I recently completed a new section of the website! If you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out the new “Mental Health” section and learn about mental health, birth trauma, and nerve damage from childbirth. Healing from any birth trauma, including nerve damage, is not only a physical journey but also a mental and emotional one. No mom I have spoken to about their injury has come out unscathed mentally. It is essential we talk about this part of our healing too.
So, in honor of the website’s new addition, in this blog post I am going to focus on the mental health aspect of my nerve injury from childbirth.
This one was a bit harder to write than my previous blog posts. Not necessarily because the topic is any harder than discussing my birth and injury, or sharing about my miscarriage after nerve injury. But because I’m not quite sure where to start or stop. For me, my previous stories had very linear narratives. Discussing my mental health and emotional state since having my first child doesn’t feel clear. It doesn’t seem to have a specific start, certainly not a stop, and it is far from linear. But I’ve come to peace with that. I’ve come to learn that the mind and emotions are not clear: they are messy, complicated, jumbled things that sometimes just try to make it through a day.
I want preface this post: I LOVE spending time with my family. If I could choose to do any one thing in this world, it would simply be to be with my family. My husband and I have not yet taken a trip without our kids – maybe partly because of reasons listed below, but also because we just love being together. If I had to choose between an adults only function and a family friendly function, I would choose the one that I could bring my kids to! I love seeing the world through their eyes. Maybe I’m still just a kid at heart myself. I also recognize that my birth trauma has impacted my mental health and at times I can struggle with intense reactions to normal life happenings. That aspect I am working on and trying to work through, though I never think my love of being with my family will change.
When Kaelyn was born, I was under general anesthesia (read the whole story here). I missed her first breath, her first cries, her first swaddle, her first feedings. I wasn’t the first to hold or comfort her. I wasn’t even one of the first five. It took hours for me to meet her. Even then, I don’t actually remember our first meeting. I was secretly rolled into the NICU on a hospital bed. We had eight minutes. Eight minutes before the machines hooked up to me started setting off alarms. Eight minutes to try to meet, try to nurse, try to take a picture. At seven minutes, the nurse in charge of me said “we have to go; we’ve got to hurry before we get in trouble.”
Even when Kaelyn and I got to be in the same room (she was discharged from the NICU and could stay under doctor supervision in my room), I felt like I missed things. I missed her first bath because I couldn’t stand or even see the sink from my bed. I constantly had to hand her off during the day, as doctors and specialists came in to my room to try to figure out what was wrong with me. Five days into our hospital stay, I asked my mom and husband, “I know this will seem silly someday because I’m sure I will change hundreds eventually, but could someone please make it so I can just change one of her diapers?” I was her mother, she was five days old, and I’d never even changed her diaper.
A few nights later, I sat up at night just holding her. I quietly promised Kaelyn I was not going to miss anymore. I was going to be there, somehow, to experience her, to support her, to take care of her, and to love her.
When we got home, my feelings of failure as a mom continued. Not only was I unable to birth her without extreme measures, now I was unable to take care of so many of her needs. Nursing was next to impossible, and often ended in my husband and I in tears (not to mention Kaelyn!). She was a very fussy baby and wanted to be bounced and rocked and walked constantly. I couldn’t feel either leg. How could I do that for her? I couldn’t even go to the bathroom by myself; how could I care for my newborn?
I fortunately had help. My husband took some time off work. My mom had flown into town to help for a while. My sister, dad, and brother all flew in for a little bit too. I was so fortunate to have people that I loved and trusted to take care of not only my baby, but me too. But that didn’t take away the feelings of missing out or the feelings of failure. I remember when Kaelyn would get fussy and me sitting in a chair trying to make her happy was not cutting it. So I would hand her off. Once she was calm or asleep, they’d check to see if I wanted her back. I would take her in my arms and she’d smell different. Maybe someone’s perfume, or deodorant, or lotion… whatever it was, there was even a smell to remind me that I just was not enough. I could not do it. I could not take care of my baby’s needs.
