Even though I’ve already written about childbirth in this Exploring Feminist Motherhood series, there is one aspect I haven’t talked about yet — being the survivor of sexual violence. This is an aspect of my childbirth experience that even I don’t think I’ve fully processed, some 8 months later. But it is something that came up in discussing the last Sin City Siren Book Club selection, Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself by Amy Richards.
The fact is, if you’ve never given birth before you just don’t know what to expect when it happens. You can make detailed birth plans. You can diligently read books and blogs. You can take a sheet of questions a mile long to your doctor. But none of that really prepares you for the emotional, visceral, psychological and physically grueling marathon of labor.
I had a plan: Give birth vaginally in a hospital with my doctor and some nice medication, with my husband coaching me. As far as plans go, it was pretty much the mainstream model. But that’s not what happened. The hospital and husband part happened. But I got an on-call doc and the meds never got to the pain (I had three epidurals!). And then an emergency c-section!
It’s safe to assume that part of my Type A nature is innate as it runs in the family. But I will admit that my Type A tendencies are a little more ramped up at times when I feel like things are out of control (or going to be out of control). Or should I say, “my control.” There is no doubt this stems from deep feelings of vulnerability and lack of control when I was molested over a period of nine years.
I could say there is no guidebook for sexual survivors preparing for childbirth. But I don’t even know if that’s true. I never checked. Indeed, it never occurred to me to check! I didn’t even think about my past trauma when I was busy preparing for my new bundle of joy and my excitement to become a mother. Hey, even Type As take a day off every now and then.
So, I can honestly say that it was a shock and deeply distressing to feel triggered during my labor experience — a time when I already felt the most vulnerable of my entire life.
Things weren’t going well — I was in hard labor for more than 16 hours; my baby was transverse and in distress; the three epidurals and other pain meds did not take; and there was no sign that the baby was going to right herself before distress turned to crisis. (She ended up needing to go to the neonatal intensive care unit for five days after birth.)
I can honestly say that I and the nurses tried everything to get that baby righted. She was sideways and her skull was bearing down on my left hip. Each contraction was bone-on-bone searing, white-hot pain. Her efforts inside to get out were not going to work. She had to move a good 4-6 inches to the right to get in-line with the birth canal. Since I had epidurals, my legs were numb, which of course was completely useless to me. The pain was not in my legs! So I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t even roll over on my own. And I did roll over in several different positions (with help) to try and get the baby to move over out of discomfort or gravity, or both. But she was as stubborn as any woman in my family. She had picked her path and was sticking to it!
So, as a last-ditch effort, my nurse got in the bed with me and kneeled over me, ready to push down on my stomach to try and push the baby over with the next contraction. By this time I had been in labor a good 30 hours (counting from when contractions first started but before they were regular). I had only slept 4 hours in that time and had eaten nothing. I was exhausted and scared. And now, this woman who I had only just met that day was standing over me and pushing down on me with all her might while I felt the worst pain of my entire life. And even though I didn’t want it to be happening, my logical brain knew it needed to happen to get the baby out. So, it was a situation where I felt powerless.
If that’s not a trigger, I don’t know what is.
Let me be clear, my nurse was amazing. She was so patient and a good leader. She snapped me out of a panic of fear early on and immediately earned my respect. A tiny woman, she advocated for me to get more pain meds even when the anesthesiologist was giving me attitude. I still have great admiration for this woman. And in that room, in that time, I daresay I loved that woman. But in that moment, I flashed back to my darkest memories of terror. I was helpless. Someone was hurting me. I couldn’t move. And even when I screamed (and I really, really screamed in that labor room) it didn’t end. And I couldn’t even see my husband (he was behind me, also helpless).
It didn’t help that my labor experience did not go the way I had envisioned. I had hoped for maybe 24 hours of labor total, including early labor. And my naive mental picture was of maybe 4-6 hours of hard labor stuff. I was in labor for a total of 37 hours with 16-18 hours of hard stuff. And then, after all that intensity, the real act of giving birth was taken off the table. I had to have the emergency c-section. I don’t regret that because it was the right medical decision for my baby and for me. But emotionally it has been really hard to get over. (Ironically, if it had gone the other way where I had to have a planned c-section, which my doctor had suggested if I went much farther along into my pregnancy, I wouldn’t have had nearly as much of a problem with it. The surgery itself is totally fine.)
What was traumatic to me was the complete lack of control and that I felt so powerless and ill-prepared. But I don’t blame everyone else for that. I take responsibility for my own naiveté.
I have shied away from sharing these feelings because I don’t want it to be used as a story lambasting the traditional health care system or doctors or hospitals. The people — the nurses and doctors — who helped me deliver my baby were exceptional. They were knowledgeable, caring, generous, funny and wise. My doctor answered every question I ever had and gave me great information all along the way from the beginning of my pregnancy to the recovery at the hospital.
So many of my feminist friends have opted for “non-traditional” birth plans, including doulas, midwives, water births, home births and so on. I completely respect that. I would have been too afraid to have my baby at home. I trust public spaces when I am at my most vulnerable because my abuse happened in what should have been safe, private spaces. A hospital is an incredibly busy place. You are never alone. And I found great comfort in that. The old adage, “No one can hear you scream…” That never applies in a hospital. I will say that you have to speak up and be an advocate for yourself. You have to ask questions and pay attention to what is happening. But that is true in any major life event, especially if it is involving your health care.
It’s not the hospital or medical staff’s fault that childbirth triggered painful memories for me. Triggers and dealing with them is just another step in the healing journey of being a survivor. It’s not easy. But it’s not insurmountable either. My flashback was a moment. A moment in a marathon 37-hour long “day.”And the end of that “day” was the most amazing, beautiful, joyous moment of my life: meeting my daughter. If I had to do it all again, knowing what would happen this time, I would still do it in a heartbeat to get that kind of pay-off.
It’s funny because they say to expect wild emotions in the labor room. You might feel anger or even “hate” the baby for a moment because of the pain. But no one ever talks about feeling triggered from past violence. The reason why I share this is so that others might prepare themselves.
‘Cause you know what GI Joe says, “Knowing is half the battle.”
This is part of the Exploring Feminist Motherhood series. See more from the series in these post on the biological clock, prochoice motherhood, childbirth, and the wage gap’s effect on parenthood and society!