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This is the first in a series of five of my own personal birth stories I will be telling. Ultimately, my goal is to begin a dialogue on post traumatic stress disorder from birth, how that can affect future births, and ways care providers can work to help women recognize past birth trauma in order to heal. I would also like to acknowledge all of the women (and men) out there who have experienced birth trauma. I see and hear you.
TRIGGER WARNING TRAUMATIC BIRTH
I became pregnant with my first child in 1990. I was just entering my freshman year of college. I had no idea what I was supposed to really “do” with my life, but I did know I always wanted to be a mom, and I did know I absolutely wanted to go to college. So teen college mom it was!
All my life I have been fascinated by birth. I pretended to be a mama to my dollies from a very tiny age, pretending I was their mom and “nursing” them. I also absolutely loved to babysit, and would even cancel high school plans if it meant hanging out with a fresh baby.
I had read a bit on midwifery care and natural child birth in, at the time, a popular feminist book, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” There were stories and images of women birthing without interventions, pain medication free, even birthing at home, but I didn’t quite understand what getting the birth I wanted meant prenatal care wise. So I began my prenatal experience at the University of Missouri, Columbia OB/GYN Residency Clinic — oddly enough, where the father of my next 4 children would graduate his residency in OB/GYN from. More about that in later stories.
As I began reading about pregnancy and birth, the most popular pregnancy book out at the time was, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” While it most certainly wasn’t the panacea of natural childbirth by any means, it did have some information that was useful, like finding out the c/section rate of the hospital you are birthing in. And I did just that. At the time it was 39% for first time moms. And that scared the shit out of me. So at 18 years old and 20 weeks pregnant, I switched care providers from an OB/GYN clinic to a newly opened birthing center, Cherchez la Femme, and a Certified Nurse Midwife. The difference in my care changed drastically from clinic focused, cold, impersonal care, to hour long appointments with my midwife talking about anything and everything related to my pregnancy and giving birth.
The closer I came to my due date, the more excited I became for the birthing process. I felt so confident I could do this! My due date came and went, with no end in sight. At my 41 week prenatal visit I thought to mention that I had been feeling like I might be leaking fluid. I wasn’t sure, but it felt like it. As I recall, the midwife used litmus paper to test the ph of the fluid and it came back positive for rupture. I was then sent to an outlying hospital for an ultrasound, which also confirmed a possible slow leak. Meaning there was fluid, but not a lot. I was 41 + weeks pregnant, and at that point my son was safer out of my body than in. I was told I needed to go into labor by tonight/tomorrow morning, or the recommendation was induction of labor in the hospital with Pitocin. I did not want that.
That night I did what my midwife recommended to try and get things going — a shot of Castor Oil followed by a glass of orange juice. I was to do that again after 2 hours — I did. It was disgusting, and I will never ever forget that terrible oily taste in my mouth. Then I fell asleep.
I awoke at 4 am to the most intense pain of my life. Contractions every 2-3 minutes, intensely painful, felt way low in my back, it was like literally being thrown into the pit of active labor all at once. We called our midwife. Our midwife told me to take a shower, pack up, and if I was still contracting that strong to come on in. Needless to say I was, and that was honestly one of the worst car rides of my life — from home to the birth center.
Once we arrived, our midwife helped me pull my shit together — at that point I was losing it, and I really needed someone to ground me. She helped me stay grounded, slowing down my breathing, playing music, showing my parter how to rub my back. This allowed my body to surrender to the labor process. I labored all day long. When they finally checked me late afternoon I was 6 cm. I labored hours longer. I had soup. I labored more. I learned to use the toilet backwards so I could have a contraction while trying to pee and not lose my mind. Much of these two days are blurry. It was decided I would try to sleep. I have no idea how, but I did. The assistant would sneak in and check heart tones every half hour.
By the next morning my contractions began picking up in intensity again. After discussion, it was decided they would try to break my bag of water. I was 8 cm — almost there! I remember the midwife broke my bag and the smell was absolutely horrid. I could not go back into the room where she broke my bag — to this day I can remember that smell. Little did I know that was a huge sign of infection, and possibly contributing to the fact that my labor was stalled. I am assuming my care providers were not aware of this or didn’t think it was relevant. So I went back to laboring. I labored a lot in the shower and sitting backwards on the toilet having my back rubbed. The shower on my back was my best friend.
