I’m going to be honest: this story is not for everyone. A woman’s birth is an intensely personal and deeply subjective experience. Yet it also comes along with powerful emotions that can be difficult to sort through and process. It is for that reason that I chose to write out my birth and postpartum story; it’s for my healing. Please do remember that every pregnancy and birth is unique, even for the same woman. My story will not look or sound like yours, and it will likely differ from any future pregnancies I may have as well. However, this story is mine, and I believe there is power in telling it. If nothing else, please respect my right to own my experiences.
when they hear your story
upon hearing your story,
and this is how
know. (nayyirah waheed)
My son Atticus was born in the middle of a late July heatwave, a stretch of long, torturous days that seemed never-ending, in many different ways. He was only a day past his due date, yet he had been anticipated to arrive several days before. At the very moment I first heard his shrieking cries, I burst into tears myself, partially because of joy but also because of my deep relief that it was finally over. He was here at long last.
During my pregnancy, I had been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, and there was always a bit of apprehension about baby’s size as the pregnancy progressed. For this reason, my doctors and I had made the decision early on that if I had not gone into labor on my own by Atticus’ due date, I would be induced.
As my due date crept near, my body showed very little signs of getting ready to labor on its own. It appeared he was quite comfortable in there and didn’t want to come out any time soon. So, a day and a half before the due date, I checked into the hospital to begin the induction process. A quick check revealed what I already knew: my cervix was closed, high, and posterior, which meant labor would have to be jumpstarted. I was given a medication to help begin the process, and after 12 hours, I was checked again. Still high, still posterior, but dilated to 1 cm. Another medication was given, each dose lasting for 4 hours each. I was given 4 doses. Throughout the 16 hours, the contractions began. None were terribly painful in and of themselves, but they were regular, and I prayed they were doing their job. After the 16 hours, I was checked again. I had dilated another centimeter and was 70% effaced. The doctors did not want to give any more of that particular medicine, for fear it would affect Atticus’ heart, so the decision was made to let me get up, walk around and try to labor a bit on my own. By this point, it was the middle of the afternoon on his due date, and I started to wonder if he was ever going to come. My husband and I hadn’t slept in nearly three days, and there were several times where I simply broke down in tears due to the sheer physical and mental exhaustion I was feeling.
After I was allowed a shower and a real meal, I got back in bed for another check. No progress. Various interventions were attempted, but they were too painful for me to handle, so it was at this point that Pitocin was started, in hopes it would kick up the contractions and move my labor along. After 4 hours of the IV, I had dilated to 3 centimeters, was 80% effaced, and was starting to have regular, intensifying contractions. The doctors left, all of us hopeful that the Pitocin was going to do the job. We all expected progress at the next check.
Except I didn’t progress. Four hours later, my body was in the same shape it had been, except I was in more pain as the Pitocin was upped and contractions became more severe. 48 hours into the process, my water was broken, and an internal contraction monitor was placed so doctors could see how effective the contractions were. It was at this point that I asked for an epidural, as the pain was getting too much to handle on my own. I had previously been unsure that I would want one, but as I was quickly learning, much of what had been in my original birth plan was being thrown out the window, and I had to simply roll with the punches and deal with what came up along the way. The epidural was great; it relaxed me enough that I was finally able to get a few hours of sleep. The doctors came in to check me again—no progress. Baby’s heart rate was excellent, but there was concern over how well I was doing. The epidural was wearing off, and I was in such brutal pain that I was shaking uncontrollably and moaning, unable to actually speak. They did several more checks. Nothing had changed. I started hearing the words I had feared most: “failure to progress”. I had my list of positive birth affirmations nearly memorized, and I kept repeating a particular one to myself over and over again. “Failure to progress does not mean I am a failure.” Still, even though I said the words aloud, my heart was breaking a little bit. The truth is, I did feel like a failure. I felt like my body was somehow broken, like I was less of a woman because I couldn’t do the one thing that was required of me: birth my child.
