Punk Mama Shawna S. has shared her birth story with us. While she had a traumatic birth, she went on to have a successful breastfeeding journey with her son. We hope that by sharing her story, a mother out there reading this will be better equipped to navigate maternity healthcare options, find support for their traumatic birth, and/or feel less alone in motherhood.
Sharing this kind of makes me want to puke. You are going to read information that will probably make you say, “WHOA, TMI.” But here’s a “motherhood dare” for you: be raw, be fucking real. If you feel cheated, say so. Don’t let the bastards get you down just because your truth hurts their ears or because people don’t get what the big deal is. To start, during my pregnancy, I felt like a powerful goddess. As a parent, I feel that way too. My birth experience was not as empowering.
“Tomorrow is Earth Day, so I kind of hope the baby arrives tomorrow.” The midwife smiled. “You are 1cm dilated. Want me to sweep your membranes?” I felt a pinch and said so – she just said things are “sensitive.” I confidently answered that, no, I didn’t want my membranes swept, that I wanted labor to start on its own. The midwife smiled again and said, “Okay, well let’s see how this goes.”
I am having a dream about my dead friend and he just keeps repeating, “I just want you to know that everything is going to be okay.” I keep questioning him, he avoids answering. I wake up.
It’s 3:30am and I think I may have actually just wet my pants. I walk over to the bathroom and I realize that the wetness is not urine. I call for Ryan who springs out of bed wondering exactly what we need to do next. Oh god, the bags are already packed, but is the dog ready? Is she going to be okay while I’m gone? She needs to go to the bathroom. Let’s try to get her to go twice before we leave.
I have slept maybe three hours. I make the call to the midwife and tell her the situation; I’m pretty sure my water broke. She was sleeping, I can tell. She says that I’m probably wrong, to wait for two hours and see if I soak through enough pads and then call her back. So I soak through one pad in 15 minutes and tell her that I know what is going on. She says she wants me to come into the hospital because my water broke and now I’m more prone to infection. I trust her, so I reluctantly accept coming into the hospital, even though hospitals scare me and I had planned to labor at home for a while. I kiss my dog about a thousand times and promise her someone will be back for her.
As we walk out to the car, there are coyotes howling and owls hooting. It is the most beautiful, fierce calling I have ever heard. I text everyone to tell them what was going on. We are driving through a dense fog; the contractions are getting stronger. Is it going to be an Earth Day Birthday? We arrive and I start furiously sneaking granola bars because they keep telling me I’m not allowed to eat solids, although I was told I could eat during labor. I am tired and hungry. I’m starting to get really agitated because the nurse who I despise is here and she won’t stop talking to me, and I just want her to shut the fuck up. My mom is here and so is my best friend. We are all sitting and talking – making jokes. They are buffering that nurse and her stupid questions and I appreciate it more than I can express. I walk around for a bit, but it is overwhelming for me to walk through the hospital corridors. This place is so cold.
The midwife convinces me to go through with getting the IV, even though I didn’t want one. I can’t really process anything right now. The annoying nurse tries four times to get an IV in my wrist and finally the midwife just does it because she can tell I’m about to lose my cool. My midwife finally gets another nurse to take the place of the one who is pissing me off. Her name is Helen and she talks very softly and she looks like my friend Zayne’s mom; I like her instantly. I sit on the ball for a little while. People are piling in the waiting room to support me and everyone tells me so. I hang out in the shower for a while, but the nurses and midwife want me to get back on the bed and be monitored. This was not how it was supposed to be. I want to stay in the shower because the water relaxes me and I feel better in there. Every time they monitor the baby, nothing is wrong. “Why can’t I stay in the shower?” No answer. My sister is in the room intermittently; I like having her there. She makes me feel stronger.
Every time the midwife checks me, she tells me she isn’t “impressed,” that things are not progressing. I start to feel nervous. We have talked about all of my fears regarding hospitals and unnecessary medical interventions – she told me that she would never intervene in the birth process unless totally necessary. She had told me that I would not need a doula because she would be with me the entire time. I trust her. I trust her, right?
