March 5, 2014, was my son Liam’s first birthday. We bought him balloons, a cupcake, and had our best friends and their daughter over to celebrate, toast to the birthday boy and to the fact that we all survived our first year of life together. Liam just turned one; and I just stopped being angry.
He’s been a happy child from the start. He made his way into the world as a solid nine-pounder (9 pounds 6 ounces, to be exact). He nursed like a champ right away and slept through the night at six weeks old (you have full permission to hate me), crawled at seven months and walked at ten. He babbles with intention and is genuinely just a happy little guy. He’s learning to navigate his little world, and I’m learning to let go of part of mine.
Most mothers look to their child’s first birthday with anticipation and excitement, scouring Pinterest for the best party ideas and decorations. Not me.
- I’m not that crafty;
- I just prefer low-maintenance over elaborate; and
- I wasn’t looking forward to my son’s first birthday. I was dreading it – GASP!
What kind of mother am I? Who says that!? Seriously – especially “out loud” on a blog, for all the world to see.
Well, I said it – because it’s true.
I’ll jump to the chase: Liam’s birth sucked. Seriously. It was awful. It was nothing I had wanted and everything I didn’t want, stretched out over a ten-day hospital stay and months of suppressed trauma while I lived in new-mom-zombie-land and did what I had to do to care of my infant and make it through each day. Liam’s birth consisted of:
- 10 days in the hospital
- 5 day induction
- 2 cervidil
- 3 cytotec
- 3 full days of pitocin
- 1 foley bulb
- An epidural
- 18 hours of labor
- Back labor
- 3 hours of pushing
- A c-section, for which I had to be put under general anethesia
- Blood transfusion
- Blood pressure medication for five months postpartum
- And a bunch of other home medical crap I will neither bore you with nor gross you out with :)
Liam’s birth sucked. Plain and simple. But what I found to suck more is how going home from the hospital was suddenly supposed to make everything Ok.
“At least he’s healthy!”
“At least you’re Ok.”
“At least you have a baby.”
Well, duh. Of course I’m grateful for these things, but they didn’t make what I lost and the trauma I went through any better. I never knew how good intended rationalizations such as these could sting until I was no longer the one making them in naive attempts to comfort those who felt loss.
A loss? You might be wondering – what on earth did you lose? You gained a baby. That is true – but in the process, I lost all of my best intentions for that baby’s entry into our world; I lost the natural process that I consider birth to be; and for a long time, I lost myself.
My son is the best thing to ever happen to me, and while I spent his first year of life basking in the joy of everything he is, I also spent it suppressing all the feelings I hadn’t let myself feel during the ten days I spent in the hospital and the months of recovery that followed. I had my game face on – I was in “in it to win it.” I didn’t notice how the tears I never let myself release started changing into resentment and anger inside of me.
As my son’s first birthday approached, I found myself becoming enraged at other mother’s innocent comments in the mothering groups I’m a part of on Facebook. Posts about the importance of skin-to-skin contact right after birth; how certain drugs can affect the baby; the benefits of vaginal birth versus c-section; etc. etc. Inside of me my voice raised and I shouted “Fuck you! I know that! Not everyone has these choices!” I felt judged, even though most of these women had never met me and had no idea what my son’s birth was like. I knew their comments were not directed at me, and I knew they meant no harm, but I found myself internalizing them and feeling attacked, jealous, and angry because they were the things about birth that I had wanted so badly, but did not get.
My son was born by cesarean section while I was out under general anesthesia. After the five-day induction, 18-hour labor, and three hours of pushing – Liam just wouldn’t descend and I did not react to medication. It was not an emergency situation, for which I am very grateful, but it robbed me of those first moments with my Liam.
My husband describes how he felt the first time he saw Liam – how his heart jumped outside his body and returned with so much love he never knew he had. I met Liam at midnight, the day after his birth. My heart felt heavy; it never lept. My body was broken.
After release from the hospital, “the new normal” of life took over and along the way I tried to find myself again. I love to exercise – but I was restricted for five months postpartum. I love being with friends – but I wasn’t able to bring myself to even speak to, let alone see my best friend for over a month after Liam’s birth. I knew the moment I saw her or heard her voice I would break down, and I just couldn’t let myself do that – to relive my birth experience. I needed to stay strong and care for my baby.
So I relived my birth trauma alone – for one whole year – through random memories and flashbacks that would leave me fighting tears at work or in the grocery store. I tried meeting with a therapist and it was a disaster. She kept asking if I felt depressed and she wanted to medicate me. NO! I was NOT depressed! I just had a lot of emotions about my birth experience and needed to let them out!
I finally found solace in a local group I helped start: a Traumatic Birth Support Group. Being around other women who felt traumatized by some aspect or all of their birth experience really helped me – we all “got it” – that it’s Ok to be upset about your birth experience. Being upset about mine and wishing it had gone differently is not something to feel guilty about. A loss is a loss – and we have to process the loss before we can move on.
So in the days that proceeded my son’s first birthday, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. In some ways, I felt like the mounting tension inside me was going to explode and I’d be this giant mess of tears and emotion. Luckily, it went like this: Liam downed his cupcake the fastest I’ve ever seen anyone eat anything, we toasted with our friends and had a pleasant evening. I woke up the next day feeling like me again. It’s strange, really, but I feel like I needed to get past his birthday – that painful milestone, which for most people is so joyous – to feel like it’s over; to get closure.
This past year I hesitated sharing my story and my crushed dreams with others because I knew how I sounded: selfish. Now that I have shared, I hope my honesty brings other mothers comfort and assurance that it’s Ok to be upset about your child’s birth, and it’s Ok to take time to heal — physically and emotionally — because let’s get real here, the standard six weeks of “maternity leave” is a joke – that’s not nearly long enough.
I used to be afraid to touch my c-section scar. Avoiding it at all cost, I’d cringe when I bumped my abdomen into something and felt that “numb” sensation. A year later, it is no longer red. It is barely visible, but I still don’t look.
Liam is my first child, and for the first year of his life, I thought he might be my last. But I am no longer afraid. My journey to motherhood and to finding myself again is more than just messy: it is beautiful, it is sad, it is traumatic, but it is ME. I am a warrior – and I will carry on.
This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!