As I moved closer to giving birth for the first time, I felt prepared. I had read the books. I had watched the documentaries and personal videos and stories of other women who had birthed before me. I had a care provider I trusted, and my family and friends knew my birth plan. I was confident in my decision to have an unmedicated birth. I felt strong and capable.
After 16 hours of hard labor, all of that disappeared. I was exhausted, I was confused, I was stressed. Most of all, I was tired of being strong when I felt weak. I remember a moment–looking out the window–and feeling like I had been pulled away from the world I knew. I felt scared. I felt weak. I felt alone.
My first birth lasted 29 hours. Unmedicated. I pushed for three hours. My son was manually rotated on my last push due to shoulder dystocia. I hemorrhaged. I had a third degree tear. I started off motherhood like many other mothers do: completely exhausted and unprepared for what laid ahead of me. I felt alone, I felt tortured, I felt like the world around me was shattered and broken and dark. Spiritually, I felt no guidance or comfort from anything. Emotionally, I felt dead. Physically, I felt like I had just been dehumanized and tortured.
All of this was despite being treated respectfully by the hospital staff, and having my husband, sister, and best friend around me. All of this was despite having a healthy baby, and being healthy myself. I experienced birth trauma, and I am allowed to talk about it.
I’m not the only mother who has experienced birth trauma. “Between 24 to 34 percent of mothers report birth trauma,” (Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth). Some women are treated poorly by their hospital staff or care provider. Some women have no support. Some women suffer severe complications during pregnancy, or have medical emergencies that put their own lives or the lives of their babies at risk. I personally know several mothers who experienced worse than I did. There can be many culprits behind a traumatic childbirth experience.
Childbirth trauma usually leads to PTSD, increasing a mother’s risk for postpartum depression and other mood disorders. Fathers who witness a traumatic childbirth can also suffer from PTSD. When parents suffer, children suffer. When parents suffer, their whole lives are affected–jobs, relationships with friends and family, fulfillment and sense of purpose, nutrition–and these effects can be long lasting. What’s more, is that many parents don’t talk about their birth trauma or seek help for it. I know I didn’t. I suffered with severe postpartum depression. The first year of my child’s life was a fog of suffering. I felt inadequate as a mother, I felt alone, I felt like I was broken. I felt like I had gone through something that nobody understood.
I’ve heard mothers say to me, “I shouldn’t complain, I have a healthy baby.” I felt this way too, as I cuddled my perfect newborn. I felt like what I experienced didn’t matter because I had a healthy baby. This made the experience that much more difficult to work through, leading to severe postpartum depression that lasted for over a year postpartum. This is not uncommon. It is estimated that 1 in 4 women develop postpartum mood disorders, for various reasons. Childbirth trauma cannot be discounted as a major cause for psychological disorders following childbirth.
If you’ve experienced birth trauma, it is okay to feel it. It is okay to talk about it. In fact, I would say that you have to talk about it. Your best friend, your sister, your husband, your doctor…who ever you trust and feel supported by can listen to you. Seeking professional help from a medical professional or life coach can also give you the safe space and resources to heal. Looking back on my own experience, I wish I had known that what I was experiencing could have been dissipated much earlier if I had sought help or admitted to myself that I was experiencing PTSD and postpartum depression related to childbirth trauma. I never fully accepted that my birth was traumatic until my sister, best friend, and husband all told me that they thought it was traumatic…I never really talked to anyone about how deeply that experience affected me until I was almost out of the darkness myself.
Women are incredibly strong. As a birth worker myself, I am constantly awed and humbled by the strength of all women as they bring their babies into the world. And every single mother I meet sacrifices immeasurably for the health and well being of her baby, whether she experiences childbirth trauma or not. Mothers often get lost in the mix of joy over a new baby and the exhaustion of new motherhood. But our experiences matter. How you feel about your experience matters. If you feel that your childbirth has left you feeling alone, unheard, physically traumatized, isolated, or has impacted you emotionally/spiritually, you are not alone. What you went through was real. What you went through matters. Birth trauma is real, and it’s something we should talk about.