The following is a transcript of the audio. Transcript has been edited for clarity.
Emily: Welcome back to another Episode of Risen Motherhood. I’m Emily Jensen here with my sister-in-law, Laura Wifler. Today we are doing something different than we’ve done before. We are doing an interview-style show today and we’ll be talking about traumatic birth. Laura has experienced a traumatic birth and I know we mentioned on one of our birth plan episodes a while back that we wanted to address this topic, so that’s what we’re doing today. For those of you who have been through a birth, maybe you’re not even ready to classify it as traumatic and maybe you already have, but we hope that this is a blessing to you.
Laura: I feel a little bit nervous to be on the hot seat. It’s not any different than normal [laughter] but it feels like I’ve got to deliver today.
Emily: We hope that this delivery will not be stressful for you. [laughter] Laura, before we get started, I think there’s a lot of women out there who are like, “What is traumatic birth?” Does it mean you had a life threatening experience when you were delivering? Does it mean that you had an emergency C-section? What does traumatic birth mean?
Laura: It’s interesting because as I started to figure out, “This is what happened to me,” I went onto the Birth Trauma Association’s website, which was really helpful for me. I’d never known any of this stuff before. It is based on the mother’s experience of the events, regardless of what happened or what other people thought happened. It’s the mom’s perception, which was helpful because I didn’t have this classic story, this near death experience, or where my child was really sick, or something crazy was happening, or I was rushed to have a surgery, or anything like that.
It was helpful for me to hear that it was based on my experience or the mom’s experience. There are tons of triggers. A few I’ll list that I related to are: lengthy labor, poor pain relief, feelings of loss of control and impersonal treatment, or problems with staff attitudes, lack of information, or not being listened to. Those are the ones that I personally identified with but there are lots of others. With traumatic birth, it’s one of those things that technically, they would say 25% to 34% of moms are affected by this. I don’t know why that’s such a weird number but it’s a decent amount of women.
No matter what, we all have questions after birth of, “Did I make the right decision there? Did my husband or did the doctor make the right decision? Could there have been an easier way the birth could have gone? Could it have been better?” We all wonder that. This show hopefully will touch on some of those things as well.
Emily: I don’t think I would consider any of my deliveries traumatic. I certainly can relate to those feelings of disappointment in some areas, or evaluating some of the decisions that the doctor made or the way somebody treated me. I know you’ve mentioned to me in the past too, and I’ve even experienced this of, maybe you’re receiving some drugs after birth that can change your memory of what happened. That’s interesting too, how you were mentioning that sometimes people go through very intense events and they don’t even remember.
Laura: Once I was decompressing with my midwife, almost a year and a half later, I was telling her and she said, “Laura, a lot of women who experience crazy birth stuff don't feel the impact -everyone is like, 'Oh my word, how do you even ever want to give birth to a child again?' They have drugs that have memory loss in them and so a lot of those women are like, 'Yes, it was really terrible,' but they don’t remember it." It’s funny because I didn’t get any of that. Three years later, I remember a lot of the detail. That is something you have to keep in mind, especially if you’re like, “Why am I struggling so much?” because you feel like maybe you didn’t struggle. That could be the reason. I know plenty of friends who have had difficult births and it truly is still traumatic. Again, it’s up to how you have perceived it and what happened.
Emily: What were the things that made it traumatic for you specifically? Give us a flyover of your birth story.
Laura: I can’t go into all the detail just to make it with time, but I’d been lying low at home with contractions all day. At 10:00 p.m., I went into the hospital. I was at a four, so I was super happy. It was my first baby and I didn’t have to go home and all that stuff. Everything was very normal at that point. The biggest thing to know is that my son was OP or sunny-side up. I didn’t know that at the time and he never flipped so I actually ended up delivering him that way, which is not really common. Usually kids flip.
Emily: Laura and I always bond over this because [laughter] I’ve had two babies that were OP and with Laura, both were OP. Whenever we talk back pain, we can fist pump each other. [laughter]
Laura: I ended up being in labor for about 32 hours and that made me pretty tired. I think a lot of people have labors like that. I was pretty normal for a couple of hours. By midnight, I was at a seven and a half so I was starting to transition. I remember my nurse was like, “You’re doing so great!" [laughter] I had planned for and really desired a natural birth and so I was feeling good at this point, but then about three hours later, nothing had changed at all. I was totally stalled and at that point it had been about 20 hours.
