January is Mental Health Wellness Month. We know that many moms – some of us included! – experience postpartum difficulties after welcoming a new baby. The gospel meets us even in those moments. Join us as we look at difficult birth stories, postpartum depression, and postpartum anxiety and OCD. We pray this series brings hope amidst the pain.
It took me 14 months and a second pregnancy to admit I had a traumatic birth. Nearly a year and a half later, I finally realized what had been hovering over my shoulder like a black cloud, a haze enveloping me ever since the birth of my first. I was lying on my back at my twelve week appointment, the paper crinkling underneath me and my midwife pressing on my abdomen, when she asked me nonchalantly about what concerns I had for this pregnancy. Pregnancy? None. I had no concerns, no questions, nothing to share about pregnancy.
But quietly, timidly, I said, "But I'm a little nervous about birth." I didn't want her to think it was a big deal; for her or my husband who was in the room to think that I was too scared. I had been thinking about labor and delivery since the moment I got pregnant the second time, but had never admitted that I was nervous for it. I think I just wanted to test out what it would feel like to say it out loud.
"Okay, what are you nervous for then?" my midwife asked.
Like releasing a dam, the tears flowed faster than I could stop them. I didn't even know where they were coming from. I didn't even know they existed until that very moment. Suddenly I could barely breathe, as I admitted everything to my midwife, telling her about the flashbacks, the pain, the fear, the shame. I had hidden all of these things away deep in my heart, feeling that I wasn't allowed to admit them, I had a healthy baby boy at home after all, everything turned out fine! I didn't even have a scary story - there was no dramatic moment, no near-death experience, not even a hint of emergency.
But that day, I told her everything. I told her how alone and helpless I felt during birth. How scared I was. I told her about my anger at the anesthesiologist and the nurse anesthetist. How I've been harboring bitterness and blame against them for not listening to me, for telling me (in different words) that I was crazy and delusional. I told her how disappointed I was that she wasn't at my birth and there was no one to advocate for me, no one to explain to me what was really happening and why my son was stuck. I told her how ashamed I was about how I felt when I met my son and didn't feel anything close to joy, only anger and skepticism and relief that it was finally over. I admitted how I felt like less of a woman because I didn’t “do it on my own,” and less of a mother when meeting my son didn't make me forget any of the pain, like so many other mothers told me it would.
I admitted that I felt ashamed of all of those feelings because when I compare my birth to other women's stories, mine sounds easy. I didn't want to sound like a whiner or complainer, so I kept these thoughts hidden to myself, telling myself I was just being dramatic, that maybe I really was, as the nurse anesthetist said: Crazy.
But I couldn't help but wonder, "Did it have to go that way? Did we make the right choices? Could there have been an easier way?"
By that point, the midwife held a tissue box in one hand and my hand in the other. She looked at me and told me what I had been longing to hear for so long: "Honey, you are not crazy."
Then, she handed me a tissue she said, "You had a traumatic birth."
I think our deepest fears are faced when we experience trauma. In the moments between my body beginning contractions and finally meeting my son, I came the closest to my mortality as a person I had ever been. Traumatic births bring the fragility of our existence front and center.
As women, there can be a natural desire to hide our trauma. Especially when we know on the days after birth – as we retell our story to someone who just brought a casserole – that no one will think our birth story is especially remarkable. We tend to glaze over the emotions, making jokes about our pain or not mentioning it at all. We know someone else has a harder story, so how can we say our story is hard? Someone else's story is more sad, more weird, more dangerous, more brave; how can we compare?
But the emotions that come with a traumatic birth: shame, inadequacy, comparison, blame, guilt, anger – they are real and they exist, no matter the scale we put them on. Those are the things that live in the darkness, yet God calls us to bring all things into the light. Sin loves the dark, but it is at the darkest points of our stories that the light shines the brightest.
The truth is, we live in a fallen world. Our culture tells us to worship the female body, that it was built to give birth, and it should be the most natural thing in the world. But the curse on Eve and childbearing is a reality all women live with. It is no longer natural, it's unnatural, pocketed with imperfection, speckled with sin. All of today's natural childbirth books in the world can tell us that we women are "warriors, and with the right mental outlook, birth can be a wonderful, pain-free experience." And while I don't doubt that some of stories of a joy-filled, natural labor and delivery are true (because we serve a God that is lavish with his grace, even in a sinful world), for most of us, our birth misses the mark in some way.
But there is hope. Coming to us through the very same process we are struggling through, the very process God cursed: Mary carried Christ for nine months, laboring, groaning, and finally delivering our redeemer in a barn. This was no "Mother Baby Birthing Center," there was no whirlpool tub, no aromatherapy, and I doubt Joseph knew what counter pressure was. But it was through childbirth that God sent our redeemer, who would eventually bear the curse on the cross, taking away all our shame, suffering, and trauma, and replace them with hope, peace, and grace.
God used the curse, to break the curse.
And it’s here that we work through a difficult or traumatic birth. We first put our suffering in its rightful place: remembering that imperfect births are a reality of the fall, bringing with it imperfect providers, decisions, medications, and advocacy. But these are the things that God uses to draw us to himself. The outward groaning of us in childbirth points to creation's inward groaning for the coming of the true King. As we long for redemption from the pains of childbirth, our hearts long for the true redemption that will come with the return of our Savior.
And it's through this lens we can process a traumatic or difficult birth story:
Take time to mourn your experience. Healing happens when we bring things into the light. Acknowledge your feelings with your husband, a trusted friend, maybe even a professional. On the advice of my midwife, I even ended up writing a letter to my hospital to help me process.
Remind yourself that God is sovereign over all that happened at your birth. All things are created and done to glorify him. Even if it didn't go according to your plan, God is still good. Do you love him more than your perfect plan?
Find the grace. God's grace is everywhere! Imperfect births are part of the fall, but there are so many areas that God still grants us grace that we don't deserve. Doctors, doulas, monitors, medications, air conditioners, comfortable beds, birthing tubs, the fact that our husbands can be by our sides during childbirth - the graces are endless when you start thinking through them.
Forgive your providers for areas you've been wronged. Release the bitterness and anger at the base of the cross. Because you've been forgiven, you can forgive the wrongs done against you.
Remember your true identity. Our culture tells us we're "goddesses" but that's worshiping the created instead of the Creator. When we feel ashamed that we "couldn't do it" or we were not "woman enough" we have to remind ourselves that we can't do anything on our own. God is the giver of life, and it’s Christ's perfect sacrifice on the cross that bridges the chasm between our bodies and the ability to be a life-giver.
See your birth experience as a way to point others to Christ. In your weakness, he is strong. Find ways to highlight his goodness in your birth story. Remember a difficult birth is not your final story, but only a shadow of your true life to come. Birth and its pain, imperfections, and unknowns are things that point ultimately to our need for a Savior that will one day come and deliver us.
For me, the process of healing came slowly, for I had buried my trauma as deeply as I could. But once it was unearthed, I was surprised to find how God transformed it from something ugly, scary, and horrible, to something filled with meaning, grace, and love, pointing me to redemption and gratefulness for all that Christ has done.
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Laura Wifler is the Co-Founder of Risen Motherhood and the Co-Host of the weekly podcast. She's a wife and mom to three littles. Laura likes her coffee black, going on hikes, reading books with real pages to turn, and having impromptu dance parties in the kitchen with her children.