It was the day I'd been waiting for: I would meet my little girl and become a mom. I expected to experience joy, triumph in my strength as a woman, and overwhelming love as she entered the world. Instead, I experienced my daughter's birth in a state of terror, wondering if I would die.
My pregnancy had been routine, but when I went into labor, I developed preeclampsia, a complication of dangerously elevated blood pressure. I had to give birth within hours or I would need an emergency Cesarean section. The hours ticked by, my kidneys began to fail, and my baby had to come out immediately.
Five minutes later I was strapped to an operating-room table, naked and terrified. Unable to move, I could not comprehend how it was that my abdomen was wide open and that this cold, sterile environment was where my daughter would join the world. When the doctor announced her birth and held her up for me to see, I felt only relief that she was alive. I felt no rush of joy or love as I gazed at her little face for the first time. I waited for my own death as complications arose. Hours later I was able to hold her -- and I felt nothing.
My physical recovery was fine, but my emotional recovery was far from it. I could not stop thinking about my failure to feel anything toward my baby. I was convinced that this showed I was not meant to be a mother, a "fact" I concealed from my husband by trying to look normal. Meanwhile, I despaired privately and went through the motions, still feeling no connection to my child. I grieved for the loss of everything I expected of motherhood. What should have been a warm and fond memory was something that I could only think of as traumatic.
So I searched for information about whether giving birth can be considered a traumatic life event, like a physical assault or combat, and could lead to posttraumatic stress symptoms. I learned that about one-third of women experience a traumatic delivery, especially those who have vaginal deliveries requiring the use of medical instruments and those who have emergency C-sections. Their symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, numbing, lack of pleasure, inability to remember aspects of the traumatic event, avoidance of thoughts and feelings related to the trauma, blaming oneself for the trauma, negative thoughts, hypervigilance, being easily startled, and sleep problems. You can learn more about posttraumatic stress disorder, often called PTSD, as well as treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder, on the ADAA website.
I also learned that women who experience pregnancy and labor complications are at greatly heightened risk for postpartum depression, which often includes sadness, lack of pleasure in things that should bring them pleasure, sleep difficulties, appetite disturbance, fatigue, loss of energy, and thoughts of suicide.
I pored over articles about traumatic delivery and websites where women described the same feelings I had. Their stories were inspirational: complications far more severe than mine and babies surviving NICU stays. I saw them not as victims, but as strong women who battled physical and emotional pain -- and didn't recognize their own strengths. They called themselves "mommy warriors" and "survivors." And I was one of them. For the first time, I didn't feel alone.
It's important for anyone who has experienced trauma to be treated by a mental health care professional who is experienced with the illness. Treatment is usually psychotherapy (or talk therapy), medication, or both. You may need to try different treatments to find what works for your symptoms.
I grew to love my daughter more than anything, and eventually the horror of her delivery dissipated. I could see myself as the mom I expected to be and I accepted my baby's medical entry into the world as simply an unexpected part of my journey into motherhood and hers into life.
I discovered that motherhood isn't about how a baby enters the world, or about the rush of love you feel at first sight of your baby's face. Motherhood is about doing anything to care for your child, including persevering through the impossible, as well as the love you give even when you feel there's nothing to give and the strength you find to battle life's challenges. Mothers are warriors and boo-boo kissers all wrapped into one and members of a sisterhood that helps them rise from the depths of despair and keep on going.
Follow Amy Przeworski, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@AmyPrzeworski