Why we need birth advocacy: a birth trauma story

I just about lost my mind with my third pregnancy.

I wasn’t really a birth advocate then, either. Sure, I’d already had two natural births, and was very glad I’d dodged most of the common medical interventions that seemed so invasive to me.

But I didn’t yet have the depth of understanding that came from the experience of my third birth…my just-as-natural, yet very traumatic third birth.

My third birth was amazing yet terrible, and the wounds I suffered ended
up evolving me, galvanizing me…

I would not be who I am today had I not suffered thru that beautiful, profound trauma – trauma of birth, something that should never have been made traumatic…

Since we’re coming up on the 8th birthday of my precious daughter, I thought it was time to share her story – our story. It is triggering, but also a story of triumph. If you’re sensitive (or expecting), please read with caution.

traumatic birth story advocacyEight years ago today, I was very, very pregnant with my 3rd baby, and pretty much a basket case..

As soon as I became pregnant, I had known I wanted a homebirth. My last two births had been in a birth center and a hospital. While they weren’t negative experiences, now that I had learned and researched more, I simply longed for the freedom of homebirth.  I had never even come across the concept of birth trauma…I thought that only applied to Cesareans, at the time.

However, I had no way to pay for a midwife at that time, and even worse, I was living in a place where midwives were very few and far between.

I started reading, came across the concept of unassisted childbirth, and was instantly swept away by the raw beauty, power, and primal feeling of it. Giving birth freely, without a midwife or doctor, without measurements or diagnostics, without bright lights or consent forms–sounded delightful. Even the prospect of giving birth alone sounded amazing: Trusting in my own body and following my intuition–birthing the way women had been birthing for thousands of years.

I read voraciously, and knew in my heart that this was already a time in my life for profound personal growth.

Of course I imagined I would give birth unassisted: I would step into my own power and wholeness–with only my Love by my side, being supported by that ultimate knowledge of spirit and self. The odds were against me–but I stayed strong through the whole pregnancy, stayed true to mySelf and my inner knowing…even in the face of almost complete opposition, fear, and anger from those who knew me at the time.

  • 34 weeks and heavy prodromal labor–already? I thought I would go into labor early–my Love was overseas, and I was worried about him missing the birth!
  • 36 weeks, gosh, almost full-term–I was so thrilled when my Love came back home!
  • Then 38 weeks, still staying positive, getting things ready…

40 weeks. I felt sheepish, thinking about how convinced I’d been about going early…and here I sat at my due date. Oh well, it couldn’t possibly be long now. All labor signs were present, I was already dilating, and soooo ready for this baby to come. (Mistake number one: Being overly attached to a particular outcome.)

I went to 41 weeks, and was feeling pretty distraught by that point. Here’s an excerpt of something I wrote at the time:

“How do i quit feeling like i have to DO something? You know, to get labor started. Logically i know there are mamas all the time who just wake up with contractions, or have their water break, etc…and then they just have a baby. It should be that simple, right? Yet somehow i can’t shake the feeling that i have to DO things to get the baby to come: from castor oil rubs on the belly to sex to nipple stimulation to positive visualizations to walking to endless cups of RRL tea to homeopathy bla bla bla….

I have contractions that are SO strong and so regular for SO long…entire days’ worth….but sooner or later they just go randomly on their way and I always feel like it’s my fault for not “staying on top of things mentally”–like my back will be so sore, so I’ll lay down, or I’ll get distracted and lose my zen-mama focus, but really.

It’s not like it’s my “fault” that labor hasn’t come yet. Right? It’s not like i’m supposed to bring labor on and keep it going entirely with willpower or something. Right? The baby will just come when it’s ready. and my body will know what to do and when/how to do it…..RIGHT??”

(Mistake number two: Overanalyzing, and regarding labor as mainly a physical/mechanical process instead of an emotional one)

At the time I thought I was mostly keeping my cool, but looking back, I was already going mental at 41 weeks.

Would you believe I went to 43?

At nearly 42 weeks, and at the most inopportune time, my waters “sprung a leak”. They didn’t break completely, but it was undeniably my water bag breaking (I now know that the bag of waters can heal itself from small leaks–oh, the things they don’t tell you in typical childbirth education classes!).

Hooray, it’s happening!, I thought. My last two babies had come within hours of the bag of waters being artificially broken–in other words, from practically zero-stage to holding-baby-stage in 3-4 hours. So this was my expectation: water breaks, baby comes. Simple, right?

