After six years and numerous fertility treatments, all I wanted was to be pregnant with a healthy baby. I didn’t care how she arrived, as long as she came into the world safely. Pregnancy was a long-term goal of mine and I didn’t think too much about what my birth story was going to look like.
I wasn’t worried about a prolonged or exhausting labour. I didn’t care if I tore or if her birth was in an operating room. After enduring multiple rounds of IVF, countless injections, endless nausea, wicked back pain and heartburn that would keep me up at night all I wanted was to have her safe in my arms.
And after nine long months, that’s exactly where she was. And yet missing was that feeling of relief and happiness.
Like with many women, my birth story wasn’t perfect—but few would classify it as traumatic. My baby was slightly premature, but she miraculously didn’t need time in the NICU. She had some trouble with her glucose levels, but we were able to supplement with some formula and donor milk and she ended up nursing like a champ. Most importantly, she came home with us.
As for my own health, I had a prolonged hospital stay with preeclampsia, and I didn’t get the drug-free vaginal birth I wanted, but I tried hard to focus on the positive.
For months afterward, as anxiety and grief lingered and I struggled with post-surgical pain and breastfeeding, I felt an overarching sense of guilt. How dare I feel traumatized when there were so many new parents who had it worse?
“We have this hierarchy that we put our experiences in,” says Tamar Gur, a maternal-fetal psychiatrist at Ohio State University, “When we go through something difficult we negate our feelings by saying, well so and so had it worse, and if we don’t believe that it’s the worst, we basically think that we should just get over it. And that’s really not the case.”
Gur explains that when someone has a heart attack, people are concerned about their well-being and will feel obliged to help or bring over a meal. But for whatever reason, that’s not the case when a woman has a baby.
“All we leave space for is the end result,” says Gur. “And the end result [the] is, of course, important [but] the process is important as well.”
Talking about my birth story was hard. Well-meaning friends and family would listen as I would struggle to explain why I was feeling trauma over my labour and delivery.
“That sounds rough,” they’d tell me, “But at least she’s healthy, right? That’s the most important thing.”
When I talked about wishing I could have had that coveted vaginal birth I spent hours practicing for, friends were quick to reassure me that it didn’t matter. When I told them I spent almost a week in the hospital, they’d groan in sympathy and then coo over my baby’s soft hair—the conversation over my self-declared distress done.
I started to feel like I had no right to feel this way, that I should be “over” the fact that things didn’t go the way I had planned, and start feeling more gratitude for the good things.
“If you have a difficult delivery, it feels like you failed from day one,” says Gur, “What we need to do is make space for all of it, the full spectrum of human existence.”
She goes on to explain that society doesn’t make room for everybody. The spectrum of pregnancy is vast, ranging from no complications and an easy birth to a pregnancy wrought with fear, a multitude of scary situations, difficult deliveries and postnatal experiences, like a NICU stay.
Instead of feeling like a failure, Gur says new moms should view every birth experience as normal and valid.
“If you start a job, and you don’t like it, you can switch jobs, right? But somehow when it comes to pregnancy, we’re like, ‘Well I should just be grateful,’” Gur explains, “People make you feel guilty, like you wanted all of that and a good experience? Yes, yes, you did. And you didn’t get it and it can be haunting and difficult. To understand that is important.”
Now pregnant again, I’m actively working on accepting my feelings. I now recognize that I can be both grateful for my healthy baby as well as traumatized by her birth, even if others had it worse. While I don’t know what my experience will be with my second labour, I’ve made the conscious decision to respect my feelings this time around no matter what my birth story may be.