I was pretty against medical intervention. I was saying no to my water breaking; my doctor kept on suggesting it. Another key thing is that my midwife was actually gone for my birth so I had an OB that I never met, which wasn’t a big deal but I was like, “Well, if my midwife were here, she wouldn’t break my water.” I had these thoughts. I said "no" to that for a long time. I said no to Pitocin, and they were really encouraging me, “You need to do something to move this baby,” so finally I let them break my water and nothing happened. That’s typical with OP babies but I didn’t know that. No one had told me, “Hey, your baby is OP; this is why some of these things are hard.”
Then when I got Pitocin, they basically said, “You can get Pitocin now or you can get Pitocin later or we’re giving you a C-section. You better agree to this because your body is too tired to birth this baby.” That was hard for me. It made me question my womanhood, my maternal abilities and I felt really inadequate. Going into birth, I was like, “I can do this. I’m powerful,” and drinking all the juice that the world tells us and I was really bummed.
Then the most difficult part happened in a span of 10 minutes of time. When I agreed to the Pitocin, I also agreed to an epidural. They kept asking me and I said, “Let’s do it. Everything’s out the window. Let’s do it.” [laughter] The anesthesiologist came in and he was having a bad day. He was in a hurry, he was a little bit rough with straightening up my shoulders and things, and said a few unkind words to me. I’m not even going to repeat them but with my signature and my appearance. It wasn’t the greatest bedside manner. I remember thinking, “Did I dream that? Did he just say those things?” My husband confirmed them later after birth. The hardest part about that is the epidural never worked. I remember feeling this sense of excitement when I finally agreed to the epidural. I was like, “Everybody tells me this is God’s gift for women’s curse.” [laughter]
Emily: I think I might have told you that too. [laughs]
Laura: I’m pretty sure it was you Emily, I’m pretty sure. A lot of women said it, but I had that ringing in my ears.
Emily: Here comes the big relief!
Laura: Yes, I was thinking, “I will be able to sleep!” You hear people wanting to sleep or to watch TV and no, no, no. The epidural didn’t work and the nurse, I kept telling her, “This doesn’t work, this doesn’t work,” she kept rolling me over. Long story short, a couple of hours of this back and forth, no one was really advocating for me. At that point, I was sleeping between contractions. I would wake up and have a contraction and fall back asleep. I felt so alone and I felt so angry at the nurse and the anesthesiologist. I blamed them for my pain and I felt like no one was advocating for me. My poor husband didn’t know what to do or say, and I felt like I was crazy, like I was making all this pain up in my head because she kept telling me, “No, it’s working.”
Emily: That’s the part of your story that’s so gut-wrenching for me because I know that at least two of the times that I’ve gotten to the point where I want the epidural, had it not worked, I was on the verge of exactly what you’re talking about. Of being literally terrified to experience another sharp painful contraction. I don’t know what I would have done had that relief not come. You’re counting on it and it would have been very scary and helpless to feel like, “I’m in pain and no one can do anything about it.”
Laura: I feel like that was the moment that I realized my humanity in a way. I was really close to my mortality as a woman, as a person, and the frailty of my existence. It was the closest I’ve ever come, like you said, to realizing my complete and utter helplessness in life. I was so hopeless and I remember saying to my husband, “Just let me go.” That’s so dramatic now but I meant it. I wanted whatever needed to happen to get this done. I needed to be done. I don’t care how it happens. That is the tipping point for me that made it a lot more difficult to recover from.
Emily: I know you’ve mentioned, on some of your blog posts about the anesthesiologist. Maybe we could get more into that. That that was something you had to go back and process and forgive later. I know only one time, in my last birth, my anesthesiologist said something to me on his way out about, "hoping I knew how kids happened." [laughter] He is, in essence, insulting like that was my fourth child. It’s near what you went through but in that moment, I was like, “Did you just say that to me? I hope this epidural works so I’m not mad about this in 10 minutes.” [laughter] But I cannot imagine. It is so hard because you have these people and you’re super, super vulnerable around them. You’re like, “This is the worst I’ve ever looked in my life.”
Laura: Exactly, and you have no control, and you’re pretty much naked. You’re just exposed. I felt mistreated and I was almost too tired to process it correctly or to say, “Hey, that’s not okay.” No one else stood up for me - and especially no one stood up for me when it didn't work. That was so hard for me because I told her so many times – I feel like I’m going to get emotional now but I told her so many times – “Can you please redo it?” and they kept telling me no. It doesn’t seem like that’s the way it should work.
Emily: You made it through your birth, and obviously, it had difficult points after that. How did that situation end? What were your first impressions about your birth experience?
Laura: I bottled it up and powered through. I know that when my son was born, I felt distant from him. I felt suspicious. I did not feel like the joy of meeting my child made me forget the pain, as so many moms have said, which again, questioned my maternal instincts. I felt ashamed and I didn’t tell anyone that. Going home, I felt like, “I’m just going to bulldoze through all of this. I don’t know what these feelings are. I’m guess I'm not a kid person,” but I would start getting these sharp stomach pains. As you recover from birth, there’s pain from your uterus shrinking and I remember being sent into a tizzy of fear.
