours with people yelling at me and me yelling “fucking leave me alone” over and over because it was all I COULD do.
Maybe if I hadn’t had my heart set on homebirth and not seen the hospital as such a horrible place to birth, that maybe I wouldn’t have cried for weeks when I was told I couldn’t have my homebirth.
See, that would make everything so much easier, wouldn’t it? If I just accepted and admitted that my expectations were “too high”, that I was “foolish and naive” and that really, I had a GREAT birth! I mean, look at that glow!
How can we both look back on that day and be so angry, so sure that it could have gone any other way? Guess we shouldn’t have made a birth plan and just “gone with the flow”? But hey, it’s all okay because despite our foolish birth plan fantasies, we got what we wanted and we should be happy now, right?
Trauma Hides Behind the Oxytocin
Well, see, the thing about trauma is that it doesn’t show up right away; especially not after birth. We didn’t have time in that moment to process the feelings we had; we were focused on our boy. For the first several weeks we were enthralled with him; we did skin to skin on the couch and in bed, I nursed him on-demand, he rarely cried because he was always in our arms. We were PROUD that we had come out of birth relatively unscathed; I had a vaginal birth just like I wanted. I didn’t have to face that fear of a csection that had been looming for months, with everyone saying “oh, it’s not so bad, you won’t even care”.
But then, one particularly eventful day at the midwifery postpartum group drop-in, my midwife asked me if I was staying to attend the traumatic birth and breastfeeding support group. It was something she had created for moms to unleash their feelings about their births and breasfeeding struggles; a SAFE place where the words “a healthy baby is all that matters” were implicitly banned. I hesitated, because I didn’t feel I belonged there. I didn’t think my trauma was anything more than disappointment, but I had been struggling in other areas of parenting my son and I decided “why not?” I heard the stories; many of the moms had csections. I was the sore thumb sticking out, the unmedicated vaginal birther. How dare I claim my birth to be traumatic? Those were my thoughts…until it was my turn and I started to share my story, and I realized through re-telling it without the flowery justifications I had given everyone else, that I WAS NOT OKAY. No, I was FAR from “okay” with being talked out of homebirth, condescended and told that all that mattered was a healthy baby. I was NOT okay with the fact that upon sharing my fears with people I trusted, they said it “wouldn’t be that bad if I DID need a csection.” I was NOT okay with being on that fucking bed for 3 hours on my back because that wasn’t the position I had chosen, but was chosen FOR me. I felt betrayed by my husband for helping to lift me on the bed, but never voiced it. I still haven’t told him, but I have heard his version of our story, where he came into the room to see the midwife and the nurse struggling to get me to cooperate, and he saw ME screaming in pain, and he didn’t know what to do in that moment other than help them move me onto the bed when they asked him to. He was powerless in the face of the “authority” just as I was. I don’t blame him for it, I blame the situation.
That pretty picture of me holding our newborn after birth doesn’t show that while I was pushing and screaming in mostly frustration, my husband had tears rolling down his cheeks. He was scared for me, and sad for me, and he definitely had that “I don’t know how to fix this” look on his face. He felt as powerless as I did, and it was something I never fully realized about his experience until a year afterward and I had started dealing with my trauma.
Birth Trauma Can Affect Your Relationship
Think about that for a second: I was so busy caring for my baby and trying to make myself be okay again that I didn’t stop and think that maybe my husband was also affected by that birth and needed me.
When I overheard him tell his side of the story, I heard the echoes of trauma. When we were planning for our daughter, we both knew it was going to be a home birth BUT for 18 months after our son’s birth he had refused to even acknowledge that we might have a second child at all. I hadn’t heard his trauma then, and I had been so overwhelmed with my need to “get it right” that I got angry whenever he “threatened” my right to a do-over homebirth. I made lists of reasons why I was never going back to “the fucking hospital” and that I would be “kicking and screaming” if someone tried to drag me there. While I still pretty much stand firm on my statements that if I ever had another baby (not likely, as I’m still referring myself back to this letter I wrote) it will be at home, I was really hostile in my approach and it probably wasn’t very kind of me when he was hurting too, but not showing it.
Birth Trauma Led Me to My Calling, But It Can’t Run The Show Forever
It’s difficult to admit to myself that I was too traumatized to care about anyone else’s feelings but my own. I came to Improving Birth very, very angry. I came to it with a fire that stemmed mostly from my own trauma, and this thought that I had to “fix” the system and “warn” women away from it. I approached it that way because in those early years I couldn’t see that there WAS any other side of the coin. Either women had rights or we didn’t, and telling us that we couldn’t do something was just NOT ACCEPTABLE.
It still isn’t, but after 6 years I can understand that my midwife’s hands were tied by a system that didn’t trust birth. The OBs outside my room had probably never even seen physiological birth. The hospital had probably seen more complicated births resulting from prolonged pushing and been quick to want to intervene. There was probably trauma causing their anxiety as this stubborn first time mother with an “unproven” pelvis walked into their facility, REFUSED to cooperate when the nurse wanted to take some blood samples to have on-hand “just in case”, DEMANDED to be “left alone”, REFUSED to get out of the tub, REFUSED vaginal exams to check her cervix, cussed at them, and then wound up pushing for 3 hours because she wasn’t willing to accept their help. Honestly, I can kind of see how that might have triggered trauma for them if they were not used to physiological births. The ONLY person in that room who had experience in physiological birth was my midwife; I was VERY wise to have hired her. It was fortunate that my son “stayed put” until the next day when she would be on-call at the hospital.
