What follows is a guest post from Liz, who dealt with some pretty heavy stuff during her first pregnancy and labor, and especially after the birth of her son. We feel like this is an important read for new moms, moms-to-be, and anyone who takes the challenges of motherhood lightly.
Sometimes all the things go wrong. What I mean is, every so often a new mother is faced with an exorbitant number of challenges far exceeding the experience of anyone she is in touch with in her everyday life that the only thing that mother can do – should be expected to do — is survive. I have shared my story many times in many places on the internet, so some reading this may find it eerily similar, and if you do, it very well could be because you have read it before.
My absolutely delightful, hysterical, happy, well-adjusted, silly, and amazing five-year-old was born on December 15, 2008. It was a Monday. I had gone into labor on Saturday evening after my water broke into trickles. Long story short — and the full story of the labor is a story of its own – on that Monday afternoon after 40 odd hours of labor, I had a c-section. This is not a post to discuss the merits of said c-section. I have my own opinions about how it came about. Rather, this is about what happened during the c-section, what happened in the months after the c-section, and what happened years later.
As is the case with an unplanned c-section after spontaneous labor, I had an epidural. It failed. It failed to such a degree that I could feel nearly everything being done to me on my right side. Instead of putting me under, a nesacaine solution was poured over the incision site, and while the OB took my then silence to be a sign of relief, it was instead a sign of shock. Let’s fast forward through the hospital stay where there was little to no help from nurses, and lactation consultants came by no more than once a day. My son lost weight. I was in pain, and at one point, my records were confused with those of another woman who had had a vaginal birth. I cried a lot. I asked for help a lot, and four days after my son’s birth, shell-shocked, scared, and in a place where I needed more support than ever and hadn’t even gotten it in the hospital, I was sent home.
Once home, it became apparent something wasn’t right. Not only was I sad all the time, but my baby wouldn’t stop crying. And crying. And crying. We had an IBCLC come by once a week for awhile, and we learned our son was losing weight. So I went through the routine of a small bit of formula, nurse, pump, give back what I pumped. I followed this regime every two hours for months, and he did gain weight. But soon as that hospital grade pump had to be returned, his weight leveled out, then he lost again, and by four months of age, breastfeeding was no longer tenable.
Meanwhile, the crying persisted. For hours. A day. Every day. For 12 weeks. I would wait in fear of 4 pm, for the first cry that went from fairly normal to soul crushingly piercing. The cry that meant evening was coming. The cry that meant nothing I did was good enough. For I did try all the things. If it was suggested, I tried it. If it was written in a book about babies, I tried it. If it was an old wives tale from centuries ago that had long since been disproven by science, I tried it. For instance:
*Singing while slinging while singing
Oh, baths! The first time I filled the tub and got in with my screaming ball of baby, there was silence. Then I heard a gurgle of happiness from my newborn. Could maybe I have had found something that made me a good mom? Did I find a way to soothe this unsoothable baby? Was there hope I might yet become a mom capable of taking care of a baby? Were the c-section pain and the flashbacks and my own unstoppable crying finally proving worth it? For the briefest of moments, I held hope for the first time in six weeks as I calmly removed us from the bath, intent on getting us both some much needed sleep.
Then the crying and the screaming began again. And I gave up. He was four weeks old. That January was particularly terrible with wind chills bringing temperatures far below 20 degrees. There was little point in venturing out. I’d sit in my pajamas all day without showering or combing my hair. The only place my son would sleep was on my chest while I reclined semi-upright in a chair. Eventually, he’d sleep on my chest while in bed, and for a few brief hours between 9 and 11 in the morning, there’d be bone dead silence while we both slept harder than humanly possible.
But, ultimately, there was no use fighting any more. So I didn’t. I went through the motions I could. I don’t know how, but I managed to get dressed. Sometimes I managed to feed myself or buy food. And because I couldn’t stay in a one bedroom apartment with a baby who wouldn’t stop crying anymore, I found myself finding a way to take four hour walks in the frigid weather with him in the sling under my coat, crying. I’d sit on a swing in an empty, snowy park looking at leafless branches that even seemed to turn away from me. It would be eerily quiet for an urban park. No one in sight. No signs of life in the houses. And I’d cry while he was crying.
I found myself having thoughts. Thoughts like, I’m not a good mother. If I were a good mother, I would know what to do. If I knew what to do, he wouldn’t be crying so much. He’s crying so much because I don’t know what to do. And I don’t know what to do because I’m not a good mother.
Not only did I have a long labor resulting in a traumatic outcome, not only did I fail to receive basic assistance in the hospital, not only did I have a baby with weight struggles and colic, I had post-partum depression. To add the last bit of kick-her-while-she’s-down, I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well. I’d unexpectedly find myself back on the operating table. I would have nightmares of organs being removed from my body. I’d wake up feeling delirious and disoriented and saying, “I don’t want to die.” I’d try to remember the moment I’m told my baby was shown to me, and I don’t remember. Instead, I remember coldness and bright lights. I remember feeling abducted, as if I had been transported to a different place. I remember not believing the baby brought to me in the recovery room was mine. I remember thinking I should give him back to the nurses because this baby couldn’t be my baby. There must have been a mistake.
All the things were wrong.
My body was wrong for not having birthed the baby and subsequently not nourishing the baby. My mind was wrong for not being able to think of ways to soothe the baby, and my heart was wrong because through it all, I didn’t even know if I loved the baby and some of the time didn’t believe he was even mine.