Around hour 59, the doctor and nurse came in once more to discuss the plan. Since my labor was “failing to progress” even though my body had been given ample time to do so, it was thought best to do a C-section before he or I started to show further signs of distress. (We later found out that his head was wedged at an angle against my pelvic bone instead of in the birth canal, which meant that the C-section would most likely have been inevitable anyway). Of course, my husband and I had already made up our minds that we would do whatever it takes to ensure a healthy baby and healthy mom. Still, even as they began prepping me for the operating room and handed my husband his pair of scrubs, I felt a twinge of grief as I said goodbye to the kind of birth I had so desperately wanted, the birth I had dreamed about. It was at that moment that I realized something: “Moms who have had c-sections need and deserve respect and love for the way they birthed. We need to honor all ways of birth, even the ones that didn’t go as we planned” (Zipp). I was feeling guilty and ashamed, afraid of being judged by others for not being “able” to birth my son, even as I was judging myself. It didn’t hit me until later of course, after I had started to process and work through some of the emotions surrounding my birth experience, but somewhere along the line, I started to understand. “We are still mothers…” I am a still a mother. “…We just had our babies through what I like to call a little kangaroo kind of pouch” (Zipp).
I was wheeled into the operating room around 7 am, and at 7:33, my husband and I first heard the beautiful sound of our son’s cries. Instead of being immediately placed on my chest as I had previously hoped for, he was carried off by doctors and nurses to be assessed. K was able to go cut the cord a few moments later, and he carried our sweet Atticus back over to where I was spread-eagle on the operating table, being stitched back up. I couldn’t hold him, even though I ached to do so each time I heard another of his little cries. But I kissed his beautiful face over and over again, whispering in his ear that he was okay, he was safe, he was loved. I don’t have words to describe what that moment felt like, when I first saw his precious face, so strikingly similar to his father’s, or when I breathed in his smell or touched his perfect soft skin with my lips. That moment was deeply sacred for me; it was pure love and bliss and relief and joy. Time stood still, and I knew for that instant, I was on something of holy ground.
Atticus was brought to me while I was in the recovery room for some skin-to-skin (finally!) and nursing time. He had been rooting since birth, and it was apparent he was quite hungry. He latched quite easily, all snuggled up against my right side, and appeared to eat contentedly for nearly a half hour. I was on cloud nine, confident that things were finally headed in the right direction.
However, in the following 48 hours of my stay at the hospital (making my total stay six long days), Atticus and I ran into our first round of problems regarding breastfeeding. He was hungry constantly, but my milk hadn’t come in yet and colostrum didn’t seem to be satisfying him. I’d cry every time he’d nurse, because he’d latch on quickly and try to suck, only to lose his latch and begin crying a minute or two later. Additionally, I was recovering from my C-section, which meant my range of motion was extremely limited. I couldn’t pick him up or maneuver him from one side to the other, so I had to rely on my husband or nurses to help get him in position. I tried different holds, different sides, hoping each time we’d find the one that would magically fit for us. We had an hour-long visit from the hospital’s lactation consultant, who gave us many tricks and tips that didn’t seem to work for longer than a few moments. Atticus continued to struggle with his latch and his suck, and I continued to struggle to produce and position him. I started to dread feeding times, and then I’d burst into tears, guilty that I could even feel that way. What kind of mother am I? I wondered.
Our first night home from the hospital was excruciating. Atticus slept only a little, crying most of the night out of hunger. I’d attempt to feed him, and he’d unlatch only after a moment, screaming and trying to latch on again. The cycle continued. The next day, my milk came in, and things seemed to be a bit better while the sun was shining. But at night, we found ourselves in the same situation. All of us were exhausted and frustrated, and I was at a loss. My son was hungry, and I could not satisfy his hunger. There is no worse feeling in the world, of that I am sure. I felt like a failure as a mother, as a woman. Finally, “we fed him a bottle of the ready-to-feed formula gifted to us by the hospital “just in case” he had trouble nursing when we got home. He sucked it down as if he hadn’t eaten in days and slept peacefully for hours, but I lay awake guiltily crying at how I had failed my son” (Garcia, 2014).
The guilt was like a darkness that simply would not go away, and it started to make me feel like I was losing my mind. I texted friends and family. I sent email and Facebook messages asking for help and advice. I pored over blogs and articles on my phone in the middle of the night, looking for tips. I saw another lactation consultant, who noticed Atticus seemed to have a bit of weak latch and sucking reflex, but urged me to keep at it. I pumped, but then I wasn’t sleeping, because the only time I really had to do the pumping was when Atticus was napping. I cried constantly, especially during feeding times. My husband was worried about me. I was worried about me.
