PART SIX: REFLECTION
There were so many parts of this birth story that were hard to write — and this final section has become one of the hardest. The truth is my feelings on my birth change, sometimes from day to day — depending on how I feel, my general mental health, what kind of comment someone has made lately. Every other post in this series has been 90% ready to go for weeks — but I keep coming back to this one. I keep feeling like I haven’t said enough, or I haven’t said what I meant clearly, or that there’s another message or lesson I need to explore.
Months have passed since I gave birth to Ariadne. Although I began writing her birth story the first week we came home, as I am finishing it, her first birthday is on the horizon. Before I had my own baby, I wondered why mothers waited so long to share their birth stories. Weren’t they burning to share their experiences, their joys and pain? Now, I understand. Now, I realize what a transformative, life-changing experience birth is, whether it happens perfectly as desired, or is massively derailed. It’s not so easily tossed out for the world to digest – sharing your birth story is incredibly overpowering, intensely vulnerable.
I found, the deeper I got into my birth story, the more confusion I felt. Even in the first weeks home, I was moved to tears – sobbing tears, neither wholly of pain nor of joy – when looking at pictures from our days at the birth center, when trying to put into words the huge wealth of emotions I felt that week. My birth struck me as a many-layered experience. Parts of it were painful in the extreme, both physically and emotionally. Parts of it were beautiful, spiritual, and empowering, despite the frustrations. I struggled – do struggle still – how to make peace with this juxtaposition, this dichotomy of the two very different sides to my birth that somehow inhabit the same space of my heart.
Even just writing my birth story forced me to face the parts of my birth that I found painful, disappointing – even traumatic. Writing this has been a form of therapy, certainly – but there were times I did not feel up to the task of working through the disappointment, doubt, and guilt that I felt during that week, and have felt from time to time since. The idea of sharing my birth story makes me feel intensely vulnerable. Giving birth is both the most vulnerable and empowering time of a mother’s life, and sharing our weakest and strongest moments takes a lot of guts, and a lot of strength.
I confess that I delayed writing and sharing this post, because at times, I feared people would judge me. Directly after my birth, I did not feel much doubt about the decisions I’d made. At that point – the aftermath was still very evident, from the huge bruises on my arms to my hideous feet still grotesquely swollen from the magnesium to the follow-up doctor’s appointments to make sure my blood pressure came down and stayed down, and that I remained out of danger for a stroke or seizure. It was easier to take the danger of my ill health seriously, in the first weeks after I gave birth. The scariest moments, the biggest risks and dangers had left their mark on me, physically, and they were not easy to forget, at first. For a few weeks, I continued to feel justified in every decision I had made, because the evidence of their necessity was printed on my skin.
But – times passes. The intensity of an experience fades, it softens in memory. I remember how I felt, then, but it’s not so vivid, it’s not so present – and in that softness, doubt crept in. As my daughter grew and became robust, as I grew healthier, my C-section incision healing, my mobility returning, my swelling going down, slowly tapering off of medicines – life regained some normalcy. It was a new life, a different life, now with Ariadne in it – but there was familiarity, a day-to-day routine, tasks to be completed. In good health, we forget how dire and demanding ill health can be.
I have spent the months since Ariadne’s birth going back and forth about how I feel about it. I wish I could say I always landed on the side of we did what was best, we made the right decision, I was brave in the face of adversity. But the truth is I have often doubted myself. I feel guilty that I ended up with a C-section. That I chose it. That I didn’t pursue labor farther. I fear other people will think me weak or cowardly. I fear people will not understand how scary it was, on those two days we waited. I fear that people who weren’t in the room, who didn’t hear the blood pressure monitor sounding over and over and over again, every fifteen minutes for three days; who weren’t there when the doctor stripped my membranes – I fear those people can’t or won’t understand what it was like to experience what I experienced. I have beat myself up thinking I should have been more patient or braver or stronger. I think maybe I should have waited a little longer, borne a little more pain or fear. I question my judgment on that Tuesday, I doubt what I felt so strongly and instinctively on that day.
