Friday, October 5, 2007

The Aftermath

I think this is the hardest chapter so far. I don't even know how I can begin to explain all the ways my cesarean (and the events preceding it) affected me. I'm still discovering some of them.

I had an incredibly easy recovery physically. I had very little pain, none in my incision at all. I got up and walked the next morning, I never felt I hobbled. I could carry and care for my new baby with very little trouble. I did have to use pillows for support during nursing for the first few weeks, but that was more out of a fear of pain than any actual pain. I think I only took three doses of painkillers total, and two of those were at a nurses insistence that I would feel pain soon and it would be unbearable. This was already 48 hours after the surgery. The third was my first day at home because we had family coming and I was afraid I would be exhausted and start to hurt. I didn't get infected, my incision didn't reopen. I took my baby for a mile long, hilly walk in her stroller before she was a week old. No, it wasn't the physical recovery that was so hard for me, but the emotional one.

For the first several months, I was able to keep my feelings about everything under the surface. I was too involved in becoming a new mom, learning to breastfeed, dealing with colic, seemingly unending streams of visitors, and of course, physical healing, to do anything else. But I had nightmares. I would frequently wake up at night crying from a dream about people chasing me with knives. Most of the time, I had a lot of trouble sleeping. I would lay there in the dark and suddenly, I would be there, back in the operating room, smelling my flesh burn. I couldn't stand to be touched. I would cringe every time Chris even brushed up against me.

I tried to see a therapist. I went to a woman who claimed to be a specialist in post-partum depression. I told her about my cesarean and everything that went with it. She told me that she didn't believe any birth could be traumatic if the baby didn't die, and so my problems must be stemming from my marriage. I went a few more times, but ultimately knew I would not get help there. I didn't have it in me to try someone else.

By the time Maddie was four months old, my life felt like it was falling apart around me. I could barely function. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't take care of the house, I could barely take care of the baby. Chris and I were fighting like crazy.I knew I needed to help myself, but I didn't know how.

A few weeks later, Chris and I were on the verge of divorce. I was so angry with him. I knew in my head that he couldn't have helped any of it, but in my heart, I felt betrayed and abandoned. Why hadn't he helped me? Why didn't he stand up for me? He just sat back half asleep in his chair while I was brutalized. How could I ever trust him again? How could I forgive him? One night, things were so bad, we decided that it was just time. Divorce was our only option. We stopped fighting and began to discuss how we would work out custody. Eventually he went down to the garage and I headed to sleep on the couch in the living room. I couldn't sleep. I was thinking too much. Finally I realised that I had to tell him everything I had been thinking, all of my hurts and anger. At that point, what did I have to lose?

I headed down to the garage and told him that I needed to talk and he needed to listen. No matter what, he could not interrupt me. And God bless him, he didn't. I let everything spill out. All the hurt and pain, all of the poison that had been building for months. I talked and cried and yelled and cried some more for more than two hours. But it was out. It was over. I slept on the couch that night, but from that horrible, rock bottom place, things began to get better. It was a long, slow process, but each day was a little better than the one before.

I still needed help for me, though, and I didn't know where to get it. I knew I was the only one who could help me, so I started searching. I read some interesting things about art therapy, and so I tried some of that. Getting my feelings down on paper helped so much. I still have many of those drawings and paintings. They still hold so much power for me. I also told my story to anyone and everyone who would listen. At first I'm sure I came off sounding like a raving lunatic. That's what I was at the time, really. I also asked my La Leche League leader if she knew of anyone who had also had a traumatic birth experience. I knew I couldn't possibly be the only one. She is the one who pointed me to ICAN. ICAN, the International Cesarean Awareness Network, is a group dedicated to lowering the cesarean rate and helping women who are recovering from them. (

I found the ICAN of San Diego web page, and there was a meeting in a couple of weeks. It was an hour away, but I needed to go. I was desperate. I kept looking online for help while I was waiting for the meeting. I came across an essay entitled You should be Grateful by Gretchen Humphries. (Check it out here: Her other writings are fabulous as well.) This essay was my first bit of proof I had that there were others who felt the same way I did about their cesareans. I read that essay over and over. I also sent it to my family members. I especially wanted my mom to read it, because the first thing she said to me after my surgery was, "Aren't you glad you went to the hospital now?" Umm... no Mom, I not. Not at all.

