To the Woman Deciding What to Do After a Traumatic Pregnancy or Birth
In 2016 I gave birth to my son after a challenging and stressful pregnancy. From the first month of my pregnancy, I suffered from a complication called hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), a condition that causes severe, unrelenting nausea and vomiting. HG causes women to experience severe dehydration, malnutrition and related conditions; nevermind a serious drop in quality of life. Until the development of intravenous hydration in the 1950’s, HG was the leading cause of maternal death. Even today, it can lead to the deaths of unborn children and serious health impacts on mothers.
When I was five months pregnant, I had surgery to remove a large tumor (the size of a softball) from my ovary, which ended in the removal of the tumor, an ovary and fallopian tube. My son had a 50 percent chance of dying during the operation, but those were better odds than not having the procedure done at all. I was on bed rest afterwards as the surgery site healed, all the while feeling pressure to get back to work as soon as possible to keep our health insurance.
As if this was not enough, I went into labor early, had irregular labor, and experienced medical trauma during the c-section that brought my son, unbreathing and blue, into this world. He survived, and as I watched him and my husband head towards the NICU, I was relieved that he had made it. And then I felt nothing. I knew something was wrong, but there were no words for it, yet.
In the months that followed I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the medical trauma and negligence I experienced during my son’s birth. I also finally admitted to myself that my pregnancy had been a nightmare. Looking back, I have realized the depths of my anguish and physical suffering during those eight months. In the middle of it all, I was determined to keep our son alive and do whatever it took to bring him into this world. That sort of determination broke down my interest in or ability to talk about the depth of difficulties I was experiencing. Even after he was born, I was so worried that someone, even those who are closest to me, would doubt my love for my son, or my gratitude for his birth. I loved him fiercely, more than any emotion I had ever felt, and he was too good, too perfect, too lovely, for me to diminish with my own negative experiences.
Traumatic pregnancy and birth do that to you. They place you in a position where your heart is so joyful, so grateful, so overwhelmed by the goodness and beauty of your child, yet your mind is consumed by pain, heartbreak, grief and suffering. You lift your head in the delivery room to see your living, breathing child, and rejoice, while tears of agony flood down your face from the brutal experience you just survived. The dichotomy is disturbing and heartrending.
My husband and I had wanted a large family. The more kids the better, especially after we fell in love with parenting our son. Yet the heavy spectre of “what happened” hung over us every time we talked about our family. Instead of questions like, “Do you want to have another baby?” we asked questions like, “Can we handle another life-threatening pregnancy or birth?” We wondered if I could parent my son while clinging to the toilet as I vomited blood from a raw esophagus. We wondered how much help we would need from our friends and family, and whether or not it was fair to expect it or ask for it. We wondered if the scar tissue from my operation and subsequent nightmarish c-section would interfere with my ability to carry another child. We switched doctors, explored options, talked and prayed and prayed some more. We made our choices, choices I hope to write about some day. But more important than what we chose is the face that these choices exist for couples like us.
And this is what I want you to know, as you try to decide what to do:
To the mama who is trying to decide what to do after a traumatic pregnancy or birth, you are not alone.
Even as your friends, family, colleagues or acquaintances announce pregnancies or introduce new babies, or celebrate a beautiful and empowering birth experience, I am over here reaching out to hold your hand as you remember yours.
I know what it feels like to lose freedom over your choices, to have constraints of physical and emotional pain burden your mind and heart as you imagine a future for your family.
I know what it is like to ask painful questions of doctors when you know the answers already.
I know what it is like to tell a loved one that you are pregnant again, and to see the instant concern in their face.
I know how tremendously isolating this experience is and how many judgements, questions or opinions you have faced and will face.
I know what it is like to want that positive test so badly, but at the same time, to worry.
I know what it is like to countdown the days until the scary things start again, while also praying your baby makes it.
I know what it is like to need doctors, but to also distrust them.
I know what it is like to suffer again.
I know what it is like to say never again, but I also know what it is like to say “I choose bravery,” to do it again, and then again.
I also know what it is like to lose children and wonder if you should have even tried.
I know the deep, deep mourning you have experienced.
I know the grief that shakes you to your core.
I know the reason you smile at newborn babies even as your heart starts to race.
I know why you may want your arms filled by a baby again.
But I also know why you may never want to hold another infant again.
I know why you are considering this all over again.
It is because the love you have for your child is so tremendous, so awe-inspiring, so beautiful, so powerful, that of course you would consider this again. You remember and know and hold on to the beauty found in those early weeks with your baby, the moments that sustained you as your body healed and your heart was mended. The moments when you looked at your child and it hit you: we did it. We are both still here.
It is because you are a mother, and because you fought for your baby, and because your story was forged with courage.
Your story, with its pain and grief and ugliness, may not end up in a light and airy social media post about an all-natural, candle-lit birth, but let me say this loud and clear: you are a warrior, mama. You already sacrificed your body, your heart, and parts of you that you will never get back. You fought, hard, for your baby or babies, and you have fought hard to come back from that. Your story is filled with bravery and sacrifice, and you deserve to hear that.
So, as you decide what to do next, whether it is having another baby, becoming a one child family, or changing doctors to see what they have to say, remember that you are already a warrior-mama. You have nothing to prove. If you decide that what happened was enough for you, make peace with that. If you decide to try again, make peace with that, whatever the outcome. Make the decision that is best for you and your family. Know that whatever you decide, it is your decision to make.
I hope you feel less alone and more encouraged. Never doubt the strength that brought you this far; it is powered by a love greater than words could ever describe.
Getty image by Taws13