I delayed writing this and then sharing it because I feared people’s reactions – which, granted, is probably more of my own anxiety projecting onto others than a likelihood. But people have such strong, and at times, unyielding reactions to births, what is right, and what is wrong. I confess that I myself have been that person, in the past, before I had my birth happen the way it did. I have, for many years, been such an advocate of natural birth – or at least attempting it – I confess I was naïve in my understanding, I was arrogant in my opinions, and I am humbled by my change in understanding. I still believe that a natural path is best – when it can happen – when circumstances allow for it – when doctors and midwives and mamas and babies and the universe all align to fight for it.
At the same time – as much as I feared the people who might tell me I did the wrong thing, that I chickened out – I also feared the people who’d tell me just to get over my feelings of disappointment at the loss of a beautiful, empowering birth. Healthy mom, healthy baby, people say so often, so quickly, when a mother voices her disappointment at a birth gone wrong, or not gone the way she desired. Healthy mom, healthy baby, that’s all that matters – people say, as if there’s a single mother out there who would have traded her or her baby’s health and well-being if it meant they get to birth at home or birth vaginally or succeed with a VBAC. This is always meant to be helpful – don’t let yourself get so wrapped up in the hows, just focus on your baby, that’s here now!
Sure, OK, yeah. The end goal is a healthy mother and a healthy child, absolutely. But it’s incredibly condescending and hurtful to dismiss – anyone’s feelings of trauma are valid, no matter how or why they came to be. We do not invalidate PTSD due to circumstance, there is not set criteria a person must meet in order to qualify. If a person feels traumatized, if memories of an experience – whatever experience – wound and haunt them well after the event – then that person’s damage needs to be tenderly and gently cared for, honored and given room to heal. We would never tell the victim of a horrible car wreck just to get over it and start driving again, a few days or weeks after their wreck – why do we insist on doing the same to mothers?
So, in that way – I fear also that people would look down on me for caring at all. That people would mock my feelings of loss and mourning, or else find me silly, petty for carrying the weight of what went wrong when I literally carried the weight of what did go so very right – Ariadne – physically in my arms. I was (and at times, am) afraid that people would be dismissive of my need to care and mourn and consider at all.
I had a great many fears, writing this birth story, and so I have delayed it. But there comes a point when one must face, head on, what is bothering one so deeply, and I’ve come to that point. I’ve come to that point where it doesn’t really matter as much to me, one way or the other, how people react to this birth story. I pray that some of you empathize, sympathize; that those of you who had similar or even just negative experiences find comfort in reading another mother’s words and reflecting on your own challenges. I care very much about women in this world, and about mothers and daughters (and sons!), and I do think how you bring your child into the world matters. Not that it should be a certain way – but that you as a mother feel loved and supported and respected as it happens. I’ve learned, since birthing, that this is not right or wrong way to birth — there is only how you feel, and what is important to you, as an individual unlike any other who has come before you.
The truth is – nearly a year later – I feel – well, still a great many things. There came a point when I could not write on this at all, because I knew working on it meant dealing with the decisions I’d made and the feelings I’d felt. I wanted to avoid that pain, those questions, that what-if-what-if-what-if – but the longer I avoided it, the more it swelled up inside me and demanded to be dealt with. And in writing even those last two sections, I do feel more of a sense of peace than I did before. The writing was hard, the weighing and choosing of words felt arduous – but on the other side, I feel some relief from hammering it all out.
Nearly a year later, I feel both conflicted and at peace with the circumstances of my birth. Many days – most days – I am able to reassure myself that I did what I felt was best in that moment. I did what my instincts were telling me to do. I hold fast to the knowledge that I would not have picked a C-section willingly if I did not absolutely feel it necessary. I still – still – struggle with the magnitude of the surgery that happened to me. I still struggle thinking about being cut open like that, people pawing around in my insides. (Sure, they were highly trained professionals, but to me – it feels so foreign and wrong!) I know, given all of my hard work, all of my birth preparation, all of the breathing practice and the mental strengthening I did – I know that if I didn’t feel like we were headed down a dangerous path, I would not have altered course from my desire.