At some point the midwife called in the back up physician. I remember I had begun yelling a lot. I started saying, “I can’t do this. Something is wrong.” I remember hearing laughter. I still hear that laughter in the back of my head sometimes. A huge portion of women do say they feel like they can’t do it anymore at some point during their labor, but I truly knew something was wrong. I requested (begged) for transport to the hospital. I wasn’t sure anyone believed I needed to be there. I remember begging more. We transported.
At the hospital I received an epidural, and they started Pitocin to bring my labor pattern back. I was still 8 cm. I had been in labor at that point for 36 hours. We were well into the night of day two.
Somehow the epidural and Pitocin were all I needed, and by 10 pm that second night, I was pushing my baby out. Two hours later, my first son Kyle was born. I remember feeling elated. And completely exhausted.
Within an hour my placenta was not coming out. It was decided they would manually remove it. My doctor was only able to remove half of the placenta as it was so high she could not reach the rest. I was bleeding all over her and the floor. They took my baby out and everyone but staff left the room. I remember blood everywhere. I remember being told to stay with them. To open my eyes. An on call OB came in the room and was able to remove my placenta. I remember going down a long black tunnel in my mind. The OR had already been called and prepped. There was ammonia in my face. I started to open my eyes and become more coherent. My bleeding began to slow down. I had two IV’s going, one in each arm and a lot of beeping monitors on. I had a lot of medication floating through my body. I was finally stabilized.
At that point, I was not physically able to hold my son. They kept me on the labor and delivery floor all night for one on one nursing care. I remember my nurse came and sat next to my bed so I could have my son with me, as they had threatened to take him to the nursery and feed him formula. She held him to my breast while I nursed so the nursery nurses wouldn’t take him. I cried. She stayed. I will never forget that nurse.
I stayed in the hospital for 4 days. My placenta tested positive for infection, and I had lost 1,500 cc’s of blood. At least that is what is recorded in my chart. My hemoglobin was 6 on day 1 post birth which is crazy low. They wanted to transfuse me. It was 1991, during the height of the AIDS scare. I refused transfusion. I forced myself to walk to the bathroom on my own without passing out to prove I could have my son with me in the room. I remember one of the postpartum nurses being angry with me and my need to have my baby with me in the room all the time. I felt lost. I cried more.
Below is an excerpt from my patient chart. Note the following statements and tone — ” Mother breast feeding infant at this time. She is acting rather defensive about her extended bonding. She expresses concerns about the staff not trusting her with “her” baby. Notice the quotes here and the implications of that. I felt so fucking powerless at this time. All I wanted was my baby. They continued to take him back to the nursery for “my benefit.”
As a former midwife — are midwives ever former, or are we always midwives, I’m still not sure — I can read this in full understanding that I was physically in rough shape and definitely needed help caring for my baby. What I saw later in becoming a doula, a midwife, a mama x 5, and a birth photographer, is the tendency for care providers to put their ego in place of caring for mom. It becomes almost paternal — “we know what is best for you, you do not.” This is the crux of what I believe truly leads to trauma in birth.
In the months and years following the birth of my son, I felt defeated. I felt my birth was not worth celebrating. I had failed. I had to transport. I “caved” to an epidural. I was asked by my care providers to take a look inside myself to find the reasons why my labor stalled. It felt like my fault. If I had been … If I had done … If I had just been stronger. I did not become pregnant again for another five years following his birth.
At the time, I had no idea that my birth story, had care been given differently, could have been different. I assumed everything about my labor and birth was because my body had failed. I had mentally and physically failed. Even my midwives and doctor were basically saying what my internal dialogue was telling me. I needed to look at myself.
This terrible dialogue in my head would continue with me throughout training as a midwife. I was laughed at (literally) for transporting and getting an epidural. It wasn’t truly necessary. Had I done x, y, and z, I could have birthed my baby just fine. This is and was 100% FALSE.
Trying to figure out what happened during my son’s birth, and my intense draw to being with birthing women led me on the path to becoming a doula, a midwife, and eventually photographing births for families. As I continue this journey, I continue to strive to help any mama I come in contact with have more positive birthing experiences, no matter what their birth looks like, and to assist in processing that birth in a positive way if that birth was not the birth they had hoped for or planned.
I will be posting all of my birth stories, and my transformation as a woman, midwife, and photographer.