Things got better of course. My left leg started to gain feeling. I got stronger. And I came up with solutions. I set up a diaper changing basket right next to me on the couch. When Kaelyn needed to be bounced, I would strap her in a carrier, take my walker to my large exercise ball, lower myself down with my arms, and bounce up and down. That carrier was a huge help. I wasn’t able to safely bend over to place her in a rocker. So when I needed to go to the bathroom, she’d get strapped in. If I needed to refill my water or grab a snack, she’d get strapped in again.
Now to add a bit of complication, I was also supposed to be working. I owned an events company, which mainly focused on the back end of events (stationery, decor, design). My clients had events coming up, which means I had work to do. So a week after I got home from the hospital (two weeks after Kaelyn was born), I was on my computer and phone working. While in some ways, it was a good outlet, in other ways it added to the guilt and to the feelings of failure as a mom. I didn’t want to hire a babysitter or a nanny for Kaelyn – how could I keep my secret promise to her? But I was floundering. It took 6 months of trying to balance healing, caring for a newborn, and working to look at my husband and say “I can’t do this anymore.” He asked me what I needed. It broke my heart, but I asked if we could make it work for me to stop working for a while. I could always start the business up again. I needed to focus on healing, not only physically, but emotionally too.
Now, in so many ways one could say, “You just wanted to be present for your baby; that is great!” And it is! Don’t get me wrong. It is amazing. I feel so lucky to have spent so much time with my child. And, I also recognize that my attachment to my “promise” probably wasn’t always healthy. For instance, Kaelyn and I didn’t meet for six hours after she was born. The two times before kindergarten I got close to being away from her again for six hours, I got hot flashes, my heart raced, and I started hyperventilating. It only improved once I was back with her.
So, for 5.5 years I didn’t miss any more firsts. I kept my promise. I had been with her every single day and night for over 5.5 years, except for two nights after her little sister was born. But this past fall (2021), she was starting kindergarten during covid restrictions. So not only would she not be with me full time anymore, but I couldn’t even step foot on campus.
I’ll be totally blunt: I cried every single day for seven weeks. The week before school started I would hold it together during the day and then cry at night so I wouldn’t worry Kaelyn or add to any anxiety or nerves she had. Once school started, I’d drop her off in carline (we couldn’t even walk up to the gate) and as soon a I pulled away, the tears would fall.
Admittedly, I missed her so much. I missed her little voice, her laughter, her crazy ideas, and her sense of humor. I even missed her needing approximately 1,329,461 snacks a day and her adamance that couch cushions are made for bouncing, even though we have a trampoline right outside the backdoor. My heart ripped, just missing her very presence. I tried to justify the tears: I missed her, I felt torn about her growing up, I was worried about the state of the world, I hoped she was happy and safe. But I felt more than just sadness. I felt angry. Where was the anger coming from?
Kaelyn would come home and tell me she skinned her knee. She’d let me know a teacher helped her and she was alright. While I was thrilled she was comforted and taken care of, it also made me sad and a bit angry.
Kaelyn would come home and tell me she gave her teacher a huge hug for being so wonderful. I was thrilled she adored her teachers so much, but it also made me sad and a bit angry.
Kaelyn would come home and smell different. I could smell someone’s perfume or lotion on her. Sure it made sense: she was around other people all day. But it made me sad and a bit angry.
Kaelyn would come home and be glowing about her day. Oh, it was everything I could ever want and more for my little girl to come home from school feeling happy, safe, and taken care of. And yet, it still made me sad and a bit angry.
Around six weeks in to school I started to not cry every time I dropped her off. I started to not tense up every time Kaelyn told me about her day. And, with my emotions settling at least a little, I had some more energy to reflect.
