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A week after I gave birth to my son, our doula called and lovingly asked if I might have PTSD from my birth experience. It was the first time we’d spoken since that heavy day in the delivery room.
Wow. I pondered that for a moment. I was having flashbacks randomly, yes. And I would undoubtedly burst into chin-trembling fits with each. But my tears expressed joy and gratitude that Ilyas was alive and well. So, no, I thought PTSD was unlikely. But I definitely didn’t feel the way I thought I would.
I planned on a natural labor. Perhaps it was growing up with my mom – who for many years was a labor & delivery nurse, doula and yoga instructor. Today, she’s a nursing professor with a doctorate – a loving and wise woman. Growing up, I respected my mom’s medical outlook though it felt a little free spirited to me. But it only took one Lamaze class for me to pitch my tent in “camp natural.” Truthfully, the epidural discussion and my fear of needles were also big contributors.
I knew that labor would be tough. I don’t consider myself to have a high pain tolerance and my willpower has room for improvement. It’s strange though, how the physical pain I was so anxious about felt manageable in the moment. The parts that shook me to the core were, largely, emotional.
Sharing Ilyas’ birth story publically is something I’ve considered for a while. I’ve held off because I assumed it would be more cathartic for me than it would be beneficial to others. Plus, there are women with much tougher experiences and my story could sound annoyingly melodramatic to them.
But as the days pass, I’m separated more and more from that delivery room. I haven’t, and won’t ever, forget what I experienced. But it’s starting to feel like a strange dream. And I’m reminded that to those who haven’t witnessed a birth, the whole process can seem mysterious. Or idealized. And while I don’t want my story to scare anyone, I think I had learning lessons that could help set expectations and emotionally prepare others. Plus, I think as moms we should allow ourselves to share these stories. I’m giving myself permission today.
I was due to welcome Ilyas into the world on November 20, 2017. We went in for a checkup and baby boy was still cooking and comfy. The doctor told us they’d give him a week to come out on his own, and if he was still clinging to mama after those seven days, they’d give him a little help and induce me.
But extra help wasn’t needed yet.
On November 21, I was working from home. Halfway through the day I started to feel some light cramping. I shot my mom a text. “You better rest up,” she said. “I have a feeling we’re going to meet that little boy today.” So I canceled my afternoon meetings and relaxed as best I could. At that stage of pregnancy, getting comfortable enough to sleep is like trying to wear a wool sweater in the summer without itching. Good luck.
It was also two days before Thanksgiving, and my parents were flying in to celebrate with us.
My husband and I left to pick up my parents from the airport that evening — I don’t recall the exact time, perhaps around 8 p.m. We’d been in the car for a couple minutes when I said “This feels different. I think my contractions are starting!”
In Lamaze class, they instruct you to go to the hospital when your contractions are five minutes apart. So I started timing them. 10 minutes apart. But not always consistent. Sometimes much closer together, sometimes a little further.
We reached the airport. I hopped out and gave my dad a tight squeeze. “Woah! Here’s a contraction right now!” I said giddily. “I’M HAVING A BABY!!!” 8 minutes apart.
My mom got the full run-down in the car. 7 minutes apart.
30 minutes later we got back to our house, grabbed my bags, and called the doula (birth coach). 5 – 6 minutes apart. “Let’s hold off a little longer,” the doula suggested. “First time moms don’t usually go into labor that fast. Your contractions started an hour ago? Let’s let you labor at home for as long as possible.”
My mom’s facial expression grew concerned when I relayed the response. “I really think we should go now,” she urged. “Nah, I said. “Let’s give it 10 minutes and reassess.” I set up my work out of office and emailed my boss.
But it wasn’t five minutes later the contractions grew strong enough that I couldn’t talk through them. I don’t know that I’d call them painful at that point… they just required concentration. 4 – 5 minutes apart.
“Let’s call the hospital and let them know we’re on our way,” I said. I dialed Labor & Delivery myself, but a contraction hit and I had to flip the phone to speaker and motion for my family to finish the conversation. I still remember my husband, dad and mom all trying to recite my call-back number in unison. One at a time, I thought, watching and laughing.
I texted my doula, “Sorry, we have to go now.” She rang me up. Contraction. Speaker phone again. My mom said, “She can’t talk, and can hardly walk. She’s going now!” (All the love for my momma bear!)
Between contractions, I stumbled into the car with Aymane and my mom. “I’M HAVING A BABY!” I eagerly yelled to the world.
I hobbled to the birthing floor and they sent me to the intake room. I was three centimeters dilated. I don’t recall how long the paperwork took, only that it felt like forever. My doula popped in. Man it was good to see her.
To pause for a second — I really, really wanted my mom to be there for Ilyas’ birth (clearly Ilyas did too!). But during my third trimester, she hit me with the reality of things, “I’m 1,000 miles away, and if you go into labor there’s just no guarantee I can get there in time.”
Luckily, the hospital I was delivering at had a doula program. I called, explained to the head of the program why I had held off so long (desperately wishing my mother could be there). And I thank my lucky stars, the head of the program herself said she wanted to take me on as a patient. “My daughter lived far away and I almost couldn’t make it to her first birth,” she explained. “I feel like I’m connected to your mom — I get it and want to be there for you.”
Back to the labor. The paperwork wrapped up and I was 8 centimeters dilated. Only 2 to go. That was fast!
