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The Reality of My Recovery From Birth Trauma

I do not pop babies out. That’s not the way the Maker made me.  The first time I met both my children I was on an icy-cold operating table, drowsy and dreading the ensuing weeks of recovery.  Lightning struck twice in my childbearing case. I went septic with my son seven years ago, and this year I suffered a stroke after the birth of my brand-new baby daughter. In between my two traumas I ran a marathon, did a triathlon, private-chef-ed my way to the top, made beautiful friends and memories and nearly forgot about the first strike, until the second occurred.

June 27, 2015: Nine days after my baby girl was born, my brain bled. She was a swaddled sack of wriggly perfection and I was breastfeeding in my pink robe that highlighted all my new mommy features. I loved that soft pink robe — now I cannot look at it.  Holding her to my breast, I was watching the summer sway from the window. We were expecting visitors. Suddenly a sensation swept through my breastfeeding body like icy-cold fingers walking one by one up my spine and twisting my skull. I was 34, mommy glow going dim, dimmer still…I am going blind. I am suffering a stroke.

I wake in the ICU. I am blind and baby-less. I can feel the hands of the love of my life wrapped around mine. I hear nurses whispering. I can hear my father but I cannot see anyone. Squiggled shapes of faces circle my bedside, fingers and hands waving. “How many fingers, Quenby?” “What year is it, Quenby?” “Who is the president of the United States?”

My breasts are painfully swollen…

Where is my baby?

Where the hell am I?

The gentle hands of the nurse untie my gown, exposing my bursting boobs to the onlookers. She presses a breast pump to my chest…and drains me of my ability to feed my brand-new nine-day-old baby that is nowhere to be found.  This is the beginning of a long list of losses. This is the Heart Sink. The point where perfect plummets. Tears drip down my cheeks to the metronome super-sucker stealing my dream of motherhood.

The onlookers kiss goodnight, bid farewell.

It is just the nurse and I for the night.

I am blind, babyless, bewildered, with a bleeding brain and a broken heart.

Morning shoves itself into my room with a gaggle of neurologists.  They wave their fingers around my periphery, they chicken-neck their faces in and out of my line of sight. I am able to respond a little more, see a bit more clearly…. hope begins to wrap her arms around my shattered heart.

With each day in the ICU I improve. I am moved to a step-down unit rather than a rehab center; it is then and there that I finally get to see my daughter. My husband places her upon me. I sit crosslegged on the bed with matted hair, frail pale skin, wrapped in IV wiring and I finally embrace the new life that blossomed nine days before I nearly lost mine.

The rest of the summer is spent in a long, slow slog of recovery. It began with me trying to make it to the end of the driveway before fear and balance got the best of me. It continued on to picking up my home on my own, driving for the first time, finding courage to be at home alone while my husband resumed work, making it through a store with my children without Mommy having a major meltdown. I was the poster mother for “post-traumatic” postpartum depression. If that didn’t exist before, it surely materialized for me.

Not only was I afraid of the world because my trust in my body was shattered, but I was also afraid for my children — that they might lose their mother at any given moment. I would be at home alone with them and I would fall like a tree in a great forest, and no one would know. My children would lose their mother; moreover, I would lose the chance to see their beautiful lives blossom.

I sat in my situation for a few weeks. The fact that the stroke left me without any physical deficits prompted friends and family to believe that I was recovered and that moving on back into mommyhood was going to be a breeze. They could not see what was going on inside: the grinding anxiety and panic, the crushing guilt and resentment. The anger that I did not get a fair shake. I have friends who pop babies out like nobody’s business and I was a failure, a Malfunctioning Mother. The world was no longer a safe place; in our competitive “mommy war” society I was doomed to be Post-Stroke Postpartum Drama Mama raising two children without flinching? I was headed down a deep and dark well. I needed help, so I reached out.

I was on the wild trapeze ride of PTSD and postpartum depression and I needed somewhere soft to land, so I built a safety net by hauling my broken heart into therapy sessions. I joined two postpartum support groups, I made weekly appointments with my doctor just to check in, and I told my friends and neighbors of my fears and frustrations. This was not easy as I was a blubbering mess of a mother, but I was a mother, damnit… and if I was going to be a good one, I had to build myself back up.

I panicked my way through the first few weeks of recovery. Tears flooded the floor in my therapy sessions and I ran out of a few postpartum groups in a panic. When my doctor told me it would take time for trauma to heal, I would snicker in disbelief. I wanted a quick fix, a splash of healing water to take the hurt away quickly.  The world was not going to wait for me to get better, and I needed to get there quickly so I could grab the old girl I used to be and step back into her shoes and “move on,” “snap out of it” and “get past it.” Sound familiar?

Birth trauma, like any trauma, does not work that way.

Recovery is a long road. I told a friend in my postpartum group it felt like I was crawling sometimes just to get through the day. She responded, “Crawling is movement, so take heart.” I built that net so long and strong through my support network. On dark days I would dial their numbers and they would blast a breeze of encouragement my way.

I felt that in our picture-perfect playdate mommy society that somehow has defined this generation, my birth trauma was a failure. I was limping along while others were stroller-striding their way through with perfect hair and scar-less bodies. I found in reaching out and in recovery that I was not alone. That there is a whole underbelly of women working so hard to come back to the light, for their babies and for themselves. And when we band together, we build one another up so strong that one day (I did not believe it at first), we walk hand-in-hand out into the healing rays of recovery.

We are beautiful and brave because we faced down fears with grace, resilience and the support of others in similar circumstances. In recovery we uncover our best selves; we make beautiful bonds and are able to reach back and help heal others who may be walking wounded a little further back on the road.

My experience of loss helped me to recover a better version of myself. A survivor standing strong and steadfast, ready and willing to reach out, a good mother who did not let her past define her future.

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