“Still not impressed.” She comes back and tells me that she thinks I should take Stadol so that I can relax. I start to cry. I don’t want medication. She asks me why I’m crying and what I think I know about Stadol that would make me not want to take it. I can’t remember, but I know I don’t want it. She looks me straight in the face and says, “If you don’t take this Stadol to relax, I’m afraid you’re going to end up with a C-section.” I trust her. She knows my fears and promised me safety, so why would she pressure me? I ask what is going to happen with this medication, and they tell me it will help me sleep. I trust them. They give me the Stadol and my vision starts to change. My eyes feel like they are darting back and forth. I am managing contractions from outerspace. I cannot relax. I am trapped in my own brain. Ryan is sitting beside me. I tell him I have to close my eyes because something isn’t right.
They have started Pitocin because the baby hasn’t progressed enough for their liking and they want to get things moving. The contractions are getting harsh and I am still not progressing to where they want me to be. I keep hearing “C-section,” “C-section” instead of what they are really saying. I tell them that if they want me to relax, I think I am going to need an epidural because the Pitocin contractions are the worst thing I have ever felt. I am crying hysterically because I don’t want this medication, but I also don’t want to end up with a C-section and I’m scared. At this point, I’m having tremors and no one tells me it is normal. No one. I am scared to death. “What are these tremors?” Why is everyone ignoring me when I ask that?
I did all of this research about the birth process and I am scared because no one knows what I want and I feel like I don’t know how to ask for it anymore. Everyone is looking at me to make a decision. The anesthesiologist comes in and he is the kindest person I have ever met in a hospital setting. He explains the whole process to me, treats Ryan with respect, and says he will be back to check on me. After the epidural, Ryan goes to get food and my best friend, Anderson, sits with me while I sleep. I wake up and they check me again. I have progressed much more. 10cm dilated! This time the midwife is impressed. Maybe the epidural was appropriate for this situation. I feel a little more positive with them not bothering me about my lack of progression. They increase the Pitocin even though I tell them that I am starting to be able to feel again. Anesthetic never works long for me. I have told her this before.
I think it is evening at this point, I have not been counting the hours and my room has no windows. I don’t know if the sun is shining or the sky is dark. Pitocin contractions are the worst thing in the world. I feel like my hips crack open every time the contractions surge in. I have a fever at this point and after drawing my blood for what seems like the 50th time, they tell me I have an infection. I beg them to let me dose myself with another epidural because something feels stuck and that I am having a lot of pain just in one area. The midwife looks at me in a concerned way but doesn’t say whether or not I can. She just kind of ignores the question. I don’t want to do it if it is going to cause me problems, so I stop asking because no one is actually giving me an answer.
I am writhing. I keep feeling like I need to push, but although I am 10cm dilated, the baby has not moved down. The next time I ask to dose myself again, she tells me I can and it anesthetizes everything but the one area that feels like my hip bone is breaking. I am pushing and nothing is happening. The midwife has her hands inside of me, pushing her full weight down on my vagina to try to “help it along” and it feels like she is tearing me in half. The baby still hasn’t moved down, so I’m not sure why her doing this is helping me. It hurts so much. This is not the birth experience I wanted. I know that, in this moment when she keeps telling me not to make noise through my contractions. I feel silenced. The baby is stuck, I think.
Finally, exasperated and exhausted with hardly any sleep and no nourishment, I give up. I cry and apologize to everyone that will listen, that this is not what I want, but I think I am going to have to have a C-section. Everyone looks at me like I am giving up, that I can keep doing this, but my mom gets down right to my face and looks me in the eye. She explains again what this would mean and I do my best to sound as rational as possible in making this decision so that people will know that I mean what I am saying. My mom advocates for me by turning to them to confirm that I am done. The mood in the room gets quiet. I feel so sad, but I am ready to meet my baby.