But I also have days where my anxiety and self-doubt plagues me. I have days where my worst voices whisper that I chickened out, that I was weak, that I did not push myself long enough or hard enough. When I am lowest, my dark thoughts tell me I reached that crossroads that all mothers come to just as the cusp of their birth, and I backed down rather than fight myself. I have days where I feel cowardly, that I chose the outcome I wanted the least. I have days where my incisions hurts or my abs feel particularly weak, and I think – you did this to yourself. Our own minds know our tender spots, and they certainly know how best to jab at them.
Most frequently – I have many days where it doesn’t matter so much. These are the best days. Days where the way I brought my daughter into the world doesn’t matter so much as my daughter being in the world. And these days have grown more frequent in number as time passes. Some days, I need to check in with friends, family, my support system and be reminded that no matter what I chose under any circumstances – it was my right to choose, and no one else’s. As Ari gets older, it only matters that she’s here with us, and safe and healthy. That still doesn’t negate any emotional strife I felt immediately after her birth – but the magnitude of what happened has faded. While I think I’ve always been able to enjoy my daughter being in the world with a free and open heart, as she’s gotten older and I’ve become more removed from the experience of getting her here – I do find it easier to let go of that pain I felt emotionally, and just focus on this beautiful child I birthed.
What makes me saddest, perhaps, is how my birth changed my perception of birth. I’m in no rush to have a second child, and I have plenty of time to process my first birth before I start considering how I’d like a potential second to go. But now, my view on birth – any and all births – is tainted. I lost the faith in birth I grew to have over many years of immersing myself in birth stories and birth videos. I lost the drive to learn all and see all and experience all. I have become finicky about birth – I have become the woman I was in my early twenties – fearful of birth and what it means. And I hate that. I really, truly do. I was so proud and confident in birth prior to my own – and I do believe women have beautiful, empowering births. I know that they do, because I have witnessed them in person. I’ve literally seen powerful, beautiful births happen right before my eyes – I know it’s possible, and I’m so grateful those experiences were my first exposure to birth, that I have those positive experiences to look back on. But my personal, inner faith is shaken, and where I stand right now, I’m not sure how to reclaim that. I shy away from birth now — whereas I used to read and watch every birth I could. I don’t check my favourite blogs for new stories, I can’t — can’t — listen to the Birth Hour podcast that was my weekly ritual for so many months of my pregnancy. I know friends of mine — dear and precious friends — are going to give birth soon, and prior to having Ariadne, I would have jumped in, ready to be present in whatever manner I could be. But now — I have to be careful. I have to protect myself and the tender wounds that are still healing in my spirit. I have to find a middle ground, a way to both be present and supportive for my dears ones, yet also be gentle with the parts of me that aren’t quite over what happened to me a year ago.
I think a lot of that will just be more time – just as the passing of time has helped me come to terms with my actual birth, I know in term, giving birth won’t feel like such a traumatic experience to even think about, much less witness. It makes me sad when I think about how enthusiastic it was before – and I hope that enthusiasm will come back. But right now, not even a year postpartum – birth is still a very personal topic for me – whereas before, it was more wordly; birth as a practice and an experience for all women, not just myself. When I think of birth now, my own experience overwhelms me and prevents me from thinking of anything else, and I know it will be some time before I can think of birth from the point-of-view of a doula and enthusiast again. I admit that sometimes I feel jealous or upset when I think about other women who have given birth how they planned, or still face the prospect of having a natural birth the way they wanted – and I hate that too. Jealousy is not a personality trait I ever aspire to, and certainly not in the context of bringing a human life into the world – something that should always only be revered and celebrated. I need some time away from birth, for a while, whether it’s mine or anyone else’s – so I clear the feelings of negativity and regret that I’ve come to associate with the topic.
