Once I was released from my own hospital stay, I rushed to the NICU. Despite the nurses and doctors suggesting I go home and rest, my trauma refused to let me go. We spent the next two months watching my son grow stronger and healthier in the hospital.
But when we finally came home, I found PTSD hit me in new ways. The beeping noise from a machine at a restaurant drive-through window dragged me back through memories of being surrounded by beeping NICU monitors. The smell of hospital soap in a public restroom put me right back in the NICU’s hand washing stations. Every time, I felt paralyzed. Panicked.
My baby was now home and growing stronger but the fear that he would suddenly die wouldn’t go away. In fact, it was getting stronger too. Without the constant monitoring of his vitals, I spent every anxious moment making sure he was still breathing. The stream of intrusive thoughts telling me I was a bad mother, or that my son would die from a million and one different causes, was relentless. When he began eating solid foods, I held my breath with each bite, believing he would inevitably choke to death. When he began walking, I followed him as closely as possible to ensure he wouldn’t get hurt from a fall. Beautiful moments were tarnished with the residue of trauma.
It took me two years before I finally sought help in managing my PTSD. “It can take people a long time to come in for help. They often wait until the fog starts to lift for them, but this can mean many months have gone by,” says Heidi McBain, a Perinatal Mental Health Certified Counselor in Flower Mound, Texas.
For Nikki, a mother of three based in Clermont, Florida, it took even longer. She experienced two traumatic c-sections which she describes as feeling “violent.” “I could feel my insides being shoved back in me, and the nurses and doctors spoke to each other as if I wasn’t there…It made me feel like a slab of meat,” Nikki says. She also feels she lacked support after her traumatic experiences. “No one asked about my actual birth experience,” she says of her first two births. After her third, she received a mental health diagnostic test at her midwife’s office. But despite scoring low, no one followed up.
Nikki is pregnant again, and this time she’s being proactive about receiving help by way of therapy.“I feel like the quality of mothering my children were getting was slipping, and that was my real motivation for getting help,” she says.
When women do get support though these traumatic experiences, it’s powerful. “My OB is a godsend. She referred me to a therapist who specializes in loss—it was just the person I needed to listen to me,” says 34-year-old photographer Alexandria Mooney, whose stillborn son Clark had to be delivered via c-section just shy of 22 weeks.The mother of five sometimes visits the hospital where she birthed Clark in order to photograph clients, and says she still feels transported to the day she lost her son whenever she enters her former OR and recovery room. “Grief will stay with you forever, but I am determined to not let it consume me,” she says. “I try and turn it into something good.”
It’s now been seven years since I lost my daughter, and six since my son was born. PTSD continues to exist in some form or other inside me, but these days I have tools that help me deal. Jackson says many individuals with this type of trauma respond amazingly to EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, and I am definitely one of them. General talk therapy and finding community with other loss moms are other things that have also helped me.
Infant loss and traumatic births happen more often than we realize, and the scars they leave are huge and can last a lifetime. But like Mooney, I refuse to let them beat me. PTSD is my diagnosis, but resilient is who I am despite it.
Priscilla Blossom is a freelance journalist specializing in arts & culture, parenting, travel, and health & wellness.