Stephanie on birth trauma and finding the validation she needed to get help

black and white photo of a woman sitting and smiling at baby - essay on birth trauma

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.

Birth Trauma—Experiencing trauma during birth makes a woman much more vulnerable to postpartum mental health disorders, but I did not understand the full extent of what birth trauma could look like. For me, it started with a diagnosis of Cholestasis (a liver condition that only presents in pregnant women and complications can include still birth) at 37 weeks. The same day I received the diagnosis, they wanted to admit me to the hospital to be induced.

However, after three days of unproductive, drug-induced contractions (not to mention many long and painful pelvic exams), I was not progressing. The hospital that initially called me in to induce was now pressuring me to go home to protect their precious low C-section rates.

In hindsight, this should have been a red flag. I can’t explain to you the emotional pain, confusion, and terror that comes with being told, “Your baby is not safe in your body,” but then two days later, being told to go home because they don’t want you have a C-section.

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

We went home, and I cried for two days. On the third day, we went back in to try again and after three more days of the same thing and some blood work, they decided the original diagnosis was inaccurate. I did not have Cholestasis and I was sent home to wait for labor to happen naturally.

Twice I went to the hospital expecting to come home with a baby, twice I endured days of painful procedures, and twice I came home empty-handed.

This was absolutely devastating. I had to return to work (who has maternity leave days to burn when they don’t have a baby?) I had to explain to everyone why I was still pregnant, and I had to wait, with nothing but growing anxiety over what would happen next. 

Related: How pregnancy and motherhood taught me to let go of control

I never went into labor naturally. At 41 weeks, I was induced for the third time. It didn’t take long before my water broke on its own and contractions ramped up. After six hours of intense contractions, I was one centimeter dilated. I was crushed and opted for the epidural (which I always thought I didn’t want), thinking that this was never going to happen for me, and I was going to end up with the C-section the hospital had put me through so much to avoid.

32 hours later, at 2:30am, they told me I was 10 centimeters dilated and ready to push. I WAS SO RELIEVED. I wanted this chance—this experience. I pushed for three hours with all my might, but he was sunny side up and having major Decels. The doctor came in and suddenly there were no more questions, no more options and no more pushing. I was having an emergency C-section. I became even more devastated. I cried hysterically.

I was terrified, for my baby and myself. The moment finally came when I heard, “Baby’s out,” but that was followed by silence. Five minutes of the worst silence I had ever heard. I kept asking, “Why isn’t my baby crying? Why can’t I see him? What’s going on?” No one would tell me anything.

My son was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, he had an Apgar score of 1 and did not breath on his own for over five minutes. I felt terror, the most real, all-consuming terror I had ever experienced. Thank god for the amazing doctors. They got him breathing and less than 48 hours later, exhausted and physically and emotionally traumatized, we went home. 

Related: Postpartum trauma made me resent breastfeeding-and I know I’m not alone

This would have been enough trauma, but our trials weren’t over. My baby didn’t sleep, we weren’t having a ton of success breastfeeding, and he was losing too much weight.

I was getting so much pressure to give him formula (something I had previously received tons of pressure to avoid.) In my head all I could hear was, “I failed to keep him safe in my womb. I failed to bring him into this world. And now I’m failing to feed him.” Failure. Failure. Failure. It was intense. It was all-consuming. Even when my milk finally came in and he started putting on weight, I was so depressed, but I didn’t even know it.

Sleep deprivation made things so much worse, and no one wanted to hear about me dealing with birth trauma. I would try to talk to someone about how I was feeling, about the flashbacks I was having, and they would say “Just stop thinking about it.” I would try to confide in a friend and they would cut me off mid-story and say, “At least he’s healthy and everyone is OK.” I felt so alone. So sad. so lonely.

Related: When I tell you I have postpartum depression, here’s what I want you to know

It was a lactation consultant who changed everything for me. This kind, lovely, older women who I had never met before, upon seeing my tears with a crying baby in my arms as she walked in the door, came and gave me a hug and asked about my story. She listened for over an hour, well past our allotted time, kissed my head and told me I had every right to every feeling I was having. The next day I called my doctor and went on medication. 

Looking back, I see that there is so much trauma in my story. I thought as a mental health professional myself, I would be more aware of what I was going though and of the impact it had on me, but I was so lost, so sucked into the pain and loneliness and suffering, that I couldn’t see through the fog. I can’t say enough about that lactation consultant. She saved me from that dark place, just by listening, by validating, and by simple gestures of kindness and empathy. Such powerful tools.