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Leilani on postpartum depression after a traumatic birth experience

mother taking selfie photo with sleeping toddler on her chest after healing from a traumatic birth experience

Content warning: Discussion of postpartum depression, birth trauma, domestic abuse or other tough topics ahead. If you or someone you know is struggling with a postpartum mental health challenge, including postpartum depression or anxiety, call 1-833-9-HELP4MOMS (tel:18009435746)—The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline This free, confidential service provides access to trained counselors and resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in English, Spanish, and more than 60 other languages. They can offer support and information related to before, during, and after pregnancy.

My husband and I went into family planning after 9 years of quality time together. We made the assumption that it’d be easy for us. We were in our early ’30s, healthy, active, financially and professionally established, and had put so much work into our individual mental health and relationship.

After two miscarriages, the second of which was confirmed on my birthday, we began to wonder, “Will continuing to try be worth it?”

After a few months’ break and a tearful breakthrough in my therapist’s office, we decided to try again and I became pregnant immediately. With the support of my husband, therapist, a low dose of an antidepressant I had been on for years prior, the Expectful meditation app, and lots of rest due to working from home at the beginning of the pandemic, I had an extremely uneventful, healthy pregnancy. We chose to pursue the midwife-birth center-unmedicated-birth hypnosis route and felt confident with this decision.

Related: Hypnobirthing made simple: A class in a box for expectant mamas

My water broke early afternoon at 38 weeks 5 days, and I went into active labor 8 hours later. I was admitted to the birth center later that evening 5 cm dilated, and that first hour at the birth center was calm. The lights were dim, I had a playlist of relaxing music set up, and my husband helped me through the hypnobirthing exercises.

Then my midwife came in to check how much further along I was, and I had dilated only 1 additional centimeter. The pain increased, which made it harder to access my birth hypnosis exercises, and I began to panic. What followed were 11 hours of the most intense pain I have ever experienced, coupled with an inability to keep down food and water.

A wave of contractions would come, and I would vomit almost immediately after screaming through gritted teeth while my husband rubbed my back and told me I was strong, that I could do this, that we would meet our son soon. I remember crawling on the bed, sobbing, telling the midwife, “This is so much harder than I thought it would be, I don’t think I can do this,” and she calmly responded with, “Yes, it’s hard.”

Related: I finally have the strength to talk about my traumatic birth

By 10 a.m. the following day, I was fully dilated and deemed ready to push. After 3 hours of pushing in various positions, our son’s heart rate began to plummet, and it was decided that I needed to either be induced or undergo an emergency C-section, both of which I’d need to transfer to the local hospital for. My husband and I looked at each other and said, “We have done absolutely everything we could have done,” and packed up our things to head out.

The 5-minute drive to the hospital was excruciating as waves of contractions continued to wrack my body.

After getting checked in, I was whisked into a room with an OB, nurses, an anesthesiologist and a different midwife, then positioned on my hands and knees. While I lay my head on the pillow and watched my son’s heart rate yo-yo between “low” and “extremely low,” the OB determined that an emergency c-section was our only option.

Preparation for surgery was a blur: the incredibly kind, calm anesthesiologist explained that I required a spinal block, the nurses hooked me up to monitors and drips, and the midwife rubbed my back while I was still on all fours.

I was wheeled into the OR, where music was playing and the anesthesiologist asked me what I’d like to listen to while my husband scrubbed up. I grew up with The Beach Boys, and it seemed like a good fit for welcoming our son.

Surgery began, and all I could feel below my chest was the pushing and pulling of the OB slicing through layers of skin, fascia, and muscle and pulling out my surrounding organs. Then were was the slipping of her hands trying to grab onto our son, and everything went silent.

Related: To the woman deciding what to do after a traumatic pregnancy or birth

“Page the pediatrician, page the pediatrician,” the OB repeated quietly but urgently, and a moment later someone else entered the OR. I asked the anesthesiologist what was going on, and he said, “Your son is having a little trouble breathing, but we’re doing everything we can.”

What was surely just a minute but felt like years later, I heard his first cry.

Up until this point, I was calm, collected, even making jokes, but at that moment, I fell apart and began to sob, “I want to see my son!” My husband was instructed to come over and hold our son’s hand while his breathing stabilized and we shouted back and forth, “How many fingers?” “10!” “How many toes?” “10!” “Whose hair does he have?” “Uhhh…he is…bald…”

When he was finally put on my chest, he immediately began to nurse, and I felt flooded with gratitude. That feeling lasted throughout our hospital visit as nurses checked in on and fed us, through returning home to our cozy bed where I nursed and napped, and through those first few weeks of visiting family and friends. I remember thinking, “I’ve dodged the postpartum depression bullet, if the only reason I’m crying right now is out of gratitude!”

Related: How to overcome—and heal from—a traumatic birth

How wrong I was. At 10 weeks postpartum, I remember kicking and screaming at my husband. I remember sobbing while holding onto our crying son. I remember having horrible nightmares of him being taken away then waking up to him crying and feeling conflicted about wanting to comfort him and wanting to be as far away from him as possible.

This went on for three more months, through returning to an extremely stressful job, through family trips, through day in and day out of not knowing how to ask for help. I experienced passive suicidal ideations and was admitted to the ER, where initially it was recommended that I stay in the hospital’s psychiatric ward for at least 5 days. However, I didn’t want to be away from our son, so my husband found a clinic close by that served struggling new mothers.

I took additional leave from work to attend the clinic’s day program. However, it was geared more towards attachment issues, which I did not struggle with. I then decided to use my leave time during my son’s naps to research perinatal psychiatrists and therapists. After several initial consultations, I found great fits for both a perinatal psychiatrist and therapist, adjusted my medication and began twice-monthly therapy sessions.

Progress was slow, but I remember the day my medication began to work. It felt like I could finally see colors, like, “OH, this is how everyone else is experiencing the world.”

It’s been 7 months since that day. I’ve changed to a less stressful job that is still fulfilling, our son is incredibly healthy and sweet while independent, I’ve continued to meet with my psychiatrist every six weeks to check on my current dosage, and see my therapist every other week.

Related: The pandemic drastically increased rates of postpartum depression: Dr. Harvey Karp shares what can help mothers now

The year anniversary of our son’s birth was emotionally challenging, but I gave myself permission and space to experience conflicting emotions of relief and sadness. I have more good days than bad, and through it all, I don’t think any other path would have made me as strong, empathetic and reflective as I am now.