Hi mamas, my name is Abbie and I would like to share a bit about my experience with birth trauma in hopes of providing help and support to those going through it.
I currently have a beautiful and healthy 7-month-old son named Oakley, however we were not positive during our delivery experience that this was going to be our outcome. Let me provide you the background of my pregnancy and our birth story before I dig into the trauma that came from it.
Overall, I had a healthy pregnancy, with minor bumps in the road. I had never-ending morning sickness just about every day of my first two trimesters, and I was diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes Mellitus (GDM) in my third trimester. My GDM was controlled during the day with my lifestyle choices and at night with a small dose of insulin. Being diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes came with many alterations to my initial birth plan as well as my prenatal care experience. I came to terms with all these changes as they were presented to me, except for a 39-week induction simply because I was ‘high risk’. Myself and my care team agreed on a 41-week induction instead, with hopes that I would go into a natural labor on my own before that date.
As the weeks passed, and my body and baby made no physical progress toward natural labor, I was faced with the inevitability that an induction was necessary. This would mean more constraints around my birth plan as well as more medication. I took time in those moments to grieve the loss of the birth I had once hoped for and was able to prepare myself for the birth experience I was about to endure as best as I could. None of this would have been possible without seeing my therapist regularly throughout my pregnancy. She helped me gain the tools I needed to identify the true challenges in my situation, aside from the disappointments, and work through each one in real time.
One thing I did before heading into my induction that I cannot recommend enough, was making sure I had a therapy appointment lined up for when we got home from the hospital. Regardless of your situation, just setting aside the time to focus on yourself and your mental health will be something you will never regret doing.
I arrived on a Monday evening for my induction, prepared for a long 3-5 step process. We were 48 hours into my labor, and I had endured 4 failed oral doses of Misoprostol, 2 failed Foley Balloon attempts, a final cervical dose of Misoprostol, a dose of Cervidil, along with a handful of cervical checks. We finally got some good news that my body had started making the slightest progress and I was getting prepped for a final Foley Balloon attempt to get me to about 3 cm before going down to Labor and Delivery. I agreed to one more cervical exam prior to the procedure, and that change the trajectory of our care plan. I can only speculate when I say that what happened next seemed ‘planned’ but after the most unique, prolonged, and painful cervical check I had ever had … my water had been ‘mistakenly’ broken. I no longer qualified for the Foley Balloon and now my labor was up against the clock. I was devastated.
After taking a few hours to be upset and get some much-needed rest, I made the journey down to Labor and Delivery to start Pitocin. My labor continued to progress slowly over the next 16 hours, and additional issues began to arise. My Pitocin had to be shut off three times at only 8 units (the max is 30 units) as my son was having abnormal heart decelerations as my contractions became more intense. I wasn’t progressing past my intense back labor since I couldn’t keep my Pitocin on. We underwent a variety of tests and I agreed to trying both Morphine and Epidural as tools in hopes that if my body would calm down a little, we could further progress into active labor. I was only about 5.5cm dilated when the doctor came rushing in with the news. The long and short of it was that Oakley was not tolerating my contractions and they had reason to believe that if we did not delivery him soon, we were going to face some serious risk around my delivery. Within 10 minutes my care team had me prepped and we were in the Operating Room awaiting the greatest moment of our lives.
Getting him out seemed so quick and easy and we even heard a weak little cry as they took him over to an area that we thought was meant to clean him and grab his vitals. We were impatiently waiting for him to be brought over to us and placed on my chest, but his arrival took a turn for the worst. Things got very intense very quickly as Oakley’s care team started calling codes and about a dozen medical professionals raced into the OR surrounding his table.
My mind and my heart instantly went numb, as they typically do when I am compartmentalizing a situation to get through it. How was it possible that I travelled this far with my son and it as possible that I was never going to meet him? What felt like an eternity passed – the OR was silent aside from the codes, vitals, and timeline being called out reminding me that my son was still not okay, after 3 minutes, then 5 minutes, then 7 minutes. I glanced over and I saw my husband, frozen and petrified, two words that if you knew him would never describe his character. In that moment I knew that I had to find a way to be there for him somehow.
So as stupid as it sounds, I started walking my husband through what everything the medical staff was saying meant.
“That number is his blood pressure.”
“That’s the percentage of oxygen getting to his brain.”
“Look over at him, they have him intubated, the ball they are squeezing is helping him breathe.”