The surgeon who is to do my c-section has a cold expression and explains things to me between contractions. I sign whatever waiver and they take me to surgery. The nursing team is kind, although they all seem to be annoyed with one another. The anesthesiologist is back and he’s talking me through everything. The surgeon starts cutting before she asks if I can feel the area she’s about to slice. The anesthesiologist quickly asks me if I have any feeling. His eyes look concerned. I tell him that I don’t. They realize they left Ryan out of the room after the anesthesiologist asks the surgeon and staff why he isn’t there. Ryan walks in to see them already cutting into me and makes his way over to me. As he is sitting next to me, he sees blood splashing off of the table onto the floor. I have oxygen tubes in my nose and I’m focusing on that and the kind eyes of the anesthesiologist. “What will his name be?” “Zephyr.” Zephyr Ronan.
The cry that shoots through that room as Zephyr comes earth side is a sound I know will ring in my ears forever. His strawberry blonde hair, his poor bruised head from being stuck against my pelvis, his puffy little baby body. The most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life is right here, lying across my chest and I grew him inside of me. They take him for evaluation and I love the pediatrician who is there to evaluate him. He asks me if I want him circumcised, I say no, and he says, “Good, it’s just cosmetic anyway.”
They take me for evaluation because I have some extra blood loss, but fortunately, it is nothing to be alarmed about. The midwife jokes with me, “You redheads just bleed extra.” Hilarious. Thanks for the joke. I want to see my baby. I keep smiling as the nurse is wheeling me down the hall, “I want to try breastfeeding him right away so we can establish a good relationship.” The nurse just nods her head, “Well, we’ll see after the doctor finishes looking him over.” I am puzzled by the statement, but I am so excited to see him.
They bring him in, swaddled in a blanket and I can’t stop staring at him. The pediatrician comes down and looks very sorry. Because of some of the things Zephyr is doing with his face, they are concerned about him having a stroke while he was stuck against my pelvis while I was pushing for so many hours. My heart is sinking. My baby may have had a stroke? What will that mean? A million questions are on my mind and I can’t find the words to ask any of them. “When you take him up to York Hospital, can he be brought back to Gettysburg?” The doctor hangs his head a little and says, “No, unfortunately he would have to stay up at the NICU.” I start crying again. Zephyr should be evaluated if they think this happened but I don’t want him to go alone. I reluctantly agree, but I tell Ryan he has to go to York with our baby. He is nodding the entire time. He calls his brother to take him to York because the staff informs us that Ryan cannot ride with the baby, that it is a liability. I beg to be taken to York Hospital with my baby and they decline, over and over again. I am trying to hold onto this precious baby before they take him away from me. He opens his eyes just a bit to look at me and then falls asleep.
I don’t get a chance to nurse my baby for the first time because the NICU transport team storms in. The lady who is the one in charge, or so it seems, is pushy and rude. She hands me this tote bag with a onesie in it that nearly sends me into a rage when I read it. It is a plain white onesie with the words, “My First Ride” and a helicopter on it. I instantly want to punch her teeth out of her head. What kind of fucking stupid onesie is this to give a new mother with a baby heading to the NICU? She tells me they are going to give the baby formula. I tell them I would prefer to pump colostrum, that the baby’s blood sugar was fine, that his belly doesn’t even hold that much liquid yet. She then looks at me strangely and says, “If his sugar drops, we will have to hook him up to an IV with sugar water, you don’t want us to have to hurt him more, do you?” Of course not. But what kind of mindfuck is that? HURT HIM MORE?!?! I tell them I am going to pump and send milk to the NICU. She blows off everything I am saying.
She takes my baby and holds him out to me like she is holding a pretend doll and says, “Kiss your baby, it’s time to go.” They put him in a clear, plastic box and I just stare. When he is finally out of the room, I begin sobbing about wanting to be with my baby. Ryan holds me and tells me how much he loves me, about how awesome I did, and all I can think is how badly I failed. That I should have pushed harder to be taken with him.
