(Warning: TMI to follow)
I posted about my son’s birth five months postpartum. A poem I saw a poem on Facebook the other day that inspired me to revisit the experience now that two years have passed. After all, when I originally posted, I was in the trenches with a colicky baby who still slept in 45-minute to 3-hour stretches, and was adjusting to life as a working mother.
Looking back, however, I still feel as I did right after my baby was born: I never want to do that again.
Now, that doesn’t mean I won’t have another child. Maybe I will decide one day that giving Remy a sibling is worth it. I don’t know. What I do know is that if I ever do that again, I’m getting some kind of painkiller.
I realize that the pandemic definitely impacted my birth experience. Like probably all expectant mothers in 2020, my prenatal care was severely limited, and my isolation almost complete. But even without the pandemic, I believe it would have been isolating and traumatic.
The poem resonated deeply with me. It was written by a mother and contrasted the care her newborn received with the lack of care she experienced. Numerous well-baby visits and one, almost perfunctory 8-week check for the mother.
That doesn’t mean that mothers don’t want their babies to have the best care. Of course we do! In fact, it seems like most mothers virtually disappear into their new role, sacrificing themselves for their child. (That, in itself is a problem too, although I don’t have time to go into it right now.)
That’s why it is so disheartening that the medical care new mothers receive mirrors this disappearing.
The United States has a surprising lack of postnatal care. It also has the highest maternal mortality rate of any industrialized country, over half of which occurs postpartum. And that number just keeps growing, especially since 2020, and especially for black and Hispanic women.
Studies have shown that many more mothers sustain undiagnosed injuries during childbirth than previously thought. One study found that, among higher risk women, 29% had undiagnosed pelvic fractures, and 41% had pelvic floor muscle tears. And it took some women up to 8 months to heal. It’s estimated that up to 15% of women experience injuries that never fully heal.
Mostly, women don’t complain, because they figure any discomfort is just normal. Or, if they do, often their concerns are dismissed for the same reason.
Don’t get me wrong: we should definitely recognize pregnancy and birth as a normal part of life. But there’s a difference between a healthy view of birth and minimizing the fact that pregnancy pushes the human body to its limits. And that’s before actually giving birth, which is “arguably the most traumatic event the human body can undergo.”
If we do talk about the blood and tears of birth, we feel the impulse to say, “but it was so worth it,” afterward. As if we cannot hold both extremes in our hands at once—the limits of endurance and the love we have for our babies.
I don’t remember any postnatal care, although I’m certain I had an appointment at some point. I have a vague memory of holding my baby on my stomach so he wouldn’t cry as a nurse briefly examined me.
What I do remember is the 4 months it took for my tear to fully heal. The restless leg so bad my limbs would thrash out against my will. The awful sweating in the days following my son’s birth as my body shed excess water weight.
Being unable to walk without help for 4 days afterward. Breastfeeding through the pain for two years until my son finally weaned himself. Crying in the shower as memories of the birth flooded my mind. Crying because I felt like I didn’t matter, like it shouldn’t affect me this much. After all, birth and motherhood are “normal.”
Over a year after the birth of my son, I had a regular checkup with my doctor. She took one look at my cervix and asked if I had had an unusually fast or traumatic delivery.
“No,” I said, because there had been no complications. It was an 18-hour intense and horrible event, but in a strictly medical sense it had gone quite well. Still, my doctor informed me that my cervix hadn’t quite healed yet from the delivery.
How many women, I wondered, are walking around asking themselves what is wrong with them, why can’t they get “back to normal” like they’re supposed to, when their bodies still hold evidence of birth? Scars where no one can see them, where no one has stopped to check.