Moms Matter, Too
Crystal Saltrelli, CHC
There’s something especially confusing about birth-related trauma. Unlike those exposed to war, abuse, violent crime, or life-threatening accidents, new moms are supposed to be happy. As long as the baby’s healthy, that’s all that really matters, right?
I remember people coming to visit my daughter the day after she was born, which was also the day after I hemorrhaged a liter and a half of blood and underwent two emergency surgeries. The hospital room was packed with smiling friends and family. I was opening gifts and answering the usual questions – weight, length, time of birth — all while receiving my third blood transfusion in 24 hours. It was a strange experience.
Not that I didn’t want our loved ones there to celebrate our daughter’s arrival. I did and I was happy that they were all so excited to meet her. I was excited, too. See, this is part of what makes birth trauma so isolating and difficult to speak about. There’s a tangled web of feelings that surround it. On one hand, I was so incredibly grateful for my baby girl and wanted her to be the center of everyone’s love and attention. On the other hand, I was desperate for those around me to acknowledge the physical and emotional pain that I’d just endured and make it clear that I mattered, too.
When we left the hospital four days later, I could not stop crying. The nurses seemed slightly concerned, but nobody asked any questions. I suppose they thought my tears were due to hormones or the joy of bringing my baby home. In actuality, I was
consumed with anxiety and a sense of overwhelm. The hemorrhaging and subsequent surgeries had been the most painful and terrifying experiences of my life. I truly thought I was going to die that day and I’d had no time or space to process any of it.
That’s another difficult aspect of dealing with birth trauma. In those first few weeks, or months if you have a sleepless baby like ours, your basic needs are constantly compromised. Had I been able to sleep, eat well, and prioritize my own self-care, perhaps the anxiety wouldn’t have continued to mount the way that it did.
When Lily was three months old, I found myself parked in front of the Emergency Room, sobbing uncontrollably because I was certain that something terrible was about to happen to me. When the panic subsided and I heard the baby screaming from the backseat, I knew that what I was dealing with wasn’t “normal.”
I talked to my doctor, again hoping for someone to acknowledge all that I’d been through and help me figure out how to deal with it. Despite following her suggestions, I continued to have regular panic attacks and developed a host of frightening physical symptoms, including numbness, tingling, heart palpitations, vision changes, and dizziness. I saw a neurologist, a cardiologist, an eye doctor, and an ENT specialist. There was nothing wrong with me. Except, I know now, post-traumatic stress.
Throughout this whole ordeal, when someone asked me how I was handling it, I’d simply answer, “it’s been a lot.” I couldn’t even begin talking about the postpartum complications, or the lasting implications, without breaking down in tears. Fortunately, or unfortunately, few people actually asked – not even the doctors.
Not many people want to talk about birth trauma. It’s uncomfortable, it’s scary, and it’s hard to understand unless you’ve actually been there. For a long time, I didn’t want to talk about it, either, for those very same reasons. I didn’t want to scare anyone who might be pregnant. I didn’t want to deal with well-intentioned but dismissive responses like, “at least your baby is healthy!” I didn’t want to seem as if I was over-reacting, ungrateful, or seeking attention.
Two years later, I’m still struggling with monthly panic attacks and lingering physical symptoms but I’ve since realized that in order to heal, I need to talk about it. I need to give a voice to my experience, to validate that it happened, and that it changed me — probably forever, but hopefully in a way that will make me more compassionate, more present, and more grateful in the long run.
Despite how isolating this experience has been, I know that I’m not alone. There are millions of women around the world who have experienced trauma related to giving birth, whether due to medical emergencies, forced interventions, unplanned C-sections, or feelings of mistreatment. It’s my hope that as a community, we’ll continue to broaden this discussion, offer support to those who are struggling, ask more questions, and be willing to hear the answers. Because moms matter, too.
Crystal Zaborowski Saltrelli
Empowering people to live WELL With gastroparesis and beyond