Dear Melissa, was your birth a positive experience?
I’ll sometimes do “ask me anything” on Instagram, and this one comes up often, but I’ve not been ready to share until now. In a word, no. But I’ve come to terms with it and have processed it in therapy, so in the name of helping you feel less alone, I’ll tell you.
The birth experience I intended to have was, in a word, natural. I scheduled a waterbirth at a private midwife center, and did all my weekly check-ups there. I took hypnobirthing classes leading up to the birth, received chiropractic care and massage therapy from prenatal specialists, secured a doula, and arranged for placenta encapsulation post-birth.
My pregnancy was totally normal and healthy until around 34 weeks, when my midwife noticed I was no longer gaining weight. I upped my calories conscientiously, sticking to mostly a Whole30 template, and just assumed my body would do what it needed to do.
Around 38 weeks, I still hadn’t gained any more weight. Up until that point, we had no reason to believe there was anything wrong. The baby was super active, had recently turned from a breech position to head-down, and I was otherwise displaying all the benchmarks of a successful pregnancy. But the midwife recommended an ultrasound at the hospital to make sure everything was okay.
The ultrasound technician discovered my amniotic fluid was really low. I remember her saying I should be closer to 20 cm, and I was at 2. This was incredibly concerning to everyone. I called my midwife to share the news, and she gently explained to me that I could no longer give birth at their facility. It was too high-risk, she said, and I would now have to deliver at the hospital.
I was stunned, and tried to wrap my head around this as the doctors consulted. All of my plans for a natural birth were crushed in one phone call. The hospital suggested I stay for a few hours so they could put me on a fetal ultrasound, to make sure the baby’s heartbeat was normal and healthy. At this point, I was starting to feel scared, but was still optimistic. I asked about the natural options available at the hospital, and whether I could still invite my doula to the birth when it was time.
The doctor looked serious. “You likely won’t be going home without your baby,” I remember her saying to me. “And it’s highly likely you’ll have to deliver via C-Section.” I sat in shock as they moved me to a private room. I was not prepared to have my baby today, and I certainly wasn’t prepared to accept that I might have to have major surgery. We moved to a private room, where I settled comfortably on a raised bed.
A nurse stayed with me at all times to monitor my son’s heartbeat. We both listened to it through speakers, fast and strong and steady. For a while, it was normal, and we were chatting and relaxed. Soon, we began experiencing moments where his heart rate dropped significantly. Thump. Thump. Thump. The nurse would turn me on my side, and we would wait. After a few seconds, it would return to its normal quick thump-thump-thump, and we’d breathe a sigh of relief. At that point, it was evident that my baby was in distress, and I would not be going home.
This slow-and-recover happened a few more times, but 30 minutes later it dropped again, with an even slower cadence. Thump. Thump. Thump. They tried turning me, but his heart rate didn’t pick up; if anything, it slowed even more. We waited another moment, all of us holding our breath. It still didn’t recover.
Everything happened very quickly then.
A team rushed in and grabbed my bed, rolling me into the hallway. They told me I needed an emergency C-section, and they had to anesthetize me now. I remember them saying, “we have to insert a catheter, it’s going to hurt, I’m sorry.” I have never experienced terror like that. I prayed for my baby, and the world went black.
When I woke up, we were in a different room. I could see my ex-husband pacing, holding a baby. I tried to ask about him, but was wracked with pain. The nurses spent the next fifteen minutes shoving drugs into my system, while I alternated between a semi-conscious state and asking frantically if my son was okay. They assured me that he was—small, hungry, but so far, doing well.
I didn’t believe them. I was out of my mind with pain and narcotics. This was the moment I finally met my baby?
I asked over and over again if he was mine. I went under anesthesia with a baby in my belly, and when I woke up, he was fully formed outside of me. I had no memory of his birthing experience. I wasn’t present for any aspect of it. I was terrified that my baby had died, and they were just pretending this baby was mine until I was coherent enough to hear the bad news. I even remember asking his dad, “How do I know you’re not holding his stuffed monkey, pretending it’s my baby? Maybe I’m in shock. How do I know?”
My son was born healthy, thank god. At just over five pounds, there were still questions about whether or not he would have to go to NICU, but were able to keep him in the room with us throughout that first night. He never needed medical interventions, and just three days later, we were able to take him home.
The physical recovery was intense—this wasn’t a planned C-Section, so my surgery wasn’t neat and tidy, and my unwillingness to take painkillers once I was home made my recovery more challenging. But the emotional toll of this experience was far more profound. It took me almost two years to even begin to process the trauma of his childbirth.
By the time he was born, I knew that my marriage was over, and I would not have another child. It took me a long time to accept that the only birthing experience I would have was this one, wrapped in fear, pain, and loneliness. I also felt guilty for how much I was grieving, considering I had a healthy, happy child. Even allowing myself to have that grieving experience was a challenge; I told myself I had nothing to complain about. Still, my body insisted I had to acknowledge the pain and sadness, and I mourned for the birth story I did not get to have while reveling in the joy that was my new baby. It was a messy and complicated time period.
I felt incredibly alone. I had no one to talk to, and didn’t know if anyone else felt like me about their birth experience. Any time someone would ask, I’d just say, “It didn’t go as planned, but he’s healthy and that’s all that matters.” It felt shameful and embarrassing, that my body was unable to provide my baby with the right conditions for a peaceful birth. I was also soon in the middle of a divorce, so there wasn’t space to process this in therapy, with everything else going on.
I finally opened up about childbirth with a therapist after my divorce was final. Just acknowledging the complexity of how I felt and remembered the experience was incredibly cathartic. Saying out loud, “I am beyond grateful, and I am still grieving” was the first step in my own healing. Up until now, I wasn’t in a place to talk about any of this publicly. In fact, I’ve had this sitting in draft for more than three months. I’m sharing this now because I finally feel like I can, and because if you have felt like this about any aspect of your birthing experience, you are not alone. However you feel, I want you to know that you have permission to feel it, talk about it, and grieve for it.
There is room for gratitude and grief. There is room for joy and mourning. There is room for hope and sadness. But this is no place for shame, guilt, or embarrassment. More than anything, that is what I want you to know. Your story is not a reflection on you, your worth, your value, or your parenting. It is simply how it happened.
This was surprisingly hard to write, I’ll be honest. It’s been eight years and my son is now tall and strong, smart and funny, hopelessly annoying and my greatest source of pride. I’m grateful for him every single day, and I’d go through his birth day a thousand times over just to have him in our world. And yet, it’s still hard to think about that day, and when I do, I still feel echoes of grief and pain.
I’m allowing these feelings to come up, to be acknowledged, and to hold space for that within my gratitude. There has to be room for both, and I know now that one does not take away from the other. If this is you in any way, I hope that you can recognize the same.