The day of the ICAN meeting finally came. I packed up the baby and made the drive. I was really nervous when I knocked on that door. But Tonya, the leader (and president of the whole organization, but I didn't know that then) opened the door and welcomed me inside. I was the first one there, but others followed soon. That meeting was a turning point in my life. I was surrounded by women who understood me, and I was able to tell my story fully. No one thought I was crazy. I cried a lot that day, and I will never forget those women. It was the first time I heard that a home birth after a cesarean (HBAC) was even possible. Just that brought so much joy to my heart. I had panic attacks even driving by the hospital. I couldn't imagine going in there to have another baby. After the meeting Tonya told me about the ICAN online Email list ( ) and lent me a copy of Silent Knife by Nancy Wainer-Cohen and Lois J. Estner. Usually the group's library was limited to members, but Tonya could see how much I needed to read it.

I had heard that this book was widely regarded as "angry." I thought these women were so tame! But this book was so big in my healing process in ways I can't even describe. I think I read the book three times before I returned it two months later. I also paid for my first subscription to ICAN that month. I knew this was a group of women I needed to be involved in. I also joined what is affectionately known as "The List." It is very high volume, two days of not reading and my Email box was full! The love and support there, though, is truly amazing. A group of women, most of whom have never met in person, spilling their hurt and pain, supporting each other, and healing. I've been a member for three years now, and I don't know how I would live without these wonderful women. I've gotten to know them well. But even then, new and hurt, I was welcomed in with loving arms.

Slowly, with the new support I found, and with lots of soul searching, I began to heal. I became a functional mother and wife again. I could finally sleep. The house was coming under control. Chris and I were really starting to get along.

Maddie was 11 months old when Chris left on his third deployment. To keep myself busy, I went back to school full time. We would also be moving soon after Chris got back, and so I was taking care of all of those things. I was doing very well, and healing got put on the back burner.

I met a woman at a La Leche League meeting who was planning an unassisted birth after cesarean (UBAC). I told her that she could call me if she ever needed some support during her labor. I didn't want her to have to go through what I did simply for not having anyone to come. Not long after Maddie's first birthday, the call came. Jessie was having lots of contractions and her husband was underway and couldn't get home. She had been having lots of prodromal labor and we thought she would probably go pretty fast. She labored through the night and into the next morning. We had to call another friend to be with her for a few hours while I went to take a Psychology test (I aced it despite getting no sleep the previous night.) and then grabbed a couple of hours of sleep. I picked Maddie back up from the sitter and we headed back to Jessie's house. She was in the tub trying to relax through contractions that were obviously more intense than when I had left. Our friend had to get home to care for her own children, so it was just the three of us again. It was not easy to take care of Maddie (who cut four teeth that night!) and my laboring friend at the same time. Eventually I had to tell Jessie that I would need to go at 9:00 that evening. I simply could not be up again all night. She called another friend to come be with her once I left. Things picked up while we waited for him to come, and soon she was pushing with the contractions even though she clearly didn't want to. She was flat on her back in the bath tub. I was providing some perineal counterpressure and I felt her water break with one of the contractions. There was some meconium in it and soon the bath water was a dingy grey-green color. After an hour of pushing, she was clearly upset because the baby wasn't crowning yet. She asked me to check how far back the baby's head was. She was about one knuckle deep and seemed to be stuck. We helped Jessie onto her knees in the tub, which brought the baby to the perineum almost instantly. The tub was very uncomfortable this way, so with help, she got out and sat on the toilet. She would stand and hang from her friend's neck while I held her perineum during contractions. A couple of pushes later, Jessie eased the baby's head out. I watched the baby rotate into a better position to birth the shoulders. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. Jessie wanted me to check for a cord around her neck. There was none, but while I was checking, another contraction came and the baby was born right into my hands! I was so surprised and she came with such a whoosh of fluid, I thought I would drop her. Jessie immediately sat down and I handed her baby to her. Then I looked at the door and there was my baby, just watching in amazement. It was a beautiful moment. We got Jessie cleaned up and settled as best we could, and I borrowed some clothes to drive home in. Mine were soaked through with blood and amniotic fluid. Her friend stayed with her through the night and until her husband got home the next day. I lived on that high for the next few weeks. I had never done something so amazing in my life! It made me sad, to really know what I had missed, but it also brought me hope, because if she could do it, so could I.

Midway through his deployment, the ICAN conference was held, near where I lived. I wanted to go, but I had a choice between the conference or a Birth Renewal workshop that was held the same weekend. Some people went to both, but I just couldn't afford it. Birth Renewal was the right choice for me. I spent a whole day just focusing on healing me, as Maddie was with my dad. I even got to meet a few of the people I knew from the List.

Mostly I am doing better now, but every so often things still break through in unexpected ways. When we moved into our new house, I would lay on my back in our bedroom, everything would come flooding back. I kept reliving my surgery. Once again, I could barely sleep and sex was definitely out. Eventually I realised that the light fixture above our bed reminded my subconscious of the large round surgical lights. Chris replaced it with a ceiling fan, and it hasn't been a problem. I wonder though, when the next inexplicable reminder will come.

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