When a study identifying about 9 percent of new mothers as having suffered post-traumatic stress disorder came out last year, reaction was predictable. Some people, even my own colleague Hannah Tennant-Morre here at Strollerderby, took issue with the idea that birth was being characterized as a traumatic event, that somehow, as Hannah put it, maternity equates with pathology. But some of us, who’d endured delivery-room experiences that were some of the worst moments of our lives, nodded in recognition.
Now one of those mothers, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, has written a powerful piece for Salon detailing how her son’s nightmarish birth sent her into a tailspin — and how the disgnosis of PTSD freed her from feeling weak and misunderstood, and instead brought her into a community of women with similar experiences.
My difficult experience with my daughter’s birth was nothing compared to what Brodesser-Akner endured — it took six hours from the time my water broke to the moment I was handed my beautiful, blessedly healthy little girl in an operating room, and the medical professionals who attended me through the birth were almost uniformly professional and kind. But I shared her experience of lying hopelessly in a hospital bed, feeling as terrfied and powerless as I’d ever felt while my daughter’s heartbeat pinged down slowly to nearly nothing, feeling “Oh my God, after everything we’ve been through, after finally getting here, we’re going to lose her.”
She’s five now, and writing that sentence above still made my heart race and tears spring to my eyes. I still grieve that instead of a moment of transcdence, the birth of this little girl that we longed for for years and who has brought such joy to my life is a horrible memory, a moment I was so terrifed to relive that I chose a c-section for her brother’s birth two years ago tomorrow. I knew that if any aspect of his birth was the same as hers, even if I went late with him as I had with her, it was not going to be pretty. So I gave up the chance to ever birth my own child — a decision I now regret despite an incredible, beautiful experience with my son. And I am fully aware of how good I had it with her in every way. My situation was difficult, and if it’s still holding power over me five years later, I can only imagine the repercussions from something like what the writer went through, or worse.
I’m glad Brodesser-Akner has found some peace by acknowledging what happened to her was traumatic and getting help to cope. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that birth is inherently a traumatic experience — the study that started all this found only 30 percent of births could be classified as traumatic, and only 9 percent of mothers experience PTSD symptoms. But sadly, sometimes it is, even when the ultimate outcome is good (her son was born healthy and she was fine physically as well). Knowing it, claiming it, can only help us cope with the aftermath of something that is supposed to be so happy, and instead turned out so terrifying.