I’d put him down while he was crying and go into another room to cry myself. I’d call my husband — who was at the time in a merciless Ph.D. program that required his physical presence for 13-14 hours per day —- and beg him to come home. I’d scroll through my cell phone asking myself who can I call? Who can I call? And I never did believe I could call anyone. So I didn’t. And I spent my days alone. Sometimes the physical pain from the c-section was still so great, all I could do was curl up in a ball next to the floor mat I put the baby on, and we’d cry for hours next to each other.
We changed formulas after a few weeks, and while nothing got worse (what could possibly have gotten worse?), nothing got better either. So a few weeks later, we changed again to a soy formula. Same result. My own post-partum appointments with the midwife who was not present for my labor and birth didn’t yield any helpful insights or assistance. I was so deep into sleep deprivation and depression I couldn’t even speak. I answered questions with yeses and nos. I remember in the exam room only being able to fix my eyes on one spot on the rug. I remember thinking how small the room looked compared to six weeks ago at my last prenatal. Something about finding a therapist was mentioned, and then the midwife brought in the OB who had performed the surgery and who had been my primary provider during my pregnancy. And I answered her same questions with yeses or nos. I remember she asked what I was like before my pregnancy – how did I feel about things. And while I don’t recall how I answered, what I do remember thinking with frightening clarity was, “I don’t remember.”
I don’t remember who I was before this.
But I was sent on my way. With no therapy referrals. And no hope.
All the things were wrong.
Well-baby check-ups found nothing wrong with our son beyond the weight gain challenges that were resolving themselves pretty quickly by the time he was three months old. And by 14 weeks old, two weeks into daycare for him and two weeks back to work for me, the colic started to wane. And eventually it ended.
Since I was still experiencing pain from the c-section, I contacted the OB. Three times I called before I was given an appointment. At the appointment I was told my pain was normal. When I spoke to the chief of anesthesiology by phone for the hospital about what happened during the surgery, he told me next time they’d do something different. Next time? What does that mean? The next time I have a surgery? The next time I have a baby? The next time I have a surgery to have a baby? What makes him think I’m going to have another baby? I can’t even take care of this one.
Six months of motherhood had cemented my decision to never have another baby. To never have another c-section. To never experience the newborn phase. To never feel so hollow. Lonely. Empty. To have all the things go wrong.
It took a long time for me to get into a therapist’s office. I didn’t find it terribly helpful. I would open my mouth to speak, and the words would pull back into my throat. I would make eye contact, and my vision would blur and then blacken. I went for months, and no matter how hard I tried, the only effort I could really make was the one that got me to her office. Until I couldn’t make that effort any more, either.
I also found the answer to my pain by getting an appointment with another OB at another hospital who balked at my former OB’s dismissal of my pain. All I needed to get that pain to stop, it turned out, was lidocaine patches. Sometimes cut nerves can fire still, causing unbearable pain. Stop the firing, stop the pain. It was that simple. When I called my previous OB’s office to express my dismay that it took another OB and then a referral from that OB to a pelvic pain specialist OB, my experience was dismissed as not possibly true.
By the time my son was two, I had more or less come to terms with what happened to me – in that I accepted it was unacceptable, that everything could converge into such a horrid array of events. As he grew, I found fondness for my son. Then I found I liked him, and finally after a long, bitter road, I found I did love him. We don’t know to this day what caused his colic. As he was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, we suspect maybe he experienced sensory distress of some kind. But in reality, we’ll never really know the cause, though we can suspect all we want.
When my friends started having babies, I would write in the cards for their showers, “It is okay if you feel you need to throw the baby out the window, so long as you don’t do it,” because the special joy and love and wonderful introduction to motherhood cards didn’t seem fair. It seemed so ludicrous to me that having a baby would be anything but pain, solitude, emptiness, loneliness, and crying. I also wrote, “And if you reach the point you have no one to call, you can always call me.”
My motivation for doing so was that sometimes all the things go wrong. Nothing works. And until someone has been where all the things go wrong, it is impossible to explain what it is like.
I have yet to meet someone who has gone through all the many experiences I did in one go, and I do not wish for someone to venture to all the places I went and have to come out the other side alone. There is no victory in this story. I didn’t defeat post-partum depression. I didn’t battle post-traumatic stress disorder. I didn’t fight. I lived with them. They were daily companions, dysfunctional roommates occupying space in my brain who, as roommates sometimes do, moved out before I did and eventually faded away from my life some. I can’t say as I’m completely symptom free. PTSD never really goes away. It’s a brain injury. I will have it for the rest of my life, whether symptoms are present or not.
I tell this story because it happened. I tell this story because sometimes all the things go wrong, and the only reasonable expectation to be had when all the things go wrong, is the expectation of survival. If you have a traumatic birth, if you fail at breastfeeding, if you have a colicky baby and post-partum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and you make it through the day then you have accomplished something. You have survived. To make it through the day, to survive all the things going wrong is enough.
It really is.
And moms don’t hear that enough. Just surviving is good enough sometimes.
The final and brief end to this tale is despite my best efforts, I did have another child. She was unexpected, and we sometimes joke that she manifested herself, which is another story worth telling another time. This is the part, though, is where I can offer hope. All the things didn’t go wrong the second time around. In fact, none of the things went wrong. While it is bittersweet to me that I had things with my daughter that I didn’t have with my son, that I feel he was deprived in ways she was not, that every so often pangs of guilt come about his first year of life, we came through together. Maybe we didn’t overcome it. But we came through it. And that is a tale worth telling.
Liz lives in Salem, MA with her husband, children, two rabbits, and a cat. She works as a coordinator to an academic department in Boston. When she’s not too busy with all of the above, she can be found in yarn stores and book stores. As evidenced by this post, she occasionally finds time to write as well.