I would have flashbacks and I would tell my husband, “We’re never having another child again. We’re going to adopt all of our children,” because we had been talking about adoption at that point. I was like, “We’re done. I can’t do it again.” I did get pregnant again because, I was a mind over matter person and we knew we wanted a second child. At my 12-week appointment for my second baby, my midwife said to me, “What’s your concern about pregnancy?” I said, “Pregnancy? I’m scared to deliver,” and I just started bawling. That was the moment I knew, and she knew, that I had had a traumatic birth and she actually brought that up to me. I didn’t know it was a thing but it felt so good to hear some validation and to just tell someone.
Emily: People feel varying degrees of fear going into their next delivery, but yes, as you mentioned, that intense reaction is an indicator and maybe even for women listening, a good indicator too. Even as you’re listening to this or as you talk about it, do you feel like you have a very, very strong reaction to what happened during your birth?
Laura: I would totally agree.
Emily: [laughs] I thought that was an interesting observation. You’re home and you’re processing through this in your second pregnancy. Transitioning into Risen Motherhood’s big mission. Although there are a ton of great clinical counseling type things women can do, on this show, we want to specifically look at how the Gospel impacts our mothering and even our birth experiences. What did that look like for you? How did your trust in God to uniquely play into this healing process for you?
Laura: The first thing was just to be okay admitting it. I think that as believers, we want to bring all things to the light, and sin, and shame, and inadequacy and, pain, and comparison - all of those things live in the dark. The moment I finally said it, and I hadn’t even said it to my husband yet besides making jokes and laughing around, I’d never admitted it until 14 months later but it felt so good to get it out there.
Then I think putting perspective on my suffering at a high level of trusting that God was sovereign over all that happened at my birth. I don’t necessarily understand to this day everything that happened, but I know that I can trust Him and that He uses imperfect things, and all things to draw us closer to Him and to bring Him glory. I do think even the fact that we are recording this show and can talk with other women. I’m grateful because I feel like God has given me a deep passion for women who have experienced this that I would have never before known about prior to this.
Emily: I didn’t know about traumatic birth until you started talking about it. It’s like all things, like when we’ve talked about our miscarriage episode or other things that moms go through that can sometimes be silent pain. It’s even good for people who haven’t been through it to hear it and to have that realization that there are hard experiences out there, and we need to be sensitive and aware of that. I know I appreciate the ministry he’s given other moms who’ve been through traumatic delivery.
Laura: I think traumatic births or just birth, again, makes us feel so vulnerable. I really think through that, it represented my deep need for a Savior and I love that picture. I hated the experience, but I know now, deep within me, what it’s like to be completely helpless, and that’s how I am to save myself from my sin. It’s a good picture of, "I need help and I cannot do this on my own." It’s a shadow of the coming of the King and so I love that too.
Emily: I’m sure in that moment when you do feel helpless, it suddenly is real that nothing earthly can provide any help. All the things that I was trusting in, like my nurses or my doctor or my husband or whatever, they can’t ultimately deliver and be consistent and perfect. That’s hard because a lot of times I feel like when we have idols in life, we don’t ever get to that point where we truly realize this is a dead thing. It doesn’t have the power to do what I’m asking it to do.
Laura: I think I had to remember that. When sin entered, imperfect painful birth became a reality; part of the curse, but at the same time, I can look at my son today and know that God granted me grace. There are so many other things that could have gone wrong and there are so many other bad things that could have happened but I have my beautiful son. There were other ways that God gave me grace in the childbearing, of having my husband by my side the whole time. Em and I have talked about these, on some other previous birth episode, of all the ways that you can find God’s grace especially as a woman giving birth in the modern era or whatever.
Emily: [laughs] I wanted to touch back on this forgiveness element too. I know that I have not experienced it to a very large degree but I’ve had little things that I look back on and like, “Why didn’t this person advocate for me more?” or, “Why didn’t my doctor make this decision?” Just that element of being willing to forgive. Not saying, “It’s all okay,” but to validate it and then say, “But I’m going to forgive them.” How did that experience work for you with some of the people that you felt didn’t do their job well?