But this was not the case with my third baby.

As time went on, and nothing much happened, I was glad I’d been prepared for prevention of infection (which starts to become a concern, the more time passes after the waters have broken). I started–or ramped up–every natural labor induction method I knew of, and I do mean EVERY one.

Not even downing a bottle of castor oil caused me to go into active labor.

I’d already been having prodromal/pre-labor for almost 8 weeks at this point, and even bloody show for several days, but still, something was stalling me out.

The last time I had checked my dilation, I’d been 100% effaced and 6 centimeters–SIX centimeters dilated! At the time I did not know it was possible to be dilated that much and NOT be in active labor – but the more pregnancies you’ve had, the more common that is.

Now, however, it was unwise to check my dilation any further, due to the increased risk of infection, and I also could not enjoy the one true stress relief that I had–sex. (Yes, I said it!)

The following week was a blur. I don’t know what I did besides have contractions, obsess over them, and become increasingly paranoid & exhausted, both emotionally and physically.

I didn’t have any support system to speak of, no family to rely on, so that by the last few days, I had given over almost completely to an altered mental state of panic and fear…and I was still trying my hardest not to show it.

The evening of the day that marked 42 weeks, six days, I made a grave mistake, and called my parents for support. My parents, who had been emotionally estranged from me for months, completely unsupportive of my new relationship, and more or less unsupportive of me as a human being in general.

Why would I do that? Looking back, it was so obviously a terrible idea!

Well, because I was not in my right state of mind, and I desperately wanted comfort, to hear reassuring words from someone, anyone. I was so weary of feeling like I was swimming upstream, against the world. Even my Love’s unwavering support was not enough to sustain me, which is really saying something…

My parents advised me to go to a hospital “for help”. I talked it over with my Love, and finally agreed to go.

I had kept meticulous records of my prenatal data and stats since the very beginning, and I’d even written a very detailed birth plan, just in case we needed to go to the hospital.

(Mistake number four: Giving too much energetic thought-flow to morbid “what-if” scenarios–I may have been unknowingly fueling the likelihood that these would occur)

So we pull up to the hospital, and I’m walking (hobbling?) in, supported by my Love, and very, very fearful. I dithered in the foyer and at the elevators, second-guessing if I should just go home and dealing with more contractions. I had been walking around dilated to at least 6 centimeters for over a week, and at this point I think I had so integrated the discomfort and waves of contractions, that I didn’t even realize how close I was getting to delivery.

We finally went in, and clumsily explained our situation to the night staff. It was about 1:00am at this point. I did not want to consent to anything, especially not drugs, tests, or needles, and at one point I actually got angry and walked off from the desk, fully intending to go home.

My observant partner gently stopped me, told the staff that we just needed a moment to talk alone, and that we’d be right back. I was angry at him for saying that, and stepped around the corner towards the elevators, almost shaking from stress, fear, and worry.

None of us knew it, but I was clearly in transition at that time, having a very emotionally charged scenario to cope with, all while standing up and trying not to scream!

This is where shit got crazy…

My sweet Love gestured around the corner, and sadly explained that there was pretty much no going back now. They didn’t have any records of us, and so they were most likely assuming the very worst – substance abusers, unfit parents, etc. He quietly brought my attention to a lady in black, standing with a clipboard just past the nurses’ station, watching us, and I realized she was a social worker.

I sobbed and sobbed in his arms, and finally decided that my only choice was to walk back in, come what may.

I remember saying to the nurse in a defeated, hollow voice that was not my own, “I’m just scared, and so tired. I’m sorry. Just do whatever you think is best. I just want to see my baby.”

Five minutes prior I had been insisting that I would not consent to an IV, to pitocin, to internal exams, any of it.

Then, finally, I just gave up.

terrifiedThe entire staff’s reactions to us clearly indicated that they thought we were grossly irresponsible, probably drug addicts whose child needed to be rescued from us by social services. It was overwhelmingly, terrifyingly defeating, and I surrendered completely. I have never felt so low in my life before. I was too hurt to even feel indignant at their treatment at this point.

I no longer cared what happened to my body, I had let go of all fight left in me. I just knew I was headed for a c-section or worse–but I also knew that if I fought it, I’d probably lose my baby to social services.

They showed us to a room, and I obediently changed into a gown. I just turned off all thought, cut myself off from emotion as best as I could, and lay there corpse-like, awaiting whatever would come.