My friend Anna is there and she talks me through everything. We talk about the entire situation, and she makes me feel better. I refuse to sleep. I get the phone call that my child did not have a stroke and that he seems perfectly fine, but he is a lazy eater, so they want to keep him until he will eat at least 1oz in a sitting. I become furious, he does not need to consume that much in a sitting. I tell Ryan to advocate for our son and he does the best he can.
I ask the nurses at Gettysburg for help because I need to start pumping. The nurse comes in and tosses the items on the bed and says, “It isn’t difficult to figure out.” She mentions a breastfeeding app. I want to mention that she’s an idiot. But I figure it out because I am determined that they will not take this away from me. And I pump. Ryan takes the milk to the baby. I am determined to get out tomorrow because now I am watching my infant child lay in a box via laptop. I am crying and hardly eating this shitty hospital meal. We have been separated by a hospital that goes out of its way to promote kangaroo care and I think about how horrible it is that they would separate a mother and child if the child is not ill. I am obsessed with this laptop. My baby is so beautiful and perfect.
I walk and walk and walk so that I can show them I am better. They are shocked because I just had major abdominal surgery and I am walking like I have no pain at all. I do not want to be here. When I am finally discharged less than 24 hours after my C-section, I have to have a leg bag because I still cannot urinate on my own. The surgeon who is discharging me doesn’t seem concerned about risks and she signs off on my paperwork without mentioning much of anything. My husband drives me to York where my mom and stepdad meet us. They wheel me into the NICU and in that plastic container is my sweet baby. I can’t stop crying when I see him. He’s swaddled in the blanket and I can’t believe that we are here.
I feel like I abandoned him to this place and now he is a prisoner until they say he can go home. My stepdad tries to take a family picture and I’m crying so I say no. There really isn’t a happy “coming home” picture of us. I never knew it was possible to love someone so much. We go home at midnight and come back at 6am. I am there all day and he is finally nursing. I don’t have any support with it because the nurses are busy – I’m just doing it. I’m determined. I’m still pumping so that they will stop feeding him formula during the times that I am away. This child is so beautiful. The rest of the time is a blur because all I am focused on is establishing our breastfeeding relationship.
The doctor who evaluates him on the day he gets to go home is matter-of-fact and personable. I like him immediately. He tells us we get to go home and I want to hug him. My baby is fine, there was never anything wrong with him, just some bruising and swelling. We go home and jump into a routine of naps, snuggles, and nursing. I am so, so in love.
Side note, it turns out that the reason I felt like I couldn’t urinate while I was at the hospital was because I had a UTI from them catheterizing me so many times during labor. Awesome, thanks for all of the fond memories.
It makes me sad to say that we were failed by the medical system, as so many women are. Especially when my particular experience involves a medical group that I am employed by. To say that I am thankful for my child’s health and my own healthy outcome is an understatement, but that shouldn’t even need to be mentioned. I am writing about my birth experience because it was real and it happened. It happens regularly where providers neglect to treat the patient like they are worthy of an explanation, like the process isn’t just as important as the outcome, or like the clock always has a significant place in the birthing experience. Additionally, the lack of education in terms of establishing a breastfeeding relationship is astounding and we owe more to our mothers who want to have successful breastfeeding relationships with their children.
As a result of this failure, I have met some amazing women who have been through similar circumstances and who have filled an immense gap in my life with empowerment and love. I am part of a small family of women who meet monthly to support each other and the resounding effects of traumatic birth experiences. If you have experienced birth trauma, I highly suggest finding a support group of some kind and go tell your story. It has been the biggest blessing, especially on those days where I find images coming to me and the rage I feel is almost uncontrollable. I try not to focus on this, but I feel like if I wouldn’t have gotten back in the bed each time they asked me, it is possible that Zephyr wouldn’t have stayed stuck. But it is all maybes and what-ifs now. He’s here and we have such a strong bond.
