Thoughts 2 years postpartum

(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.

This was the biggest smile I could muster.

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.

To all those who said birth is beautiful

I want to say you’re either a liar or delusional… but that wouldn’t be very nice. And it’s (probably) not true. I’m sure for some bringing their baby boy or girl into the world was, in a way, beautiful.

But that just begs the question: What’s wrong with me?

The last word I would use to describe my birth is beautiful. Excruciating. Long. Isolating. Definitely not beautiful.

Other mothers have described an overwhelming feeling of love once they hold their baby in their arms, or said it was so worth it, they would do it a thousand times over. I had none of those feelings. There was no all-consuming love that washed all the pain away. The strongest feeling I had was astonishment. For some reason I was still shocked to find that there had actually been a baby inside me! Other than that, I was too exhausted after eighteen hours of contractions a minute and a half to five minutes apart to feel much of anything except relief that it was over.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my baby boy. I didn’t want to put him down for even a moment for the first two months of his life. I laugh in delight when he smiles, makes funny faces, and trills his enjoyment of the world. I hold him close and breathe in his scent and tell him mommy will always, always love him.

But still, there was no moment of “I didn’t know I could love this much!” after he was placed, slimy and wet, on my stomach, the cord still connecting us to each other. If there was a rush of endorphins to help me forget the pain of childbirth, I couldn’t tell. The second night, when the baby wasn’t screaming, the memory of the pain kept me awake crying. The memory of a pain that sent chills and heat washing over my whole body until I felt like I was going to pass out, a pain that made me not care that I was crying out or that strangers were seeing me naked. The memory of the way my body took over and pushed without my permission—out of control. The “ring of fire” that just kept getting worse, and worse, and worse until I didn’t even feel my skin rip apart because everywhere else hurt so badly. A pain that made me turn to my husband once it was all over and I was holding my baby against my chest and say, “I don’t ever want to go through that again.”

Four months later, I still don’t think I ever want to go through that again.

But then women have given birth every day for thousands of years. It’s a normal part of life. I didn’t even have any complications or anything to make it extra difficult.

So what’s wrong with me?

The question haunts me every time I get a moment to think, which (thankfully?) is infrequent since Remy was born.

I remember the videos we watched in birthing class. The women laboring hard and long, but without cries of pain—with cries of joy when they saw their baby for the first time. One of them was actually walking from the toilet to the bed when the baby came sliding out into her astonished hands. All of them were able to get up after a few minutes and take a walk with their newborn down the hospital corridor. There is NO WAY I could’ve been standing when he came out, let alone strolled down any corridors afterward. For three days, I could barely make the few feet from the bed to the bathroom. I had to lean on my husband and pause after each step to breathe heavily, feeling like my lungs couldn’t get any oxygen no matter how much I gasped for it.

There was nothing beautiful about it.

In fact, it seemed like a cruel joke. You go through the equivalent of running 6 marathons, through excruciating pain, and then you have to try to recover from this event with barely enough sleep to keep you alive! Four months later, I’m still lucky if I get three consecutive hours of sleep at night.

But again, that’s just what moms have to go through. We wear the scars on our bodies, and it’s normal. My experience is not unusual. Not like the woman who labored 30 hours and whose baby broke her tailbone. Not like the woman who labored 32 hours and passed out afterward. Not like the women who have multiple children (how?!).

So why can’t I let it go?

What is wrong with me?