Recovering from a Traumatic Birth Experience the Easy Way

Maybe it’s not for everyone, but it worked for me.

Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash

My daughter made her entrance into this world fourteen days later than expected.

I worked so hard to push her out of me that I burst a bunch of blood vessels in my face. In all our early pictures together, I have the crimson eyeballs of a sci-fi vampire and the purple shiners of a prize fighter.

I worked so hard to push her out that my genitals were torn and shredded like raw hamburger meat.

I worked so hard, laboring for more than fifty hours in a tub, on a ball, on a stool and on the toilet, that once she was born, I needed to rest. Knowing she had entered the world as a perfect, ten-fingered, ten-toed specimen, I relaxed into a heavy, necessary sleep.

I woke in the morning to learn she had been taking to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit while I slept. My husband helped me gently guide my raw-meat bottom into paper underwear, and we waddled down the hall to find her.

In the night, the nurses had tried to feed her a sip of sugar water so she would wake up for a required hearing test. The water had traveled into her lungs and her subsequent coughing fit was cause for concern, hence her trip to the NICU.

We found our daughter nestled in a network of tubes and cords in a special plastic bassinet. It’s not how you want to find your brand new baby on her first full day of life, but in a hallway full of doll-sized two pound babies fighting for their lives, our 9 lb. baby with a cough seemed like the lucky one.

It took a few days, but she recovered and I started recover, and we headed home to introduce our old baby — our dog — to our new baby.

The months that followed were amazing. Our daughter ate well and slept well. She grew, she laughed, she hit her milestones just a tad early. She was rolling over, she was sitting up. She was round, pink and adorable.

Our friends and family loved her, spoiling her with expensive clothes and gifts. She had a star in the Milky Way named after her. Her grandparents got her name as a vanity plate on their car. She was a model in a baby fashion show.

I was amazing too. I grew vegetables in our garden and pureed them into baby food for her. I sewed her a matching dress and bib for her first Thanksgiving. I went back to work and pumped breast milk in the bathroom during my lunch break. I rubbed organic lotions on her skin and I used only BPA-free food containers.

But I also wasn’t amazing.

Every second of my time in the hospital delivering my daughter was etched in my mind and it played on replay. Even in the tenderest moments, part of my mind was elsewhere, trying to forget the antiseptic smells, the guttural screams and the soothing voices that only brought me bad news. It was like a slideshow on repeat.

There was the time I cried when a new doctor stepped in and said I was moments away from a Caesarian section.

There was the time I marched up and down the hospital’s nine flights of stairs again and again, pausing only when the I was gripped by contractions.

There were the times I refused the medicines I was offered to ease the pain.

There was the three hour stretch where I alternated pushing and screaming, squeezing the hands of my husband and our doula so hard they had to switch places in between each contraction.

Years later, at a workshop about PTSD, I learned about intrusive thoughts and when I did, it felt like fitting a puzzle piece into the right place. While the rips and tears to my flesh healed and were forgotten about, my mind stayed stuck in those days at the hospital.

The smell of rice pilaf reminded me of our second day in the hospital when my husband ordered dinner and ate it sitting next to me as contractions ripped through my body. I love him so much, but watching him push the last few grains of rice onto his fork with his finger made me want to rip his head from his body so I could twist tie his esophagus shut and prevent him from any enjoyment he might gain from his sustenance.

I loved my daughter. There is no but. Except there is a small one. I loved my daughter but she had put me up against the ropes before she had even exited my body. And then, in a cruel twist, I was so wiped out from her delivery that I wasn’t even there to speak up for her when the nurses were dribbling sugar water down her throat.

As I nursed her at night in her perfect bedroom, with framed prints, organic cotton sheets and a white noise machine, I felt a strange potpourri of guilt and anger. I felt guilty that while I slept, she had been whisked away and hooked up to an IV drip of antibiotics in a strange new place. And I felt angry that it was her fault I had been so tired in the first place.

But then in the morning, I forced myself to feel normal. It’s normal to look at your beautiful, perfect baby and see her for the moments of agony she has caused you, right?

My daughter was born in April. The following December, my husband laid a map out on the table and showed it to me. It was a map of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Through our years of dating, marriage and even as parents, we had covered much of the area on the map by car, on foot and on skis and snowshoes.

This time though, he circled an area with his finger that was unfamiliar to me.

“We should hike this,” he said.

I did a little quick math to figure out that his gesture covered just under 50 miles. With a needy human at my teat, it seemed an outrageous distance. We had popped our baby girl into a pack and hiked 2, 5 or even 8 miles with her, stopping to breastfeed along the way. Returning to double digit distances though, seemed long in the future.

However, as I put our baby to bed, I caught myself dreaming of the views and the freedom of covering ground by foot.

I came downstairs and looked at the map again. The loop we would travel included the summits of more than 20 mountains. A reasonable person would cover that distance in several days.

While we were getting ready for bed, we didn’t talk about laundry, bottles, diapers or daycare. Instead, we talked about the hike. It was fun to dream about — digging out our packs and updating our hiking gear. But it was out of the question, with our little peanut still so dependent on us. We couldn’t leave her alone, especially for something as self-indulgent as a hike.

Unless…we could?

That week, when I went to the gym, I skipped the treadmill and hit the stair machine. The first stretch of the hike would require us to climb a thousand feet in less than a mile.