In those moments, saying that to my husband was helping calm us both a little. It was the only piece of the situation that I could control, so I held onto it in hopes that the rest of me wouldn’t spiral. Thankfully, by some miracle, Oakley started to improve and bounce back. The NICU doctor came over to us and explained that Oakley was stable for the moment, but he would need to continue to be monitored, stay intubated for the time being, and see where things go. She also had to run a long list of tests as there was a lot of concern around how long oxygen was not getting to his brain. We were told there was a high likelihood of long-term neurological damage.
As Oakley left for the NICU, they were able to have him stop right next to my face, so I got to officially meet him. I knew well enough to take as much of a mental snapshot as I could because I wasn’t sure if that would be both my first and my last moment with him. My husband and all the remaining medical staff aside from the surgeon and anesthesiologist then filed out of the OR to take care of our son. I was left alone with my thoughts, unable to get any updates until I was back in Labor & Delivery recovering. A few hours later I had passed all the thresholds to leave L&D and go up to the NICU. Within that time, I received phone updates that Oakley was thriving, had passed all his tests with flying colors, and was officially off intubation and doing it all on his own. What a strong little boy we have.
I was able to see him briefly in the NICU over the next two days while we both recovered separately. We were reunited in a postpartum room 2 days later as a family and released 2 days after that to go home and officially start our journey together. Unfortunately, that is where the aftermath of my birth trauma starts, not ends …
Newborn life is no joke for anyone regardless of their story, and birth trauma can negatively add to your postpartum journey. For me, although I loved being a new mom, I had a lot of trouble engaging in my life. I disassociated from my own body and would avoid looking in mirrors, because that would mean facing my cesarean scar and the story behind it. I was desperate to not think about all that had occurred. I took care of my baby in many ways but refused to let down the wall and love him fully. I had a constant feeling that if I became vulnerable and allowed that love in, something bad would happen again and my heart would be broken in an unimaginable way. I was exhausted but I couldn’t sleep out of fear that I would wake up to him not breathing again, even though he was perfectly healthy. Unfortunately, with all these factors happening, I was unable to breastfeed as a result.
All I could think was ‘This isn’t how it is supposed to feel, something is wrong with me’. I felt like a failure, not strong enough to be there for my son in the ways that I wanted, and he deserved. Whenever I had any time to myself, I had flashbacks to the OR, and I sobbed uncontrollably. Opening up to people was difficult because even with the best intentions, my family and friends were not adequately prepared or qualified to support me in the ways I needed during those first weeks. I felt like I couldn’t relate to anyone, and it was the loneliest place I have ever been in my life.
I began weekly therapy appointments shortly after coming home. The first couple of sessions just getting it all off my chest were brutal, but it was the first time I was able to tell my full story in detail without being stopped or told that I should instead be thankful for a healthy baby. I was provided the space to just be in the moment, however that felt. After those initial appointments, I went to work dissecting moments that were triggering flashbacks and addressing them one at a time. I educated myself on birth trauma, relived events with my husband trying to understand his feelings on everything, and I requested two postpartum appointments with my OB to discuss my mental and physical health postpartum. I set necessary boundaries for my healing process, and even ventured outside of my comfort zone to join a new mom’s group. Things started drastically changing for the better.
I started feeling validated, supported, and connected in ways that I hadn’t in a very long time especially with the past two years of the pandemic. I went from feeling extremely fragile to feeling able to handle anything life throws my way. Most importantly, I stopped feeling like a failure and started accepting and growing the love between myself and my son. Not only was I well on my way to healing my birth trauma, but I was unknowing building this badass tribe around me.
I looked back and realized just how far I had come at only 4 months postpartum. I rarely had dark/heavy thoughts or flashbacks anymore, I could have me time without breaking down, and sharing my story with others became a healing ritual. I went from weekly therapy appointments, to biweekly, and at that point I was about to start once a month check ins. I wasn’t just back to feeling like myself again, I was this better new version of myself that hadn’t fully existed before now.
I feel so fortunate to have had access to regular therapy, a flexible maternity leave, and a foundation rooted in personal development as a starting point to begin this healing journey. I will continue to use my voice when compelled to help those mamas suffering in silence, those who do not yet realize that they are not alone. I hope that even one piece of my story is relatable to those that it reaches, and offers a resource that life not only continues, but it gets better and is worth putting in the work.