This experience has helped me grow as a parent, believe it or not. I am now also a very conscientious parent – constantly checking myself to make sure that I don’t let the shadow of my birth experience overthrow my belief in giving my child the freedom and autonomy to explore this world without a helicopter parent. The most important thing is finding a way to bring light into a world with so much darkness. My son is going to be two on April 23rd this year and he is a constant reminder of what beautiful things can grow from chaos.
Punk Mamas had a few follow up questions for Shawna – we wanted to know what she would have done differently, how to find support after a traumatic birth, and how to navigate breastfeeding when healthcare providers aren’t offering the support you need. Here are her responses:
What would you do differently if you have the opportunity?
I would absolutely hire a doula. My family and husband were wonderful, but they don’t understand unnecessary interventions and ultimately could not help me advocate for myself adequately. If I would have had a doula, I would have felt more comfortable laboring at home a bit longer, which would have allowed me to relax. I never actually wanted a hospital birth because hospitals give me anxiety, but Zephyr was an unplanned pregnancy and we did not have the money to have a homebirth at that time.
The reason I chose Gettysburg hospital was because I thought those midwives had my back. What it turned out to be was that all but one of them were entirely misleading in how they would assist and support me through the birthing process. Next time, I do not have a choice but to go to a hospital that is VBAC-friendly, but I will be much more prone to questioning my provider and ensuring that we have a good, understanding relationship surrounding what I would like to aim for in terms of a birth process. I didn’t feel like I needed to do that the first time around because I was assured that they wanted the same things for me. I would also choose a hospital that offers a NICU because the pain of knowing that you are in a place 30 miles away, crying for your child while he is in another place crying for you is just too much.
Where did you find a support group for your traumatic birth experience?
The group that I am a part of requires attendance to an in-person meeting before joining the Facebook group. I discovered them through a local resource for parents and children called Om Baby Center in Camp Hill, which is where I took my cloth diaper and breastfeeding education classes. If you live in the south central Pennsylvania area and struggle with birth trauma, I would be happy to support you in finding an outlet and circle of women to help you navigate your feelings. I would say the internet is the best place to search to find what is right for you. If you don’t see something in your area, look into starting your own group. It is a lot of work, but we need educated, compassionate individuals to help support families through these distressing experiences.
Punk Mamas has selected a few online resources regarding traumatic birth as a research starting point:
Improving Birth‘s mission is to Inform, Support, Engage and Empower Consumers, Community Leaders and Providers with Tools to Improve Birth.
Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth (PATTCh) is a collective of birth and mental health experts dedicated to the prevention and treatment of traumatic childbirth.
Solace for Mothers is an organization designed for the sole purpose of providing and creating support for women who have experienced childbirth as traumatic.
What about navigating breastfeeding on your own, were there any books, groups, websites, or apps that you would recommend to anyone not receiving the support they need from healthcare providers?
I was the first person in my family to breastfeed their child successfully, so my family really had no clue how to encourage or support me. I was so thankful that I had taken a breastfeeding education class through Om Baby Center because it gave me the confidence to call the nurses out on their misinformation. I felt equipped with knowledge to start out strong, which was so imperative to my success.
After Zephyr was born, I found myself reading Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding, which just continued to help me feel empowered. With random moments of panic or concern, I found myself online with the (local) Harrisburg/Mechanicsburg Breastfeeding Support Group on Facebook, which is a large group of mamas in the Harrisburg area who have been or are all on their own breastfeeding journey. That group was an invaluable resource for me when parental anxieties started to knock me down and I am so grateful to have found them. Another great resource that I recommend to all breastfeeding mothers is Kelly Mom because it provides answers and reassurance to just about every wall you could possibly meet in your breastfeeding journey.
Shawna S. can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org