Overcoming Trauma and Restoring Faith in My Body
by Leah Hasse
Like many new mothers, when I found out I was pregnant with my first child I felt overwhelmed at making sure I had the best care possible. I didn’t know much about birth, and I realized that in turn, I didn’t know much about my own body and its incredible abilities. I grew up in a culture that chanted things like, “Listen to your body,” while simultaneously running to the doctor for drugs at the first sign of a cold. I questioned myself and my ability to harmonize my mind, body and spirit to bring a child into the world.
I set out to find an obstetrician and was quickly dissatisfied. I cycled through two offices rather quickly before finding an OB whom I thought could provide respectful, quality care. At one of my early appointments, he asked me if I had any questions, and I pulled out my list. His whole demeanor changed. How dare I question him. He became moody and defensive when I asked him about his methods and theories. It became quite clear that he was willing to lie and manipulate, to promise things I wanted, only to take them away later when I was hooked up to machines and on my back in a hospital bed, at his mercy.
I didn’t go back to his office again. My angel of a sister-in-law had recently sent us the documentary The Business of Being Born and it changed everything. I started searching for a team of midwives. I thought that if I was in the care of midwives at a birth center, that I would be safe. I put too much security in the title and the location.
My husband and I found a birth center that was 45 minutes away that seemed like a great option. It aligned with our ideals, and I was confident that I would receive respectful, evidence-based care with no unnecessary interventions. On the morning I went into labor, I was nervous, but I had faith in my team. As it turned out, the midwife on call that day had no faith in me, nor my body’s ability to birth my son.
My midwife did not listen, did things to which I repeatedly said no, and routinely lied to us. My husband had to battle her every step of the way, and he had to constantly protect me and keep the midwife from taking over our experience. My labor took 23 hours because I was so nervous and didn’t trust my care provider. She did things and gave me drugs “for my safety” or “to help” that we later learned were unnecessary. When we asked for reasons and side effects, she made things up. Despite having done our research, and arming ourselves with as much knowledge as we could, we don’t know every medication out there, and we trusted her to be honest.
After only four hours of labor (the average first-time mom labors for 12+ hours), she began to wear me down mentally. She told me I was taking too long – that I was failing to progress. She would forcibly do painful cervical checks and then complain that I was not dilated enough. At one point, she allowed a tour of over 20 people to walk through the birth center while I was laboring in nothing but a tank top and a bathrobe. I felt like an animal in a cage, and I was horrified that she had such little regard for such a sacred space.
My husband made her back off from pushing me to go to the hospital. He encouraged me to walk, to get in the shower, and he kept me calm. I finally conceded to transfer to the hospital just to get away from her. On the 7 minute ride, I dilated from 4cm to 9.5cm, but I was exhausted. My husband and the hospital nurses helped me through the intense contractions and wiped my tears when I decided to get an epidural so I could rest before pushing. My body was depleted mentally and physically, and I felt like a failure.
The midwife still attended the birth at the hospital, and she again attempted to give me a slew of drugs that I had firmly told her I did not want. Though she pushed, we didn’t give in. My husband pushed her out of the way as my son was born, and he caught our son and placed him on my chest. The midwife refused to wait to let the local anaesthesia take effect before giving the few stitches that were necessary, despite me vocalizing the pain. She also lied to me and told me I was bleeding too much, and that she was worried. She insisted on giving me a shot of Pitocin. After reviewing medical records with other health care professionals, I have found that she again lied to me so she could manipulate me into letting her have her way and that I was at no risk of bleeding in excess.
When I complained to the birth center, their excuse was that she was going through some personal things. It was a weak excuse that flippantly dismissed the trauma she caused. I’m still kicking myself for not filing a formal complaint and wondering if I still can. It seems that if you walk away with a healthy baby, medical professionals act as though you should exude only gratitude and excuse their wrong-doings.