They sent in a nurse who, among other things, measured me and said my fundal height (which is supposed to correspond to weeks of pregnancy) was only 33 cm. I said that wasn’t possible, because last week I had measured 42, which is within the normal range. I showed her my self-made chart, but she waved it away, gruffly told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, and that there was probably something wrong with this baby if I really was anywhere near 43 weeks.

I was angry, but much too afraid to tell them about my supposed water leak-and-reseal. That was a week ago–surely they would section me immediately if I mentioned that! I knew that I was on a strict herbal antibiotic course and had taken every precaution against infection–I felt that my baby was healthy and I had no signs of infection – but they were not going to listen to me at this point.

I was a piece of meat to them, a potential incident to be mitigated – nothing more.

She sent for an ultrasound tech.

This guy was about the only person I’d interacted with so far who wasn’t completely dismissive and hateful towards me. He came right into the labor room and turned on the machine, and we got to see our healthy, strong, 43-week baby for the first time. I don’t even know if he told us the gender then, or if we didn’t find out until the birth.

I don’t know what else happened, but eventually the ultrasound tech left, and a nurse came in and roughly checked my dilation. She said, “oh, you’ve got a while, you’re barely even at 4 yet…” I was incredulous, but again, too weary to question it.

I just wanted to be left alone with my Love–and finally, we were.

I just laid on my side, staring hopelessly at the pattern on the wallpaper, and my Love stayed close – holding my hand, rubbing my shoulders. How could I be only 4 centimeters when I was 6+ last week? Can your cervix shrink too? I wondered. (Yes it can! This used to be common medical knowledge, too.)

But very quickly, I couldn’t move or speak, and I just tried to keep counting the repeating pattern-shapes in the wallpaper…

I must have had that far-away look in my eyes that we both now know as “laborland”, but this was my Love’s first baby, so he didn’t know what that look meant. He asked me if I was okay, and I couldn’t speak to him. He asked me several times, and asked if he should go get someone.

I wanted to cry, to scream, to say, “Please, no, don’t bring them back in! Just let me be alone for another second!” but my throat was clamped shut.

He ran down the hall and called out to the nurses to come quick, he thought the baby was coming now. They didn’t come quickly; apparently they didn’t believe him–but then the nurse came in, lifted the sheets, and yelled “Oh my God, she’s crowning!”

From this point until our daughter was born was perhaps 5 minutes – ? But it was the most hellish, traumatic, dehumanizing experience of my life.

There were suddenly people everywhere, bright lights being shined at my privates, blue-gloved hands shoving my legs up into stirrups, lots of yelling and confusion. I vividly remember screaming, crying, pleading with them: They were hurting me, I couldn’t get my leg up that high, my hips cannot move that way, I didn’t want to be in stirrups…sobbing and screaming, ‘No, no, no!’ – and they completely ignored me.

My partner looked on in horror, pushed to the back of the room, unable to help or intervene – both of us stripped of our rights and dignity.

They made me deliver flat on my back, with my torso bent forward, and my legs cocked straight up, strapped into stirrups, despite the fact that I had SPD/joint issues with my hips. There were at least seven people in the room, none of which even looked me in the eyes or spoke to me by name. They all were wearing masks and full surgical gear, as if I was about to get cut open at any moment, or as if I was contaminated with some horrible pathogen.

They doused my private parts with iodine, and there were way too many hands pushing and pulling on me and the baby as she made her way out into the loud, bright, chaotic scene. They cut the cord immediately as I was yelling at them to wait and let it stop pulsing.

Baby Claire was born “in the caul,” with the bag of waters intact, smaller than my other babies in spite of being “late” – and perfectly healthy.

I was overjoyed to meet my baby, to have my intuition confirmed that she was healthy and that my body could “do birth” after all–but it felt like an eternity before I got to hold her.

I remember watching helplessly from the bed as they did all sorts of things to my daughter across the room, before I had even seen her face.

I don’t know what happened in those first moments, or how long it was before I got to hold her. I had spoken earlier with my Love about not letting our daughter out of his sight once she was here, and he protected her from all the “typical” newborn procedures such as the Hep B vaccine and eye ointment – both things that are in our opinion unnecessary, potentially damaging, and interfere with bonding/breastfeeding.

