Eleven years ago I gave birth to my first son. I was young but passionate and relatively educated for those pre-internet times. I had planned out my conception, pregnancy and birth in many ways but none prepared me for the emotional toll I was about to endure.
On Halloween night, while watching trick-or-treaters at a local mall, I went into labor; quietly, painlessly. Early labor, but I knew. I took secret pride walking around the mall, largely pregnant, in the earliest stages of labor with my very first child.
Contractions increased and we thought it important to head off to our local hospital where we had registered to give birth. In triage, however, it was determined that I wasn’t dilated, my water hadn’t broke and there were no signs that labor was under way after all. It was the middle of the night and I felt defeated. I was sent home.
While we walked out of the parking lot, I had strong painful contractions that I couldn’t walk through. These pains increased as we drove home. By the time we got home, late into the night, I was panicking with the notion that I might have to endure such pain for weeks, as the intern on duty had suggested minutes before.
I went to bed and cried on and off for a few hours. By morning I begged to go back to the hospital so I could get a sedative to help me sleep. This time the news in triage was different. I was in labor after all and already dilated to 4 centimeters. Good news!
So far so good. We were admitted to Labor and Delivery where we stayed for the duration. My goal was to have a natural childbirth and avoid any pain medication, if at all possible. I had practiced relaxation techniques and taken birthing classes. I was prepared.
But what I wasn’t prepared for was the treatment I would receive. It was clear that my age, 19, was off-putting to my particular nurse. She spoke to me in a patronizing way that immediately made me feel guilty for being there. How horrible to be made to feel guilty about bringing a life into the world! My partner was by my side, we were obviously educated, but that wasn’t enough for this nurse.
The doctor on-call from my practice was called in and I was horrified to discover it was the one doctor in the practice that I could not stand: another patronizing jerk who talked down to me due only to my age. I asked that another OB/Gyn or even an intern be allowed to attend to me instead but was told by the Mean Nurse, in no uncertain terms, that I should stop being a brat and not be disrespectful to the doctor. In other words, shut up and lay back. Mean Doctor said he needed to break my water. I was informed enough to question the need for such a thing and to suggest that I wasn’t interested in the extra pain that prematurely rupturing my membranes might create. He poo-poo’d me and told me that there would be no pain and he wanted my labor to speed up. At this point I had only been in the hospital for a few hours and was progressing nicely on my own. Speeding up my labor was purely convenience for this doctor, definitely not medical necessity. Still, without a voice of my own or an advocate, I conceded. Doctor knows best. The pain and intensity of labor almost instantly changed from manageable and natural to unnaturally uncontrollable.
I hit transition, unnaturally fast and hard. I screamed for drugs, as most women do, and I was given them stat! I didn’t have anyone to stand up for me or voice my concerns and I certainly couldn’t do it in my irrational state. No one mentioned that I would be pushing in an hour and was in transition. No one reminded me that my birth plan, for all that it was worth, indicated I did not want drugs. I was drugged and sleepy through my transition and drugged and sleepy when it was time to push.
And push I did. While on my side, I pushed naturally and efficiently. That is until the doctor walked in and told me to get on my back. I asked, begged, pleaded. I was so comfortable and couldn’t imagine moving out of my current position on my side. He said in no uncertain terms that no patient of his would be allowed to give birth anywhere but flat on their backs. I cried in anguish as I was forcibly turned onto my back.
I made great progress, thankfully. I know now it could have gone very differently. 10 minutes into it, as my son’s head was about to crown, I was given an unnecessary and unknowing episiotomy, routine for this doctor. But I was too swept away in the adrenaline of birth to notice or care and soon I had my newborn son in my arms and all was right in the world.
Until they snatched his perfectly healthy body out of my arms and away for The Tests that apparently just couldn’t wait. I had badly wanted to nurse him right away but he was way too drowsy from the drugs I took. So away he went and I was prepped for my episiotomy repair.
I have never been treated so roughly by a doctor in my life. I was told to shut up and hold still. I tried. I really tried. But the needles hurt and when he started to stitch my wound it was obvious that I was not even numb. I was hysterical in pain but he told me that the more I moved, the more he would hurt me and I’d better just lay nicely and spread ‘em so he could fix me quickly. Horrible.
But the worst was ahead. It was time to move rooms down to the recovery room I would share with another new Mom. While wheeling me down to my new room, while my newborn son was walked in his father’s arms by my side, the Mean Nurse asked me if I was doing an open adoption or if my Mom would be adopting my son. I can’t imagine a more insensitive or insulting question to spew at a new, celebrating, first time Mother just minutes after she gave birth and named her son! My heart broke open. I felt like I’d never be taken seriously as a Mother. I felt like a fraud. I’d like to say I was angry but I was just extremely sad.
While I was in the hospital recovering and getting to know my son, I felt like a guest; a babysitter who was occasionally allowed to care for someone else’s new baby. I tried so hard to breastfeed but I felt like it was unlikely to happen, how could someone so young and inept and clearly not seen as mothering material be capable of breastfeeding her own child? But I kept at it and saw a new nurse every few hours who gave new (and usually conflicting advice). I cried. I screamed. I almost threw in the towel. I failed. We just couldn’t figure it out. The Mom in the next bed who sobbed and didn’t even offer her baby the breast because she had no idea how was not helping my spirits.
And then I was given the gift of discharge from the hospital. It was in these first days, at home, with my first son that I subconsciously processed the lessons learned from my traumatic birth experience. I learned that I was the only one who could stick up for me. My own instincts and intuition were far more powerful and righteous than any doctor or nurse. My son had no one to advocate for his well-being other than myself. These lessons might have scared some but they were exactly the lessons I needed. These lessons were the ones that pushed me to continue to exclusively breastfeed my son. When my son was only a week old I called a doctor, concerned about jaundice and extreme lethargy and was told that Asian babies don’t get jaundice and, even if they did, they are already yellow and I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell. The gift of my traumatic birth led to me pushing forward and finding another doctor who would finally listen to me. He admitted my tiny new son to the hospital where he was diagnosed with meningitis. These lessons later helped me to listen to my son and empower me to allow him be my teacher.
I went on to have two blissful, peaceful, healing, unencumbered births outside a hospital setting and have spent years coming to terms with a birth that could have been so much worse but was still terribly traumatic for me. I’ve finally come to terms. I like to think that my traumatic birth prepared me for motherhood in a way nothing else could have; a gift in disguise.