My experience compounded the stress of being a new mother, and when I developed Postpartum Depression, it took me a long time to realize exactly how my birth experience was contributing. New mothers are faced with a lot. No matter how prepared one is, there is still so much that just cannot be fully understood until it happens. While the experience of motherhood is a beautiful one, it can come with a very difficult transition period. My birth experience added an additional layer of stress, and it wasn’t until I healed from it that I realized what a hold on me it had, and how it robbed me of much of my happiness during my first stage of motherhood.
With my second son, we decided to have a home birth, but I was terrified. I was so scarred from my first experience and had so much anxiety at the thought of doing it again. I would start crying, and even have panic attacks when the reality of having to give birth for a second time hit me. I was full of self-doubt and self-loathing at feeling like a failure. I didn’t think I could overcome my fear or my trauma. I thought that it would be a permanent scar for me to carry my entire life.
Luckily we found Selena Green of Hale Kealaula. We hired her as our homebirth midwife and she was everything I needed. She listened to me, let me cry, and genuinely understood where I was coming from. There were no forced exams, no power struggle, no fear that something might be done to me that I didn’t consent to. My husband could relax and fully be with me because he wasn’t constantly arguing and having to protect me. My older son was able to participate at the appointments, and he quickly got into the routine of checking my temperature and blood pressure and measuring my belly. Everyone was respected and included.
Because I was in the comfort of my own home, I could relax. I remember putting my older son to bed the night I went into labor. He was barely two at the time. I hugged him tightly a read him a story. I knew that would be the last time he would go to sleep an only child. When I finally pried myself from his side, the contractions were back to back, but not unbearable. I called my midwife and then tried to lay down to get some rest for the long night ahead.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t sleep. Everything was too intense and moving too fast. I could feel the baby drop into position to get ready. I felt a pang of anxiety as I remembered my first experience. I looked at my husband with tears in my eyes. I told him that I couldn’t do it and that I wanted to go to the hospital. He knew, of course, that that wasn’t true and that I was just vocalizing my fears. He held me close, kissed me, and told me that he knew I could. He told me that my body was powerful, strong and capable.
I asked my husband to call my midwife again. Since my labor with my first was 23 hours, I did not expect to progress quite so quickly with the second – it had been less than 4 hours since the contractions had started. I made my way to the bathroom and filled the tub. When I got in, I realized I wasn’t getting out again without a baby in my arms. Just when I thought the contractions couldn’t get any more intense, they did. My midwife, who lived rather far away, had still not arrived, and I was getting nervous.
I told my husband that the baby was coming, and he stayed calm. I don’t remember how long it took after I said those words, or how many pushes followed, but my son was born in our bathtub with only my husband present. My husband again got to catch his child, and place him on my chest. The whole event was so intimate and overwhelmingly beautiful. I was amazed at myself and my body. I felt powerful and capable of anything. My anxiety was gone. My fear was gone. All that was left was love and pride.
I understand that many are uncomfortable with giving birth at home, and would rather be in a hospital. That’s totally okay. A beautiful birthing experience can be achieved no matter how or where it happens, but everyone must be on the side of the person giving birth. Whether the birth is medicated, unmedicated, or by Cesarean, it is sacred, and no one should enter the room who has hidden agendas or who does not have the utmost respect for women and this process. Doctors, nurses, and even naysaying family members have the power to ruin everything very quickly. For my family, standing by what we wanted was crucial. If my husband hadn’t taken charge and fought for me when I was vulnerable and scared, who knows what would have happened.
Unfortunately after talking to countless friends and acquaintances, I have found that my first experience is the norm. I have talked to so many friends who have described moments of abuse and even assault, but have been told to forget about it because they should just be thankful they have healthy babies. I know more people who have had less than ideal births than who had births where they felt like they were truly listened to and respected. There are many who don’t even know that what was done to them was wrong.
Both a traumatic birth and a perfect birth are transformative. Though birth doesn’t have to happen at home to be healing, my home birth truly healed me, and I will be forever thankful for the experience.
Leah currently lives in Germany with her family. She loves everything related to the outdoors, and can often be found hiking or camping with her husband and two children. She enjoys traveling, studying languages, and taking random classes online to learn new skills. She hopes to use her writing to bring people together and to challenge biases surrounding motherhood.