Of course, we both knew that while he was protecting her, he couldn’t advocate for me…

I was hooked up to a bag of fluids at some point, and before I’d even gotten to hold my baby, they switched the fluid bag out for pitocin to deliver the placenta, as I looked on in a stupor, saying, “Isn’t that pitocin? I don’t want pitocin! I’ve delivered two placentas before without it… Stop! Don’t….WHY are you not listening to me!?”

Then the doctor came back and started pulling on the cord–really pulling on the cord to get the placenta to deliver! This is called cord traction, and is not generally recommended along with pitocin for speeding up the placenta’s delivery – especially mere minutes after birth.

As he did this, I was telling him to STOP, doesn’t he know that’s a great way to cause a piece of placenta to be retained, to actually increase my risk of hemorrhage to occur?? He didn’t listen to me, didn’t look at me, didn’t speak to me. Acted as if he was deaf. It was unspeakably dehumanizing. I may have been treated more compassionately if I were livestock.

I did have a piece of retained placenta, I found out later – on my own – after constant, extremely heavy bleeding, trying to mediate it with herbal tinctures for seven weeks after the birth. It was a really dangerous situation, and made postpartum recovery hellish to bear.

It was only 15-20 minutes from the point that the nurse dismissed me as being “only a 4″ and left the room, until this point.

What horrific emotional scars can be created in the span of minutes…

To top things off, in the middle of the night, they took her away to the nursery against my will for “just a moment”, which ended up being for over five hours. I’m sure they gave her a bottle without our consent. I was so weary after everything that I was slipping in and out of consciousness, and it was already clear that they didn’t trust us. We didn’t even know where the nursery was, and the nurses had changed shifts. The old nurse had promised to bring her back quickly, but we never saw that nurse again! The new nurses “didn’t know what happened,” and kept saying things like “don’t worry, just get some sleep,” and “we’ll get her for you in a few minutes…”

Every moment of the whole experience was incredibly, unspeakably stressful, and it just seemed to keep spiraling out of control – things didn’t really crescendo and start to calm down until the next day, when we finally were allowed to leave.

I went home from that experience with a beautiful, healthy baby, and some very deep emotional scars from what was otherwise a “natural birth”.

This was in 2007, and aside from my own briefly scribbled notes just to document the audacity of it all, I didn’t write down Claire’s birth story for a long time.

I decided that it wasn’t good to think about it, or write it down. Better to forget, bury those memories and move forward, focus on the good things, I thought. In 2009, I gave birth to my fourth child -and had a perfectly lovely homebirth. I knew deep down, however, that I still had a lot to process from Claire’s birth.

In 2011, I found myself expecting again – and I knew – THIS was the time to heal. This was the time to dredge up all the chaos and pain from the past and work through it, hopefully to release it and finally heal from what I’d suffered through.

I finally wrote down this epic tale for the first time in the weeks before my fifth birth – my healing, beautiful freebirth.

I HAD to let this out, I have to process it, to let it transform me.. I have to relive it to understand just how badly things can spiral out of control, to know that birth can be transcendental, or very nearly the death of the soul.

I walked out of that hospital as an assault victim–a broken and trampled human being.

I gave up my fight in that hospital’s threatening hallways, with Big Brother looking over our shoulders…and in some ways, I still have not reclaimed it. I have lived in apathy–because I have known how badly it hurts to care too much.

For this birth-day, I am reclaiming what those bastards took from me. I am not going to be subverted by fear, coerced by bullying, or shunted aside like cattle on an assembly line.

This is my birth, my body, my baby, and my reality. I reclaim it for joy, love, empowerment, and transcendence–for women everywhere who have suffered labor assault and birth trauma.

– October 2011

It’s now eight years later, and I can confidently say I am healed.

Not only that, I am thankful and full of gratitude for that insane experience, because it was such a grand learning opportunity for me.

clairesbirth

I believe that life is essentially for learning lessons, and that experience held so many for my soul to understand.

From a broader perspective, however, THIS is what fuels my passion for birthwork. THIS is why we need to rethink childbirth in America.

This is why I do what I do – because I believe no woman should have to suffer through labor and delivery in terror, being treated like an inconsequential hunk of flesh.

This story is really the beginning of my unique path as a doula, birth educator, and advocate for birth trauma, choice + awareness.

I knew that having my 3rd child was the beginning of a new era…although I had no idea how things would unfold as the years went by.

She has taught me so much about life and love, even before she was born.

Claire, precious girl, how you have transformed me! Happy birth-day to you, gorgeous soul!


Let’s stay in touch, k?