When Your Birth Experience Doesn't Go As Planned
Unsupported and under-resourced, I experienced severe postpartum symptoms after the birth of my son. Here’s what I wish other women knew to feel prepared and supported when things don’t go as planned.
Oceans of tears had already filled the hospital room when the doctors finally determined that I would need an emergency c-section after 72 hours of virtually unmedicated labor.
By that point, I had been induced, pumped with pitocin, given a high-risk epidural (which only partially worked), and informed that I was having kidney failure—all things that went against the natural birth plan I had spent months preparing. I felt like I might die, and I almost did. The hardest part was that no one seemed to understand the gravity of what that meant.
I could never have imaged the journey I was about to embark on.
Oliver was two weeks late. By that point, the doctors had been routinely pushing tests and encouraging us to induce labor. They instilled a lot of fear in us. For my part, I did everything I could—I walked hills, ran up stairs, ate spicy foods, had sex twice a day. I even had a chat with my belly and begged our little guy to come out. Finally, one morning I woke up with a strong feeling that he just was not going to come on his own without a little help. With our doula’s blessing, we proceeded with induction.
We checked into the hospital on a Saturday in May. Within an hour, the nurses started me on a pill called misoprostol. I remember taking the pill in my hand, looking at it, and thinking, Okay, little guy, see you on the other side!
About three hours later, I started to feel strong contractions. An hour after that, my doctor entered the room with a concerned look. She asked if I was aware of what was happening with my blood. “Huh?” I said. I was totally confused. I had been tested numerous times over the course of my nine-month pregnancy, and everything always came back fine.
While asking me to remain calm, my doctor said that my blood platelet count was very low—scary low. Blood platelets give us the ability to clot rather than hemorrhage. Normal platelets are usually at about 200. Mine were at 60 and dropping.
At this point, the medical team was extremely concerned. They wanted to run more tests. Then they told me that they would not be able to administer an epidural; there was a risk that I would bleed out from my spine.
I remember feeling like I was in some sort of Alice in Wonderland story, specifically the scene when she takes the red pill and realizes there is no getting off that train. There was no turning back for me. I was on my own with my pain and now officially high-risk.
I labored hard into the night. It was the most intense sensation I have ever felt. While I did my best to meditate, breathe, and relax, the pain was excruciating.
About eight hours into my labor, I began to have strange hallucinations. At one point I was inside a Salvador Dali painting, and everything seemed like it was in slow motion. I remember looking at my hands, and they looked obscure. Blue laser light figures started dancing around me, laughing and shooting light-beams across the room. I had never experienced anything like it before. My husband, Laif, kept trying to talk to me while my doula, Jen, was crying. I could see them, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. At one point, the pain became so intense that I started dry-heaving in between contractions.
I was determination to have a natural birth because, somehow, that was better.
Still, despite the pain, I was determined to have my vaginal birth. At that time, I believed that having a natural birth was what it meant to be a strong mother. This idea came from a few places. First, my mother and mother-in-law only ever spoke of natural birth, how horrible doctors were, and what terrible experiences they’d had in hospitals. Then the doulas I hired spoke of natural birth as being a better option, the more glorious option. I kept telling myself to stay strong just a little longer. Surely, I must have been making progress.
My moans became light screams. My contractions were every two to three minutes apart, leaving me virtually no reprieve to rest or recover. All I remember is the nurses looking at me like I was some strange alien. By that point it had been 24 hours since I swallowed the misoprostol, and the doctors came in to check me. They had devastating news: I had dilated only one centimeter.
Seeing my pain and the intensity of my contractions, the doctors finally sent in an anesthesiologist who was confident enough to take the risk of administering an epidural. I couldn’t bear the pain anymore, and I decided to sign my life away on the dotted line to get some help. It was a very scary decision for both Laif and me, with a risky outcome.
The anesthesiologist worked quickly and efficiently, but unfortunately, the epidural affected only half of my body, so I continued to feel contractions robustly on the right side. Since I was still stalled at one centimeter dilated, the medical team decided to use pitocin.
Throughout my pregnancy, the word pitocin made me cringe; people told me it was an evil drug to be avoided at all costs. It was the last thing I wanted for my birth, but the doctors assured me it was the last resort.
When the nurses checked me again—now 48 painful hours later—I had finally dilated to six centimeters. We celebrated with kisses, hugs, and tears of joy. But that celebration was short-lived.
A second doctor came in to check me and found it was an incorrect reading—I was only at five centimeters. A few hours later I stopped progressing completely. They kept upping the dosage of pitocin, but I did not progress at all after that point.
The hours seemed like days, and I was feeling defeated by the pain and lack of food and water. I began to lose hope. I felt weak.
Still, I remained incredibly determined to have a vaginal birth, and I made one last effort to get the baby to move down. After some begging, I was able to convince the nurses to let me labor on my hands and knees. It took all the strength I had in me to crawl up the bed. I felt as though I were crawling by my nails out of my own personal hell. Jen wrapped a scarf around my belly and performed the Rebozo technique, rocking the belly with a scarf in an attempt to get the baby to descend into the birth canal.
I tried with all my heart and soul to get him to descend. I closed my eyes and pictured him moving down. And that’s when the doctors entered the room to let me know my kidneys were starting to fail. This news was shocking. Laif and I knew what was rapidly approaching.
That’s when—after 72 hours of labor later—the doctor suggested a c-section. My heart sank. We were so tired.
As hard as I tried, I had to relinquish my plan and accept the the inevitable.
Within an hour, I was on the operating table, shaking. I was so scared. I hadn’t eaten in days, and the medications were taking a toll on me. Still, Laif and I remained focused on meeting and holding our little boy. Once Laif entered the operating room, the medical team administered a stronger epidural. I felt a sort of kryptonite enter my toes and slowly travel up my body, numbing everything along the way. I could not feel anything below my chest. I remember seeing the star-shaped lights above my head and hearing Laif’s voice, “I’m here, baby, stay with me.”