As our daughter ate more peas and avocados, I stopped pumping at work. I only breastfed at night. And then one night, she fell asleep without nursing.

We looked at our calendars. There was a small gap in our work commitments in the first week of May. We reached out and my in-laws agreed to watch our daughter for the weekend.

The hike was long. When we told our friends about it, even the regular hikers, they thought we were crazy. We planned to park at the trailhead on Friday night and sleep in our car. Then we would hit the trail by 5am on Saturday, covering 26 grueling miles first day. We’d sleep on the trail and then finish the remaining 22 miles on Sunday before picking up our daughter and returning to work on Monday.

My mental energy shifted. Instead of thinking about enduring the pain of childbirth, I thought about enduring back to back eighteen hour hikes on rugged terrain. Instead of shopping for scar-reducing creams and lotions, I shopped for new hiking shoes. Instead of focusing on losing my bread loaf of belly fat, I focused on making sure my calves and thighs were strong enough to survive the intensity of the hike.

We dropped our daughter off and drove to the trailhead parking lot. When we had parked at the hospital, I knew we wouldn’t leave until our baby exited my body one way or another. When we parked at the trailhead, I didn’t know if I would be able to complete the hike or not. I hoped I had enough pride and preparation in my tank to push me through, but I just wasn’t sure.

We packed light. So light that if something had happened to us, I’m sure we would have been criticized for being so unprepared. Two bandaids for first-aid gear, only light jackets for warmth and a stack of tuna fish sandwiches and peanut M&Ms for energy.

I didn’t miss our daughter. I didn’t think about childbirth. I didn’t think about anything other than the left-right-left stepping pattern we fell into.

When we summited the first mountain, I looked across a valley of trees and saw the distant other side.

“We are going there,” I told myself, “And we are going there on foot.”

We hiked for 6, 10, 12 hours. It was monotonous but never boring. Hurricane Irene had wreaked havoc on the trails, and where we expected smooth travels, we were bushwhacking and shimmying over fallen trees.

As the sun set, we reached a river we had expected to be trickling. Instead it was waist deep and flowing fast. We held our packs over our heads and carefully crossed.

On the other side, we found a campsite to sleep in and my husband built a fire. With the hot flames dancing and warming my wrinkled toes, I started to feel like the person I was before my daughter was born, before I had even thought about getting pregnant.

I fell asleep with tuna fish on my breath and my wet boots wrapped in a t-shirt for a pillow.

The next day was a beauty, with clear skies and a stillness that let us hear the scrub jays shout at each other loud and clear. We hiked above tree line and the bare rock left us feeling exposed but free to travel at a fast, giddy pace, leaping from rock to rock, just asking for a twisted ankle or an injured knee.

My mind was like the ‘Loading…’ icon on a computer screen. It was occupied, but I didn’t know what it was busy with. My repeating thought was “keep going, keep going, keep going.”

We had a dozen miles to go. Then five. My legs screamed from the pounding of the downhill terrain.

And then we were done. Our celebration was anti-climactic. We unwrapped the Clif bars we had stashed in the cars and began the two hour drive home.

Our lives continued on with the routines of work and parenting.

Except now the routine was different. When I felt a twinge in my back as I carried the heavy bucket seat into the grocery store, it didn’t remind me of the terrible back labor pains that had left me gasping for air in the hospital. Instead, it reminded me of how good it felt to finally set my pack down when we had finished our hike.

My memories of childbirth started to fade. The physical cord that had connected me to my daughter had long since been cut, but it took more than a year for me to release her from the pain, embarrassment and disappointment the I felt in my body during childbirth.

As I let go of my own feelings, a beautiful thing started to happen. Instead of remembering my own pain, my own feelings and my own struggles, I started to think of my daughter.

She enjoyed 14 extra days in the safety of my womb. She was born at a top-notch hospital where she received expert medical care. She met her parents and all four grandparents within hours of being born. Her birth was celebrated by dozens of family and friends.

I remember learning about how rockets are able to travel such a great distance into space. They leave the earth attached to rocket boosters, which are huge, flammable fuel packs. When the fuel packs are spent, they fall off and sink back to earth so the rocket can continue its journey into outer space.

The difficult hours I spent laboring to deliver my daughter were like those rocket boosters. Without them, I couldn’t have launched her into becoming the wonderful, kind, loving third grader she is today. I can’t start to describe her good qualities, because if I do, I won’t be able to stop.

But I needed to jettison my own feelings and experiences, letting them burn up and fall away so that she could be her own person. A counselor or therapist my think I’m crazy for saying this, but planning and executing our big hike was what helped me do this. Finding a new, physical focus for my body gave me the energy and strength to look past the stretch marks and melted-candle shaped vagina and see myself as a strong, capable person again.

We only get to experience one reality, so I can’t say what would have happened if we hadn’t done the hike. Maybe I would bottled up my feelings only to have them explode later on in a different part of my life. Maybe I would have found a great counselor to help me realize and process my emotions through therapy. Or maybe I would have been fine working through it on my own.

Who knows?

What I do know is this: hiking 50 miles in two days is hard. But it’s not as hard as spending a lifetime carrying the unpredictable burden of unprocessed trauma. So if I had to choose — I’d choose the hike any day.

It’s the easy way out.

Real photo from our real hike. Mountain, you are nothing compared to childbirth.

Big fan of good books, funny looking animals, and great stories. Always ready for the next big thing.

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