And yet, I think — in some ways, when enough time has passed and enough healing has occurred — my experience will end up making me a better birth worker. My understanding is deeper now, my wealth of knowledge richer. If I had only ever witnessed or experienced positive, straight forward, natural births — how could I best support the inevitable mother who labored for 18 hours and then got stuck at 7 centimeters? How could I support the mom whose baby went into distress, the induced mom, the mom with placental previa? How could I support the mom who came down with preeclampsia unexpectedly, and faced an induction and maybe even a C-section she didn’t want? It’s happened, already — it’s happened since I birthed Ari, that a mama-to-be and friend got preeclampsia and faced an emergency C-section in much more dire circumstances than I did — and although I was not present with her when this happened, oh, how could I empathize. Oh, how did I have such a robust understanding of both her fear and her relief when everything turned out OK. I have more tools in my arsenal of doula skills now, and it may be many more weeks or months, or perhaps even years before I’m ready to dive wholeheartedly back into birth at any opportunity again — but when I do, I am better prepared, because of my own less-than-ideal experience.
And that’s OK – healing takes time, and the only thing I can do is be gentle with myself as time passes and I come to new understandings of my own experience. I talk a lot about intention – which doesn’t mean wishing and hoping and praying hard enough will make impossible things happen. It does mean setting your focus and your positive energy on a particular outcome can make it easier to see it happen. I guess that’s why I was so shocked that my birth took such a dramatic turn from my intended birth – I had tried so hard to shut out fear and anxiety, and really trust. Trusting that fate will steer my ship in the right direction isn’t easy for me, it doesn’t come naturally – but I trusted that my body and my baby would work together to bring my child into the world. I trusted that I was meant to do this. It took time for me to get to that point. As I said in part one, I spent most of my pregnancy being fearful something bad would happen. I worked so hard to overcome that fear and trust that all would be well. Then — it felt like the instant I stopped fearing something bad would happen — it did. And so I was blindsided to have something different occur – because I had been so focused, after all that time, I’d finally come to that place of trust. And I mourn my birth, not because birthing a particular way was more important than my safety and that of my child’s – but because I felt my body betrayed me. I’d worked so hard to have faith in myself, and it felt like that faith was shattered.
I have to remind myself to be proud of myself because I faced literally my worst nightmare of a birth. For some women, the natural birth experience I wanted might have been the scarier option – but to me, from the induction to the C-section were the worst possible scenario. And I survived it with grace and fortitude. I did not allow myself to become a victim, I did not allow myself to be bullied, I advocated for myself, even at my lowest moments. I found strength and bravery I didn’t know that I had, as all women do in birth, I think — I just found it in a completely different way than I’d imagined. I was emotionally and spiritually prepared for a natural birth, and maybe that preparation is why I ended up learning a different lesson instead. Maybe the lesson I needed to learn was not the perseverance and patience and fortitude of a natural, vaginal birth. Maybe the lesson I needed to learn was to let go. To stop pushing so hard, and see where the ride takes me.
I have constantly been reminded of humility as I have become a mother – and this was the first lesson. Prepare as best you can, but what life will throw at you is unpredictable. The best you can hope for is adaptability and perseverance, and grace under fire. I have been constantly reminded that I am not always in control, and I must be resilient. I have learned the harder I try and force something to be just so, the more likely I’m going to get a challenge I hadn’t prepared for and researched and come up with contingency plans for. Motherhood is nothing but one long less in humility and patience, and the physical act of becoming a mother was the first in a very long line of reminders of that fact.
I think the thing is — I never wanted me, myself to be the reason my birth didn’t go well. I spent so much time preparing, doing Hypnobirthing, doing stretches, reading all the best and worst stories, really trying to grapple with the fact a human baby was supposed to come out of my vagina — I did it all so that I was as prepared as I could possibly be. I didn’t want to reach that crossroads, and think, man, if only I had done more, if only I had more tools in my arsenal at my disposal, if only I were able to do more, or be more. I wanted to be in tip-top fighting shape when I faced this challenge. And I was — I do not possibly know what more I could have done, and I have to remind myself of that. Getting preeclampsia was beyond my control, and once that diagnoses came into play — all the meditation and stretching and conditioning in the world wasn’t going to change the limitations I had to deal with.
