I had never thought of myself as the home-birthing, no-pain-meds, birth plan type. But two years earlier when our first baby died eight hours after a highly-traumatic hospital birth, the experience made me open to anything that might result in a different outcome for our son. In my case, that meant insisting on a rigid birth plan that was highly influenced by what I later realized was untreated post-traumatic stress.
After our daughter died, I told my obstetrician that I felt as though I was experiencing flashbacks, jumpiness, anxiety, and strong avoidance of anything that could be a trigger. He brushed off my concerns and told me that pregnancy and infant loss are common experiences, and that I would be fine and should try for another child soon. I did not seek outside help, though deep down I knew mental illness had taken hold of my life.
The following year, I got pregnant with my son. It was joyous news, but my anxieties were growing each day with the stress of another high-risk pregnancy. I considered therapy, but at the time I was working long hours, commuting an hour to and from my office each day, and could not afford to take the time off.
My first trimester was without difficulties. I made appointments with a new set of doctors and went to work every day, editing copy and making small talk with co-workers. Keeping busy seemed to keep some of my PTSD symptoms at bay.
During my second trimester, I was forced to leave my job, and all my new spare time meant having endless hours to dedicate to researching childbirth, subsequently increasing my anxiety. I watched "The Business of Being Born," the documentary that promotes questioning hospital interventions and embracing the ability of a woman’s body to give birth “naturally.” I read about hypnobirthing, a method that many women attribute to helping them experience a pain-free birth.
I abused Google searches, fixating over the cesarean rates at all my local hospitals, my fears growing as I imagined the same loss of control I’d experienced during my first labor. All I could think about was how awful my daughter’s birth had been — the way the doctors pulled her away before I even got a chance to touch her or see her face. How I never got to hold her while she was alive. Endless regrets.
When I was five months pregnant, I was admitted to the public hospital for an emergency cerclage. After my procedure, I was left in a large, communal room, where I could heard other women groaning as contractions took hold while a lady next to me vomited into a bucket, sick from the anesthesia of her C-section. The nurses were overextended, and some were downright rude.
When I left the hospital, I was shaking. All the hospital and birth-related PTSD from before came to a head; my anxiety was at an all-time high. At the suggestion of a friend, I hired a doula from a local pregnancy care center in hopes of easing my fears.
I attended classes at the center, where I was given a rundown of my hospital’s interventions. Mandatory hep-lock, high chance of potentially unnecessary episiotomy and C-section, and the inability to keep my baby at my bedside at all times were among the list of Things That Would Happen At The Hospital But Which I Did Not Want. The instructor (another doula) advised me to write a birth plan and present it to my OB/GYN. She was also the first person to suggest I have a home birth.
A few days later, and after my cerclage was removed, I took my birth plan to my doctor. She explained that she couldn’t agree to most of my plan due to hospital policy. At 36 weeks, with the encouragement of my doula and the reluctant support of my husband, I left my doctor’s practice for a home birth with a midwife.
I went into labor in late February, and after a long and exhausting night of contractions and pushing, realized that something wasn’t right. My midwife urged me to stay at home and keep trying, but I knew it was time to rush to the hospital. I was terrified of going, but even more terrified of staying and losing another baby.
Once at the hospital, with my husband and doula at either side and a visibly angry doctor between my legs, I gave birth to my rainbow baby.
There was no immediate breastfeeding or hour of skin-to-skin. Instead, my son was diagnosed with severe persistent pulmonary hypertension and rushed to the Level 3 NICU a half hour away while I got stitched up for the 4th degree tears I’d just endured.
I didn’t get to see my son for the first two days of his life, didn’t hold him until he was nearly two weeks old, and didn’t take him home until he was finally healthy two months later.
Penny Simpkin, founder of PATTCH (Prevention and Treatment for Traumatic Childbirth) notes that between 25 and 34 percent of women report experiencing a traumatic birth, and that between 1.5-9 percent go on to develop some form of PTSD. Additionally, a study published in General Hospital Psychiatry[sciencedirect.com] which followed parents who suffer pregnancy loss and/or infant loss up to the first year of life found that 12.3 percent experienced chronic PTSD symptoms. These are problems that are only beginning to gain recognition, stories that need to be told if we’re to help mothers avoid the pitfalls that sometimes come with mental illness during pregnancy.
After my son was born, many took it upon themselves to judge my actions, to call me reckless or worse. But I know that I did what I felt was best for my family at the time, as anyone who’s experienced loss or some similarly difficult situation might do. And while I couldn’t see it then, it’s obvious to me now that my mental state during my second pregnancy and even afterward was a heavy-handed combination of birth-related PTSD and infant loss-related PTSD.
It’s been nearly two years since my son was born, three since I lost my daughter, and I still suffer from PTSD-related symptoms. I am proud to say that I’ve recently taken the first steps toward recovery, starting regular sessions with a therapist who will, I hope, help me get back to the person I once was. Mothers who experience birth trauma, mothers who experience loss, don’t need judgments. They need support, love and understanding above all else.
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