About 12 hours after my first daughter was born, one of my midwives popped in to my hospital room for a routine visit. In she walked, chipper and cheerful, and asked how I was doing. I started to cry a quiet, pitiful cry that took my voice away. She looked at me quizzically as she walked around my bed and asked what the matter was. I couldn’t find the words, but eventually muttered something about just feeling overwhelmed. She asked if nursing was going OK, and I said it seemed to be. She asked if I was in pain. I said, “Not really.” (My morphine-spiked epidural still hadn’t fully worn off.) She seemed confused by the tears, but I couldn’t make them stop. Well, if nothing’s wrong, her face seemed to say, why are you crying?
I didn’t know why. And now she’d made me feel silly for being upset over nothing in particular. I knew she’d attended thousands of births in her career—she knew all about how new moms handle those very early postpartum moments. I kept thinking, if these inexplicable tears of mine were throwing her for a loop, how utterly terribly was I coping? I felt like I was falling apart, and overwhelmed that every moment of my daughter’s birth felt out of my control.
As the epidural faded and my legs returned to me, I started to tie together the unexpected events and twists that had filled the previous two days.
I had gone into the hospital nine days overdue for a routine non-stress test, which showed I had almost no amniotic fluid left. I had been gunning for a drug-free birth, but instead, I was induced almost immediately, and after 26 hours of labour, an epidural, two hours of pushing, an episiotomy, and forceps, my daughter was born. It wasn’t the birth I had expected or hoped for, but my baby was healthy. We both made it out alive. So why couldn’t I get it together?
Post-birth, things got worse for me. My milk took five days to come in and my daughter dropped 13 percent of her birth weight, prompting midwives to encourage me to supplement and begin a strict pumping regimen, day and night. Once my milk was in and my daughter’s weight had rebounded (phew), mastitis hit. The antibiotics I was prescribed didn’t work and the pain intensified. My midwife suggested I visit the ER and for three weeks I was told to return there every day for a dose of intravenous antibiotics. An ultrasound showed the mastitis had turned into abscesses—five of them. Drainage attempts were unsuccessful and after the hospital’s head radiologist refused to subject me to a fourth attempt, a nurse told me I’d just have to let nature take its course: let the abscesses naturally rupture out the side of my breast.
The pain and inflammation were nearly unbearable. As my now seven-week-old daughter was learning how to smile at home with my husband or sister-in-law, I was spending my mornings learning how to cry silently in hospital waiting rooms. Finally, almost a month after my initial mastitis diagnosis, a breast surgeon made two incisions to allow the abscesses to drain, while a third ruptured on its own. After much agonizing and many tears, I decided to stop breastfeeding, despite multiple nurses telling me along the way that it really would be best if I kept nursing. (Cue more guilt.)
Despite all these challenges, I knew I really wanted a sibling for my daughter. So when I got pregnant again almost two years later, I braced myself. Could it go worse? Absolutely. Could it go better? Oh man, I hoped so.
Shaken by my first experience, I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment this time. I didn’t read any of the birth books. I didn’t go to any prenatal classes. I had moved across the country since my first baby was born and registered with a new group of midwives, to whom I recounted my birth and breastfeeding experiences. They reassured me that second births often progress quicker and require fewer interventions. Sure, I’d nod, but I had little faith my body had gotten that memo. I really believed that maybe my body just didn’t know how to go into labour on its own. Why would this time be any different?
Then early in the morning, four days after my due date, I woke up to cramps that quickly evolved into regular contractions. Just before 9 a.m. one of my midwives arrived for a check.
“You’re at nine centimetres,” she told me. “If you want this to be a hospital birth, we have to leave now.”
It was a fast, five-minute drive to the hospital. About an hour later, and after only 11 minutes of pushing, my second daughter was born—all 9 lbs 1 oz of her. There were no doctors involved, no drugs, no interventions, no tools. It had only been six hours since I’d started timing my contractions.