Laura: Forgiveness was a huge piece of it. For a long time, I did blame that anesthesiologist and the nurse and I felt very wronged and hurt. First of all, just saying, “How can I be the first to judge? I’m imperfect too. I have bad days and I make bad decisions. I treat people unkindly.” The whole, “I’ve been forgiven. I can forgive others.” Part of that healing process came about too, when my midwife suggested I write a letter to the hospital staff and let them know. You can read more about that on the blog. I think that was a huge part of my healing, not in a complainy, crazy way but just to let them know what happened. I ended up asking for those particular staff members to not service me in my next birth. That was a request put in there and I think that gave me a lot of peace. I know it’s more on the practical side but it gave me a lot of peace of, “I can forgive them and move on but that doesn’t mean that I have to use their services again necessarily.” [laughs]
Working that out in my heart of, again, God was sovereign over that. I can learn from that experience by not having them with me next time and let the hospital staff know we’re their customers. They want us to have a good experience. I ended up getting a call from the head of anesthesiology at that hospital. He gave me his home phone number and said, “You call me. When you go into labor, if you want me to come do it myself, I will.” I delivered on New Year’s Eve you guys and so this guy was willing to give up Christmas around my due date and say, “I’ll come in and service you myself.” It was so sweet and so kind. It wasn’t necessary but it was certainly a really neat thing that came out of it.
Emily: I love those personal things that the Lord does for us. When I feel like we are going through a healing process, I don’t know how many times I’ve had something like that where you’re like, “There’s no explanation for why this person or this thing is being so kind and so gracious to me.” Only the Lord knows how personally healing those things can be.
Laura: It’s funny because I didn’t even take advantage of that. I told him, “No, no, no,” but it was pretty cool. It was like the offer was all I needed.
Emily: If there’s a woman listening who is processing this and she’s like, “Wow, I think maybe this is me. Maybe I’ve had a traumatic birth,” or maybe she already knows she’s had a traumatic birth and she feels stuck, what would you say from the perspective of another believer, one sister in Christ to another?
Laura: First, no matter who you are, I will validate you all day just to remind you that you are not crazy. No matter what happened, to not stuff that down, but to bring that to light. That is where we want to be as believers. It’s okay to mourn that experience and it’s okay to process it and to say what happened.
Also, remember that it’s our deepest need that brings us to the Lord. We can find shadows of the coming redemption of our Savior and what our need is for Him and so look at that from an eternal perspective. I know that doesn’t necessarily heal what happened in that moment, but it gives us good perspective and hope on what sin does and why we need Jesus.
I would also remind them to get professional help; there’s nothing wrong with that. I ended up having some counseling through my doula and my midwife. I didn’t see a counselor, but they were awesome and we talked through it back and forth. It was so good with my husband in the room. I think that that is a really important part. Also, remember this was my midwife - I so appreciated this - she said, “Remember that that traumatic experience doesn’t define any subsequent births.” It doesn’t define you as a woman. It doesn’t define your maternal instinct, or your ability to be a good mother. That was something that I needed to hear. Our culture so emphasizes pride as a woman and having these great births, however that looks, but epidural or not, natural or not, you got the one you wanted. There’s that shame that comes with feeling like you didn’t do it or you weren’t woman enough. The reality is we can’t do anything on our own. That we aren’t enough on our own. It’s Christ’s perfect sacrifice on the cross that bridges that. I would remind whoever is listening that feels this way that that is not who you are and it does not define you as a mom. Remember your identity in Christ and who He is and what He’s done for you.
Emily: We’ve tried to talk about this on previous episodes of when we are identifying ourselves with an experience or with an expectation that we had, or with something that we didn’t look up to. Sometimes the answer to that isn’t to analyze the situation to death but to learn to turn our eyes to Christ and to look at who He is and to worship Him. Remember that ultimately, it’s not about our story. We want to validate it like Laura said, and heal from it and talk about it, and then turn our eyes to Christ, and learn to worship Him in the midst of hard things.
Laura: That’s a really good point Em. One last thing, of just saying that you don’t have to analyze it to death, or figure out all the whys. I still don’t know why. I had to move on from that and let that go because I don’t think the healing will come unless you can say, “I give that to you Lord as a mystery of God.” As maybe someone who has experienced that, letting those questions go of, “Why did I have to go that way?” or, “Why did he/she do this at that point?” and stuff.
Emily: If you were listening, I would think you can relate, because as you mentioned at the beginning of the show, even if you haven’t had what would be considered a traumatic birth, we all have disappointments with birth and things are difficult to work through, and comments that someone made that are hard to hear, or [laughs] what not. I hope that this was helpful. Laura, and I have been and will continue pray for those of you who have been through this.
We will make sure that our show notes are loaded with resources for you guys as always and all of Laura’s things that she’s written because she’s written a lot on this. If you want more, definitely go there. Thanks again for listening. Leave us a rating and a review if you’d like. That’s awesome for us and awesome for getting the word out about Risen Motherhood.
Laura: Thanks for listening guys.