By this point, I really couldn’t walk, so they rolled me on a bed to the delivery room.
Laboring in the water was on my birth plan. But the tubs were all taken or broken.
No biggie, I thought. At this rate I’ll have the baby before they could fill the bath!
All those things I’d packed for the hospital — playlists, labor outfits — in retrospect they were kind of like planning for a vacation. You know how they say that planning for trip is more relaxing than the holiday itself? Well, prepping for labor made me feel more in control. More confident. But once we got there, my vision boards went out the window. I was not in control.
Once in the room, progress slowed down. My stamina was decreasing. But Aymane would put his forehead against mine and it was as if he was transferring his energy to me. Suddenly I was renewed for the next contraction.
And our doula was like a magician. Rolling out aromatherapy that I’d inhale slowly, and somehow mere scents would distract me from the pain. She’d put pressure on my hips in a way that seemed to lift and take on the discomfort for herself.
But sometimes, she would make this sound. And it took me to a dark place.
If you have ever experienced any sexual trauma, I urge you, take precautions before your labor. Tell your doctor, your doula and the people who will be in the room with you. Come up with a signal to let them know if you’re having trouble.
Every time my doula would try to encourage me by saying “mmhmm,” I would have vivid memories of a time that, quite frankly, I had pushed out of my mind until then. I don’t want to expand on my trauma, that’s not the point of this, but I do want to encourage moms to take their past suffering seriously.
I remember struggling with contractions and being so livid that (1) this beautiful time in my life felt tainted by past ugliness and (2) I couldn’t communicate it with anyone because I could hardly talk. And even if I could muster a word or two, no one in the room knew about it so they wouldn’t understand what I was getting at.
During my pregnancy I had heard that women who are victims of rape often do well with hypnobirthing. The methods are interesting – such as referring to “contractions” as “hugs,” and eliminating the step in which nurses ask the mom to periodically rate her pain. It creates an intentionally positive atmosphere. But, I didn’t categorize myself as a “victim.” Knowledge I should have paid attention to during my pregnancy breezed by me because I didn’t think it was relevant.
Now I know that if I have another baby, I need to be transparent about my triggers with anyone who may be in that sacred room.
Back to the contractions. I spent some time laboring in the shower and it felt amazing. If you want the drugs, go for it, but I was shocked that simple things like warm water, aromatherapy and massages could melt much of the pain away.
I started to feel the sensation to push, so we made our way to the bed.
I was fully dilated. It was time. I blinked and suddenly the room was full of people. So many faces hidden by surgical masks – and eyes pointed in my direction.
They instructed me to push. I mustered up all my strength. Nothing.
Then the doctor said, in a concerning and serious tone, “baby’s heart rate is dropping. We need to get him out quickly.”
I started crying, fearing for my son. But I knew I had to be brave for him.
Next push. Nothing. “Stop yelling,” they told me. I didn’t realize I was.
“We need to get this baby out NOW, one way or another.”
I was terrified for Ilyas’ life.
Then there were so many lights. As if I was inches away from a car’s high beams, about to get run over. What was going on?
I felt a sharp pain. “Stop screaming.” It was an episiotomy, with no painkillers. Yes, do whatever you need to do. Rescue my baby, I thought. Please save him.
He was born. I don’t remember when he cried. I don’t remember what color he was, though my husband later shared that Ilyas was very blue, and my mom said his APGAR score was pretty low.
Sometime later, perhaps a measly sixty seconds, maybe more, maybe less, they put him on my chest. I remember being in shock. Feeling guilty that I thought I was supposed to be overflowing with love. But instead feeling stunned.
What just happened?
Praise the Lord, he is okay.
He is okay, right?
Wow. I just had a baby.
I love him.
He looks like Aymane.
That was so terrifying.
I can’t stop shaking.
How am I going to do this? He’s so small and precious. I don’t want to hurt him.
Praise the Lord, he’s okay.
All in all, he was born in the wee hours on November 22. 7 pounds, 9.6 ounces and 20.25 inches. Our little Ilyas.
The days and weeks that followed, the flashbacks were strong.
“We need to get this baby out NOW.” Lights. Pain. Guilt that I couldn’t push him out myself in time. Tears. And then, thank God he’s okay.
And from that shock, we dove head-first into a sea of new struggles. Ilyas’ food intolerances were brutally hard for the first four months and only “very” hard for the three months after that. Whispers of “failure to thrive” due to poor weight gain. Waking every 15 minutes. Chronic illnesses that were probably a result of little sleep.
Just like the fallout from his birth, I feel pain when I recall how Ilyas struggled. Guilt that I didn’t know how to fix it. Tears. And then, praise the Lord he’s okay now.
So, yes, in some ways I do feel a little traumatized. Birth, and infancy, were not what I envisioned. Both appearing to go on swimmingly while dangers lurked.
But I’ve learned a new level of empathy that I hope will make me the best mama possible to Ilyas. I hope to teach him not to be judgmental of others, because it’s impossible to know someone else’s struggles. The things that can torment them are often not readily visible.
And I want to remain insanely in tune with my little boy. Knowing something’s wrong when the signs are nothing but a feeling I can’t explain.
Motherhood, I’ve learned, is the hardest, most magical and indescribable job on the planet. And I will praise God everyday for protecting this boy and transforming me into his mama.