In the moment Oliver was being pulled out of me, I arched my head back, reached my arms wide, and gasped. Even though I was heavily numbed, I felt the energy of my baby’s small body being ripped away from mine. Up until that point, I had two heartbeats and a little tiny human in me. In seconds, it was gone.
At first there was no cry to be heard. The doctors told me the baby was in shock, so I told Laif to go to our son and make sure he was okay. With Laif gone, I felt like I was alone. I started to feel different. I felt like I was falling asleep. I started to experience tunnel vision and felt like my mind was giving out. I asked the anesthesiologist to hold my hand, and she kept saying, “Look at me Melisa, look at me.” I heard the doctors say they needed to give an adrenaline shot right away. Instantly, I began flopping around on the table like a fish out of water.
Finally, Oliver cried. It was his cry that made me feel like it was going to be okay. Oliver had been covered in meconium and had ingested some of it. As a result, he couldn’t breathe right away. When I heard his cry, it was like hearing my favorite song on the radio. I wanted to put that song on repeat, again and again.
Despite my initial protest, something in my deep inner knowing told me I had to make peace with the inevitable fact that Oliver was going to be born this way. Up until that moment I had been fighting it so hard, but I knew that I had to accept this reality and make a decision that would possibly save his life—and mine.
Birth doesn’t often happen as we plan it, and there’s actually very little we can control about how it goes. However, what can be controlled—and what I feel went drastically wrong for me and for so many other women—are the messages that are imparted to us before our birth experience, as well as the support we receive after.
What followed my three-day journey through the depths of pain, love, and acceptance was more pain.
It might be hard to imagine (or not, if you’re a mother who has given birth in this country), but the weeks following Oliver’s birth were in many ways harder than the 72 hours I just detailed in the hospital.
Without adequate help, resources, or even recognition of what I had just gone through, I ended up suffering from a very intense case of post-traumatic stress disorder, followed by postpartum anxiety and depression. Even more painful than the scar on my stomach, which was just the horrible physical pain, there was a feeling of failure. And, beyond that, difficult feelings of inadequacy, because no one acknowledged the immense trauma I had endured.
I cried every day. I felt lost. I felt desperately sad and very alone—even though I wasn’t completely alone. My husband also suffered very severe PTSD. It was a very hard recovery for us all.
Family members had not anticipated a c-section and seemed disappointed with my need to have one. My mother told me to just forget about what happened. My father looked horrified and didn't know what to say. My in-laws interrupted me while I was telling the story by leaving the room. And my aunt sent me a horrible text message three days after the birth, telling me that if I had drunk more chamomile tea, this never would have happened to me.
No one spoke to me about what had happened. It seemed like it was such a taboo subject that no one wanted to speak or hear about it. And, looking back, what I needed more than anything was to talk about it. To process it. To have reassurance that I didn’t do anything wrong. But even something as simple as a listening ear wasn’t available. One of the doulas in the group we hired even dismissed my experience by saying, “Oh, honey, all women think they are going to die during birth.”
The amount of postnatal support was unbelievably scarce. Friends didn’t reach out. Family members wanted to see the baby but didn’t even look at me. I felt shame. I felt like I had no idea what had just happened to me.
Why was a c-section so wrong? Why did my experience make me feel less of a woman? Was I not going to be a good mother because I didn’t birth my baby vaginally? All these questions ran through my head, and people’s actions—even those closest to me—seemed to reinforce them.
The PTSD got so bad that it started manifesting physically. I began to wake in the middle of night choking on my breath. I felt like someone was cutting off my air supply. The incision hurt so badly that I could barely lift my little baby. I had to get help, and I had to find that help on my own.
I had to rewrite my birth story to be free from it.
After some research into an integrative psychotherapy approach to treat trauma called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), my husband urged me to reach out to a local practitioner. Since it didn’t seem there were any resources available through the medical system, we had to figure out a way to help ourselves.
I had five sessions with a locally trained therapist. In each session, I relived the incident as if it were happening in the moment I was telling it. As my therapist explained it, I needed to give my body a chance to catch up to the experience of the birth trauma.
By allowing me to relive the moments, the EMDR therapy gave me a chance to process and actually gain a new perspective on what had happened. It gave me a chance to accept what I had gone through by allowing the sadness and the space for emotion that I did not have in the hospital. It allowed me to grieve and to invite healing into the experience.
Sometimes I still look at my scar in the mirror and I feel pain—the emotional pain—from the experience. Some days I still cry about it. But now it’s not because I wish it hadn’t happened. As I reflect on my birth story, I realize that I put unnecessary expectations on myself—expectations that came from the pressures society has put on women to have “natural births.” Women should have the license to have whatever birth is necessary or safe and to be prepared for the less than ideal birth plan.
While Oliver’s birth wasn’t what I’d envisioned, I can honestly say that I now feel empowered by my experience. I crossed over and found myself in a role that I got to create for myself.
I birthed my son on that day in May. But I also was reborn that day. My life will never be the same after what happened—it’ll be better, as I know what I am capable of. And of course, Oliver has opened our hearts more than I thought possible. He has taught me patience. He has taught me how to look at life in a childlike way. Everything can be new again.
And as hard as it was, I would go through it all again. Growth doesn’t happen when we are comfortable. All the pain and trauma taught me so much and gave me a beautiful baby boy in the process. I wouldn’t trade my scar for anything.
Melisa Hall is wedding photographer and videographer in San Francisco. She is an avid motorcyclist and yogi, and enjoys balancing her life as a career-driven woman that enjoys her family life with her new son, Oliver.