Editor’s Note: This post contains sensitive material dealing with birth trauma that may be difficult for some readers.
I was shaking like a leaf when I was wheeled into the OR for my Caesarean delivery. I asked for a blanket, but my request was refused. Instead, my arms were arranged into a “T.” As the nurse began to secure my wrists to the table, I pleaded, “I won’t move, I promise. Please don’t strap me down … ”
It was at this moment when it suddenly dawned on me that I’d skipped the chapter on c-sections in What to Expect When You are Expecting, because I was determined to be an all-natural birth warrior.
I held out 41 weeks and 3 days, through a 15-hour induction and two hours of pushing, before consenting to the section that was called for “arrest of descent.”
The sterile room was flooded with light, and I felt intensely vulnerable as I laid there, waiting. I did not want to be awake through the first surgery of my life, and much preferred to go to sleep and wake up when it was over.
“Do you feel this?” the anesthesiologist hastily demanded.
“Where? No. I don’t know what you are talking about,” I replied.
“Here!” She impatiently demanded because I was too tired to follow her. She was just one of many hospital staffers who I found to be cold and methodical while preparing to slice me open and pull my baby out.
I vaguely remember someone calling for “Peds” because of “meconium,” and thinking maybe I should be worried about my baby; but I wasn’t. They held my daughter up for me to see, but I didn’t care. In that moment, my mind was somewhere else.
My husband was pleading with me to keep my eyes open and stay awake saying, “I’m sorry I did this to you. We’ll never have another baby again.”
Nearly a decade later, he candidly describes our first birth experience as the “best worst day of our lives.” Indeed, the experience was downright terrifying, but we were parents of a healthy baby girl. We did go on to have more children after all — three more, as a matter of fact — and were blessed with more positive birth experiences. Still, it was hard moving forward from the experience that made us parents.
For the first few days of motherhood, I held it together and forced a smile on my face. I was about a week postpartum when I finally went to my OB’s office for a follow up. She asked if a group of residents could come in and view my incision — and that’s when my flood of tears began.
Overcome with emotion, I screamed, “No! Isn’t it enough that they watched me get cut open? Now they need to analyze my incision too?!”
It’s just a scar, I thought, Women give birth like this every day. What is wrong with me?
This is around the time when I started lamenting my “failed birth experience” to others, but no one really wanted to hear my complaints. “You have a healthy baby,” they’d say, “Just get over it, Alicia.”
I couldn’t argue with this truth, so I suppressed my feelings and stopped crying. But that’s when the anxiety began.
I moved the bassinet away from the window in my apartment because the thought of my daughter plummeting to her death was one I just couldn’t shake. It haunted me, day in and day out. I was afraid to go for walks, thinking a car could hit the stroller.
My daughter was nursing around the clock, so I was utterly exhausted, but rarely slept. When I wasn’t checking on her to make sure she was still breathing, I was having flashbacks to the delivery.
The joy I anticipated experiencing as a new mom was overshadowed by the hazy fog of sleep deprivation, intense fear, and guilt for struggling during a time I was supposed to be feeling grateful and happy, according to others.
My daughter was 8 weeks old when I went back to my doctor for my final postpartum visit. When my OB asked how I was really doing, I didn’t hold back: “I feel like I am falling apart,” I told her.
“Alicia, you need to get help,” she insisted. “Motherhood is hard, but you shouldn’t still feel like this.”
And so, I did.
The first thing the psychiatrist asked was if I felt “hopeless.”
“No, I am not hopeless,” I told her.
Then she questioned, “Do you want to hurt your daughter?”
“No, but I am intensely afraid something bad is going to happen to her.”
My psychiatrist determined I had an issue with anxiety, but insisted I was not a classic case of postpartum depression.
There was no real label at that time to ascribe to me, so to deal with my “non-postpartum issue,” I addressed my anxiety through therapy, and by making an effort to nourish myself with healthy food, breaks, and exercise. I worked hard to move forward from this experience, and ultimately grew more resilient because of it.
Over the years, I’ve assumed my struggle was self-inflicted; that my unrealistic expectations of birth led to my self-perception of failure and trauma. Yet recently, I’ve come to realize that what I suffered from likely was something else entirely — and indeed, it did have a name: Postpartum Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
According to Postpartum Support International, approximately 9 percent of postpartum women suffer from PTSD (or 1 in 11 new moms). There are various triggers for it, including a difficult labor and delivery, or simply a negative perception of the birthing process (unnecessary medical interventions and an unsupportive birth environment can both contribute to the experience of trauma). But even women with a perfectly typical labor and deliveries may experience birth-related PTSD, because previous traumas such as sexual assault can be triggered at birth, leading many unresolved emotions to resurface.
Symptoms of postpartum PTSD include constantly replaying the events of the trauma (through dreams, thoughts, or flashbacks), avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and fight-or-flight emotional triggers, negative changes in mood and cognition, and an increase in arousal and reactivity that leads to hyper-vigilance and intense anxiety.
While the literature on postpartum PTSD is still scarce, there’s an increasingly alarming number of women who report showing symptoms. As a result, researchers and doctors are now starting to pay closer attention to the disorder than ever before, in an effort to seek proper treatment for it, and clearly distinguish it from postpartum depression.
It’s been 8 years since my first daughter’s birth, and I am now a mom of four who has endured a few more traumatic experiences in motherhood — including repeated pregnancy loss and my son’s burn injury among them. Looking back now, I believe I was able to cope with these traumas more resiliently because I sought the help I needed back in early motherhood. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the help I received; I simply don’t know how I would have moved forward alone.
If you’ve experienced any of the above symptoms for over a month, don’t suffer in silence. Talk to your doctor about Postpartum PTSD so you can get the help you need and deserve.