It began calmly in the middle of the night. My water broke on its own. Our drive to the hospital was blissfully free of contractions. But 37 hours later, I found myself in the operating room about to have a Cesarean. A week after my son’s birth, I went to the emergency room with extensive complications. I remained at the hospital for 11 days dealing with an unending slew of problems: multiple infections throughout my body, lung aspiration, and acute kidney failure. They put two drain tubes in me and covered my incision with a wound vacuum. I went from a healthy 28-year-old to a woman who couldn’t lift herself out of bed without assistance. While I eventually did heal, it was a chaotic transition into motherhood.
For those of you who have had a traumatic birth experience or have a friend who has, here are 10 things that helped me process what happened:
- Let yourself grieve. I had to remind myself I can be both overjoyed that my son is healthy and still sad that his birth was traumatic. Give yourself space to grieve what happened. What made you sad about your birth experience? Let yourself mourn the loss of those things.
- Write out your story. The process of writing forces you to reflect. Writing slows us down; we can’t write as fast as we can think. As you write out your story, you may notice themes or details you didn’t see before.
- Talk to trusted friends. You know those fears you felt during your birth? And the fears you felt after your birth? Your plans that didn’t go as you had hoped? Those are the things you need to share with a few trusted friends. One of my deep fears was that something would happen that would prevent me from having more children. As I talked that through with other women, I was able to remind myself that I am not in control of what tomorrow holds. Our fears can feel loud when they’re just in our heads, but talking to others can lessen their power and make us feel less alone.
- Give yourself grace. You made the best decisions you could with the knowledge you had in the moment. You did your best—always remember that. Your former self did not know what your present self does, so don’t look back and hold her responsible for what you know now.
- Practice thankfulness. Even in less than ideal circumstances, we can still give thanks for something. Make lists of what you’re thankful for each day. Thankfulness helps us see beyond the present struggle.
- Find beauty. I’m a big believer in beauty coming from unexpected places. I realized how beautiful it was that our parents got to spend so much time taking care of our son while I was hospitalized. I love that they were able to treasure that time with him. What was beautiful in the difficulty? What beauty could you have not experienced if your birth did not happen as it did?
- Know your lies. There are probably some untrue things you believe about yourself and your birth. One of the cultural lies I bought into (subconsciously) was that Cesarean births are less feminine than vaginal births. I believed I was less of a woman because I didn’t deliver naturally. Once I identified that belief, I was able to tell myself the truth: my worth as a woman is never dependent on how I birth my baby.
- Adjust your expectations. I never planned on using formula, but I had to supplement for a couple weeks while I was hospitalized—and it was the healthiest decision for my son and me. I expected to need help after giving birth, but I had to adjust my expectations to needing help with everything for longer than I anticipated.
- Stop playing the “At Least” game in your head. You know those thoughts where you tell yourself, “That was terrible, but at least I …” While it’s good to be grateful, it’s unhelpful to feel better about your experience by imagining a worse experience. Yes, things could have been worse. But finding security in “at least _____ didn’t happen” is a fickle way to ignore what actually did happen.
- Decide how you’ll grow from this. We cannot rewrite our pasts, but we can grow from our experiences and make conscious decisions moving forward. Perhaps you choose to let your experience strengthen your relationship with your spouse or partner. Perhaps you make a list of actions you’d like to take to create a different birth experience next time.
What about you? Did you have a difficult or traumatic birth experience? What helped you walk through it?