Nine days after we returned home from the hospital with my newborn daughter, my husband went back to work. I can distinctly remember the feeling the moment the door swung shut behind him. It felt as if I was having an out of body experience. I felt confused, trapped, sad, and in pain. It wasn’t exactly what most moms envision their first few days of motherhood to be like.

In order to share my journey with postpartum PTSD, I need to take you back 15 days prior.

The start of my PTSD story

Around week 36 of my pregnancy, I started to have blood pressure issues. This eventually led to the doctor deciding to induce me at 39 weeks. My regular OB-GYN no longer delivered babies, but she had an arrangement with the local children’s hospital (a teaching hospital) under the laborist model.

I had no idea what this meant at the time. But in simple terms, it meant that my labor and delivery was under the care of the attending who was on staff at the hospital. Attending doctor shifts changed every 12 hours and new residents were mostly treating me.

If I’d had a normal labor, I don’t think the laborist model would have been so detrimental to me. But it was anything but normal.

My daughter’s traumatic birth story

I entered the hospital on a Sunday night. I was given Cervidil to soften my cervix before starting on Pitocin the next morning. I wasn’t responsive to either the Cervidil or Pitocin. I was placed on three drips of Pitocin over three days.

I also had a Foley bulb inserted to try and manually force my cervix open, they never broke my water, and each doctor that was responsible for my care over these three days had a different opinion on how to treat me.

On Wednesday, after enduring a ridiculous amount of poor treatment (in my opinion), I was told that they wanted to send me home. At this point:

  • they had manually dilated me to 5 centimeters
  • I was bleeding everywhere
  • I had an epidural already in my back
  • I was beyond exhausted

I had to demand a cesarean delivery because it was very clear that none of the attendees wanted to be responsible for treating me, always leaving the decisions to the next shift. I had four nurses throughout these three days tell me that I needed to advocate for myself because this wasn’t right.

At 2:29 p.m. on Wednesday, I delivered my daughter via cesarean delivery. Immediately after her birth, I began to lose a large amount of blood and started drifting in and out of consciousness. I remember looking up at the overhead lights. I thought I was dying and I’d never get to meet my daughter.

An hour later in the recovery room, I wasn’t responding to my daughter’s cries. I vaguely remember turning to my husband who was holding our screaming infant and telling him that I could never do this again.

It took the hospital 36 hours to give me two blood transfusions that I should have received the day of my cesarean delivery.

Needless to say, I didn’t have the best birth experience. Read a more detailed account of my labor story here.

Maternity leave

I didn’t have a problem bonding with my daughter. I urge all women to understand that postpartum issues can exist even if you have no issues bonding with your child. I was in awe of my daughter and felt an overwhelming amount of love for her from the moment I met her.

But that didn’t prevent feelings of confusion, isolation, and sadness over the first several months of her life.

For the first several weeks, every day my husband left, I would cry for hours. I distinctly remember lying on the couch one morning while the baby napped, feeling like I shouldn’t be here right now. This is not my life, I thought. How is this my life?

I decided early on that these feelings were normal and that I would keep them to myself. This was my first mistake. For someone who is ordinarily very vocal, no one in my life had any idea that I was struggling because I didn’t speak up.

My experience with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Fifteen months after my daughter was born, I was searching for a new doctor in preparation for trying to get pregnant again. At our first appointment, I broke down in hysterics. The unprompted display of emotion and the conversation that followed provided the clarity I needed to understand what I was going through.

I was diagnosed with birth trauma, a form of PTSD. During the birth, I had legitimate feelings of imminent death. The fear that I experience during my cesarean delivery had a very deep impact on the way I felt for almost two years after my daughter’s birth.

After I was properly diagnosed, I received a tremendous amount of clarity and insight into my feelings that lasted for months after she was born.

First, I didn’t want to have another baby because I was terrified. My husband wanted another baby, so I was entertaining the idea when I found a new doctor. Second, I felt like my body wasn’t my own for well over a year. Third, the PTSD contributed to an increased amount of anxiety I had that made me feel out of place in my own life.  

I’ve never blamed my daughter for how I felt, but I did wonder why on earth anyone would ever consider having more than one child. I had no idea that my experience was rare until I walked into that doctor’s office 15 months later. She finally put a name to what I was experiencing.

The takeaway

The doctor provided clarity for an otherwise confusing mix of thoughts and emotions. Once I understood what had happened, I was able to seek out professional counseling. Ten months after that, I was open to considering another baby.

The fear I have over giving birth again is real. It’s not something to be ashamed about. There was and continues to be amazing relief in understanding the trauma that my body experienced during birth. To me, knowledge is power. If you are experiencing emotions similar to what I described, you’re not alone and I urge you to seek out professional help. There is no reason to suffer in silence.

You asked, we answered

  • What resources can women turn to if they are experiencing postpartum and/or birth PTSD?
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is best addressed with the help of a licensed practitioner with experience in treating PTSD, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. Your obstetrician (OB) or primary care doctor can help with a referral. Sometimes, particularly in the first two months after your delivery, you may see your baby’s pediatrician or a lactation consultant more often than your OB. They may also be able to help direct you to the appropriate resources. 

    - Karen Gill, MD