Jessie Collins of Hello My Tribe talks about her experience with labor trauma and the postpartum aftermath.
By Jessie Collins, Photo by Leah Muse Photography and Lindsey Baker Photography, In partnership with Hello My Tribe
In the earliest months of parenthood, I wore my labor-and-postpartum experience like a proud battle scar. I’d tell with ease the story of my long labor and subsequent four weeks of hemorrhaging and repeat Dilation and Curettage. For a time, I felt like a warrior. I believedIowned this story, when in reality, the story owned and crippled me.
The truth is that it took nearly two full years to even name my labor-and-postpartum journey as trauma. It took two full years to recognize the time I lost with my daughter, husband and beloved friends and family. It took two full years to feel anger and sadness toward the doctors who wrote me off, to acknowledge that I feared for my life and to even begin processing the events that followed the birth.
For those two years, my nervous system was too fried to identify my labor story as what it really was: a series of life-altering, traumatic events.
Occasionally, I’d flash back to those first weeks in and out of the hospital. I’d acknowledge my fear, and soon after, I’d soak up my gratitude. I’d remember my husband taking over and dominating parenthood while I watched from the vantage point of an insecure and completely helpless outsider. I’d relive the feeling of being too tired and defensive to create a relationship with my baby girl. I wanted nothing more than love and protection for her but didn’t believe I could be the one to provide those basic needs. Despite these moments, during which my mind forced me to recollect the darkest time, I rarely considered the work still left to be done.
Seven months postpartum, I crumbled. My husband was out of town and I felt incapacitated and incapable of caring for our daughter on my own. Her dependence on my well-being felt like the weight of 50 boulders crushing me. I remember lying on the ground with my forehead pressed against hers. I cried and apologized that I couldn’t be better for her, and she showed what I believe was her first expression of concern. Her intense love for me only made the responsibility heavier. Even then, in a moment of complete vulnerability and what felt like awareness, my internal shields were up. I saw no relationship between this particular panic and my early dependence on others to help raise my daughter. I just assumed I was suffering from postpartum anxiety and continued to boast about my heroic labor story, something I felt I endured a lifetime ago.
Shortly after my daughter’s second birthday, I began having nightmares about hemorrhaging. That glaring red flag still didn’t lead me to take immediate action. I felt confused and burdened by the disruption. By the grace of God, my daughter and I had developed the most incredible relationship, even despite losing so many of our first days together. I felt certain our connection to one another would still be stifled if I had any residual scars from this. I was wrong.
When I started doing the hard processing work with the right team, I began to relive the horror of that first month. I was forced to make meaning out of seemingly unrelated responses to life in the time since. One by one, the boulders started to roll off. While they still linger by my feet as reminders of my experiences, they no longer keep me from breathing.
The truth about labor trauma is this: When our babies are born, our minds, bodies and spirits go into fight-or-flight mode. We don’t have time to process our personal experiences because we are wired to survive, physically and emotionally, for our children. Our internal systems work harder than ever to turn on every protection so we can move forward.
Because labor trauma is so difficult to identify while you’re in the throes of early parenthood, our responses to our stories manifest in any number of ways. For me, my trauma altered who I was as a mother, partner and friend. I felt abandoned by everyone and unable to connect as a mother or to return to my premotherhood life. I was stuck screaming in the middle, looking at both sides but completely unable to reach either one. Forming relationships, which was once life-giving for me, felt like a risk I was unwilling to take. I shut down little by little to everyone who mattered to me.
Even now, closer than not to three years removed from my labor, I’m not ready to physically write down the series of avoidable events and medical calls that created my story. I am, however, grateful to know and name that what I experienced was nothing short of trauma. With that knowledge, the power belongs to me, not to my experience. Now I can and will move forward.