I’m Finally Acknowledging The Trauma Of My Son’s Birth

traumatic birth
Elizabeth Joyce

I never called it a “trauma.” The term felt reserved for much bigger catastrophes than what I endured and I’d never want to come off as being overly dramatic. But, here we are, more than a decade later, and I am still dealing with the emotional and mental repercussions from my son’s birth — from what I now recognize as one of the more prominent traumatic experiences of my life.

After all our challenges with cancer and infertility, my husband and I were thrilled to be expecting our first child in June 2008. My pregnancy was mostly uncomplicated but terribly uncomfortable, and I was beyond ready when it came time to head to the hospital.

I labored all night and day. I pushed for hours before vaginally delivering our 8lb, 13oz son with vacuum assistance only after an episiotomy in one direction failed to prevent a 3rd degree tear in another direction and I begged for help.

My birthing experience was nothing like I had hoped it would be.

My son was born limp and blue. Umbilical cord wrapped once around his neck and exposed to meconium, he was immediately whisked away by the nurses. Several moments passed before we heard his first whimpers from the other side of the room.

I was an exhausted mess — and things only got worse from there.

As the doctor began sewing up the episiotomy and tear, I kept my eyes closed and continued to focus on breathing. I had never delivered a baby before, but I could tell things were not going well for me. I heard what sounded like full cups of liquid pouring onto the floor in gushes. With every movement the doctor made, more gushes.

I knew there was a problem.

My eyes were still closed but my husband (who had gone to the other side of the room to be with our son) witnessed all the blood spilling out of me, pooling on the floor.

He knew there was a problem.

Twenty minutes passed. I had not delivered the placenta. I felt the doctor reaching inside — more gushes.

The doctor knew there was a problem.

“We need an OR room now!”

“Have 2 units of blood ready!”

“Page Doctor …”

I heard the urgency in the doctor’s voice as he shouted orders.

I couldn’t bring myself to open my eyes. I called out to my husband and heard his voice weakly manage to say, “I love you” as I was being wheeled out of the room.

He was left sitting on the hospital room floor, feet from a pool of my blood, the nurse still caring for our son.

As I was rushed to the OR, the doctor explained how severely I was hemorrhaging — that it was life-threatening — and that he was going to do everything he could, but I might need a hysterectomy.

“Do what you need to do.”

About six hours after my son was born, I was waking up in an ICU, still intubated and hooked to uncounted machines. The first thing I did when the breathing tubes were removed, was turn to my mom at my bedside.

“Did I have to have a hysterectomy?”

Tears welled in her eyes as she simply said, “Yes.”

“I thought I would.”

At one point, my family was told that the doctor had tried everything else — I was given an estimated 10% chance of survival without surgery. After eight units of whole blood, two units of platelets, two units of plasma, and exhausted efforts to stop the hemorrhaging, an emergency hysterectomy saved my life.

I awoke again another six hours later, still in the ICU, with my days and nights confused. I had been pumped full of so many fluids in an attempt to keep my blood pressure up during surgery that I was painfully swollen from head-to-toe. New stretch marks marred the skin on my arm. My face was so swollen than my eyelids were turned, exposing the underside.

My son was now 12 hours old and I had not yet seen nor held him. My husband showed me a picture of our baby on the display screen of our camera.

I kept asking when I could hold my baby. Several more hours passed before I was cleared to move to a room to be with my son.

In hindsight, they likely rushed the transfer because of my desire to be with my baby. Honestly, I was not ready to be in a regular postpartum room. I could not move easily. I did not have control over my bodily functions. I was embarrassed. I was frustrated. I was not a typical postpartum case and being treated like one as the staff went about their routines did not help my morale.

After a couple more nights in the hospital, we were released to go home.

That wasn’t the end of it, though.

It turned out that my episiotomy and tear had gotten infected — probably a result of the stitches pulling apart due to all the swelling I experienced post-op.

I was not supposed to lift anything and, truth be told, I still had a hard time even moving myself around. For days after we were back home, I had to half-crawl up our stairs. There was more than one occasion where I simply could not move fast enough to get to our only bathroom in time. I needed help to do everything, but I wanted to do it on my own. I wanted to be bonding with my baby as I had envisioned.

My plans to breastfeed had also failed. For obvious reasons, my son was started on formula from the moment of his first feeding. Then, I was on a number of pain meds and antibiotics. I felt the need to be pumping and dumping so we could still try later. Looking back, that was an added stressor that was truly unnecessary. But I felt like I was supposed to breastfeed, so I did all the extra work of trying to maintain a milk supply when I should have just given myself permission to let it go.

Eventually, we did try to breastfeed, unsuccessfully. The best I ever managed was to pump enough for a bottle or two a day. It was just another point of frustration and disappointment for months.

I was in pain throughout my whole body. The infection did not clear with the first round of antibiotics, nor the second, and it lingered for several weeks. I had chills and aches. I was weak. I was insecure. I was discomfited and discontented.

I felt inadequate.

My husband was back at work after just a few days and I was relying on family members and friends much more than I was comfortable with.

I couldn’t drive but had appointments for the baby, postpartum and post-op appointments for myself, and I also had to have scans, tests, and other appointments shortly after giving birth because I’d postponed the recommended cancer follow-ups while I was pregnant and was now overdue.

On top of all that, I was having an incredibly difficult time coming to terms with having the hysterectomy. While I was grateful to have survived, I was lost in despair over the fact that I would never be able to give our remaining embryos a chance at life. The family my husband and I had always dreamed of seemed painfully impossible.

I made a note in my journal saying that the doctor talked to me about how emotional I’d been. He’d told me that many women who have a normal labor and delivery have issues with depression and considering that I had a “very difficult situation” and also had “a near-death experience” (his words) and now had to deal with the effects of having a hysterectomy, it was perfectly understandable that I was feeling emotional.

He did refer me to someone to see if I felt like I needed some help dealing with it all — I never went.

Looking back, I know I should have. At the time, it just felt like one more thing and that was just too much.

I know now, I never fully recovered.

The mental and emotional scars of the experience run much deeper than the crooked physical scar hastily carved across my pelvis.

I am finally in therapy and this is just one of the issues I am working towards healing.

It does no good to wish I could change things that are in the past. But if there is one bit of advice I could give another woman who may go through a traumatic birthing experience herself, it would be this: It is OK to admit — to yourself and everyone else — that you’ve been traumatized. If you are like me, you may be able to push through and avoid facing the reality of the situation for years — don’t. Get the help you need — physically, mentally, and emotionally — as you need it. There is no point in struggling to manage it on your own for a year or a decade.