Warning: traumatic birth story detailed below. Please read on with caution as the material or descriptions may be triggering.
Every January, as his birthday draws near, I have a tightness in my chest. It’s a squeezing pressure that makes my chest cavity seem like it might collapse. Not the sort of thing a mother should feel when celebrating milestones and memories. It’s not constant, it comes in waves. Unexpectedly and at odd moments. Most of the time I can push it away, suppress the tightness. I can slap a bandaid on top of it in the form of life’s daily distractions. But if I let myself feel it, really feel all of it like they say you’re supposed to, I am swallowed up.
Trauma is such a funny thing, and not at all humorous. And healing from trauma? It can feel insurmountable.
Our story didn’t end in the way that so many can and do, and because of this, I often feel guilty claiming it as that: trauma. So many families are thrown into the depths of hell. Infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, diseases, complications, sicknesses, and children lost too soon. Unfathomable heartbreak. I’m not sure how you heal from that kind of trauma; how do you climb up out of that deep well of sorrow? We were spared from so much worse; we were able to take our baby home from the hospital, to carry on with plans and dreams 9 months in the making.
Two sides of Pain
I’ve found that I am both grateful and hateful for the trauma we’ve seen. Out of our trauma was born a miracle. A miracle baby who turns 9 in a few short weeks. A few short weeks of resenting those early memories, of pressing through the pain and grabbing hold of the overwhelming gratitude that there will be 9 candles on his birthday cake. A reminder that we are still healing from our trauma.
Many women love to share their birth stories. It’s a badge of honor, a form of motherly bonding. Whenever I shared the story of my son’s birth, I would need a brief moment to detach. I would step out of my body so as not to relive it while I retold it. I’d give you the lighthearted version. About how I bought into the old wives’ tales and ate Bing cherries by the bagful and bounced on an exercise ball for days leading up to my due date. I would mention my long labor. How I thought it was funny that my doctor wore cowboy boots during the delivery, and how I had screamed profanities while pushing my son out and then apologized afterward for swearing.
Then I would tell you about the Code Blue called over the hospital loudspeaker. That we weren’t sure we would be leaving the hospital with a baby. And how it was scary but it had all worked out. How thankful we were for modern medicine. I engaged but stayed emotionless.
But I wouldn’t tell you all of it.
What else would you want to know, anyway?
Not about the way I worked to coax him out for hours.
The way his body was limp and his lips were blue when he finally made an entrance.
Not about the swarm of nurses and doctors hovering over him, working their medical magic beneath the bright lights to make him breathe.
Or about how my parents ran in from the waiting room when they saw the commotion, wide-eyed and pale with fear.
How my legs hadn’t started working again yet, so I was stuck in that labor bed across the room from my baby, begging God to let him live. Promising never to ask for another child if we could just keep this one.
I wouldn’t tell you about how badly I wanted to punch that grief counselor in the face when she came to my bedside, offering her condolences far too soon.
How I endured an eternity in what was probably only 15 minutes.
By the grace of God and the skill of our medical team, we were sent home at the end of a 5 day hospital stay with our tiny human in tow. I expected to leave all evidence of our trauma behind us in that hospital room. We’d been granted our miracle and those fear-filled hours had been fleeting.
But the trauma did not stay behind.
Somehow, it escaped the vortex of the hospital airlock and followed us home. It flew under the radar, unrecognizable for a long time. Looking back, I can see where it had been. It had manifested as post-traumatic stress that stuck its greedy little hand into my son’s infancy and beyond. I worried extra. Obsessively. And much more than a new parent normally does. I kept him next to me in a bassinet at night until he had long outgrown it. I slept with my hand lightly on his chest, checking all night to make sure he was still breathing. Like it was my renewed purpose to keep him alive. Literally.
But as a new parent, your existence is a hazy, sleepy, fog of weariness and joy and exhaustion and bliss, so it really never dawned on me that my hefty dose of anxiety was anything other than normal. We made it through the first year and in celebration, we brought cupcakes and our growing boy back to see the nurses who had cared for us so compassionately.
It was smooth sailing through the parking lot, the front doors, and the hospital lobby. But when we stepped into the elevator, headed up to the Labor and Delivery floor, I couldn’t breathe. The paralyzing trauma flooded back and filled my lungs. I could have curled up into a ball in the corner right then and there.
Living in the After
We’ve brought birthday treats to the nurses on every birthday since, and I’ve dreaded that elevator each time. I started to notice the befores and afters of my son’s birth and how they corresponded with my levels of anxiety.
It took 7 years of birthday elevator ride freak-outs before I did something about it, but I decided to seek professional help from a counselor. She was wise and kind and safe. Together, we worked to get to the root of my anxiety, my obsessive, compulsive behaviors surrounding the safety of my children, in particular, and my fears which could be so crippling. And it was; it was WORK.
By way of talk therapy and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, she helped me connect the dots, linking so much of it back to the trauma of that day. EMDR is a process that, simply put, helps one’s brain overcome the negative associations related to a traumatic event. I am still emotional when I think back on my son’s birth story, but I can also confront the experience and talk openly without avoidance or detachment. I can find comfort in the evolving healing of my heart from that trauma.
My anxiety is by no means cured or gone, but it is more manageable now. I can get on that elevator and smile at my son instead of holding back tears. But if I do feel the feels in that moment, I can also honor the experience as a whole.
Every story holds value. Each trauma holds pain. Our paths are different; how we process, digest, evaluate, communicate and cope. But awareness and attention to mental health is vital. If you are struggling, don’t wait 7 years before you seek help or find healing from your trauma. And remember that you are not alone.
Be sure to check out these related articles from The We Spot, as well.
The Siren Song of a Broken Heart: the Aftershock of Trauma, by Carissa Coghlan
Prioritizing Your Mental Health When the World Feels Chaotic, by Aubree Monares
A Warrior Heart: Her Birth Story, by Emily Jorgensen