So many parents, particularly moms, feel like they are failing in their journey of parenting. And the majority of these parents say that they feel pressure from social media sites like Instagram and Facebook to live up to this filtered idea of a perfect life. That is one of many reasons why I make a point to share my “unplugged” posts – let’s face it folks, those posts represent what life is really like 95% of the time!
This week is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week. #MakingOverMotherhood and the #MMHWeek2019 campaign are focusing on many areas of parenting- prenatal care, labor and delivery, and the postpartum period, and encouraging moms to share their stories and talk about their maternal mental health experiences. I am so happy to partner with The Blue Dot Project and the Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week Campaign as I share in recognizing mothers need support in order to thrive! And I chose to focus on today, day two of the campaign, which is really all about how the birth experience can affect maternal mental health!
I’m going to start with my journey on the birth of my son, Nico. I had a very long prodromal labor that had me exhausted by the time I even got to the hospital. I ended up getting an epidural and had significant 3rd degree lacerations and periurethral tearing that was devastating to recover from physically. On top of all that, because of the length of my labor, we had triggered enough of the “warning signs” for both me and my son to qualify as having or likely to have chorioamnionitis – a bacterial infection that requires a NICU stay. I believe my warning signs were a body temperature of 38 degrees C and elevated blood pressure (can’t recall the amount). Despite the fact that within two minutes of delivery both my temperature and blood pressure returned to within the normal range, my son was taken away from me immediately and sent to the NICU.
Crying as they were about to take my son from me…
I had given my husband explicit instructions to stay with the baby no matter what, and he did. And while I waited for them to bring in a specialist to do my repair, I was completely alone in my room. I had no idea where my son was, what may or may not be wrong with him, or when I would get to see him. All I could think about was that he must be starving and looking for the only person he had known since he was conceived- me. I was distraught. Two hours later, after hitting the button on my hospital bed so many times that I think they were about to disable it, I convinced a nurse to let me go to my son. And there he lay, with needles and wires coming out of him from every which way, and sticking his tongue out repeatedly – rooting around to no avail because mom was nowhere to be found. I kept thinking about what it must feel like to experience hunger for the first time.
Of course there was also a NICU shift change at the time, further delaying their attempts to keep me out of the pod. Don’t worry- I prevailed and made my way through anyways. My son latched on almost immediately, and I was so happy to hold him in my arms. I was absolutely exhausted, but already incredibly frustrated with myself. Not because I didn’t have the birth experience I wanted, I was frustrated about that too. But because I stopped fighting seconds after my son was born.
I was so completely and utterly exhausted and, frankly, in shock by the time my son was born, and so overwhelmed by the 22 people that swarmed my delivery room in the minutes before his birth to whisk him away from me, that I didn’t fight. I didn’t fight to keep him in my arms. I let them take my son from me, despite knowing instinctively that he and I were bothfine and that my levels had returned to normal (essentially meaning that there was no risk for chorio and the measure was precautionary). I didn’t fight to keep him for that golden hour and then send him for bloodwork or testing or even to the NICU; I simply allowed them to take him from my arms. I didn’t ask questions. I couldn’t think fast enough, there was so much going on.
Now, despite my incredible devastation about this, I was resolute in my desire to leave that hospital feeling okay with my birth. In my Surviving Codependency post, I talked about how I experience zero mom guilt. Friends, this is not an accident. It is a conscious choice, based precisely on my experience in my first 48 hours of motherhood. I felt like such a failure in those moments and I didn’t want to feel that way throughout my journey of motherhood. To this day, I know that experience shaped my son. He is so clingy to me and distraught when I have to leave him (beyond the normal toddler separation anxiety thing). His first few hours on this Earth were spent looking for me, and that shaped his little (okay, huge) personality.
Now, that’s my story. I was blessed to not have that turn into any form of postpartum depression (thank you, placenta encapsulation pills!), which it easily could have. But that may not be everyone’s story.
Maybe you had a traumatic birth experience. Maybe your birth plan didn’t go the way you wanted. Maybe you didn’t have a supportive birth team. Maybe you weren’t ready for the experience as much as you wanted or needed to be because of other things going on in your life. Maybe you experienced significant postpartum anxiety or depression. Maybe your partner had no idea how to support you. Or, maybe everything went generally the way you thought it would but it was still hard as h*ll?
Labor and delivery trauma and birth experience trauma is REAL folks. While there are a lot of reasons for postpartum depression, the birth experience itself has got to be the leading cause.
With the exception of my doula and a few others, whenever I’d share my birth story, I was always confronted with some iteration of this response- “Well, hey- at least your baby is healthy…!”
Is all that matters in my birth experience is that I end up with a baby that is healthy? As in, alive? What about the mother’s health? When did labor and delivery stop being about the journey and start being only about the outcome? Birth may only be one day (ideally), but the birth experience stays with us for the rest of our lives. That’s why you usually can’t get a mom to stop talking about her birth experience if you ask her- whether it was completely amazing or horrific! According to PATTCH (Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth), between 25-34% of women report their births as being traumatic. Traumatic! Not less than ideal. Not difficult. Not even painful. TRAUMATIC.
While any mother’s most important consideration is always a healthy baby, how her baby is born DOES and SHOULD matter. I think the most dangerous part of “at least you have a healthy baby” is that it may lead mothers to question why they can’t be happy about their birthing experience when they had a healthy baby at the end of the day. Birth is a life changing experience. Simply having mom and baby alive at the end of it, truly the most natural thing in all of creation, is not all that matters. Our birth stories fundamentally affect the postpartum period, how we feel about our babies and our families, and our attitudes about birth generally.
I encourage you to listen to a mom that wants to share her birth story, and validate her in her feelings about her birth. That is one of the best things that I can say about having a midwife team and doulas. Not only were my prenatal appointments with my midwives 45+ minutes each time (usually beginning and ending with a hug), but my 2 week follow up was nearly 90 minutes as we completely debriefed my birth experience and then talked about how I was doing physically. The same was true with my doula, the incomparable Bethany Brown of Birth Doulas of Pittsburgh and Bloom Birth Concierge. In addition to just being there for me in the days and weeks that followed to answer a question, we also had our own debrief session. Both of those places were so safe for me to discuss my feelings about my birthing experience; I can’t imagine not having the chance to do so and simply being left with comments from well-intending family and friends that reminded me “at least you have a healthy baby!”
Did You Know:
#DYK: Up to 1 in 5 women will suffer from a maternal mental health disorder like postpartum depression- yet less than 15% receive treatment. Learn more about MMH disorders HERE #MMHWeek2019 @TheBlueDotPrj
Maternal mental health disorders like postpartum depression are the #1 complication of childbirth and one of the leading causes of maternal death (mortality). #MMHWeek2019 @TheBlueDotPrj https://www.thebluedotproject.org/whataremmhdisorders
#DYK: Maternal anxiety is nearly as prevalent as maternal depression? MMH disorders are much more than just baby blues and consist of a range of mental health conditions such as OCD and PTSD. #MMHWeek2019 @TheBlueDotPrj