“In addition to my guilt, I felt rejected since my son wouldn’t nurse from me. I felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with me that I couldn’t master breastfeeding, which I foolishly thought would be the most natural thing in the world. … I constantly second guessed myself and my abilities as a mother. In my darkest moments, I wondered if it was a mistake to have a baby in the first place. I wondered where I got off thinking I was capable of caring for another human being. I wept for my poor son who was stuck with a mother who was so woefully unable to give him the care he deserved. It felt like a cruel joke. I felt miserable during the time in my life that should have been the most joyful” (Garcia, 2014). I kept trying to nurse during the day, but then everything would fall apart again at night, and out came the formula once more. I had heard it a million times, even saying it myself: “Breast is best.” Yet here I was with a hungry newborn who didn’t seem to want to—or perhaps was even unable to—nurse at my breast at all. And now, “every time I heard “breast is best,” a little piece of my heart broke that I had to give my baby less than the best” (Garcia, 2014).
We had already spoken to Atticus’ pediatrician regarding our breastfeeding struggles, and she was so incredibly gracious and understanding, vowing to support us no matter what. “There is nothing wrong with giving your baby formula,” she told us, tears in her own eyes as she listened to me cry out my guilt, shame, and fear surrounding our feeding issues. Still, I was scared of disappointing people if I gave up breastfeeding. I was worried that they’d see me as weak, lose respect for me as a mother, judge me for not being able to be strong and get through it. Two days later, I went to my own doctor for an incision check, and I broke down in tears when she asked me how everything was going. We both agreed that much of my broken emotional state had to do with the anxiety around breastfeeding, and she asked if I had considered making the switch to bottle. I shared with her all my worries, and she simply hugged me, handed me some tissue and told me, “Fed is best. As long as you are feeding your baby, that’s what’s best.” She reassured me that I was a great mom, whether I fed my son via breast or bottle, and reminded me that I needed to be aware of my own health in addition to Atticus’. We talked about what it would look like, practically, to switch to formula, and as she walked me to the door after my appointment, she promised to support me no matter what I decided. In the car, I tearfully recounted everything to my husband, and then I said the words I had been so terrified to speak out loud: “I think I want to stop breastfeeding.” With tears in our eyes, we both agreed that it seemed to be the best decision for our family. We took a few moments to mourn what could have been, what we hoped would have been, and then we started the car.
From that moment on, everything was different. For the first time since his birth, I actually enjoyed being able to feed my son, to sit with him in my arms, singing soft lullabies as he happily sucked on a bottle. Both he and I became so much more calm, more relaxed; we learned to ease into each other, something we’d been unable to do earlier. Atticus started sleeping better now that his tummy was full, and he wasn’t as fussy or impossible to calm whenever he did cry. I began to relax into my role as mama instead of always being tense or on edge. My husband joyfully began to participate in feedings too, making it a whole family affair and an experience that only brought us further together.
It’s only been two weeks since I have stopped breastfeeding, but I can say with 100% certainty that I absolutely made the best choice for both myself and my family. Atticus is “growing beautifully”, according to his pediatrician, and I am getting healthier by the day as well. There are moments of grief I have to walk through as I reflect on this whole experience and come to terms with the fact that none of it played out the way I would have chosen for it to. Yet I find myself hanging on to the truth in a beautiful quote by Jill Churchill, which says that “There’s no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.” Motherhood, thus far, has taught me to lay down my perfectionism and need for control, for they are no good to me these days; what matters most is my healthy, thriving son. And if that comes about while he’s cradled in the crook of my arm, drinking deeply from a bottle while he stares into my eyes and we smile at each other, then so be it.
In this post, I referenced two articles, one about C-section birth and one about postpartum depression and breastfeeding. Both of these articles literally took the words right out of my mouth, and it means so much to me to know there are women out there who have stories similar to my own. If you know a mama struggling with any of the above issues, I highly recommend checking them out.
A Love Letter to C-Section Moms (That Everyone Should Read) by Michele Zipp