And most of all – as Emi has so often reminded me, as Shaun as reminded me, as I have reminded myself – at every single step in the road – from my midwife announcing she might be out of town to the minute they rolled me into the operating room – I advocated for myself. At every single step, I stopped medical professionals and asked them to explain what they meant, what my options were. I pushed back every time I felt I wasn’t comfortable with a course of action. I took matters into my own hands as often as it was possible, and I did my best to steer myself in the direction I felt was best. When my path continued to hurtle complications and challenges at me, I reacted as best I could, and at every juncture, I weighed what I felt was best in my heart and in my mind for as long as possible before I made a choice. No decision was made lightly or rashly, I succumbed to no pressure to do things by the book when there was an option to explore a more natural path.
That, truly, is what I most want to press upon mamas-to-be who might be reading this. So many of my friends are pregnant right now, and as I prepared to start publishing this, I worried. I don’t want any of you reading this to feel more fear after reading my birth. If anything, I want you to feel less. Mamas-in-waiting, mamas feeling the jabs and pokes and flutters of your baby comfortable in your belly right now, as you wait for YOUR day, your experience — what I want to press upon you more than anything is that you CAN do it. You WILL survive. You will thrive. You will know, in the moment, what to do — or not do. You are capable of being present in your own birth in a way that makes you feel powerful and strong. You will find your own path, your own story. Even if your birth skews off course, as mine did — you’ll survive that too. You’ll find pride in what you endured. You will, with time, come to understand that you did the best you could, the best you were capable of under whatever circumstances you come into motherhood. And that really is the first big lesson of being a mother — you’ll find a way, and you’ll do the best you are able. We cannot ask more of ourselves than that.
So – I ended up with the birth I had. A birth that might have been worse, more traumatic, if I hadn’t grabbed the horse by the reigns and tugged that disaster to a stop. I will never know what might have happened — that’s the little thorn in my mind that haunts me. It’s easy to say, maybe things would have been fine, maybe you bailed too soon. But really — things were likely to get worse, and no, I can’t ever know that for certain. I cannot know what I did not live. I simply have to trust that I avoided an even more painful, stressful birth than what I already did. I have to trust that I made the right decision, and I can’t have a crystal ball that shows me what I did not choose to endure.
And when I look back on my birth experience now, so many months later – despite the distress I felt Monday and Tuesday, when I think about the time when my daughter was actually born, and the hours and days that followed – I feel joy. I feel relief. I feel pride in my ability to advocate for myself. I was able to relax and enjoy my time with my daughter and my husband and all those who loved us. I was shell-shocked, certainly – but things could have been so much worse, and they weren’t. I was able to cuddle and nurse my daughter, I was able to laugh with my family and friends, I was well cared for, I felt loved, I felt cherished. My daughter felt loved and cherished in her first few minutes and hours and days in this world. What more can I ask for than that – what more can any of us ask for but to feel that joy and that love and that tender care in our most vulnerable moments?
Birth is, to me, still beautiful. If anything, I think I find it more beautiful now, because I was exposed to a very different version of it than what I had witnessed before. If I had a magic wand, would I maybe wave it and change my circumstances to be more favorable going into birth? Maybe. Possibly. But I am grateful for the experience I had – grateful for the strength it built in me, the appreciation and love and gratitude I can never fully express to those who were there for me in my hardest moments.
Y’all know who you are, but I could not end this memoir without thanking you all one more time. Mom, Jeannie, Laureny, the phenomenal Emi and Kristin, and most of all, Shaun – without you, this would have been a much worse experience. Without you, I would have been a panicked mess. Without you, I would not have had the joy and the tender support that I had. I can never thank you enough for all that you did. When I look back on our week at the birth center, I am still overwhelmed with deep, abiding love thinking of y’all’s bravery and positivity and patience. That is what truly made my birth beautiful – all the love that was there in the room with me, at every moment – and the love that surrounded Ariadne as she came into this world to become a part of our family, our tribe. There is no greater gift in this world than my daughter, and I’m just grateful she’s here, with me – I can’t ask for anything more than that.