But despite seeing how my own hostility might have been difficult for them, the fact is that I was hostile and fearful BECAUSE THE SYSTEM IS BROKEN AND OUR CULTURE IS BUILT ON FEAR. Could I have trusted them to leave me to birth on my own terms, no matter how long it took? NO! I knew that I was on a clock and my time was running out. “WHY ISN’T HE OUT YET?” I cried. It wasn’t fear that *I* couldn’t do it, it was fear that I couldn’t do it IN TIME; that I wouldn’t be able to do it FAST, and on THEIR timeline.
With my second birth, that trauma and feeling that I wouldn’t be able to “follow the textbook” nearly fucked up my labor. I had to send the midwife away because those feelings started to come up during my 24 hour early/active labor and the doula and midwife were trying to get me into all kinds of positions to “progress” NOT because there was any problems, but because the midwife had already notified the hospital that a homebirth was happening and they had their little chart at the hospital and expected progress in order for me to be “allowed” to stay home. No progress or not “enough” progress for what was “reasonable” for a second birth (cue eyerolling) would have led to the pressure from the OBs telling my midwife to “convince” me to transfer to the hospital for “proper” care. AND I WASN’T HAVING ANY OF THAT PATRIARCHAL BULLSHIT!
So, when my labor stalled after 24 hours, I was faced with the choice to keep going, risking that the OBs would “pull rank” at some point, or say it was a false alarm and start again at a much later point after labor resumed. I wasn’t about to let the OBs dictate how quickly I needed to progress in 4 hours and I wasn’t sure that my body WOULD resume labor within that time. I wanted to sleep and I was getting a rest, so I sent her home. File closed, no one would know whether or not I went back into labor until I said so. But that stall in labor did rattle my confidence.
Sometimes The Step to Healing is Just Taking Back Control
In what should have been a time of peace and relaxation, my mind was spinning with plans and more plans. My heart was breaking, I was crying, I was scared. I hadn’t spoken to my husband at all. I had kept these thoughts in my head the whole time, because I thought that voicing them out loud would have made him think I was crazy, reckless, and selfish. I hid in the bedroom; truthfully I didn’t want to face him. I was afraid he would tell me “well, we tried, but we have to go to the hospital now”. I was afraid he would be angry if I responded “There is no way in hell I’m going back there and if you make me do it I will fight you the whole time and never forgive you.” Probably not the kindest thing to tell someone who has just as much invested in your child as you do, but then the words coming from a place of trauma aren’t often very kind or empathetic, and I wasn’t feeling at all like I WANTED to be kind. My birth plan was going to shit again and I wasn’t handling it well at all.
I didn’t realize that the trauma had affected him as much as it had, and that he had been re-triggered just as I had been, and now his brain was telling him that we had to take control and do it ourselves. When he asked if we might just have our doula and call the midwife “later”, the weight was lifted off my chest. I realized that Plan C was scrapped: No, I wouldn’t have to hide in the bedroom or bathroom and secretly birth unassisted and call him after it was done. I wouldn’t have to hide it from him, he was supportive. So we went with Plan B, and it was amazing taking that power back!
Every year on my daughter’s birthday, I am filled with feelings of power and pride at what I accomplished in the face of adversity. It’s my month of pure woman-power; I am a force to be reckoned with, and I am in a mental state of positivity. I come up with my best ideas around that time and for a few weeks afterward I am riding the oxytocin wave just as I did the day she was born. It is a complete contrast from what I feel at this time of year, only a few months later, and I realize that the amazing reclamation of my power in my daughter’s birth helped, yes, but it doesn’t erase the trauma of that first birth.
Triggers Will Always Be Harder to Manage At That Time of Year
I can say that the birth of the Duchess’ first child and the criticism it got from the obstetricians and anti-natural birthers triggered me. I didn’t realize it at the time why it was affecting me so much more than all the other shit I see on a regular basis. I mean, the woman has every right to choose as she pleases and the men are always going to say something about it, and she’s the goddamn Duchess of Sussex and the Royal Family always has some thing or another that the moms and moms-to-be are tsk tsked for. Didn’t the same thing happen with George’s, Charlotte’s, and Louis’ births? Didn’t people scoff at Duchess Katherine’s homebirth just as they have done to Meghan’s birth plans? Yes, they did. But Katherine’s son was a planned hospital birth like my son’s ended up being, and I was pretty upset that she was denied what she wanted for all 3 births. However, those births didn’t get the vitriol that Meghan’s plans did. ACOG hadn’t had their yearly meeting and the OBs hadn’t made their derisive comments about it. Katherine wasn’t called a “birth brat”.
Maybe it was racism in addition to paternalism; I wouldn’t be surprised if it was, but seeing the crap that was said about her was awful and it was upon looking at the calendar and seeing the date that these remarks were said that it really brought to light what I was feeling. It’s MAY. This isn’t a good month for me. It’s too personal to read about a mother’s birth plans being mocked so close to the time when my own wishes were ignored and afterward the “aren’t you glad you had him in the hospital though?” commentary wasn’t helpful.
So, this month I have realized that it’s going to be hard seeing this stuff everywhere. It’s going to really, really hurt and nobody will understand that hurt. I truly hope that Meghan DID get her home birth, but if she wound up having the hospital birth as some tabloids are now saying she did, then that is going to affect my feelings and that’s okay. And Meghan, if you did end up having a hospital birth and it’s not what you wanted, and you see all the “I told you so” comments and the goddamn ACOG doctors nod their heads and say “well, we called it”, just know that there are women out there who have been there and it’s okay to not be “okay” right now. You go do what you need to do, and give the nay-sayers a big middle finger, even if it’s behind closed doors where the paparazzi can’t see you give it.