I was in shock—but the good kind. After catching my breath, I chattered on and on, fuelled by adrenaline, about how different this birth was. The midwives had been right. Within the next hour I was up on my feet and showered. I ate a sandwich. Just over three hours later, I was being wheeled out of the hospital with an occupied car seat on my lap. Ten minutes later, I was home and in my bed with a snoozing newborn on my chest.
My milk came in within 48 hours and, aside from some typical early-days discomfort, feeding went well. Surging and crashing postpartum hormones still made me a little weepy, but the tears came a little less readily than before. When I noticed the tell-tale signs of mastitis about eight weeks out, I rushed myself to the ER and got a prescription for antibiotics right as the fever kicked in. The mastitis was gone a few days later.
All of it was exactly what I’d hoped for the first time around. Obviously birth still hurt, a lot, but the contractions really were manageable. Breastfeeding really did just… work. Most of all, it validated my feelings about my first birth: I’d had a hard time with it because it was truly and objectively way harder.
I hadn’t been out of line for crying that first day after she was born (and many days after that), or for struggling to come to terms with the birth. For wondering whether my body had failed, or for feeling that I had failed, or for thinking that I hadn’t tried hard enough, or that I hadn’t made the right decisions.
But we often paint childbirth and its recovery with similar brushes. We allow a divide between vaginal and Caesarean deliveries, but fail to recognize the differences and degrees of difficulty within those categories. The advice I got after my first seemed to be pulled from the one-size-fits-all vaginal birth recovery file, with little acknowledgement of the trauma I’d experienced and what had gone into my particular delivery room experience.
As a mom of two, I now know that I didn’t get what I needed in those early postpartum days after my first was born.
I needed someone to say, “I know things changed pretty quickly for you at the last minute and this wasn’t what you’d expected. I can see you’re emotional. Do you want to talk about it? Let me know when you do because talking about it might help.” Instead I was asked why I was crying.
I needed someone to see me, to understand my experience and say, “Oh hey, you just spent 26 hours in labour, two of them pushing every couple of minutes and were then faced with an episiotomy and forceps—your pelvic floor might be out of whack for a bit. Here’s what to look for, and here’s what to do about it if you have issues.” Instead, the first time I stood up, I peed all over myself and thought I’d be broken forever.
I needed someone to say, “Yeah, breastfeeding is hard, but abscesses make it quite a bit harder than it usually is, so if you want to continue, I can help. But if you don’t, I can help with that, too. And if you just want to talk out both options, here’s what I think.” Instead I heard about how important breastmilk is and how I really should keep nursing.
I emailed my first midwife group not long after I’d had my second. I told them how much better things had gone this time and attached a family photo. The midwife who attended my eldest daughter’s birth wrote back, telling me she’d been thinking about us, and that she was “over the moon thrilled” that things had gone better. Then she told me, “You had one of the toughest postpartums I have ever seen in my career.”
There it was. Why on earth hadn’t she said so at the time? These were the words I needed to hear years ago, when I was struggling and in the thick of it. Instead, as a first-time mom with no point of reference, I had assumed this was par for the course stuff, and that it was me who couldn’t tough it out.
Birth is always hard. But now I know that it was harder when it was induced and lasted longer, and when things changed at the last minute. Breastfeeding is hard, but it was so much harder when it didn’t work.
I’m not suggesting that second births are always better, or that moms who had a rough first labour need to go out and have a second baby to find some sense of closure. But I do want women to know that the acquaintance who tells you contractions are manageable without pain relief probably wasn’t on Pitocin for 26 hours. That the nurse who casually tells you, “breastfeeding will work out if you just keep trying” probably hasn’t dealt with abscesses.
You can be thrilled that your baby is here, healthy and happy, while still struggling to come to terms with how she got here. It’s normal to feel this jumbled mix of emotions about the birth plan you’d envisioned, then lost. Our birth journeys can be wildly different—the “easy” ones and the ones that go off the rails—even if they lead us to the same place: an adorable new baby.
Moms need more compassion and context to help them recover from birth experiences that stray from the “norm.” We need to be honest about how we really feel. Delivering my second child showed me what I wish someone else had told me after my first: That was really hard. Unusually hard. But you did it.