Updated: Nov 16, 2018
Last week my husband and I took our kids to Florida. The trip itself was amazing, even if we were traveling with two children under five years old. We had help – my mother and both my in-laws came.
On the return flight, my father-in-law and I sat across from one another in the aisle seats. Beside me my son was curled up against his father. Behind me both grandmas sat with my daughter between them. The flight had taken off and we were nearly halfway home. My father-in-law, who never meets a stranger, had been talking with the woman next to him since sitting down. I'm not sure what led to this particular moment in the conversation, as I was preoccupied with my son until he fell asleep, but the woman began to discuss her birth story of her eldest child.
The woman described an alarming, bizarre scene that is all too familiar to anyone in the maternity field. She explained that she was in labor for nearly 12 hours, progressing fairly steadily by pacing the hospital halls, when her nurse came in the room. She was instructed to lay down, and after a few words with another attending nurse, she was given an epidural.
“I didn't mind having it – I mean, I didn't feel the contractions anymore! But it just didn't seem necessary. All the sudden I couldn't leave the bed and I was contracting like crazy!” she explained.
I thought to myself that clearly she'd been given Pitocin with the epidural, more than likely to speed up labor.
The woman went on to explain that things happened very quickly after that. Within an hour she was told she needed a c-section. The nurse delivered the news to her anxious family in the waiting room. She was wheeled down to the OR, but then her nurse left her and her husband, explaining a more “serious delivery” would occur before hers.
She lay on that bed with her husband in the hallway for nearly three hours with little contact from anyone. In the waiting room her family presumed she was still in surgery and grew more concerned with each minute. Finally a doctor rounded the corner and looked at her as if she was a unicorn cartwheeling down the hall.
“He looked at me and with complete attitude asked me, 'What are you doing out here?'” She remembered almost laughing at the remark and looking to her husband who looked ready to hit the man. “We told him our nurse had brought us out to the hall to wait our turn for surgery, and I never saw a doctor so flustered or disgusted. I didn't know then, but he wasn't mad at me. He was mad at my nurse and doctor.”
After that the doctor left her to find her OB and within fifteen minutes she was in the operating room. Her son was delivered, via Cesarean section, with no complications. The woman said she never received much of an explanation as to why she “had to” deliver via c-section or why she was left in the hall. “Now this was over twenty years ago, so y'know, I'm sure things are better now.”
I wanted to lean forward and reassure that things had improved, but having learned what I have as well as my own experience with my children, I couldn't. I couldn't lie to her and say that the maternal field had improved much in the past thirty years because quite frankly it hasn't. Though she was fairly cheerful throughout her story, breaking with small jokes, it was obvious this woman had lingering questions after all this time.
There may have been severe complications had she delivered vaginally. I can't explain why her doctor made the decisions he did. In particular situations, Cesarean deliveries save both baby and mother. But what I was left with as their conversation moved on was that this woman never received the respect or confidence from her health care provider to make an informed decision.
A situation like this, where a delivery changes from one method to another, where communication breaks down between the patient and doctor, a woman, her partner, and/or the baby can be left with a sense of trauma that is never treated.
Postpartum care is essential for any family, but more so when plans change. Expectations set or not, a woman's memory of her delivery will stay with her forever. She will tell her birth story to her children, to their children, to the expecting teenager at the supermarket, to the bank teller, and even to a kind gentleman on an airplane. It is a moment in her life that her identity hinges on, that helps mold her as a mother, and to dismiss it with the adage of, “Well at least you and the baby are okay” is not only insensitive, but insulting.
Clearly if a woman needs to talk about something, to sort out what went wrong when no reason was given her, then she is obviously not “okay.” Clearly there is something amiss within her that she is still trying to comprehend.
Listen to a mother, no matter her age. Let her tell you her birth story, happy or not, over and over again because each time she'll release a little bit of anger, regret, fear, heartache, joy, love, awe, and any other emotion she felt. Allow her partner or birth coach to do the same. Their experience will be quite different in many ways, but just as important to reflect upon.
Reflecting on someone's experience offers a sense of validity that we often crave after an experience. Retelling and grasping for a sense of meaning in situations that leave us changed, good or bad, can begin a healing process that will last a lifetime. Women are still not receiving the answers they seek when it comes to delivering their children. Some doctors are dismissive and nurses pressured to obey instructions. When it is all said and done, she may never receive the answers she needs. But give her the chance to release whatever aching questions she may have, even if you don't have the answer – especially if you don't have the answer because knowing she isn't the only one left baffled will remind her she isn't alone, her experience was real and meaningful, and it is okay to talk about.
Be that friendly stranger on the plane willing to just listen.