It was actually Kaelyn smelling like someone else that was my first light into the depths of what was going on. I started fixating on it. Why was her smelling like someone else bothering me so much? It was a quite pleasant smell. So why did I hate it so much? One night while I was restlessly lying in bed, tears starting streaming down my face. I pictured holding a few week old Kaelyn in bed at night. She was having a hard time, so someone else had bounced her. I got her back to feed and as she was handed to me I got a whiff of a smell that wasn’t her. It was the smell of someone else. After nursing her, I smelled her in different places – each time not smelling her, but someone else. Eventually, I softly tousled her hair, set my nose on her skin, and smelled. There. That was her. I was so thankful I had such amazing people to help take care of her and, also, me. But the smell was a sensory showing of my failures. Maybe not failures of my own choosing, but nonetheless my failure of not being the one taking care of my baby.
After my flashback, it hit me. I’m not all she needs anymore. I was so thrilled to have a school we adored (really, we do!). To know she was safe, happy, learning, thriving, and growing was such a blessing. She was surrounded by the most amazing teachers and staff. But even after fighting so hard to be able to take care of her, I was no longer enough in life for her, once again.
So here I was, 5.5 years later, not being there for all of her new firsts. Not being the one taking care of her booboos and giving them a special kiss. Not being the one to give her a comforting hug throughout the day. Not even fully knowing who was taking care of her, as with Covid I didn’t have a chance to actually meet the teachers and staff. Now not only was I not the one bouncing her, holding her, smelling her, but I didn’t even know who was.
I didn’t even feel like I could be on the sideline. I was kicked all the way out to the parking lot, hoping to hear some cheers loud enough to know which team was winning. I’d ask a million questions, but anyone who has had a five year old knows they have a selective memory. I didn’t want to push her away or shut her down with my questions, so I eventually just started asking, “Did you feel happy today? Did you feel safe today?” And then let her share, or not share, for that matter. But it broke me a bit more inside.
I felt like I was missing out of my own child’s life, once again.
We’re now almost done with kindergarten. It has gotten better. I’ve been able to meet a few teachers in person. I can now walk her to outside of her classroom in the mornings and I’ve been able to go a couple of times for special classroom events. I’ve gotten better at asking questions that encourage conversation and Kaelyn’s gotten more thorough at sharing her day. Figuring out where the emotions were rooted from has allowed me to better put them in perspective. I’ve reflected and journaled. I’ve worked through, rather than pushed away the feelings. I still inwardly cringe when she talks about something new or a tough moment. But I’m not as sad and angry about it.
I can still be triggered. For instance, at the end of April the class was going on their first field trip. I volunteered to chaperone, but there were so many volunteers that a lottery was done and I was not chosen. For me, this was another big event. School was the singular place she had been without me. And now she was getting on a bus (a first), to go somewhere new (a first), on her first field trip (a first). I was pretty devastated at missing it. But it helped so much to be able to recognize where the extreme feelings were coming from, and, as such, I was able to move through and past it easier.
I know this journey isn’t over. I imagine it will be life long for me. I’m sure different milestones, moments, and leaps in life will trigger a range of feelings I will have to work through. But I also recognize how important it is for me to keep pushing my mental health forward, to keep healing, to keep reflecting, and to keep asking for help and support. It is important for me to be healthy and take care of myself. It is also important to me to be the best mother, wife, daughter and friend that I can be. I must take care of my whole self, mind and emotions included, in order to do that.
If you too suffered from birth trauma, I recommend you keeping a special eye on your mental health, whether you are days postpartum or years postpartum. Mental health issues are the number one complication of pregnancy and birth. Add any trauma to that and your mental health is at even greater risk. Regardless of birth status, if you are having a lot of negative thoughts and feelings, struggling to get through a situation, continually feeling anxious, depressed, or upset, I encourage you to seek help. You are not alone and it is nothing to be embarrassed about. If you don’t know where to start, check out the “Mental Health” section of this website for resources.
Of course, if you are thinking of harming yourself, please immediately contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Your life is worth living: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.